Written By: M. Thaxter Dickey
Jesus was transfigured on a mountain, and we are like Peter, who requested the building of three tabernacles because “he knew not what to say.” There are remarkable things about this incident which ought to cause us to fall silent; however, the incident is recorded for our benefit, so let us respectfully consider its meaning (Matthew 17:1–13; Mark 9:2–8; Luke 9:28–36)
To understand the transfiguration we must understand its timing. It is connected to the earlier announcement of His death by all three evangelists. The clearest account is in Matthew 16 where we read of Peter’s confession that the Jesus is the Christ and the revelation following it that even though He is the Messiah He must suffer and die. This is so traumatic that Peter denies it, “God forbid!” and is rebuked by the Lord. This connection to the transfiguration is even clearer when we note that the theme of the discussion between Jesus and Moses and Elijah is His death.
Luke tells us that Jesus’ purpose in going onto the mountain was to pray. He prayed, then He was transfigured. Was the transfiguration an answer to the prayer?” Did the prayer concern His death? The circumstances are very similar to those in the Garden of Gethsemane: He was alone except for three disciples. He was thinking about His death. He prayed. The apostles, who should have prayed too, were heavy with sleep. (How many times did it happen that Jesus prayed and they slept?) There follows a heavenly ministration. Thus the transfiguration serves to strengthen Him for what is to come. But perhaps it is as much for the disciples as for Him. Did He not pray for them as well?
While He prayed He was transfigured. The writers struggle to make sense of it. His countenance was changed, but how? The best they can do is speak of the light. His face shone like the sun. His clothes are white and glistening, whiter than any launderer could get them, whiter than snow. All the cliches are used, but none match the reality. Whatever it was, its impact was tremendous for it is this incident that Peter recalls years later when he argues that we did not follow cleverly devised fables but were eye witnesses of His majesty (2 Peter 1:16–18).
Two men talk with Him. Moses and Elijah are, respectively, the representatives of the law and the prophets from which we learn of the Christ and of which He is the culmination. And what is the theme of the discussion? His death. There were other possible topics of discussion: ancient days, the celestial heavens. But it is the work of redemption that Jesus was about to accomplish that they discussed. And what greater theme than that? Indeed angels desired to look into it (1 Peter 1:16). With what trivialities we fill our days, when we could discuss this theme as well.
The transfiguration provides three aids to the Son of Man as He faces His self-sacrifice:
1) A foretaste of glory divine (Hebrews 12:2).
2) An assurance that heaven is interested in these things.
3) The approval of the Father.
But perhaps more importantly it strengthens the apostles who were having difficulty adjusting to the idea of a suffering Savior. Even if the three apostles were not permitted to tell of the event (and probably they couldn’t have communicated it accurately if they’d tried), the change in their demeanor brought about by this event would encourage the others as well.
Peter answered, but no one had said anything to him. He is the kind of person who always has to say something. “It is good to be here,” he says. What he means is that it is better to be here on the mountain of glory than at the cross of suffering. He almost implies again what he had said on the plains of Caesarea. “God forbid,” he had said then and now he says, “Let us build three tents.” “And stay here longer” is the implication. He expresses what they all feel. We long for the moment to continue. Who would not?
But they are overshadowed by a bright cloud. The cloud is always a symbol of the divine presence, especially this bright cloud, which is reminiscent of the pillar of fire by night and cloud by day that preceded the Israelites in the wilderness. No wonder they feared as they entered the cloud. God speaks, “Hear Him,” and they fall over. How long till they were raised by the reassuring words and touch of the Lord and started down the mountain?
They cannot remain on the mountain of glory. There will be no tents. But the apostles can’t let it go: “Don’t the prophets say that Elijah should come first and restore all things?” They expected him to come and stay and transform society. They looked for an easier way. But the work of salvation is not easy and we cannot grow weary in well doing (Galatians 6:9). Even the Lord was so tempted when He came down and said, “How long shall I bear with you” (Matthew 17:17). But strengthened by the transfiguration, He pressed forward to accomplish His work. So did the apostles. And so must we.
Originally appeared in the July 1996 issue of Christianity Magazine.
Fundamentals of Faith
Faith and Baptism
When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, many listened and believed. Convicted of their sins, they asked a logical question: “What shall we do to be saved?” This question was an exercise of the faith they had after hearing the word preached (Romans 10:17). They believed and wanted to submit to whatever God command them to do. Peter told them to repent and be baptized for remission of sins. “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them” (see Acts 2:37–41). These people were saved by faith.
Some theologians argue with this analysis. Since they view baptism as a work of law they contend that teaching the necessity of baptism is something akin to teaching salvation by works of law. They see but two alternatives: one is either justified by perfect performance of law or one is saved without reference to anything he does. Since the first is ruled out by passages like Galatians 2:16, they declare the second the only possible alternative: salvation comes by grace through faith only. Though this assertion fails to address the fact that even basic faith is doing something (Jesus calls it the “work of God” in John 6:29), they are resolute in their assertion of the dilemma and proceed to discard baptism as an unnecessary addition to God’s plan.
Is there such a dilemma? “Our problem is that Augustine, Luther and other Western theologians have convinced us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation conditioned on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as the ‘false dilemma,’ by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either (1) a gift from God or (2) it’s something we earn by works.” (David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up? Scroll Publishing Co., Waco, TX, p. 62).
Bercot’s right. The false dilemma has caused many to struggle with the place of baptism in a system of salvation that is clearly based on faith (Romans 1:17; 3:21–26). Yet there is no contradiction between justification by faith (trusting submission to the will of God) and the requirement to be baptized. Baptism is no more foreign to the concept of faith than Abel’s offering a sacrifice (Hebrews 11:4) or Noah’s building of the ark (Hebrews 11:7) or Abraham’s “going out” (Hebrews 11:8). Who would question the act if the texts said, “by faith, Noah, being divinely warned, was baptized for remission of his sins”? And no reasonable person would argue that Noah still exercised a saving faith if, being divinely warned, he refused to be baptized? Even if called “faith,” it would have been no more effective that the faith that devils practice (James 2:19).
Baptism is so clearly a part of the plan of God to save man that Peter says “baptism now saves us” (1 Peter 3:21), Paul ascribes the clothing of ourselves with Christ to it (Galations 3:26–27) and Paul makes our union with Christ dependent upon it (Romans 6:1–7). How can anyone assert that it is not essential?
Ironically, some opponents of the necessity of baptism have proved it’s significance by the form of arguments they lodge against it. For example, A. T. Robertson, in his Word Pictures in the New Testament, makes this comment on Romans. 6:3: “The translation ‘into’ makes Paul say that the believers union with Christ was effected by baptism.” His bias doesn’t allow him to accept the translation, but the translators of nearly every version have chosen “into” to translate the Greek term.
For another example, the Campus Crusade for Christ seeks to undermine the effect of Acts 2:37–38 with these comments in a paper entitled “Bible Study on Water Baptism”: “It is true that Peter tells them to be baptized. However, his sermon in Acts 2 is probably not a part of the original sermon.” In case that doesn’t work, they try this: “it seems possible that if the people hadn’t asked ‘what shall we do?’ (not ‘what must we do’ as in Acts 16:30) that Peter may never have mentioned baptism at all!” And that’s meant to convince college students! I hope they can see through that.
Clearly, baptism is an essential act of faith. Those who say otherwise have an agenda that is not from the Lord.
The Nature of Faith and Evidence
Contrary to what some think, faith and evidence are in harmony with each other. God does not ask us to believe Him in spite of evidence to the contrary. He wants us to consider the evidence and make a decision to put our faith in Him based upon that evidence (e.g., Matt. 11:2–6). It is our purpose in these articles to overview some of the evidences God has provided. First, we want to think about the nature of evidence and faith.
What Is Evidence?
“Evidence” is proof that helps to establish something as valid. It helps us to form a proper conclusion about a matter. The type of evidences to which we appeal are not scientific. For something to properly belong to science, it should be observable, repeatable, and testable. This excludes unique, historical events. Science is limited. There are matters of science that have a bearing upon the Bible, but these cannot directly test the historical events.
The kind of evidence to which we appeal is historical. Historical evidence involves data such as eyewitnesses, written documents, and archaeological finds. Historical data leads us to conclude that certain people existed, or certain events occurred. In this way, we know that Jesus Christ lived, died, and arose again from the dead. Faith in Jesus is based upon the historical validity of the events which are ascribed to Him. In seeking to know and understand history, we are building a foundation upon which to understand and trust God.
The testimony of eyewitnesses is significant. In a court of law, eyewitness testimony can help convict or acquit a defendant. The Bible claims to have been confirmed by eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1–4). The resurrection of Jesus was confirmed by hundreds of eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:1–8). This is of primary importance.
What Is Faith?
The basic idea of faith is “trust.” When we put faith in God, then we are willing to listen and do what He says. Why would one choose to trust God? Because of a conviction that God is true. This conviction comes by examining the evidence God has left for Himself. The evidence is strong enough that it warrants a choice of faith.
Biblical faith is built upon evidence. This is shown in John 20:24–31. After Jesus was raised, He appeared to His disciples. Thomas, not present, later said that he would not believe unless he saw (v. 25). Jesus appeared to the disciples again. When Thomas saw, he responded, “My Lord and my God” (v. 28). The fact that Thomas would not believe did not change the nature of the evidence. Christ had risen whether Thomas believed it or not.
Jesus replied, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and believed” (v. 29). The resurrected Christ was evidence of the power of God. Note that in verses 30–31, the signs Jesus performed were designed to be evidence that would lead one to believe in Him. We have not seen Jesus, but the written records testify to His historical validity.
Faith is a reasonable response to the evidence. “Blind faith,” which has no supporting evidence, is unreasonable. Faith is not “believing something you know isn’t true.” It is accepting and acting upon that which has credible evidence to support it.
We should not take an approach to God solely on the basis of our reasoning. If we rely too much on our own thinking, we may reject biblical principles and commands because they don’t “make sense” to us (see Proverbs 14:12). We have the ability to reason and think, and God expects us to use our minds. But once we are convicted that “God is” and that He rewards (Hebrews 11:6), then we have reason to trust Him, even if we don’t understand everything (see Hebrews 11:8).
The study of evidences does not create faith, but it does help remove some stumbling blocks and give us greater confidence in the things of God. Faith comes by hearing God’s word (Romans 10:17). Let’s be convicted of this, and accept what God has done for us.
Faith That Overcomes
In Atlanta, as in all metropolitan areas, there are thousands of displaced Christians who once were faithful, but now are completely inactive spiritually. When approached, they almost always have excuses. Some blame others: their parents, families, or brethren in Christ who they feel have mistreated them. Others blame their new environment where the church is strange or unknown and where unbelief and immorality are the norm among their new acquaintances. A few even blame God, complaining that He has forsaken them: they have been sick, had accidents, lost jobs or suffered other disasters from which they feel He should have saved them.
In the book of Genesis, we read of a young man who was abruptly removed from his homeland and taken into a strange country—Egypt. Joseph had been a faithful servant of God in Canaan and could have made all of the excuses described above if he had chosen to forsake God in Egypt.
Joseph had been wronged. He was in Egypt because his brothers had sold him into slavery. With no way of knowing that his father assumed him dead, he had reason to blame his father for not sending to rescue him. When he refused to be seduced by his master’s wife, she lied about him and he was imprisoned; then a prominent fellow-prisoner whom he befriended forgot his promise to remember Joseph after his release. The situation in which he found himself was strange. No longer a son, he was a slave; no longer a native, he was a foreigner. The God of his fathers was unknown in Egypt and idols were worshipped instead. Immorality was the rule in the land and a young teenager could hardly be expected to resist the fleshly appeal of such an environment, especially when so much of his suffering was a direct result of his efforts to please his God. Surely God had forsaken him!
Joseph did not forsake God. He did forget his father’s house, as indicated by his naming his first born son “Forgetfulness” (Genesis 41:51), but this was the means by which he escaped the bitterness that otherwise would have clouded his life. He made a new place for himself in his new home. As a slave, he became the best slave he could be; imprisoned, he became an exemplary prisoner; as prime minister, he was loyal to his king and highly respected for his service to his adopted land. But, above all things, he remained loyal to God in his personal life and worship. He gave God time to work out His purpose for him and in later years he was able to see that God had used even the reverses of his life as the means of bringing his own exaltation and the salvation of his people.
As remarkable as these evidences of faith are, however, they are not the one featured in Hebrews. There it is noted: “By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones” (Hebrews 11:22). Joseph was aware of the promise made to Abraham that his seed should inherit the land of Canaan after a sojourn in Egypt. Though none of that land actually belonged to his family at the time of his death, God’s promise meant more to him than all of his achievements in Egypt. He might have had an extremely honorable burial in Egypt with a great monument erected to the memory of Zaphnath-Paaneah (his Egyptian name), but he understood the transient nature of human honors and preferred to lay hold of the promises of God and be buried in Canaan. He did not even ask for immediate removal of his body to Canaan, but chose rather to have it taken when God’s promise of an exodus was accomplished.
As prime minister of Egypt, Joseph enjoyed the best which that land had to offer for the remainder of his lifetime. In addition, his descendants received a double portion of Israel’s inheritance, for his two sons were given an inheritance equal to that of each of his brothers. But, above all of this, he lived with a clear conscience and peace of mind in knowing that he was approved of God. And you and I, who likely would never have heard of Zaphnath-Paaneah, now honor Joseph and imitate his faith in the hope of sharing with him in that eternal reward which God has for all of the faithful. Faith is the victory!
Feelings Or Faith
The nineties may well go down in history as the decade of feeling. Feelings clearly determine the values and standards of our times. Feeling good about ourselves is the mark of the good life. Feeling good is considered our birthright, and anyone who interferes with our good feelings has wronged us.
Schools encourage this attitude. I recall visiting the principal of a school which was adopting a new educational policy. Each student made a contract with the school and when he arrived in the morning he could do whatever he felt like doing that day. I have not heard the results in that school, but the results of such education are evident in our society. Multitudes of able bodied people are depending on others for their livelihood simply because they feel more like loafing than working.
Feelings have become the test of morality. “If it feels good, do it” is a popular motto. “How can this be wrong when it feels so right?” is a question asked in a familiar song. More than one jury has acquitted an obviously guilty criminal simply because they felt good about him. And the grossly immoral conduct of more than one executive has been tolerated because people felt good about how things were going.
In religion, as well as in other areas of thought, people now talk more about how they feel than about what they believe. Years ago, it was not uncommon for someone to leave an assembly disturbed by what I had preached, saying, “I don’t believe that, and I am going to take my Bible and prove you wrong.” Now they say, “I don’t feel as you do on this subject” and go their way and think no more about it.
Some judge the success of a worship service by how good they feel when it is finished. Churches often cater to this by introducing various devices to produce those good feelings, and attendance grows. One problem with this is that such devices must continually be upgraded as the old ones cease to have the desired effect, and before long activities are introduced which are not authorized in scripture. Any criticism of such practices, however, is refuted by pointing to their rapid numerical growth.
Another problem is that those who are not right with God need to feel bad about themselves. Godly sorrow is necessary to produce repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). Nathan’s rebuke left David feeling bad about himself, but it was his salvation. “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord … No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but grievous; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:5, 11).
Justifying our conduct by feelings is a cop-out. We do not feel obligated to defend our feelings, for no one else can know how we feel. But our beliefs must be defended; we are expected to be able to give reasons for what we believe.
Is right and wrong determined by feelings or by faith? Not one word in scripture justifies anything on the basis of feeling. “We walk by faith” (2 Corinthians 5:7), and “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).
The demands of faith and those of feeling often conflict. The heroes of faith featured in scripture often acted contrary to their feelings. Would you suppose that Abraham “felt like” leaving his homeland for an unknown destination, or offering his son on an altar? Yet, he did those things by faith (Hebrews 11:9–18). Do you think that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego “felt like” defying the king’s command to worship his image, knowing that a fiery furnace was already prepared for those who did? Or that Daniel really “felt like” praying openly to Jehovah when he knew that hungry lions were waiting to feast on one who did so?
Read Paul’s lists of things he endured as recorded in 1 Corinthians 4, 2 Corinthians 6 and 11 and ask if he really “felt like” preaching. In 2 Corinthians 5:12 he summarizes it all by saying, “death is working in us.” Why did he continue preaching? The next verses gives the answer: “But since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, ‘I believed and therefore I spoke,’ we also believe and therefore speak.” Paul acted by faith, not by feeling.
Many justify absence from worship or failure to study and pray because, “I just don’t feel like it and if I don’t feel like it, it will do no good.” When we are tempted to think this way it is time to revisit Gethsemane.” See that suffering sinless one weeping, praying there alone.” And what is His petition? “O My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me.” Does He feel like going to the cross? Obviously not! Yet, he adds, “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”
When Feelings say “NO” to any duty, Faith says, “Nevertheless, Father, not as I will, but as You will.” Only then do we have a right to “feel good about ourselves.”