MATTHEW 16-17 THE CONTEXT
Chapter 16 sets the stage for the Transfiguration. When Jesus asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). Jesus blesses Peter, and tells the disciples to tell no one. He then tells them that he must suffer and die. Peter rebukes him, and Jesus responds by saying, “Get behind me, Satan” (16:23). He also begins to teach them that discipleship involves a cross. Chapter 16, then, establishes Jesus’ identity, mission and method.
The Transfiguration stands in sharp contrast to the humiliation about which Jesus warned the disciples in chapter 16. On the mountain, Jesus is glorified–a preview of the Godly majesty that he will experience after the Ascension!
But the mountaintop experience is brief. When Jesus and the disciples come down from the mountain, the father of the epileptic child begs Jesus for help (17:14-21). Jesus and the disciples are thrust into the maelstrom of ministry. Jesus will experience eternal glory only through the cross.
MATTHEW 17:1-9. MOSES & JESUS
Matthew includes a number of parallels between Jesus and Moses in this passage:
• Six days (v. 1) parallel the six days that the cloud covered Mount Sinai before Moses ascended it (Exodus 24:16).
• The high mountain (v. 1) parallels Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12).
• The three disciples (Peter, James and John) parallel the three men (Aaron, Nadab and Abihu) who were invited to worship with Moses (Exodus 24:1) and who were later ordained as priests (Exodus 28:1).
• Jesus’ shining face (v. 2) parallels Moses’ shining face after his encounter with God (Exodus 34:29). This is a particularly strong parallel. Moses’ shining face was a powerful image for Israel. However, his shining face was a reflection of God’s glory, while Jesus’ shining face reflects his inner glory.
• God speaks from a cloud (v. 5), paralleling God’s call to Moses from a cloud (Exodus 24:16).
• God says, “Listen to him,” (v. 5), paralleling “You shall listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
• The disciples are afraid (v. 6), paralleling the fear of the Israelites when they saw Moses’ shining face.
• “Faithless and perverse generation” (v. 17) parallels “perverse and crooked generation” (Deuteronomy 32:5).
The church has, at the same time, loved this story and not known what to do with it. It is mysterious—beyond our everyday experience—difficult to understand. At its core, it is simply a revealing to the disciples (and to the church at large) of Jesus’ identity. It is God’s stamp of approval on Jesus and the path upon which he has set his feet—a path that he has just revealed to the disciples (16:21-23)—a path that will lead to the cross.
MATTHEW 17:1. UP INTO A HIGH MOUNTAIN
1After six days, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them up into a high mountain by themselves.
“After six days” (v. 1a). Six is an important number in the Bible. God created the world in six days, resting on the seventh. Hebrew slaves were required to work for their master only six years, being freed on the seventh.
“Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John his brother” (v. 1b). Three disciples—Peter, James, and John—accompany Jesus to the mountain, just as Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu accompanied Moses (Exodus 24:1-9). We might wonder why Jesus chooses these three disciples to accompany him in the key moments of his life. Peter’s importance as the leader of the disciples is self-evident. John is traditionally considered to be “the one whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23), making him another obvious choice.
The three disciples, Peter, James and John, will not appear again as the inner circle until Gethsemane (26:37). There they will accompany Jesus as he struggles through the night that culminates with his arrest (Matthew 26:36ff). The Transfiguration and Gethsemane are the two most intimate experiences that Jesus shares with his disciples, and the same three disciples witness both.
Peter will mention the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-18.
“brought them up into a high mountain” (v. 1c). Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain, where they will see Elijah and Moses and hear the voice from the cloud. This contrasts with Moses’ Sinai experience, where he took Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu with him to the mountain, but only Moses was allowed to come into the presence of God (Exodus 24:1-2).
The mountain is not named:
• Mount Tabor, located between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, is a possibility, but Matthew speaks of a “high mountain” and Tabor is only 1900 feet high (580 meters)—and in Jesus’ time, a fortress occupied its summit, making it an unlikely site for a private gathering.
• Mount Hermon is 9200 feet high (2800 meters), but is remote—almost as far north as Damascus—making it an unlikely place for Jesus and the disciples to encounter a great crowd, including scribes, on their descent (Mark 9:14).
• Mount Meron, 4000 feet high (1200 meters) and located 12 miles northwest of the Sea of Galilee seems a strong possibility (Blomberg).
However, the exact location is less important than what happens there. The high mountain symbolizes the place where heaven and earth meet—the place where God is revealed. The high mountain is also reminiscent of Mount Sinai, where Moses encountered God with such great consequence.
“by themselves” (v. 1d). This phrase and the mention of the high mountain emphasize the privileged nature of this experience.
MATTHEW 17:2. HE WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM
2He was transfigured (Greek: metemorphothe) before them. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light.
The Greek word for “transfigured” is metemorphothe, from which we get the word metamorphosis. We use this word to describe the change that occurs when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly. Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” This reminds us of Moses at Sinai. After his encounter with God, Moses’ face shone so brightly that the people were frightened and Moses had to wear a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-35). The disciples know the Moses story and surely make this connection.
The New Testament includes other similar images (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; Luke 24:4; John 20:12; Acts 1:10). Paul promises that we who have seen the Lord’s glory shall also be transformed “into the same image, from one glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Revelation speaks of the Son of Man’s face “like the sun shining with full force” (Revelation 1:16).
MATTHEW 17:3. MOSES AND ELIJAH
3Behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them talking with him.
Why Moses and Elijah? “These two men…symbolize the coming of the messianic age, and their conversation with Jesus marks him out the more clearly as the Messiah who comes as the climax to their eschatological role” (France, 648).
• They represent the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), the most authoritative portions of the Hebrew Scriptures—and they are two of the most important Old Testament figures.
• They are both associated with the “Mountain of God” (Exodus 18:5; 1 Kings 19:8).
•The Jews thought of Elijah’s return as ushering in the messianic age. In addition to Elijah’s appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as Elijah (Matthew 17:10-13).
Matthew tells us nothing of the content of Jesus conversation with Moses and Elijah, but Luke tells us that they speak of Jesus’ departure (Greek: exodon—from exodus)—”which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31)—an obvious reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension.
MATTHEW 17:4. THREE TENTS
4Peter answered, and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, let’s make three tents (Greek: skenas) here: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
“Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Peter apparently believes that it is good that the three disciples accompanied Jesus so that they can take care of a needed chore—making three dwellings.
“if you want, let’s make three tents” (skenas). Peter offers to make three tents or booths or dwellings (skenas), one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah—accommodations worthy of these august men. He couches his proposal carefully, addressing Jesus as Lord, acknowledging the honor that the disciples are experiencing, and adding, “if you wish.” The last time Peter opened his mouth, Jesus soundly rebuked him (16:21-23), and Peter is being careful not to repeat that experience.
Why three tents (skenas)? Nobody knows for sure. There are several possibilities:
• Skenas brings to mind the Tabernacle—the dwelling place of God in the midst of the people on their wilderness journey. If it was appropriate for God to dwell in a tent in the wilderness, it must be appropriate for Jesus to dwell in a tent on the mountain.
• Skenas also brings to mind the Feast of Tabernacles. Zechariah 14:16-19 prophecies that the remnants of the nations will go up to Jerusalem year after year to worship the King, an allusion to the messianic age.
• Or Peter may be trying to prolong this mountaintop experience and avoid the time when the disciples will go down the mountain into the world again.
• Or Peter, a man of action, may simply feel the need to do something. After the resurrection, Peter will exhibit the rock-steady maturity that Jesus attributed to him in chapter 16. But not yet! After the resurrection, Peter will be a Rock. Right now, he is a Flake! He does not possess the self-discipline to listen or wait, but speaks and acts without restraint. Why tents? They just happen to be the first thing that pops into his mind—not without reason, as noted above—but the first thing that pops into his mind—a plan of action that, if Jesus approves, will allow Peter to get busy. He is comfortable being busy. It is a way of gaining control in an out-of-control situation. We will see this again in a storm (14:28-31) and at Gethsemane (26:51). At the Transfiguration, Peter’s plan of action has as much to do with finding his own comfort zone as it does with honoring Jesus.
The following events make it obvious that Peter’s suggestion is misguided. What is his mistake? It could be that he errs by trying to prolong this brief experience. It might also be that he errs by making Jesus just one of three instead of the sole focus for this Transfiguration event.
Peter was an action man rather than a contemplative one. Both action and contemplation are needed–and the trick is determining which is required at a given moment.
We who tend to be eternally busy need to hear that! There is a time for action, but there is also a time for prayer—for studying the scriptures—for listening—for reflection—for meditation. Our actions are more likely to obtain the desired results if we first take time to pray, to read, to listen, to reflect, and to meditate. The old adage says, “Haste makes waste,” and that is certainly true. Equally problematic is the fact that our busyness often stands in the way of clear thought. Also, it is often an excuse for avoiding close personal relationships.
MATTHEW 17:5. A VOICE CAME OUT OF THE CLOUD
5While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Behold, a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
“While (Peter) was still speaking” (v. 5a). The voice interrupts Peter—otherwise how can God get a word in edgewise? God repeats his words at Jesus’ baptism (3:17), adding “listen to him.” These few words summarize the meaning of the Transfiguration. On this mountain, God reveals Jesus as God’s son—the beloved—the one in whom God is well pleased—the one who teaches with God’s authority—the one to whom we must listen.
“behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them” (v. 5b). Again the cloud is reminiscent of Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai, where “the cloud covered the mountain… (God) called to Moses out of the cloud… (and) the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel” (Exodus 24:15-17). God often made appearances in a cloud (Exodus 13:21-22; 19:16; 33:9-10; 34:5; 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10-11).
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v. 5c). These are the same words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism (3:17)—but there it was not clear who heard the voice. Here the disciples hear the voice. Its message is directed at them.
“Listen to him!” (v. 5d). God’s words, “listen to him,” remind us of Moses’ words to the Israelites: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
God commands the disciples (and the early church—and us) to listen to Jesus. In the early church, there is no New Testament canon. Christians are faced with the question of authority. To what extent must they observe Old Testament law, especially in situations where Jesus’ example gives a new twist to the old law? God answers, “Listen to him!” We, too, are faced with serious doctrinal and ethical questions. How do we find our way in an increasingly complex world? God answers, “Listen to him!”
MATTHEW 17:6. THE DISCIPLES WERE VERY AFRAID
6When the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces, and were very afraid.
“they fell on their faces, and were very afraid” (v. 6b). Fear is a common response when confronted with God or angels (14:6; 28:4-10; Luke 1:13; 1:30; 2:10; 8:35). “The fear of the Lord” is a common phrase in the scriptures (2 Chronicles 17:10; 19:7, 9; Job 28:28; Psalm 19:9; 34:11; 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, etc.), and captures a sense of awe regarding God. The Jewish people revere God so highly that they avoid pronouncing God’s name lest they inadvertently make wrongful use of it (Exodus 20:7).
Today we have lost this sense of holy awe. We are so fond of the idea that we have been created equal that we resist acknowledging that even the creator might be of a higher order. When Loretta Lynn was chided for calling her old friends, President and First Lady Carter by their first names, she responded, “I call Jesus by his first name.” Cute story! But our loss of reverence is not harmless. It does not diminish God, but it does diminish us. The person who stands in God’s presence without reverence is far worse than the barbarian who is unable to appreciate fine art or beautiful music.
MATTHEW 17:7. DON’T BE AFRAID
7Jesus came and touched them and said, “Get up, and don’t be afraid.”
“But Jesus came and touched them” (v. 7a). Jesus has been restored to his usual self, and reassures his disciples with his touch. Any kind touch has the ability to sooth, but Jesus’ touch has the power to heal (8:3, 15; 9:20-21, 29; 14:36; 20:34).
“Get up and don’t be afraid” (v. 7b). This is similar to Daniel 10:5-12, where God reassured a fearful Daniel with a loving touch and encouraging words. Later, Jesus will touch a leper and cleanse him with the words, “Be made clean” (8:3). He will touch the eyes of two blind men and heal them (9:29). Jesus’ touch not only comforts the disciples, but it also reassures them that this is the real Jesus and not just a vision.
“Don’t be afraid” is a frequent scriptural theme. Fear is a common human experience, but scripture includes Godly reassurances that God’s people have nothing to fear from God or man (Exodus 14:13; Joshua 11:6; 2 Kings 19:6; Nehemiah 4:14; Isaiah 40:9; 43:1-7; Matthew 14:27; 28:10; Mark 5:36; Acts 18:9; Revelation 1:17-18).
MATTHEW 17:8. THEY SAW NO ONE, EXCEPT JESUS ALONE
8Lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus alone.
Each of the Synoptic Gospels includes this verse (see Mark 9:8; Luke 9:36)—a measure of its importance. God acknowledged Moses and Elijah by having them appear with Jesus in the revelatory moment, but the voice speaks only of Jesus. Moses and Elijah are gone, and Jesus alone remains. We are reminded of our debt to Moses and Elijah but, in the final analysis, only Jesus is savior.
This is an uncomfortable word in a multicultural world—in churches that prize tolerance, sometimes as their highest value. It is, nevertheless, the clear word of the New Testament. Moses and the prophets are helpful, but in the end, there is only Jesus. Science and education can be helpful, but in the end, there is only Jesus. Medicine can be helpful, but in the end, there is only Jesus. Music and art can be helpful, but in the end, there is only Jesus. Jesus alone! That needs to be the focus of our proclamation.
MATTHEW 17:9. DON’T TELL ANYONE
9As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw, until the Son of Man has risen (Greek: egerthe—passive voice—has been raised) from the dead.”
“Don’t tell anyone what you saw” (v. 9b). In the previous chapter, Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus commended him for his insight. Then Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah” (16:20). Then Jesus told the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). Now Jesus instructs Peter, James and John, “Don’t tell anyone what you saw, until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
“until the Son of Man has risen (egerthe—has been raised) from the dead” (v. 9c). Jesus has foretold his death at 16:21, and will soon do so again at 17:22-23 and 20:17-19.
Timing is important! Once Jesus is revealed publicly as Messiah, things will move quickly. Jesus has work to do yet, and that work will be interrupted if he is revealed too early.
Even more to the point, the disciples do not yet understand what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. He told them that he will suffer and die in Jerusalem, but the disciples do not understand. They still carry the old model of Messiah in their heads and hearts. Only after the resurrection will the light begin to dawn for them. Only after the resurrection will the disciples be able to proclaim Christ, because only after the resurrection will they understand him.
The truly amazing thing is how quickly the disciples will forget. Peter, James and John have seen Jesus revealed in glory, but their courage will fail them at the cross. Peter will deny Jesus three times. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us. We, too, have experienced the hand of God in our lives, but we find faith difficult when trouble looms.
We, too, experience Transfiguration moments–but not often and never on demand. We live on the plains rather than on the mountaintop. Nevertheless, God will occasionally permit us to ascend to the heights and to glory in what we see there. However, our discipleship will be most complete if we will keep our spiritual eyes open to see the glory that more often manifests itself in our daily lives. The daily grind is where we live. Let us find the glory that is present even there.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan