And faithful hearts are raised on high By this great vision’s mystery, For which in joyful strains we raise The voice of prayer, the hymn of praise (LSB 413:4).
First of all, it’s a mystery to me how sight rhyme ever became an acceptable form of rhyme. Mystery, like symmetry, rhymes neither with high nor eye.
It happens all the time in hymns and poetry—I know that. But I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery.
But if we sing words, we should defend them, give an account of them.
So—the great vision that was the Transfiguration of Jesus, what’s the mystery?
It’s not WHEN—we know Jesus was transfigured six days after Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Six days after Jesus said that He would suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise.
Six days after Peter forbid Him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord,” and receiving this rebuke from Jesus: “Get thee behind me satan.”
We know WHEN the Transfiguration happened.
And we know WHERE—it says, “on the mountain.” From, I believe, the third century on, the Church has claimed Mount Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration.
We know WHO’s there—Peter, James, and John see what takes place: Moses and Elijah are with Jesus, and God the Father speaks.
And we know WHAT happens—Jesus is transfigured, μετεμορφώθη, like our word metamorphosis. Peter has a brilliant idea, humanly speaking—and is rebuked by God for it.
We know all these details.
It doesn’t seem like much of a mystery.
Maybe there is no mystery in this great vision of the Transfiguration. Maybe the hymn’s wrong.
Or—perhaps our definition of mystery is wrong.
Someone tell me—what’s a mystery?
A mystery is not something you don’t know.
A mystery is something you know—something you’re completely certain about—that you can’t explain.
If you read mystery novels, you’re not trying to figure out WHAT happened. You know exactly WHAT happened.
In a good mystery novel, you’re trying, the whole book through, to figure out HOW what happened happened.
There are great examples of mysteries in the Church.
We know WHAT the Lord’s Supper is—the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.
HOW is it WHAT it is? Beyond “Jesus says so,” we don’t care to explain. We don’t philosophize as the Romans do, describing the “accident” of bread and the “essence” of body.
Likewise, with Holy Baptism, we know that it’s not just plain water but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.
We know that all should be baptized, that baptism saves. We confess, in Gospel terms, that baptism is necessary for salvation. We believe, teach, and confess these things, because the Word of God says these things.
But neither the Lord’s Supper nor Holy Baptism have the look of divine activity. Beyond “Jesus says so,” there is no empirical measurement to verify what occurs.
That’s not a problem, because these things are mysteries. We know exactly WHAT. We don’t care to speculate on the HOW.
This side of the resurrection, you can’t explain the mysteries of God—but you must believe, teach, and confess what God says.
So it is with the mystery of that great vision, the Transfiguration.
Let’s look at what we know again.
Matthew records that “after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1). We know this.
But Luke records that “about eight days after these sayings [Jesus] took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28).
Now, for those of you who’re bad at math, you can conclude simply that six is about eight, and you’d be correct.
Sloppy, but correct.
But how about this—instead of asking which one’s right (implying that some of the inerrant Word of God is errant), ask HOW both of them are correct?
Here, that’s a good question to ask.
Matthew and Luke both are making the point that what Jesus came to do only makes sense with the resurrection of the body as an established fact.
Matthew writes so that we understand things in terms what Jesus came to do, to save His people from their sins (cf. Matthew 1:21). It was six days, and six calls to mind man, created on the sixth day, desiring to be like God knowing both good and evil—and, sinning, man dies.
Matthew writes that it was six days (because it was) so that we believe, teach, and confess our great need of salvation—and—Jesus Christ our Savior.
Luke writes to give an orderly account, that we may have certainty concerning the things taught to us (cf. Luke 1:1-4). It was about eight days (because it was about eight days) so that we look to what’s eternal. Eight symbolizes eternity, and from eternity God ordained that His Son would die for you, to win you away from sin and satan.
In Luke, Jesus explains that the Scriptures, all things written by Moses and the Prophets (like Elijah), all those things are about Him.
From eternity, Jesus is our Savior.
It being both six days and about eight days teaches us specifically about the will of God for us.
So yeah—we know WHEN it happened. And HOW it could be both six and about eight days and WHY that’s good to know. And we know WHERE all this happened.
But we should also seek to confess the mystery of WHO is there at the Transfiguration.
“Jesus was transfigured before [Peter, James, and John his brother], and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2).
If Jesus is only a man, and not God, then we see in the Transfiguration an example of what it would look like if salvation were by works.
Jesus is perfect. Sinless. Not just doing good but being good. You can’t do or be better.
If Jesus is only a man, and not God, then we hear in the Transfiguration a condemnation from God to all of us: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased…” (Matthew 17:5).
If Jesus is only a man, what the Father says to Him is, to us, meaningless at best and damning at worst.
But Jesus is at the same time both God and man.
“He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age…[And] although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ” (Athanasian Creed, 29, 32).
We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus is both God and man. In the Transfiguration, then, we see what it looks like when the Word and work of God saves.
Jesus is perfect. Sinless. Not just doing good but being good. And all this He is and all this He does to save you from your sins, to bring you into everlasting life.
We hear, in the Transfiguration, not a condemnation but exactly HOW the perfect God saves imperfect sinners. He reveals to us Jesus the Christ: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).
So hear the Word of the Lord:
Peter has just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. “And from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).
Six days later, that fallen man would realize his need to be redeemed, Jesus is transfigured before them.
Luke adds this detail: Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus about His exodus—not just His departure but also His return.
And afterward He says: “Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:9).
Another seeming mystery.
Why would God desire no one else to know?
Why would God want to keep information like that from other people?
It may sound strange—But God knows that if you hear of the Transfiguration—apart from the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus—you would be lost.
Suffering and glory, to our eyes and ears, never go together. Victors thanks God. Losers don’t.
But in the cross, victory and loss, suffering and glory are united.
In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the God who fights for us and wins. It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contented. But the victory remained with life. The reign of death is ended.
Jesus showed His disciples that He would be killed.
Peter forbid him.
Jesus showed His disciples what glory looks like.
Peter wants to keep it there, in a tent.
God knows that if you had your way, you’d fill the world with signs and wonders.
God hears your prayers, and if He acted according to all of them, everyone would have everything they’ve ever wanted—and no one would have need of God.
The mystery of the Transfiguration is this: Jesus shows us that suffering and cross, trial and tribulation, even apparent defeat and loss are not separated from the glory of God—but similar to it.
Before the Resurrection, Peter says, “Far be it from you Lord.”
After the Resurrection, Jesus could say, “See, I told you.”
After the Resurrection, Peter (finally) agrees. He writes, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:16-19).
Peter experienced the majesty of God on the mountaintop of mountaintop experiences.
But the prophetic word is more fully confirmed. More trustworthy.
Before the Resurrection, ours was a glory-now-or-never world.
After the Resurrection, we can take up our cross gladly.
We know where He went, so we are glad to follow.
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2020
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt