Matthew 17:1-8

THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION

Matt. 17:1-8

Six days after, Jesus took Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brought them by themselves to a high mountain, and his appearance was changed in their presence. His face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as the light. And, look you, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with him. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is a fine thing for us to be here. I will make three booths, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, look you, a shining cloud overshadowed them; and, look you, there came a voice out of the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” When the disciples heard that, they fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid. Jesus came and touched them and said, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” They lifted up their eyes, and saw no one, except Jesus alone.

The great moment of Caesarea Philippi was followed by the great hour on the Mount of Transfiguration. Let us first look at the scene where this time of glory came to Jesus and his three chosen disciples. There is a tradition which connects the Transfiguration with Mount Tabor, but that is unlikely. The top of Mount Tabor was an armed fortress and a great castle; it seems almost impossible that the Transfiguration could have happened on a mountain which was a fortress. Much more likely the scene of the Transfiguration was Mount Hermon. Hermon was fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi. Hermon is 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley, so high that it can actually be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Palestine, more than one hundred miles away.

It cannot have been on the very summit of the mountain that this happened. The mountain is too high for that. Canon Tristram tells how he and his party ascended it. They were able to ride practically to the top, and the ride took five hours. Activity is not easy on so high a summit. Tristram says, “We spent a great part of the day on the summit, but were before long painfully affected by the rarity of the atmosphere.”

It was somewhere on the slopes of the beautiful and stately Mount Hermon that the Transfiguration happened. It must have happened in the night. Luke tells us that the disciples were weighted down with sleep (Lk.9:32). It was the next day when Jesus and his disciples came back to the plain to find the father of the epileptic boy waiting for them (Lk.9:37). It was some time in the sunset, or the late evening, or the night, that this amazing vision took place.

Why did Jesus go there? Why did he make this expedition to these lonely mountain slopes? Luke gives us the clue. He tells us that Jesus was praying (Lk.9:29).

We must put ourselves, as far as we can, in Jesus’ place. By this time he was on the way to the Cross. Of that he was quite sure; again and again he told his disciples that it was so. At Caesarea Philippi we have seen him facing one problem and dealing with one question. We have seen him seeking to find out if there was anyone who had recognized him for who and what he was.

We have seen that question triumphantly answered, for Peter had grasped the great fact that Jesus could only be described as the Son of God. But there was an even greater question than that which Jesus had to solve before he set out on the last journey.

He had to make quite sure, sure beyond all doubt, that he was doing what God wished him to do. He had to make certain that it was indeed God’s will that he should go to the Cross. Jesus went up Mount Hermon to ask God: “Am I doing your will in setting my face to go to Jerusalem?” Jesus went up Mount Hermon to listen for the voice of God. He would take no step without consulting God. How then could he take the biggest step of all without consulting him? Of everything Jesus asked one question and only one question: “Is it God’s win for me?” And that is the question he was asking in the loneliness of the slopes of Hermon.

It is one of the supreme differences between Jesus and us, that Jesus always asked: “What does God wish me to do.” we nearly always ask: “What do I wish to do?” We often say that the unique characteristic of Jesus was that he was sinless. What do we mean by that? We mean precisely this, that Jesus had no will but the will of God. The hymn of the Christian must always be:

“Thy way, not mine, O lord,
However dark it be!
Lead me by thine own hand;
Choose out the path for me.
I dare not choose my lot,
I would not if I might:
Choose thou for me, my God,
So shall I walk aright.
Not mine, not mine the choice
In things or great or small;
Be thou my Guide, my Strength,
My Wisdom and my All.”

When Jesus had a problem, he did not seek to solve it only by the power of his own thought; he did not take it to others for human advice; he took it to the lonely place and to God.

THE BENEDICTION OF THE PAST

Matt. 17:1-8 (continued)

There on the mountain slopes two great figures appeared to Jesus–Moses and Elijah.

It is fascinating to see in how many respects the experience of these two great servants of God matched the experience of Jesus. When Moses came down from the mountain of Sinai, he did not know that the skin of his face shone (Exo.34:29). Both Moses and Elijah had their most intimate experiences of God on a mountain top. It was into Mount Sinai that Moses went to receive the tables of the law (Exo.31:18). It was on Mount Horeb that Elijah found God, not in the wind, and not in the earthquake, but in the still small voice (1Kgs.19:9-12). It is a strange thing that there was something awesome about the deaths of both Moses and Elijah. Deut.34:5-6 tells of the lonely death of Moses on Mount Nebo.
It reads as if God himself was the burier of the great leader of the people: “And he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day.” As for Elijah, as the old story has it, he took his departure from the astonished Elisha in a chariot and horses of fire (2Kgs.2:11). The two great figures who appeared to Jesus as he was setting out for Jerusalem were men who seemed too great to die.

Further, as we have already seen, it was the consistent Jewish belief that Elijah was to be forerunner and herald of the Messiah, and it was also believed by at least some Jewish teachers that, when the Messiah came, he would be accompanied by Moses.

It is easy to see how appropriate this vision of Moses and Elijah was. But none of these reasons is the real reason why the vision of Moses and Elijah came to Jesus.

Once again we must turn to Luke’s account of the Transfiguration. He tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, as the Revised Standard Version has it, “of his departure which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Lk.9:31). The word which is used for departure in the Greek is very significant. It is exodos (GSN1841), which is exactly the same as the English word exodus.

The word exodus has one special connection; it is the word which is always used of the departure of the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, into the unknown way of the desert, which in the end was going to lead them to the Promised Land. The word exodus is the word which describes what we might well call the most adventurous journey in human history, a journey in which a whole people in utter trust in God went out into the unknown. That is precisely what Jesus was going to do. In utter trust in God he was going to set out on the tremendous adventure of that journey to Jerusalem, a journey beset with perils, a journey involving a cross, but a journey issuing in glory.

In Jewish thought these two figures, Moses and Elijah, always stood for certain things. Moses was the greatest of all the law-givers; he was supremely and uniquely the man who brought God’s law to men. Elijah was the greatest of all the prophets; in him the voice of God spoke to men with unique directness. These two men were the twin peaks of Israel’s religious history and achievement. It is as if the greatest figures in Israel’s history came to Jesus, as he was setting out on the last and greatest adventure into the unknown, and told him to go on. In them all history rose up and pointed Jesus on his way. In them all history recognized Jesus as its own consummation. The greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets recognized Jesus as the one of whom they had dreamed, as the one whom they had foretold. Their appearance was the signal for Jesus to go on.
So, then, the greatest human figures witnessed to Jesus that he was on the right way and bade him go out on his adventurous exodus to Jerusalem and to Calvary.

But there was more than that; not only did the greatest law-giver and the greatest prophet assure Jesus that he was right; the very voice of God came telling him that he was on the right way. All the gospel writers speak of the luminous cloud which overshadowed them. That cloud was part of Israel’s history. All through that history the luminous cloud stood for the shechinah, which was nothing less than the glory of Almighty God.

In Exodus we read of the pillar of cloud which was to lead the people on their way (Exo.13:21-22). Again in Exodus we read of the building and the completing of the Tabernacle; and at the end of the story there come the words: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exo.40:34). It was in the cloud that the Lord descended to give the tables of the law to Moses (Exo.34:5). Once again we meet this mysterious, luminous cloud at the dedication of Solomon’s Temple: “And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord” (1Kgs.8:10-11; compare 2Chr.5:13-14; 2Chr.7:2). All through the Old Testament there is this picture of the cloud, in which was the mysterious glory of God.

We are able to add another vivid fact to this. Travellers ten us of a curious and characteristic phenomenon connected with Mount Hermon. Edersheim writes: “A strange peculiarity has been noticed about Hermon in `the extreme rapidity of the formation of cloud upon the summit. In a few minutes a thick cap forms over the top of the mountain, and as quickly disperses, and entirely disappears.'” No doubt on this occasion there came a cloud on the slopes of Hermon; and no doubt at first the disciples thought little enough of it, for Hermon was notorious for the clouds which came and went. But something happened; it is not for us to guess what happened; but the cloud became luminous and mysterious, and out of it there came the voice of the divine majesty, setting God’s seal of approval on Jesus his Son. And in that moment Jesus’ prayer was answered; he knew beyond a doubt that he was right to go on.

The Mount of Transfiguration was for Jesus a spiritual mountain peak. His exodus lay before him. Was he taking the right way? Was he right to adventure out to Jerusalem and the waiting arms of the Cross? First, there came to him the verdict of history, the greatest of the law-givers and the greatest of the prophets, to tell him to go on. And then, even greater still by far, there came the voice which gave him nothing less than the approval of God. It was the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration which enabled Jesus inflexibly to walk the way to the Cross.

THE INSTRUCTION OF PETER

Matt. 17:1-8 (continued)

But the episode of the Transfiguration did something not only for Jesus but for the disciples also.

(i) The minds of the disciples must have been stiff hurt and bewildered by the insistence of Jesus that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and to die. It must have looked to them as if there was nothing but black shame ahead. But start to finish, the whole atmosphere of the Mountain of Transfiguration is glory. Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his garments glistened and gleamed like the light.

The Jews well knew the promise of God to the victorious righteous: “Their face shall shine as the sun” (2Esdr.7:97). No Jew could ever have seen that luminous cloud without thinking of the shechinah, the glory of God resting upon his people. There is one very revealing little touch in this passage. No fewer than three times in its eight brief verses there occurs the little interjection: “Behold! Look you!” It is as if Matthew could not even tell the story without a catch of the breath at the sheer staggering wonder of it.

Here surely was something which would lift up the hearts of the disciples and enable them to see the glory through the shame; the triumph through the humiliation; the crown beyond the Cross. It is obvious that even yet they did not understand; but it must surely have given them some little glimmering that the Cross was not all humiliation, that somehow it was tinged with glory, that somehow glory was the very atmosphere of the exodus to Jerusalem and to death.

(ii) Further, Peter must have learned two lessons that night. When Peter woke to what was going on, his first reaction was to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. He was always the man for action; always the man who must be doing something. But there is a time for stillness; there is a time for contemplation, for wonder, for adoration, for awed reverence in the presence of the supreme glory. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps.46:10). It may be that sometimes we are too busy trying to do something when we would be better to be silent, to be listening, to be wondering, to be adoring in the presence of God. Before a man can fight and adventure upon his feet, he must wonder and pray upon his knees.

(iii) But there is a converse of that. It is quite clear that Peter wished to wait upon the mountain slopes. He wished that great moment to be prolonged. He did not want to go down to the everyday and common things again but to remain for ever in the sheen of glory.

That is a feeling which everyone must know. There are moments of intimacy, of serenity, of peace, of nearness to God, which everyone has known and wished to prolong. As A. H. McNeile has it: “The Mountain of Transfiguration is always more enjoyable than the daily ministry or the way of the Cross.”

But the Mountain of Transfiguration is given to us only to provide strength for the daily ministry and to enable us to walk the way of the Cross. Susanna Wesley had a prayer: “Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in thy presence.” The moment of glory does not exist for its own sake; it exists to clothe the common things with a radiance they never had before.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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