Have you ever had a conversation with someone about Christ in which the person said, “I’m glad that you believe in Jesus and that that works for you, but I’m into [fill in the blank]”? It could be a religious cult, or some method for achieving your greatest potential, or whatever. Maybe you responded by saying, “But let me tell you how Jesus changed my life.” The other person listened politely, but still said, “That’s great for you! I’m happy that Jesus helped you like that. But I’ve found great help in [fill in the blank]. Why should I believe in Jesus?”
In 1969, I was one of ten seminary students who spent the summer in West Los Angeles, working at the Jesus Christ Light and Power House, a ministry center near the UCLA campus. In the evenings, we often walked around the streets of Westwood where we encountered hordes of enthusiastic young people who invited us to come to meetings where they promised that our lives would be changed. They would give miraculous-sounding testimonies of ways that their lives had been changed. One young woman told me that she needed a car. She pointed to a brand new Corvette and said, “There it is!” Another told me of how she had been alienated from her mother for years, but now they had become close friends.
Was Jesus Christ the key to these changed lives? No, not at all. Rather, these enthusiastic witnesses had all begun to chant a Nichiren Shoshu Buddhist chant. I did not attend any of their meetings, but some of my friends who did said that it reminded them of a Campus Crusade College Life meeting, where glowing testimony after testimony told of how lives had been dramatically changed—not by Jesus Christ, but rather by chanting this Buddhist chant.
This leads me to ask, “How do you know that your faith in Christ is true?” If someone says that chanting a Buddhist mantra works for him, is that equally true? In other words, what is the foundation of our faith? Does it rest on personal experience: “Jesus changed my life”? While I hope that Jesus has changed your life, I also hope that you see that your faith needs a more substantial foundation than that. Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, and many with other belief systems can point to changed lives. How do we know that biblical Christianity is the only truth that will get us right with God and give us eternal life?
In 2 Peter 1:16-21, the apostle gives us two elements that make up a sure foundation for our faith: (1) the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ (1:16-18); and, (2) the written prophetic revelation of God in Scripture (1:19-21). Since we now have the apostolic witness in the New Testament, the two elements are just one foundation, the Word of God. But today we will only look at the apostolic witness. In verses 16-18, Peter is saying that…
The foundation of our faith is the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ.
Peter lays this foundation before he deals directly (chapter 2) with the false teachers that were plaguing the early church. One error of these false teachers was to deny the apostolic teaching that Jesus would return bodily to earth. They scoffed (3:4), “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.”
So in our text, Peter boldly counters these scoffers (1:16), “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The word “for” connects the thought with Peter’s previous words. The sense is, “I want you to always be able to call these things to mind after I’m gone, because they are true. We didn’t make up clever stories. We were eyewitnesses of what we are handing off to you.” So the foundation of our faith is the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. We can note four things about this apostolic witness:
Is Peter responding to the charges of the false teachers, that he was following cleverly devised tales, or he is referring to the cleverly devised tales of the false teachers in contrast to the eyewitness testimony of the apostles? Perhaps there is some of both, that the false teachers were accusing the apostles of following cleverly devised tales, but Peter is turning it back on them, saying, “It is not we who are following cleverly devised tales (as they assert), but rather they are following cleverly devised tales. We apostles are following and proclaiming what we have seen and heard.”
In verses 12-15, Peter uses the first person pronoun, I, but in verses 16 & 18, he shifts to the plural, we. He is bringing in here the testimony of the apostles, in particular, of Peter, James, and John who were with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration where they saw His majesty and glory. In verse 18, “we ourselves” is emphatic. The plural pronouns make it clear that this was not a subjective vision or dream that Peter experienced by himself. Rather, it was an actual experience that Peter, James, and John all saw and heard.
Peter explicitly denies that they were making up or following cleverly devised tales. In that day, as in every age, there were religious charlatans who made a nice living by claiming to have some new revelation that would help their followers get whatever they wanted. Like the guru in Sedona who recently came into the public eye when three of his followers died in a sweat lodge ceremony, these false teachers invariably charge a substantial fee for their services (2:15). Often they use their followers for sexual gratification (2:14, 18). They lure people by promising them something, such as freedom from their problems (2:19). But their teaching is false and so their promises never truly deliver.
The Greek word translated tales is the word from which we get our word, myths. It was often used in the Greek culture to refer to stories about the Greek gods. These stories were not literally true, but they conveyed a message that contained helpful instruction (Thomas Schreiner, The New American Commentary, 1, 2 Peter, Jude [Broadman and Holman Publishers], p. 313). Perhaps they were fables with a moral lesson, but the stories were not true.
Paul used this word negatively to refer to other false teachers. He told Timothy (1 Tim. 1:3-4) to “instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines, nor to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, which give rise to mere speculation rather than furthering the administration of God which is by faith.” He warned him (1 Tim. 4:7), “But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women.” There is nothing wrong with grandma telling her grandkids the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but it’s not true and it has no place in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul also instructed Titus (Titus 1:13-14) to reprove his hearers severely, “so that they may be sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths and commandments of men who turn away from the truth.” He was referring to unbelieving Jews who added fanciful embellishments to Old Testament stories. And in his final charge to Timothy, where he strongly exhorts him to preach the word, Paul adds (2 Tim. 4:3-4), “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
Each time he contrasts the truth with myths. Myths are made-up stories or fables. The truth refers to revelation from God through His chosen apostles and prophets as recorded in His Word (John 17:17). Such truth supremely focuses on God’s revelation in His Son who said (John 18:37), “for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth.” He also said (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” The truth about Jesus is made known to us through the witness of the apostles. They were not making up tales. Rather, they report to us what they saw and heard about Jesus.
Peter is referring here to one specific occasion, namely, when he and James and John were with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. We will look more at that in a moment. But for now I want you to see that Peter here exalts Jesus Christ as the glorious, majestic Son of God, equal with the Father. (He will mention the third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, in verse 21.)
Majesty can also be translated “splendor,” “greatness,” or “magnificence.” It is used once to refer to the greatness of God (Luke 9:43) and one other time, in the mouth of Demetrius, the Ephesian idol-maker, to refer to their “great goddess Artemis,” who was in danger of being “dethroned from her magnificence” (Acts 19:27). Here (1:16), Peter uses majesty to refer to Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, when (Matt. 17:2), “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light.” Moses and Elijah appeared there with Him (we don’t know how the three disciples identified them). Peter says (2 Pet. 1:17) that Jesus “received honor and glory from God the Father,” whom Peter also identifies as “the Majestic Glory,” who said (1:17), “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.” Glory refers to the shining brightness of Jesus’ face and clothes. Honor refers to the words of approval that came from heaven (Schreiner, p. 315).
Just prior to the experience on the mount of transfiguration, Jesus had predicted His impending death on the cross. Peter had rebuked Jesus for such a thought, only to have Jesus strongly rebuke Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan” (Matt. 16:21-23). Jesus went on to affirm that His disciples, too, would have to deny themselves and take up the cross to follow Him.
So the disciples were undoubtedly confused. If Jesus is the Messiah, then why all this talk about death on the cross? What about His reigning in power and glory on the throne of David? In that context, Jesus said (Matt. 16:28), “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” The account of the transfiguration immediately follows, where the three apostles saw Jesus in the glory that He will have in His future kingdom.
When the Father said of Jesus, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased,” it identified Jesus as the Messiah of Israel. The phrase about Jesus being God’s Son comes from the Messianic Psalm 2. In Psalm 2:6, God says, “But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.” Peter here refers to the mount of transfiguration as “the holy mountain,” because they met with God there. (We do not know exactly where it was, but it may have been somewhere on Mount Hermon.) In Psalm 2:7, Messiah says, “I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’” The psalm goes on to promise to give the Son the nations as His inheritance and that He will break them with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:15).
The part about Jesus being beloved and well-pleasing to the Father comes from another Messianic prophecy, Isaiah 42:1 (note the O.T. reference to the Trinity here), where the Father says, “Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations.” So in the context, the experience of seeing Jesus transfigured told the confused disciples, “Jesus is the glorious, majestic promised Messiah and King. His impending death on the cross does not negate His future reign in power and glory.”
Jesus is the eternal Son of God who laid aside His glory and took on human flesh through the virgin birth. As such, He is fully God and fully human, apart from sin. He did not and could not surrender any of His divine attributes, or He would have ceased to be God, which is impossible. But, He voluntarily laid aside the use of some of His divine attributes as He took on the form of a servant and became obedient to death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-8). As Charles Wesley put it in “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, hail the incarnate Deity.”
So on this one occasion, the veil was lifted and the disciples saw the intrinsic glory of Jesus that He shared with the Father before the creation of the world (John 17:5). The apostolic witness reveals this unique, glorious, majestic Son of God to us.
When Peter says (1:16), “we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” a few commentators understand it to be referring to Christ’s first coming, where His power was especially revealed in His miracles and in this revelation on the mount of transfiguration. I used to think that that was the meaning. But the word translated coming (parousia) is always used elsewhere in the New Testament in reference to Christ to refer to His second coming. Since Peter was dealing with false teachers who scoffed at the idea of Christ’s second coming (2 Pet. 3:4), almost all commentators understand “the power and coming” of 1:16 to refer to His second coming.
The meaning of verse 16, then, is that the apostles had not devised the idea of Christ’s second coming as a clever tale. As we’ll see in a moment, their experience on the mount of transfiguration was a prophetic glimpse of what it will be like when Jesus returns in power and glory. Jesus had specifically predicted that He would come again to receive His followers unto Himself in heaven (John 14:1-3). Also, when Jesus ascended into heaven after the resurrection, the angels said to the disciples (Acts 1:11), “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” Since He ascended bodily, He will return bodily. Since He ascended visibly, He will return visibly. Since He ascended suddenly, He will return suddenly.
While Christians differ over many of the details of Christ’s return, all who believe the Bible as the Word of God affirm that He will return bodily in power and glory to judge the wicked and to bring final redemption and eternal glory to His people (Heb. 9:28). All who have tasted of God’s grace in Christ are “looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus” (Titus 2:13). This is not a minor theme in the New Testament. If anyone denies the second coming of Jesus, he denies the gospel and a major part of biblical revelation. As His redeemed people, we should be living daily in the hope of His coming, longing for the day when He will appear (2 Tim. 4:8).
So the apostles specifically deny making up tales about Jesus Christ, especially with reference to His second coming. The apostolic witness centers exclusively on the person of Jesus Christ as the glorious, majestic Son of God, equal with the Father. The apostles also clearly proclaimed that Jesus Christ will return in power and glory. Finally,
The apostles witnessed Jesus’ glory and majesty from the time of His baptism to His ascension. As the apostle John put it (John 1:14), “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” So the question is, why does Peter here bring up the transfiguration as the prime example of seeing Jesus’ majesty, rather than the resurrection or the ascension?
For one thing, the transfiguration was the only time Peter saw Jesus in His majesty and glory. Stephen looked into heaven and saw the glorified Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the glory of Christ in the blinding flash of light on the Damascus Road, when he heard His voice (Acts 9:3-8). He also had the experience of being caught up into heaven, where he heard things which a man is not permitted to speak (2 Cor. 12:4). John would later see the glory of Christ on the Isle of Patmos (Rev. 1:12-20). But this was Peter’s only experience of seeing the glory of Christ, and he could never forget it.
But his main reason for referring to the transfiguration here is that it guarantees Christ’s coming again in power and glory, which the false teachers were ridiculing (3:1-4). It was a brief, prophetic display of what it will be like when the kingdom of God comes in power (Matt. 16:28; Mark 9:1; Luke 9:27). If the transfiguration was a historical event, so the second coming will be historical. It is not just a “spiritual” coming. While Jesus’ first coming presented Him as the humble, gentle, suffering servant, His second coming will be as the conquering warrior, ruling the nations with a rod of iron, judging all of His enemies (Rev. 19:11-16; Matt. 26:64).
As you consider this amazing revelation of Jesus’ glory on the mount of transfiguration, the question comes to mind, “Why did Jesus only pick Peter, James, and John to witness this event?” If it happened today with a future political leader, his press aides would have staged the event before a full stadium, with the cameras rolling. But Jesus excluded nine of the twelve and then commanded the three who saw it not to say anything about it until after He had risen from the dead (Matt. 17:9).
We can’t know the exact reasons why the Lord limited this revelation to these three, but His choice reveals His abundant grace for sinners. Jesus had just rebuked Peter by calling him Satan! He also knew that Peter would deny Him on the night before His crucifixion. James and John clamored for first place among the twelve. But the Lord picked those three, perhaps to teach us that if we know Him, it is not because of our worthiness, but rather because of His grace.
Also, the other disciples had to rely on the witness of these three. That required humility on their part. They had to set aside the pride that would have caused them to say, “Why do these three get the special revelation? They aren’t any better than we are!” True, they weren’t any better. But God chose to reveal the glory of Christ to them, and the others had to accept their witness. So do we. Have you done that?
Some think that faith means closing your eyes to all evidence and leaping blindly into the dark, hoping that somehow it will turn out well. That is stupidity, not faith. Faith is only as good as its object. To have faith in a broken-looking airplane, where the wings are held on by baling wire and the motor barely runs would be really dumb. You should put your faith only in a plane that shows evidence of being trustworthy.
In our text, we have the testimony of a man who spent more than three years with Jesus Christ. For most of those three years, he saw the humanity of Jesus. He saw Jesus hungry, tired, and finally, rejected and crucified by sinners. But he also saw Jesus feed the 5,000, walk on water, heal the sick, and raise the dead. He saw Jesus in His glory on the mount of transfiguration. He saw Him risen from the dead and he saw Him ascend into heaven, with the angelic promise that He is coming again in power and glory. This apostolic witness to Jesus Christ is the foundation of our faith.
The question is, do you accept the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ? Have you bowed before His majesty and trusted Him as your Savior and Lord? If not, why not? There is more than sufficient evidence for your faith.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2010, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation