Matthew 17: 1-13

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.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 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.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Understanding And Applying the Text

Six days after Peter’s confession, Peter, James, and John accompanied Jesus up a mountain. Such exact timing is rare in the Gospels. Mark agrees with Matthew on the timing, 6 days. But Luke says it was eight days. This should trouble us. It argues against the inerrancy of scripture. We can reconcile it by understanding a different counting of days. For Luke day one was Peter’s confession. Then there we six days. The next day, the eighth day they went up the mountain. If we include the two end days we get eight days. If we do not we get 6 days. All three synoptic gospel writers give a precise period of time. So, all three writers connect Peter’s confession and the Transfiguration.

The disciples had begun to recognize who Jesus was. So this raises the question, “Why only three disciples?” Some say Jesus brought these three to fortify them against the trials they were to endure. This does not seem plausible. All the disciples, except Judas, would soon go through trials. And all but John would suffer a martyr’s death. They could all have used some fortification. Plus, Jesus forbid them to tell anyone until His resurrection. None of that makes sense if Jesus chose them to fortify them.

Christ’s needed to show He was not dragged to the cross. He did not go against His will. He offered the Father the sacrifice of obedience. Christ could have prevented His death. He could have clothed Himself with the glory of heaven. Christ died on a cross, not because He had to, but because He offered Himself. And He did so of His own free will.

But why three? Three witnesses were enough. That is the number the Law laid down for proof. (Deuteronomy 17:6.)

When the disciples saw Jesus transfigured they did not see Him as He is today in heaven. But it gave them a taste of Christ’s glory. It allowed them to better understand His glory. His face shone like the sun. Now His brightness is far beyond the sun. His clothing was a dazzling whiteness. Now He is clothed in divine majesty. It shines throughout his entire body.

In ancient times, God appeared to the fathers, not as He was in Himself. Rather, He showed himself in a way, they could endure His infinite brightness. John tells us we will one day see Him as He is. And we will be like Him. (1 John 3:2)

Next appeared Moses and Elijah. Luke tells us they discussed Jesus’ death. Several questions arise from this. Were Moses and Elijah actually there or was this an illusion? Prophets throughout the old testament saw visions. Second Moses and Elijah were dead so how did the disciples know it was them?

God has both body and soul in His hand. God can restore life as He wills. God spoke all that is into existence. So bringing back to life two prophets long dead was no problem. There is nothing absurd about God’s ability to bring Moses and Elijah back into the body. There is no logical reason why Moses and Elijah could not have made physical appearances. My position is Moses and Elijah were visions rather than physical manifestations. My reason is in verse 9 Jesus said “Tell no one the vision….” This could mean, tell no one what you saw. The word vision usually refers to a spiritual truth manifested in physical form. An actual physical occurrence is not required. But either understanding is acceptable.

How did the three disciples recognize Moses and Elijah? They had never met. Both Moses and Elijah had died centuries before the three were even born. That answer is easy. They recognized them the same way Peter realized Jesus was the Christ. The Holy Spirit revealed it to them.

Now the question is, “Why these two?” Why Moses and Elijah? There were others. Abraham was the father of Israel. It was to him God gave the promise. There was Adam. He was the first to receive the promise of a redeemer. Isaiah wrote of the coming messiah. He saw God in His throne room.

Moses and Elijah demonstrated Christ was the end of the Law and of the Prophets. They represented the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the prophets all pointed to Christ. That is of the utmost importance to our faith. Christ did not come into the world without a testimony. But He had the testimony of the Law and the Prophets.

Peter told Jesus he thought it was a good idea to erect three tents. One for each of them, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Mark and Luke tell us Peter said this because he did not know what else to say. So Peter was babbling. He did not know what he was saying. Mark tells us this was because they were all terrified.

Peter’s suggestion reveals his foolishness. First, he did not understand what was happening. He did not understand why the vision occurred. Second, he placed servants, Moses and Elijah, on the same level as Christ. Third, he proposed physical structures for men who had graduated to the glory of heaven.

While Peter was speaking a bright cloud engulfed them. This was the presence of God the Father. The Gospel writers tell us Peter was just babbling. He did not know what else to do. The cloud came over them while Peter was babbling to shut Peter up. God needed Peter to stop babbling.

God’s voice came from a cloud. God has no body or face. God has no visible shape. God is not a man. He does not resemble a man, (Deuteronomy 4:15.) God made Himself known to the fathers in ancient times. But He always refrained from using signs which might induce them to images of the revelation. As humans, we have an inclination to manufacture idols. As Calvin said, we are idol factories.

The Father’s words were simple and straightforward. But they are not easy to obey. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” These are almost the exact same word Matthew recorded in Matthew 3:17 at Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father was pleased with His Son. Now He added a new commandment “Listen to Him” This is the part that is not easy to do. Our nature is to please our sinful desires. It is a commandment we cannot obey without the aid of the Holy Spirit. These words “listen to Him” come from Deuteronomy 18:15. It makes two points 1) Jesus is a prophet like Moses, a leader-prophet, and 2) they have much yet to learn from Him.

This is why the writer of Hebrew wrote:

“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

Hebrews 1:1-2

When the three disciples hear the voice of God they were afraid and fell on their faces. This is not an unusual response to being in God’s presence. (Leviticus 9:24 Judges 13:20, 22; 1 Chronicles 21:16; Ezekiel 3:23, 43:3; Daniel 8:17, 10:7-9, 10:16-17; Acts 22:7,26:145)

When men mock God or are not concerned about Him, it is because God has not addressed them. As soon as we perceive God’s majesty, we cannot help ourselves. Fear consumes us. And we throw ourselves to the ground.

Then Jesus touched them. Christ raises them up. And by so doing performed His office. He came down for this very purpose. We, by his aid, may boldly enter into the presence of God. We no longer need to fear God’s justice. Christ comforted them by His touch and His words. So that when they looked up they saw only Christ. Christ covers us and shields us from God’s justice. We see only Christ.

You can imagine the excitement. You can imagine how they wanted to share what they had seen and experienced. They wanted to tell everyone. But Christ told them not to tell anyone until after His resurrection. There would be a time to share it. But that time was not then.

Jesus mentioned the resurrection. That caused them to imagine Christ’s reign was imminent. They thought “resurrection” meant the world would acknowledge Him as Messiah. Their understanding of resurrection was very different from what Christ meant. Mark makes this clearer. Mark tells us they argued among themselves about what about it.

Put yourself in their context. The resurrection could not mean coming back to life for the dead. First, the Messiah could not die. Second dead men stay dead. From their standpoint, it had to mean something else.

The disciples asked Jesus why the scribes taught Moses and Elijah must come first. It was like they were responding to Jesus’ command not to tell anyone with, “I don’t understand, why not.” You are the messiah. The scribes say that Elijah must come first. We saw Elijah. We need to tell them so they understand. Why don’t you want us to say anything?

If we are not prepared for it Jesus’ answer to the three may surprise us. Jesus told them the scribes were right. We tend to think the scribe and Pharisees got everything wrong about the Messiah. But even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while. Jesus said the scribes were right. Elijah must come first. And Elijah had already come. The scribes were right. But they failed to recognize both Elijah and the Messiah.

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