1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, 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 white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. – Matthew 17:1-13 ESV
It’s important to remember that there were no chapter designations in the original version of Matthew’s gospel. So the closing sentence of chapter 16 would have flowed directly into our passage for today.
“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.” – Matthew 16:28 ESV
Just six days later, Jesus would choose three of His disciples to accompany Him to the top of a nearby mountain. While there has been much speculation over the years as to the exact identity of the mountain to which Matthew referred, none of the gospel writers provide us with the identity. The location of the mountain was not the point of the story, but the details of the event that took place on the mountain.
Jesus handpicked Peter, James, and John to join Him on this particular occasion. They were given the unique privilege of witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime scene that was designed to confirm Jesus’ identity as the Messiah.
What the disciples witnessed must have blown them away. And the fact that this incredible scene took place on a mountaintop, accompanied by the presence of Moses and Elijah, would not have escaped them. These two men had also had mountaintop encounters with God. They’re described in Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19 respectively. And in both cases, their divine encounters had taken place on Mt Sinai. So, for the three disciples, who would have very familiar with the stories of Moses and Elijah, God’s choice of location at which to appear would have made all the sense in the world.
But they were not prepared for what they witnessed. In fact, when they had gone up on the mountain they don’t appear to have been expecting much to happen, because Luke points out that the three of them had fallen fast asleep. But they woke up to find that Jesus had been transfigured. The Greek word is metamorphoō, from which we get our English word, metamorphosis. Jesus was literally transformed in His appearance.
…his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light… – Matthew 17:2 ESV
The change that came over Him was visible and undeniable. Mark describes the brightness of His clothes “as no one on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:3 ESV). But that’s not all that happened. Matthew states that the figures of Moses and Elijah appeared alongside Jesus. And Matthew and Mark both emphasize that these two men appeared before them – the disciples. Peter, James, and John were given the privilege of seeing these two great patriarchs appear next to Jesus. We’re not told how they recognized them. Moses and Elijah had lived hundreds of years earlier and there would have been no photographic record of their appearance. But somehow, the three disciples knew that they were watching Jesus dialogue with these two long-deceased heroes of the Hebrew faith.
And Luke includes the content of their discussion with Jesus. They “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31 ESV). Remember what Jesus had told the disciples just six days earlier:
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. – Matthew 16:21 ESV
The words of Jesus were confirmed for Peter, James, and John as they overheard Moses and Elijah discussing the very same topic. This whole scene was for the benefit of the three disciples. This was a God-ordained event designed to fully confirm the disciples’ belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It’s important to consider the significance of the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Moses was synonymous with the law of God. Elijah was one of the premier prophets of God. And later, after Jesus had died and resurrected, He would appear to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and Luke records that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV).
Later on, in Luke’s account, Jesus appeared before all His disciples and told them:
“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” – Luke 24:44-47 ESV
Through the transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of Moses and Elijah, God was letting the disciples know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the Messiah, in fulfillment of all that had been written in the law and the prophets.
But look Peter’s response. He immediately offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In essence, he wants to prolong the moment and extend the stay of the two patriarchs. He completely forgot that Moses and Elijah had discussed Jesus’ departure, not his stay. But Peter didn’t want this little get-together to end. And Matthew reports that, while the words were still on Peter’s lips, “a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him’” (Matthew 17:5 ESV). God wanted Peter to shut up and listen. Jesus had been telling them what was going to happen. He had tried to let them know what was going to take place next. But the news Jesus had shared had prompted Peter to rebuke Him.
God wanted Peter, James, and John to know that He was pleased with Jesus. The coming suffering and death of Jesus was not a sign of God’s wrath or judgment. It was all part of His divine plan for man’s redemption. And the obedience of Jesus brought great joy to the Father’s heart. He knew His Son was committed to carrying out His assignment. Now, God wanted the disciples on board. And long after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter would write of this incredible experience.
…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 ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts… – 2 Peter 1:16-19 ESV
His experience on the mountaintop that day had obviously made an impression. Watching the transfiguration of Jesus had had a life-transforming effect on Peter and the other two disciples.
But as they left the mountain and descended back to the valley below, Jesus told them to keep what they had seen to themselves, until He was resurrected. It was only then that they were to proclaim the King and His kingdom. And as good Jews, they were curious to know that, if Jesus was the Messiah, why He had appeared before the return of Elijah. According to Malachi 4:5-6, Elijah was to precede the coming of the Messiah. And Jesus informed them that he had – in the form of John the Baptist. Everything was happening according to God’s plan and in keeping with and in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.
But Jesus still had to suffer and die. His resurrection could not take place until He had gone through the humiliation of death on a cross. The disciples had had the mountain top experience. They had seen Jesus in all His glory. But now that they were back in the valley, they would have to endure the slow, steady march of Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem and the cross.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.