Back to the Future
Preached by Jason Abbott
Our family loves the Back to the Future trilogy. In fact, it’s become a tradition for us to watch them each year while on vacation at the beach. (I know, just a glimpse into the super-spiritual traditions this pastor cultivates with his family.)
Anyway, in those movies, as Marty and Doc go from the present to the past then back to the future, there is one great danger which must be avoided at all costs. You must not meet your future or your past self during a trip. As Doc explains:
…the encounter could create a time paradox, the result of which could cause a chain reaction that would unravel the very fabric of the spacetime continuum and destroy the entire universe! Granted, that’s a worst-case scenario. The destruction might in fact be very localized, limited to merely our own galaxy.1
What destructive power when past and future convene in a single person!
In opposition to the past and future coming together in such destructive ways through a person, our passage today reveals that the past and future come together in exceedingly redemptive ways in the single person of Jesus. Let’s see how.
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. 30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.
There’s so much here worthy of our attention. But, for our time in this passage, we will just focus on three C’s—the significant companions who appear with Jesus, the conversation they have with him, and the command the Lord gives the disciples and us at the end of this text. Let’s look at each. First…
1. The Companions (vv. 28-30)
In this passage, Jesus meets with two bigtime heroes of the Old Testament—Moses and Elijah. The appearance of these two dudes would’ve brought associations of the past and hopes for the future together in Israelites like Peter, John, and James. Specifically, with Moses, they would have recalled God’s rescue work from the past. They would have recalled the Exodus. And, with Elijah, they would have thought about God’s promise to save Israel in the future by his Messiah. They’d have thought of the Lord’s word through the prophet Malachi:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction (Malachi 4:5-6).
Look, it might be a bit like this. Imagine you play for the Philadelphia Eagles, and, one day, you walk into the locker room and find Carson Wentz alone praying. Suddenly, before your eyes, Wentz is transformed into a dazzling midnight green and silver and white uniform. Appearing beside him, stand two Philadelphia icons—quarterback Norm Van Brocklin and head coach Buck Shaw. Two legendary figures who won championships for Philadelphia.
As an Eagles’ player, wouldn’t you see immediately what this vision means? It means Carson Wentz is the one. He’ll lead this meager franchise to the Super Bowl and to championship glory again. In short, by bringing these figures form the past and these hopes of the future together in Wentz, the message becomes encouraging and clear immediately. He’s Philadelphia’s savior.
This is something like what Peter, John, and James would have experienced with the transfiguration of Jesus. Peter’s confession of him as the Christ of God—the promised Savior—would’ve been confirmed by the presence of these two heroes in this vision. In Jesus, past promises and future hopes are coming true.
Yet, before we move on, it’s important to notice that Jesus isn’t like Moses and Elijah. This is not a meeting of equals. Yes, they have a glorious appearance too. Nevertheless, Luke gives us a couple of clues, here, that Christ is unrivaled by them in glory and in mission. Note Luke’s description of the two:
And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (vv. 30-31).
First, consider how Luke primarily defines Moses and Elijah at this point. They are simply “two men” who get to converse with Jesus. His focus isn’t on them. Here, we have two resurrected stars of the Jewish faith, yet they get little attention in comparison to a rabbi from a small, backwater town. It’s almost an afterthought when Luke writes that Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory.” He’s like a man smitten with a great beauty at a party, who goes on and on about her, and, when he’s asked about the other ladies there, says: Oh…they looked nice too. Do you see? The glory of these two men simply cannot compare to the glory of Christ.
Second—and this will pave the way to the second point of today’s sermon—note that the talk is all about what Jesus is doing. They’re focused on “his departure” and what he’s going “to accomplish” soon. This highlights Christ’s total superiority. He’s superior to Moses and Elijah in glory and in mission.
Every once and awhile, there are opportunities to win a day with someone who’s famous for one reason or another. You know: Enter to win dinner and a movie with Denzel Washington or Beyoncé. The allure’s getting a chance to ask such people what they’re doing and thinking and planning in the future. We’re drawn to them because we see them as special—and their work as special. What would you think, however, if there was an opportunity to win an evening with me, and a frenzy ensued among the most famous people in the world? What if superstars like Lebron James and the Pope and the Duffer Brothers and a resurrected Frank Sinatra were all vying for my attention? Your estimation of my importance would very likely skyrocket. You would probably think to yourself: There’s something we don’t know about him. Jason must be way more important than we thought!
Friends, this is precisely where these disciples find themselves at this moment. Jesus is more than a mere man. He’s way more important than they thought!
Well, let’s dig deeper at this point into what’s precisely being discussed here between Jesus and these two men. Let’s look in more detail at…
2. The Conversation (vv. 31-33)
Last Tuesday we commemorated the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation. And, one of the finest gifts God gave us through that movement was greater access to his word. The reformers were convicted that we should be able to read Scripture in our native language; so, they began to translate the Bible into French and English and German. This was and is a tremendous blessing!
There are, however, rare instances where these translations don’t fully capture what’s in the original Hebrew or Greek. And, in regard to this special conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, that is exactly what’s taken place. The trouble is with one simple word—the word: “departure.”
The Greek word used is: ἔξοδον. And, if you listen to the sound of the word then you’ll likely recognize that it sounds a lot like another important biblical word, especially if Moses is around—the word: exodus. So, then, a more literal translation of the passage might be this:
And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of [Christ’s] exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem (vv. 30-31).
My friends, isn’t this conversation immediately transformed (or transfigured!) at the revelation of this one little word?! Doesn’t it become a far more glorious thing for us to contemplate?! Isn’t it far more revealing for us?!
Whereas Moses brought Israel out of slavery to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt, Jesus brings humanity out of its ultimate slavery to sin and death in this fallen world. And, whereas Moses brought Israel to the land God had promised to give to them—an exceedingly good land, Jesus brings those who will trust and follow him to a land which is exceedingly better still—the land of God where suffering is gone forever and where joy abounds without end. This is what Christ’s exodus accomplished.
In the man Jesus, the perfections of Eden, which Adam and Eve once enjoyed but lost, are now regained and magnified and secured. Truly, through the ministry of this rabbi, all past promises and all future hopes are gloriously united to God.
What an encouraging conversation to overhear! And, even though Peter, John, and James may not have understood all the details of this exodus ministry of Jesus—like the necessity of the cross of Christ—nevertheless, they’d have been comforted to know that God was working out his promised salvation for them.
I wonder if you recognize that this little conversation—and the entire Bible—was preserved to bring you the same encouragement as Peter, John, and James had when they overheard this exchange. Do you find you’re comforted when reading it? Do you trust that the Lord has given you Scripture for your benefit—that every word of it is God-breathed for that very purpose?
I have a friend who is trying to memorize all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Which would be impressive! The fact that he’s attempting this demonstrates his love for Shakespeare and his poetry. And, when he told me he was attempting to do this, I thought: That’s a strange and ultimately empty devotion. That’s simply an idolatry for him. But, then, I felt conviction. Because, I claim to have the very word of God in the 66 books of the Bible, yet I’ve not devoted myself to memorizing this literature as he has the sonnets.
Friends, it’s impossible for us to be encouraged by our Lord if we won’t listen to his voice. I fear that I’m often sleeping through much of what he’s saying to me just like Peter, John, and James did during the conversation Jesus had in today’s text. And I wonder if you don’t feel like that too. If so, wake up, along with me, and listen to God by reading his word. We often need reminders to do so.
If fact, such a reminder is exactly what we find in…
3. The Command (vv. 34-36)
A good number of you’ve babysat my five kids. On behalf of Natalie and me, thank you! It is an awesome ministry to us to have people who aren’t simply willing to watch them but to build into and care for them as individuals created in the image of God. That’s a profound ministry! Again, we praise God for you!
Well, those who’ve done this can attest that, whenever we’re about to leave, the last thing I say to my children is this: Okay, who’s the boss? Who’s in charge? At this, they know to say the babysitter’s name. Now, they already know this is true. But, I find it’s important each time to give them a reminder.
Something similar happens, here, as God the Father speaks into this passage. He gives us a reminder about Christ Jesus. Look at what he says:
And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (v. 35).
I call this a reminder because, as we’ve been reading through Luke’s gospel, this is the second time we’ve encountered such a pronouncement from the Father about his Son. The first time was just after Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. There God the Father says this to Jesus for our sake:
You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22).
These are very similar statements. Both begin with an affirmation of identity and, then, highlight that Jesus is the one to whom we should pay the closest attention. He’s the one who greatly pleases God; he’s the one whose words should be heard and obeyed. Watch my Son! God says. Listen to my Son! God says. Such statements, from God the Father, are like a spotlight on Jesus. They urge us all to keep our eyes upon him. But why? Why here? And why now? Well, if we remember the context, what came just before this, then it becomes clear why the Father speaks now.
What did Jesus just teach those who desired to follow him? He taught them that they must deny themselves and carry a cross if they wanted to be his disciples. Could there be an instruction more contrary to our human nature than this lesson is? If there was ever a time in which Peter, John, and James needed an encouragement from heaven, this was it. Things were escalating. Jesus was about to turn his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. Self-denial and self-sacrifice were now upon them! So, God says to them: This is my Son, the Savior, trust him!
Friends, perhaps you find yourself in a time of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Maybe you’ve lost someone you love. Maybe you’ve been abandoned by someone you trusted and loved. Maybe you have a different challenge testing you right now. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, the Father gives the same command and reminder to you—Here is my Son, Jesus the Savior. Trust him!
Friends, be encouraged. Trust in Christ, since Jesus can and does sympathize with you and your situation. Draw near to his throne of grace and receive his mercy and comfort in your time of need (Hebrews 4:16). Amen.