WHAT IS TRUTH?
This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent which is the season of preparation for Easter. There are all kinds of traditions around Lent. Some people give up something for Lent. Through the Essex Ministerial, we offer weekly worship services at noon in various churches. In fact, we’re having one here on March 25 and I hope you will consider attending some of these if you’re available.
Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. It is time to reflect on our lives and be a bit self-critical. Are we living up to the standard that God has set for us? Are there things that we should do that we don’t? Are there things that we do but we shouldn’t? Where does repentance come into this discussion? And what about atonement and forgiveness? During Lent, we seek to be right with God, we seek to get closer to God in our everyday lives.
But we also seek something else. We seek the truth. One of the most famous lines in the Bible happened on what we now call Easter weekend. It happened when Jesus was before Pilate. Pilate reviewed the case against Jesus and ask him point blank if he was a king. Jesus said this in John 18:37 (NIV): “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
It was then that Pilate asked one of the most profound questions in the Bible. In John 18:38 (NIV) Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Good question. What is truth? I want to talk about that this morning by using both the passage from Matthew 17 that Cheryl read but also using a passage from 2 Peter 1:16-21. The really interesting aspect of these readings is that they are both talking about the same incident but from two different perspectives. That happens sometimes in the Bible, where two different writers talk about the same incident but this one is unique because, in Matthew, we read it from the third person. Matthew is sharing the story of the transfiguration of Jesus as it was passed down to him. He’s talking about what happened with Peter, James and John. In 2 Peter, however, we have a first person perspective because it is written by Peter, one of the disciples who was actually at the transfiguration when it happened. So this is his perspective as an eyewitness to the events.
But how do we know that the story is true? That’s what I want to look at this morning? I want to explore Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” as it relates to story of the transfiguration of Jesus and then apply that to the rest of the Bible.
I want to start by giving you some background to this stoy. Remember the account that Cheryl read was the third person account in Matthew. It describes how Peter, James and John – arguably Jesus’ closest disciples – went up onto a mountain with him. Unfortunately, the Matthew doesn’t tell us which specific mountain it was but scholars think there are two options. One is Mount Hermon which is north-east of the Sea of Galilee not far from Caesarea Philippi. There are two reason to support this options. First, Matthew does say that it is a high mountain and Mount Hermon is the highest peak in the entire region. The second reason is that immediately before this story, Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples were in Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16:13) so we know that they were in the vicinity.
The other candidate is Mount Tabor which is south-west of the Sea of Galilee. While this peak is not as high as Mount Hermon, it is the highest hill in the area of Galilee, not far from Nazareth where Jesus grew up. While initially it appears that Mount Hermon has more going for it, the early Christian Fathers including Origen in the third century, identified Mount Tabor as the correct mountain of the transfiguration. Later Christians even built a church on top of it called the Church of the Transfiguration. It’s still there and has lovely view of the surrounding countyside.
So which one was it? I guess the question is this: Does it really matter? Do we need to know the precise mountain? Clearly, the writers of the New Testament didn’t think it was important. Otherwise they would have told us. I also should point out that the story of the transfiguration appears not only in Matthew’s gospel but also in the gospels of Mark and Luke. Did either of them include the name of the mountain? No, none of them did. So clearly, that detail was not pertinent to the truth of the story.
I also want to point out that when you compare the three versions of the transfiguration that appear in the three gospels, in Matthew, Mark and Luke they are not exactly the same. They are mostly the same. But the words that come down from heaven are not exactly the same. In Matthew it says, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” In Mark, it says, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Luke’s version says this: “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” And while none of these are really contradictory, neither are they exactly the same. Does it matter that the words are a little bit different? Does that take away from the truth of the story? No, it doesn’t.
Sometimes Christians get too hung up on those details. Looking at the Bible from our 21st century scientific mindset they try to harmonize the gospels. But they really don’t need to. If it was important to harmonize the gospels then the early Christians would have done it. But they didn’t which leads me to think that we probably don’t need to either. That’s because the truth of the transfiguration is not found in the minute details of specifying the correct mountain or insisting that Peter, James and John heard certain specific words rather than other.
So what is truth? That’s still the question.
I want to move now to Peter’s own account of the story. Peter’s account of the transfiguration begins like this is 2 Peter 1:16-18 (NIV):
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
Remember that this story is directly from Peter’s memory of what he experienced probably forty or fifty years earlier. And while it is a long time after the actual events, I imagine that an experience like that would make quite an impression which would have made the details hard to forget. I also suspect that Peter had told the story time and time again over his lifetime which would have kept the details fresh in his mind.
In this first paragraph, Peter affirms that the story really happened. In verse 16 he says, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” What is Peter getting at? It seems that Peter is responding to people who doubt the reliability of the story of the transfiguration. Clearly, it was a well known story in the early church. Again, it shows up in three of the four gospels which few other stories do.
And we can’t blame anyone for asking questions about this story. The whole idea of transfiguration seems more than a little odd. What do you mean that Jesus’ clothes turned a dazzling white and his face shone like the sun? And what do you mean that Moses and Elijah appeared to him and they had a conversation? And what’s this about a voice from the clouds? If you were to hear that something like that happened in Tilbury, would you believe it right away? I kind of hope you wouldn’t because, at first glance, it seems more than a little bizarre. So let’s not be too hard on our first century Christian ancestors. On the surface, the transfiguration is hard story to believe.
So this is Peter’s tactic to the skeptics. Basically, he says that he’s not making it up. It is not a cleverly devised story. Rather, he says, that he was an eyewitness of what happened. He did not get it second or third hand. He did not get it from his sister who heard it from their cousin who heard it from her brother-in-law who lives in the next town who heard it from this guy who was passing through in a camel caravan. No, Peter says, “You can believe me because I was there. I saw it. I’m an eyewitness. The story is true”
And then Peter identifies the story to which he is referring. He doesn’t call it the transfiguration because that term didn’t come along until a few generations later. But Peter does share some of the details. First, he talks about how Jesus received honour and power from God the Father. When we read Matthew’s account, it says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. This is a sign of honour and power. So is the fact that Moses and Elijah appeared with him. Those two men are considered to be two of the most significant characters in the Old Testament. Moses traditionally represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. So we have the law and the prophets together. That may not seem all that important to us but to the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, that was huge because it said that Jesus brings together the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. And because if that, Jesus is greater than either Moses or Elijah, because he brings them together. That’s the first thing that tells us that Peter is talking about the transfiguration
The second thing is what Peter says next. In verse 17, he writes that, “the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’” That’s exactly what it says in Matthew 17:5. So Peter remembers what happened. And he remembers it vividly. So, clearly, Peter is talking about the transfiguration. He is telling his audience that they can believe it because he was there. He saw it and he heard it and he can confirm that it is true.
That was true for the transfiguration. It was also true for every other story of Jesus in the New Testament. The people to whom Peter was writing were more fortunate than we are. In their day, there were still lots of people walking around who knew Jesus, who walked with him and talked with him in life. If the people ever wondered if something they had heard about Jesus was true, all they had to do was ask someone who was there. That was especially true of key events such as the crucifiction and resurrection. People were living back then who has seen Jesus die on the cross, who experienced the resurrected Jesus and who watched him ascend into heaven. And if they ever wondered if it was true, all they had to do was ask someone who was there.
Clearly, we don’t have that same advantage. There are no eye witnesses left and there haven’t been for almost 1,900 years. So how can we still trust that the stories of Jesus were true? We can believe it because we have the testimony of the eyewitnesses preserved for us in the words of the Bible.
We must rely on their testimony. If it was good enough for the people to whom Peter was writing, then it should be good enough for us as well.
THE TRUTH OF PROPHECY
Let’s look now at what Peter writes in the next paragraph because it also talks about the reliability of Scripture. 2 Peter 1:19-21 (NIV) says this:
We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
In this paragraph, Peter takes the idea of truth one step further. In the first paragraph, Peter spoke about how we can know that the stuff in the past – specifically the transfiguration – is true. The basic answer is because Peter was an eye witness. He saw what happened and he heard the voice from the clouds. Peter’s experience, therefore, vouches for the truth of the story. The same thing is true of the rest of Jesus’ ministry because there were still lots of people around in those days who were witnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
But what about the future? That’s where Peter now turns. That’s important because the New Testament also contains prophecies that will happen in the future especially when it comes to the second coming of Christ and the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth that the Bible calls the New Jerusalem. How do we know that those are true, that they will be fulfilled? That’s the question that Peter addresses in this paragraph.
We know that these New Testament prophecies are true simply because they are in the Bible. Peter says that these prophecies are true because the Scriptures are true.
He’s also clear about what prophecy is not. He says that no prophecy of Scripture ever came about by the prophets own interpretation of things – that is, the prophet didn’t make up this stuff in his own mind. And even though prophecy might come through human beings – through the written word of Scripture – true prophecy does not start in the human brain. Rather it is carried to those people by the Holy Spirit. They write it down for future generations to read.
But how do we know that we can rely upon Scripture, that it is true? That, my friends takes a bit of faith. It takes a bit of trust that there is a God who loves us and forgives us and wants to give us some idea of what to expect at the end of the ages. I believe in a God who does all of that and more.
But I also believe that these prophecies are true for another reason. It’s because so much prophecy from the Old Testament has already been fulfilled in Jesus. The Old Testament prophets wrote about Jesus’ birth, where he would be born, of what family, that his family would flee to Egypt and settle in Nazareth along with other things. The Old Testament prophets also foretold Jesus’ trial, crucifiction and resurrection. And it all came true. That’s why Ezekiel, one of the greatest Old Testament prophets stood beside Jesus on the mountain during the transfiguration.
We can see in the Bible that prophecy after prophecy from the Old Testament was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. All of those prophecies ended up being true. They all came to pass. So why should we expect that the New Testament prophecies that speak of the end times will be any less reliable? We should not. History has shown us that the Bible speaks the truth about Jesus, who he is and what he said he was going to do.
So what is truth? Truth is not in the eye of the beholder. Truth is a constant and it is reliable. It is given to us by God through the Holy Spirit. It is confirmed for us in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
But ultimately, truth is in Jesus Christ. He came to earth to show us how to live. He died on the cross as a sinless sacrifice to pay the price of all of the sins of all of humanity for all time. But then he rose again on the third day, breaking the chains of sin and the gates of hell that all those who put their faith in him will have eternal life.
That’s the truth on which I want us
to focus as we move into Lent later this week. And may God’s grace be with you
as we walk this journey of truth together.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Heavenly Father, your light fills the morning sky in radiance and wonder. Even in the night, the lights of heaven mark off the days and give direction to those who have lost their way. Shine upon us. Fill us and renew us. Make us conscious of your presence with us and within us. We call upon your name which is, for us, a sign of wholeness and salvation. Wash us in the blood of your wounds that we may be whiter than snow.
We pray for the Church, for Christians all over the world of every nation and denomination. Thank you that, in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we are one. May we, in unity, reach out to the world with your message of hope, reconciliation and peace. We pray, especially today, for our neighbouring United Churches in Essex, Woodslee, and Kingsville. Thank you for the mutual support that is available when needed. Thank you for their prayers.
We lift up in prayer those who suffer loss. There are those who have lost loved ones, who have lost employment or health. Others have lost important relationships and connections in their lives. There are even those who have lost their faith. Be with all those who mourn, no matter what the loss. Rock them in your arms and give them strength and courage against their sorrow. Heal their broken hearts and grant them peace.
We pray for our military personnel throughout the world as they strive for bring peace, security and freedom for all people. Bless them success and safety.
We also lift up those who mourn, especially the families and friends of Leo Strong’s sister Annette but also those who are grieving the deaths of Archie Stanley and Paul Harrington. Bless them, O God, with your holy peace in their time of sadness.
We think about those who have been sick this week either at home or in hospital, especially Jacqui, Mary and Mark. Grant to all of us your Healing Spirit that you may reign in our hearts as you touch our minds and bodies.
God of all Creation, inspire us to
live beyond ourselves. Enable us to be the Christian story to the people of
this world. May we be faithful to your call and loving in our actions. We pray
in Jesus’ name. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
February 23, 2020 / Transfiguration
Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
CALL TO WORSHIP
We are blessed by the presence of God;
who sits enthroned in the heavens.
We are blessed by the presence of God;
who dwells with us on this earth.
Come, let us worship God.
Let us worship the One who lives in our hearts.
PRAYER OF APPROACH
Come to us now, Lord Jesus. Come into our hearts that we may sing your praises and give glory to your name. The earth abounds with the wonders of your hand: the brilliant sun and twinkling stars, the harsh winter wind and the gentle summer breeze, the power of the storm and the peace of night. We seek your presence in all of its wonderful forms to enliven us and fill us with a renewed sense of mission. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Holy God, we await your transformation in our lives. We look for the day when we too will shine with the brilliance of your splendour. And yet, we await with anxiety and trembling for we do not know what you will call us to do. We are creatures of habit and prefer the status quo to your dynamic commands. Forgive us, O God, when we choose to be less than you have created us to be. Enable us to be your people and to share your Good News. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
God has the power to transform even the most wayward life into a image of grace. God has the mercy to forgive each sin no matter how hurtful. God has the love to welcome us back when we repent of our sins and come clean before the God and Maker of all things.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
It is not what we give, O God, that counts. What is important is that we share, for the gift is nothing without the giver. Enable us to give ourselves to you that our lives may be dedicated to your ministry in Jesus’ name. Amen.
come to worship and we have worshipped the God of the Ages. May our lives this
coming week be a testimony to the love of God which we have received in our
time of fellowship together.