Scriptures: Matthew 17:1-9 and Romans 5:12-19
Transfiguration Sunday: The Supremacy of Christ
If you’re like most people, you probably found the passage that Deb just read from Romans a bit confusing. Sometimes, the logic Paul uses to argue a point can be hard for our modern ears to comprehend just listening to it. In a few minutes I’ll do my best to unpack it for us, but first I’d for us to come alongside Peter, James, and John as they reach the summit of whatever mountain Jesus has brought them to.
Matthew tells us that once there, Jesus was suddenly “transformed” in his outward appearance. He said that Jesus’ face “shone like the sun and that is clothes became as white as light” (Matthew 17:2). The Greek word which is translated “transformed” is where we get the English word “metamorphosis.” Metamorphosis means a complete change in form, structure, or substance, such as what happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. It goes in one thing but comes out something completely different. But that’s not what happened to Jesus. He wasn’t changed into something altogether different in substance right before their very eyes. Rather, something unique about Jesus was revealed to them, and what was revealed was something they could see with their eyes. It was something to which they could visually bear witness and later on, tell others what they saw with their own eyes (see 2 Peter 1:18).
What was revealed to them was our Lord’s divine nature. Since the first century, Christians have affirmed the divinity of Jesus Christ, which was codified in the Nicene Creed :
Jesus Christ is the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
We believe that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. On top of that mountain and in the presence of three of his disciples, his divine nature briefly shone forth from within. His divine glory became visible to them as light which emanated out of him. In other words, they visually bore witness to his divine glory.
If that alone wasn’t enough excitement for the day, it was also reported that Jesus was joined by two of the most important figures in all of Judaism, Moses and the prophet Elijah. While the three of them were talking, a voice came from heaven which basically repeated what was said at his baptism nearly three years earlier: “This is my Son whom I love. I am very pleased with him.”
But here, on the mountain, the voice (presumabely, the Father’s) adds a three-word command: “Listen to him!”
There are two ways this command can be uttered, and depending on which word is emphasized, it can carry two different meanings. In my experience, whenever people read this line the word “listen” gets emphasized. “Listen to him!” as though we’re not paying attention to him. And while there may be some truth to that, the another way of speaking this command I think makes more sense when we take into account the presence of Moses and Elijah. What if, while Peter, James, and John were gazing upon Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the voice said, “This is my Son; listen to him!”? In essence, of these three you standing before you, only Jesus is my beloved Son. Moses and Elijah were important, but only Jesus is my Son. Of these three, I want you to listen to HIM, Jesus. He alone has the words of life.
I believe that what happened up on the mountain was
- God gave proof of Jesus’ divine glory by allowing the light of his nature to shine forth from his body in a visible way.
- Jesus was identified as being more important than any person or leader throughout the history of Judaism, including Moses and Elijah, two of the most important.
Listen to Jesus!
Now, let’s fast forward twenty-five years or so. Paul has been a Christian missionary for 15-20 years, during which time he’s travelled all over the Roman empire, planting churches in lots of cities. And at some point time, he writes a long letter to the Christians in the city of Rome. It’s what we know as the book of Romans. Romans is one of Paul’s most theologically rich writings in the Bible, and it contains some of the most important and foundational truths about Jesus, and salvation, and the role and purpose of the cross, and faith, and righteousness. And in chapter 5, he spends some time talking about the immense power of grace, and he couches it in an analysis of Adam’s disobedience.
He begins with an assumption about what his audience already knows, so he doesn’t actually state it. He assumes that his audience already knows that when God created the world and placed our Original Parents (whom Genesis 2 identifies as the man and woman, Adam and Eve) it it, sin and death were non-existent. However, for reasons which we can only surmise, out of their free will, which was theirs from the beginning, they chose to disobey God. According to Paul, that single act of disobedience had two world-changing consequences. This is where Paul begins.
He begins by acknowledging the reality of sin and death in our world today, and traces their entry into our world back to the disobedience of our Original Parents. Their disobedience 1) opened the door to sin and let it into our world. Sin, in turn, 2) ushered death into our world. In the words of Paul, “the wages (or earnings or take-home) of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So, in essence, he lays all the pain and suffering humanity has ever experienced throughout history at the feet of Adam (and Eve). It’s Paul’s argument that all humanity has suffered the consequences of the sin of the one person, Adam. Wouldn’t you agree that that’s a mighty large reality to lay at the feet on one person? But that’s how Paul came to understand it.
His next point is made by way of a contrast. He contrasts the disobedience of Adam with the obedience of Jesus Christ. But more to the point, he draws an important distinction between the effect of Adams’s disobedience and the effect of Christ’s obedience. And here I’ll paraphrase Paul’s words:
There’s a huge difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. One man’s sin resulted in everybody everywhere sinning, which resulted in everybody everywhere dying. But Christ changed all that. Whereas Adams’s sin resulted in everyone being separated from God, God’s free gift reverses that and brings us back to into right standing with God. And what’s so amazing about this gift of life is that it’s offered to us even though we’re still guilty of sinning. Even though we don’t deserve and certainly haven’t earned it, life is ours to receive. So, through Adam we all died. But through Christ, death is destroyed, and we’re made alive forever.
Here’s what I think is Paul’s bottom line: To call the fallout of Adam’s sin colossal would be an enormous understatement. But comparatively speaking, the result of God’s grace and gift of forgiveness in Christ is even bigger. It’s immeasurable. What Jesus Christ accomplished for humanity through his life, death, resurrection, and return to glory is the ultimate one-up. It doesn’t get any bigger or better.
I probably should have included verse 20 in the reading because it makes this very point. It says, “Where sin increased, grace multiplied even more” (Romans 5:20). Where sin increased, grace multiplies itself even more. This truth is at the heart of the hymn, “Grace Greater Than Our Sin.”
Marvelous grace of our living Lord,
grace that exceeds our sin and our guilt!
Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
brighter than snow you may be today.
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
grace, grace, God’s grace,
grace that is greater than all our sin.
What’s the point to all of this? Jesus is supreme over all. All people. All nations. All earthly kingdoms. On the cross, he destroyed the power of death and sin. And in his resurrection, revealed the truth that in him, anyone can experience the reality of eternal life. And eternal life is ours starting today. God’s grace, poured out on us through faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, is the greatest gift in all the world. Jesus Christ is supreme over all.
We may nod in agreement with this statement about Jesus as a theological concept, but how does that help us when the painful realities of living in this world come crashing down around us? In light of what happened this past week at Michigan State University, which, understandably, resulted in students now feeling unsafe to walk around campus, what it does it mean for Jesus to be supreme over all? How about the Oxford shootings? Or the mass shooting that literally take place in our country on a daily basis? Or stage 4 cancer? Or earthquakes that kill tens of thousands in an instant? Or dictators trying to expand their territory and power through war? Or the ugly persistence of racism and bigotry that destroys our souls? Greed, poverty, injustice, oppression, violence, warfare — these are the awful, terrible realities of our broken world, all of which, says Paul, are the result of the disobedience of our Original Parents.
But the greater truth is that Jesus Christ is still Lord of all, even while we suffer the effects of sin.
Knowing that he was about to leave this world, and knowing that his death would be a kick in the teeth for his disciples, Jesus prepared them for what was coming by telling them the truth. “In the world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world” (John 16:33).
Friends, that is the truth. It’s a truth that even more real and more true than the reality of sin and death and suffering. Through his life and death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome sin and death. This means that even when we suffer, we still have Jesus. He’s still present within us. He still lives in us. His Spirit still strengthens us and gives us courage to face whatever hardship we may be dealing with. And he’s promised us that he will return some day and complete, if you will, his destruction of sin and death and suffering so that they will come to an eternal end.
I know that when bad things happen and unexpected hardship befalls us, very often our first question is “why?” Why did this happen? And Why did God let this happen? I’m not sure we’re ever going to find good and helpful answers to this question. Yes, we may try to make sense out of senseless violence and needless adversity by assigning meaning to it somehow. But probably it’s more often the case that the troubles and burdens we endure are chiefly the upshot of living in a world that’s still reeling from the effects of sin. But here’s the deep, deep truth: God loves us. He’s never stopped loving us. And Christ’s victory over sin and death remains firm. And no shooter or bullet or disease or warped sense of truth can take that reality away. Because when all is said and done, Christ is and will be forever supreme over all. Thanks be to God.