Last week, over sweet-potato fries and milkshakes, Tom and I started talking about what it means to have true faith. We have been studying the transfiguration in Matthew 17 because it was the lectionary text a few weeks ago, and we were discussing the passage that precedes it. In a conversation with his disciples, Jesus is trying to tell them about his impending death, but Peter, aghast at the very thought, declares, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” I have always admired Peter’s reckless, passionate faith. And certainly, his desire to protect Jesus from being killed comes from a place of love for his Lord. But Jesus isn’t so happy with Peter’s response, and he rebukes him harshly with the famous “Get behind me, Satan!” comment (Matthew 16:21-23).
Six days pass after this dramatic encounter before Peter, James, and John are witnesses to the transfiguration. Perhaps Peter is still feeling the sting of Jesus’ rebuke. Maybe tension and fear about Jesus’ words of warning still linger for the disciples. But whatever place they’re in a week after that conversation, these three disciples receive a powerful sign of God’s presence when they glimpse divine glory shining through Jesus. Describing his own experience of the transfiguration, Peter writes that they have been “eyewitnesses to the majesty of Christ.” (2 Peter 1:16-21). What a beautiful gift Peter, James, and John received that day! How encouraged their faiths must have been, especially as they went into the final weeks of Jesus’ life on earth.
So why, after this incredible display of God’s glory, does Jesus command his disciples to “tell no one about the vision” (Matthew 17:9). Why does he refuse to let them share this sign of God’s presence? In Matthew 16, we hear that the Pharisees and Saducees have come to Jesus asking for a “sign from Heaven” (16:1-4). But Jesus he rebukes them, as he did Peter. Then, when Jesus warns his disciples that the Pharisees are up to no good, they misunderstand (again) and he calls them faithless (again). What is with all the doubting and rebuking going on? If the people are asking for signs to encourage their faith, why would Jesus want to hide the awesome event of the transfiguration that was so encouraging to Peter and the other disciples?
This question had me thinking about Peter’s faith. Peter is the first disciple Jesus calls and becomes the “Rock” on which Jesus builds his church (Matthew 4:18-22). It is Peter who declares Jesus to be the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). He witnesses numerous healings and signs and is present when Jesus calms the storm (Matthew 8:23-27). In fact, just a few chapters the transfiguration, Peter actually walks on water with Jesus in the midst of a storm! When the disciples see Jesus walking across the water, they are terrified; Peter is the one with enough courage to step over the side of the boat. What a model of true faith he is!
But the fearful, doubtful side of Peter remains, no matter how many incredible signs and wonders he witnesses. Questioning Jesus’ warnings about his fate is only the beginning of Peter’s doubt. Later, he will fall asleep while Jesus agonizes in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:26-46). Then he will deny Christ three times during his trial (Matthew 26:69-75). He doesn’t even show up at Jesus’ crucifixion! And even though Peter has enough courage to walk out on the water to Jesus, his faith falters in the very midst of that miracle:
So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried, “Lord, save me!” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith. Why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14: 29-33)
Why do we doubt? When we are in the midst of experiencing miracles, of witnessing wonders, why do we let our fear take hold of us? Perhaps it is because witnessing the most amazing of signs still isn’t enough to make our faith sure. Even after walking on water with Jesus, it still takes a faith of surrender to accept that Jesus must die. Even after declaring Jesus as Messiah, it still takes a faith of trust to stand with him during his darkest hours.
Perhaps Jesus asks the disciples to stay silent about the transfiguration because he knows that faith must be built on something deeper than awe-inspiring moments of wonder. These three men — Peter, James, and John — have deep relationships with Jesus, and they have seen many signs already; the transfiguration is an intimate moment for these close friends. The pharisees and saducees were asking for signs in order to trap Jesus. I wonder if they would even have been able to see the transfiguration if they’d been there. Witnessing signs can only cause faith to bloom when it is already deeply rooted. As we learn from Peter’s example of faith, it is not doubt that undermines a relationship with God; true faith is built on something deeper. It is not signs and wonders that create faith, it is faith that opens up the possibility for signs and wonders to appear in our lives.