Matthew (Part 25) - The Transfiguration
Christ’s ministry to his disciples was in two parts. Part 1, from when he called them to chapter 16, was to teach them who he was – Messiah, God, King. Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, gave evidence that he, at least, understood that message. Through God’s revelation entwined with Peter’s faith, the settled rest and trust in God through Christ was now his foundation. Did the rest of the disciples understand? We are not specifically told, but the events of the next chapter reveal that perhaps James and John also shared this settled faith in God and in who Christ was.
Immediately after the incident of Peter’s declaration, Jesus begins teaching Part 2 of his message – that he came to die. Part 1 told of who he was (essence). Part 2 tells what he must do (existence). “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt 16:21). We find out immediately that although Peter had a good hold on who Christ was, he couldn’t yet get his head around the reconciliation ministry that Christ came to perform.
But consider Peter’s perspective. He didn’t just throw out some words that he thought Jesus wanted to hear. God revealed to him, and he truly believed that Jesus was the living God. Peter had praise and honor and glory and blessing imagined for Christ. He was to be worshipped. So when he hears that the elders, chief priests, and scribes (the makeup of the Sanhedrin) were to do him harm and take his life, Peter wanted to defend his Lord. The events Jesus described were just the opposite of what the Son of the living God deserved!
Does that remind you an earlier portion of Matthew? At Jesus’ baptism, none other than God himself had pronounced him the Son of God. And immediately afterwards, in chapter 4, Satan comes to tempt Christ concerning that very title. “If you are the Son of God,” he tempts, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (4:3). “You deserve better!” Satan is arguing. “If you are the Son of God, demand protection by casting yourself from the temple or claim the world.” And now Peter, although unwittingly, offers the same temptation: “You are the Son of God! The suffering and death—that shall never happen to you!” But Jesus responds to Peter in the same way he responded to Satan in the wilderness. There he said, “Be gone, Satan!” (literally, “Go, Satan”). And here, with the same force, he cries out, “Get behind me, Satan!” (literally, “Go behind, Satan”).
The rebuke was important for both the sake of Peter and of Jesus himself. This was a temptation of Satan—to turn aside again by choosing his own will and way as opposed to God’s. Remember that Jesus is fully human as well as being fully divine. But in his incarnation, he laid aside certain things such as his omniscience. He came into this world as a baby, and he learned. We see his emotions run deep at times as he weeps or is thrilled or feels compassion. So the temptation is there to avoid the pain and suffering. But his perfect obedience emphatically rejects the temptation.
And this is the lesson for Peter and the others as well. They must live their Christianity by putting aside their own will and way, and instead follow God. Jesus tells them that they must take up their cross—meaning, that they must crucify or put to death their own selfish demands and stay the course that God has given them, even if it means suffering.
That, no doubt, was a somber thought for these disciples. Jesus tells them he would suffer and die. Then Jesus tells them that they too must live not to support a life of ease or freedom from trouble, but rather to face whatever trying circumstance may come for the sake of their life in God. But Jesus does not tell them to do this devoid of hope. In fact, he presents hope as the glory that will see them through. The same glory that he knows he will receive from God as he accomplishes his task, he now speaks of to the disciples to encourage them. He tells them, “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each per5son according to what he has done” (16:27). This is not just a promise of judgment to those who persecute. This is a promise of reward for those who follow Christ.
It is that which we see that Christ has for us in the future that is a source of strength for the present. Titus 2:11-13 tells us, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” We may also turn to Hebrews 11 and read of the great faith of OT saints who persevered for God. But they did so looking ahead to God’s promises. “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16a). Therefore, it is the glory that God puts before our eyes to provide the strength and confidence to move through the trials of this life. Even Jesus, “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
The next statement has puzzled many people. But it is puzzling only if we forget the context. Jesus says, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (16:28). I suggest that Jesus here is speaking of the next event in Matthew’s record—the transfiguration. We’ll look at the transfiguration in a little more depth and then come back to link it to what Jesus meant in Matthew 16:28.
Matthew begins telling us that after six day, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a high mountain. We are never really told why he chooses Peter, James, and John, and it’s not always a good idea to speculate. Speculation, if we adamantly cling to it, may drive us to a wrong conclusion and therefore to further wrong interpretation. Peter, James, and John could be the only three who had understood the lesson from Part 1 of Christ’s ministry to the disciples. Certainly the failure of the other nine later in this chapter may indicate that. Perhaps they were chosen as representative since James was the first to give his life for Christ, John was the last to die of them all, and Peter was generally considered the spokesperson. But whatever the reason, these three are selected, and they accompany Christ up the mountain.
We are told that then Jesus is transfigured. The Greek word is metamorphoo (meta – after or against with the idea of change, and morphoo – form). The meaning, then, is to change form. The word is used four times in the New Testament—once here in Matthew and once in Mark 9, both describing Christ in this scene. The third use is in Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (transfigured) by the renewal of your mind.”
The fourth time it is used is in 2 Corinthians 3:18 “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed (transfigured) into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” This passage is recalls the glory that shone from Moses’ face when he had met with God. That reflected glory made his face shine. He wore a veil so that the children of Israel would not see as the glory faded. But in 2 Corinthians, Paul tells us that we now look at God with unveiled face. That glory of God is shining on us, and we reflect it as we are transfigured/transformed.
Thus, Jesus, on that mountain, was transfigured or transformed by reflecting the glory of God to such an extent that “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (17:2). This was not the shining of his deity within him breaking out through the veil of flesh. This was the reflection of God’s glory. God is showing Christ (and the disciples) the glory that God would bestow on him when he accomplished this work of obedience on earth and enters his kingdom. This glory of God is that joy that Jesus had set before him for which he endured the cross while despising the shame. Remember again, Jesus, although God, was fully human. He understood full well the what his sacrificial, penal atonement was all about. Jesus experienced emotion, and the emotion of cross was no doubt fear and anguish. God gave Jesus this glorious appearance to strengthen him for the bloody path to come.
And now we can turn our attention back to chapter 16 verse 28. Jesus said that some would not taste death until they saw the Son of Man coming in his kingdom. The Greek word translated “coming” is erchomai. The word can mean both an arrival and appearance. Seeing Jesus coming in his kingdom means seeing his glorious appearing. That is exactly what occurred as Jesus was transfigured. Jesus appeared with the glory of God that would be his at the conclusion of his mission.
There are several other interesting points with regard to the transfiguration. The first is why did Moses and Elijah appear? Many say that Moses represented the Law and Elijah represented the Prophets. But although we can clearly see why Moses would represent the Law, nowhere does the OT hint that Elijah was the greatest or most prophetic of the prophets. What about Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or Daniel? Why couldn’t Moses himself represent the prophets as well since he was also one.
Malachi provides an answer. In chapter 4 of his book we read of the coming of the Messiah in judgment and blessing. Verse 4 and 5 quote our God saying, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” So here we have prophecy that first looks back to Moses, the beginning of the full aspects of the old covenant and then looks forward to Elijah appearing before the day of the Lord. This is the same picture that Matthew has been unfolding from the end of chapter 16 through the transfiguration. The whole of the old covenant, including the trials of that path, looked forward to the hope of reconciliation accomplished through Christ. This is the picture on the mountain. The appearance of Moses and Elijah illustrate the old covenant illustrate the old covenant’s forward look to the glory of Christ.
Peter then asks a question that may appear odd. Peter suggests building tents or booths or tabernacles. Why does he all of a sudden want to construct temporary lodging for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah? The Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles), Succoth, was a celebration of the Jews that had two intended purposes. One was to remember the wandering of the children of Israel in the wilderness when they lived in temporary lodging—tents. The other was to look forward to the Messiah’s return—his coming into his kingdom. Peter rightly recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah God. He sees the glory of Christ and recognizes it for what it is—God’s glory upon Christ coming into his kingdom. But Peter, still only having learned Part 1 of the lesson, believes that Christ is now to reign in glory and honor and majesty. He makes the same mistake as he did in the previous chapter, wanting Christ to be established now as king before his intended mission of suffering, death, and resurrection is fulfilled. To correct that that voice of God is heard: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Just as at the beginning of Part 1 of Christ’s ministry when God said the same words at the baptism, now here at the start of Part 2 of his ministry, God speaks again, expressing his pleasure in his pure, obedient son. But this time, God adds, “Listen to him.” Peter had not been listening. Peter keeps sidestepping Christ’s declared mission of suffering and death. God says to listen to him. And when the cloud comes and the disciples fall to the ground, Jesus comes with a comforting touch so that they rise and see him alone.
Jesus tells the three to keep the event to themselves—to tell no one, not even, it seems, the other disciples. But the understanding that Jesus is establishing his kingdom fills the disciples’ vision. And it seems inconsistent with the prophecy that they’ve heard preached all their lives. The scribes say that Elijah would come before the kingdom is established. They had seen him on the mountain, but that didn’t seem to fit the prophecy. Jesus acknowledges that the prophecy does demand that Elijah come first, but then informs them that Elijah did come. And the disciples understand the connection with John the Baptist.
Notice that this prophecy has no literal fulfillment. Elijah is Elijah. John is John. But the point of the prophecy was to speak of one coming in the spirit and power of Elijah to “restore all things” (17:11). How did John the Baptist restore all things? The old covenant was provided to look forward to the reconciliation accomplished through Christ. The rabbis and Pharisees and Jewish leaders had corrupted the old covenant into a religion of works. John’s message of repentance and looking to the kingdom restored the correct purpose of the old covenant at its end as Christ brought the kingdom in.
The next event of a father and son (paralleling the display of love seen in the picture of Father and Son on the mount) provides another picture of trial and resolution through Christ. The other nine disciples could not cast out the demon because of their lack of faith. They learn that settled faith in who Christ is must be accompanied in faith of action in living for God. Christ heals the boy and reiterates the message of faith in following God.