Christ Unveiled, The Disciples Terrified

Jesus stated He was building His church upon the foundation of the apostles’, primarily Peter’s, testimony. He showed them that He must go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and raised from the dead. He has made it known that there is a great cost for those who desire to go after Him into His kingdom. Now, Jesus’s essence is unveiled.

Matthew 17:1-13

Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”

And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”

Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

The transfigured Christ (v. 1-3)

Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.

Six days after Jesus revealed that His disciples would see Him coming in His kingdom (Cf. 16.28), He is transfigured in front of only three of His disciples. Matthew is not usually so precise with his timing of events, but here he wants his audience to know that the transfiguration was not long after, about a week, Jesus told His disciples they would see His own coming. It is clear that Jesus is already on the earth at this point. He taught that the kingdom of Heaven was at hand with the dawn of His own preaching ministry and appearance in Capernaum (Cf. 4:17). In Chapter 16, verses 21-23, we saw that the fullness of Christ’s kingdom would come through His death and resurrection. In this transfiguration, Jesus is unveiled and a few disciples get to see that He is coming in His kingdom.

Jesus only took Peter, James, and John to the high mountain. Jesus did not unveil Himself for all of His disciples, only three: Peter, the chief apostle (Cf. 16:18), James, and John, the sons of Zebedee who would accompany Jesus deeper into Gethsemane for prayer (Cf. 26:37). These three disciples are the ones Jesus keeps closest to Himself and invests in more than the others. Such was the example Jesus set as He shepherded His people during His bodily ministry—in invested heavily in a few who then taught others. He did not neglect the public, but He did train a few who went out to fulfill their own ministry callings—training others who train others who train others. Such is discipleship in the body of Christ. Jesus discipled the apostles and builds His church upon their teaching. He has given pastor-teachers for the purpose of equipping the church body (Cf. Ephesians 4:12); He sends out each member of His church to fulfill their calling on His earth. Jesus’s method of discipleship reflects Jethro’s advice to Moses in the Sinai wilderness (Cf. Exodus 18:1-27). Matthew was not one of the three, and he is okay with that at the time he records his gospel account. As followers of Jesus, we are not so concerned about our own prominence or position in His kingdom. He is the one to be exalted, and He chooses our roles according to His own will, not ours. He is the one exalted, not us.

Jesus was transfigured before the three men. Transfigure is a compound word that means “transcend figuration,” or to appear in different order. Though the greek word, μεταμορφοω, does not distinguish between transfiguration and transformation, Jesus is not transforming, a word meaning to “transcend form.” His essence, which was veiled by His incarnate flesh, is being revealed. This is the unveiling of Jesus’s divine essence; These three disciples see His dual nature plainly—Jesus is wholly God and wholly human. Matthew describes the occurrence. Jesus’s face shines like the sun and His garments are as white as light; He is not taking on a different form. When Matthew describes Christ’s nature, he describes the Ancient of Days or God the Father—who clothes Himself in white, like light or snow (Cf. Exodus Psalm 104:2, Daniel 7:9), an whose appearance is like the sun (Cf. Ezekiel 1:7-28). Jesus is not merely one with the Father in agreement or message but in His essence. He is the appearance, the perfect revelation, of the Father (Cf. Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3). 

Moses and Elijah appeared talking to Jesus. The popular view, here, is that Moses and Elijah represent the Law and Prophets with regard to the Old Testament messianic prophecies being fulfilled in Christ and testifying about Christ. While I like the sentiment, there, it is unlikely because Elijah was not a writing prophet. Both Moses and Elijah, though, are eschatalogical figures of the Old Testament. Moses predicted that God would raise up a prophet like Himself to lead Israel forever (Deuteronomy 18:15). Malachi wrote that Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah, the one like Moses, and prepare the way for Him (Malachi 4:5). These two men had a role in the eschaton and were central figures with regard to Old Testament prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah. Jesus was the prophet like Moses. Elijah had prepared His way (Cf. 11:14; 17:12).

I wonder, though, what they are talking about? Matthew does not tell us, but Luke will in Luke 9:31. They were talking about Jesus’s coming crucifixion. Jesus’s crucifixion is the means by which the one like Moses will shepherd God’s people forever—the work by which He will win His own throne and reign over Israel within His own creation according to Deuteronomy 18:15. The crucifixion is the work Elijah prepared the way for. Jesus showed His disciples that He must suffer, die, and be raised (6:21-23). Now, six days later, He shows three of His disciples why. This is how He conquers and leads His people forever (Cf. 28:18; Revelation 5:12). Even in the Old Testament, it was never prophesied that Jesus would die merely to get people into Heaven or to exalt people. His death and resurrection was about His own exaltation within His creation, and it results in His reigning over His chosen people forevermore. Our salvation is for His name’s sake, not ours. “Heaven” is not centered on us according to our desires; The resurrection is about Jesus’s exaltation and the Father’s glory. I don’t know how long this momentous discussion lasted, but I imagine Jesus was teaching Moses and Elijah the biblical theology of the cross and the crown that they so longed to see fulfilled based on what was revealed to them during their own ministries on this earth. Christ will come to reign powerfully through the cross in the First Century AD—not by some future millennial kingdom. Through the cross, He will assume all authority in heaven and on the earth (Cf. 28:18). Through the cross, He will come in His glory and His kingdom will be realized. John, who will later write the book of Revelation, is witness to this momentous event. Revelation is a term that literally refers to the unveiling of Jesus Christ—almost like the book of Revelation is, in part, a reflection on this experience recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. After all, Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah about what John’s Revelation of Jesus Christ describes.

The disciples’ response (v. 4-8)

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”

Peter, similar to what he did in Chapter 16, verse 22, begins to tell Jesus what is good. Instead of paying attention to the momentous event, Peter comes up with his own plan. This time, he is not even acknowledged. He is interrupted. While Peter is speaking, the Father speaks out of a cloud identifying Jesus as His beloved Son, His pleasure, and instructing those present—Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John—to listen to Him. Peter, who could not stop himself from speaking out of turn and advising His master, hears that Jesus is the one to be listened to and not advised. Like Peter, we all need to recognize our place in the grand-scheme of things. We all have a role to play, but we are not the focus. Jesus Christ is the star of this story. His work is central. We are here to listen to Him. Once again, I will remind us about Jesus’s basic desire concerning His people. He desires we come to Him, find rest from legalism and works-righteousness, and sit at His feet to learn form Him; His yoke is easy and His burden is light (Cf. 11:28-30). None of us have to be heard. None of our plans for God’s kingdom need come to fruition. We speak the words of Christ and follow Christ according to His instruction alone—that is the way of life.

When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.

Peter, James, and John are terrified. Not only do they hear the Father’s voice thunder from the cloud, but they are reminded about the reverence and respect Christ deserves because He is God—of the same essence of the Father. This is what true conversion looks like. We all live narcissistic lives. Everything we do, including religion, is centered on us—our desires, our preferences, our plans, our choices, and where we want to spend eternity. We even picture eternal life according to our own desires. We plan ministries and jobs and families based on what we think is best. Then, when the Father is revealed to us, we recognize His glory and are terrified because we discover that we exist and are called for Christ’s sake and not our own. If our conversion experience consists of our praying a prayer in order to stay out of Hell, we have not experienced conversion. Conversion happens when Christ chooses to reveal the Father to us, we recognize His glory, and are terrified because we are deserving of His righteous judgment. Then, Jesus comes and says, “Do not be afraid,” because we are covered by His atoning sacrifice on the cross. He has chosen to reveal the Father’s glory to us because He is having mercy on His chosen people. In Chapter 11, verse 27, Jesus taught:

All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.

Like the disciples, all of those to whom Jesus has chosen to reveal the Father will likely have multiple conversion experiences following the initial conversion to Jesus Christ—each one bringing greater humility and conformity of the elect person to Jesus Christ.

John the Baptist (v. 9-13)

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”

Here, we receive a timing reference and Jesus explains the reason why He does not want His disciples to tell anyone who He is yet. He has not yet risen from the dead. The disciples were not to tell others that the Messiah has come in His kingdom until He actually has come in His kingdom.

And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”
And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

According to Malachi 4:5, Elijah would precede the Messiah and prepare the way for Him. Jesus has already revealed that the second Elijah was John the Baptist (Cf. 11:14). Here, He reveals it again. The prophecy has been fulfilled, and the disciples understand.

The connection with Moses’s prophecy in Deuteronomy is, perhaps, the most important detail in this passage for the Jews to whom Matthew writes. He is writing to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah to Jews who are, and naturally so, skeptical with regard to Jesus as the Messiah. In our day, I think we forget that Jesus is worthy or our reverence and respect. We forget that every created thing and ordained event is for His sake, not ours. In many of our churches, we expect everything to be centered on us—our religion, morality, expectations, preferences, plans, wills, interests, and so on. How dare we think so little of Christ, our Messiah and king and so much of ourselves. Repent. The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Be terrified because of God’s righteous judgment. Then, be humbled and comforted because of Jesus Christ’s mercy and grace—which are available through the cross to those whom Christ is revealing the Father.


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