An old saying goes like this, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgment.” But sometimes our poor judgment results in consequences that keep us from the learning what is necessary to developing good judgment. So, we would be wiser to “learn from the mistakes of others, because we will never live long enough to make them all ourselves.” I think this is one of the reasons God inspired the biblical writers to include so many stories of failure. Paul certainly thought so: “Now these things happened to [Israel] as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11; cf. Romans 15:4). In the story of his transfiguration, we see that Jesus learned this way and that we can share stories of our failures to strengthen and encourage others who are facing difficult futures.
One of the questions that nagged at me for a long time was why Moses and Elijah were chosen to speak with Jesus on the mountain. Of the many Old Testament saints, why send these two? As we examine the lives of these two men, we’ll see that they were alike in one way: God cut both of their ministries short because of their failures. More importantly, they were relieved for reasons which were directly related to the situation Jesus faced just prior to his crucifixion (Matthew 17:3, 22).
Moses, while successful in many of his ministry tasks, failed miserably in one situation. For this failure God kept him from entering the promised land with the rest of the nation. During the exodus from Egypt, God provided water for the people by having Moses strike a rock with the rod he used to part the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 17). Later, after they’d wandered in the wilderness for some years, the Israelites again needed water. This time God told Moses to speak to the rock. But Moses became so angry at the people for their failure to trust God to care for them, that he struck the rock, saying, “Shall [Aaron and I] bring forth water for you out of this rock?” (Numbers 20:10). While God graciously allowed water to come out, he did not wait long to confront Moses: “Because you did not trust me—that is, treat me as holy before the Israelites—you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (20:12). Just in case we lose sight of what happened here, the psalmist reminds us of the relationship between Moses’ anger and his sin: “They angered him at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips” (Psalm 106:32–33).
So, it seems to make sense that the Father sent Moses to talk with Jesus as he reached the final stage of his ministry; a time in which he experienced an almost total lack of faith in God by the people he was sent to save. The Bible doesn’t record the conversation. But, among other topics, I think we might have heard Moses warn Jesus not to let his temper get the better of him. Jesus had already avoided falling prey to Satan’s suggestion that he save himself by turning a stone to bread. Now the stakes are higher; it was not just his life but his mission that was at stake. In his anger at the unbelief of the people (e.g., Mark 3:5), he might speak and act rashly, as Moses did. If he were to do so, taking his success into his own hands rather than leaving it in the Father’s, he would only be temporarily successful, as Moses was. To keep him from being overwhelmed by this desire, God sent Moses to warn him of the consequences he’d experienced for such an act of unbelief: calling attention to himself, rather than to God who empowers him and whom he represents, is not treating God as holy, as one who has infinite, unexcelled and irreplaceable worth. Evidently Jesus listened to Moses, because Peter wrote later: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. … When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21–23). … [Next week: Elijah]