More about the Christian life

Spiritual Letdowns

     After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
     Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
     Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
     Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
     As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
—Mark 9:2-10, NIV

In Mark we have the account of the transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a high mountain where He is transfigured. His clothes become radiant white, and Elijah and Moses come to talk with him.

I would like to note in passing that both Moses and Elijah are associated with mountains. Moses went up on Mount Sinai and to the accompaniment of smoke and fire and earthquake brought down the commandments of God. Elijah ran from his enemies and hid in Mount Horeb (same mountain by a different name) and saw much the same special effects, but found God in a still small voice instead.

Peter, James, and John were terrified by what they saw. Apparently Peter was the first to find his tongue, and when he did he used it badly. “Hey, this is great!” he exclaimed. “James and John and I could gather some wood and lash together a shelter for your meeting!”

Whatever Jesus said about this offer, if anything at all, we do not know; except we do know it was turned down. A voice came and proclaimed Jesus as God’s Son and commanded obedience. Then Moses and Elijah disappeared, and they went down the mountainside.

Someone once asked me how Peter, James, and John knew who the other two personages were. After all, photography hadn’t been invented and painting or sculpting human likenesses was forbidden to Jews. It looks like a clever question, but the answer is simple: they were talking with each other and must have called each other by name. The disciples simply took them at their word.

Some other people wonder if the transfiguration was a physical transformation or a subjective impression by the disciples. That is a good question, but it has no answer. Even the disciples themselves would be unable to answer it. Once my father saw an elephant walking down the street in our residential neighborhood. After this somewhat surprising event was over, he was a little unclear himself whether there really was an elephant or whether he had just been seeing things. It is very difficult to tell the difference when the event you witnessed is so outrageous. When he related the story, he had to put up with a lot of laughter and playful derision. In my father’s case, the newspaper ran a story about the elephant who escaped a nearby circus and was captured in our neighborhood, so he could lay his mind to rest, but I daresay the disciples never had that sort of confirmation.

Many of you have never seen a vision or heard God speaking to you, but you know someone who claims that they have. It’s not that you doubt them, because they do seem to be sincere people, it’s just that you’ve never had such an experience yourself and in some sense you wish it would happen to you. However, the drawback of having visions and hearing voices is that later on you have to look back at those experiences and wonder if they were real, or self-delusions, or if you were cracking up. So don’t be envious of other people’s experiences. I have had one such experience, and I had occasion to relate it to my Bible study group. One woman sighed and wished that she could have an experience like that. I told her to be careful what she wished for, because on alternate Tuesdays she would disbelieve the experience or think that she was crazy. Anyway, I said, you speak the loudest to your most disobedient child. So be happy that God doesn’t have to shout at you—because then you’ll have to wonder why He’s doing it.

There is one aspect of this story that receives little attention: Peter proposed building shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This is a very human and common reaction. It doesn’t matter what sort of mountain-top experience it is; it could be an emotional high, it could be religious ecstasy, it could be the intensely good fellowship of a worship service, it could be a vision or some spiritual gift; we always want it to last. Have you ever attended a worship service, Bible study, or prayer meeting that went into overtime because everyone was so electrified they didn’t want it to end? So we like Peter try to build shelters for our mountaintop experiences, so they can last. However, we find that the experience doesn’t last and before long we come down the mountain into our usual emotional economy. It never lasts. We always look back on that crystal moment and sigh about how good it was and how it didn’t last. What a shame.

The voice from heaven told them to listen to Jesus, and after Moses and Elijah disappeared, Jesus led them back down the mountain into the world. Notice that this mountaintop experience didn’t last, either. It didn’t last, not because it wasn’t genuine enough, not because Peter, James, and John weren’t spiritual enough, but because Jesus led them down the mountain! How else could they obey the voice if they didn’t return to the world? What good would it have done us today if these three apostles got stuck on the mountaintop and died in their ecstasy?

So don’t regret the emotional letdown after your mountaintop experiences. They don’t end because of your shortcomings, but because God leads you down the mountain and back into the world to put the experience to practical use.