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Properly distinguishing between what is ‘literal’ and what is ‘figurative’ is important if you’re going to understand the Scriptures correctly, as they are intended. Some people read what is mean to be taken ‘figuratively’ as though it were meant to be taken ‘literally’ and even though they say that they ‘believe in the Bible,’ they get it all wrong.
In the book of Revelation, John sees a “144,000” who have the name of the Son and the Father written on their foreheads. That’s mean to be understood ‘figuratively,’ but the Jehovah’s Witnesses take it ‘literally’ and figure that there’s only going to be 144,000 souls in heaven.
In the Gospels, Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to His disciples saying, ‘this is my body.’ And He passes the cup saying, ‘this is my blood,’ and many think that that’s ‘figurative,’ when it’s really meant to be taken ‘literally.’
If ever there was an episode in the gospels that was susceptible to a figurative interpretation it’s the Transfiguration of Jesus. Bright light emanating out from within a body and illuminating those in his presence; two men, long dead having a conversation with a third as if they’ve known each other for a long time. It’s too bizarre to be real. It’s got to be ‘fiction’ that has a lesson to teach us.
But it’s not. It really happened. Just the way it says, literally. It’s ‘non-fiction.’
“After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves.” Six days anchors this in reality. It really happened.
“Six days” after what? Six days before this, Jesus was walking with His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, and He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” ‘And they told Him, ‘John the Baptist, and some say Elijah, and others, one of the prophets.’ And He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
And Peter made that great confession of faith that men and women have been making ever since, and upon which the Christian Church is built. Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:27-29).
He could have said,
• “You are the ‘offspring of the woman’ come to crush the head of the serpent.”
• “You are the TRUE NOAH who will bring us into a NEW CREATION.”
He could have said,
• “You are the TRUE MOSES, who will set us free from our captivity to sin and death.”
• Or, “You are the TRUE DAVID who will rule over Your people with the love of a good shepherd and keep us in peace and safety.”
And he did. Because all of that is packed into those four words – “You are the Christ.”
“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again.” And that’s when Peter decided that Jesus couldn’t possibly be speaking ‘literally.’ He must be speaking ‘figuratively.
“And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”
I think I know what troubled Peter about Jesus because it troubles me too. He thought Jesus was speaking ‘literally,’ but he wanted to take it ‘figuratively.’ He didn’t want what Jesus was saying to ‘really’ happen – symbolically maybe, but not ‘really.’
You see, if its ‘FIGURATIVE,’ then it’s not ‘LITERALLY,’ and you don’t REALLY feel the pain. You don’t REALLY feel the humiliation.
Jesus turned to Peter saying, “Get behind me Satan! For you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man.”
And so, “after six days…” What you expect to read is, “after six days…” “Jesus ditched Peter and the other disciples and went to recruit a new crew.”
But no, He doesn’t give up on them just as He doesn’t give up on us. “After six days, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”
“And He was transfigured before them. And His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.”
He was “metamorphosed” before their eyes. He didn’t change who He was. He just changed His form. Actually, what He really did was stop changing His form for a few moments. He always had the form of God. But “he made Himself nothing and taking the form of a servant… And being found in human form, he humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil.2:6-8) Literally. Non-fiction. It really happened.
Let’s be sure to get this right. Both ‘forms’ are REAL. Both ‘forms’ are the REAL Jesus. His ‘human form’ is not ‘figurative man’ just as He is not ‘figurative God.’ He is TRUE GOD and TRUE MAN.
It’s just that ever since Adam and Eve were thrown out of Paradise, He hid His ‘form of God’ under a veil because, in our sin, we cannot stand to see His glory.
And so His ‘godly form’ is veiled under a ‘burning bush,’ a ‘pillar of cloud,’ an ‘angel of the Lord.’ And when the time had fully come, under the form of a baby man, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
It’s not that He doesn’t want us to see His divinity – He does. And we will. Everyone will – those who make the great confession of faith NOW – “You are the Christ…” – AND those who don’t, AND those who won’t. Some will see His ‘form of God’ in exploding joy, and some in exploding regret.
It’s different for us than it was for them. We see Jesus, but NOT LIKE they did. We neither see His humanity in TRANSFIGURED GLORY as they did. NOR do we see His humanity in the same form as they did.
No, we see Him who is fully God and fully Man veiled in His Word preached and His sacraments administered. By His Word preached, we hear Him say, “I forgive you all of your sins.” And that is to be taken ‘literally,’ not ‘figuratively.’ IT IS REAL FORGIVENESS AND YOU ARE TRULY FORGIVEN ALL OF YOURS SINS, JUST AS HE SAYS.
We see TRUE GOD and TRUE MAN, veiled under water, bread and wine, inviting us to be baptized into Him and that He might feed and nourish us with His true body and true blood.
“And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.”
MOSES IS THE LAW-MAN. He’s the one who went up a mountain called Sinai to meet with God and came down with the 10 Commandments – the LAW OF GOD. “Do this and ‘it will go well with you,’” he preached.
When Moses came down from the mountain, he called a special voters meeting of the congregation. “Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules.” And the vote was unanimous. “All the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do." (Exodus 24:3) But, of course they didn’t. And neither do we. FIGURATIVELY maybe. As stories with a ‘lesson for better living.’ But not LITERALLY. That would be too painful, too humiliating.
Moses’ day is done. He has not succeeded in justifying one single person before God, let alone the whole world by the LAW. All Moses succeeded in doing was condemning the whole world before God, because no one could keep the LAW at all.
Now here is Moses once again. A different mountain, but the same God as on Sinai. Only this time, it’s a new covenant, a whole new deal. Moses isn’t getting a new set of laws from Jesus for the people to keep. Moses is handing the Law back to Jesus. “Here Jesus. We can’t do this. You do it. Do it for us. Do it on our behalf.”
And He does. He keeps the Law perfectly – both in ‘letter’ and in ‘spirit.’ The people’s promise is fulfilled by Jesus. “All the words that the Lord has spoken we [I] will do.” And He did. For you.
Jesus is not a better law-giver than Moses. He is the Law-keeper that none of us could ever be. “It will go well with you,” because He has kept the Law for you, in your place, on your behalf.
ELIJAH IS THE PROPHET-MAN. The prophets were the called and ordained servants of God who were to speak to the people for God. They were the veil behind which God hid Himself. When you heard the prophet say, “Thus saith the Lord,” it was time to listen-up and ‘TAKE TO HEART, AND ‘INWARDLY DIGEST’ what you’re about to hear. Which of course, they didn’t. And neither do we.
So, Elijah’s day is done too. “In the past, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but now in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.”
When Jesus speaks, you better sit up straight and pay attention, because He is not just a better teacher than Elijah. He is the TRUE Elijah. The REAL prophet.
“This is my beloved Son,” says the heavenly Father. LITERALLY. REALLY. “BEGOTTEN OF THE FATHER FROM BEFORE ALL WORLDS.” He is the very Word of God, with God in the beginning. So, when He speaks, He will not say, “thus saith the Lord,” but “Truly, truly, I say to you…”
“And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. He did not know what to say.”
You know, sometimes it really is better to say nothing. But he felt that he should say something, do something. But sometimes ‘listening’ is the best ‘doing’ there is.
Truth is, Peter didn’t need to build three tents because Moses’ and Elijah’s day was done. There was only need for One tent and God had already built that Himself – ‘The Word became flesh and ‘tented’ among us.” (John 1:14)
And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my believed Son, LISTEN TO HIM.’”
“Listen to Him” when He says to you that “Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise again.”
• “Listen to Him,” when He says to you, “Repent and be baptized everyone one of you for the forgiveness of sins.”
• “Listen to Him” when He says to you, “This is my body, this is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”
• “Listen to him” when He says, “It is finished.” There’s nothing that you need to build or do or say. Just listen, because this is how faith is created in you, and repentance is worked in you, and life is given to you.
“And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” No Moses and Elijah. “Jesus only.” No shining clothes and face like the sun. Just dusty, dirty, sweaty clothes like ours and an ordinary face like ours. This is what it always comes down to when the miracles are all over. “Jesus only.”
His divinity, once again hidden under the veil of his humanity. He is going to Jerusalem, just as He said. And there, the soldiers will strip Him of His clothes, never knowing that, on that holy mountain, those clothes were the “radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them…” clothes of God. BUT YOU WILL. And you will know that He was stripped so that you may be clothed with His righteousness.
And they will strike Him on the face, never knowing that, on that holy mountain, this same face shone like the sun. BUT YOU WILL. And you will know that His face was bloodied and bruised, “as one from whom men hide their face,” so that you would never have to hide your face from God.
And when the crowds taunt and jeer Him as He hangs from the cross, they will not know that this is the One with whom Moses and Elijah spoke in humble reverence, and whom the Father called, “MY BELOVED.” BUT YOU WILL. And you will know that He hangs there for YOU, so that His Father might call you “my beloved child,” and He might call us His brothers and sisters. LITERALLY. REALLY. NON-FICTION.
“In there case, the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
“But we, with unveiled faces, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…”
“For God, who said, let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:4; 3:18; 4:6).