New Testament Study:

Matthew 17:1-9

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The Transfiguration

 

1After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4Peter 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.”

5While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”

6When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” He said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9As 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.”

 

In the previous chapter, Jesus spoke of His death and resurrection.  In this chapter, Jesus gives three of His disciples a taste of His glory.  “The order in which it is recorded is beautiful and instructive.  The latter part of the last chapter showed us the cross:  here we are graciously allowed to see something of the coming reward.  The hearts which have just been saddened by a plain statement of Christ’s sufferings, are at once gladdened by a vision of Christ’s glory” [Ryle, 205].  Without this vision, Christ’s glory may not have been apparent to the disciples.  Though glorified in heaven, Jesus was soon to be mocked and scourged on earth.  So even now, Christ’s glory, in the absence of faith, is not immediately apparent to us on earth.  Jesus is mocked on earth; His followers are ridiculed and persecuted.  And so, for those of us who believe in the truth of the Bible, visions of Christ’s glory, as told by eyewitnesses, are precious, edifying for our faith, and reassuring for the hope we hold so dear.

Matthew relates what happened:  “After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (vs. 1).  The phrase “After six days”, correlates this event directly with the events at the end of the previous chapter.  At the end of that chapter, Jesus made a promise:  “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28).  When commenting on this verse in last month’s issue, we pointed out that there were various events to which Jesus could have been referring (the resurrection and ascension, Pentecost, the miraculous spread of Christianity, etc.).  But, we can’t help but thinking that the primary fulfillment was the event that occurred just “after six days”.  Indeed, “some who were standing there”, namely Peter, John and James, were “led up” by Jesus to a “high mountain”.  They saw Jesus as He is glorified in the kingdom of heaven, and when He bodily returns to earth, it is the glorified Christ that the inhabitants of the earth will see as He “comes in His kingdom.” 

Jesus chose just three of His disciples to see the vision, trusting that “the conviction wrought in their minds by what they witnessed would impart itself to all the Apostles, through their tone and general influence” [Broadus, 370].  We learn that “our Lord will not use all His servants alike, but some, such as He pleases, He will make in some cases more intimate” [Dickson, 200].  Peter, James and John were clearly more intimate with Jesus than the other disciples.  They alone were chosen to see the raising of Jairus’ daughter (see Mark 5:37); and later, they alone would be chosen to witness Christ’s agony in Gethsemane.  Perhaps the vision on the mount of transfiguration was necessary to sustain their faith upon seeing Christ’s agony in Gethsemane [Spurgeon, 231].

On the mountain, “There He was transfigured before them.  His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (vs. 2).  The scene here is clearly indescribable and incomprehensible for we who were not there.  And it must have been awesome for the three disciples.  Jesus’ transfigured appearance “was intended to give the disciples some idea of the majesty in which Jesus will appear to the world, when He comes the second time, and all His saints with Him.  The corner of the veil was lifted up, to show them their Masters true dignity.  They were taught that if He did not yet appear to the world in the guise of a King, it was only because the time for putting on His royal apparel was not yet come” [Ryle, 205].

This event was not an unnecessary display of power by Jesus.  It was something that the disciples needed to see, especially given their resistance to the idea that Jesus was to be put to death.  “Christ wanted to testify that He was not dragged unwillingly to death but went to it of His own free will, to offer the sacrifice of obedience to His Father” [Calvin, 197].   The disciples needed to see His power, so that they would have no doubt that He could not be overpowered by any man, except willingly.  “And so we learn that He was subject to death because He wished to be, that He was crucified because He offered Himself.  For that same flesh which was sacrificed on the cross and lay in the tomb could have been immune from death and sepulcher, since it had already been partaker of the heavenly glory.  We are taught that although Christ took the form of a servant and existed in the world and His majesty was hidden under the weakness of the flesh, nothing had been taken away from Him, for He emptied Himself of His own free will” [Calvin 197].

“Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (vs. 3).  This event is quite beautiful in its symbolism.  With Moses representing the Law, and Elijah representing the prophets, we have the entire revelation of God pointing to Jesus.  “As to why these two appeared rather than others from the band of holy fathers, it should be sufficient for us to realize that the Law and the prophets had no other goal than Christ” [Calvin, 199].  We are told in the Gospel of Luke that the three of them—Jesus, Moses and Elijah—were speaking of Jesus’ death (see Luke 9:31).  Whenever we read of the transfiguration, we tend to focus on what a great experience this event was for Peter, John and James, but also consider what a great experience it was for Moses and Elijah:  to speak to Jesus about His sacrifice, about the event to which so many of their writings and prophecies alluded.

Peter came up with an idea:  “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’” (vs. 4).  Peter’s desire, apparently, was to stay upon that mountain, and spend time in worship of the three great men of God.  Peter, it seems to be implied, was putting Moses and Elijah on equal footing with Jesus.  God immediately responded, and made it clear that Jesus was to be more exalted than the other two:  “While [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.  Listen to Him!’” (vs. 5).  “Moses and Elijah were great men, and favorites of Heaven, yet they were but servants, and servants that God was not always well pleased in; for Moses spoke unadvisedly, and Elijah was a man subject to passions; but Christ is a Son, and in Him God was always well pleased” [Henry, 557].

Note well the message to the disciples from the mouth of God:  “Listen to Him!”  “It is better to hear the Son of God than to see saints, or to build tabernacles.  This will please the Father more than all else that love can suggest” [Spurgeon, 233].

It seems the voice of God was more awesome even than the sight of the transfiguration:  “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified.  But Jesus came and touched them.  ‘Get up,’ He said.  ‘Don’t be afraid.’” (vs. 7).  Jesus never loses an opportunity to comfort His disciples.

 “When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus” (vs. 8).  Again, we see beautiful symbolism in this event:  “Compared with God’s revelation through Him, all other revelations pale” [Carson, 387].  “Accordingly, we find the founder of the law, and the great reforming prophet, coming to attend on the Messianic King; and as they disappear, a heavenly voice calls on men to hear Him” [Broadus, 371].

Sadly for the disciples, they were still men who must live in this world, and so they could not stay on the mount of transfiguration, but were constrained to come down the mountain:  “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’” (vs. 9).  This certainly must have been a tough mountain for the disciples to come down from:  to return to the fallen world from the mountain of glory.  But they could (and we can) look forward to the blessed time when they would forever be in Christ’s glorious presence.

Surprisingly to some, “Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’” (vs. 9).  Why would Jesus instruct them not to tell anyone until after He rose from the dead?  Quite probably, the disciples were disappointed to hear this command.  “This descent in the summer morning must have been accompanied by delightful reflections on what they had witnessed.  Here was new and wondrous confirmation of their faith that Jesus was the Messiah. They would naturally wish to speak of it to the other disciples and all the people; and were doubtless surprised and disappointed when Jesus” commanded them not to tell anyone [Broadus, 372].  However, Jesus demonstrated great wisdom in giving this command.  It was an extremely practical command.  For, in the absence of the knowledge of Christ’s resurrection, who would believe the story of the transfiguration?  “The transfiguration would be as hard to believe as the incarnation itself; and there could be no practical use in making demands upon a faith which scarcely existed.  Until the greatest confirmation of all was given in our Lord’s resurrection, the vision on the Holy Mount would be rather a tax upon faith than a support of it in the case of those who did not themselves personally see it, but only heard the apostles’ report of it.  It is wise not to overload testimony.  There is a time for making known the higher truths;  for out of season these may burden, rather than assist, inquiring minds” [Spurgeon, 235].  “The discharging of the disciples to tell no one until the resurrection, teaches us that the Lord has His own set time, when He will make use of what He reveals to His servants, and will bring forth every truth in His own time, when it may be most useful” [Dickson, 202].  “Note, Christ observed a method in the manifestation of Himself; He would have His works put together, mutually to explain and illustrate each other, that they might appear in their full strength and convincing evidence.  Everything is beautiful in its season” [Henry, 560].

We, of course, are under no such restriction.  We can shout from the rooftops the glory of our Lord.  “Now that ‘the Son of man is risen again from the dead’, no doctrine needs to be kept back” [Spurgeon].