Matthew 17: 1-13
Parallel Mark 9: 2-10; Luke 9: 28-36
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” 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!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
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.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Mountains in Matthew’s gospel are places of revelation, and this vision where Jesus is transfigured before the disciples continues the trend of giving insight into Jesus’ identity. The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain to test his identity (4:8); the Sermon on the Mount puts has several echoes of Moses on the mountain and shows Jesus relation to the law; Jesus prays on a mountain prior to walking the water, saving Peter and being worshipped by the disciples (14: 29); and great crowds meet Jesus at a mountain and he feeds them (15: 32-39). In this scene which evokes multiple scriptural resonances we are again confronted with the identity of Jesus and asked to reconsider the meaning of what it means for Jesus to be the Son, the Beloved one.
Peter, James, and John are set aside as a select group within the disciples who are allowed to be present for this moment of revelation, but they are also ordered to keep this vision secret until after the resurrection. We are not given any insight into why these three disciples are selected to ascend the mountain with Jesus, but they will be the group within the disciples that are present for some of the critical moments, but they will not prove to be the ideal observers and participants in these moments. As Stanley Hauerwas notes,
Jesus will also ask Peter, James and John to be with him in Gethsemane, but there, when he is in agony, they will find it hard to be present with him (Matt. 26: 36-46). Their need to be touched will continue. (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 156)
Peter, James and John share common characteristics with all the disciples: they are not people who have easy insight into the identity of Jesus, they are ‘little faith ones’ who need to journey behind Jesus and ask questions to understand. Yet, they are precisely the people that Jesus invites to share these moments that reveal who Jesus is and the faith and understanding they have makes them open to these revelations in a way that the scribes have not been.
The primary echo of scripture in this scene is Moses’ ascent of Mount Sinai. In Exodus 24, Moses takes with him Aaron, Nadab and Abihu along with seventy elders who see God, but then Moses goes up into the cloud and waits for six days before God calls and speaks to Moses. The time marker at the beginning of the transfiguration story, along with the three named disciples and the overshadowing cloud all echo the experience of God in this scene, but remarkably Peter, James and John are invited to come all the way up to this place where the presence of God overwhelms them. We also hear that Moses is changed by his time in the presence of God and that his face was shining, and the people reacted to this change with fear. (Exodus 34: 29-35) The scene may place Jesus in resonance with Moses, but the introduction of both Moses and Elijah into the scene speaking with Jesus and the note that Jesus’ face is shining like the sun and his garments are literally ‘white as the light’ while Moses and Elijah are not described in a similar way places Jesus above both of these two exemplars of the faithful ones of God.
Peter’s ‘enthusiastic error’ to desire to construct a tent or tabernacle for Jesus, Moses and Elijah to become a fixed dwelling place for Jesus, the law and the prophets (Hays, 2016, p. 352) is a continual temptation for the generations that will follow Peter in confessing Jesus as Christ/Messiah, son of the living God. Matthew certainly dedicates more space to confession of who Jesus is, to understanding his identity in relation to the law and the prophets, but confession without following behind tends to lead the disciples to misunderstanding the content of Jesus’ identity and what it means for them. The multiple ways in which Matthew reveals the connection between Jesus and the God of Israel may be difficult for the disciples, both original and modern, to grasp but we are invited to be in the place of awe and wonder where heaven and earth come together to not only reveal the identity of Jesus, but the proper response. In the presence of the ‘sound from the cloud’ the disciples’ response is one of fear and to fall on the ground, while Jesus’ encouragement to them will be not to fear and to rise up.
Peter is silenced by the presence of God in a manner that would be familiar to those who know the way God appears in the Exodus narrative. God descends on the mountain as a cloud and a sound that is described in ways that emulate both thunder and a volcano speaks the words that Moses, the elders and the people of Israel hear. In this scene the bright cloud descends upon Peter, James, John along with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah and the ‘sound from the cloud’ (the NRSV’s rendering of phone as voice instead of sound is understandable but doesn’t capture the overwhelming and terrifying nature of the scene’s echo of the LORD speaking in Exodus. The disciples’ action of being silent, fearful, and reverent are appropriate when they realize they are in the presence of the God of Israel, but in the midst of this theophany (encounter with God) they hear the voice of God declaring not only Jesus’ identity as “my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased” but also the correct response to Jesus, “hear him.”
The words which come from the bright cloud are rich in resonance both within Matthew’s story, but also within the language of scripture. In Jesus’ baptism the ‘sound from the heavens’ declares Jesus as ‘my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” and we now have this direct revelation from God a second time of this exact identity. The Son of God title comes directly from the mouth of God and from the mouth of those directly opposed to God’s work in bringing in the kingdom of heaven (see my discussion on the title Son of God here). Additionally, there are two significant resonances in scripture in this title declared from the cloud. The first is from Genesis 22 where God commands Abraham:
Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. Genesis 22:2
This scene which is pivotal in the book of Genesis because it places the covenant between Abraham and the LORD at risk, the LORD is asking Abraham to offer up the long-awaited promise of God back to God, after God has bound Godself to this promise. Hearing the echo of this scene may help those with attentive ears to be prepared for Jesus’ journey to a different mountain where the Son of Man will suffer at the hands of men. The other echo an attentive ear may hear is Isaiah 42:1
Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
The additional imperative to “hear him” also echoes Deuteronomy 18: 15:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet
These echoes point to Jesus being a prophet like Moses, the suffering servant of Isaiah, and the beloved son of the speaker, like Isaac to Abraham all within this divine pronouncement from the cloud. Jesus radiates with the same brightness as the terrifying and bright cloud where the presence of God approaches, and the scene is overwhelming for Peter, James, and John who bow their faces to the ground and are fearing exceedingly.
The disciples have been commanded to hear Jesus and after touching them, an observation unique to Matthew’s narration of this story, the disciples are invited to ‘rise up’ and to ‘not fear.’ Upon rising up they see only Jesus, no longer transfigured, inviting them to continue their journey down the mountain. They are commanded to remain speechless about this vision until the Son of Man ‘rises up’ from the dead, and only then can they tell what happened on the mountain. They were never to stay there for long, they were invited to see and hear and wonder in new ways who this one they follow is and to continue to hear him while they can. The disciples may be speechless about what happened on the mountain, but they have enough understanding to ask for clarification about the expectation of Elijah’s coming.
The scribes who study the scriptures have enough insight to know that the scriptures point to Elijah’s coming, but without faith that is open to God’s emissaries at work they are unable to interpret the meaning of John the Baptist or Jesus within God’s action. These disciples have enough faith to understand once things are explained to them. Both John the Baptist and Jesus will suffer at the hands of those who have eyes but cannot see or ears that do not hear. The word here for ‘suffer’ is pascha, the word we get Paschal (like the Paschal lamb of Passover). Peter, James, and John hear an extra reminder that Jesus’ path will be one that will involve suffering at the hands of those unable to see as they journey down the mountain to the crowd and disciples waiting below.
 In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) the words are ‘hear him’ (autou akousesthe) the same verb used in Matthew.