Transfiguration: Encouragement for Faithfulness Unto Death (Luke 9:28-36)
By: James Forbes
The gospel account of the transfiguration of Jesus comes at a time when we desperately need its powerful message of encouragement. Our nation is in the midst of an epidemic of what I call "a degenerative discouragement syndrome". The news cycle enumerates a list of issues and concerns which seem to resist remediation or repair. The causes we struggle to address will differ but somewhere, right now, people are frustrated in their efforts to solve the problems related to (Is your pet peeve on this list?): crime, climate change, immigration, poverty, crumbling infrastructures, sexism, racism, political partisanship, terrorism, reproductive health concerns, reverence for life and respect for choice, drug abuse, failing schools, poor community/police relations, breakdown of family structure, healthcare systems and the energy crisis. Suffice it to say that there seems to be an ominous shadow of decay and decline falling across many paths before us.
One thing is certain, very little progress will be achieved apart from costly commitment. Faithful service today is like bearing a cross and paying a price for what we believe in. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminded us that the cost of discipleship is like "a call to come and die". Though we may be spared the call to make the supreme sacrifice, it is likely that true commitment will make very serious demands upon one's strength, security, resources and comforts. If Jesus needed and received extraordinary encouragement and empowerment, what about us?
When Jesus was turning towards Jerusalem and the life and death encounter He would be facing there, God provided Him a faith-fortifying experience of encouragement which gave Him the overcoming power of endurance which not even death could destroy.
In the account of the transfiguration, are we witnessing a pattern people of faith can rely upon as they face the challenge of pressing on in faithfulness in the face of strong winds of opposition or tides of resistance?
Before we turn our attention to the details of the transfiguration experience, let us briefly recall some earlier instances of encouragement in the life of Jesus:
--The encouragement of Mary and Joseph of their young son
--The encouragement of the teachers of the law as they talked with Jesus at age 12 (Luke 2:41-47)
--The encouragement of the heavenly affirmation as Jesus arose from the waters of baptism (Mark 1:9-11)
--The encouragement of the anointing Jesus received in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus at Bethany (John 12:1-7)
Can you imagine the impact of such affirmations upon the spirit of Jesus?
As we look back over the events of His brief life, it becomes clear that encouragement was a crucial element in sustaining Him to persevere in His ministry of teaching, preaching, healing and wrestling with principalities and powers. Through the lens of the crucial importance of encouragement, the details of the transfiguration account take on heightened significance.
Six Days Later
The transfiguration took place six days after the conversation which occurred in Caesarea Philippi, where Peter had made the declaration that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and Jesus had disclosed that He would suffer, be rejected and killed, and then raised from the dead in three days. But Peter was unable to accept these words and rebuked Jesus for the very notion that the Messiah would suffer in this way. Nevertheless, Jesus insisted that it was so and went further to make it clear that:
"...if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Mark 8:34b-35
Bible Study Questions
1. Can you identify with Peter's difficulty in thinking of a Messiah who will suffer, be rejected and killed?
2. Do you think Peter even heard the foretelling that Jesus will be raised from the dead in three days after His crucifixion?
3. What did Jesus mean in insisting that His disciples would take up a cross as a part of following Him?
4. What does it mean to lose one's life for the sake of the gospel?
5. What examples do we know where risking one's comfort, convenience, power and influence caused one to save his or her life?
Jesus, Peter, James and John
Out of the twelve disciples, Jesus was blessed to have three who constituted His inner circle. They could be invited to accompany Him into situations of deepest spiritual significance. Jesus wanted them with Him as He wrestled with the awareness that the path He was taking would eventuate into a most serious confrontation with the authorities and would end in His death. Was this the only alternative? Was it truly mandated by God?
We are so accustomed to viewing Jesus as the powerful Savior of His people that we have to be reminded that He needed the encouragement of close friends. He needed companions who were not only concerned but could uphold Him as He faced the life and death issues of His ministry.
Bible Study Questions
1. Do you have a set of friends with whom you can discuss the delicate personal dilemmas of what God is calling you to do?
2. With whom do you discuss the moral, spiritual and political conflicts of your life?
3. Have you cultivated collegial relationships where there is open and honest critique and encouragement?
As I look back over my life, I am most grateful for God's gifts of strong, wise and encouraging friends. Such relationships are not a luxury but an absolute necessity for those who seek to be faithful servants of God.
Jesus, Moses and Elijah
Carlyle Marney, a venerable Southern Baptist minister, once told me that "no man amounts to much until he learns to bless his own origins." In the conversation with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36), the great law giver and the great prophet, Jesus was being blessed by His own origins. To face the future of Calvary with assurances from the towering figures of His faith tradition must have been an inestimable power as a source of encouragement. The mystery of their appearance is beyond our grasp, but the impact of their visit with Jesus was a blessed assurance. Both Moses and Elijah were shepherded into eternity by direct divine intervention. What had been an unusual end turned out not to be a termination but a transition and a continuation in the loving presence of God. Their presence said to Jesus, "Be not afraid, go on and be sure that the One who sends You will be faithful in seeing You through."
Bible Study Questions:
1. Do you feel a deep connection to the faith tradition which nourished your sense of calling?
2. Are you energized by the forbearers of your religious upbringing as you seek to fulfill your mission today?
3. Who are the persons, living or deceased, personal acquaintances or known through literature, by whom you would wish to converse regarding the choices you have to make today?
The Voice from the Cloud
The most important source of encouragement is the voice of God who made us and calls us into our appointed tasks. Mark 1:11 tells us,
"And a voice came from heaven; You are my Son, the Beloved; with You I am well pleased."
That was at the beginning of His public ministry. Now as He approaches the end, it happens again:
"Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to Him!" (Mark 9:7)
At the beginning the voice is addressed to Jesus, but during the transfiguration, it is to Jesus and the three disciples. This represents the highest form of encouragement. To be affirmed by God and to have one's friends and supporters urged by God to take heed to what we say-that is encouragement and endorsement at the same time. Jesus now has clarity, confidence and commendation. He knows that His work is undertaken by a sense of divine appointment. He will do what He must do. There will be no hesitation even in the face of the dread of death.
Bible Study Questions:
1. What difference in the life of Jesus would this experience have made for Him?
2. How might this event have affected Peter, James and John as they advanced towards the death of Jesus?
3. How does the account of the transfiguration encourage us to be faithful as we face difficulties in the work to which we are called?
In the current climate of discouragement, dismay, depression and demoralization, we need a massive infusion of encouragement. People of faith would do well to be alert to the ways God is calling us to have a healing influence in these troubled times. Our faith also calls us to courageous action and bold witness for the values which inform our mission. As we are encouraged to stand up for truth, justice, compassion and peace, we will prove to have a saving influence in our nation. Let us pray that we may be empowered for our urgently needed ministry-the vocation of encouragement.
The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr. is Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church and President of the Healing of the Nations Foundation. From 1992 to the present, Dr. Forbes has been co-chair of A Partnership of Faith, an interfaith organization of clergy among New York's Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim communities. He is on the board of Manhattanville College, the Interfaith Alliance, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, and the United Way. He is a consultant to the Congress of National Black Churches and past President of The Martin Luther King Fellows.
Like ON Scripture on Facebook
Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @ONScripture