Who Could Sin After Seeing the Transfiguration?

One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is the Transfiguration of Jesus. I sometimes imagine that if I could go back in time and be present for any event in the Gospels prior to the crucifixion, I would choose the Transfiguration.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9, ESV)

What actually happened here? Of course, there’s no way we can fully understand it this side of Heaven. But did Jesus “simply” reveal the glory of some of His divinity as Moses and Elijah arrived on Earth (having momentarily departed Heaven), while the omnipresent Father spoke so as to be heard in that geographic location?

Or did Heaven and Earth overlap in such a way so that the place where Jesus stood was at that moment neither fully Heaven nor fully Earth, but rather He and His two visitors conversed in a temporary nexus between the earthly world and the spiritual world?

Or third, and applying the terminology of our three-dimensional world to a spiritual realm, did Heaven press so closely to Earth at this point that although Moses and Elijah were still in Heaven they were literally at the “edge” of it, and God’s voice came from across the border of Heaven to Earth, and Jesus’s face and clothing shone because of His immediate proximity to the heavenly realm and the glory of God? Or is there a better analogy? Only God knows.

In any case, a short time after this incomparable experience, possibly less than a week after the Transfiguration we read where Jesus’s disciples “argued with one another about who was the greatest” (Mark 9:34).

Think of that. Peter, James, and John saw—not in a dream or a vision, but with their eyes—Jesus transfigured. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Have you considered how He must have looked? His appearance surely took their breath away.

Then they saw Moses and Elijah—men in the front rank of Jewish history; heroes they’d heard about heard all their lives—appear out of thin air, as if beamed down from Heaven. And they heard Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, speaking with voices more real than those you hear on your television when White House reporters ask questions of the president. We can only wonder at the specifics of what the disciples heard this heavenly duo say to the Man with the sunlike face.

And then they heard the voice of God. This alone would shake a person to the core, stunning their senses. They see the face of Jesus suddenly begin to radiate a brilliant light, they see Moses and Elijah appear from the past (imagine how it would affect you if Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon suddenly stood before you), then God in Heaven speaks directly to them in an audible voice.

Despite all this, in a matter of days they join with the other disciples in arguing about which of them is the greatest. If I’m Peter, I’m saying things like, “Ha! You wouldn’t think you’re the greatest disciple, Matthew, if you knew what I saw the other day.”

In other words, after this unearthly, next-worldly, never-to-be-forgotten experience, they still sinned. And of course, biblical theology tells us that this Transfiguration-watching trio didn’t wait several days until that argument arose before they sinned again.

At first, it’s almost hard to believe that a person could sin after such an experience. And yet, it’s just like every other encounter with a glimpse of God’s glory in Scripture. From the appearance of the pillar of fire in the Exodus, to the consuming blaze and heart-melting sounds atop Sinai, to Isaiah’s vision in the temple, to Paul’s pre-death visit to Heaven, to the revelation of Christ, Heaven, and the future to John on Patmos—they were experienced by sinners who nevertheless remained sinners after the experiences, despite “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Though many observations could be made, two stand out to me as I think on these things.

First, the depth of human depravity. Nothing we experience in this body, no matter how frightening or glorious, can stop us from sinning. We could visit Hell or Heaven, and though the experience would doubtless have some indelible impact, no amount of terror or beauty could wring all the sin out of us. We could behold something that would take our breath away, but soon we’d breathe again. Just as surely, we could see something that would cause us in the moment to resolve never sin again, but soon we’d sin again.

Second, the greatness of the grace of God that He would still love and save creatures who are such sin factories that even after He allows them to glimpse the most glorious things in the universe they still choose to sin. When we come to Jesus for rescue from the sin that saturates us, God immediately forgives every sin we ever have or will commit. After that, though, we still do sin, even though He sends the Holy Spirit who causes us to loathe it and to fight it and to long for release from it. Knowing every sin we will commit after He forgives us, He loves us still and determines to keep us forever.

There’s only one experience that can cleanse us from all traces of the cancer of sin’s presence forever. It’s what the Bible calls “the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23). This is the final, everlasting, freedom from sin that those “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit” (that is, the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit given to all the followers of Jesus) “groan inwardly” and “wait eagerly” for (Romans 8:23). And whether in the grave or alive when Jesus returns, He will transform the bodies of all His people to be fit to live forever with Him in a sinless, perfect, and glorious Heaven.

That’s because, as Philippians 3:20-21 puts it, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

In other words, one day all we who are in Christ will experience our own transfiguration, changed suddenly by the power of God from “our lowly body to be like his glorious body.”

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20)


Coming in July, 2015 from Crossway Books and available for pre-order now: Praying the Bible


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