Transfiguration Sunday: How the heavenly realm connects with ours

Readings this week – looking ahead to Sunday, Feb 11

Transfiguration Sunday. Sunday before Lent.

Monday – 2 Kings 2: 1-12
Tuesday – Psalm 50: 1-6
Wednesday – Mark 9: 2-9
Thursday – 2 Cor. 4: 3-6
Friday – The emerging message

My Father! I will not leave you

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 5
2 Kings 2: 1-12

Elisha succeeds Elijah, in a demonstration of utter reliance on the Lord and His anointing

1  When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.

2  Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

  • This is not phrased as a command; probably more of a test for Elisha, who responded with a three-times assertion that he wouldn’t leave his master, here, v.4 and v.6.

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

  • Elisha was aware, with the other prophets, that Elijah’s ministry was drawing to an honourable close and the Lord was about to take him. But he was determined to stay with Elijah until that moment – no sense of ambition or entitlement here. Elisha’s commitment to his master is salutary for any of us who have struggled with ambition!

3  The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

  • At this time, Bethel, the location of this event, Jericho (v.5) and Gilgal (v. 1 and 2 Kings 4:38) all hosted companies of prophets and it seems that Elijah’s instruction from the Lord was to visit all three, one last time.

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”

4  Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

5  The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”

6  Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.

7  Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan.

  • A large group of witnesses to the miracle that enabled Elijah and Elisha to cross the river.

8  Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

  • Brings to mind Moses crossing the ‘Red Sea’, Exodus 14;16, 21, 26. Elijah uses his rolled up cloak as Moses had used his staff.

Elijah has crossed over to the region where Moses died, Deut 34:1-6.

9  When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

  • Elisha was saying, “Let me be like your firstborn son, spiritually.” He wasn’t asking for a ministry twice as great as his master’s. He was asking in line with inheritance law whereby the eldest son received a double portion of the father’s possessions, Deut. 21:17.

10  “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours – otherwise, it will not.”

  • In 1 Kings 19:16, 19-21 we learn that Elijah had heard from the Lord that he was to anoint Elisha to succeed him. However, he is being careful here to leave that assignment entirely in the Lord’s hands.

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

  • The heavenly host, or army, has always been with Elijah, backing him up. Now he is permitted to see this reality. As we are prayerfully led and prayerfully engaged, things are happening in the heavenly dimension which are unseen by us but not unconnected with what we see unfolding on earth. Having some understanding of this helps us know how to pray – and listen – in testing situations.
  • Moses saw something like this in the overturning of Pharoah’s chariot-led army in the sea, Exodus 15:1-10.

12  Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more.

  • Elisha saw the manifestation of chariots and horsemen around Elijah, as showing that Elijah had the real authority under God for the nation, rather than a king who had turned away from God.

Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. He picked up the cloak that had fallen from Elijah…

  • Elisha tore his own clothes – often a sign of mourning but here more likely a symbolic leaving behind of his former life. Taking up Elijah’s cloak symbolised his taking up the ministry that Elijah had exercised. 
Application

Elijah is an iconic figure representing the school of prophets generally and he appeared at the transfiguration of Jesus, representing the wisdom of the prophets, together with Moses, representing the wisdom of the Law (Mark 9:4-5 in this week’s Wednesday reading). Jesus is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. In the final writing of the Old Testament, Malachi promised that Elijah would be seen again at the coming of the Messiah, the “day of the Lord” to bring a turning of hearts, a preparation of repentance.

Elijah prepared the way for Elisha.
John the Baptist, clearly identifying with Elijah in his lifestyle and message, prepared the way for the Lord.
Elijah may be one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3 to come.

The story of the succession of Elisha from Elijah is about the way the Lord calls and anoints people for service – outstanding, memorable, dangerous service in the case of these two. Although associated with eye-watering miracles, they did not exalt themselves, and were unusually reliant on the anointing and leading that they received from the Spirit of the Lord.

For reflection and discussion

How do you work out the partnership between what God has made you uniquely capable of doing, and what He is uniquely able to do?
What might Elisha’s example be teaching us in this?

 

God calls His covenant people to account

TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 6
Psalm 50:1-6

God calls the consecrated people to the court of His covenant – both heaven and earth together

Together with Psalms 46-49, this psalm is part of a liturgy of five sections which are all about the recalling and renewing of covenant by God’s covenant people. It has three parts in all: announcing the Lord coming to call His people to account; The Lord’s words of correction for those whose intentions are righteous; and the Lord’s rebuke of those of unrighteous intention – called ‘the wicked”. We are just reading the first part of this, but it is helpful to know the whole context.

  The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to where it sets.

  • This psalm includes seven titles and names of God, three in the first sentence.

2  From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.

3  Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages.

  • Fire and storm are often used to describe the intense presence of God, as in the Mount Sinai encounter, Exodus 19:16-18.

4  He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that He may judge his people:

  • Best seen as God exercising righteous rule over His people. God’s judgment is linked to His righteousness, and can mean vindication as well as punishment.

5  “Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

  • Sacrifices were part of the ritual that sealed the covenant.
  • The privilege that comes from being in covenant with Almighty God as provider and protector, also brings with it the responsibility of covenant.

For further study, see Exodus 24:3-7

6  And the heavens proclaim His righteousness, for He is a God of justice.

  • “For He is a God of justice” is rendered “for God Himself is judge” in earlier NIV and ESV. “Judge” is used as a title for God in Psalm 94:2 – the Hebrew for king and judge are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • “His righteousness” in the Psalms and in the OT refers to His faithfulness in acting as the divine King of kings, following up on commitments He has expressed, including protection for the poor and justice for the oppressed, Psalm 4:1.

For further study, see Psalm 27:7, Psalm 102:2, Genesis 32:6-12

Application

We don’t have priests offering animal sacrifices to seal the covenant (v.5) but a New Covenant in Christ Jesus, sealed in His blood. So is God still a God of righteous justice, experienced in wrath as well as love, whose presence can be fire and storm as well as shekinah glory, intimacy and peace?

In churches where it is usual for members to be admitted on the basis of having a story of their personal encounter with Jesus and perhaps making the choice to be baptised as a believer, public confession of sin is generally de-emphasised and sometimes left out altogether. The sense of being called together to be accountable to God in His righteousness comes as a challenge to what can become a casual approach to worship, lacking in awe and reverence.

Many liturgical churches do have confession of sin, often at the start of a service as a ‘first things first’ statement, and reflections of self-examination e.g. in the prayer of Humble Accession. The danger here is not a lack of reverence, but rather an unhelpful reinforcement of unworthiness and condemnation which is not what the Father wants for His children, Romans 8:1-2.

However, seasons of reflection, encounter and repentance are often times when God speaks prophetically to encourage His people. Where the experience of God’s leading, answered prayer and hearing His voice is diminished, these few verses offer a remedy. Allow God to be the just judge and so discover what is wrong.

For reflection and discussion

How do we, post-resurrection and relating to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, celebrate and renew our covenant relationship with Him? What does God really want from us?

For further study, read the whole of Psalm 50 and the passages on ‘insincere sacrifices’ in Isaiah 1:11, Amos 4:4, Micah 6:6-8; NT and post-resurrection perspective Luke 22:20, Galatians 4:6.

 

Heaven meets earth as Moses and Elijah meet with the transfigured Jesus

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 7
Mark 9:2-9

Heaven appears to those on earth at the transfiguration of Jesus

This event follows a week or so after the Feeding of the Five Thousand and Peter’s declaration, in answer to Jesus’ question, “You are the Christ!”. Jesus teaches the disciples about self-denial and His coming rejection and death at the hands of the religious leaders – and also resurrection. He tells them that some will live to see the kingdom of God come in power – possibly what follows next, but more likely the pivotal point of His death, the Resurrection, Ascension and then the Pentecost outpouring. Three disciples accompany him up the mountain where they experience the dazzling glory of God which gives them an insight into heavenly events that accompany what happens on earth.

2  After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them.

“A high mountain” – unknown, but possibly Mount Hermon, although tradition points to Mount Tabor.

3  His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.

This radiant glory is a glimpse into the ‘other world’ of Jesus, who set aside His divine nature so that He could incarnate God for us by being born as man, Philippians 2:6-7. However, this glimpse is a reminder that in the background to the incarnation, Jesus always was, and is, fully God – and therefore almost impossible to see in the brightness of the glory surrounding Him.

4  And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Elijah and Moses had both individually met with God on Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Horeb. The only other place in Scripture where Moses and Elijah are mentioned together, is at the finale of the OT in the passage about turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, Malachi 4:4-6.

For further study, read Exodus 24, 1 Kings 19:8-18

5  Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Peter may have reacted unthinkingly in line with the tradition of the Feast of Tabernacles, Leviticus 23:42. Despite having in the past week recognised Jesus as Messiah, he is confused at this point and treats them all as equals.

6  (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Elijah, representing the Prophets, and Moses, representing the Law, are talking with Jesus, demonstrating the Jesus is greater than either of them and representing the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, 1 Kings 19:8, Exodus 24:1, 9.

7  Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Cloud symbolises God’s presence in protecting and guiding, Exodus 16:10, 24:15-18, 33:9-10

“Listen” carries the meaning of willingness to act on what is heard.

8  Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9  As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

“Son of Man” is the title Jesus most often applied to Himself and not used by anyone else. It is a messianic title and a response to Peter, who has just acclaimed Him as the Christ (or Messiah). The Son of Man in Daniel is a heavenly figure who is given glory, authority and sovereign power by God, Daniel 7:13-14.

After the resurrection was the time for the disciples to tell everyone – when Jesus’ finished work had been demonstrated.

Application

God speaks to us – but the lesson of this event is that He speaks of what we are ready to believe. He speaks into our readiness to hear. In this instance, Peter, James and John were a little inner circle among the twelve disciples. Among the first to be called, they were possibly at a slightly higher level of faith than the others at this point. Peter, who was on one hand quick to receive, but on the other not so good at consolidating it or processing it, has already come out with his “You are the Christ!” statement.

Our heartfelt expression of praise for who God is – not to be confused with thanksgiving for what He has done – is for us a way into God’s presence and encountering Him. We need to put down whatever else we may be carrying, and bring our faith to focus on the might, majesty, mercy and mystery of God, as transcendent and “other”.

God is also immanent, meaning evident and involved in our world, incarnated in Jesus and in a lesser way, incarnated in all of us who carry the smile and the love of Jesus around with us. But the Transfiguration showed the window of heaven being momentarily opened – and in that, God is “other” and awesome.

For reflection or discussion

This was an encounter with God beyond the scope of imagining for most of us. Could you imagine being in a situation where you draw so near to God that His glory becomes real to you?

How the good news is kept hidden by ‘the god of this world’

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 8
2 Cor. 4:3-6

Heaven’s strategy in the good news of Jesus is contrasted with scheme that the god of this age, the devil, operates

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.

  • Earlier Paul talked about people whose minds were unreceptive and hearts veiled, in their attitude of turning away from God and so unable to hear His call or let it reach their hearts. Only in Christ, in other words whenever someone turns to the Lord, is this religious blindness removed. The Holy Spirit gives a freedom to see differently – and spiritually. Before we turn to trust Jesus and allow Him to be Lord of our lives, the good news is confusing and even a bit threatening. The moment we ask Him in, a change occurs in us (“the veil is taken away”) and suddenly what was confusing becomes clear – and a truly exciting discovery. Paul sets out this transition in the preceding verses, 1 Cor 3:14-17.
  • “Our gospel” is the gospel that Paul proclaims – Jesus Christ crucified who is Lord – and that he seeks to live out and make authentic as a Christlike servant.

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

  • Some people find it difficult to believe that there is a real and spiritually active devil setting out to spoil all that God purposes for good. The Bible here explains clearly that we have a personal opponent, Satan, called here the “god of this age” because he exercises dominion in those who allow him to. His major work is keeping people blinded to the truth about Jesus – and the truth about his existence and activities. Turning humbly to Jesus and asking Him to be your Lord is a move he will resist and tell you not to make – but it is a stepping into the light where what was seen dimly becomes distinct (explained further in verse 6, below).

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.

  • Paul is following a radically different path from his self-promoting opponents, 2 Cor. 11:4

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

  • The light of God’s Spirit that comes into our hearts not only gives us a different means of understanding – revelation – but it is also an attractive light that can be perceived by others, the life of Jesus in us, verse 10, which is clearly not an earned attribute, verse 7.
Application

This seems to be Paul’s comment on people who don’t understand the good news of redemption that He is preaching, the truth that is “set forth plainly” in the words of the verse preceding this passage. They are unbelievers, so they are just not getting it.

That doesn’t inform us much about the problem, except perhaps to find more opportunities to preach and a more persuasive method – a man-centred solution. It has been tried, over the centuries, and the 16th-century persecutions of anyone deemed to be an ‘unbeliever’ added to the ranks of martyrs in a variety of horrible ways.

Paul gives us a much better answer in verse 4, where the apistoi, unbelieving ones, cannot see the light. The words are words, but the Word, Jesus Christ the image of God, is like light penetrating and bringing vision. This is not about the knowledge of the gospel of Christ, a mental/intellectual process. It is about the revelation of the gospel, a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, or inner being.

In May 1739 John Wesley, an Oxford graduate, knew all about the gospel and had spent time in Savannah, a new American colony – with spectacularly disappointing results. Back in London and visiting the Moravian chapel in Aldersgate Street, on the east side of the City of London, he heard the reading of the beginning of John’s gospel – and had an encounter with God where in his words his “heart was strangely warmed”. The rest, as they say, is history. It is a vivid illustration of the difference between knowing what the Bible says and receiving what the Bible says, as a spiritual transaction of the heart. It is salutary to note that Wesley returned with his pride and self-sufficiency broken – and so then God could meet with him. Pride, of the Pharisees and other religious Jews, got Paul beaten up, thrown out and slandered in place after place. Pride is what keeps the veil in place and the heart untouched. Turning in need to God, believing with the belief you have, is what removes the veil and allows the spiritual light to reveal the reality of Christ.

This insight from the Bible of what keeps people from a personal, heart faith in God shows us how to disrupt the strategy of the devil to keep people blind to their need of God and the light that is from God.

For reflection or discussion

Where are you, along the line from a closed-mind unbeliever to a person of strong and open faith in God? Where are there pockets of ‘unbelieving’ which give the god of this world opportunities to block the light to that part of your heart?

The connection between the heavenly realm and life on earth

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 9
Recap, reflection – and the message that emerges

2 Kings 2: 1-12

Elisha succeeds Elijah, in a demonstration of utter reliance on the Lord and His anointing

Reflection 1: How do you work out the partnership between what God has made you uniquely capable of doing, and what He is uniquely able to do? What might Elisha’s example be teaching us in this?

Psalm 50:1-6

God calls the consecrated people to the court of His covenant – both heaven and earth together

Reflection 2: How do we, post-resurrection and relating to God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, celebrate and renew our covenant relationship with Him? What does God really want from us?

For further study, read the whole of Psalm 50 and the passages on ‘insincere sacrifices’ in Isaiah 1:11, Amos 4:4, Micah 6:6-8; NT and post-resurrection perspective Luke 22:20, Galatians 4:6.

Mark 9:2-9

Heaven appears to those on earth at the transfiguration of Jesus

Reflection 3: This was an encounter with God beyond the scope of imagining for most of us. Could you imagine being in a situation where you draw near to God and His glory becomes real to you?

2 Cor. 4:3-6

Heaven’s strategy in the good news of Jesus is contrasted with scheme that the god of this age, the devil, operates

Reflection 4: Where are you, along the line from a closed-mind unbeliever to a person of strong and open faith in God? Where are there pockets of ‘unbelieving’ which give the god of this world opportunities to block the light to that part of your heart?

The emerging message – how heaven and earth are connected

Although three of the readings show us how “God shines forth” in dazzling light, a light that shines in hearts to reveal the glory of Jesus, the real message that emerges is the close connection between the affairs of heaven and earth. How do we understand it, and how do we work with it?

It’s an important question. The lack of understanding of the interactions of heaven and earth, the spiritual world and our victories and setbacks, has left us, Jesus’ church, a lot less effective for Him than we should be.

The four strands of this teaching on interaction start with utter reliance on God in the handoff by Elijah to his pupil Elisha – the power and right to confer it belonged to God alone.

Psalm 50 teaches us about covenant and, unusually in a psalm where usually man speaks to God, God speaks to man about the responsibilities of covenant relationship and being ready to be called to account – for reward or for rebuke.

The Transfiguration is where we see the interaction most closely, as it seems that the top of the mountain is a ‘thin place’, so thin that Moses and Elijah are instantly recognisable conversing with Jesus in a scene that is both heavenly and earthly. This tells us that heaven is a real ‘place’, with real people. In heaven there are actions and conversations that impact ours, on earth. It’s not too big a jump to see behind the scene a strategy – and if we can join in that strategy, making our moves in step with heaven, that is a covenant relationship to strike fear into the devil and his minions.

That is really the point Paul is making in his second Corinthian letter. Not only has righteous heaven a plan and purpose being worked out, so the enemy of souls has a scheme. It’s always the same scheme – to keep people in fear, confusion and spiritual blindness. Knowing that scheme is the key to overcoming the scheme.

Many of us have grown up with the perception that there is a heaven, a kind of spiritual layer ‘above’, and we know all about the human realm on earth. We have believed that between these there is an ‘excluded middle’ like thick insulation keeping the two apart.

The reality is that the separation is caused by man’s pride and sin, but God’s mercy and our standing in Christ is such that we can bring the two back into a measure of connection by our praise, devotion, and especially repentance. Having an awareness of how the connection works, is a large part of making that connection. And that is where the kingdom of God, the major theme of Jesus’ teaching, begins to be manifest.