After the Israelites were led out of their bondage in Egypt, the Lord had them go to Mount Sinai to receive the Law to show them how they were to live as His people. Then, in Exodus 24, Moses took the blood of a sacrifice and sprinkled it on the people to seal the covenant between them and God. They were to be God’s people, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, as the Lord had said earlier in Exodus 19.
Then, Moses and the elders of Israel went up onto the mountain and saw the God of Israel. They saw Him, but He did not touch them. The most they could do was gaze upon Him and eat and drink in His presence. What a wonder this is, for sinful man to encounter the Holy Lord and live! The blood of the sacrifice that Moses sprinkled on them all enabled them to come into the presence of the Lord. But, although they could look upon the Lord, they could not get close enough to touch Him.
Then, God called Moses up further on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone on which God wrote His Law. These tablets would be for the instruction of Israel and a reminder of their covenant with God. So, Moses went up further, and the Lord manifested His full glory on the mountain, but He was veiled by a cloud until after six days the Lord had Moses enter the cloud and see the glory of the Lord. To the people of Israel, the Lord’s glory appeared as a “devouring fire on the top of the mountain,” a fire which consumes all sin and which terrified the Israelites. And yet, Moses was called into the cloud to receive the Word of the Lord.
Similarly, Matthew 17 records the events of Jesus’ Transfiguration – “after six days” Jesus took with him Peter and the brothers James and John up to a high mountain by themselves. He chose to reveal to these three disciples his glory as the Lord. For as they were on the mountain, “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Then, next to him appeared Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Peter interrupts their conversation, saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Peter thinks that they’re all there to stay. So, why not make some tents for them to dwell in so that they can all stay up there on the mountain together? Let’s never let this moment end.
And behind Peter’s offer lies a belief that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were there to stay as three of God’s prophets, as if Jesus is a continuation in the line of the prophets. But, while Peter was still speaking, he was interrupted as well. For, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Again, we see a cloud overshadowing God’s people, like in Exodus. And through this overshadowing, the voice of God the Father from the cloud is telling His people in whom He is revealing Himself more fully – His Son, Jesus Christ. He says, “listen to him,” because it is through Christ where God reveals Himself. We know God only through Christ.
When the disciples hear the voice of the Father coming from the cloud, they are terrified and fall on their faces, shielding their sinful eyes from the Lord. However, Jesus touches them and says, “Rise, and have no fear.” And the disciples looked up and “saw no one but Jesus only.”
“Jesus only.” Moses and Elijah had faded away and only Jesus remained in his glory as the only begotten Son of God. Jesus wasn’t just one in a long line of prophets. No, he was the one to whom they were all pointing. The Law given by God to the people through Moses is fulfilled in Jesus. The prophecies given by God through the prophets, such as Elijah, are fulfilled in Jesus.
Thus, all Scripture finds its fulfillment in Jesus, and the disciples now see this as Moses, the representative of the Law, and Elijah, the representative of the Prophets, stand on that mountain with Jesus and then fade away leaving “Jesus only.” The Jews divided their Scriptures into the Law and the Prophets, so now we see that the Law and the Prophets had been pointing to Jesus. Moses has again gone up on the mountain to behold the glory of the Lord, but this time the Lord is no longer veiled. Likewise, Elijah now beholds the one to whom he and all the prophets had been pointing people for all those many years. Finally, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets is there standing before them: God incarnate, Jesus Christ. They finally get to see the Lord in person, apart from the devouring fire.
Thus, it’s not as if God is dealing with the people of the Old Testament one way and the people of the New Testament another way. He’s not saving some through works of the Law and others through grace. We often hear people speak this way today, though, don’t we? There is a tendency in our American Christian society to separate Jesus from God’s Law and Promises in the Old Testament. It’s almost as if we want to put Moses and Elijah back up on that mountain with Jesus and treat them as equal parts of God’s revelation to us.
But, this is not how it is – for there is only “Jesus only.” God was not doing one thing with Moses, another with Elijah, and another with Jesus. No, everything centers around Jesus. People in the Old Testament were saved by God’s grace through faith in the Christ, the Savior, who was to come. Through the Law as given through Moses, they were shown to be sinners incapable of obtaining salvation by their own works. So, they trusted in the promise of the Christ, the Savior, who was coming to save them from their sins, as pointed to by Elijah and the rest of the prophets.
We too, in these New Testament times – these Last Days of the Church before Christ returns again – are shown by the Law to be sinners incapable of obtaining salvation through any works or merits of our own. So we too trust in the promise of the Christ, the Savior, who has now come to save us from our sins, and is coming again to restore all things.
So, Christ is the key to all Scripture. As the apostle John wrote in His Gospel, the entire purpose of Scripture is to point us to Christ for our salvation, because only in Christ does God reveal His hand of salvation to us, purely out of His grace and mercy. John wrote that these words “… are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).
So, on that mountain, Peter, James, and John beheld the glory of Christ the Lord – Yahweh in the flesh. And they fell down in abject fear. But, Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and have no fear.” And the disciples looked up and “saw no one but Jesus only.”
The disciples had beheld the glory of the Lord as revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and he touched them. Unlike in Exodus where the Lord could not touch the Israelites and remained somewhat veiled, here not only is the Lord revealing Himself fully through Christ, but He is also touching His people. There is no longer a veil between man and God, because Christ is here to reconcile the two, bringing them together. It is his blood that redeems us from our sins and allows us to enter into the full presence of our holy Lord God without fear.
The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews makes a connection between Jesus Christ and the event in Exodus 24 where Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the people to cover their sins, thus enabling them to come near to the glory of the Lord on the mountain. Hebrews says:
“… when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you. And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:19-28).
It is Christ’s blood that God sprinkles upon us to reconcile us to Himself. We receive this in Baptism through faith, and then continually receive Christ bodily in the Lord’s Supper. Christ is continually coming to us, being with us.
So, the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration got a glimpse of all this. They see God’s glory revealed through Jesus, and the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets in him. The Lord is not only with them, but he touches them also.
Yet, they were not to tell anyone what they had seen until Jesus had died and risen from the dead. For this was the purpose for which Jesus had come, to die for our sins and to be raised for our justification. They couldn’t stay up there on that mountain, they had to come down onto the plain to finish what Jesus Christ came to do. He came to enter into the presence of God on our behalf with his very own blood as the blood of the sacrifice in order “to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
So once he had risen from the dead, the disciples were then to proclaim to everyone what they had seen, and this is what they did as they travelled the plains proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. The eyewitness Peter wrote in his epistle that they saw Jesus receive “honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was born to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (2 Peter 1:17). And the eyewitness John also wrote that he saw the “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Yet, the glory that the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration was but a foretaste of Jesus’ full glory as God. When they saw him on the mountain, “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” But, the apostle John, who saw this glimpse of Jesus‘ glory on the mountain, later saw the full glory of the resurrected and ascended Jesus.
For, in the vision given to John on Patmos and recorded in the book of Revelation, John sees the seven golden lampstands that represent the Church. And, John wrote that in the midst of the lampstands – in the midst of the Church – he saw:
“… one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength” (Revelation 1:12-16).
Now when John sees Jesus in this vision, he sees his full glory as the eternal, almighty Lord. Now not only is his face and clothes shining, but he is altogether radiant and manifesting his full glory and power. When John had previously seen but a glimpse of Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, he fell on his face terrified. At that time, Jesus touched him and said, “Rise, and have no fear.” Now, though, in Revelation, when John sees the ascendant Jesus’ full radiant glory, he is more than terrified. He writes:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades’” (Revelation 1:12-18).
John says that he fell at Jesus’ feet as though dead. The Greek word here is nekros, which means a dead body. So, when John sees Jesus’ full glory here, he actually drops dead at his feet. Sinful man dies in the presence of the holy Lord. Yet, the holy Lord has atoned for our sins and raises us up before him. So, Jesus lays his right hand on John and tells him to fear not. Fear not, for Jesus is the one who died and yet lives and he is one who has the keys of death and hades. Jesus raises John up from the dead, just as he was raised from the dead, and just as he will raise us all up at his return.
So, on this day when we celebrate his Transfiguration where Jesus Christ gave his disciples a glimpse of his full glory, we remember that the Church Militant, the Church here on earth, has a glimpse of Christ’s glory as well. He is with us even now, in the midst of the seven golden lampstands of the Church, dwelling with us. Yet, his glory is veiled in Word and Sacrament. We behold him through the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
But, the day is coming when he will no longer be veiled, but we will behold him face to face. That day is coming when Christ returns for the resurrection. And because we have already died and risen with Christ in Baptism, we will awaken to hear, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:12-18).
For Jesus Christ has already dealt with our sin on his cross and empty tomb, he’s forgiven it, he died for it, he saves us from it. So when he returns he is coming to bring us the fulfillment of our salvation and the promises that God made to us when He baptized us. And so Christ will touch you and raise you up and you too will behold “Jesus only,” because all things of God find their fulfillment in him. And he will bring you into his presence to dwell forever on this restored earth and you will then be the Church at Rest, eternally dwelling in the peace of the Lord which surpasses all understanding. Amen.
(Image: Transfiguration by Carl Heinrich Bloch – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Carl-Heinrich-Bloch/The-Transfiguration.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7850600 )