What is worship? Peter learns something about that on the Mount of Transfiguration.

One day before Jesus dies he takes three of his disciples up to the top of a mountain. God’s presence envelopes them, Jesus is seen transformed with glory emanating from his physical body – the glory he has today at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and the disciples do not die! In this account from Peter, we learn that they experience worship, and that that worship gives them a real taste of the love of God in a way that readies them for the difficult tasks ahead.

This event has always intrigued me, but if I am honest, it has always left me with bewilderment. Peter references this event in his second Epistle, 2 Peter, when he says they were eye witnesses to his glory. What did Peter learn from this event? Why does he reference this in his Epistle? Below is Mark’s account from Peter of what happens to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and some helpful commentary-like notes explaining what happened – Mark 9:2-8:

[2] And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, [3] and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. [4] And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. [5] And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” [6] For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. [7] And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” [8] And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

Summary quotes from Chapter 10 in King’s Cross, by Tim Keller, explaining this Transfiguration event:

Moses had reflected the glory of God as the moon reflects the light of the sun (Exodus 33:18–23). But Jesus produces the unsurpassable glory of God; it emanates from him… Something else happens here that never happened on Mount Sinai—Peter, James, and John are in the presence of God and yet they do not die.

“Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” That’s Mark’s way of saying: Moses is gone, Elijah is gone, and Jesus is the bridge over the gap between God and humanity. Jesus is able to give what Elijah couldn’t give, what Moses couldn’t give, what no one else could ever deliver. Through Jesus, we can cross the gap into the very heart of reality, into the steps of the dance. Jesus is the temple and tabernacle to end all temples and tabernacles [i.e. Peter’s response to build tabernacles for each], because he is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the ultimate priest to point the way for all priests.

When the cloud comes down, not only do the disciples not die, they are surrounded and embraced by the brilliance of God. They hear God the Father speaking of his love for the Son, just as he did when Jesus was baptized at the beginning of Mark. Then suddenly the cloud goes away, and they are left standing there blinking in the comparatively dim light of the mountaintop, in a state of electrified wonder. James, Peter, and John have experienced worship. Worship is a preview of the thing that all of our hearts are longing for, whether we know it or not… Worship is not just believing. Before they went up the mountain, Peter, James, and John already believed in God. And Peter had already said, “You are the Christ.” But now they have sensed it. The presence of God has enveloped them. They have had a foretaste of what Lewis says all of us are longing for: the very face and embrace of God.

When Jesus was baptized in the opening chapter of Mark, the Spirit descended on him like a dove, and it fortified him to begin teaching and healing publicly. Now the Father envelops him with his presence—the light and the shekinah glory and the voice—to fortify him for the far greater test that awaits him as he moves resolutely toward his execution on the cross. And it’s not only Jesus who is strengthened by the experience: God is also preparing the disciples for the test they will face when their leader is taken from them.

Have you ever had that kind of experience? When the compassion and love of another person helped you deal with your suffering? When someone’s unconditional approval and encouragement transformed your fear into resolve? When an encounter with beauty seemed to neutralize your anxiety and give you hope?

But here’s the question: How are you going to get more of that kind of approval, that kind of encouragement, that kind of love, without burning out your friends and family with your neediness? The answer for us, as it was for the disciples, is worship.

It’s one thing to know that the glorious Creator God loves you, cares for you, holds you, but it’s another thing to sense it, to experience it. Whatever life brings you, you will need those foretastes to nourish and strengthen you. The transfiguration is not just a miraculous parlor trick to convince the disciples of Jesus’s deity. It is an experience of collective worship that they are going to need for what’s ahead.

But we cannot leave this scene without an acute awareness of what Jesus is about to lose. He has lived for endless ages in glory with the Father. On the mountain we see Jesus surrounded by God; on the cross he will be forsaken. On the mountain we see the life he has always led—embraced and clothed with the love and light of God—but on the cross he will be naked in the dark. Why did Jesus put himself through that? He did it for us. Paul tells us clearly that evil is unmasked and defeated on our behalf at the cross. He writes in his letter to the church at Colossae that Jesus “disarmed the power and authorities . . . triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15).

When you have pursued God in repentant helplessness [i.e. like the father in Mark’s next scene asking Jesus to heal his son], you will have worshipped. And every time you sense his embrace, your soul will shine the slightest bit brighter with his reflected glory, and you will be the slightest bit more ready to face what life has in store for you.

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