This coming Sunday is the 2nd Sunday in Lent. In yesterday’s post we looked at the theological elements of what Matthew likely intended in recounting the event. Today, we consider Peter’s response: Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
As in 16:13-20, Peter again responds, again without a full understanding. Consider Peter’s proposal to make three tents (skēnḗ; also “booth” or “tabernacle”). What did he intend? It has been variously understood as traveler’s hut, the “tent of meeting” where God spoke with Moses outside the camp (Exod 33:7), a more formal tent used in the Festival of Booths (cf. Lev 23:42–43; Zech 14:16ff), and even as the Jerusalem Temple tabernacle. It is this last image that Matthew may have in mind as background – notwithstanding Peter’s intention. It is the Temple tabernacle where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud that symbolized the continuing presence of God among the people, dwelt over the ark of the covenant. The response to Peter’s proposal is three-fold (Boring, 364)
- The heavenly cloud of God’s presence appears, as on the tabernacle of Moses’ day and the later Temple. As of old, the heavenly voice comes from the cloud, and the God who had previously spoken on Mount Sinai only to Moses speaks directly to them. The heavenly voice speaks in exactly the same words as at the baptism (see 3:17), confirming the identity and mission of Jesus declared there, and confirming the confession Peter himself had made in the preceding scene (16:16).
- Although three transcendent figures are present, the heavenly voice charges the disciples to hear Jesus. As in the Shema (Deut 6:4), “hear” carries its OT connotation of “obey” and is the same command given with regard to the “prophet like Moses” whom God would send (Deut 18:15; cf. 13:57). The disciples fall on their faces in fearful response to the theophany, as in Exod 34:30; Dan 10:9; and Hab 3:2 LXX.
- Jesus comes to them (only here and 28:18 in Matthew, another parallel between this scene and the resurrection appearances) and touches them, and they see no one but “Jesus alone.” To focus all attention on Jesus and to distinguish him from Moses and Elijah, who have now disappeared, Matthew subtly rewritten Mark so that the word alone might stand here as the emphatic closing word of the scene. The heavenly visitors depart, but Jesus stays—Jesus alone. Without heavenly companions, without heavenly glory, he is the “tabernacle” (skene), the reality of God’s abiding presence with us (cf. 1:23; 28:20). The disciples descend from the mountain into the mundane world of suffering and mission, accompanied by Jesus, God with us.
“Coming down from the mountain” corresponds to going up the mountain in 17:1 and rounds off vv. 1-9 as a complete scene. Jesus’ calling the event a “vision” (only so in Matthew) does not imply the modern contrast between subjective experience and objective reality, which reduces the event to the disciples’ subjectivity. Jesus raises no questions about the reality of the event. Rather, the designation “vision” relates the event to the visionary/apocalyptic tradition, as has 16:17 (cf. Dan 8:16-17; 10:9-12, 16-19). The mention of the Passion/Resurrection as the end of the scene is not an expression of the messianic secret, as in Mark, but it reminds the disciples of all the barriers they themselves have experienced in believing Jesus as Messiah will suffer and die. If they have had such problems comprehending and trusting Jesus’ revelation to them, then how much more so will others have trouble believing the good news. Yet, it will be from a post-Easter perspective that others will be called to identify themselves with the disciples in the story.
Also laying in the background, another lesson each disciple, good and faithful Jews, needed to absoirb was that as great as Moses and Elijah were, each was only God’s servant, not his Son (3:17). Moses was the prototypical prophet, but he spoke of Jesus as the definitive eschatological prophet whose words must be heeded (Deut 18:15–19). Elijah’s ministry courageously stood for the law of Moses, but Jesus as the definitive teacher of that law brings it to its ultimate goal (5:17–19).
Image credit: Sunrise, Simon Berger, Pexels, CC