I recently had a discussion with my youngest brother Emmanuel, who is not a believer, about the life of Jesus, and while my brother labels himself an atheist, I believe his heart seeks more than he’d like to admit.
His over-arching question to me during this discussion was, “How can you trust the Gospels when they were written about Jesus, rather than by Jesus?” His objection was that we can’t trust anything written about someone by someone else. In other words, how do we know Jesus really said what we have recorded in the Scriptures?
The easy, and overly simple answer to this objection points to faith. I could have said something to the effect of, “I have faith that the Scriptures are the written Word of God and completely true (2Ti 3.16-17, 2Pe 1.20-21), and until you have that faith, you can’t believe (Heb 11.6).” True statement, right? Of course!
The problem with this answer, however, is that when you give it to a man who at least thinks he operates within the laws of reason you fail miserably at scratching his itch for verifiable proof. It’s not that the simple answer isn’t a true and good answer; it’s that sometimes we owe our lost friends and family members a more substantiated reasoning for our faith.
I haven’t answered my brother yet. In fact, I have taken weeks to put together a response for him. I have spent hours digging through Scripture and seeking the counsel of men much smarter than me, and have walked away with not only an answer for my brother, but a new found assurance of my own salvation.
My goal with this post is to give a rational validation of Jesus’ identity by looking at an eyewitness account of three men who each validated the account by their own actions and writings, decades after seeing it. This isn’t what men wrote about Jesus hundreds of years after his life, but rather what they saw with their own eyes and then reported in their own writings. This event changed their lives forever, and I hope it will change yours too.
Emmanuel, this post is for you buddy. This is the answer I have for you. I pray the God of the universe, and the Savior who holds all things together (Col 2.17), will verify Himself without question to your heart of hearts because he is capable of doing just that if he so chooses. I remain hopeful that you are one of his precious elect and that it is just a matter of time before he brings that promise, made before the foundation of the world, to full fruition in the regenerating of your soul. It’s death to life, brother. Here we go…
It All Begins at the Transfiguration
For those of you unfamiliar with the event, the transfiguration took place when Jesus brought three of his closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) to the pinnacle of a mountain where he peeled back his humanity for just a brief moment and allowed the full glory of his deity to peek through. Moses and Elijah (two dead prophets) joined him on the mountain and the voice of the Father boomed forth from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”
This event is described in Matthew 17.1-13, Mark 9.2-13, Luke 9.28-36, and then mentioned in John 1.14. So all four Gospels account for the transfiguration. It’s important to note that this wasn’t an isolated account from one man. Three men witnessed the transfiguration and each reported the same details of the event. Three eye-witnesses all with the same story. Compelling… Must be important, right? If you haven’t read the story, I encourage you to take a look at one of the reference links above.
I’m going to lay out three observations regarding the transfiguration and then I’ll tie it all together.
1. Peter, James, and John knew exactly who Jesus was following the transfiguration.
The disciples absolutely understood what they witnessed on the mountain during the transfiguration. This wasn’t a mere dream that required interpretation. And it certainly wasn’t just a beautiful sunset. Men don’t devote and then give their lives for a beautiful sunset.
This is evidenced by the disciples’ simple and telling question to Jesus afterward. On the way down the mountain they asked, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (Mt 17.10). What were they referencing? Take a look at Malachi 4.5, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.”
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and is rich with promises of the “Coming One,” the Coming One who will deliver Israel from it’s bondage and rule over the land as a perfect and righteous King. The book teaches that before the Coming One, however, one will come to prepare a way for him, Elijah.
So again, why did the disciples inquire about Elijah coming first? They inquired because they had just witnessed on the mountain the unveiling of the Coming One–the Messiah to the Jewish people, and they trusted the Scriptures enough to know that Elijah must come first. So, where was he?
In a sense they were saying, “Lord, we know what we just saw. We recognize you are the promised Messiah. How could you not be when your deity was just validated without a shred of doubt? But what about Elijah? Did we miss him?” And this is where Jesus confirmed that Elijah had in fact come in the man of John the Baptist, but the Jewish people as a whole had not recognized him (Mt 17.11-13), killing him instead.
There is no doubt the transfiguration validated Jesus’ identity as the Coming One to Peter, James, and John. Their question about Elijah points to what they knew to be true about Jesus. Call them crazy at this point if you want, but there is no question regarding what they believed to be true.
2. The transfiguration changed the disciples forever.
Not only did the transfiguration change what the disciples knew about Jesus, but it also changed their entire paradigm about ministry and eternity.
Look at what they wanted to know almost immediately after coming down from the mountain: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt 18.1) They knew the Kingdom was on it’s way and that Jesus, the promised Messiah, was there to rule.
Even though Jesus had told them several times at this point that he must die first before the Kingdom would come, they were obsessed with who would rule this Kingdom with Jesus. Their concerns for the things of this world vanished over night and now it was all about their future and eternal rule with Jesus. And while this was a major paradigm shift in their thinking, Jesus was quick to correct them on their heavenly aspirations to power by reminding them that to rule in God’s Kingdom meant servitude and sacrifice, rather than being served and revered. (Matthew 20.26-28).
Just days later, James and John (and their mother) came to him again (Mt 20.20-28, Mk 10.35-45). This time they wanted to know who could sit at Jesus’ right and left in his coming glory (Mk 10.37). Granted, their timeline was skewed because they had things yet to understand, but they understood all too well that Jesus was the promised King and the world as they knew it was about to end. They knew this because of the glory they witnessed in Jesus on the mountain just weeks (maybe days) before.
These three men were never again the same. They witnessed the glory of God and they witnessed that glory displayed in Jesus. A man doesn’t come back to a typical reality after something like that. They couldn’t undo or unsee this miraculous event. It would be ingrained in their minds and hearts forever.
So, here we are again. Were these three disciples changed because of what they saw during the transfiguration? Yes. This is undisputed. Did their focus go from the temporary to the eternal? Yes. Were they crazy? Maybe. But what price would they be willing to pay for this “craziness”? Stay with me…
3. The transfiguration sets up the logic for the resurrection.
Theologians widely hold the resurrection to be the most essential event of the Christian faith. The virgin birth, the transfiguration, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are all very important–in fact, every little thing Jesus did was important because it was done perfectly and without sin. But it is the resurrection that validated everything else Christ did. He conquered death because we couldn’t, and if you can’t believe in the resurrection, you can’t call yourself a Christian. It’s that simple.
However, asking someone to believe that a man rose from the grave was a tall order. Nothing like this had ever been witnessed until Jesus’ ministry began. Even so, dozens of people eye-witnessed the resurrection. Some of them ran to the tomb like Peter and John (Jn 20.3-5), and some were more skeptical like Thomas (Jn 20.24). But in the end, they all believed what they saw.
However, this did raise a question as I went through this study, “Why did Peter and John run to the tomb?” When everyone else remained behind, perhaps skeptical of the news, Peter and John raced for the tomb–a race John unashamedly says he won (Jn 20.4). Why was their reaction different? Did they love Jesus more than the others? Perhaps, but I think there is more to it than that. I think it goes back to the transfiguration.
Matthew 16.21-23 gives us keen insight into an important event that took place just six days before the transfiguration. You can read the account by clicking on the verse link above but in summary Jesus tells his disciples he must die and be raised to life three days later and Peter has a reaction of unbelief. “This shall never happen to you,” he says to Jesus.
What shall never happen to Jesus? Death? Resurrection? Both? Most people read this passage and just assume he’s only referencing Jesus’ death but it actually appears he’s denying the possibility of it all. For if he believed the resurrection was possible, why would the death aspect bother him so deeply? Jesus quickly rebukes him for setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God (v. 23) — a mindset that quickly changed after the transfiguration as we saw above.
Even though Peter had made a vocal confession of Jesus as the Christ just days before in Matthew 16.16, I think what’s happening here is that Peter is still being held captive internally by his own reasoning. He hasn’t totally bought in to who Jesus is. He knows Jesus as a friend and a teacher, but the thought of him dying and then raising to life completely blew his mind. He couldn’t make that leap of logic. It was contrary to everything he was taught about the coming Christ (who was supposed to come and rule).
There is no doubt that over the next six days these things were discussed at length between Jesus and his disciples. Perhaps Peter never quite got there. Maybe James and John didn’t either. Can you imagine their philosophical and theological presuppositions that Jesus would have to overcome in order for them to fathom a man could die and rise again? Can you imagine the looks on their faces as they listened to how the promised Messiah King would first be murdered by his enemies–looks that maybe said, “Are you sure you’re the Messiah?”
I think Jesus took the three of them up on that mountain, at least in part, to annihilate any doubt of who he was. He showed them the glory of God. They heard the Father audibly speak from heaven and confirm Jesus as the Coming One (again, beautiful sunrises don’t talk).
I’ve watched my wife give birth twice–once to three little girls at one time. The images and emotions of those awesome events will stick with me forever.
If you haven’t witnessed the miracle of child birth think about a big sporting event or a crazy roller-coaster you’ve ridden. Those events stick with you, right? So how much more would the witnessing of the glory of God and a confirmation of the Coming King stick with Peter, James, and John?
Perhaps this is why he commands them not to speak of the transfiguration until after he has risen from the dead (Mt 17.9). Because that’s when it will be most important. It’s like he was saying, “Men, a lot of people are going to have a hard time believing I have risen from the dead. After all, I’m just a man, right? Share with them what you have seen here so they can piece things together just as you will.”
The transfiguration was for the skeptic! It validated Jesus as much more than a mere man–it validated him as God in the flesh–the Messiah–the Coming One. It validates him as ABLE to rise from the grave.
So why did Peter and John bolt for the empty tomb while everyone else hung back? Maybe it’s because they were expecting it. There was nothing to process. They didn’t need to make that jump in logic because it had already been verified to them.
Jesus took three men who quite possibly couldn’t yet believe in a resurrection from death to life, and gave them an eye-witness account that transformed their doubts to certainties. And the transfiguration can do the same for you. If I can get you to at least concede that the transfiguration happened, you could then also concede to the possibility of the resurrection, right? Let’s continue…
Still Don’t Believe?
At this point you may be thinking, “This all sounds well and good but I still don’t believe the transfiguration happened so none of this matters.” And you’re right. If I can’t prove to you that Jesus revealed himself as the glory of God to these three men on the mountain then I can’t expect you to believe he conquered death and rose from the dead. I can’t expect you to see Jesus as anyone other than a mere man with some revolutionary philosophies.
The Fate of Peter, James, and John (Transfiguration Witnesses)
1. James gave his life for what he witnessed.
James, son of Zebedee and brother to John, became the second martyr recorded in Scripture. In Acts 12.2 it says that Herod killed him with the sword–probably a beheading.
We don’t know if James ever said anything about the transfiguration or the specific impact it had on him, but we know later in his life, at least 10-15 years after the events of the transfiguration, he was willing to give his life for what he witnessed. He was so confident in the things he had seen that he held firm unto death.
2. John gave his life for what he witnessed.
Well, kind of. Ancient New Testament witness accounts collaborate that John was captured in Rome and thrown into a vat of boiling oil. The details are unclear but they report he somehow miraculously escaped with his life and without major injury.
Later, John was exiled to the island of Patmos for five or six years where he wrote the book of Revelation. He was then released from his exile by Emperor Nerva and died shortly thereafter in Ephesus.
John wrote his Gospel account at the very end of his life and he penned these words in the first chapter, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14). John wrote this iconic and powerful statement based on what he saw on that mountain some sixty years prior. At the end of his life the transfiguration was still impacting him.
So while John did not specifically die for the Gospel, he gave his life for what he believed. Many attempts were made on his life where he stood firm in his assertion that Jesus was God in the flesh, and he based these assertions on the glory he witnessed during the transfiguration.
3. Peter gave his life for what he witnessed.
When Peter wrote his second epistle (Second Peter) he knew his death lingered just weeks, or maybe even days, away (2Pe 1.14). Assurance of salvation permeates from his words (as in 2Pe 1.10-11) and in an effort to convince his audience of the Truth of the Gospel, this is what he writes approximately thirty to thirty-five years after the transfiguration:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power of and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1.16-18).
So just before his execution, Peter’s fondest, most vivid memory of Jesus was not the resurrection but rather when he, James, and John were eyewitnesses of his Majesty!
Thirty plus years had passed since he witnessed the glory of God at the transfiguration and nothing about the account had changed. Also take note of the four plural pronouns (we). Peter wasn’t alone on that mountain–he accounts for James and John as well. Three men who all saw the exact same event, two of which lived long enough to recall it decades later with the same precision and accuracy. The details had not been embellished, nor had they become vague or unclear.
According to historical accounts, Peter was executed shortly after writing this by being crucified upside down. He never recanted. In fact, he fearlessly welcomed death and a reunion with his Savior–a reunion with the glory of God he had witnessed with his two friends and brothers on that holy mountain.
How Sure are You?
Again, I guess the argument could still be made that these men were crazy. But I must ask you, what are the odds that three men all saw the exact same thing, were able to recount it word for word decades later, and then endured immense suffering, persecution, and eventual execution for what they witnessed? They held firm under immeasurable pressure.
Given the strength of their convictions, I now turn the tables to you. How sure are you about evolution and worldly philosophy? Are you that sure?
How sure are you these men were liars, or at best, crazy? Are you that sure? Would you give your life for it?
Let me ask you this…if someone puts a gun to your head and says you either recant evolution or die, are you going to hold true to your convictions? Are you willing to die for something that no one has eye-witnessed?
Last set of questions…what if these three men were right about Jesus? They sure believed they were. Who has stronger convictions: you, a young man I saw go from carnivore to vegan to vegetarian and back to carnivore all in one year, or these three men who were willing to give their lives for a firm conviction they’d held for longer than you and I have been alive (at the time of this writing)?
Make no mistake about it: if you call these men liars and reject Christ as Savior, you are giving your life for what you believe. But you aren’t just losing your temporal existence in this world–you’re losing for all of eternity. You better be sure, brother!