Let’s go on an imaginary journey. Pretend you’re out for a drive in the country on a sunny summer afternoon. The sky is blue and the air is comfortable. You’re enjoying the scenery while you look around at the fields and mountains. As you drive by one house, you notice a lovely flower garden right along the road. It captures your attention so much that you keep staring at it. After your car goes past it, you look in the rearview mirror to get one last glimpse. When you finally look out the windshield, you notice the car in front of you has stopped suddenly. You slam on the brakes to keep from crashing into it.
Have you ever had something similar happen to you? You’re moving forward but looking backwards. Rather than being aware of what’s happening now, you’re concentrating on what happened then.
The nation of Israel struggled with this same issue when Jesus arrived on the scene. The Jews were longing for the Messiah to arrive. They had suffered under centuries of occupation and oppression by the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires that controlled their lands. In their hearts, they longed for the Messiah to deliver them.
They believed a series of things would happen when the Messiah did arrive. The first event to happen was the prophet Elijah would come. Malachi 4:1-5 says, “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
According to their interpretations of not only this scripture but of additional Old Testament teachings, after Elijah reappeared, the Messiah would come. When he finally did arrive, the three main things the Messiah would do was:
1) Be a warrior king who would help them overthrow the Romans and restore their nation to the glory it had centuries earlier under King David.
2) Help them keep the Old Testament Law. God told them they would be blessed if they kept it and cursed if they didn’t. Obviously, they had trouble keeping every single commandment.
3) Help them follow the teachings of the Prophets. After all, the reason God sent their nation into exile centuries earlier was because their ancestors didn’t follow God’s law or listen to the warnings of the prophets when God sent them.
The Jewish people, which included the disciples, were expecting this sequence of events to happen when the Messiah arrived. If they didn’t happen like this, the nation of Israel would automatically reject anyone who appeared to be the Messiah. This would have been fine if their interpretations of the scriptures were correct.
God had another scenario in mind. This meant God needed to change their way of thinking if they were ever going to accept the fact the Messiah was with them even though he wasn’t leading a revolution or striving to be a religious leader. The Jews needed to pay attention to the present instead of looking backwards.
God decided to give them a visual lesson to help them develop a new way of thinking. Matthew 17:1-13 tells us, “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”
We see that several important things happened on this mountain. First, Jesus was supernaturally changed in front of them. He wasn’t just a gifted teacher who could perform miracles. He was special. Perhaps the disciples needed to really think about who he was.
Second, Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah. First century Jews associated the Old Testament Law with Moses and the Old Testament prophets with Elijah. After Jesus talked with them, God said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” In essence God was saying, “Quit waiting for a Messiah to help you keep the Law and Prophets. I’m doing something new. My Son is here. Listen to him. Look forwards – not backwards.”
Third, Jesus told them to quit looking for Elijah to appear. A prophet like him already arrived in the form of John the Baptist but the people missed it.
God was doing something new right there in front of them but most people couldn’t see it. They were expecting something else which was based on looking backwards into the Old Testament Law.
Let me ask you something. What new things is God doing in your life right now? Can you see it? God does want to do new things in our lives. No, he isn’t going to send a new Messiah or change the way we receive salvation. He doesn’t need to do this. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is more than sufficient.
How does God do new things in our lives? One way is by taking us through the process the Bible calls sanctification. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 says, “3 It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister.
The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. 7 For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. 8 Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit.”
This portion of scripture starts out saying God wants us to be sanctified. It then lists some things we need to do for this to happen: avoid sexual immorality, control your body, don’t take advantage of each other and live holy lives. Sanctification happens as God works in us but it’s revealed in the way we act and in the things we say.
The meaning for the word “sanctification” in this passage is “the process or result of being made holy.” It doesn’t happen to us immediately when we accept Jesus as our Savior. It does start then but it’s a permanent process that’s still happening the moment we die. Our human nature simply won’t allow us to be completely sanctified the moment we accept Jesus as our Savior.
So, what is our part in all of this? There are two things we need to do if we’re going to be sanctified.
1) Pray for God to show us what he’s doing in our lives right now. The disciples and other Jewish leaders really did want to be faithful to God. Their problem was they couldn’t see what God was up to until he revealed it to them. Don’t be too firm with your theologies or doctrines about God. He has a way of breaking through the barriers we set for him.
2) Read the Bible, especially the New Testament, and do what it says. Jesus and the New Testament writers tell us we don’t receive salvation by following the laws and rules of the Old Testament. It comes from following Jesus. Nonetheless, they are very clear that as followers of Jesus, we are obligated to live by a moral code with high standards. We can’t be holy if we’re engaging in sexual immorality, refusing to control our bodies or cheating other people. We have to let God help us let go of those things.
We can’t force sanctification. It happens naturally when we open ourselves up to God and allow him to change us. Sometimes it’s easy. At other times, it’s the most difficult thing in our lives. It only happens as we move forward in our relationship with Jesus.