Jesus has just promised that “Some standing here . . . will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” He referred to this event. He was transfigured to a degree of visible glory as yet unseen by the apostles. He conversed with two prominent figures of the old covenant times having deep connections with the messianic promises and who already were in the presence of divine glory among the spirits of just men made perfect (Hebrews 12:22-24).
I. The attendant circumstances of this event.
A. The persons Jesus took with him
- Peter – Peter has played a major role in the pivotal events of Matthews gospel. He will continue to do so. In 10:2, he is the first disciple mentioned at Jesus’ choosing; 14:28, he asked to walk to Jesus on the water; 15:15, he asked for Jesus to explain a short pithy parable; 16:16, 22 he moved from the great confessor to the presumptuous rebuker; 17:1, he is taken into this mount of transfiguration and leads the responses to what is seen; 17:24-27 he paid the temple tax with a coin from a fish’s mouth; 18:21 he asked about frequency of forgiveness; 19:27 he asked about the reward for leaving all and following Jesus; 26:33, 35 he pledged never to stumble and to die before forsaking Jesus; 26:36, he accompanied Jesus with James and John to Gethsemane; 26:51 he (unnamed here) cut off the ear of one who had come to arrest Jesus; 26:69-75 he denied any knowledge of Jesus.
- James – James is mentioned before John as if he were more important just as in 10:2 – “James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother;” in 20:22 along with John he professed to be able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering; his importance among the early disciples is seen in that Herod killed him in Acts 12 2.
- John – A son of Zebedee, James’s brother, having an ambitious mother (Matthew 20:20-22); obviously Jesus had special regard for him and he sensed it; (John 13:23; 19:26; 21:20); Jesus ordered a long life for him and used him for the writing of five books of the New Testament.
B. How Jesus appeared in this transfiguration
- His face shone like the sun. This is what Peter called the “majesty” and “honor and glory” (2 Peter 1: 16, 17). John said, We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” John 1:14).
- His clothes as white as the light. When John described his message, he went back to this event as a visible picture of the spiritual reality of the divine holiness that supports the gospel message: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
C. The kingdom citizens who appeared
- Moses represented the law. Jesus would be the perfect fulfillment of that law. God did not consent to compromise his law but called for obedience up until the end of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:4). Moses not only was lawgiver but was himself a prophet and Jesus would be the fulfillment of the promise made in Deuteronomy 18:15. “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.” See how the church of the New Testament interpreted this promise (Acts 3:22; 7:37).
- Elijah represented the prophets. Jesus would fulfill not only all the prophecies, but would be the one who ended that particular prophetic ministry (Hebrews 1:1, 2). This also showed the connection to the final verses of the Old Testament with the promise of the coming of Elijah.
II. Peter’s Misidentification of Preeminence – 17:4
A. Focused on the exhilaration of his personal experience – “It is good for us to be here.” We become excited and filled with a sense of wonder and privilege when we are in the place where things are happening. We need to learn how to check such times of immediate excitement, not to diminish the reality of true spiritual joy, but to make sure that we maintain our hold on truth and interpret all the events of our lives in its light. Pure endocrinal excitement will soon dissipate and leave us unsanctified in the experience and disappointed that the outcome did not measure to the initial expectation.
B. Though his approach was humble, his proposal was completely in error. “If you wish, let us make . . .” How could Jesus will for Moses and Elijah to be granted equal status with him? Peter spiritualized his error; he gave an air of piety to his idolatrous misperception. In how many ways that are clearly opposed to the biblically revealed will of God and standard of conduct for his people do we seek spiritual warrant? God has given me freedom, has led me, etc. to . . . divorce . . . watch . . . marry . . . buy . . . omit . . . pursue. “It can’t be wrong, when it seems so right,” when we find a person or thing or pursuit about which we feel, “You light up my life.”
C. Earlier he had confessed the lordship of Christ. He used the word “Christ” but had no deep understanding that as the anointed priest he must offer and be the sacrifice for the trespasses and guilt of his people. Peter had called him Christ, and Son of the living God, but rebuked him as speaking nonsense and in so doing denied the necessity of his atoning work. Now we see another example of hyper-exhilarated misperception base on the privileges of revealed truth. How obvious it should be to us, from our perspective, that the entire manifestation of the redemptive event had to unfold, and the intention of God in it all must be revealed by the Spirit of God before we can know it rightly and believe it savingly.
D. Now he proposes equal honor to Jesus and to his creatures. What was he thinking? Tabernacles—temporary movable places of residence. Jesus already was “tabernacling” among us (John 1:14 –A verse in which John gives clear reference to this historic event). Peter knew that the Tabernacle held that which was holy, but all of it would be fulfilled only in Christ and in none else. What seemed a fitting response to Peter, was a total misapprehension of the infinite excellence and immutable glory of Christ as well as the holy fulfillment he would give to all that the tabernacle housed (Hebrews 8:1-7; 9:1-14).
III. A Voice of Heavenly Correction, while he was still speaking.
There was no hesitation on the Father’s part to put this in proper order.
A. A bright cloud overshadowed [What does overshadowed mean, cf. Luke 1:35] Jesus, though in his earthly appearance and mode of existence as a man showed only the relations common to all men, nevertheless still was the Son of God. The word “overshadowed” is the same word used in Luke 1:35 (“power of the Most High will overshadow you”) indicating the Father’s particularly powerful presence in the generating of his Son even as he taught and ministered among them in his humanity. As the Son and the Father co-exist by means of eternal generation, so there was a brief visual manifestation of the glory of that relationship before Peter, James, and John.
B. A voice out of the cloud. Note the three elements of the content of this short speech.
- The first words affirm the Fatherly presence of God as he bears this indivisible and eternal relation by generation to the Son and, as such, is the eternal recipient of the love of the Father. His eternally generated Son is his eternally well-beloved.
- In his covenantal fidelity the Son is well-pleasing to the Father. He is doing all that the Father sent him to do; Jesus and his visitors spoke of his departure (Luke 9:31), on account of which they both went to heaven and on account of which Peter, James, and John were spared.
- As Moses himself said in Deuteronomy 18, we are to listen to him. He has the words of eternal life. He alone can affirm with every original proposition that he states, “Truly, truly, I say unto you.”
C. The voice of God was frightening. Though the celebration of the glory of Christ is a transforming and elevating experience, we must not allow the reality of his condescension to us in grace, and his lifting of us to glory make us lose our sense of the awful majesty, power, and holiness of God. Jesus is not our buddy, but he is the Son of God, who alone has honored the righteousness of God’s law, alone breaks down the hold of false gods, alone perceives honors and loves the holiness of his Father [a holiness which he himself shares], and alone may speak the terms by which he will be worshipped. To rush before God with our own ideas of worship is dangerous, as well as arrogant, presumption.
IV. Jesus consoled them – verse 7, 8
A. Since they were on their faces, bowed in great fear, not knowing but that the next moment would be filled with a blow of fiery wrath, immediate consolation came from the touch of Jesus. What a relief to feel the kind and gentle hand of their holy friend instead of the merited blow of an unpropitiated God.
B. The voice from heaven had said, “Hear Him.”
- What a condescension in humility and mercy that the words they do hear from him are, “Rise, and have no fear.” John and Peter, the two who lived to tell about this and to write about the experience of fear, knew that we had no reason to fear man if we feared God properly. Fearing God properly means trusting Jesus fully, which relieves the believer of all fear of wrath and places him in the position of living before God in a joyful, holy, thankful, admiring reverence.
- Peter emphasized the proper reverential fear toward God as we live in this world walking as those redeemed by a ransom price. He wrote, “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of you exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ.” (1 Peter 1:15-19
- John wrote that the fear of punishment that Jesus has taken on himself should not cloud the walk before God of one who discerns properly the fullness of Christ’s redemptive act. He wrote, “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”
C. The saints from heaven were there no longer, and the brilliant cloud as a manifestation of the divine energy and holy power that was always in reality present they no longer observed. Jesus only was there. Still they did not perceive the entailments of grace that this involved, but their distress, nevertheless, was relieved. Just how relieving “Jesus only” would be, they did not yet perceive.
V. Again they are pledged to silence until the resurrection. How immature was their true knowledge of the mission of Jesus they could not discern. At each step of increased revelation, they show the encouraging energy of a truth newly perceived, but also the clumsy misapplication of it. Before they were prepared to testify, they had to have the whole story placed before their eyes (1 John 1:1-5; 2 Peter 1:16-18; Acts 2:32), and then the promised revelatory presence of the Spirit for the right, not the reactionary, interpretation of all these events (Acts2:33; 1 Peter 1:12, 13; 2 Peter 1:19-21).
IV. Elijah had appeared, but then the experience of glorious power dissolved. Who is Elijah? The apostles knew that some thought that Jesus himself was Elijah (Matthew 16:14). Surely, these apostles had their hopes elevated to amazing heights. The last verse of the Old Testament had said, “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” (Malachi 4:4, 5). Thinking that, in accord with the prophecy, both of these pivotal persons had come—and they literally had come—why had that awesome day of the Lord not immediately descended upon them? Since that has happened, and even the scribes so taught, why must there again be a delay, and why are we pledged to silence on this occasion also?
A. Jesus affirmed that Elijah indeed would come as the prophecy said and as the scribes taught. He would restore all things. That part, however, was taken to mean the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. The disciples still thought this until the hour of the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6). They simply had overlooked the last words of the prophecy in Malachi that said “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:5).
B. Elijah had come, not only literally inn the transfiguration, but in the antitype, John the Baptist. He preached “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. … Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:2, 8). Without repentance there would be no restoration. He introduced the new covenant that would be culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not the physical, but the spiritual children of Abraham constitute the kingdom, so “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). When asked by the crowd stirred by Peter’s preaching at Pentecost what they should do, Peter’s first word was “Repent.”
C. Those who rejected the message of repentance did not recognize Elijah when he came. They resisted the message that it was prophesied he would preach. They felt themselves justified in maligning him, resisting him, and were happy to see Herod get rid of the pest. Even so would they resist, reject, and turn over the Son of Man into the hands of the godless to get rid of him. “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.”