December 5th, 2016

Listen to Him!


Moses and Elijah to Jesus are like Jesus and Santa to Donald Trump.

Matthew 7:1-13; Deuteronomy 18:15-19


And…Oh, y’all!

Two individuals come to mind when I read a literal translation from Greek of Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration. The first is Linda’s college roommate, a southern belle with an effervescent personality. When she visited Linda’s family in Amish country, the first time she saw a horse and buggy, she exclaimed, “Oh, y’all!”

The second is a member of this church is well-known for telling long stories strung together with “And…” in front of every sentence. It’s hard to interrupt or comment because the whole story is a continuous flow that can go on for 10 or 45 minutes. If I preach her funeral, I’m going to start every sentence of my meditation with “And….”

Twelve of 13 sentences begin with a conjunction in Matthew’s version of the Transfiguration. “Oh, y’all” (“Behold” in some translations) occurs three times. It sounds like this:

And after six days, Jesus takes along Peter and James and his brother John. And he brings them up on a high mountain privately. And he was transformed in front of them. And his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as bright light. And, Oh, y’all! Moses and Elijah appeared with them, talking with Jesus. And in response, Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, isn’t this cool?” If you want, I’ll set up three memorials – one each for you, Moses, and Elijah. While he was still talking, Oh, y’all! a bright cloud covered all of them. And, Oh, y’all! a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, who delights me. Keep listening to him!” And when they heard it, the terrified disciples fell on their faces. And Jesus came over and touched them and said, “Get up and stop being afraid.” And when they looked up, there stood Jesus, all alone, all by himself.

And while they were coming down the mountain, Jesus said, “Don’t tell anyone about this until after I’m back from the dead.” And the disciples questioned him, saying, “Then why do the legal experts say that Elijah must come first?” And Jesus answered by saying, “Elijah is coming, will come to restore all things, and I say he already came. And the people did not recognize him, but did to him what they wanted. And in the same way I am about to suffer by them.” Then the disciples knew that he spoke to them about John the Baptist.

Prediction and fulfillment

The sermons between now and Easter at Corinth will be about the connections between stories in the Gospels and the Old Testament. As I said last week, you’ll hear from time to time there are dozens or maybe hundreds of “prophecies” fulfilled in the life of Jesus. That number is either overstated or understated depending on what you mean by “prophecies.”

This week I received a booklet titled “100 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus.” Among the hundred is a quote from the Psalms where the Psalmist says, “I am a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my own mother’s sons” (Psalm 69:8). The pamphlet says this is a “prophecy” fulfilled in John 7:5, which says that Jesus’ “own brothers did not believe in him.” I would call that a stretch if by prophecy you mean prediction. There were many people in the Old Testament who were rejected by their own kin, and their experience doesn’t mean they were prophesying in any predictive sense what would happen to Jesus.

However, that could be considered one of thousands of examples of Old Testament threads woven into the fabric of the New. The Bible is a virtual tweed of interconnectedness that simply cannot be unraveled. The word “fulfillment” works because Jesus was completing so much of what was started in the Old Covenant. So much of his life and the way it was recorded has parallels in the Old Testament, and the Evangelists do take pains to note those connections. They’re easy for us to miss.

Today, in our final sermon on the life of Elijah, we look at the familiar story of Jesus’ Transfiguration in Matthew 17. Elijah connects this sermon to Advent. Before that, however, let’s take a verse by verse look at Matthew 17 in a different way than we usually do. I want to point out threads that connect this passage to the Old Testament.

Dominant threads

Verse 1 – After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James and led them up a high mountain by themselves. Our first question is, “Six days after what?” and the second question is, “Why Peter, James, and John?” I’ll come back to those questions. There’s an immediate connection to Exodus 24, where Moses waited six days before God spoke to him (16). Also, Jesus’ inner circle of Peter, James, and John seems to point to David’s “three mighty men” (2 Samuel 23:13-17).

Verse 2 – There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. The Greek for “transfigured” is related to our word “metamorphosis,” a transformation from the inside out. Moses also had the experience of having his face made radiant with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29-35).

Verse 3 – Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. “Just then” is a rather poor translation, in my view, for “Behold” (or, “Oh, y’all!”). This is big. Moses and Elijah are not only Old Testament figures but Old Testament giants. But it raises the question, “Why Moses and Elijah?” Why not Abraham or David or Isaiah? We will keep pondering that question as we go along.

Verse 4 – Peter said to Jesus, “Lord it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The word “shelters” is literally “tents.” The Jews still have an annual Festival of Booths (or tents) where they live (or at least eat) in temporary shelters to remember their fragile existence wandering in the wilderness for forty years (see Leviticus 23 and Deuteronomy 16). Zechariah 14:16 associates the restoration of Jerusalem with the Festival of Booths.

However, that may not be the primary Old Testament connection here. It’s more likely that Peter is wanting to set up memorials as did Jacob (Genesis 28:22; 31:45; 35:14), Joshua (Joshua 4:20), and Samuel (1 Samuel 7:12). Peter is impulsively wanting to honor these three as equals. It’s quite a compliment, from their perspective, to put Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah. Jesus is relatively unknown and unimportant at this point to all but his disciples and perhaps some Galileans. No one outside that circle yet knows him, while Moses and Elijah are remembered and honored centuries after they lived. From now on, Peter wants people to come to this site and realize that right here on this mountain Jesus stood shoulder to shoulder with Moses and Elijah. Oh, y’all indeed!

Verse 5 – While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” This is the heart of the passage. In the Father’s words there is an echo from Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.” A brighter Old Testament thread interwoven here is the appearance of a bright cloud of glory so critical in the story of Moses and the tabernacle, and later with the temple in Jerusalem and Ezekiel’s prophecy of the temple restoration. The Jews coined a word, shekinah, which means “dwelling,” to describe the visible ways in which God’s presence was demonstrated in the Old Testament. Shekinah does not appear in the Hebrew Bible, but it describes multiple references to God’s presence in the glory of light and cloud (Exodus  19:9,16; 24:15-18; 34:5, 29-35; 40:34; Leviticus 16:2; Numbers 11:25; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 2 Chronicles 5:13-14; Ezekiel 9:3; 10:4,18-19). Matthew is deliberately connecting this story to that shekinah.

Even this, however, is not the most important allusion to the Old Testament on the mount of Transfiguration. Earlier we read Deuteronomy 18:15-19. Moses is giving a series of farewell addresses to the Israelites after the 40 years of wilderness wanderings. They’re on the edge of the Promised Land, but he’s not going with them. Moses tells the people, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This was not a passage buried deep in the Law and forgotten. When people asked Jesus and John the Baptist, “Are you the prophet?” they meant this prophet – the redivivus (Latin for “reborn”) Moses. They expected Moses in some form to come back, and when he came back, they knew he would speak for God and must be listened to. Add to this the fact that the plumb line by which Jews measured every doctrine, practice, person, and movement was the Torah, the law of Moses (see, for example, in Jesus’ own teaching Matthew 8:4; 19:18; 23:2; Mark 10:3,5; 12:26; Luke 5:14; 20:37; 24:44; John 5:45-46; 7:19, 22-23). This is why Moses is on this mountain standing next to Jesus. So why Elijah? I promise we’ll get back to him.

Verses 6-7 – When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” Here’s another place where the passage is so much richer against Old Testament background. The number of instances where the Shekinah or the appearance of the angel of the LORD or some other visible presence of God terrified people in the Old and New Testaments is hard to count (Genesis 15:1; 21:17; 26:24; Exodus 19:16; 20:18-20; 34:30; Judges 6:23; Daniel 10:12,19; Habakkuk 3:2; Matthew 1:20; Luke 1:13, 30; 2:10; Acts 7:32;18:9; Revelation 1:17). This is one of the ways you know the cloud is not just random.

Jesus did here what he did for Jacob, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. The appearance was accompanied by touch (Genesis 32:25; 1 Kings 19:5, 7; Isaiah 6:7; Jeremiah 1:9). He assured him, “Do not be afraid” (see references above).

Verse 8 – When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. The important Old Testament connection here goes back to the fact that Peter wanted to erect three memorials, bringing Jesus up to the level of Moses and Elijah. But when the disciples looked up, only Jesus was left. This was not going to be a triumvirate of great spiritual leaders. Matthew even adds two words in Greek that are somewhat unnecessary grammatically. It would have been enough to say, “The saw no one except Jesus.” The text actually reads, “They saw no one except Jesus…himself…alone.” In other words, No Moses, no Elijah. Just Jesus.

Verse 9 – As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” A time to keep silent is a thread woven throughout the Old Testament as well (Joshua 6:10; Ecclesiastes 3:7; Isaiah 53:7; Amos 5:13; Habakkuk 2:20; 2 Kings 2:3,5). You might recall from our series on Elijah that Elisha told the prophets more than once, “Don’t speak of it,” when they said Elijah was going to be taken away.

Verse 10 – The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” The rest of this passage brings us back to the Elijah connection. It seems that for the disciples, the Moses connection was more obvious and understandable. Moses was the law giver, Moses was the founder of their faith, and Moses was the prophet who was to come. They also know that Elijah was to come, as we noted last week from Malachi 4:5-6, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Jews expected that Elijah would restore all things before Messiah came – get the place and the people ready for Messiah.

If that’s true, the disciples wonder, why this talk of resurrection? If he’s going to rise, he has to die. If Elijah has already restored all things, why does Messiah have to die? They’re confused about how all this fits together in the end times scenario, and they certainly do not understand how this is going to play out imminently. Isn’t that what we usually want to know in advance? We’re OK with God fixing things eventually, but what’s next and how does what I just experienced fit in with what’s next?

Verses 11-13 – Jesus replied, “to be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist. Here’s where I need to point out the three tenses of Elijah – he comes, he will restore, he has already come. Bible scholars call this the “already/not yet” of eschatology (end times). High expectations for Elijah even came up at Jesus’ crucifixion. When he cried out in Aramaic, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani,” (Matthew 27:46, translated “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) the Jews nearby said, “He’s calling Elijah” (47). In other words, they mistakenly thought Jesus was pleading with Elijah to restore all things – i.e., get him off the cross. Some bystanders even thought this might be a final test of whether Jesus was the Messiah – “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him” (49).

You simply cannot understand the Transfiguration story without its Old Testament threads. It’s not like we have a few allusions to the Old Testament in a mostly Jesus story. To return to my tweed analogy, Jesus is not the dominant gray in this story with a few colorful Old Testament strands interwoven. He will become that, for sure, as the Christian story advances. On this mountain, his are the smaller flecks of color woven into the dominant thread of a redemption story at least 1500 years old.

One of my commentaries says the first point of this story is that “Jesus is the glorious Lord before whom all other heroes of the faith must bow.”[1] I must respectfully disagree. That indeed is a Christian perspective looking back on the story. We now grasp this side of the resurrection and ascension that nobody takes second place to the incarnate Son of God. In this story, it works in reverse. Let me explain.

Listen to him!

Someone sent me a cartoon this week with Donald Trump sitting in the oval office, and both Santa Claus and Jesus in the picture affirming him. Something like that is what Matthew is trying to convey to his predominantly Jewish readers. If Trump can get both Jesus and Santa Claus to affirm him, he gains credibility. Moses and Elijah to Jesus are like Jesus and Santa to Donald Trump.

In chapter 16 Jesus had asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets,” they answered – all high compliments. “And who do you say I am?” Jesus followed up. Peter spoke for them all: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (13-16).

Then Jesus shattered their confidence. Right away he started telling his disciples that he was going to suffer, be killed, and be raised. Once again, it was Peter who spoke for the group. “This shall never happen to you!” (21-22) From a Jewish perspective, Messiahs don’t die. For the disciples, talk of a resurrection was nonsense because a true Messiah doesn’t need a resurrection. He doesn’t die in the first place. These three “mighty men” of Jesus are going to need this testimony on the mountain when Jesus dies, when he ascends, when they’re questioned by their Jewish brothers, when they lead the church, when they die for their faith. The Jew in them will need the reminder that if Moses and Elijah showed up to affirm Jesus, he’s worthy of their trust.

Then the Father says, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.” Oh, y’all! That is today’s Advent take-home. If Jesus is who he says he is, he must be heard. He is worthy of full attention and complete submission. He is worth dying to the world and to self. I can trust him no matter what comes.

What does it mean to listen to him? Let me suggest four Advent words as you check your listening.

Heart. These men had said yes to following Jesus before they ever saw the first miracle or witnessed the crowd respond to Jesus’ teaching. How’s your heart? Do you have a desire to hear his voice? Start there.

Time. During this season when task lists are long and distractions abundant, we all need to designate times to slow down. Multi-tasking is not off the table either, as in the midst of our busyness we use music or other forms of input to keep us focused on why we celebrate this season.

Attention. Marriage counselors speak about active listening. It’s more than having ears open. It’s using eye contact and posture to focus on listening and it’s repeating back what we’ve heard. Attention to Jesus might include journaling or prayer – speaking back to him what we believe we’ve heard him say.

Obedience. Certainly there are times I’m not exactly sure what he wants me to do. But when I am sure, do I do what I know to do? That’s what the Father means when he says to those disciples, ”Listen to him!”


[1] Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew, 437.

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