NOTE: Due to technical difficulties the video portion begins mid-way through the sermon.
2 Peter 1:16-21
The Transfiguration of our Lord was an event in the earthly life of Jesus unlike anything else that had ever happened to him. In more veiled ways, Jesus had, of course, often given evidence of his divine power, by doing extraordinary things, and by performing miracles.
But nothing like the Transfiguration – with its direct and obvious manifestation of divine glory – had ever happened.
From the moment of Jesus’ conception, when the eternal Second Person of the Holy Trinity took to himself a human nature from the virgin Mary, Jesus was always both human and divine. But during his state of humiliation, when Jesus lived as a man among men, the divinity of Jesus was usually hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity.
In the Transfiguration, however – for a very short time – the Lord’s divine glory broke through the cloak of humanity that normally covered it, and became visible to the three disciples who were there.
The various miracles that Jesus had previously performed served as testimonies and confirmations of his Messianic authority, and of his power to forgive sins. Peter and the other apostles had seen those miracles and had believed in him.
But the Lord’s opponents hadn’t been convinced of anything by his healings and exorcisms. They accused Jesus of sorcery. They claimed that he performed these miracles by the power of Beelzebub – which is another name for the devil.
But a sorcerer would definitely not be able to imitate what happened to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration! That kind of thing could only have happened to the true Son of God in human flesh.
So, much more so than his various other miracles, the Transfiguration of Christ was able to serve as a testimony and confirmation of his Messianic authority. Peter, James, and John could now be sure – really sure! – that the man they were following was indeed who he claimed to be. They could be certain that their faith in him was not in vain.
And if that were not enough, they also heard the supernatural, booming voice of God the Father, coming from the cloud, identifying Jesus as his beloved Son, and exhorting them to listen to everything that he would tell them.
Note, too, the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, when the light of his heavenly glory was shining forth. According to his divine nature – even during the years of his earthly ministry – the Son of God was always ruling and sustaining the universe, in his eternal unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In other words, even when he was visibly on the earth in the form of a humble servant – eating and drinking, sleeping and rising – he was also filling the heavens with his divine power. And he was enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Moses and Elijah, and of all the departed saints, without interruption.
But now, in the Transfiguration, this heavenly fellowship of God and his saints becomes visible to Peter and the others – even if just for a few moments. It was as if a crack in the doorway to heaven opened up, and these disciples were able to peek in and see what it was like.
When Jesus had raised Jairus’s daughter and the son of the widow of Nain, these miracles had served to reassure the apostles that their Master did indeed have power even over death.
Jesus had promised eternal life, and the hope of the resurrection, to those who repented of their sins and believed in him. Anyone who had witnessed these miracles would be able to know that Jesus could keep such a promise.
I suppose, though, that there were skeptics and unbelievers who would have tried to refute those miracles, too. Some of Jesus’ enemies would no doubt have claimed that the people Jesus supposedly raised from the dead weren’t really dead – just unconscious.
But for anyone who had witnessed the Transfiguration, there would be no way to deny the reality of heaven, and the reality of Jesus’ divine authority in heaven.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah would have confirmed to Peter, James, and John, that there is indeed life after death, and that Jesus is indeed able to bestow eternal life on those who trust in him. If they weren’t sure of it before, they were certainly sure of it now!
As we think about all this, we might wish that we could experience something like what the apostles experienced, when they witnessed these things. We might feel this way, because when we compare our religious life to theirs, ours, it would seem, comes up lacking.
We’re not able to see Jesus with our physical eyes. We haven’t seen him walk on water or calm a stormy sea. We haven’t seen him heal anyone, or raise anyone from the dead. And we certainly haven’t seen anything like the Transfiguration.
Instead, in our religious life, we have to settle for the written descriptions of these things that we find in the Bible. We’re not able to see Moses and Elijah with our own eyes. We have to make do with the stories about them that come to us by means of Scripture.
And we don’t hear God speak to us in a booming, audible voice, either. The only way that he speaks to us is – again – through the pages of the Bible, or in liturgical and sacramental contexts where Scripture is being quoted. There’s nothing very exciting about that – at least not when compared with what happened to Peter, James, and John.
And in regard to the Scriptures, we certainly can’t fail to notice how many liberal scholars there are in our day, who spend a lot of time and energy telling everybody that the miracles of the Bible are actually myths; that Jesus, if he existed at all, was not really the Son of God; and that he did not rise bodily from the grave.
In the classrooms of secular universities and apostate seminaries, on television, and in popular magazines, the Bible is continually getting sliced and diced; folded, spindled, and mutilated. Sometimes it might be hard to continue to believe in the gospel of Christ when our sole source of this faith and knowledge is mocked and ridiculed over and over again by people who seem to be smart and well-educated.
But wait! Before we go too far in bemoaning the lack of power and certainty in our spiritual experience, as compared to the spiritual experience of the apostles, let’s listen again to what St. Peter tells us in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle.
We might be tempted to think that the testimony of Scripture provides only a minimally useful, second-hand kind of assurance for our faith since it describes – or claims to describe – the experiences that other people have had with God.
We might be tempted to think that our faith would have a much firmer foundation and that we would be much less prone to doubt if we ourselves had been present for Jesus’ miracles: especially if we had been present for the Transfiguration.
But that’s not the way Peter looks at it. He writes in his Second Epistle:
“For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.”
Where our translation has Peter say that “we have the prophetic word confirmed,” an alternate and more literal rendering would be, that “We also have the more sure prophetic word.”
In the Transfiguration, Peter, with his own eyes, saw divine glory shining forth from the human face of Jesus. And with his own ears, he heard the audible voice of God the Father.
But Peter does not – on this basis – minimize the importance of Holy Scripture as a source of faith and certainty regarding the things of God and of Christ. Instead, he understands the tangible experiences that he and the other disciples had as confirming the greater and more enduring power and authority of Holy Scripture, and as illustrating the true character of Holy Scripture.
The prophetic word of Scripture has a human appearance, since it comes through men, and is expressed in human language. But the prophetic word of Scripture is in fact the voice of God, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which overrides and overpowers any false human interpretation that skeptics and unbelievers might put on it.
Just as the divinity of Jesus shone forth from his humble human form in the Transfiguration, so too does the divinity of the Bible’s saving message shine forth from the humble human form of the Bible.
Most of the time, while he was on earth, Jesus looked and sounded like an ordinary man. To be sure, he occasionally did extraordinary things. But his opponents were able to explain away his miracles, and to continue to think of him as a mere man whom they thought – or hoped – they could silence.
But he was not a mere man. The Transfiguration showed that he was not a mere man. And the Transfiguration showed that his enemies would not be able to silence him, or the message of salvation that would go forth from him, through his apostles, to all nations.
The unbelieving critics of Holy Scripture think that they are able to explain away the Bible’s fulfilled prophecies, and with a patronizing attitude to dismiss the life-changing effect that the message of Scripture seems to have on so many. They continue to think of the Bible as nothing more than a mishmash of human opinions and human legends.
But the Bible is not merely a collection of fallible and flawed human writings, even though it may look like that to many people on a first glance. St. Peter – who is in a position to know – wants us to understand that the events of the Transfiguration, which show us who Jesus really is, also serve as an enduring illustration of what Holy Scripture really is.
Martin Luther once wrote:
“The Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, spelled out and pictured in alphabetic letters, just as Christ is the eternal Word of God veiled in humanity.”
Siegbert Becker – a well-known Lutheran theologian in the last century – expanded on this thought:
“For just as Christ is human and divine, so the Scriptures, too, are both human and divine. The words are human words spoken and written by men, but they are also divine words spoken and written by God through human agency. The holy writers were His scribes, His penmen, whom He used to produce the sacred Scriptures.”
The words of Scripture are filled with life – the life of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. They probe us, and convict us of our sins. And then they sooth us, and speak the peace of God’s pardon and reconciliation to our conscience.
God may not be speaking to you today with an audible voice coming out of a cloud. But he is definitely speaking to your mind and heart – through the Scriptures – all the time.
By means of the Bible, with its Christ-centered focus and content, God is bringing clarity, firmness, and certainty to your deepest convictions. He is rejuvenating your faith, shaping your values, and transforming your character.
There is great power in what is written on those sacred pages. There is likewise great power in the inscripturated words that Jesus commands us to speak in conjunction with the administration of his sacraments.
Witnessing the miracles of Jesus, and being present for his Transfiguration, were wonderful privileges that Peter and the other apostles had. The fact that they were eyewitnesses of these things – and of all the other important events in the earthly ministry of Jesus – is what sets them apart as apostles.
But as far as the certainty of saving faith is concerned, the continuing testimony of the “prophetic word” of the Scriptures is able to confirm the Messianic authority of Christ, and his power to forgive sins, more effectively and more deeply than these other experiences ever could.
Regarding the gift of eternal life and the hope of the resurrection, the prophetic word is best able to preserve us in our faith that Jesus is indeed our Savior, and that someday we will be with him in Paradise.
Let’s not sell God short. He has not left us without anything that we need, in order to be saved from our sins, and to be preserved in that salvation, throughout our lives.
If we have a yearning for the kind of experiences that Peter and the other apostles had – with the thought that this would bolster our tottering faith – it only shows that we seriously underestimate the divinely-given power of the divinely-inspired Scriptures that are right here with us all the time.
It’s true, of course, that Peter, James, and John heard the voice of God. But when the message of Scripture is proclaimed to us, and when the words of institution for the sacraments are spoken to us, that’s God’s voice, too.
In the Transfiguration, Peter and the others became very much aware of the fact that Jesus did indeed have a true divine nature, united with the human nature that they had always known about.
And Peter now wants us to look beyond the human nature of the Scriptures – beyond the human writing style and human personality of each of the prophets who penned them – and to see that the Scriptures also have a divine nature: indeed, that they are chiefly a divine revelation.
The heavenly brilliance of the Transfiguration was temporary – like a bright flash that comes and goes quickly. But the Scriptures emit a steady and permanent light from God that never burns out, and that illuminates the pathway of our faith for as long as we live.
The divine light of Scripture is not the kind of light you see with your physical eyes. But that doesn’t mean that God’s Word emits no light.
The Scriptures supernaturally enlighten your soul. As a thoroughly reliable lamp from heaven, they show you the Lord’s ways, and warn you of the dangers that will come if you veer off the safe pathway of Christian truth.
In the prophetic Scriptures, by a miracle of God that is more profound even than the Transfiguration of Christ, we hear things that others can’t hear, and we see things that others can’t see.
In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not written on the basis of any human interpretation, our belief in Christ’s power to forgive and save is miraculously confirmed. In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not produced by the will of any man, we are continually made ready for our heavenly life with God, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts.
We have a sure prophetic Word By inspiration of the Lord;
And though assailed on every hand, Jehovah’s Word shall ever stand.
By powers of empire banned and burned, By pagan pride rejected, spurned,
The Word still stands the Christian’s trust While haughty empires lie in dust.
Abiding, steadfast, firm, and sure, The teachings of the Word endure.
Blest he who trusts this steadfast Word; His anchor holds in Christ, the Lord. Amen.