Matthew 16:28—17:9, The Transfiguration

[March 2, 2014] Today is Transfiguration Sunday so we skip ahead in our reflections on Matthew to chapter 17, when, after Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ [or Messiah], the Son of the living God,” Jesus reveals his qahal (the church), and began to make it clear to his disciples for the first time “that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day.” When the disciples were shocked, Jesus told them that they too must renounce themselves and take up their cross and follow him (to the gallows). “For the Son of man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will reward each one according to his behavior.” It was six days after this that the Transfiguration occurred.

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, he had left Galilee and was in the north, by Tyre and Ceasarea Philippi. Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain: this was probably not Mount Tabor, which was a hill in Galilee (the traditional site of the event), but rather the slopes of Mount Hermon.

When Jesus told the disciples that the Son of man was going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, he also said, “In truth I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of man coming with his kingdom.” This sounds as if he is speaking of more than a vision, that some of them would actually live to see the event. It also sounds as though it would not take place in the immediate future but that some will have died before it occurs, even though others now living would live long enough to see the event.

This is not what happen. When the events that Jesus predicted in chapter 24 came to pass, first the awful persecution of believers by the State (the Roman persecution of 64-66 CE), and then the siege of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple in 66-73 CE, it was expected that the Son of man would come in glory at any moment. Matthew, Mark and Luke all record this anticipation, and it is evident in the churches to whom Paul wrote his early letters. It did not happen, and there ensued a crisis in morale for the next twenty years or so, especially since the persecution had shaved the top leaders from the church. This time of malaise spawned various alternative Christianities (Docetism, proto-Gnosticism, etc.) as believers attempted to come to terms with their disappointment. It was not until the 90s that a movement emerged—we see it in the plains of Anatolia where the apostle Paul had his base, that involved at least one of the earliest participants in the Gospel, the disciple John (who took Jesus’ mother into his home and was closely associated with the women in Jesus’ life; John the son of Zebedee and brother of James was an altogether different person), Paul’s companions Timothy and the former slave Philemon who compiled Paul’s letters into a corpus, and a prophet named John (who wrote the book of revelation); we also see it elsewhere (in Rome and Achaia: see the epistle of Clement) where Paul had been active, or remembered—that reestablished the earlier apostolic movement on a new footing.

Be that as it may, the immediate juxtaposition of Jesus’ words, “Some standing here [will] see the Son of man coming with his kingdom” and, without a gap, Matthew’s continuation, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain by themselves,” leads us to make some sort of a connection. In 17:9 Jesus tells them, “Tell no one about this vision.” The three disciples see a vision of the Son of man. The word “vision” (horama) occurs twelve times in the New Testament, eleven times in Acts. It does not imply that the event only took place as an inner psychological experience, since there were four independent witnesses, but that the seeing was more than what was perceptible to the “eyes of flesh.” A spiritual seeing (or seeing-through) was involved. In Acts 7:31 Stephen uses this word to describe Moses’ seeing of the burning bush. A curtain was momentarily opened and the reality of heaven was seen through the reality of the earthly. They saw it, but it required more than the faculty of the physical eyes to see what they saw; it also required a spiritual perception.

The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:2)

“There in their presence [Jesus] was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light.” Christians down the ages have interpreted this as a vision of Jesus’ divinity. No doubt, what the disciples saw was a temporary divinization of his body, the divine reality of it shining through to their spiritual senses. When he rose from the dead his body was in fact divinized, coming to share the properties (or perfections) of his divine nature. Before then his body did not. His body was divine, being the assumed nature of his divine person, but it did not yet share the properties of his divine nature. Probably his native divine nature shared in all the properties of his humanity, but it was not yet mutual until the resurrection. His divine nature was hidden in his human nature. He was one person, not two, and the natures were inseparable and indivisible on account of the unity of his person. But by a deliberate act, with respect to his human nature he “emptied” himself of the “form of God” (morphē theou) so that he might take the form of a slave (morphē doulou). In the Transfiguration that veil was temporarily removed.

Nevertheless, if we try to look at the event from within Matthew’s narrative, from his own perspective, then what the disciples were seeing was the Son of man in the glory of his Father. This is the context. The “Son of man” was the apocalyptic figure that Daniel saw in Daniel 7:9-14 who destroys “the beast” when he comes, the beast representing the last great power of the world to assert its dominion over God’s earth and its inhabitants. It is worth reading again:

“While I was watching,” Daniel says, “thrones were set in place and one most venerable took his seat. His robe was white as snow, the hair of his head as pure as wool. His throne was a blaze of flames, its [chariot] wheels were a burning fire. A stream of fire poured out, issuing from his presence. A thousand thousand waited on him, ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was in session and the books lay open. I went on watching: then … as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and committed to the flames. The other beasts were deprived of their empire, but received a lease of life for a season and a time. I was gazing into the visions of the night, when I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven, as it were a Son of man. He came to the One most venerable and was led into his presence. On him was conferred rule, honor and kingship, and all peoples, nations and languages became his servants. His rule is an everlasting rule which will never pass away, and his kingship will never come to an end.”

It is a frightening picture. Even Daniel was “deeply disturbed” and said “the visions that passed through my head alarmed me” (Daniel 7:15). Nevertheless, this vision is probably the guiding image that Jesus had in mind when he spoke about the coming of the Son of man. Observe, however, that the picture of God as “one most venerable” (the Ancient of Days) is not supposed to be literal (God has no form that we can look on, which would be ridiculous if you think about it), nor of course is the beast literally an animal. The entire vision is metaphoric. This is not to say it does not depict something real. The reality that it depicts is probably far more awful and intense that anything that can be visualized.

“His face shone like the sun”: Psalm 104:2 speaks God being clothed in light; Daniel 10:6 speaks of a heavenly figure whose face was like lightning; Revelation 1:16 speaks of the face of the heavenly Son of man (the ascended Jesus) shining like the sun with all its force; and Revelation 10:1 speaks of a powerful angel, probably also Jesus, whose face was like the sun. Exodus 34:29 speaks of Moses’ face shining after communing with God. We are also told that in the resurrection the faces of the upright will shine like the sun (Daniel 12:3; 4 Ezra 7:97; Matthew 13:43). The shining is the radiating of God’s glory. It is more than physical light and more than can be perceived with the physical eyes. “His clothes became as dazzling as light”: here his clothing (the plural of hematia) probably expresses his inner nature. He radiates God, but he is not the “one most venerable” (the Father) nor a second god (as if the Father were another god), but the Son of man. (We would say in paradoxical language that he is indeed God, but not the Father and not a second god, but the Son: he is the word and image of God, expressing all of God to the Father at the same time sharing everything of the Father’s own divine essence. Yet he appears here as a man).

Keep in mind here that this vision occurs in conjunction with Jesus telling his disciples for the first time “that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death” and that the disciples too must “renounce [themselves] and take up [their] cross and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his soul will lose it; but anyone who loses his soul for my sake will find it.” Just as Jesus will “be raised up on the third day” so the disciples will find their soul by losing it. And as “the Son of man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels,” “he will reward each one according to his behavior.” What Jesus promised “the upright” in their resurrection is that “they will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matthew 13:43). The vision of glory is a vision of Jesus’ transformation after he suffers through death (see Hebrews 12:2), but it is also a vision of what awaits his disciples if they also renounce themselves and lose their soul.

I say this, but the event also shows that Jesus is already what he will become in resurrection. His body is already divine by virtue of his Person, but its divinity is deliberately hidden. Jesus refuses to let his body, soul and spirit partake of his divine nature even though they inherently do; just as he also renounces dependence on his human soul but depends on the Father for everything. We also, already are what we shall be, though our enjoyment of it depends on our taking the same path that Jesus took. There is even a sense in which the creation itself already is what it shall be. Before time began there was only eternity and after time “ends” there will only be eternity—the very same eternity. And this eternity co-exists with time, always transcending it but also always including it.

What follows this vision (17:10—20:34) is Jesus’ teaching about the way of the church on his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover. This is the beginning of the end. What lies before him, as he explains to his disciples again in 17:22-23, 20:17-19, and 26:1-2, is the cross: his suffering at the hands of powers of this world.

Moses and Elijah Appear (17:3)

“And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them [to Peter and James and John]; they were talking with [Jesus].”

Moses, of course, represents the Torah and Elijah the Nebiim (the prophets). The prophets are not equal to the Torah nor are they an independent witness, but they interpret the Torah in the light of later history. It also so happens that Elijah was taken up into heaven on a fiery chariot and never saw death (Enoch also never saw death), and it was believed that the body of Moses was assumed into heaven (as people believe happened to the Virgin Mary). Thus both these figures continued a heavenly existence and already radiated the light of the divine presence in which they dwelt. We might be tempted to see all three figures on an equal level, Jesus now on a par with Moses and Elijah, if it were not for what followed.

Peter’s Reaction (17:4)

First Peter attempts to speak to Jesus. “Lord, it is wonderful for us to be here; if you want me to, I will make three shelters here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” We have to guess why Peter would say something like this. He says that all this is good (kalos), meaning beautiful, excellent, pleasant, praiseworthy, and so on: wonderful. The booths (as in Succoth) that he recommends are temporary shelters and might remind us of the tabernacle in the wilderness (the tent of meeting; see Exodus 33:9; Numbers 12:5) and of God’s presence among us (see John 1:14 and Revelation 21:3). Apparently Peter wanted to prolong the heavenly presence of Moses and Elijah and this heavenly form of Jesus.

We see also Peter offering to make the tents himself, offering himself as the leader presumably of James and John. More than this kind of assertion, however, is his very audacity to interrupt the heavenly conversation that is taking place between Jesus and Moses and Elijah. His behavior is rather remarkable.

Perhaps it suggests that this is how stupid we all act when we come up with our own ideas in the presence of the heavenly things that we are dealing with. We function in our Christian gatherings and in our worship, and in our preaching, as if we were handling merely human things. We are like Balaam in Numbers 22 who could not see the angel of YHWH standing in his way with a drawn sword in his hand. His donkey saw the angel but he did not. We are like that. We are handling heavenly and spiritual realities with our words and thoughts but we act as if they are all just so many ideas and opinions. There is no fear and trembling because we do not see. When the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes he very quickly bowed his head and threw himself on his face. The Lord told Balaam that if it were not for his donkey the Lord would have killed him by now and spared the donkey.

Probably Peter’s line of thinking was not a good one, for he is interrupted, not by Jesus—who had no chance—but by the sudden appearing of a cloud that covers all of them.

The Cloud of the Divine Presence (17:5a)

Peter “was still speaking when suddenly a bright cloud covered them with shadow.” The word episkia means to overshadow and hide and evokes the image of Exodus 40:34-35: “The cloud then covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of YHWH filled the Dwelling. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, since the cloud stayed over it and the glory of YHWH filled the Dwelling.” In the Old Testament God hid the light of the divine presence in a cloud of deep darkness. Christian mystics have compared this cloud to our ignorance. Before we can enter God’s presence we must enter the cloud of “unknowing.” The light of God cannot simply be “known” as if it were something our minds could comprehend. It enlightens our minds but it is not a mental light. It is our spirit that knows; there is a perception that takes place in our spirit, a “beholding” or contemplation; but this face-to-face knowing does not involve our cognition; it far exceeds it. This is not to say that it does not come to our reason and that our reason cannot attempt to come to terms with it when it humbly accepts its own limitations in the face of it; the vision of God is not irrational: it is trans-rational.

There was no need to set up a tent (or three tents). The ark of God was on the move!

The Divine Voice (17:5b)

“And suddenly from the cloud there came a voice which said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favor. Listen to him.’” This voice echoes what Jesus heard at his baptism (3:17), using the exact same words in Matthew’s Greek account: houtos estin ho huios mou ho agapētos, en eudokēsa. The last word is an aorist active verb (simple past tense) and might be translated, “in whom I have found my delight” or pleasure or approval. It means to be favorably inclined towards someone. At his baptism the words were meant for Jesus to hear, but now they are meant for his disciples. Peter had just confessed that Jesus is the Son of the living God, but he stumbled on the message of the cross (16:22). The one whom God approves and who is God’s beloved is the Son who has chosen the cross. This was Jesus’ choice (whether he realized it or not) at his baptism; now he is articulating that choice and the voice from heaven confirms it again.

“Listen to him,” the voice says. A moment ago there were three figures appearing in glory: Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and Peter wanted to build a booth for each of them. Now the voice is very singular and emphatic: “Listen to him” (the Byzantine text even reverses the order of the Greek words: “Him shall you hear!”). We can almost hear an echo of the words that the disciples and Jesus and every Jew repeated daily: “Hear, O Israel!” the first words of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4)—“YHWH our God is the one, the only YHWH. You must love YHWH your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength.” There can be no division of loyalty or even attention. To love God is to love this one, God’s beloved, and to hear him. The voice that we must hear in the Law and the Prophets, in the Torah and Nebiim, is the “voice” of Jesus, or the revelation of him. It is not Jesus and Moses and the Prophets, but Jesus as the meaning and aim (the telos) of the Law and Prophets; and it is not Jesus and God, but God in Jesus, the one and only Lord and God.

There is also an echo of Deuteronomy 18:15—“YHWH your God will raise up a prophet like me; you will listen to him.” Jesus is, indeed, the prophet that was expected (although the original application of these words may have been to Joshua, though they were applied to the messiah) before the end. But he also exceeded these expectations: he is the unique Son and beloved of the Father. Nevertheless, keeping with their original context, Jesus—whose namesake is Joshua—will indeed gather and lead the lost sheep into the Promised Land, but they must listen to him and obey or follow him. The difficulty people had with this is reflected in the section, 11:2—13:52. It is easier to be the crowd that comes to Jesus to have their needs met. As long as he meets our needs (as we understand them), we do not care what he says, or even who the Father reveals him to be. Just give me, give me, give me.

“Listen to him” refers not only to Jesus’ words about the cross but to everything that Jesus has taught them. Indeed, all that he has taught them must be understood in the light of the cross. After this scene, we can look at the entire Gospel, his coming, his words and all his actions, in the light of the glory that is naturally his and became his in resurrection and with which he is coming again.

The matter of his divine sonship is central to Matthew’s presentation of Jesus. It was insinuated in the vision to Joseph in chapter one, is there in 2:15, becomes manifest at his baptism (3:17) and is tested in the wilderness (4). The Fatherhood of God that Jesus teaches to his disciples is always tied to his own sonship. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also offers sonship to his disciples when they become like him (5:9, 45). This is obviously more than the sonship of Israel and more than the kingship of David. It is even more than something heavenly, as revealed by the Transfiguration. It is nothing less than divine, as implied by the title Emmanuel and by the prophecy of Isaiah that foretold the coming of the Baptist: the coming of Jesus is the coming of God. What this means has nothing to do with some polytheistic notion of god, or an Arian notion of a divine being who is “like” God. Its real meaning, however, is hard to grasp. Looking back through the lenses of Paul and John we get it, and we read Matthew in their light. The kingdom of the heavens, which is where he is, is an expression of his sonship. The Sermon on the Mount describes the space of the kingdom of the heavens: it is the space we enter when we share the Son’s relationship to the Father. The two—the kingdom and sonship—are tied together.

No One but Jesus (6-8)

“When they heard this, the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear.” (Compare Daniel 10; Acts 26:13-18; and Revelation 1:9-20.) The legs giving out and falling to the ground seem to be the usual response to realizing that one is in the divine presence (see Genesis 17:3; Joshua 5:14; Ezekiel 1:28). We are overcome with awe and fear and gratitude and humility when we become aware of God. This suddenly happened to the disciples when, inside the cloud (of their ignorance), they heard the voice. Seeing the radiance of Jesus, apparently, did not awaken Peter; having his vision blinded and hearing the word did. Images, like miracles, do not convert us, however much they impress us. The idol appeals to our sight and when it enters the soul it is more “literal”; but we are forbidden to form an image of God. The word is more ambiguous, being necessarily metaphorical, but because it is indirect, it is also capable of evoking what is more immediate to our spirit, and thus can speak to our spirit. Also an idol does not require a relationship; another person does not have to be present. The one receiving the image remains an individual. This is not the case with the spoken word: it is spoken by one person and heard by another.

“But Jesus came up and touched them, saying, ‘Stand up, do not be afraid’” (compare Ezekiel 2:1-3). We can lose all our strength in the presence of God, but what raises us is the Lord’s word. “Stand up” (egei) is the technical terms for resurrection. It is the power of Jesus’ word that enables the disciples to stand up. The revelation of Christ at the end of the age will have the power to raise us from the dead. Here what raises the disciples is the comfort of their master’s voice and presence., the one who called them. They are no longer in heaven but on the familiar earth (that is, a veil now obscures the nearness of heaven to the earth; they are back in the delusion that they are not in danger).

“And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but Jesus.” When we read Moses and the Prophets we see only Jesus. And when we see Jesus, we see not the theophany but the incarnate one who hid his glory to take the form of a slave that he might identify with us in our condition and suffer and lay down his soul on the cross. “They saw no one but Jesus,” the one who was to be crucified. It is an exceptional vision to see beyond the humility to the glory.

“Tell No One” (17:9)

“As they came down from the mountain Jesus gave them this order, ‘Tell no one about this vision until the Son of man has risen from the dead.’” They were not to tell anyone else not only because they would misunderstand but also because they themselves do not yet understand. They got to see the glory of the Son of man but they did not yet grasp its connection to the cross. The majority of the disciples cannot be given this vision because we would fall in love with the glory and not embrace Jesus’ poverty and the humility of his path to the cross. We would be tempted to a triumphalism, to taking a direct route to the glory of the kingdom when the only way for us to enter the kingdom is through the way of the cross. The vision of glory dazzles us and it also addicts us. We do not want to let it go. But we seem unable to hold it together with its paradoxical counterpart. The glory is heavenly, and it coexists with us as the unseen reality of things. The cross is earthly and it is only in this pathway of poverty and humility that we partake in the glory.

Most believers will miss the kingdom because they are unwilling to renounce their souls and take up their cross to follow Jesus. The three disciples to whom it was granted to see the vision of glory represent the few believers who follow Christ on his way to the cross.

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