Faith Matters

Andrew Watson: Following the ultimate challenge

The Transfiguration can teach much about the challenge as well as the reward of following Jesus, says the Rev Andrew Watson

Andrew Watson

The Transfiguration is widely considered to be Renaissance master Raphael's finest work. He worked on it until his death in 1520.

JESUS Christ - no-one is more loving, more understanding, more encouraging.

But he also teaches us many crucial lessons for life and challenges us more deeply than anyone or anything else.

It was the same for those who originally accompanied Jesus, as told in the eyewitness accounts of the Gospels.

In Luke's Gospel, for example, we see how Jesus' powerful preaching and teaching combined with

dramatic miracles, leading Peter to make a bold and very specific declaration of faith: "You are the Christ, the promised Messiah. You are the Son of God."

When we reach the ninth chapter of the Gospel, Luke shares an account of the truly remarkable mountaintop transfiguration, when we see the disciples' faith in Jesus as divine rewarded and affirmed.

It's frightening and intimidating but is ultimately encouraging as the disciples witness their master momentarily revealed in his heavenly majesty and affirmed by Old Testament giants Moses and Elijah; 'Yes, Peter, look - it is as you have believed and said; your master is no ordinary carpenter, behold something of his glory.'

But Peter and friends are also challenged to further trust and obedience on the road to Jerusalem, Calvary and a life of sacrificial service.

Jesus began telling them about his coming suffering just about a week before this and the disciples are struggling to understand.

Why can't Jesus rule by popular vote with free meals and happy miracles?

They don't see yet that righteousness and holiness are required by God - and these don't come cheap.

In fact we cannot fulfil the law's demands, nor can we afford the penalty of failure. A pure and perfect offering is what's needed, and this central, vital requirement for human salvation is what Jesus is going to accomplish in his crucifixion.

It may be easy for us who have had 2,000 years of reflection to get used to the idea but Peter and the disciples are struggling and need some reassurance.

They get it in the most dramatic fashion when Jesus takes them up the mountain.

Remember, God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai from a cloud with thunder and lightning. The law with the Ten Commandments were divinely revealed on a mountain.

Later, God revealed his power and the uselessness of this world's idols through answering Elijah's prayer with fire from heaven on Mount Carmel.

Now it is Jesus on a mountain and several things happen which would have seemed familiar to Peter, James and John who knew their Old Testament scripture - dazzling light, a frightening cloud, their master's appearance shining with unearthly brightness.

Their forefathers wrote of the 'shekinah' glory of the Lord which appeared on occasions; here it is again, centring attention on Jesus, the Christ.

What should they conclude? Nothing less than that here is the One who dwells in unapproachable light.

The One who, in our beginning said, "Let there be light". Their master, the Christ, is Lord, Son of God, the maker of light, the heavenly all-powerful origin of everything and, as such, the giver of Truth. They shouldn't doubt what he tells them.

As if this heavenly splendour isn't enough, the disciples are then given a glimpse of Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and the Prophets and the whole Old Testament.

People nowadays often say something like, 'I don't like God in the Old Testament, I prefer Him in the New Testament'.

The appearance of these two most senior, authoritative figures from the Old Testament, affirming Jesus as Son of God and Saviour, shows the continuity. This is the same God at work. He is the same "yesterday, today and forever".

People frequently say, 'The Churches need to move with the times'. That may be fair enough with some things, like installing a screen or setting up a website, but we cannot change the substance of what the Almighty has revealed.

We cannot fulfil the law's demands, nor can we afford the penalty of failure. A pure and perfect offering is what's needed, and this central, vital requirement for human salvation is what Jesus is going to accomplish in his crucifixion 

His truth stands. His character is unchanged. His standards, His steadfast hatred of all sin and corruption. His love and His grace.

What Jesus is about to accomplish is not a departure from but a fulfilment of all God is and has been doing through the ages.

The disciples on the mountain also hear a heavenly voice - God himself affirms his son and the course he's on.

The Father is pleased with his Son. His holiness and justice will be satisfied with the Son's offering of himself at Calvary.

This is what the Lord has ordained and what has been pictured for centuries in the Temple ceremonies. Forgiveness and salvation come through atoning sacrifice.

Peter is continuing his education about who Jesus is, why he has come and what it means to be one of his followers.

The faith he has already professed is being rewarded and his knowledge expanded. Everything is so much greater than they could have imagined. That miraculous record catch of fish on the first day was nothing compared to this.

So it is epic and exciting and really wonderful that Jesus has invited them to be part of it but they still have to learn what kind of responses are appropriate to this amazing Jesus.

How do we relate to this incarnate Son of God, this carpenter who is nothing less than divine?

As we might imagine, the three disciples are completely awestruck with the experience and really aren't sure what to say or do.

Peter is always inclined to say something - speak first, think later - so he offers to build three shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

No doubt he means well, wanting to express respect for these great men but perhaps there's also a desire to record the event and their presence there.

One of my daughters works in a restaurant and a member of Boyzone was in the other week.

He wasn't out the door before we had his picture shared on Facebook. Is there a part of Peter that would like to take a 'selfie' to share with his pals back home - 'Hey, look who we met with Jesus up the mountain today.'

But the voice from the cloud says, "This is my Son. Listen to him," and Jesus is speaking about the cross and what it may cost them to be disciples of a suffering saviour.

We must be careful not to focus on how cool it is to know Him, but on how better we might humbly serve Him. This is why we must submit to listening intently to His words in the Bible.

So, to turn round what I said at the beginning: Jesus Christ - nothing in this earth could be as challenging as knowing and following him.

Then again, nothing in this world could come anywhere close to being as rewarding.

Rev Andrew Watson is minister of the Presbyterian congregations in Dunfanaghy and Carrigart in Co Donegal. He is a chaplain at Letterkenny Institute of Technology and blogs at Wordsurfers

Rev Andrew Watson

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