Scripture: Mark 9:2-9
Well, he did it again… Forty-three-year-old Tom Brady led his team to Super Bowl glory. For the seventh time! He’s only seven years younger than I am! I’m at the age where I can’t even get up off the couch without experiencing pain—some of you know what I’m talking about—and here Brady is, routinely being crushed by the world’s biggest, strongest, heaviest athletes, and he’s not only getting up, he’s winning Super Bowl championships!
His example should inspire over-the-hill people like me!
His team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had an unusual victory parade last week—a boat parade, on the Hillsborough River near Tampa. And aside from the unusual location, the most noteworthy part of the parade was when Tom Brady threw the Super Bowl trophy from his boat to one of his teammates on another boat—fittingly, he threw it to one of his tight ends, Cameron Brate… who caught it!
But this trophy is a symbol of glory—nearly the most glory that human beings can achieve in our world… especially when you consider that 96.4 million Americans tuned in last Sunday to watch the game, not to mention another 30 to 50 million people around the world. Even people who don’t care about or know anything about American football will often tune in to the Super Bowl.
So Tom Brady and his teammates achieved great glory…
But that kind of glory is nothing compared to the kind of glory that Jesus reveals to his disciples in today’s scripture! Consider the contrast: Last week, Tampa Bay fans were basking in the glory of their football team—alongside the players. Everyone was laughing and joking and partying and having a great time! But in today’s scripture, Jesus’ three closest disciples are experiencing glory like those fans and teammates in Tampa couldn’t even imagine—glory like the world had never seen—and it’s safe to say these disciples are not havinga great time. In fact, verse 6 says they were terrified. In Matthew’s gospel it’s even more explicit: They fall on their faces in fear.
What’s going on here?
To figure it out, we need to look back at Exodus chapter 34. Because what happens there actually foreshadows what happens in today’s scripture.
For example, in Exodus 34, Moses was accompanied by his three closest companions—Aaron and his two older sons—just as Jesus is accompanied by his three closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. Moses and his companions went up on a high mountain—Mt. Sinai—just as Jesus and his disciples go up on a high mountain—probably Mt. Hermon. In both Exodus 24 and Mark 9, a cloud descends on the mountain—which represents God’s presence in their midst. In both Exodus 24 and Mark 9, God’s voice speaks out of the cloud after six days of preparation.
Finally, in both Exodus 24 and Mark 9, a bright light shines, representing the glory of God. In Exodus 24:17 it’s described as a “devouring fire”—so bright that when Moses came down from the mountain, the Bible says, his face reflected the glory of God… the skin of Moses’ face was literally shining! And even his shiny face made the Israelites afraid!1
So you can imagine how terrified Jesus’ disciples were! Because it isn’t simply that Jesus’ face is shining; Jesus himself is shining! Jesus isn’t merely reflecting the light of a glory that’s emanating from somewhere else, he’s the source of this light… because Jesus is God! And this episode in the life of Jesus and his disciples, more than any other in the gospels prior to Christ’s resurrection, proves that Jesus is God!
Think about it: For the three years that the disciples have been with Jesus, they’ve only seen him in his humanity… he’s someone who seems just like them! The apostle John says the “Word became flesh,” and that flesh has protected the disciples from God’s glory—the same way, back in Exodus 33, it says God covered Moses face with his hand, as God passed by, to protect Moses from his glory. But now it’s as if Jesus were lifting the veil and letting these three disciples get a glimpse of God’s glory—just a glimpse. And it’s almost too much for them!
Because unlike with human glory—which was on full display last week in central Florida—even a small glimpse of God’s glory is terrifying. It makes you fall on your face in fear. Why? Because apart from God’s grace through faith in Christ, we are sinners… and sinners can’t get too close to a holy God. His glory would kill us—as Peter, James, and John are well aware… because they know their Bibles! People literally die in the Old Testament when they get too close to God and his glory!2
One shocking example of this is found in Leviticus 10, when Aaron’s two oldest sons are serving in the tabernacle. The tabernacle was a tent—a portable temple—that accompanied Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Solomon later makes it permanent by building the temple in Jerusalem. The tabernacle includes the room called the Holy of Holies, where the ark of the covenant is. And in the last chapter of Exodus—after all the furnishings for the tabernacle have been built and set up—this same cloud of God’s presence and God’s glory that envelops Jesus and his disciples in Mark 9 comes down and fills the tabernacle.
Exodus 40:34 says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Doesn’t that sound familiar? Then in the last verse of Exodus, verse 38, reads: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.”
So you get the picture… The tabernacle is the place where God’s glory and presence reside in a special way. It was as close as anyone could get to God on earth. So this is the setting for Leviticus 10. It describes how Aaron’s two sons are performing a liturgy in the tabernacle, except they’re not doing so according to God’s instructions—it says they’re burning incense in an unauthorized way. The Bible isn’t specific about what they did wrong, except it’s clear that they’re taking God’s holiness very lightly. And Leviticus 10:3 reads, “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” It’s shocking, like I said.
You’ve seen the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Nazis recover the ark of the covenant, which has been lost for millennia. And at the end of the movie, they open up the ark, and what happens? An angel of the Lord comes out and melts their faces off… zaps them all dead! It couldn’t happen to a nicer group of Nazis! It’s awesome. But in its own way, the movie portrays what happens when sinners come into contact with God’s holiness and God’s glory. I’m not saying it’s a biblically accurate portrayal, but something like that is happening in Leviticus 10 when Aaron’s two sons die.
And after that tragic episode, Moses fusses at poor Aaron and his two younger sons—the two who weren’t struck down by God—because they’re supposed to go into the tabernacle and offer a sacrifice. But they don’t do it. Why? Because now that they’ve seen what can happen when sinners get too close to God’s holiness, they are understandably afraid for their lives to go into the tabernacle—and be so close to God, so close to God’s holiness, so close to God’s glory. What if they do something wrong?
As the author of Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”3
Back in the ’80s when I was an impressionable young Christian teenager, I remember being bothered by a hit song by John Mellencamp called “Small Town.” You know it: “I was born in a small town/ And I live in a small town…” Great song! The singer describes growing up in a small town and some of the formative experiences he had there. At one point he sings, “Taught the fear of Jesus in a small town.” Taught the fear of Jesus… Truthfully I always wanted to correct him and say, “John, I’m afraid your Sunday school teachers in small-town Indiana led you astray. Why were you taught the fear of Jesus? You should have been taught the love of Jesus… not the fear.”
But when I read today’s scripture—and I see how even Jesus’ closest disciples are afraid of Jesus—well, maybe John Mellencamp isn’t completely wrong!
Indeed, the Bible warns that there will come a day when many sinners will be terrified of Jesus—at the end of history, when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead, to separate the sheep from the goats… when “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”4 For some of the people who bow down, this will be the most wonderful, most glorious event that they’ve ever experienced—at least a little like what Tampa Bay players and fans experienced last week, only a thousand times more intense.
But for the rest of the people who bow down—for those who, during their lifetimes, mocked Jesus and his gospel, who dismissed him, who said “no” to his offer of salvation, time and again, who refused to submit to his Lordship—for those people… Jesus will be terrifying. They will be afraid of him.
So what’s the difference? What do we have to do in order to be in the first group of people who bow down and not the second group?
We have to do what God the Father tells us to do in verse 7: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”
Listen to him!
See, it’s significant that Moses and Elijah are there with Jesus when the transfiguration happens. Because Moses and Elijah symbolize the Law and the Prophets—which is another way of saying, the entire Old Testament. And what did Jesus say earlier in the gospels? “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”5 By being with Jesus during his transfiguration, Moses and Elijah are showing the world that they agree with these words of Jesus—that the ultimate purpose of the entire Old Testament, including all that Moses and prophets like Elijah said and did, is to point to Jesus Christ and what he would soon accomplish on the cross. So through the Old Testament, God shows us, for example, how deadly serious our sin is—that’s what he was showing Aaron and Moses and their family back in Leviticus 10. God shows us how helpless we are to do anything about our sin problem—and how desperately we need a Savior.
But the good news is we have one! Listen to him! Listen to Jesus!
Listen to Jesus when he says that he’s the Good Shepherd who rescues lost sheep like us and lays down his life for us. Listen to Jesus when he tells us that he’s come to give new and everlasting life to spiritually dead people like you and me. Listen to Jesus on the cross when he says, “It is finished,” meaning, “I am the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”;6 I am the perfect sacrifice to which all those sacrifices in the Old Testament pointed; I have paid the penalty for your sins; I’ve experienced the hell; I’ve done everything necessary to make you a part of my family forever. Because I love you that much. Listen to me… it is finished. There’s nothing left for you to do… except receive it! Receive this gift!”
Listen to Jesus! Believe Jesus! He’ll give you eternal life!
And by the way, you know who’s not listening to Jesus? Peter. Six days earlier, after Peter makes his great confession of faith—he becomes the first person to confess Jesus as the Messiah, he immediately rebukes Jesus and says, “There’s no way that you, the Messiah, are going to go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the religious leaders, and die on a cross! That can’t happen, Jesus! I won’t let it happen!”
And what does Jesus say to him? “Get behind me, Satan.” He calls Peter, his closest disciple, Satan. Why? Because, like Satan, Peter is tempting Jesus with a shortcut to glory. Remember the three temptations in the wilderness? “Throw yourself off the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus. You know that your Father’s not going to let you get hurt. And when that happens… people will see this miracle, and it will be glorious! People will love you and follow you and believe in you! They’ll worship you! You won’t even need to go to the cross!” Or how about when Satan says, “At this moment I can give all the kingdoms of the world! Isn’t that what you want, Jesus? Think about how much better the world will be—if you were in charge, if you were running things! And that way, you wouldn’t even need to go to the cross.”
That was the gist of the devil’s temptations… Here’s a shortcut to earthly glory… in order to avoid the cross. And that’s the same thing Peter was offering in Mark chapter 8. And frankly, it’s what Peter is doing again in today’s scripture: “Let’s build three tents, and stay here a while. This will be like… a mountain retreat center! People will come from all over the world to sit at your feet, Jesus, and listen to your preaching and teaching, to be healed, to listen to your wisdom. It’ll be great! That will be far more glorious than coming down from this mountain, going to Jerusalem, being rejected by the world’s rulers, and being crucified on the cross!
But that’s where Jesus must go! That’s why he came! As Jesus himself said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”7
Peter would eventually learn this lesson, but at this point, he still thought he could have Jesus without the cross… he thought he was good enough, spiritually, on his own. Remember how confident Peter was before Jesus was arrested? Jesus tells Peter—with great compassion and love—“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”8
Keep in mind: Peter is already saved at this point. Yet Jesus tells him that it’s only because of Jesus’ prayers for him that Peter is able to continue to have saving faith—apart from Jesus’ prayers, the devil would have destroyed Peter’s faith. But Jesus the Good Shepherd has protected Peter from the devil and kept him safely in the fold. And the Bible says he does the same for us: At this very moment, Jesus is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us—praying for us!9 And Christ’s prayers for us are sure to be answered by the Father with a resounding yes!
This is why Paul can say with confidence, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”10
So Jesus continues to serve us, even after we’re saved… we continue to depend on him for everything even after we’re saved… We continue to need his grace at every moment even after we’re saved. Peter will learn that eventually.
But Peter is confident not only in his own righteousness, he’s confident that he knows better than Jesus what needs to happen in his life and in the world. We see this in the previous chapter and in verse 5 of today’s scripture.
How many of us are like Peter in this regard? Usually when I get angry or frustrated or disappointed in my own life, it’s because, like Peter, I am confident that I can run the universe better than the Lord! It’s true. “If only Jesus had the wisdom to do what I wanted him to do!” When I say it out loud, it sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? A couple of years ago I read a book by pastor Charles Stanley that convicted me. Stanley talked about how, in his own life and ministry, he had learned to always seek God’s will first—before making any major life or ministry decision. He was bold about it, too: sometimes he would ask God to give him a sign before making an important decision. He would often take his Bible and go somewhere by himself—for days sometimes—praying to discern God’s will for a particular situation or circumstance or opportunity or challenge he was facing in his life… and he had enough faith to believe that God would reveal to him to him what he ought to do.
On those rare occasions when Charles Stanley failed to do this, well… he said that’s when he got into trouble.
This spoke to me… I learned from his example. And maybe it speaks to you. We never outgrow our need to listen to Jesus. And the main way we listen to him is through his Word. Through the Holy Spirit, as we read the words of this book, Jesus meets us and speaks to us. Nearly every morning, no matter what book of the Bible I’m reading in my quiet time, I find something that I need—or Jesus gives me something I need, for some particular situation or problem I’m facing.
I don’t want to make you feel guilty because I’m telling you that I’m in the same boat… but how much time do you spend each day “listening to Jesus”—versus the time you spend listening to social media. Do you get that notification on your phone… “You have spent seven hours, 48 minutes looking at your screen today… that’s up from last week.”
I invite you now to turn a few pages over to Mark 3:13-15. Let me read those verses:
“Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.”
This is a very short job description of a disciple. If so, what is the first and most important task of a disciple? “He appointed twelve that they might be with him.” To be with Jesus! Before you do anything at all, you’re supposed to spend time being with Jesus! Listening to him!
Not only that, in those moments in my life when I’ve felt especially close to God—when I’m filled with the Spirit and I feel enveloped by his love… it always happens when my Bible is open, and I’m reading and reflecting on what’s there.
It always happens, in other words, when I do what my Father tells me to do in verse 7… It happens when I listen to Jesus. I invite you to do the same.
- Exodus 34:30
- One shocking example is Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. At the end of the chapter, Aaron and his other two sons are afraid to enter the Tabernacle, for fear that they’ll get to close to God and die.
- Hebrews 10:31 ESV
- Philippians 2:10-11 ESV
- Matthew 5:17 ESV
- John 1:29
- Mark 10:45 ESV
- Luke 22:31-32 ESV
- See Heb. 7:25; Rom. 8:34; 1 John 2:1.
- Romans 8:38-39 ESV