The Comfort of the Glory
We are taken, in Matthew 17:1–8, to a setting that only three disciples are allowed to witness––Peter, James, and John. Six days prior, Jesus had forewarned his disciples what to expect once they entered Jerusalem. He described the events of his rejection, crucifixion, and the coming suffering he would endure once he arrived in the holy city (Mt 16:21–23). Jesus cautioned his disciples that to identify and embrace the Messiah was to embrace a suffering Messiah, and in order to follow him they too must take up their own crosses (Mt 16:24). To hear such words would have shocked their Messianic expectations. They were instructed all of their lives to watch for a militant Messiah, not a humble suffering servant. When we meet this inner group of Jesus’ disciples in Matthew 17, they are deflated, discouraged, and defeated. With suffering and death on the horizon, Jesus desires to encourage this emotionally crushed group of disciples with something far more glorious than Roman conquest.
The Alteration of the Son
According to the parallel account in Luke 9:28–36, Jesus had led this inner circle of disciples up Mt. Hermon one late evening “to pray.” There is no suggestion as to what Jesus prayed for or how the disciples were involved in this prayer meeting. However, after some time, they became “very sleepy,” and evidently fell asleep (Lk 9:32). Whoever woke up first must have quickly shook the others awake when they saw the scene before them––“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:2).
The disciples awake from sleep and Jesus is framed by a thousand summer stars and his clothing is dazzling white. Not only were his clothes blazing brighter than the sun, but Matthew adds that “His face shone like the sun” (Mt 17:2). Jesus was “transfigured,” or more literally “metamorphosed” before his disciples. For a brief moment, the veil of Jesus’ humanity was lifted, and his true pre-incarnate glory was allowed to blaze forth in full brilliance. Peter, James, and John are lifeless on the ground as they beheld this treasured spectacle. John would later reflect, “we have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only son” (Jn 1:14).
The Advent of Two Prophets
As if the display of the glory of Jesus was not enough to take in, the disciples are given something else, “Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him” (Mt 17:3). Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, were the definitive summary of the Old Testament and it is now appropriate that they appear with Jesus as his glory is unveiled. According to Luke, this heavenly council were conversing about Jesus’ coming crucifixion, “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31).
The appearance of Moses and Elijah pointed to the truth that Jesus was God’s ultimate fulfillment and conclusive word to humanity. Jesus achieved what the sacrificial system was teaching. Jesus perfectly obeyed every point of the law that the nation of Israel failed to obey. Everything toward which their religion and history had been inexorably moving was now converging like a mighty rushing river culminating within this one person, the Son of God. This stunning scene was meant to encourage the disciples and give them hope in the shadow of the looming cross.
The Audacity of Peter
Into this perfect scene enters a man who always has something to say when nothing at all should be said. At best, Peter’s response in verse 4 was a courteous reflex desiring to serve Jesus and his heavenly visitors. He wanted to construct tabernacles, or more properly thatched booths, so the disciples could wait on Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Some commentators think Peter may have thought this was the inauguration of the kingdom and all of Jesus’ talk about death and suffering would never come to pass. A quick survey of the New Testament reveals that Peter often desires to avoid the suffering of the cross, to the point that he will eventually deny three times that he even knows Jesus. At best, we don’t know all that is going on in the mind or motives of Peter, but we do know our Lord’s answer––complete silence.
The Awesomeness of God’s Glory
Adding another element to this magnificent scene, Matthew writes, “He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them” (Mt 17:5). This is no ordinary cloud. A study of the Old Testament reveals that a luminous cloud, the shekinah glory cloud, was a sign and manifestation of the presence of God, the form in which God often revealed himself to Israel. The cloud that now engulfed the disciples was the same glory cloud that passed by Moses as God covered him in the cleft of the rock with his hand so that Moses only saw God’s afterglow (Ex 33:18–23). This was the same cloud which covered the nearly completed Tent of Meeting and so filled the new Tabernacle with God’s glory that Moses could not enter it (Ex 40:35). This was the same cloud that filled Solomon’s Temple on dedication day so that the priests could not enter the Temple (1 Ki 8:10; 2 Chron 7:1). It had been six hundred years since anyone in Israel had seen this cloud, this great shekinah glory.
Here is Peter, James, and John in the midst of the glory which Moses was not permitted to directly behold. They were able to stand in this boundless glory because Jesus was present with them. As they stood shimmering with Christ in the cloud, this was not only a declaration about Christ, but a prophecy of what was to come. In the future, in death, they would meet the risen Christ in the incandescent clouds of glory to be with him forever (1 Thess 4:17–18). This is the blessed hope that not only the disciples were called to wrap their arms around, but all Christians of all ages. Jesus was expressing the fact that suffering must come before glory. The way of the cross is a way paved by blood, but glory is on the horizon.
The Affirmation of the Father
In the silence of this moment, a voice comes out of the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Mt 17:5). This was the voice of God the Father, who had said almost the exact same thing at the baptism of Jesus. God was expressing that the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) are only partial expressions and realities. Here, crowned in glory, is God’s final statement, “listen to him!” The writer of Hebrews points to God’s final declaration: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb 1:1–2).
Everything that has come before, all that God has said before, all that God has accomplished before, now converges in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, “listen to him!” This is a direct command to Peter, James, and John to listen to what Jesus said about the necessity of his death and of their embracing the paradox of the cross. This is a command for them to embrace Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35, “For whoever wants to save his life will loose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” May we listen to no other voice.
In Matthew 17:8 we read, “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” As sudden as it appeared, the glory was gone, the Father’s voice stilled, Moses and Elijah had retreated, and on the slopes of Mt. Hermon were only Peter, James, and John with Jesus. This is what all of our experience, all our theology, all our ministry, all our work should come to––seeing only Jesus. When this happens, our hearts honor him in worship, we love one another as we should, and we offer our lives in his service. Jesus, as with his beloved disciples, desires to encourage us, even when he calls us to embrace the paradox of the cross. He desires to encourage us with the glory that is to come, a glory that shall shine brighter than the sun for all of eternity.
Dustin W. Benge is a visiting lecturer for Munster Bible College, Cork, Ireland, and editor for Expositor Magazine.