Read the passage here.
As we work through the gospel of Matthew, we’ve posited that at least one of the main questions that Matthew is asking is, “Is Jesus really the Messiah?” Or to put it another way, Matthew is arguing that Jesus really is the Messiah, in spite of the apparent questions or doubts that have been floating around. In particular, though not exclusively, Matthew seems to be concerned about those doubts or questions that arise from the religious establishment. (Incidentally, Matthew seems to be addressing additional issues, such as, “If Jesus is the Messiah, what does that mean – for the “Kingdom of God,” righteousness, etc.).
To that end, for example, Matthew opened the gospel with several biblical references regarding messianic expectations and applies them to Jesus. Though we paid special attention to the scripture references found in the early chapters of Matthew, we’ve also seen that throughout the whole gospel, Matthew repeatedly demonstrates that Jesus, as the Messiah, is the fulfillment of scripture.
Matthew also uses examples of signs and wonders that Jesus performs to demonstrate how He is inaugurating the kingdom – specifically, how these signs and wonders indicate that the Kingdom of God is breaking into a sinful world.
Additionally, Matthew shows how Jesus’ teaching demonstrates a deeper and truer understanding of the kingdom. That is to say that Jesus is bringing the true kingdom, in contrast to (for example) religious leaders who seem more interested in maintaining hold on their human kingdoms.
So, over the past couple of chapters, we’ve seen this theme – Jesus’ Messiahship contrasted with the expectations of those around Him – come to the fore. We’ve seen how Jesus’ ministry, his proclamation of the true kingdom, leads to increasing opposition to Jesus and His ministry, and we know that this will eventually lead to His death. And then, in the past couple of passages, we’ve seen how the disciples who have been with Jesus since the beginning finally come to a recognition that Jesus is indeed the Messiah – though this is contrasted with their on-going misunderstanding of what this means. The disciples recognize that Jesus is the Messiah (again, Matthew’s main thesis), though they have yet to understand what this truly means.
The reason I point all of this out is because of how our passage today ties into that question of Jesus’ identity. So today, we’ll be looking at Matthew 17:1-13, frequently referred to as the transfiguration of Jesus.
In considering our passage today, we’re going to take a quick look at a few textual and narrative considerations and then spend some time on a reflection on these verses.
The first thing I want to note is that Jesus took only Peter, James, and John with him to the mountaintop (v.1). And we’re given no explicit reason for this. However, we may get a hint of why this is in v.9.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”Matthew 17:9
Throughout the gospels, there are quite a few instances where Jesus tells the disciples and others not to report what He has done.
What we’ve seen in the previous passages was that Jesus’ death wasn’t incidental but rather intentional. Jesus’ purpose was to die. We’ve already seen that the disciples (so far) rejected this idea as incompatible with Messiahship. So if word got out that Jesus was the Messiah, it is likely that the crowds would not have let him be arrested and crucified. (The episode before Pilate, for example, could have gone quite differently if people were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah).
So does that mean that Peter, James, and John were more reliable than the other disciples? We don’t have to infer anything like that. It may simply be that a secret is easier kept between 3 than between 12 (or something like that).
The second thing that I want to make note of is the similarity between this episode and that which we find in Exodus. In our passage, we see in vv. 1-2,
1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.Matthew 17:1-2
And we remember that Moses went up to Mount Sinai to meet with God, received the Ten Commandments, and when he came down from the mountain, his face was radiant from the experience.
29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him.Exodus 34:29-30
So, as we’ve seen numerous times before, we may be seeing another allusion to Moses in the story of Jesus. And in the Mosaic story, Moses comes down off the mountain to deliver the covenant law to Israel. And it’s this covenant law which is constitutive of the people of Israel. What Moses began, Jesus completes. In Jesus, we see this people-ing fulfilled. So, perhaps, we are seeing once again Matthew pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of scripture; the fulfillment of God’s purposes are found in and through Jesus.
The third textual and narrative item I want to touch on quickly is found in v.10 (and onward). As Jesus and Peter, James, and John are coming down off the mountain, the disciples ask Jesus:
10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”Matthew 17:10
More than likely, this is a reference to a passage in Malachi 4, regarding the day of the Lord:
1 “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”Malachi 4:1-6
In short, the expectation was that some form of Elijah would return before the coming of the day of the Lord – before the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus informs the disciples (vv. 11-13) that Elijah has already come (perhaps the disciples guessed that that the appearance of Moses and Elijah at the transfiguration was the appearing foretold by Malachi) – Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist. So perhaps – and this is pure conjecture on my part – Jesus is saying that the Messiah is not to come, but the Messiah has already come.
The final textual and narrative point that I want to discuss, I’ve left for last because it leads directly into the reflections that I want to share. In our passage, we see that Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him, and these disciples witness Jesus’ transfiguration and his meeting with Moses and Elijah. This is a wondrous scene. But what I want to focus on is the words of God (the Father):
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”Matthew 17:5
At this point, I want to remind us of the immediate context in which the disciples have acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but this is contrasted with their failure to understand what that actually means. This is set in the larger context in which the religious leaders are actively trying to refute the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah – because they don’t understand what the Messiah or the kingdom of God actually means. They have their own ideas and expectations of, and plans for the kingdom. And this is set in the larger context of the gospel of Matthew in which Matthew, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is demonstrating that Jesus is actually God’s Messiah.
And in the midst of all of that, in the midst of all of the repeated questions of, “Is this the Messiah?”, we get this supernatural moment where, on the mountaintop, God Himself announces, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
You may recognize that these are exactly the same words we heard at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, during his baptism.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”Matthew 3:16-17
And you will also remember that immediately after this baptism and proclamation episode, we see the temptation of Jesus – His 40 days in the wilderness.
At this point, I want to turn to “reflection.” Henri Nouwen says about this passage:
Listen to that voice, that incredible voice of love: “You are my beloved. On you my favor rests.”
That’s the voice that Jesus heard in the Jordan River confirming who he is. Jesus lived his life as the Beloved even when the demon said, “Prove it! Prove that you are the One by doing something relevant, by changing stones into bread. Prove that you are the Beloved by throwing yourself on the Temple so everyone can see how wonderful you are. Prove that you are the Beloved through power and influence so you can spread good news to people.” Jesus rebuked the demon and said, “I don’t want to prove anything. I am the Beloved because that’s what the voice said at the Jordan River.”
That same voice was heard again by Peter, James, and John in the light of Mount Tabor: “This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him” (Matt. 17:1–8).Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation.
I’ve always seen the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as kind of a separate, self-contained episode. Jesus passes the test in the wilderness and then goes on to his ministry. But it seems to me that the temptation in the wilderness might serve as almost an archetype or pattern of his entire ministry. People are constantly questioning, testing, wondering and weighing whether Jesus is the one they are expecting. They are constantly questioning, testing, wondering and weighing whether He will meet their expectations. His entire life, or at least His entire ministry, Jesus heard people saying – “Prove it. Prove that you are the Messiah. Prove that you are who people say you are.” Even the disciples, after their declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, after hearing about His pending death, found themselves thinking “that can’t be right…”
In Matthew 3:
3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down.Matthew 3:3-5 – emphasis added.
And compare this with the Pharisees in chap. 16
The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.Matthew 16:1 – emphasis added.
And in the midst of cacophony that is human opinion and judgement, the voice of the Father cuts through the chaos and declares, “This is my Son, whom I love.” Jesus’ identity isn’t found in His miracles and signs, it’s not found in His accomplishments and achievements, it isn’t found in the adoration of affirmation of the people. Jesus’ identity is found first and finally in the word of God. And it’s out of that identity that the redemption of God comes.
Jesus, because He knew His identity was rooted in His Father, steadfastly refused to find his identity in the expectations of other people. He refused to submit to the demands of others who required that He present His qualifications like some sort of job interview. Jesus knew who He was because He knew the Father and because he was known.
In a closing reflection, we return once more to Henri Nouwen, who says:
“I am convinced that the voice from heaven was not speaking just to Jesus or about Jesus. The voice also is speaking to us and about us. We, too, have been anointed as the beloved sons and daughters of God. Jesus came to share his divine nature and identity with us, and to impart his Christhood. The Spirit of Jesus now helps us claim this deeper truth.”Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation.
We too are God’s beloved. We too can find who we are – who we truly are – apart from the expectations and demands of those around us. We too, if we are willing to accept it, can find that, in Christ, we are truly known.