The transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)

Summary

Jesus took Peter, James and John up a high mountain. He was transfigured – his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus. Peter offered to put up three shelters. A bright cloud enveloped them and a voice said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

The disciples fell to the ground, terrified. “Get up” said Jesus, “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no-one except Jesus.

Background

Moses and Elijah are two key figures from the Old Testament.

Moses led God’s people, the Israelites, out of slavery in Egypt. He then met with God on Mount Sinai and gave the people God’s laws, the Ten Commandments. Moses’ face was radiant after such close contact with God.

Elijah was a prophet, one of God’s messengers. He also went to Mount Sinai, where God revealed himself in a gentle whisper.

Their roles can be summarised as follows:

  • MOSES = THE LAW
  • ELIJAH = THE PROPHETS

In the Bible, God’s presence is often shown by cloud or fire. Mountaintops were often the location for appearances from God. This special cloud or fire was called ‘shekinah’ in Hebrew.

Understanding the text

The word ‘transfiguration’ means a change of form or appearance. In this passage Jesus’ appearance changes so a glimpse is given of his full heavenly glory, “His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as the light”.

In Matthew 16:13-20 Peter has shown understanding of Jesus’ identity, that he is the Christ (Messiah). This experience is to help deepen this understanding. It is so special that only Jesus’ three closest followers - Peter, James and John - are chosen to witness it. Jesus wants them to understand that his role of Messiah will involve suffering and death, but this will not be the final outcome of his mission. Jesus has come from Heaven and he will return there when he has completed his task on Earth.

This story is filled with Old Testament references, which Matthew’s readers would easily pick up. It takes place six days after Peter’s declaration of faith, and this may be a link to Moses who spent six days in preparation before he was called to approach God in a cloud on Mount Sinai. This incident also takes place up a mountain and a cloud symbolises the presence of God.

Moses and Elijah appear and stand beside Jesus. This symbolises that Jesus is their successor and has fulfilled both. He is now bringing a new covenant from God for all people.

When God’s voice is heard, He is reassuring the disciples that even though Jesus must suffer they must listen to him and obey him. Jesus again commands the disciples not to tell others of the experience. The time for this will be later, after his death and resurrection.

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