Over the past few weeks, Monty has been taking us through the timeline of Jesus’ ministry. As we begin to draw near to the end, we find Jesus anxious for his disciples to really get him – to understand what he is trying to tell them about who he is and what his mission is. But honestly, they were pretty slow to get it. This was so much not what they were expecting, and they kept trying to fit Jesus into what they know, but it just didn’t work.
In Luke chapter 9, verses 28-36, we find a story of Jesus inviting his inner circle of disciples to join him in his intimate time with God.
Luke 9 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
As is often the case, we see several different attitudes in this story. It should not surprise us that Jesus humbled himself by going to the mountain to pray. This was his quiet time, away from the chatter of the world, to reconnect with his Father. The demands of his work and the people that surrounded him threatened to draw him away. That’s why we find so many times in Scripture that Jesus goes away by himself to pray.
And early in the morning, while it was still dark, He arose and went out and departed to a lonely place, and was praying there. (Mark 1:35)
And immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side to Bethsaida, while He Himself was sending the multitude away. And after bidding them farewell, he departed to the mountain to pray. (Mark 6:45-46)
And they came to a place called Gethsemane; and He said to His disciples, “Sit here until I have prayed.” And He took with Him Peter and James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled. And He said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved to the point of death; remain here and keep watch.” And He went a little beyond them, and fell to the ground, and began praying. (Mark 14:32-34)
But He Himself would often slip away to the wilderness and pray. (Luke 5:16)
And it was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)
Jesus’ prayer time was a time when he humbled himself to his father’s will. And usually, this happened alone. This time, though, he humbled himself even more by inviting Peter, James and John.
These three were known as the inner circle, because these were the three disciples that Jesus invested a majority of his time and energy in. Though originally just ordinary fishermen, they answered Jesus’ call and followed him. They spent their days and nights with him, trying to understand how he did what he did. These are the three that Jesus is hanging his hopes of the ministry continuing on. He loves these three so much that he invites them to join him in one of his most private moments – his prayer time. He wanted to move them deeper. He wanted them to understand not only how he did what he did, but who he really was.
While Jesus was busy humbling himself in prayer and inviting his three beloved friends to join him in his private time, God began to exalt him. His true glory began to show, and his physical appearance was changed to reflect that glory. We are told that “his face changed and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” This is a reminder to the disciples, as well as to us today, that Jesus was 100% God and 100% man. It baffles our human brains, but it’s the truth. We read in Colossians 2:9 “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.”
So Jesus was now fully in his glory as Moses and Elijah appeared and he began a conversation with them. Out of all the great saints in heaven, why would Jesus be talking with Moses and Elijah? Because God was exalting Jesus by setting him higher even than these great men of old. Throughout Jewish history, because of the way God used him in getting the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, Moses has represented the Law. But God says Jesus is greater than the law. And Elijah was a dynamic prophet whose name came to represent all prophets, from the beginning even through the end in Revelation. But God says Jesus is greater than the prophets. God specifically chose Moses and Elijah so that he could exalt Jesus.
Even in this time of God’s grace being bestowed on him, Luke tells us that Jesus was still completely focused on his mission, talking with Moses and Elijah about the departure from this world that was imminent on him. He knew his time is short, for he had just recently told his disciples clearly that he would be killed and raised on the third day. This was the primary thought on his mind and is what he was discussing with Moses and Elijah when the disciples woke up. When they realized what they were seeing, Peter didn’t want this to end and he really didn’t know what else to do, so he suggested that they build three dwellings. But God stepped in, for although Moses and Elijah were great men of God, Jesus is so different that God refuses to allow the impulsive Peter to unknowingly make them equal by building equal dwellings for them.
God doesn’t do things halfway, and so before this encounter was over, he had enveloped them all in his cloud. Many times in the Bible, we read of God being present among his people in a cloud. In Exodus 13, God guided the Israelites with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. In Exodus 24, God called Moses into the cloud on Mt. Sinai. In 2 Chronicles 5, the cloud of God’s presence covers the temple in response to the praise of his people. Even in the New Testament, we are told of the cloud of witness in Hebrews and Jesus is said to be coming again in the clouds. There is no doubt that this was the manifestation of God’s glory in this moment for the disciples.
And from that cloud, God exalted Jesus by speaking about him, saying, “This is my son, whom I have chosen.” We heard this before at Jesus’ baptism. There can be no doubt that Jesus is God’s son and that God has a special plan for him. God wanted to make sure these disciples really get it. Then he added, “Listen to him.” Three simple but powerful words. God was encouraging the disciples to pay close attention to what Jesus has to say, because he doesn’t always offer easy teachings, and his teachings are so different from the status quo that they are often misunderstood. But God certainly used this time to exalt Jesus.
In the meantime, we see through the disciples, a typical human attitude in reaction to this amazing encounter. To begin with, their physical needs trumped everything else, as they fell asleep while Jesus was praying. In their defense, I don’t think they felt this was another humdrum day with Jesus, with thoughts of, “Can you believe this guy? He takes so long to pray!” going through their heads. They simply didn’t know how to control their impulses. When they woke up to see Jesus shining and speaking with Moses and Elijah, they probably wondered if they were still dreaming. Because you see, even though these were the guys closest to Jesus, and even though he has been speaking very clearly with them, Jesus’ message was so out of the ordinary that the disciples were just beginning to comprehend it.
Realizing that they were in fact fully awake and witnessing a touch of God, Peter couldn’t resist. He just had to do something. So he said, “Let’s build some dwellings.” This word can also be translated “booths.” Peter here is probably hearkening back to the Feast of Booths, which was a festival set by God, when the Israelites commemorated their ancestors who should have died in the dessert, but were divinely saved and guided into the Promised Land. This festival also focused the Israelites on the need to trust God and on the future joy of God’s coming Kingdom. This seemed to Peter like an appropriate time to celebrate!
He wanted to honor these three great men of God, and didn’t think about the ramifications of what he proposed. He might not even have realized yet that Jesus was in fact greater than Moses and Elijah, for these two were touted in all the Jewish thought as the great prophets of old. But Jesus is more than just a prophet, which Peter was to see soon enough. Peter was trying to maintain some control over what seemed to human eyes to be an out of control experience.
Jesus had devoted himself to his disciples, especially to these three for almost three years at this point. He hoped that they could come to terms with this new revelation of his glory. Although they had been with him for years, he wanted them to be so saturated with his presence that they not only called his mission their own, but that they became like him. And when God enveloped them in his cloud – the God cloud that all good Jews knew about – then left along with Moses and Elijah, the disciples were stunned into silence. This was such a powerful encounter that they needed to contemplate it for a long time. It wasn’t until after the death and resurrection of Jesus that they began to tell others what happened.
You see, Jesus didn’t bring them with him so they could talk. He didn’t bring them with him so they could build. He simply wanted them to be with him.
Certainly, there is plenty of time to do for Jesus. In the early parts of this very chapter, we see Jesus sending the disciples out to “proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” In John chapter 21 we find Jesus telling the Simon Peter, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
But just as important as doing for him is simply being with him. We sometimes don’t put as much value on the being with. After all, we’ve been told “quality time” – what you do with a person – more important than “quantity time” – being with another. I’m here to tell you, there is value in both. When I was in the emergency room awaiting an appendectomy, my poor husband desperately wanted to do something to make me feel better. I hope he understood that what really helped me feel better was the simple fact that he was there with me.
As Christians, we consider ourselves Jesus’ disciples. But a disciple is not one who sits in a classroom an hour a week, then goes out on his own, doing things his own way. A disciple is one who walks with the master, learning what drives him, what he is like when the crowds aren’t around and strives to be like him. God doesn’t want us to only do what Jesus did. He wants us to be who he is – the human Jesus, not the God Jesus, that is.
It is in those quiet times alone with God when he has called us out and said “come here. Just be with me for a little bit” that we are overwhelmed with his love and are refreshed and then able to go carry out his mission. Just as Peter needed to stop thinking about how he could make this better and simply enjoy his exclusive audience at Jesus’ time of glory realizing that as he did he was understanding Jesus that much better, so too we need to have regular times of being in Jesus’ presence, drawing close to him, seeing him more clearly, and being saturated in the love that is Jesus.