By: Dick Donovan
SCRIPTURE: Matthew 17:1-9
1Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.
4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well
pleased; listen to him!” 6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
CHAPTERS 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 Messiah, 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.” 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! The three disciples are privileged to hear God’s voice of approval! But the mountaintop experience is brief. When they come down from the mountain, the
father of the epileptic child begs Jesus for help. Jesus and the disciples are thrust into the maelstrom of ministry. The cross stands between Jesus and his eternal glory.
VERSES 1-9: MOSES & JESUS
Matthew emphasizes the parallels between Jesus and Moses. There are a number 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 (Exod 24:12).
— The three disciples (Peter, James and John) parallel the three men (Aaron, Nadab and Abihu) who were invited to worship with Moses (Exod 24:1) and who were later ordained as priests (Exod 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 in Israelite history.
— God speaks from a cloud (v. 5), paralleling God’s call to Moses from a cloud (Exod 24:16).
— God says, “listen to him,” (v. 5), paralleling “you shall heed such a prophet” (Deut 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 — beyond the lectionary passage) parallels “perverse and crooked generation” (Deut 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.
VERSE 1: UP ON A HIGH MOUNTAIN
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.”
The mountain is not named. Mounts Tabor and Hermon are likeliest. Tabor seems an unlikely choice for a great occasion. It is not very high, hundreds rather than thousands of feet. In Jesus’ time, a fortress occupied its summit, making it an unlikely site for a private gathering. Hermon, on the other hand, is a high mountain. “The high mountain symbolizes the border zone between earth and heaven, between the material and the spiritual” (Hare, 198). The exact location is less important than what happens here. We must not confuse geography and theology (Boring, 363).
The three disciples, Peter, James and John, will not appear again as the inner circle until Gethsemane. There they will accompany Jesus as he struggles through the night that culminates with his arrest (Matt 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.
VERSE 2: HE WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
The Greek word is metemorphothein, 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 (Exod 34:29-35). The disciples surely know the Moses story and make this connection.
The New Testament includes other similar images. 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 Cor 3:18). Revelation speaks of the Son of Man’s face “like the sun shining with full force” (Rev 1:16).
VERSE 3: MOSES AND ELIJAH
“Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.”
Why Moses and Elijah?
— They represent the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah), the most authoritative portions of the Hebrew Scriptures.
— They “were both prophets who were initially rejected by the people but vindicated by God.. They thus represent the heavenly world of divine vindication, the world to which, from Matthew’s post-Easter perspective, Jesus also belongs” (Boring, 363).
VERSE 4: THREE BOOTHS
“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah'”
Peter offers to make three tents or booths or dwellings (Greek skene), one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. 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 trying to avoid a repeat of 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. “Zech. 14:16-19 prophesies that all nations will come up to Jerusalem to worship at the feast of Tabernacles. Peter may think that the final age is come” (Johnson, 460).
— 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 when he is busy. The less comfortable Peter finds himself, the more driven he is to do something. 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.
VERSE 5: A VOICE FROM THE CLOUD
“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ ”
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” (Exod 24:15-17). God often made appearances in a cloud (Exod 13:21-22; 34:5; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11). 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” (Deut. 18:15).
“While (Peter) was still speaking….” The voice interrupts Peter — otherwise how can God get a word in edgewise? God’s words repeat God’s 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..
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!”
VERSE 6: OVERCOME BY FEAR
“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
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, and captures a sense of awe regarding God. The Jewish people revere God so highly that they avoid pronouncing God’s name.
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! Harmless enough! But our loss of reverence is not harmless. It does not diminish God, but does diminish us. The person who stands in God’s presence without reverence is worse than the barbarian who is unable to appreciate fine art or beautiful music.
VERSE 7: DO NOT BE AFRAID
“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
This is similar to Dan 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 with the words, “According to your faith let it be done to you” (9:29). On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus dispels fear by touching the disciples and saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
VERSE 8: THEY SAW NO ONE EXCEPT JESUS
“And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
Each of the synoptic Gospels includes this verse (Mark 9:8; Luke 9:36), an indication of its importance. God has acknowledged Moses and Elijah by having them appear with Jesus in the revelatory moment, but the voice has spoken only of Jesus. Now 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 “where God’s word is understood plurally or pluralistically rather than singularly and exclusively — where God is felt to speak almost as authoritatively in Moses (or Gandhi) as in Jesus… (Bruner, 608). It is, nevertheless, the clear word of the
VERSE 9: TELL NO ONE
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ ”
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, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Why the secrecy? 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 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.
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