Commentary. Matthew 17:1-13 is an instructional session for all the disciples – note that in v.10, Peter, James and John have been joined the remainder of the group. Just as the preceding scene (16:13-28) juxtapositions the divine transcendence of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Son of God based on a revelation from heaven (16:17) with Jesus’ own teaching about the suffering Son of Man, so also in this scene the confession of the heavenly voice is juxtaposed with Jesus’ self-confession as suffering Son of Man.
The description of the Transfiguration is brief—just the first three verses of Matthew 17. But the incident becomes the context for two significant incidents for the disciples.
- In the first, Peter’s hasty response to the glory of the Lord (…make three tents) is corrected by the same heavenly voice heard at Jesus’ baptism (17:4–8; cf. 3:17).
- In the second, Jesus once again forbids the disciples to make him known (cf. 16:20), which leads to their question about the future coming of Elijah (17:9–13).
Jesus answers their question cryptically in terms of a past coming of “Elijah,” and when he compares his own future suffering to what has happened to this “Elijah,” the disciples finally grasp that he is speaking of John the Baptist. Thus, the passage contains the transfiguration proper (17:1–3), a lesson on the fulfillment by Jesus of all that is promised in the Hebrew scriptures (17:4–8), and a lesson on the continuity of John the Baptist with Elijah of old and with Jesus himself (17:9–13).
The Transfiguration And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
What are to make of the Transfiguration? It is a familiar pericope of all three synoptic gospels that is perhaps too familiar and thus we are tempted to accept it and not stop and consider the significance of it. A limited number of modern scholars describe the narrative as a misplaced story of Jesus’ resurrection, his second coming, his heavenly enthronement, and/or his ascension. In other words, Matthew inserted/retrojected a story here for his own narrative purposes. Under such a provision lays some misgivings about miraculous and extraordinary events – as thought they are prima facia not possible. But should we really have been surprised by the miraculous nature of the events of the Transfiguration?
The transfiguration of Jesus is an amazing event but not totally unexpected for Matthew’s readers. After all, Jesus had a miraculous birth, and his ministry began with the divine endorsement of his heavenly Father (3:17). Jesus had done extraordinary works of compassion and had taught the Law with an authority not inherited by any earthly authority. He had demonstrated supernatural control of natural processes by calming storms and feeding thousands of people with a few loaves of bread. Thus, Jesus’ transfiguration seems consistent with all that has been revealed so far in the gospel. In many ways it is part of a continuing Epiphany. Among the many things Matthew has narrated, we know this: Jesus is the Son of God, the fulfillment of Old Testament patterns and predictions, and he has promised a future Kingdom.
Consider the following:
- The transfiguration story recalls the baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven designates him both the powerful Son of God and the weak suffering Servant (cf. 3:17). This commission is reconfirmed as Jesus begins to instruct his disciples on the meaning and cost of discipleship (16:24–28). Thus it is important that the scene follows the first passion prediction, confirming from heaven what had been questioned by Peter (16:23).
- The transfiguration story recalls and confirms Peter’s confession (16:16). Although Peter was divinely inspired to confess, he still did not seem to grasp the full significance of that revelation. The transfiguration is its own witness to the fullness of the revelation.
- The transfiguration story connects the confession of Jesus as Son of God and Jesus’ self-identification as Son of Man who suffers, is killed, and is vindicated by God, and will appear as judge at the parousia
- The transfiguration should not be viewed as the illumination of the man Jesus with an extrinsic glory but as the momentary uncovering of the Son of God’s own intrinsic glory, which has been temporarily veiled and will be reassumed at the resurrection and ascension (John 17:4–5, 24; Phil 2:5–11; Col 1:16–19; Heb 1:1–4). In this the transfiguration story anticipates the eschatological events of the Resurrection.
- The transfiguration is an integral part of Matthew’s high Christology and his eschatology. It authenticates both Jesus’ divine identity and God’s plan to occupy this world and rule it forever. By the transfiguration, the disciples were given a glimpse of not only who Jesus is but also what he will one day bring to this world (see 2 Pet 1:16–18). Moses and Elijah are worthy figures, but they are only supporting actors in the redemptive drama the disciples witness. As the scene ends, Moses and Elijah have exited, and only Jesus remains in the center of the stage. The “listen to him” of the transfiguration will become the “teaching them to observe all things I have commanded you” of the Great Commission (28:18-20)
And thus the transfiguration has significance for us. It gives us a glimpse into our destiny. Transformation begins already in this life. Seeing the glory of the Lord in the Spirit, the disciples are reminded that they were created in the image of him whose glory they see (2 Cor. 3:18). This is not mystical deification but a recovery/re-recognition of the divine likeness. It takes place in the ministry of the Spirit. It is not for an elite few but for all Christians. It is not just a hope for the future (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44ff.) but begins already with the Resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. It carries with it an imperative: “listen to him.” A significance of the transfiguration is that we obtain a glimpse of what we are and are becoming. As St Irenaeus famously said centuries ago: “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
Matthew 17:1 after six days: Some see this time reference as an allusion to the Siani revelation (Ex 24:16) or the feast of Tabernacles (six days after the Day of Atonement). Luke records “eight days.” Previously Jesus had said, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Mt 16:28) Some interpreters see this being fulfilled here only six days later.
Peter…James…John: They form an ‘inner circle;’ these three disciples are also taken apart from the others by Jesus in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37) as Jesus’ chosen companions in a moment of private communion with God in 26:37; Moses also had three special companions (Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu) on the mountain – but the seventy elders were also present with Moses (Exod. 24:1, 9). high mountain: hypsēlon oros: the word oros, mountain presents no problem, nor does which metaphorically means “high”; the word hypsēlon can also mean “exalted” or “haughty.” The location has been identified with Tabor or Hermon, but probably no specific mountain was intended by the evangelist. Its meaning is theological rather than geographical, possibly recalling the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:12-18) and to Elijah at the same place (1 Kings 19:8-18; Horeb is the same as Sinai).
Matthew 17:2 transfigured: metamorphōthē – to transform, to change completely. What is described does not conform to the Greek idea of metamorphosis or to the idea of interior transformation elsewhere in the NT (e.g., Romans 12:2 or 2 Cor 3:18). The evangelist seems to be using the best word possible to describe a preview of the glory that will belong to Jesus in the eschaton and fullness of God’s kingdom
his face shone like the sun: this is a Matthean addition to other descriptions (e.g, Mk 9); the wording seems to echo Daniel 10:6 – as well as Moses in Ex 34:29-3.. his clothes became white as light: see Daniel 7:9 where the clothing of God appears “snow bright.” For the white garments of other heavenly beings, see Rev 4:4; 7:9; 19:14 – and perhaps Mt 13:43, describing the righteous in heaven.
Matthew 17:3 Moses and Elijah: The significance of Moses and Elijah here has been variously understood as (a) representing the law and the prophets (though the fact that Elijah is not represented among the prophetic writings of the Old Testament is against this); (b) two of the three Old Testament men of God who traditionally did not die (Enoch was the other; according to Deut. 34 Moses did die, but his burial by God had developed by the first century ad into a belief in his ‘assumption’); (c) two great leaders who talked with God at Mount Sinai; (d) the two whose ‘return’ was expected in connection with the Messianic age. The last seems most relevant in this context, where their appearance underlines the Messianic role of Jesus, though none of the others is thereby ruled out. It may also be relevant that both Moses and Elijah in their God-given missions experienced rejection and suffering. Jesus is thus indicated as the one in whom the pattern of God’s Old Testament servants reaches its ultimate fulfillment.