The Jesus I Never Knew

They say you never get a second chance at a first impression. But first impressions can sometimes be rather superficial. And that is also true when people think of Jesus. What were your first impressions of Jesus? 

My first memory of Jesus was around the age of six when I first attended Sunday School. I remember two things: Singing the chorus, “Jesus loves me this I know…” and a large painting of Jesus on the wall. Jesus was holding a lamb in his arms surrounded by lots of little children my age – except strangely unlike my Sunday school class, they were all different colours. There was an African child, a Chinese child, an Indian child, a Native American child and many others that were different to me. But I do remember, reassuringly that Jesus had long golden hair and a blond European complexion. My first memories were of a white Jesus and for many of us that is our unconscious default view we carry we carry with us through life. Comforting it may be until we encounter someone with a different religious heritage.  William Blake described the dilemma we face. 

“The vision of Christ that thou doest see
Is my vision’s greatest enemy;
Thine has a great hooked nose like thine,
Mine has a snub nose like to mine…
Both read the Bible day and night,
But thou read’st black where I read white.”

As a child I encountered a ‘white’ Jesus. In my teenager years, I was introduced to the Jesus of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus became ‘golden’. Then at university I was introduced to the radical Jesus portrayed like Che Guevara. This was a ‘red’ Jesus. At theological college I discovered the ‘black’ Jesus of Liberation Theology and still later the ‘green’ Jesus of the ecology movement. Then there’s been the irreverent depictions of Jesus in Daniel Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code – this we might call the ‘blue’ Jesus.

But maybe you don’t identify with any of these representations of Jesus. “I’ll stick with the Bible” you may say. That’s fine, but if Jesus came back today would you recognise him? The Disciples didn’t even just a few days after his death on the cross. What about Mary in the Garden on Easter Day? At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.” (John 20:14). What about the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus? Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.” (Luke 24:15-16). They were walking beside Jesus, yet they did not recognize him? And what about the disciples in the Upper Room? “While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.” (Luke 24:36-37). Why? Why did the disciples not recognize Jesus? Here’s a clue from Philippians 2.

“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a human being, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8)

Jesus laid aside his majesty to become a human being. After his death and resurrection, while Jesus still bore the scars of his crucifixion, he resumed his rightful place, as Paul continues in his letter to the Philippians,

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (Philippians 2:9-10)

This was the same person, the same Jesus before and after his death and resurrection, but his appearance was now different. The Jesus we will meet one day will be revealed in all his glory and majesty, in all his power and authority. He will not appear as he did in the Gospels. In the Book of Revelation, the Apostle John describes his vision of the Lord Jesus:

”I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned, I saw … someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.” (Revelation 1:12-15)

This is the Jesus who is coming soon. This is the Jesus we will meet one day. We will see him as he really is. And if like me you find that image unsettling – we are not alone. How did the Apostle John respond to his vision? 

“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18)

One of the most helpful books about Mark’s gospel I have read is by Mark Galli, “Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God”. John Ortberg writes, “I want to know this Jesus, though he scares me a little.” I have to confess he scare me more than a little. So how do we fit together the Jesus of the Gospels with the Jesus of Revelation? The historical Jesus and the cosmic Jesus? The earthly Jesus and the heavenly Jesus?  In our reading from Matthew 17, we find some answers. I’ve entitles these verses “The Jesus I never knew”.  

I’ve broken this passage into four events.
Jesus’ Transfiguration (17:1-3)
Peter’s Suggestion (17:4)
The Father’s Endorsement (17:5)
The Disciple’s Response (17:6-9)

1. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch! 

“After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.” (Matthew 17:1-3)

We don’t know which mountain this was but it doesn’t matter. Notice the similarities with John’s depiction of Jesus? “As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.” (Luke 9:29). Matthew says “His face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). Mark adds, “His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.” (Mark 9:3). This is the real Jesus. The Jesus they never knew before. Why do Moses and Elijah appear? What did they discuss with Jesus? Luke tells us it concerned “his departure which he was about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31). 

The word ‘departure’ means ‘Exodus’. Moses and Elijah both played an important role in God’s redemptive plan.

Moses looked back to the Exodus and God’s promise of deliverance. Elijah looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promise in the future. The exodus of Jesus – his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven would be no accident but the fulfillment of the plan and purposes of God. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch!

2. Peter’s Suggestion – Wait!

“Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Matthew 17:4)

Peter probably had in mind the Feast of Tabernacles.

People would construct a temporary shelter on their roof to re-live the experience of their ancestors in the wilderness. Luke adds “He [Peter] did not know what he was saying.” (Luke 9:33)

3. Father’s Endorsement – Listen! 

“While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”(Matthew 17:5)

The cloud was the shekinah glory of God. The same pillar of cloud that led God’s people through the wilderness (Exodus 13). God was present with them in the cloud.  

This is the second time God the Father spoke audibly about His Son. At his baptism, the words of the Father were for Jesus “You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22). On this occasion, the words were for the disciples. This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5)

The point is this. There is no equality between Jesus and Moses or Elijah. In a day of toleration when many want to build booths for all the great religious leaders, it is timely to remember that there is no equality between Jesus and Moses or Mohamed or Buddah. Later, after the resurrection, the disciples would understand that Jesus is unique.

Jesus is Superior to Moses
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” (Hebrews 1:1-2)

Jesus has Superseded Moses
“By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Hebrews 8:13)

Jesus was the Saviour of Moses
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14-15)

This is why we too must listen carefully to the words of Jesus. Jesus’ Transfiguration – Watch!  Peter’s Suggestion – Wait! The Father’s Endorsement – Listen! 

4. The Disciple’s Response – Learn! 

“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Matthew 17:6-9)

They were stunned by this mountain top experience. The Jesus they never knew had revealed something of his glory and they were in awe. They were beginning to understand who Jesus is, but they as yet did not understand why he came – hence Jesus command to tell no one about what they had seen. Their view of Jesus was still evolving. In the transfiguration of Jesus we learn about a unique event in which the eternal glory of Jesus was revealed. But it is also a paradigm of what happens when we see Jesus for who he really is. 

For when we encounter the real Jesus, we too are transformed – in fact. transfigured. The very word used to describe the transfiguration of the Son of God is the same word used to describe what happens to us when we trust in Jesus.

“And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 – see also Romans 12:2)

The Apostle Paul confesses that a genuine encounter with Jesus will also radically change the way we view other people. 

“So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” 
(2 Corinthians 5:16-18)

Transformed and transforming.  Typically we make judgements about people based on their age, their colour, their shape, their accent, clothing, postcode. But this is shallow and superficial. We are created in the image of God to live in eternity. And while our earthly body is wearing out, the inner person is being renewed daily. 
This is why the Paul writes,

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)  

So which Jesus are you trusting in? Which Jesus are you depending on? Which Jesus are you one day going to meet? The Jesus of your childhood? The Jesus of your imagination? The Jesus of contemporary culture? or the real Jesus, the Jesus revealed in our Bible passage today? Let me close by reading again those verses from 2 Corinthians: 

“Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)  

Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion

  1. How has this passage changed or shaped your view of Jesus? 
  2. What does the transfiguration of Jesus in Matthew 17 tell us about the Jesus revealed in the Gospels and in Revelation? 
  3. What are the similarities and differences between the transfiguration of Jesus and of the believer? (See 2 Corinthians 3:18 and Romans 12:2)
  4. Reflect on 17:6-7. What do they teach us about how we should respond to the Lord Jesus? 
  5. How important is listening to Jesus in your life? 
  6. What changes do you think are needed in your life to give the words of Jesus more prominence?

Recommended Reading on the Gospel of Matthew

R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans)
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew (IVP)
J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Matthew (Revival)

An Invitation

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“The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)