Glimpses of Heaven
1. And after six days Jesus takes Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain by themselves,
2. And was transformed before them; and His face shone as the sun, and His garments became white as the light.
3. And behold, there was seen by them Moses and Elijah, speaking with Him.
4. And Peter answering said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if Thou willest, let us make here three tabernacles: one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5. While he was yet speaking, behold, an illuminated cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him.”
6. And the disciples, hearing, fell on their face, and feared exceedingly.
7. And Jesus coming touched them, and said, “Arise, and be not afraid.”
8. And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus only.
At the end of the previous episode, Jesus promised that “there are some standing here who shall not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” In this next episode, He fulfills His promise — but not in the way that the disciples had expected. While they are thinking about a natural kingdom with thrones, imperial status, and political power, Jesus is preparing them for a spiritual kingdom that is governed by divine truth and filled with divine love. In this next episode, Jesus gives a few of His disciples a glimpse of that kingdom.
The disciples chosen for this special privilege are Peter, James and John. Leaving Caesarea Philippi, which is situated at the foot of Mt. Hermon, Jesus now takes these three disciples to the top of that mountain and there reveals Himself to them: “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves, and was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (17:1-2). 1
This mountain-top moment, known as “the Transfiguration,” is the spiritual fulfillment of what Jesus promised at the end of the preceding episode This is “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.” It is a picture of what it is like to be in the presence of divine truth (“the Son of Man”) as it shines forth from the Word. The words “His face shone like the sun” is an image of God’s love, and “His clothes became as white as light” is an image of the truth that shines forth from that love. It is at moments like this that doubts about the divinity of the Word and the divinity of the Lord are overcome. The truth of Jesus’ divinity shines forth in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “In that day … the light of the sun shall be as the light of seven days” (Isaiah 30:26).
This glimpse of divinity is granted everyone who undergoes the combats of temptation. It is granted to all who willingly lay down their life in the service of love and wisdom, and therefore find their life. In the Word, the labors of temptation are represented by the number “six.” As it is written, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh is the Sabbath” (Exodus 20:9). And as this episode begins, we read “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, his brother, and brought them up on a high mountain.” 2
In the preceding episodes, Jesus has been teaching His disciples about the necessity of temptation, and preparing them for it. Jesus Himself will have to go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things before He will be raised up again. Similarly, we also must go through temptations so that our lower nature may be humbled and our higher nature “raised up.” These are the struggles that give us the opportunity to lay aside our selfish concerns. While the struggle can be difficult and arduous, it leads to mountain-top states. In the language of sacred scripture, this peak experience is described as “being on a high mountain with Jesus.”
When Jesus told His disciples that some of them “would not taste of death” until they saw Him coming in His kingdom, they could not have known that He was referring to Peter, James, and John. The question arises, therefore, why were these three selected, and not the others? Was it because they were specially favored? Or was it, perhaps, because of what they represented? As mentioned earlier, every disciple represents a specific spiritual principle. In this case, Peter, James, and John represent the three leading principles of our awakening spiritual life: Peter represents the principle of faith; James represents the principle of charity; and John,, who is the brother of James, represents the works of charity — that is, useful service to others. Note how closely related charity and the works of charity are: they are brothers. Since these are the three leading principles of our spiritual life, they are described as being separate from all the others: “He brought them up on a high mountain by themselves.” 3
Jesus now begins to perform another great wonder. Temporarily withdrawing them from the concerns of the body and the world, He opens their spiritual sight so that they might see heavenly things. 4
We, too, are sometimes granted an unearned glimpse of heaven so that we may be inspired to continue our journey. In this case, Peter, James, and John, are brought into an elevated spiritual state because Jesus wants to prepare them and strengthen them for the eventual temptations they will endure. Glimpses of heaven, such as this, are necessary in the beginning of regeneration. It is like the beginning of marriage when people experience a pure, heavenly love for their partner. They are convinced that they have found their true love, and will do anything for that person — even lay down their life. Recalling these glimpses of heaven can strengthen them when temptations arise. 5
On the mountain, Peter, James, and John are given a fleeting glimpse of Jesus in His Divine Humanity. The memory of this miraculous moment will serve them well throughout the temptations that lay ahead. It will also be important for them to know that Jesus is intimately connected to the Hebrew scriptures. We read therefore that “Moses and Elijah were seen along with Jesus, talking with Him” (17:3). This is a wonderful picture of the Law (Moses), the Prophets (Elijah) and Gospels (Jesus), now together as the complete Word of God — “speaking together.” In our temptation combats we need more than pleasant and delightful memories. We need more than “glimpses” of heaven. We also need the living truth of the Word, active in our minds, the law of Moses, the words of the Prophets, and the teachings of Jesus. And we need to see essential agreement among these teachings; we need to see them “speaking together.”
Peter, amazed and overwhelmed by this wonderful vision, expresses his desire to enshrine this memory in his heart forever: “Lord,” he says, “It is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles; one for You; one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (17:4). But even while Peter is still speaking, a response comes from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him’” (17:5). The voice from heaven does not say, “These are my three prophets. Hear them.” It says, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him.”
The seamless connection of every episode — even very sentence — becomes especially clear in moments like this. Our spiritual rebirth may begin with seeing some truth shining from Word — the Son of Man coming in His kingdom. But the birth process cannot stop there. It’s not just about seeing the truth; it’s about hearing the truth. “Hear Him” says the voice.
The sense of hearing surpasses the sense of sight in that what is heard goes beyond what is seen. If we say to someone, “I hear you,” it means that we not only understand the meaning of the words; we also feel the affection behind the words. In scripture, “hearing the Word of the Lord,” is not just about listening; it’s also about having an inner perception of the truth and, at the same time, a worshipful desire to obey what has been heard. 6
Accordingly, when the disciples hear this voice from heaven, they fall on their faces and are greatly afraid (17:7). True adoration and worship is from a state of profoundest humility. It is the awe one feels in the presence of divinity. In states like this we experience something akin to reverential fear — the sense of how great God is, and how humbling it feels to be in His presence. It is from this state of utmost humility that we can be touched by the warmth and light of heaven. Therefore, we read, “Jesus came and touched them and said, ‘Arise, do not be afraid’” (17:7). They obey, and immediately they experience the profoundest, most interior moment of all. We read, “When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (17:8). 7
The words, “They saw no one, but Jesus only” indicates that the whole Word points to Jesus only. In the words and life of Jesus, the whole of the law and the whole of the prophets is not only fulfilled but also infilled with more interior wisdom. Jesus becomes the way in which we understand the sacred truths contained within the Hebrew scriptures. As we read those scriptures in the light of Jesus’ teachings — lifting up our eyes — we are not just reading the words, we are hearing from the author Himself.
The Faith that Moves Mountains
9. And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one, until the Son of Man rise again from the dead.”
10. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come?”
11. And Jesus answering said to them, “Elijah indeed comes first, and shall restore all things.
12. But I say unto you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him, but have done unto him whatever they willed; so also the Son of Man is about to suffer by them”.
13. Then understood the disciples that He spoke to them concerning John the Baptist.
14. And when they had come to the crowd, there came to Him a man kneeling before Him, and saying,
15. “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic, and suffers badly; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.
16. And I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him.”
17. And Jesus answering said, “O faithless and perverse generation, till when shall I be with you? Till when shall I bear with you? Bring him hither to Me.”
18. And Jesus rebuked him; and the demon came out of him; and the boy was cured from that [very] hour.
19. Then the disciples, coming to Jesus by themselves, said, “Why could not we cast him out?”
20. And Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for amen I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say unto this mountain, ‘Pass on from here to there’; and it shall pass on; and nothing shall be impossible to you.
21. But this kind goes not out, except by prayer and fasting.”
When Peter, James and John “lifted up their eyes” and saw “Jesus only” it was the end of their mountain-top vision. While it was merely a glimpse of heaven, it was an essential part of their preparation for the spiritual combats that they would soon have to undergo. It was now time to come down from the mountain and take on the normal routines of daily life.
The case is similar in our own lives. From time to time God allows us to experience “mountaintop states” in which we catch a glimpse of how wonderfully He has been working in our lives. Perhaps some truth from the Word shines forth with great glory, and we feel uplifted and inspired. Or maybe in a moment of reflection — whether it be on a mountaintop, or even in front of the mirror while brushing our teeth — we are given an insight which brings together a number of questions that have been on our mind. We feel elevated, and lifted to new heights.
But we cannot remain there. We need to take these new insights with us as we descend the mountain, and resume our lives in the world. While Peter wants to remain on the mountain and build a tabernacle there, the reality is that the true tabernacle is in our hearts, and remains with us wherever we go. It is a living tabernacle of flesh and blood and spirit. It is an inner tabernacle that, according to Isaiah, “will not be taken down, nor shall one of its stakes ever be removed, nor any of its cords be broken” (Isaiah 33:20).
The goal, then, is to come down from the mountain without losing our inspiration. The mountaintop vision should become an integral part of us as we reach out in useful service to others. This is, of course, what Jesus has in mind for His disciples, but He cautions them about the importance of keeping this experience confidential. As they come down from the mountain, Jesus says, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (17:9).
This is not the first time that Jesus tells His disciples to be quiet about their knowledge of His divinity. Just after Peter has confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus commands the disciples to tell no one about it (16:20). And here He says something similar: “Tell the vision to no one.” Peter’s confession of faith at Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the mountaintop are important moments in the gradual revelation of Jesus’ divinity, but the disciples have still not undergone any serious spiritual challenges. They have not experienced the “sign of the prophet Jonah” — spiritual resurrection — in their own hearts. Neither have they experienced “the Son of man rising from the dead” — not just Jesus’ physical resurrection, but also some truth that Jesus has taught them rising up within them to give them life. Therefore, while they have witnessed amazing miracles and seen great visions, this is not the testimony Jesus is seeking. The only testimony He seeks from them — and from us — is the testimony which comes from a purified heart after the struggles of temptation. 8
This is why we must continually return to the plain of our everyday lives, no matter how high we have climbed in the mountains of elevated insight, no matter what kind of “emotional high” we may have experienced. No matter how high we have risen, we must return to the world of application and service. And so, as Jesus and His three disciples return from their mountaintop adventure, they are immediately given an opportunity to be useful: a man approaches the disciples and asks them to heal his son. The disciples, who have been given the power to heal and the cast out demons, are unsuccessful: “I brought him to your disciples,” the man says to Jesus, “But they were unable to cure him” (17:16).
This is the first time that the disciples have attempted to cure someone — and this first attempt is a failure. 9
Jesus appears to be displeased with them: “O faithless and perverse generation,” He says, “How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (17:17). Jesus then cures the boy instantly: “And Jesus rebuked the demon, and he came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour” (17:18).
It seems as though Jesus is upset with the disciples, calling them “faithless” and “perverse” — rather strong language — simply because they are unable to cure the demon-possessed child. What can this mean? They have just come down from a mountaintop experience where they have been given a special glimpse of Jesus’ divinity. Their faith must have been at an all-time high. Earlier, Jesus promised to give them “power over unclean spirits, to cast them out” and He commanded them to “heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons” (10:8). Why, then, could they not do so now?
Speaking privately with Jesus, they ask: “Why could we not cast him out?” And Jesus answers, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (17:20).
The story of enlightenment on the mountain followed by failure in the valley contains a vital spiritual lesson. If enlightenment is not followed by strong faith in the source of that enlightenment, the experience can lead to feelings of conceit, of being specially chosen, of being highly privileged, and therefore of being better than others. True enlightenment is just the opposite. It is always attended with a sense of humility and gratitude. It reveals to us our essentially sinful nature. We come to see that we are less worthy than others, and that we deserve hell rather than heaven. This is enlightenment. While Peter, James, and John caught a glimpse of this on the mountaintop when they fell on their faces in reverential fear, it is a lesson in humility that the disciples would still need to learn. 10
The power of humility, which is the only thing that can receive the Lord’s power, can move mountains — mountains of self-love, inordinate pride, and superiority. But this takes a special kind of faith, the faith that we have no power at all from ourselves, and that all power is from the Lord alone. 11
Jesus then explains how this faith should be practiced. Referring to the demons that had been possessing the boy, Jesus says, “This kind only goes out by prayer and fasting” (17:21). “Prayer,” in essence, is turning to the Lord and receiving the good and truth that flow in from Him; “fasting” is refusing to accept the evil and falsity that flow in from hell. 12
This is the faith that not only casts out demons, but also moves mountains.
22. And while they were occupied in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered up into the hands of men;
23. And they shall kill Him; and on the third day He shall be raised up.” And they sorrowed greatly.
24. And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received the didrachma came to Peter, and said, “Does not your Teacher pay the didrachma?”
25. He says, “Yes.” And when he had come into the house, Jesus came before him, saying, “What thinkest thou, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tribute or duty? From their own sons, or from strangers?”
26. Peter says to Him, “From strangers.” Jesus declares to him, “Therefore the sons are free.
27. But lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when thou hast opened its mouth, thou shalt find a stater; that take, and give unto them for Me and thee.”
As we descend the mountain of enlightenment, and enter daily life, there will not only be demons to cast out, but also civic duties to fulfill. A simple duty that awaits us when we “come down from the mountain” is that of paying taxes. Although tax-paying cannot compare with the majesty of our mountaintop states, or the essential work of removing evils, it still must be done. True spirituality involves all aspects of life, spiritual like as well as natural life. While we are in this world, we cannot be purely spiritual beings without also caring for temporal and worldly things. In fact, a responsible civic life provides a firm foundation for a spiritual life, even as the body provides a solid structure through which the spirit can operate. 13
Therefore, it is fitting that in the next episode Jesus is confronted with the question of whether or not it is appropriate for Him and His disciples to pay the temple tax. This was an annual tax, required of all Israelites, for the support and maintenance of the temple in Jerusalem. Since Jesus and His disciples were under the constant criticism of the corrupt temple authorities, the question of whether Jesus should pay the temple tax, or refuse to do so, is an important one. Should Jesus and His disciples continue to support a corrupt religious establishment?
Jesus is planning to pay the temple tax, but in a way that demonstrates that He does not directly support what the religious leaders have been doing. Moreover, He will use this situation as an opportunity to teach an enduring spiritual lesson about how the cares and concerns of everyday life must be subordinated to more interior, spiritual principles. In other words, spiritual values should never be ruled over, or be submissive to, materialistic concerns. The higher must rule over the lower — and never the other way around.
This is the interior lesson contained in Jesus’ words to Peter. “Go to the sea,” He says, “cast in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. And when you open the fish’s mouth, you will find a coin” (17:27). Peter does so, and, miraculously, out of the sea containing thousands of fish, the first fish he catches has a coin in its mouth. Moreover,
the coin is exactly the amount needed to pay the temple tax for both Jesus and Peter. “Take the coin,” says Jesus, “and give it to them for Me and for you” (17:27).
This is a further manifestation of Jesus’ divinity. How could He have known that a coin would be in the mouth of a fish, and that the value of the coin would be exactly enough to pay the temple tax for Him and for Peter? And, at a more interior level, how could He have had the wisdom to provide an incident that perfectly answers the difficult question about paying the temple tax?
The question is answered on two levels. First, on the most external level, Jesus seems to be saying that the Lord will always provide, even in the most miraculous of ways. Therefore, there is never any need to worry. But at a more interior level Jesus is saying that natural life, represented by a fish in the water, must serve the higher, spiritual principles of our life represented by Jesus and Peter. The fact that neither Jesus nor Peter is directly providing that support — but rather paying indirectly from a fish caught in the water — demonstrates that neither Jesus (who represents that which is Divine) and Peter (who represents faith in that which is Divine) directly supports the temple. 14
A further wonder contained in this incident involves the details of the fishing incident. These include going fishing in the sea, the hook used to catch the fish, opening the mouth of the fish, and the silver coin that is extracted from the fish’s mouth. Whenever we go to the Word and search for some truth, we are “going fishing.” The “hook” that we use is our sincere desire to be enlightened so that we might discover some truth that will help us lead better lives. The “fish” that we catch is a literal teaching from the Word; and the silver coin that we extract from the fish’s mouth is the more interior truth contained within that literal teaching; this more interior truth shines forth, like bright silver, with a direct application to our lives.
In all of this, however, we should keep in mind the most general teaching of this entire sequence episodes, beginning with the transfiguration on the mountaintop. No matter how high we rise spiritually, it all must be brought down into practical life. While this chapter begins on the mountaintop where Jesus reveals Himself to the disciples in His transfigured glory, it ends by the sea, in a simple rustic scene describing a coin found in the mouth of a fish. In this closing scene, Jesus reveals both His omniscience and His omnipotence, demonstrating that His shining glory on the mountaintop is as universal as His splendor by the sea. It is everywhere, filling the universe, and providing for each of us at every moment.
One of the more obvious takeaways is that Peter would not have to worry about the temple tax; in his case, the funds would be miraculously provided. While this should not be interpreted to mean that the Lord will always cover our financial obligations, it does provide assurance that He will abundantly fill our spiritual needs in ways that are often surprising — even as the disciples found a coin in the mouth of a fish. In His omniscience, God is guiding us at all times, arranging the circumstances of our life in every least detail — from the top of the mountain to the bottom of the sea — so as to lead us into the greatest joy we can possibly receive.
In His omniscience, the Lord perceives the possible outcomes of every decision we make. Because of this, He is with us every step of the way; He foresees the possibilities of wrong turns we might take, while simultaneously leading us — if we are willing to follow — into paths that lead to greatest joy. As the psalmist writes, “Thou wilt show me the path of life. In Thy presence is fullness of joy; at Thy right hand there are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). 15
In the miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth, Jesus reveals the omniscience of God — a divine omniscience that both foresees and provides a wonderful pathway for each of us to follow. The awareness of this profound truth can lead us into surrender to the Lord’s will, faith in His leading, and, finally, into states of profoundest humility. 16