Heaven on Earth

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Today is the 11th of November. In 1918 on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (November) a most terrible war, the first World War, came to an end. On another 11th day, the 11th of September 2001, a most terrible act of terrorism took place in New York and Washington, and a new type of war began - a war against terror.

It is in times of war that we must confess our need of God. We always need to trust him and obey him. But when the world collapses around you, when a terrorist attack can now mean destruction of apocalyptic proportions, how we need God! So Psalm 46.1-2 is good news:

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea.

And God can be trusted because he is over all. Never forget that the ruler of this universe is not George Bush, Tony Blair, Osama bin Laden or the Taliban, but almighty God - the God who has revealed himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He is sovereign over all and Jesus Christ is the sustainer of all. The Bible says that Jesus Christ, God "the Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word".

But you say: "at times like these - when I think about that awful, criminal assault on the World Trade Centre and all those thousands of deaths and all the families bereaved and the businesses that have collapsed; and when I think of all the suffering and false religion in Afghanistan and the attack on Christians for teaching people about Christ (not least those missionaries imprisoned in Kabul) and the famine and the oppression of thousands caught in the middle as bombing continues day after day - I find it so hard to believe that God is in control."

That was just how the disciples of Jesus would have felt when Jesus was in Caesarea Phillipi. They, too, were confused. Jesus had just begun to explain to them what his mission would involve. We read in Matthew 16 verse 21:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

We know that the apostle Peter was devastated. He and many others had hoped that Jesus would be a triumphant Messiah who would free people from political oppression and physical ills. But Jesus said he was not going to be that sort of a Messiah at all. He said he was going to be a suffering Messiah - a Messiah who would be killed. You see, the way of God is not the way of man. And the cross of Christ was to be God's way.

To make matters worse we read (Matthew 16.24):

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

How do you expect the disciples felt after hearing that? Jesus promised them not crowns but crosses - and the cross in the ancient would was not a sanitised piece of jewellery. It stood for one of the most cruel and terrifying forms of execution known in history. Jesus was promising not only that he would suffer, but that his disciples would also suffer. Undoubtedly many of the disciples would have been wondering if God was in control, and if Jesus was the one they had been hoping for.

Now, if you are visiting this morning, can I just explain that on these Sunday mornings in this session we are studying Matthew's Gospel. And we have literally just got past this section in chapter 16, where Jesus is predicting his death. We now come to chapter 17. This morning we are going to look at chapter 17 verses 1-13. This section we've entitled Heaven on Earth. And you'll see that my headings are, first, HEAVEN IS REAL, secondly, JESUS IS LORD, and thirdly, "LISTEN TO HIM" (words from verse 5).


First, HEAVEN IS REAL

Chapter 17 begins like this:

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

You say, "but that I can't believe".

Be careful that you are not confusing the unimaginable with the unbelievable. That is a frequent mistake. Too often people say they can't believe something because they cannot imagine it. That account is perfectly believable under the normal tests of historical verifiability. True, in one sense it is unimaginable; but it is believable. Let me explain.

First, it is unlikely to have been invented. There was nothing like it in Christ's previous ministry to make someone concoct a story about Jesus appearing with Moses and Elijah. And there is nothing like this in the Old Testament. Moses' experience at Sinai is quite different.

Secondly, the account of this transfiguration remarkably appears in all three of the synoptic Gospels - that is in Matthew, Mark and Luke - not just in one.

Thirdly, the reference to three witnesses, Peter, James and John, is significant. 21st century people can think that 1st century Jews were gullible people who believed whatever they were told. What nonsense! They had their courts of law and were able to weigh evidence as we can. And they had a particular principle. The formula is quoted in the next chapter (Matthew 18 verse 16):

'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'

So there were three witnesses to this event - three disciples as well as three Gospels. These disciples appear to refer to this event elsewhere - at least John and Peter do. In John's Gospel chapter 1 verse 14, you read:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And in Peter's second letter you read:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

The early Christians clearly believed this was a real event.

Fourthly, it is an event that is dated. It is said to be "after six days". There was some precision about the time of the Transfiguration. That is unlike the Gospel writers' treatment of other things Jesus said and did. They relate those in a more random way.

Fifthly, this event fits so perfectly the crisis in Jesus' ministry that we have referred to. Here are the disciples bewildered and depressed by the news of Jesus' death - the death of the one they "had hoped ... was the one who was going to redeem Israel" (Luke 24.21). And they had been told that the Christian life is going to be hard. But God, the apostle Paul tells us, is "the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles" (2 Cor 1.3-4). So while the disciples were tempted to despair, God steps in to given them encouragement and comfort. He did so by showing them that Jesus' suffering is not the final word. Behind his suffering is an altogether different reality - namely that this man, Jesus, who is to suffer, is at one and the same time the Lord of Glory - the sustainer of the universe. So the world was not getting out of control, for God is sovereign.

For all these reasons you can believe this account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. You may not understand exactly what happened. But that it did happen you can be sure. Dr A.E.Plummer, the New Testament scholar, wrote:

It is wiser to seek for the meaning of the event than to frame guesses as to the manner of it.

That is wise. So what is the meaning?

It means that Christ is divine and heaven is real. Christ's face was shining like the sun. This was how John saw the glorified Christ in his vision that he records in the Book of Revelation - "his face [he says there] was like the sun shining in all its brilliance." The bible says God is light (1 John 1.5). The bible says he is "the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light" (1 Tim 6.15-16). So Jesus here partakes of that light and the divine nature. That is what the early Christians believed. They believed that Jesus was "in very nature God". Yes, he "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant." But then "God exalted him to the highest place ... that every knee should bow" to him; and in that "highest place" he had a "glorious body". So says Paul in Philippians chapters 2 and 3. Do you now see what is happening in this transfiguration on the Mountain?

The disciples were being shown in advance their Master's "glorious body" - his heavenly body. They were being shown that heaven is real. And they were being shown the reality of human resurrection. Of course, this is a mystery. But here were Moses and Elijah seen in recognisable bodily form, talking with Jesus!

Do you believe the dead will rise again? On this mountain there was not only a foretaste of Christ's exalted state, but also a foretaste of the general resurrection. All those who have died in war, all those who died on 11 September will rise again. In fact "all," says Jesus ...

"... who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28-29).

Are you ready for the resurrection and that judgment? If a terrorist device were to go off today and end your life, would you rise to life or rise to be condemned? You say, "How can you know? Can you be so confident that you can be sure?" The answer is, "Yes!" Jesus had just said in John 5.24 ...

"I tell you the truth [he was using that emphatic formula] ... I tell you the truth, whoever [that must include you] hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life."

You can have that assurance if you trust Christ. So this event tells us that heaven is real and it points to the reality of human resurrection.


Secondly, it tells us that JESUS IS LORD

Look at verses 4-5:

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." 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!"

There is Peter getting it all wrong at the very same time as something supernatural is happening. A bright cloud - a symbol of the presence of God himself - "enveloped them". And then there are those words - the very same words as were spoken at Jesus' baptism:

"This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."

Those words echo prophecies in the Old Testament. They were prophecies that pointed to a coming Messiah. On the one hand he would be a divine and royal Messiah. On the other hand he would be a suffering servant. So those words in that awesome moment are saying, "Yes, Jesus is that very one".

How we need to hear that message today. Muhammad was not that one. Marx was not that one. The Buddha was not that one. Nor is any other teacher or philosopher. Jesus is the only one. And Peter had to learn that lesson about the uniqueness of Jesus. He seems to have been thinking that Jesus was a prophet or teacher of the same order as Moses and Elijah. So all alike needed shelters. But after the voice and after the cloud dispersed, we read, verse 8:

When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Jesus was not the same as Moses and Elijah. Jesus is the divine Lord. And remember what happened next. "As they were coming down from the mountain" (verses 9-10):

The disciples asked [Jesus], "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?"

That was a reference to a prophecy in Malachi in the Old Testament that Elijah would return "before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes" (Mal 4.5). A new Elijah would precede the new coming of the Lord himself. And Jesus says, "Elijah has already come" (v 12) in the form of John the Baptist. So Jesus is the coming Lord, preceded by an Elijah - John the Baptist. Jesus is not an Elijah figure. But John the Baptist is. Jesus is the Lord, who came and who will come again. He came at his first coming as the Saviour. At his second coming he will come as the Judge. That will indeed be a "great and dreadful day".

And because Jesus is the Lord, that is why the voice from the cloud added those words - "Listen to him". That is our final heading this morning.


Thirdly, "LISTEN TO HIM"

The earliest of all Christian creeds were the words: "Jesus is Lord". That was a confession of the deity of Christ - that Christ was not just a prophet or religious teacher - he was God the Son. It also was a confession that "Jesus is my Lord."

Can you say that this morning? What does it mean to say "Jesus is my Lord"? It means you do "Listen to him". So it means you will hear him say:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matt 11.28)

He will give you rest from your guilt. That is what you receive from Christ dying for you. Jesus Christ's great work was to die on the cross. That is what he was trying to teach his disciples. He didn't want them to focus too much on his future glory. They must first understand the cross. That is why they must not yet tell others about the transfiguration - verse 9:

"Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Do you understand the cross? On Remembrance Sunday we need to face the reality of war. We also need to face the reality of sin. What causes war? The apostle James asks that question:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires ... You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet .(James 4.1-2)

The ultimate cause of war is selfishness. Selfishness is when you put yourself at the centre of the universe and not God. And that is what the bible means by sin. And the message of the cross is that Christ died to bear the punishment for sin - the sin of the world - your sin and my sin. Such was God's love. And as you accept his forgiveness you can have new life by his Holy Spirit and new hope. When you have rest from guilt you can have hope and rest from fear.

Do you fear for your family, for your work, or for the future? Do you fear death? Christ offers you rest from fear as well as from guilt. The divine voice in the cloud said: "Listen to him". The first words Jesus spoke after that command were, verse 7:

"Get up ... don't be afraid".


I must conclude. What does the Transfiguration of Jesus teach you? First, that Heaven is Real; secondly, that Jesus is Lord; and thirdly, that, therefore, you need to listen to him. And he says to his disciples, "Don't be afraid". So we will sing in our final hymn:

Since Jesus is with you, do not be afraid;
Since he is your Lord, you need not be dismayed:
He strengthens you, guards you, and helps you to stand,
Upheld by his righteous, ominipotent hand.

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