The Transformation of Jesus

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; 2 and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. 7 But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” 8 When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

9 Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

10 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

11 Jesus answered and said to them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. 12 But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist. — Matthew 17:1-13.

He was transfigured before them (v.2) — The term “transfiguration” comes from the Latin Vulgate. The compound Greek term used here is metamorphē from which we get the English term metamorphosis or transformation. The theological inference is that Jesus’ eternal divine nature broke through His human nature.

His face shone like the sun – His face radiated as the sun. “His countenance was like the sun shining in its strength” (Revelation 1:16b).

His clothes became as white as light. White is uniquely associated with heaven/heavenly beings/glorified saints.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him (v.3) — There has been much discussion as to why it was Moses and Elijah. Some say they represent the Law and the Prophets. They were both eschatological figures, Moses out of Deuteronomy 18 and Elijah out of Malachi 4. Both of them represented the old order and were encouraging Jesus as He was inaugurating the new order. How the disciples knew that it was Moses and Elijah is uncertain unless they were dressed in a characteristic way, by their speech, or Jesus told them. (Matthew was writing years after the event and the truth of the details would have been explained to him.)

Like the miracles and predictions of Jesus, this experience was as much for these disciples’ faith and spiritual growth (cf. Matt. 17:5) as it was for Jesus’ encouragement.

Peter answered and said to Jesus (v.4). — Peter answered a question that was never asked. [What question did Matthew have in mind that Peter answered?]

“[L]et us make here three tabernacles” — What Peter is implying is, “Let us stay up here. This experience is so wonderful and spiritual.” This was possibly the reason why this account was preserved for us – Jesus showing Himself to be truly God to the disciples and their attempt to turn Him away (cf. Matt. 16:22-23) from His preordained death (cf. Mark 10:45). In the same context (cf. Matt. 19:16-17), Jesus tells again of His impending death (cf. Matt. 17:9-13, 22-23).

[A] bright cloud overshadowed them, and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud (v.5). — Greek has “cloud giving light”. This bright cloud was related to the Shekinah cloud of glory of the Old Testament, which was a symbol of the personal presence of God. This cloud appeared once before at Jesus’ baptism (cf. Matt. 3:17). Peter alludes to it later in 2 Pet. 1:17-18. There may even be some connection between God speaking out of this cloud and the rabbinical concept of the bath kol (heavenly or divine voice), which was the way during the inter-biblical period of confirming the will of God since there was no prophet.

This phrase “overshadowed them” (episkiasen) is from the same Greek root used to refer to the conception of Jesus by the Spirit in the virgin Mary in Luke 1:35.

What God said is significant. The parallel in Luke combined a quote from Ps. 2:7 (My Son) and Isa. 42:1 (My Chosen One, cf. Luke 9:35). Psalm 2 is a royal Davidic Psalm and Isaiah 42 is the beginning of the Servant Songs of Isaiah. Here we have the full deity of Jesus combined with the ministry of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (cf. Mark 9:28; Luke 9:28-36). This reflects the prophecy of Gen. 3:15. In this vision, God is indicating, “You have the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) [representing the Old Order]. This is my Chosen Son! Listen to Him [the New Order].”

“Hear Him!” —To be a follower of Jesus not only invoked a spiritual understanding of His person and mission, but also an obedience (see Deut. 18:20)!

We are here reminded of Hebrews 1:1-4:

God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; 3 who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.

[T]hey fell on their faces and were greatly afraid (v.6). — The people of the Bible believed that to see God was to die (cf. Exod. 33:20-23; Jdgs. 6:22-23; 13:22; John. 1:18; 6:46; Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 6:16; 1 John. 4:12). God’s voice terrified these Apostles as it had earlier terrified the people of God at Mt. Sinai (cf. Exod. 19:16). Remember, Matthew presented Jesus as the second law giver, or the second or new Moses (cf. Deut. 18:15).

Jesus came and touched them (v.7). — They were asleep (cf. Luke 9:32). They had a vision (v.9). This could have been a nighttime experience where the glory of Jesus may have shone all the more brilliantly against the background of the night sky. This touch was a gesture of Jesus’ care for them.

“Arise, and do not be afraid” — Get up. We cannot remain on the mountain. Jesus reassures them that they should not be afraid of this experience of the closeness of God. It should promote action, not fear!

“Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (v.9). — This is the Messianic secret (cf. Matt. 8:4; 9:30; 12:16; 16:20; Mark 1:44; 3:12; 5:47; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9; Luke 4:41; 5:14; 8:56; 9:21). Luke 9:30 says that they told no one. The problem was, what were they going to tell? Jesus was already having problems being known as a miracle healer and the gospel was not yet finished. There would come a time, as Jesus mentioned in Matt. 17:9, after He had been raised from the dead (He told them this several times in several ways, but they never seemed to hear it or get its implications), that the scriptural content of this encounter would be understandable.

His disciples asked Him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” (v.10) — This referred to the prophecy of Malachi 3:1 and 4:5. There has been much discussion about the answer which Jesus gave. He stated specifically that Elijah had already come in the ministry of John the Baptist (cf. Matt. 11:10, 14; Mark 9:11-13; Luke 1:17). However, when the Pharisees asked John (see John 1:20-25) if he was Elijah, he flatly denied it. This seeming contradiction can be handled by the fact that John denied that he was a revived Elijah, but Jesus affirmed that John symbolically fulfilled the preparation ministry of Elijah. They both dressed and acted in similar ways, so the identification would be obvious in the minds of the Jews who knew about Elijah and who heard and saw John the Baptist (Luke 1:17).

“Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands” (v.12). — This is a recurrent theme after Peter’s confession (cf. Matt. 16:21; 17:9,12,22-23; 20:18-19). He told them about His suffering, but if they would have paid attention, He also told them of His resurrection. A suffering Messiah was so alien to their Jewish traditions that they simply could not receive it!

Then the disciples understood (v.13). — It was as though the fog had been lifted from their minds and they could see clearly!

Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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