It is often a troubling and confusing thing to follow as a disciple behind him who was “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:3).
In faith in him we have been exalted to a cherished place in God’s family (1 John 3:1). In our baptism we already died and rose with Christ and in a very real way reign with him who sits at the Father’s right hand (Colossians 3:1-4). We are glorious living stones built on him who makes us all a glorious living temple (1 Peter 2:4-5).
Yet, at the very same time we walk the earth under the shadow of the cross as followers of the ultimate cross bearer himself. And it certainly does not end the trouble and confusion when the stole – the yoke – of the public ministry is placed upon us. Often the trouble and confusion only intensify. Now we sinner-saints – who struggle enough on our own trying to understand what it means that God’s loved children “must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22) – are suddenly entrusted with shepherding many other sinner-saints whose lives evidence that same trouble and confusion. The glory of our own discipleship and of nurturing other disciples in Christ can at times be hard to find, especially when we expect glory in ways Christ has not promised it.
Were troubling thoughts along these lines making Peter’s progress up the mountain extra difficult since it was only “six days” after having been rebuked by his dear master? In Sunday’s gospel (Mark 9:2-9), Mark almost compels our thoughts to go there. He connects with un-Mark-like chronological precision what had taken place near Caesarea Philippi to this day’s mountain ascent. With that inspired connection doesn’t the Spirit almost compel us to ponder how much the six-day-old rebuke (“Get behind me, Satan!” Mark 8:33) still stung? What hurt more, being called out for a heart that had in mind the things of men rather than the things of God (33) or the prospect of seeing his beloved master “rejected…and…killed” (31)? Or was it being told that a cross loomed near not only for his beloved Master but also for him? If Peter struggled to catch his breath as they pressed ever higher up that mountain, how much was he simultaneously struggling to catch his spiritual breath after Jesus had sought to knock out of him the hellish wind of glorious visions for Jesus and for himself?
But for Peter and for us what awaits us at the top of this mountain is glory far beyond our empty “things of men” pipedreams. On this mountain he who all his life had, other than in his miracles, hidden that he existed ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ suddenly allowed the glory that had been given to his human nature to shine through the μορφὴν δούλου (Philippians 2:6-7). Suddenly we see confirmation of Peter’s confession that “You are the Christ!” (Mark 8:29), or, to use the fuller expression recorded by Matthew, “the Christ the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). And as if that is not enough the voice of the Father echoes in firm affirmation that “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).
But don’t join Peter on that day as in ongoing fear and confusion he missed what was most glorious about this day! The greatest glory of this mountain is not that Jesus shone in the glory that had been his from eternity. The greatest glory of this mountain is that he only showed that briefly so that with the glory again veiled he might not sidestep the cross by being tabernacled on that mountain in a Peterbilt tent!
The full glory of what happened on that mount is that this glorious Son of God who for us veils his glory is the great fulfillment of all that the Law and the Prophets had spoken. There stood with Jesus, if ever so briefly, the inspired (and often troubled!) author of the Law and the inspired (and just as often troubled!) representative of the company of the prophets. Standing in glory with Jesus they could find no more enjoyable pastime than to converse with Jesus about the glorious fulfillment of all, about which Moses and Elijah had spoken and preached and (for Moses at least) written. For Moses knew that what the Son of God and Son of Man was about to do in his gory suffering and death was the true glory of that which would show him to be “the LORD the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God…forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin” (Exodus 34:6,7). For Elijah knew that this is the one who does his most glorious work on earth not in wind, earthquake, and fire, but through the “gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12) of his alone saving gospel.
Far, far from a path from which to turn the Messiah, the path the temporarily transfigured One was on would reveal the unsurpassed glory of a merciful God. His grace alone made it necessary for him to bear what should have been our rejection at his cross. All this he did that those who follow him under their own cross might, as God’s beloved children, share for eternity with Moses and Elijah the gift of his glory as the beloved Son.
I know, it is very evident that all of this did not sink fully into Peter’s head and heart that day on the mountain. (Some days it seems that Peter was somehow almost as slow to learn as me!) There was so much more for him to grow in his understanding. And yet is he not the one who by the Spirit’s inspiration penned that beautiful letter (1 Peter) that so powerfully helps us think through that we who suffer have been marked by his glorious baptismal pledge of salvation in his resurrection (1 Peter 3:21-22)? He whom Satan asked to sift as wheat was strengthened in Christ to strengthen his brothers and sisters (Luke 22:31-32).
So it is for us, my brothers! When the cross of being a follower of Christ weighs heavy on you, and when the cross of being entrusted with the care of the souls of others weighs heavier still, remember the true glory of this mountain excursion. Remember that the fullest glory revealed is not that Jesus shone in all the heavenly glory that was always his as true God and that had been given to him as true man. No. Remember that the greatest glory is that he once again, with his glory veiled, refused to remain on that mountain. Instead, as he ascended that mountain, so he descended, bearing still the outward form of the great Servant of the Lord. All this he did so that he might bear his cross. And that cross renders your cross and mine not as a mark of shame but rather as a sign of impending, eternal glory.
That, dear brothers, is the greatest glory of this mountain!