The Unseen World (Luke 9:28-36)
A week ago, I did a wedding, Carter and Rachel. In an effort to maintain tradition, they were kept apart once Rachel was in her wedding dress. Carter would not see her in the dress until she walked down the aisle. However, to get from her changing room to the foyer at the back of the sanctuary, Rachel had to walk down a hallway right next to where Carter and I were waiting. The door from the hallway was open.
Rachel’s sister Sarah said, “She’s coming. Have Carter turn away.” He turned, but he could hear them in the hallway. Not seeing one another, Rachel and Carter made small talk. Then, in those nervous pre-ceremony moments, Sarah asked me if I could pray for the bride and groom.
I stood in the doorway, straddling the door frame. I extended my arms in a posture of blessing. One arm was on one side of the wall, toward Rachel. The other was on the other side, toward Carter. We all got a laugh out of it, God included, I think. Prayer is conversation with God. It is holy and important and serious. However, God loves us and wants us to have joy and laughter. A pastor straddling a doorway trying to bless bride and groom without them seeing each other is kind of silly.
But it is more than that. The whole scene came back to me five days later as I thought about how to conceptualize the Heavenly reality all around us.
Consider this account from Luke. Peter, John, and James, feel privileged because they are invited into an intimate moment with Jesus. There are 12 disciples, but of the 12, these 3 are privileged to have this personal time with him. So, they make the exhausting climb to a summit. It is literally going to be a mountain top experience. It will also be more than they expected.
As Jesus prays, his appearance changes. He gleamed white. More than the color white, the words Luke uses to describe the event clearly communicate that Jesus instantaneously had a glow we would understand to be otherworldly. Something else was there with these disciples and Jesus and somehow Jesus was thoroughly aware of this and had always been. Yet, the disciples had been completely blind to it prior to that moment.
Then, they were blinded by it – by the realness, the glistening of that other world. As overwhelming as it was for them, Jesus effortlessly stepped from one world to the other. Jesus stood in both worlds at once.
To call it another world might not be the proper description, not if Dallas Willard is correct.[i] He believes our physical location in Heaven will be this universe; there is, in his estimation, no other universe; no other plane; no other realm. I have been saying “otherworldly,” but in truth what we are talking about is parts of this world that are always present and quite real, but unseen. By “unseen,” I mean we are unable through sensual observation to access this portion of the world.
It is here; all around us. It is real and affects us in numerous ways. But we are powerless to control or even influence the unseen world. We are affected by it but cannot affect it. This is what is referred to in Ephesians 6:10.
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[c] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Most of my dealings with this passage begin in verse 12 – “our struggle is against … cosmic powers of this present darkness.” We become sort of freaked out thinking there are demons at the dark corners of reality messing with us, harming us in sinister, indirect ways. In fact, if this is correct, that is absolutely true. There are dark forces, agents of evil. Their success comes in opposing God by injuring those loved by God. We are the beloved of God they would damage.
But the passage does not begin with “cosmic powers of this present darkness.” It begins “be strong in the Lord in the strength of his power.” A moment ago, I said we cannot access or affect the unseen portions of reality. God can because God created all the realities of the world, every realm of the universe. We have access to God in Jesus Christ.
In the armor of God, we can stand in the face of the devil’s attack. We read in Ephesians of the belt, the breastplate, the shoes, the shield, the helmet, and the sword. Those metaphors call us to truth as we understand it in Jesus. In reading the word, in our prayers and confessions, we must know him. When he is in us and we give him mastery over our lives, we are covered in his righteousness. The shoes of readiness: we are ready to share our faith when it is the driving force of our lives and something we pay attention to in prayer and devotions every day. To be ready, our faith must beat at the very heart of our lives.
Salvation is likened to a helmet and, as in other places in the New Testament, the word of God is imagined as a piercing sword. When Jesus was confronted by Satan in the beginning of his ministry, he and the devil quoted scripture at each other. Jesus’ living of the word was true whereas Satan’s was a diabolical manipulation. We have to know the word and live it. We have no authority in the unseen world, but with truth, righteousness, readiness, faith, salvation, and the word, we are in step with the God who has absolute authority.
I stood there in the doorway, standing both with bride and groom as they prepared to wed. Jesus stands astride two worlds with the bride, His church, and the bridegroom, himself in glorified, divine form. We are wedded to Him, but until that wedding, at the final judgment and resurrection on the last day, we wait. While waiting, we live in what we can see, separated from what we cannot.
The great temptation is to suppose that this waiting place is the only real place. Things that cannot be accounted for by scientific observation may be important, but religion, spirituality, theology – those are not real in the way the physical world around us is real. The world around is explained by science. That is what we are tempted to believe.
The experience of the disciples on the mountain with Jesus as He is glorified is one example of testimony that there is more. This does not negate science or lessen the importance of study and research and observation. The work of scientists is important; even divine. Scientists, operating in the work of observation and discovery obey the mandate of God to manage his world. But they do not have the last word. We look around and realize there is more here than meets the eye.
The disciples were given a glimpse into the next room of reality one that exists between where I am sitting and you are standing. On that mountain top, when Jesus was suddenly aglow with a light few humans have ever seen, the curtain separating the unseen world was pulled back just a bit.
We can’t know much by their experience. It was too short and they were short on details in their later memory of it. They were amazed by the glorious shine of Jesus. Then they noted that Elijah and Moses were with him. I have always wondered how they recognized these Old Testament saints. There was no photography back then. We do not have elaborate paintings of the ancients as we do from later periods of history. Something about peering into the unseen realm gave James, John, and Peter recognition. They knew it was Elijah and Moses. How did they know? I am sure they could not articulate how, but when they were permitted to see, they knew.
They were also overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion. In that reality, powerless, using every ounce of energy to stay awake, they heard these Old Testament giants allude to Jesus’ coming execution and glory in Jerusalem. Moses and Elijah anticipated crucifixion, resurrection, and the attraction of Jesus. The world would be drawn to God through the salvation he brought.
Peter had the temerity to speak, offering to make temporary shelters. He was not heard. Nor was he chastised. This was too much and he would have done better to stay silent, but either way, it did not matter. God moved in, thundering from the thick of the cloud that settled on them.
It is similar to the experience Moses had in Exodus, receiving the law. Job too heard God speak from swirling, fierce storm clouds. But Abraham experienced God as three men, a very different encounter. With Abraham, there was a great debate between God and the man, and the debate was appropriate. In the case of two disciples walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, Jesus sidled up as a fellow traveler. He wasn’t there; then he was. They did not recognize him. Then he broke bread, their eyes were opened, and they could see. And he was gone. In Elijah’s case, God came not in the storm, but in the silence.
God is not bound by form. Your encounter will not be Peter’s. Or John’s. Remember John, exiled on the island of Patmos. The risen Lord appeared in a frightful form and called John, in a vision, right to Heaven. For John Wesley, the 18th century evangelist and founder of Methodism, God spoke as a reassuring warming in his heart.
For me, it was a physical, but unseen impossibly heavy weight lifted off my head. I had driven to Florida to meet a group of friends. One, a young woman, was someone I thought I would eventually marry. She was not interested. It fell flat. And while it may seem small, that kind of rejection hits a young man hard. I found myself driving back to Northern Virginia alone. I thought, OK Lord. Now I have 12 hours of driving to stew. And for 45 minutes, I drove in a blind, disappointed rage. Then, I physically felt an iron weight lifted off me. No, I had not been wearing any type of headgear. My head physically weighed as much as it had when the drive started. But, something spiritual happened – something far more real than if all I had done was take off a hat. The weight lifted as God told me my story would not include marrying that young woman. God did not promise I would meet someone much better. God never made that promise. God just drew me to himself.
I go on with experiences of God worshipers in the Bible or believers through history or stories of people I know or of my own experiences. The unseen world is real. It is terrifying for those who do not come under God’s protection. Only God knows who God will cover. But we know we can turn to Christ and all who in Christ are under God’s covering. That is why the passage from Ephesians does not begin with cosmic powers of darkness. It begins commending us, the reading and listening church, to stand strong in God’s power.
At the end of the mountain top experience, the mighty voice in the cloud tells Peter, James, and John “This is my son, my beloved; listen to Him.”
There is an unseen world, one more real than we can take in with our five senses. Do we want to live in it in unrestrained joy? We seek the Holy Spirit and in the word of God we listen to and heed all Jesus has said. As elusive and possibly ominous as this all may seem, it boils down to a simple truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. We listen to him. In Him the unseen becomes seen. Or as Paul says it in 1st Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now we know only in part. Then we will know fully even as we are fully known.” For us to get from now to then, we follow Jesus.