THE TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD – Matthew 17:1-9
“The future ain’t what it used to be.” Yogi Berra
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 17:2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 17:3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 17:4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 17:5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 17:7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 17:8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Matthew has used the tradition of the Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-10. As is his custom, Matthew follows Mark with significant changes. In 17:1, Matthew leaves out the word “apart” which Mark has used perhaps to emphasize the patently private event. In verse 2, Matthew adds, “and his face shone like the sun.” Regarding the clothing of Jesus, Mark says that they became dazzling white, “such that no one on earth could bleach them.” Matthew leaves out this description. In verse 3, Matthew reverses the names Moses and Elijah, and does not name Jesus, as does Mark. In verse 4, Peter addressed Jesus as “Lord” whereas Mark says “Rabbi.” Peter volunteered himself to make three dwellings, while in Mark Peter says, “Let us make three dwellings.” Mark adds, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Matthew leaves this out. Matthew’s verse 5 is more explicit than Mark. “While he (Peter) was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them.” Mark says simply, “Then a cloud overshadowed them.” To the voice from the cloud, Matthew adds, “with him I am well pleased.” Matthew adds verses 6-7 to Mark’s account. Verse 8 in Matthew is almost the same as verse 8 in Mark. This is where Mark’s version of the Transfiguration ends. Matthew adds verse 9, asking the disciples not to speak of the event “until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Ever since the early twentieth century, Biblical scholars have interpreted the Transfiguration as a resurrection story that was placed earlier in the narrative of Jesus. It has been pointed out that the sixth day mentioned in verse 1 is associated with the Epiphany, when the calendar days are counted from the day of the crucifixion. It is also likely that the story originally was told only about Jesus, and that later the names of the disciples were added as the tradition developed. Matthew’s Transfiguration narrative also shows elements of a theophany. The scene is on a mountain, the event is accompanied by bright light, cloud, shadow and a voice from the cloud. However, this in itself does not make the event a theophany. In the context of New Testament apocalyptic, such descriptions may have been a normal part of the recitation of stories from the life of Jesus. While the Transfiguration is not a theophany, it certainly is an apocalyptic event in the life of Jesus. Luke’s version of the Transfiguration in 9:28-36 is much more detailed, and I believe in the interest of his theology of history.
Matthew begins his narrative by saying “six days later.” He and Mark are agreed on this, but Luke has it as eight days. Matthew dates the Transfiguration from the time of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, where Peter responded to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Matt. 16:16. Those intervening days are an important part of Matthew’s narrative. Jesus warns his disciples not to disclose his identity. He predicts his passion and resurrection. He rebukes Peter. He teaches his disciples self-sacrifice. He promises his disciples that soon, in their lifetime, the Son of Man will arrive with angels and with judgment. It seems as if all of these themes are rolled up into the story of the Transfiguration.
The mountain is not identified. It does not seem to make sense trying to identify it, because the only description is that it was “high.”. However, mountains are important in the history of Jesus. The mountain is where miracles can happen, Matt.17:20; 21:21. It is a place of nurture, where the shepherd feeds his flocks. Matt. 18:12. He is tempted on a mountain, Matt. 4:8. Jesus teaches on a mountain, Matt. 5:1. He goes to pray on a mountain, Matt. 14:23. He is transfigured on a mountain, Matt.17:1, and it is to a mountain that he invites his disciples to see him after he is raised from the dead, Matt.28:16. It seems the natural thing for Jesus to do with his disciples when he takes them to the mountain to pray. After the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus seems to need secrecy and isolation. In 16:21-23, he knows what will befall him, and he prepares himself for this by prayer. Of the three synoptic evangelists, only Luke 9:28, states that the purpose of going up the mountain was for prayer. That is assumed by Mark and Matthew, perhaps on good grounds, because it might have been the habit of Jesus to pray on mountains. After the celebration of the Passover (the Institution of the Last Supper), he and his disciples “went out to the Mount of Olives.” 26:30. Prayer was important in the life of Jesus and his disciples. It is likely that they prayed, as he did, regularly, and were not reluctant to learn different ways of praying. In Luke 11: 1, Jesus was at prayer. His disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” From this we learn that John the Baptist taught his disciples to pray. Then Jesus taught his disciples what is now known as the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus had belonged to the Baptist’s sect. He would have known the prayers that John taught his followers. Is it possible that the Lord’s Prayer could have originated in the Baptist’s sect? There is no evidence for that, but it is still an interesting question. Luke’s version is identical to that of the Q Document, and is likely the earliest available, though whether it is original or not cannot be ascertained. There are events that show the content of other prayers of Jesus. In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus prays for Simon Peter. “I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail, and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Jesus does not pray only for himself, but for his disciples. In Luke 10:21; Matt. 11:25, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” The prayers of Jesus are always for submission and obedience to the will of God. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was with Peter and the sons of Zebedee, praying. He was himself “grieved and agitated,” saying to his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.” Then going some distance from them, “he threw himself upon the ground and prayed.” It is clear from this that Jesus was agonizing over what was to befall him. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want, but what you want.” He prayed this same prayer three times before leaving the garden. There are other instances of Jesus teaching his disciples about prayer. Jesus emphasizes brevity and sincerity in prayer, Matt. 6:7. The one feature that is characteristic of all of his teaching on prayer is the eschatological hope of the kingdom in which the will of God is finally fulfilled. The one who comes to God in prayer submits to the divine obediently. Prayer is a request, a petition, a thanksgiving. Those who approach the divine in prayer do not expect to change the mind of the divine. They come offering up their will as a sacrifice, and asking that the divine will descend upon them and carry them day by day toward the fulfilment of God’s will for their lives. Prayer as submission and obedience to the divine will is at the same time confession. Every prayer is a confession because one cannot invoke the name of God by any other means than as a sinner who comes seeking grace and forgiveness. Jesus understands this. In Gethsemane, he throws himself upon the ground in the absolute condition of humility and obedience. From this grounding in humility he invokes the divine. Humility is the absolute rejection of what one is, of what one thinks that one is, of what one pretends to be, and empties oneself completely of will and desire, thought and action, even of the faintest hope that one has held. One can bring nothing of oneself to the altar of the Lord, for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it; for he has founded it.” Psalm 24:1. It is with this disposition of soul that Jesus ascended the mountain.
Jesus “took with him” his three disciples up the mountain by themselves. After this, another verb is used here and in Mark 9:1 in this special sense of “lead up.” In other New Testament passages it is related to lifting up of sacrifice, but this sense is not warranted in the narrative of the Transfiguration. The idea of going up the mountain was initiated by Jesus. In 16:24, he had told them, “If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” I have pointed out elsewhere that the essence of discipleship is to follow. His three disciples followed him up the mountain. Mark has “by themselves apart,” which may indicate that they were not the only ones on the mountain at that time. “And he was transfigured before them.”
This is decidedly an apocalyptic vision as a comparison with Rev. 1:14 would show. Jesus has called for repentance, because the kingdom of heaven had come near. In the kingdom of heaven believers are transformed already by their repentance. This is the content of the eschatological salvation that Jesus had promised his disciples. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a vivid demonstration of the transformation of the disciples. The disciples are allowed to see the Lord as he really is in his divine nature. Everything earthly about him falls away both in his body and in his garment. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” The benediction in Numbers 6:24-26 comes to mind. The idea is that an intensely bright light shines from within Jesus and surrounds him. According to the Numbers passage, through the shining of the face of the Lord upon the people, the name of the Lord is placed upon Israel. (Numbers 6:27) Light has something to do with naming, owning and identification. Here, the light reveals the presence of Moses and Elijah conversing with Jesus. In this apocalyptic vision, the celestial precursors are clearly seen by the three disciples. The Transfiguration is an event in which Jesus releases from within himself the Light that he, himself, is. He who is Light from before the beginning, who is himself the source of all light since the beginning, permits the disciples to behold him in the complete Otherness of his origin. Whatever meaning one associates with Moses and Elijah, from now on it is clear that only in the revelation of the Light of Christ can their meaning be uncovered. The Light of the Transfiguration reveals them talking with Jesus. In Luke 10:23-24, Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” However, the conversation is not noted. I wonder, did Moses and Elijah bring a message to Jesus? It is often said that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. For Matthew, the Law and the Prophets are the entire content of Scripture. But Moses and Elijah were known for other great things. Moses saved his people from slavery. Elijah saved his people from idolatry. In the Light of revelation, Scripture still speaks to us of salvation.
The Light of the Transfiguration that emanated from Jesus did not only reveal Moses and Elijah. The Light also encompassed Peter, James and John. They too are brought within its radiance. They too belong to the celestial vision. The Transfiguration of Jesus is not only about three persons; it is clearly about six persons standing within and under one Light. Peter, James and John are not merely witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are participants. That this is so is clearly demonstrated by the fact that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus, and at the same time, Peter addressed Jesus. He said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here, if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Nothing is said about how Peter recognized Moses and Elijah, and perhaps nothing definitive can be said. I would like to suggest, however, that in this apocalyptic vision, everything that is necessary is immediately revealed to Peter and the other disciples. Peter did not recognize Moses and Elijah because he had some inner idea as to their identity. He recognized them because the Transfiguration is an event of revelation, and they were revealed to him as soon as they entered into the Light of Christ. The revelation brought the disciples completely into the event. They belong within the Transfiguration as much as Jesus, Moses and Elijah. They were “taken up” the mountain by Jesus for some reason, and one must seek within that Light to uncover why Jesus chose them to accompany him.
Peter’s suggestion to build dwellings indicates that he expects the heavenly company to remain with them on the mountain. Or, perhaps it is an expression of Peter’s fear that Jesus would depart from them along with Moses and Elijah. Whatever conclusion one reaches, it is clear that Peter did not want the event of the Transfiguration to come to an end. He understood the eschatological message that the kingdom of heaven had come near and he wanted to preserve it. This is one way of understanding Peter’s role here. Peter wants to preserve something to which he now belonged. The dwellings of which Peter speaks announce one thing clearly: the divine has come to dwell among human beings. This is how Peter understands the Transfiguration, and he speaks for the disciples. James and John are curiously silent throughout. This is an indication of the prominence given to Peter very early in the church. When he says that it is good that “we” are here, he refers to himself, along with James and John. He is not referring to Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The Transfiguration embodies the divine and the human. Peter recognizes the divine and wants to preserve its presence. It was Peter himself who six days earlier confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The Transfiguration is the second revelation of the divinity of Jesus that has been given to Peter. Matt.16:17. In the confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus says he will build his church on this Rock. In the Transfiguration, six days later, it is Peter who wants to build.
The apocalyptic vision continued while Peter was still speaking with Jesus. For, “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” There are phenomena that need exploration: the face of Jesus that shone like the sun; the dazzling white garments; the bright cloud. One may indeed inquire how it is possible for a “bright cloud” to “overshadow” anyone. I interpret the bright cloud as the encompassing light that emanated from the face of Jesus. In Exodus 40:34-38, the glory of the Lord settled upon the tabernacle as a cloud. In the same way, the “bright cloud” settled upon the six persons on the mountain of Transfiguration. In this apocalyptic vision, it is the glory of the Lord that descends upon and envelops them. In the intensity of its radiance they could see nothing. The Apostle Paul had a similar vision, recorded in Acts 9:1-9, in which he was blinded by a bright light, and remained blinded for three days. John the apocalyptist also had a similar vision, Revelation 1:9-20. In all three events, those who were caught up in the vision fell to the ground in fear. In all, temporary blindness was followed by hearing the voice of the divine. It was as if their sense of sight having been blessed by the vision, must now give way to their sense of hearing. In the early part of the vision they could hear nothing. Now, the glory of the Lord speaks from the cloud. “This is my Son, the Beloved.” In Matt. 3:17, the same words were uttered by “a voice from heaven” at the baptism of Jesus. The voice does not issue a call to mission to Jesus. It is addressed to the disciples. It is the divine affirmation of itself. The divine, which has entered fully into human history, announces that it has arrived, bearing a message, therefore, “Listen to him!” The Transfiguration of Jesus is at the same time the proclamation of Jesus. Transfiguration is proclamation.
The messenger is the message. This is something completely new upon the earth. And the message is freedom. Jesus is joined by two ancient prophets who had a message of freedom for their times. Jesus has a message of freedom for his time. The disciples are temporarily lifted from the earth and taken up into the vision. They see and participate in the ineffable momentarily. They cannot endure the presence of the divine for long. They fell to the ground in fear, but not until after they had heard the message. They had already heard from the lips of Peter, six days earlier, that Jesus is the Son of the living God. This did not cause them to fall to the ground in fear. But here on the mountain what they heard was something completely different. The divine had broken into the human dimension and had spoken directly to them. The word of God is nothing other than the divine itself. These disciples had an encounter with the divine itself, and they knew from their religious history that to encounter the divine face to face is sure and certain death. This was the true cause of their fear. How long they were in that condition is not known. What transpired between Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that interval is not known. All that is stated is that Jesus came to them, touched them, and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” His touch conveys the assurance that they are still alive and that he alone is with them on the mountain. The apocalyptic vision has come to an end. In it, Jesus and the three disciples were all transfigured, in different ways. They all descended the mountain with a message to announce to the world. They have been empowered by being in the transforming presence of the divine. They have heard the voice of the divine itself. They have become the first real listeners, the first to hear directly from the divine what the message is. “Listen to him!”
On the way down, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one of the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” The verb for “ordered” is quite strong having the sense of to forbid a specific thing from being disclosed. After Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus also warned the disciples not to announce that he was the Messiah. So far, his identity is known only to those closest to him. So also, the Transfiguration is an event that must remain undisclosed for a particular period of time, until after the resurrection. The Transfiguration reveals something specific, quite unlike the similar words used in the event of the baptism of Jesus. In the baptism, sonship was proclaimed publicly, the divine making known its presence. In the Transfiguration, Moses, Elijah and Jesus do not announce presence; what is new is that the divine announces that it is history; it has been present throughout human history but in a way that was not revealed until now. History is no longer to be determined by lawgivers and prophets, that is, by human authorities. Henceforth, history is determined solely by the divine. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” History in the hands of the Beloved is sacred history, history transformed by the love that the divine grants to the earth. By sacred history we must now understand the term “absolution.” The Transfiguration is the welcoming absolution by means of which the divine embraces creation. It is the reclaiming of earth and world. The Transfiguration is therefore a direct challenge to the historical forces, that is, to the secular and religious authorities of the times. This challenge has to be issued only when the time is right, and that day as they were descending the mountain was not the right time for it.
Only after the resurrection, when the divine discloses that life arises anew wherever human beings bring death, will be meaning of the Transfiguration be revealed. Yogi Berra is right, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”