Matthew 17:1-13

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Matthew 17

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

It is often said that scripture is the best commentary on scripture. I agree with that completely! In other words, the Bible informs the Bible and we should read each individual verse and chapter in relation to the whole. We should be “whole bible theologians.”

It is exciting, then, when we find in scripture a character from an earlier scene commenting later on the scene in which he appeared. This is the case with Peter’s comments on the transfiguration (as recorded in Matthew 17) in his first chapter of his own second letter. In 2 Peter 1:16-19 Peter comments on what it was like to be up on the Mount of Transfiguration. As such, we will allow his comments about the significance of what happened there to guide our reading of Matthew 17.

The transfiguration confirms the person and work of Jesus.

Peter begins his reflection on being on the Mount of Transfiguration with a statement of confirmatory power of what they saw there. In 2 Peter 1 he writes:

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

He begins by saying that “we,” meaning the apostles, were neither following nor passing on “cleverly devised myths” about Jesus.  On the contrary, Peter and James and John were “eyewitnesses” to that which they taught. In saying this, Peter was making the same point that John would make in 1 John 1.

1 That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

And Paul, of course, will make the same point about the value of eyewitness testimony in the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15, naming Peter (Cephas) specifically.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.

This matters. This is how we know that the beginning of Matthew 17 is not filler.

And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

The obvious question is “Why?” Why, if Jesus did not have to take anybody with Him, did He choose to take these three: Peter, James, and John? Based on what Peter will say later, surely it was to confirm to eyewitness the truth about who Jesus is and what He is doing in the world. So He takes them with Him in order to provide powerful, dramatic, memorable confirmation of the reality of His person. And what is the truth He wanted to reveal? Peter tells us: “but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”

The truth that the eyewitnesses needed to see was the majesty of Jesus! His glory! His deity! His power!

He gives them a glimpse of the shocking truth beneath the humility of His incarnate state: namely, that He is no mere man. He is a man, but He is more than a man. He is the God of glory, clothed in majesty!

And this served to confirm what Jesus was revealing and what the apostles were passing along. They were not, then, following myths. There was the truth of the Kingdom in all that Jesus said and did. The apostles’ words could be believed because of the unbelievable greatness of Jesus!

The transfiguration reveals the majesty of Jesus.

We have said that the transfiguration revealed Jesus majesty. Indeed it did! In 2 Peter 1 Peter reveals just how great of an impact this had on him.

16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

The words paint a vivid picture:

  • Majesty
  • Honor
  • Glory

We see, again, the reason for Jesus wanting the inner circle to see this revelation. It changed them dramatically. These years later in writing his letter, this is what Peter goes back to.

And so great was the impact on Peter that he uses this to name God: “the Majestic Glory.” Wow! How life-changing this was! The Father is “the Majestic Glory” who reveals the majesty, honor, and glory of the Son! Here is how Matthew 17 depicts the glory of Jesus revealed in the transfiguration.

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.

He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

The imagery of light is prevalent: “shone like the sun,” “white as light,” “a bright cloud.” Light! Light! Light! The majesty of Jesus is revealed in the light of the transfiguration.

This must have moved Moses who himself knew what it was to have his face aglow with the glory after standing before the Lord on a mountain! But here Moses is in the presence of a majesty brighter and greater than that which emanated from His face. Moses’ brightness was derivative. Jesus’ brightness was innate. Moses reflected the diving glory. Jesus emanated the glory that is His!

I love that old Jack Hayford song:

Majesty, worship His Majesty.
Unto Jesus be all glory, honor and praise!
Majesty, Kingdom Authority,
Flow from His throne, unto His own
His anthem raise!

So exalt, lift up on high the Name of Jesus!
Magnify, come glorify, Christ Jesus the King.
Majesty, worship His Majesty;
Jesus who died, now glorified, King of all kings!

Peter wants the church to know that they can trust this glorious Jesus because he himself was allowed to see a glimpse of the glory. Peter’s mind was fixed on the majesty of Jesus, even given his colossal failure that followed the transfiguration. The majesty had abiding power. He could not shake the image or the thought of it. And we too must remember: the darkness does not win and the light has not been extinguished. The glory is still there in Jesus and Jesus will win the day!

The transfiguration challenges us to pay closer attention to Jesus!

There is another challenge to us here in this account of transfiguration. Peter, in 2 Peter 1, approaches it in a unique way.

19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts

First of all, it must be noted that verse 19 follows logically and necessarily from what Peter has just said. That is, it is because of the transfiguration that Peter is going to draw the conclusion he now draws. And the first part of it is that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed.” In other words, because Jesus has revealed His glory, we can now have even more confidence in the Word of God delivered to and through the prophets. The transfiguration serves not only as confirmation. It serves also as something like an afterburner, it makes the truth even bigger and grander and more unavoidable. It gives it even more boost and pickup and force and power. The truth is “more fully confirmed” by what Jesus has shown. Thomas Schreiner writes of Peter’s language that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed”:

…the transfiguration renders more certain the interpretation of the prophetic word. The word bebaioteronshould be taken in context as signifying a comparison, so that the transfiguration provides confirmation of the interpretation of the prophetic word. The transfiguration, then, is not conceived as more or less reliable than the prophetic word. It provides a confirmatory interpretation of that word…[1]

The practical result of this, Peter tells us, is that we “will do well to pay attention as to a lamp in a dark place.” This call to pay closer attention in light of the transfiguration is powerful, but it was one that Peter had to learn himself even in the midst of the transfiguration. There is a humorous note in Matthew 17, if we read it rightly.

And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.

First, it is so funny that Peter’s initial takeaway is that it “is good that we are here.” Then Peter springs into action, offering to build “three tents” for Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Verse 5 adds an additional humorous note by observing that God interrupts Peter while “he was still speaking.” And what does God say: “Listen to Jesus! Pay attention! Stop talking!” Then, thankfully, Peter stops talking and the three men fall on their faces in terror.

All of this is to say that Peter’s challenge to pay attention was hard earned and a lesson he had to learn himself. This is not a time to prattle on! Neither is this a time to try to do something. No, this is a time to sit in awestruck wonder and silence before the glory of King Jesus and learn in worshipful repose at His glorious feet.

The transfiguration gives us great confidence in the truth, but we must first hear and learn it in order to believe it! So be still and marvel before the great God of heaven and earth. See in Christ the reality of His majesty and glory. Speak less and listen more. Do not succumb to the idol of business, but rather fall on your face at the feet of King Jesus. His is the power and the glory. Do not attempt to speak over the revelation of His greatness. His greatness is what we most need!

 

[1] Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude. The New American Commentary. Vol. 37 (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2003), p.320.

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