The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13)
We now come to the amazing account of the transfiguration of Christ on the mountain. This dramatic event marks a major turning point in the gospel narratives, for Jesus was beginning to turn more and more to Jerusalem and the suffering and death that awaited Him there. But before all of that would take place, there was this glimpse of glory. And we read in the New Testament that it was because of the glory that was set before Him He was able to endure the cross. The revelation of Christ’s glory in this chapter was a clear confirmation to the disciples of the truth of Peter’s confession of faith (16:16); but it was also a great encouragement for Christ Himself as He faced the agony that would occur on another hill called Golgotha.
Reading the Text
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. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. He said, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Do not tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
10 The disciples asked Him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” 11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him whatever they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is gone to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that He was talking to them about John the Baptist.
The Structure of the Passage
We may divide the passage into three major parts for our analysis. First, we have the record of the event of the transfiguration (verses 1-3). Second, we have Peter’s suggestion and the divine response to it (verses 4-8). And third, we have the instruction by Jesus and the question by the disciples (verses 9-13).
The event certainly is the basis and key to the entire passage. It simply reports what happened, without going into as much detail as the other narratives. But in the other two sections we have the all-important dialog. In the second part we have Peter’s suggestion, followed by the voice from heaven; this revelation struck terror in the disciples, but that fear was relieved by the Jesus’ words of comfort. So there are three “speeches” in the second part to be considered. Then, the third section, which is the aftermath of the event, also has three “speeches,” an instruction, followed by a question, followed by an answer. What is interesting is that in the event Jesus does not explain the transfiguration at all. The voice from heaven explains who Jesus is, but not why Moses or Elijah are there on the mountain. We are left with a number of questions, as indeed the disciples must have been as well.
The account of the transfiguration occurs in the other gospels as well. Mark (9:2-12) tells us that His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. Mark also tells us that Peter did not know what he was saying, for he was frightened. Mark does not record all that the voice from heaven said, leaving out “in whom I am well-pleased.” And Mark tells us that the disciples kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant. And in Jesus’ answer about Elijah we see that there was more conversation than what Matthew recorded. Jesus also at that time reasoned, “Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?” Jesus was explaining why the kingdom had not been established if Elijah had already come.
Luke has some different things (9:28-36). Whereas the other gospels say it took place after six days, Luke says “about eight days.” Luke tells us that they went up on the mountain to pray. And as He was praying He was transfigured: His face changed and His clothes became as white as the lightning. Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah also were in glorious splendor; they spoke to Jesus about His departure (literally, His “exodus”) that He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. Luke records the same words from heaven that Mark had. But Luke does not include the discussion about Elijah.
All three of the so-called synoptic gospels have essentially the same thing; but they each chose to tell the account in their own way according to their purpose. Our focus will be on what Matthew actually says; but we will interpret it in line with all the reports of what happened.
It may be a small point, but it is worth noting that there are two traditions about the location of the Mount of Transfiguration. The Roman Catholic tradition identifies it as Mount Tabor, south of the region of Galilee, on the northern edge of the Jezreel Valley. As one would expect, there are chapels and churches on the top of the mount to commemorate the spot. The other view, and probably more likely one, is that Mount Hermon is the site of the transfiguration.1 It is in the far north, located north of where Caesarea Philippi is situated. It would make sense for the transfiguration to take place in that region where Jesus had been ministering and where Peter made his confession. Of course, there is a week’s time for them to get almost anywhere. But the critical point is that they went up to the place away from all the people. Mount Tabor is not a very large mountain, and it was inhabited at the time.
If you have time you can also study the mentality of using mountain tops for spiritual experiences and for shrines. This was common throughout the ancient world. And since the instinct of coming up out of the world was a good one, God also used it to reveal himself (study Mount Sinai, the sermon on the mount, the mount of the transfiguration, and of course, Mount Zion).
The setting in the gospel is also important. After a time of popularity in the northern regions the tide turned against Jesus. The leaders were busy trying to discredit Him, and the people started going away. This prompted Jesus to ask what people said about Him, and what the disciples said. Now, as He begins to turn towards Jerusalem and His death, He is transfigured before three disciples on the top of the mountain. This should have encouraged the disciples that no matter what happened in Jerusalem, Jesus was the Lord of Glory. Looking back they realized this; but at the time they may not have thought it through. But as far as the arrangement of the gospel goes, it is downhill from here to the valley of shame and humiliation.
Old Testament Background
Even though this could be dealt with in passing in the text, it may be helpful to deal with it now. Peter wanted to make three “tabernacles” or “shelters” or “booths.” He was thinking of the Feast of Tabernacles. But what prompted him to think of that. The accounts tell us he was afraid, and did not know what he was saying. I take that to mean that his timing was wrong for the suggestion, for this was not the time. The Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated every year by the Jews; it commemorated the wilderness wandering or temporary sojourn of the people until they settled in the land. The people therefore would build the little shelters and live under them for the week, only to come out of them at the end, at the great day of the feast (with much relief we might add). The seven day festival not only commemorated the temporary sojourn of the people in the wilderness, but in this age, for the final great day was a celebration of the settlement in the land, and (in the future) the culmination of the promises. That is why it came at the end of the calendar year.
Peter had heard Jesus say about a week earlier that some who were standing there would not taste death before they saw the Son of Man coming in His kingdom (Matt. 16:28). Now, on the mountain, Peter saw Christ in all His glory. His instinct may have been to think that this was it, the start of the kingdom. And so in all his eagerness he wanted to make the shelters for the great celebration. We do not know how well Peter knew the prophetic literature of the Bible, but Zechariah makes it clear that in the kingdom the people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, i.e., the culmination of all the promises. Peter had the right idea, in general, but the wrong time, for Christ had to die first.
It is interesting that Matthew says this took place after six days, and Luke says about the eighth day. Edersheim2 wonders if Peter’s great confession might not have been made on a Sabbath day, and then after six days, the night of the next sabbath, or the morning of the first day of the week, the eighth day, the Lord appears in His glory. If this is correct, and it is the only meaning for the days that makes sense, then the symbolism of a Sunday transfiguration and a Sunday resurrection is significant.
Analysis of the Text
The Transfiguration (17:1-3). The central point of the first three verses focuses on one word—and indeed, this word is the center of the whole passage. “Transfigured.” The Greek term is well-known in English; from metamorphoo (pronounced meta-mor-phaw-o) we get our word “metamorphasis.” The word describes the complete change of the form and substance. For example, we use it to describe the change from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Here then we have a complete change in the appearance or form of Jesus in the presence of the disciples. He now was brighter than the light, revealing His true glory to them.
What is interesting to note in this word study is that we have here the reverse of the theme of Philippians 2, the kenosis. There Paul says that Christ Jesus took on the form of a servant. Here, however, the Servant takes on the form of deity, revealing His glory.
The same word is used by Paul in Romans 12:1,2, in which he instructs believers to be “transformed” by the renewing of their minds. There is to be a genuine change in the life of the believer. Of course the New Testament also teaches that we shall be changed when we enter the presence of the Lord, we shall be glorified.
In the transfiguration Moses and Elijah appear and talk with the Lord. Moses represents the Law, and Elijah the Prophets; Moses represents those who have died in the Lord, and Elijah those who have not. Moses wrote the Law which anticipated the sacrificial atonement of the Messiah; Elijah was to come to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming of the Lord. Moses went up Mount Sinai and because he was with the Lord of Glory there, his face shone when he came back down; Elijah did not die, but was taken up to glory in the whirlwind and the chariot of fire. Here the two of them speak to Christ, and the parallel accounts tell us they spoke of Jesus’ “departure” (Greek exodus). They spoke of His coming death; but by the term the Bible uses we know they spoke of it as the fulfillment of the great deliverance in Egypt. Jesus’ death would be the exodus from the bondage of sin in the world.
The vision was then clear: Christ was revealed in His glory, and He was joined by Moses and Elijah to indicate that He was about to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, and that death cannot destroy the glory that will follow. Moses and Elijah were and are alive, and are glorified. Jesus may face death in the days to come, but death in God’s service is the way to glory.
The Response of Peter (17:4-8). Matthew does not tell us why Peter said what he said, or comment on the suitability of the comment. He simply reports the suggestion of Peter to make shelters, to celebrate the apparent fulfillment of the promises. Peter is in no way irreverent or self-willed. We must note in his words, “Lord, it is good for us to be here! If you wish . . . .” Peter loved the Lord, and was willing to do anything for Him, if He wished.
The second “speech” in this part of the passage is a word from heaven. It is not so much a response to Peter as it is a revelation that dominates everything that was happening and in a way completely overshadows whatever Peter thought or said. It was one thing to see Jesus transfigured, with His clothing and His appearance brighter than the sun—that was frightening to the disciples, as the other gospels tell us. But it was quite another thing to hear a voice from heaven confirming that Jesus was the Son of God. Peter had just made that confession; but now Peter heard it in a new light, as it were. The Christ, the Messiah (in Hebrew), was not merely a son of David and therefore designated “son of God”; He was God’s Son in a unique way. God (the Father, we know) declared, “This is My Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him.”
The word from heaven made three clear points: Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus is loved by the Father and pleasing to the Father; and Jesus must be obeyed. All of these ideas were being challenged by the religious leaders of the day, and questioned by the people. The disciples, however, knew Jesus was God’s Son (in some way), that He was doing the will of the Father, and that He was to be obeyed. Now, this direct revelation confirmed their faith—and it surely encouraged Jesus as well as opposition had begun to mount and would increase.
The experience on this mountain reflects the experience of Israel on Mount Sinai. There in Exodus (19-24) the glory of the LORD hovered on the top of the mountain as Moses received the Law. And because of the presence of the LORD, Moses face began to reflect the glory of the LORD. But to ensure that this was indeed the Law of God that was to be obeyed, God spoke. The Bible says that the people heard the sound of His voice; they did not see the LORD, but they heard the words (Deut. 4). That vision, and that sound, confirmed to them that the Law was from the LORD God and was to be obeyed.
The disciples, we read in Matthew 17, were terrified at this voice and fell on their faces. But the Lord Jesus came to them and comforted them. So the third “speech” in this section is the simple word from Him: “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” And when the disciples looked, they saw no one but Jesus. The revelation was not given to strike fear in the disciples, although all revelation should bring the response of fear and obedience because of the fact that the sovereign Lord of glory has made Himself known to us and has called us to obey. But the revelation was given to the disciples to convince and to encourage and to strengthen them in their faith and obedience. And because of this Jesus “touched them.” The touch was not simply proof that He was real, but that they were His friends and accepted by Him. It was a reassuring touch, followed by the words, “Do not be afraid.”
The point is that God’s revelation to His people is a demonstration of His love and His grace for them. Of course we are overwhelmed by it, by the thought of it. But at every turn the revelation of God confirms to us that Jesus is our Lord, that our faith is not in vain, that we need not live in fear, but that we should live by faith in Him. And a revelation of this kind provides us with another word from God about the hope of glory that lies ahead of us, no matter what we have to endure here on earth. Only in Christ is there any hope of passing beyond the grave to glory.
The Question about Elijah (17:9-13). There is much more that could be said about the transfiguration and the revelation from heaven, but in this brief guide to Bible study we will have to move on. The final part of Matthew’s account has the question about Elijah (the other gospels do not). It could be treated as a separate narrative (since there is enough to deal with above), but since it is raised because of the appearance of Elijah, then it should probably be included in the discussion.
On the way down the mountain Jesus cautioned the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man was raised from the dead. The other accounts tells us that the disciples were not sure of what He meant by “raised from the dead,” even though prior to the transfiguration He had predicted His death (16:21), and Peter had protested the death (16:22). The revelation of the transfiguration would be a prophetic revelation of the glory of Christ, and the resurrection from the dead would confirm what the transfiguration declared. If news of the transfiguration spread prematurely, it would be misunderstood, and perhaps the many followers of Jesus would try to enthrone Him before He went up to Jerusalem to die for their sins.
The disciples then want to know why the teachers say that Elijah was first to come. They had seen Christ in His glory; they had seen Moses and Elijah; but they were not to say anything about it until Jesus died and rose again. Jesus’ answer was that “Elijah comes and will restore all things.” That is the future; that is the “not yet” of the Elijah prophesy of Malachi. But then Jesus added what we call the “already,” by saying, “But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize Him.” He was speaking of John the Baptist, of course. The teaching about John in no way teaches re-incarnation. The Lord simply is saying that John came as the fulfillment of the prophecy that “Elijah” should first come. But it was not yet time for the fulfillment of all things, and John did not turn the nation around, because He was captured and put to death. The point is that Jesus will also be seized and put to death. Jesus was telling the disciples that before the crown there was the cross. And both John and Jesus had to suffer at the hands of wicked people.
There is no need to get into all the details of the Elijah prophecy again here. Review what was said in the Bible Study of Matthew 11. Here Jesus’ words state that John came in fulfillment of the Elijah prophecy, but Elijah comes and restores all things. There is yet more to be fulfilled at the time of the second coming when everything will be made right, and when Jesus will appear in glory (see the vision of John in Rev. 1).
Conclusion and Application
John wrote in the prologue to his gospel, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the only begotten Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Among other things, John must have had this event in mind. Here the three disciples saw the glory of the Lord Jesus, so that they knew He was the divine Son who came into the world. They were still unclear about His death and resurrection, but afterward they would understand more fully the reason for this revelation on the mountain. Matthew tells this event to make the identity of Jesus Christ perfectly clear, because the rest of the gospel will focus on rising opposition, suffering and death. But the transfiguration revealed that He is the Lord of Glory, that everything He did pleased the Father, and that He is the one to be obeyed. The glorious appearance and the voice from heaven left no doubt in the minds of the disciples.
Several areas of application come to mind. First, the transfiguration itself instructs us as well as to the true nature of Jesus. But it also gives us a glimpse of what is yet to be, not only of His appearance in heaven, but our glorification as well. That is why Paul’s instruction in Romans to be transformed is so important: we are to begin the changes now in our spiritual life, and God will complete it in our actual translation to glory.
Second, revelation demands a response. The natural instinct is fear and worship, falling on our faces before Him. But the practical continuation of our response comes at the divine instruction to listen to, i.e., obey, Jesus. If Jesus truly is the Lord of Glory and not just a man from Galilee, then we must worship Him and obey Him.
Third, God’s revelation is given to us because God loves us and desires that we be with Him in glory. The touch of the hand of Jesus was probably most re-assuring of this in the event. Of course, people who reject the Savior and refuse to obey His word have much to fear. But we who worship Him and serve Him have His word, “Do not be afraid.” And later, “Where I am, there you shall be also” (John 14).
As for the steps in the method of Bible Study, we can see here how the event is central, and all the discussions that follow help to explain its significance. It shows us that the dialogue, the speeches of the story, are so essential to the interpretation. But in the study of the passage we also see the importance of the word study for “transfigure,” and how it connects us to other passages. And finally, we also note how the Old Testament background (tabernacles, and Elijah) are important to understanding all that is taking place in the narrative.
1 The Gospel of Mark mentions indicates that there may have been snow on the mountain, and that would fit Hermon. But this comment may be a later addition to the manuscript, and so has not been included in many modern versions. Snow may be found on the higher elevations of Hermon, and even in some of the lower slopes, late in the year. Jesus probably did not go to the top.
2 One of the most helpful books to have on the gospels is Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. It is old, and conservative, and so open to a lot of modern attacks. But the more it is studied the more it makes sense. His style and insights are a delightful read.