Matthew 17. The Transfiguration. What Was It For?

Key Notes: Jesus exalted. The disciples overwhelmed on the mountain, failing in the valley. Moving mountains.

The question may sound irreverent, but it prevents us from skating over the Transfiguration as a phenomenon, a spectacular vision, without any particular meaning. If it is merely a picture in a stained glass window, we are impoverished. If we knew who Jesus was in words from Matthew 16, we will learn even more about Him in visual terms in this chapter. The lesson really starts with the last verse of Matt. 16.

16:28 “Truly I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.”

What did Jesus mean when He said “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His Kingdom.”

*Some have said that He was speaking of His Second Coming, the final appearance of the Kingdom. That is troublesome to any who believes that Jesus understood what He was saying, and that He knew that the Second Coming was far away.
*Others believe that He was referring to the Passion events, or Pentecost and the emergence of the Church.
*I think Jesus is speaking of the Transfiguration as a demonstration of the Kingdom, in part because this spectacular display is the next part of the narrative.

17:1–2 “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John… and led them up a high mountain apart. And He was transfigured before them, and His face shown like the sun and His garments became white as light. And behold! there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him.”

17:4–8 Peter told Jesus that the disciples were glad to be there and offered to make shelters for the three—Jesus, Moses and Elijah. He had not finished the sentence when “Behold!” a bright cloud came over them and they heard a voice,
            "This is My Beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased. Listen to Him”
They collapsed on their faces, filled with awe-fear. Then Jesus came and touched them.
            “Rise and have no fear.”
When they looked up, the cloud and Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus alone was with them.

17:9 Going down the mountain, Jesus told them to keep the vision a secret until after the resurrection. They must cast their pearls carefully.
The disciples asked about Elijah. They had just seen him, and wanted to know when he would return. Jesus was already here and Elijah was expected to come before Him. (Mal.4:5). Jesus had previously told them that John the Baptist was “the Elijah to come”. (Matt.11:13–14). He told them again, adding that Israel did not recognize him and killed him. They would do the same to Jesus.

What did Jesus mean  by “he (Elijah) is to restore all things”? Scripture says that John prepared the way for Jesus (Matt.3:3), bringing down the mountains and filling in the valleys so that all flesh should see the salvation of God, revealed in Christ. (Lk.3:4–6). That was the beginning of the restoration. The completion was yet to come.

Jesus linked His ministry to John’s on other occasions (Matt.11:16–19; 21:25; Jn.5:33–36) pointing out that the Jews rejected them both and for the same reason—unbelief.

17:14–21 The scene at the foot of the mountain, down on the ground, was embarrassing. An excited crowd surrounded a boy, an uncontrollable lunatic (Gr. word is derived from "luna", the moon) with self-destructive behavior, possibly epileptic, but certainly demon-possessed. He could not be healed by the nine disciples, and the distraught father fell before Jesus and begged healing for his child. Mark says the scribes were arguing with the crowd (Mk.9:14), probably baiting the disciples. They had come down the mountain from the portals of the Kingdom to the gates of Hell.

Jesus was very upset.
            O faithless and perverse generation---the crowd, jeering and jostling---
            How long am I to be with you---incompetent disciples---
            How long am I to bear with you---and carry your sicknesses and weaknesses?
He healed the boy with a word.
The disciples wondered why they had failed. Jesus said their small faith had failed them. I believe that  mountain-moving faith is different from saving faith.

17:22 At their next gathering in Galilee, Jesus gave His second announcement of the Cross. They heard Him this time, and were greatly distressed. After this, Jesus relieved the tension with some patient, practical instruction.


Peter would later say that he had seen Jesus’ Glory at the Transfiguration.

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ but we were eyewitnesses of His Majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ’this is my Beloved Son with whom I am well pleased,’ we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain.” (IIPet.1:16–18)

Only three disciples were invited to the Transfiguration. They were selected on two other occasions as well, the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Mk.5:37), perhaps because of limitation of space, and Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane. Matt.26:3

What they saw cannot adequately be described. They saw Jesus as they had never seen Him before—His face like the sun, His clothes brilliant. A similar image of Christ was seen by Daniel (Dan.10:4–9), Ezekiel (Ezek.1:26–29) and the Apostle John. (Rev.1:13–16). This is His pre-incarnate, and post-incarnate glory, hidden from view during all but these few moments of His lifetime.

With Him were two OT saints: not Adam, representing creation, nor Abraham, man of faith, not David, representing worship, nor Solomon, the symbol of wisdom, but Moses representing the Law and Elijah, representing the prophets.
How could  they be recognized? We don’t know. We recognize them today in statuary by simple marks, Moses by the tablets of stone under his arm, and Elijah by his leather belt, hairy mantle and water bottle, a raven on his shoulder. They were there to be seen by the disciples, conveying a symbolic message. They were speaking, however, to Jesus.

What were they saying? Matthew does not tell us, perhaps assuming we understand the flow of events in Jesus’ life, but Luke says they were discussing His “Exodus"---His death and the purchase of human redemption---soon to be accomplished in Jerusalem. (Lk.9:31). We expect that they were giving Jesus a message of encouragement and support. Moses had led Israel though the first Exodus. Elijah had destroyed Baal worship at the risk of his life. Both had mountain-top experiences of leadership. Both performed miracles. Both had unusual demises.

Were they real? Were they alive? How could they be making intelligent conversation? They had been dead for hundreds of years. Jesus would later confound the Sadducees by telling them “…have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘ I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?' He is not God of the dead , but of the living. “ (Matt.22:32)
But the context of that discussion is the resurrection, still future. What is the status of the godly in the Intermediate State between death and resurrection? This episode is a clue. Hebrews speaks of being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb.12:1) and of “the spirits of just men made perfect”. (Heb.12:23). The spirits of these just men are able to be seen in bodily form, to converse and encourage Jesus at this crucial time of His life.

Peter intruded. He thought this occasion needed some human engineering, some bricks and mortar, or at least rocks and sticks. He made two mistakes: this was not his party, and he must not put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. He was there to listen and observe and worship. He was overshadowed by the Father Himself. He and the disciples disappeared into a cloud. The voice of God affirmed Jesus as on two other occasions, the baptism (Matt.3:17) and the introduction of some Greeks, at a time when Jesus was facing the Cross. (Jn.12:20–30). Mercifully, the disciples emerged unscathed. “Listen to Him.” They would remember that little sentence for a while.

What was the Transfiguration for?
First, it was for Jesus. We see two great OT leaders meeting with Jesus, bracing Him for the final push. In a few short weeks there will be Hell for Him, figuratively, perhaps literally. He will be abandoned by all His disciples. His pain will be excruciating. He will have to endure more than any human being ever has suffered. But He must go on. He is the only one who can save us. The world depends on it and the souls of all that have already died are at stake. Heaven stands waiting with baited breath for the redemption of the race. The blessing and rejoicing to follow will be worth all the pain.
“…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

Second it was for the disciples. They were given a glimpse of the Kingdom. It would be a very different image from the parables of Matt.13, which describe the Kingdom quietly operating in the world or the subjects of the Kingdom in the Beatitudes. It would more resemble the description in Heb.12:18–29.

*Jesus is shown to be exalted above all in power and glory with God the Father affirming Him.
*God is the God of deceased but yet living godly believers.
*Jesus is accompanied by Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets), representing the OT covenant. The Law and the Prophets support Him and are subordinate to Him.
*The NT apostles (Peter, James and John) are in attendance, representing the Gospel. We see the unity of the OT and the NT covenants. The foundation of the household of God is the apostles and prophets. Eph.2:20
*The discussion is about the Cross, the turning point of history and proof that the Kingdom has penetrated the World, defeating Satan and freeing the captives.
*We are witnessing the communion of the saints. “…O Heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets….” Rev.18:20

Lastly, the vision of the Kingdom is for the future, to comfort and encourage them, not to be their home. Their mountain-top experiences will be rare. They are on the earth to preach the Kingdom, heal the sick and raise the dead.

When Jesus came down from the mountain, the disciples had failed. Disciples had had success in their earlier travels. (Lk.10:17). The nine lacked mountain-moving faith. Mark says in this situation prayer is vital. (Mk.9:29). Have I ever witnessed such faith?

It has been said that Christians prayed for China for 150 years to see the Church born there as it is today. We must not assume that the mountain will move in a day in response to prayer.

An anecdote:
Once our congregation gave the leadership 30 days to raise $680,000 to buy land, as proof that a new church building was God’s will. One business-man hearing this  story said the demand was ridiculous and impossible to accomplish.
We asked the deacons and elders to think of themselves as the priests bearing the ark through the Jordan River. (Josh.3:7–17). They would have to go ahead and get their feet wet first. They must pledge $100.000. If they failed or faltered, the “children of Israel’, the church people behind them would not follow them into the Promised Land. The fourteen church leaders pledged $100,000. Yet on the 28th day we were still $100,000  short and a ceremony of resignation was held on the site of 17 acres that the church thought to buy. While we sadly said good-bye to our hopes, a woman with elbows churning was seen striding around the edges of the corn-field, the property we intended to purchase. Someone said she was claiming the property for God. In 30 calendar days we had the full amount in cash and pledges.
God had moved a mountain.

Our God moves mountains.