The Transfiguration


Matthew 17:1-13

Text Comment

v.1       The exact chronological reference is unusual and important.  All three Gospels closely connect the transfiguration with Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ and the Lord’s revelation of his own impending suffering and death together with the suffering that his disciples will be required to undergo in his name.  It is significant that, at the very moment when the darkness of the future is being disclosed, the Lord and his disciples should be given a glimpse “behind the scenes” and a view of the glory of the Son of God. There may be suffering to come, but this revelation of the glory of the Son of God assures him and them that the course they will follow is the right one and will lead to triumph. The theology of the cross and the theology of glory are brought together.

To witness this supremely important revelation are the three disciples closest to him, the men whom we learn elsewhere in the Gospels formed the innermost circle of the Lord’s followers.  Now it does not appear that the Lord knew that such an event as the transfiguration was to take place on the mountainside.  He took these three men with him for the same reason he took them deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane the night of his betrayal.  He treasured their brotherhood and felt the need for their support.  According to Luke, the Lord went up on the mountain to pray and it was while he was praying, perhaps we are meant to think that it was in answer to his prayers, that this extraordinary event took place.  The text seems to suggest that the Lord was no more expecting the extraordinary thing that happened than were his three friends, but, of course, he was far better able to comprehend it than they. We saw last week that v.28 may refer to the transfiguration.  If so it still does not mean that Jesus knew precisely when and how the Son of Man would come in his kingdom.  Luke says explicitly he did not go up the mountain to be transfigured.  However, the fact that there were three other men there served another purpose. According to the Law of Moses, a fact was established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.  This was to be a fact hard to believe, but there were three witnesses, not even just two, who could give personal testimony of having been eyewitnesses of the Lord’s glory on the mountain.

v.2       The verb translated transfigured is elsewhere in the NT rendered “changed” or “transformed.”  The meaning is made clear by the description that follows.  As Luke speaks of the disciples being asleep at first and of the little group going down the mountain the next day, it appears that the transfiguration took place at night.

v.3       Why Moses and Elijah?  There have been many proposals.  The two men represent the law and the prophets and so their presence at this moment indicated that Jesus was the fulfillment of all previous revelation.  But these two men were also the two great OT leaders who talked with God at Mount Sinai.  They were also the two whose “return” was to herald the messianic age (remember Moses prophesied the coming of a prophet like himself in Deut. 18:15-18; and Malachi spoke of the appearance of Elijah as a forerunner of the Messiah).

None of the conversation that took place between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus was recorded, but Luke tells us that it concerned the Lord’s exodus, that is, his death.

v.4       Peter, so dazzled by what he was seeing, wanted to preserve the moment so that he could bask in this glory as long as possible.  He was envisioning a lengthy stay.  It is his second failure in just a few days to appreciate that the Lord’s mission is not to enjoy glory but to go to the cross.  It is the second instance in a few days of Peter speaking in opposition to the course of suffering and death that had been set for the Lord.  One of the great preachers of the 20th century, the Dutchman Klaas Schilder, has a sermon on this theme arrestingly entitled:  “Satan on the Mountain of Transfiguration.”  [Christ in his Sufferings, 25-35]  As Peter unwittingly played Satan’s role in the previous paragraph, here he does so again.

v.5       Such a luminous cloud has before in Holy Scripture been symbolic of the presence of God.  The fact that Peter, James, and John hear the voice from the cloud may suggest that the cloud enveloped only Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  The disciples saw it but were not enveloped in it.

The words spoken are very similar to those spoken by God the Father at Jesus’ baptism (in 3:17).

v.8       We all tend to underestimate the divine glory and the overwhelming experience it is to encounter it.  Whenever men did in Holy Scripture it was a shattering experience.  There is far too much talking, preaching, and singing in the American evangelical church that suggests, if it does not actually assert, that it is no longer the case that no one can see the glory of God and survive and or that God is no longer a consuming fire.

v.9       If misplaced messianic fervor was hard for the Lord to control in the face of the Lord’s teaching and miracles, imagine if it were reported that he had been visited by Moses and Elijah.  The way of the cross lay ahead and nothing must divert him from that way.

v.10     The question seems to be this:  if Elijah has now come, as Malachi prophesied he would before the coming of the messiah, why can’t we proclaim you the Messiah?  And if Elijah was to come first, how come you came first and Elijah appeared only now?

v.11     This statement about Elijah restoring all things can be taken two ways.  It could mean that Elijah would usher in events by which the fallen world and human race will be restored to perfection.  In that case, Elijah restores only insofar as he ushers in the messianic work of Jesus.  Or it is a statement about what the rabbis taught about Elijah, not necessarily a statement that Jesus agreed with.  Obviously, in either case, it is not in fact Elijah but Jesus who restores all things.

v.13     In other words, things have not and, so, will not fall out as the disciples expected.  There is rejection all along the way for the messiah as there was for his forerunner.  The ill-treatment of the forerunner foreshadows the treatment Jesus will receive.

We step onto holy ground this morning.  And no matter how long we ponder the transfiguration, it must remain a deep mystery to us. We ought not to suppose that we would be able to fathom an event such as this, and we cannot. But we must say something – for this history was written for us – and we can say something.

The great mystery of our faith, besides the triple personality of the one living God, is the incarnation of the Son of God. The eternal Son, the second person, the Creator of all things took to himself a true and entire human nature. That human nature came into being when it was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and it continued and continues today a true human nature. The Council of Chalcedon, meeting in A.D. 451, forever gave expression to our Christian faith in Christ Jesus as both true God and true man, when, in the confession it composed – now known as the Creed of Chalcedon – it said of Jesus that he is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood” and is to be

“acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, and inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person…”

What is meant by that is that Christ’s manhood was a real manhood, not a super‑manhood; that his deity and humanity were not mixed or mingled, but kept separate in his person; that his human life was a real human life and that his divine nature was not always coming in to help him. What we see in the Gospels is the life of a true man. He performs miracles, of course; but that is not because he is God, but because as a man he is a prophet, even greater than Moses or Elijah, who also performed miracles. He lived his life not knowing many things that his divine nature knew, not able to do many things which his divine nature was perfectly capable of doing, suffering many things his divine nature could not suffer. All of this he experienced in the separateness and distinctiveness of his manhood. He had to live his human life by faith as we do because, however omniscient his divine nature, his human nature was just as limited to sight and sense as is yours and mine, apart from things that were revealed to him by the Spirit of God. That he was God the Son, the Maker of heaven and earth was hidden from men.  In his humiliation no one recognized that he was God; so far from worshipping him as God most people didn’t even think he was a good man. But, more mysteriously still, it is also true that in some respects his deity was also hidden from himself.  As a man, he was a man; not God.

Now, how all of this worked itself out in the psychology of our Savior’s inner life is the greatest mystery in the world.  The Bible gives us virtually no information whatsoever about how the Lord Christ himself experienced the life of two natures in a single person or how the hiddenness of his deity was understood and experienced by him.  Perhaps it is beyond description or understanding.  But that he lived an authentic human life while, at the same time, being Almighty God is what the Scripture everywhere teaches us to believe. His life and death do all that they do for us and mean all that they mean for us precisely because the eternal Son of God had become as much a human being as you or I and lived his life in this world as a human being and suffered, died, and rose again as a human being.  He was a man, not a superman.  He encountered human life and experience as we do, with all the limitations of that life firmly in place.

This fact, of course, only makes our Savior’s achievement – his sinlessness, his ministry, his suffering and sacrifice – all the more remarkable, because it was the achievement of a man, not a superman, not a man always lifted above the normal limitations of manhood by his Godhead, but a man who lived by faith in God and conquered every temptation, the severest temptations ever suffered by a man, with no other resources than those which are available to any believing man or woman.

Now, great a mystery as this is, and impossible as it is for us to know how Jesus, who was also God the Son, could live a true human life, with his human nature kept separate and distinct from his divine nature, which nevertheless was joined indivisibly and inseparably in his one Person, it does help us to understand better the significance of the transfiguration.

You see, this glorious, other‑worldly event was for Jesus’ sake much more than it was for the disciples or even for us today. It is noteworthy that 1) only three of the disciples were even present; 2) that they were commanded not to report what they had seen until after the resurrection; So it was not designed as instruction for the disciples a the time; 3) that neither Jesus nor the disciples went up the mountain in order to witness the transfiguration; it wasn’t in the Lord’s plan, and 4) that nothing like this ever happened again; that is, the Lord’s other disciples and the earliest church never saw anything like this, even after the resurrection.  I take all of that to mean that the transfiguration was not, in the first place, for the disciples.  It was for Jesus.  It is very important for us to know that it took place, to be sure; but at the time, it was for him before it was for them.  It is a point of some importance, I think, that it came as a surprise to them all, Jesus included.  This was not some demonstration that Jesus staged for the benefit of Peter, James, and John. No, it was, first and foremost, a demonstration staged by God the Father for the blessing and help of his Son.

Recall the historical context. The cross was now before the Lord in a more definite and explicit way.  By some means – we don’t know how – the Lord had come to understand that his ministry was now moving into its final chapter and that the suffering and death for which he had come into the world was drawing near. We know that because he began to tell his disciples these very things, as we read in the previous paragraph.

The cup of his coming suffering was already being poured out into his soul when he sought solitude for prayer on that mountain. As he would later at Gethsemane, he took his three closest friends with him so that he would not be entirely alone as he sought strength to bear up under the burden of what was to come, a burden we can well imagine growing heavier by the day.  We know from Luke, though not from Matthew, that the purpose of the Lord’s drawing apart with his three friends was for prayer.  The transfiguration was an unexpected gift.  Even here in Matthew there is nothing to suggest that Jesus expected such a thing to happen.  Rather, the transfiguration was his heavenly Father’s gift, given to strengthen his faith and his patience, to help him on his sorrowful way to Jerusalem and to Calvary.  The appearance of Moses and Elijah, their conversation with him, the Father’s voice from heaven, as well as the revelation of his divine glory were designed to encourage Jesus, to assure him of his Father’s love and approval, and to nerve and steel him for what was to come.  And it served that purpose and ministered to the Lord Jesus in very obvious ways.

First the transfiguration was encouragement to the Savior in that the radiance of glory was a foretaste of what would be his after he had walked his via dolorosa.

Remember, we are speaking of Jesus Christ the man. Jesus, the Son of God, of course, always shared in the divine glory that was his by nature, however hidden it was during his life in this world. But here the man Jesus is given to see the glory that will be his as the reward for the humiliation and suffering which he voluntarily endured in order to redeem the people the Father had given him.  Here were two of history’s greatest men alive and talking with him about what lay before him.  Their presence was also the proof of his eventual victory over death.

You remember in Hebrews we read of Jesus enduring the cross for the joy that was set before him, that is, in the full confidence of what would be accomplished by his death. Well, here some of that joy is visibly and actually set before him to see. Here he is given to see with his own eyes what wonder all of his suffering and ignominy will lead to on the other side.

Day after day the Savior lived with the prospect of his rejection by men; he could see the hatred in the faces of the religious leaders; hear the envy dripping from their words; knew that when the crowds fully understood what and who he was claiming to be they would turn on him in an instant. He was a man, and, clear as he was as to his duty and his calling, he recoiled in fear from the shame and suffering that lay ahead. His anguished cry, that last night in Gethsemane, his desperate plea to be released from his responsibility was only the most crushing instance of that fear, that terror, that had accompanied him through the days and nights of the last year of his ministry. Luther said of Jesus that “no man ever feared death as much as this man.” And no wonder:  no death was ever so terrible, so horrible as this man’s death – the weight of all of God’s holy wrath falling upon him for the sin of the world.  Jesus was facing that prospect all of this time.

What a help, what an encouragement, throughout that final year to be able to remember with such vividness and wonder and amazement the glory he was given to see, his glory, the glory of the Son of God and to know that it was that glory that awaited him on the other side.

Second, the transfiguration was encouragement to the Savior in that he was given to understand that his impending death and suffering were fully understood and appreciated by the saints in heaven even if not by the saints on earth with whom he was walking and talking each day.

Surely one of the greatest burdens of all that our Savior carried in his last year was the complete failure of his disciples to understand and appreciate what was about to happen. He received no sympathy from them because they hadn’t an inkling that he needed it, no matter how often he told them what terrible things were about to befall him.  What mattered to them was his triumphs with the great crowds, his stunning miracles, and his growing acclaim. To the very end, they did not understand, and for that reason the Savior was left to tread the winepress of the wrath of God alone, entirely alone. Indeed, it is no accident that in both of these two critical moments at the beginning of the third and last year of the Lord’s public ministry, Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, a point is made of the complete failure of the disciples to understand and to embrace the Lord’s suffering and death.

In the conversation at Caesarea Philippi, after the Lord spoke to his disciples about his impending rejection and execution, Peter, for the group, took him aside and scolded him for his pessimism and urged him not to think or speak that way again. Once again, on the mountain the night of the transfiguration, Peter proposes a course of action that amounted to a failure to understand what Jesus had to do.  For Peter it was the glory not the cross that defined the Lord’s life and ministry. And in so thinking and speaking he was, once again, taking exception to the great subject of that conversation between Jesus and the two great prophets, namely the death and suffering that was to come. Moses and Elijah were setting the cross before Jesus but Peter wanted only to think of the dazzling glory.

And so it would continue through the coming year ‑‑ the Lord Jesus agonizing in his heart over what was to come and his friends only making it worse by their utter failure to understand or sympathize by their undisguised delight in Jesus’ popularity!  But, how great an encouragement and a help it must have been, when the Lord was alone with his thoughts and his fears, to remember how completely Moses and Elijah understood what was to come; how much the saints in heaven appreciated all that he must suffer; how fully they sympathized with him in the great work which he was soon to perform. Peter, James, and John might be useless, worse than useless. But the great lawgiver and the greatest of all of the prophets, those two greatest of all men understood and understood completely!

Third, the transfiguration was encouragement to the Savior in that it brought evidence to his senses of his heavenly Father’s love and approval. Obviously that is indicated by the glory which was suddenly visited upon him in answer to his prayer and by the appearance of the two great men. They obviously did not come down from heaven to earth on their own authority or whim! God had done this.  But, the Father does not leave this most important encouragement to be implied from the events themselves. He speaks it himself from heaven:

“This is my Son, whom I love; With him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

Which is as much as to say: “Go on your way to Jerusalem and to the cross. Do not shrink from it, terrible as it is. Do not be distracted from your goal by the fact that no one around you understands or cares for what you must face. I am pleased with you. I am pleased with you, my Son, precisely because you are not seeking to please yourself but me. I am delighted with you most of all because, as in these recent conversations with your disciples, you have made it clear that it is your unaltered and unalterable purpose to save others and not yourself.”

You remember that this was one of three occasions when God spoke from heaven. The first was at the Lord’s baptism, the second here on the Mount of Transfiguration, and the third was in Jerusalem shortly before his crucifixion. Each was a crisis point in the Lord’s ministry, each a time when the Lord Jesus needed to know that he had his Father’s approval if he were to have the necessary determination to finish the terribly difficult course his Father had marked out for him.

Here, the Father, as much as says to the disciples, the three representing the 12, “what you hear Jesus saying about his cross, his impending rejection and execution, it is all true.” Now, they did not understand even when they heard these words from heaven. But that was less important than that Jesus had heard his heavenly Father add his endorsement of all that he had been saying to his disciples.

They may not understand; they may not have a clue! But my Father in heaven agrees with me! How often did Jesus remind himself of that in the long year between the transfiguration and the cross.

Those three encouragements, then, were the great reason and purpose of the transfiguration. They were together a building up of Jesus, a strengthening of his faith and patience for what lay ahead. They were an answer to his own prayer for faith and perseverance in the work he had been given to complete.  They were a gift to the man, Jesus Christ, an opportunity for the man to see and feel the divine nature that was also his.  For he would not see it again until after his suffering and death.  The rest of the way he had to manage as a man, by faith, believing what he had been told and remembering what he had been shown.  You and I need to think longer and harder about the life of the Man of Sorrows.

But, I finish by reminding us that Peter, James and John were there.  If the Lord’s thoughts must have returned to that night on the mountain, to the sight of his own glory, to the conversation with Moses and Elijah, returned to that scene every day and night of the coming year; if that sight was consolation and strength to him, surely it must have been as well for these three men.  And not only until the Lord’s death, but for years after.  I wonder if there were a day those three men lived in the world that they didn’t remember, at least in a momentary flash of recollection, what they saw that night.  This was greater than all the Lord’s miracles.  Lots of people saw the miracles, but no other disciples ever saw what they saw; even after Jesus was raised.  The other men never saw the Lord with his divine glory upon him.  They must have reveled in that memory; taken encouragement from it in difficult times; rejoiced in the hope of victory that it gave them; the thrill of realizing the divine glory of the Savior they served.  They must have never tired of telling others what they saw.

Later, in his second letter, Peter wrote that he knew the truth of what he had taught these Christians about the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ because we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

Tell me, how would your life change if you had been there and had seen what Peter, James, and John saw.  Think of how real the unseen world would be to you having seen that world break into this world of sight and sense.  Think of how your doubts about what the Lord was doing in your life and in the world would melt away.  The King of Kings knows what he is doing!  Now, obviously, even the dark and mysterious way of the Son of Man in the world was precisely what God knew had to be done.  Think of how your fears would vanish as did the fears of Elisha’s servant when he was given a sight of the horses and chariots of God (2 Kgs. 6:17). Think of how sure you would be of every promise that God has made to you; every assurance he has given you in Holy Scripture.  Think of how eagerly you would await your next sight of that glory that had once transfixed you.  Think of how you would strain to remember every detail of the appearance of Moses and Elijah, how you could not hear those names mentioned without them summoning up for you that scene on the sacred mountain.  Think of how high your thoughts of Jesus would be and how paltry this world and its pleasures would seem in comparison.  Think of how you would rejoice to live for him and, still more, to suffer for him, given that the transfiguration was itself a gift given to encourage him in the face of all that he had to suffer for you.

Well, my friend, there were three witnesses of that most remarkable event.  Three honest men who saw what happened on that mountain.  Their honesty extends even to the recollection of details that do not place them in the most favorable light. And they have told us what happened.  And now we can remember it in a way as they did and live in the recollection of it as they did all their lives.

 Jesus, these eyes have never seen

That radiant form of thine;

The veil of sense hangs dark between

Thy blessed face and mine.

True enough; but now we know what we would see if we could pierce that veil and what we will see when finally the veil is lifted.  There is a thrill in the knowledge of Jesus Christ and a large part of that thrill, we too often forget, is the shattering experience, the gloriously overwhelming experience of seeing him in his glory as the Son of God.