Matthew 17:1-9

Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah on one side, Peter, James and John on the other side.

 "Jesus transfigured with Moses and Elijah on one side, Peter, James and John on the other side." 
Reprinted from Icon: Visual Images for Every Sunday, copywrite© 2000 Augsburg Fortress. Used by permission.


The last Sunday after Epiphany is always devoted to the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is recorded by all three Synoptics, referred to at John 1:14, and very clearly stated at 2 Peter 1:16-18. The Transfiguration is important just before Ash Wednesday because in the preceding chapter all Synoptics record Peter's confession of the Christ and Jesus' prediction of His impending suffering, death and resurrection.

Stoeckhardt: Both events, Peter's confession and the transfiguration of Christ are closely related because the miraculous occurrence on the mountain was proof that Christ was truly the Son of the Living God. There is also confirmed, through the Transfiguration, Jesus' announcement of His coming suffering and death, and of His return to glory.

Matthew 17:1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

After what is recorded in Matthew 16:13-28, which ought to be read at this point.

"Took with him" is a tender word used frequently by Matthew, "to take to one's self." It occurs six times in Matthew 1 and 2 with reference to Joseph taking Mary or the Child.

For more on Peter, James and John look at Mark 5:37 and Matthew 26:37. They were witnesses on these three important occasions. Peter confirms one occasion in 2 Peter 1:16-18.

Furthermore, though Peter had confessed Christ in 16:16 and had been commended by Christ in 16:17, he became the devil's agent and a trap to Christ in 16:23. He needed further instruction and strengthening.

This happened on one of the high ridges in the mountainous region not far from Caesarea Philippi, perhaps on Jebel Jermak in Upper Galilee, the highest elevation in that region. We simply don't know exactly where it happened. The name of the mountain is not mentioned, and thereby superstition is prevented. Human beings easily become idolatrous, venerating places instead of the Lord Jesus. Think of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem or the Church of the Sepulchre in Jerusalem. People come in droves to these places on Christmas and Good Friday but no one even knows for sure that the sites are exact.

In addition to the reasons given above, Jesus wanted to be alone with these three men. He was truly human, and He still is.

Matthew 17:2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.

Most translators stick to "transfigured" in translating this verse. LB has "his appearance changed", and TEV has "a change came over him."

Jesus knew what was going to happen, but it was done to Him by the Father. It reminds one of Luke 10:22. That only the human nature of Christ was transfigured and transfused visibly with divinity is clear from the nouns "face" and "clothing." His face flashed as the sun flashes. His clothing became white as the light shines. It must have been a brilliant sight.

Peter had made a brilliant confession of the Christ, the Son of the Living God in 16:16. This is now confirmed by what they saw. Jesus proved His divinity by Word and deed and now confirms it by sight for the disciples. His entire body and human nature were suffused visibly so that even His clothing was affected. Look at Revelation 1:12-16. Someday we shall see Him as He is now, and as He must have appeared, at least in a measure, in Matthew 17:2.

Reformed commentators are bankrupt when it comes to the person of Christ. Be careful when using them here. It is hard to understand how they understand this verse. It is clear that the whole body of Jesus for a brief time was allowed to shine with the light and refulgence of its heavenly dignity. Compare the word "majesty" in 2 Peter 1:16.

Matthew 17:3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

"Just then" is "suddenly." Something remarkable is introduced. For saints to return in visible form is out of the ordinary. This was an actual appearance, not an apparition. The same word, "appeared" is used of the appearance of angels in Luke 1:11, of God in Acts 7:2 and of Jesus in Acts 9:17.

Bengel: As Moses stands at the beginning of the law as its representative, so Elias at the beginning of the prophets, and the Lord Jesus at the beginning of the Gospel, at once its representative and embodiment. . . Moses and Elias bear witness to the true Messiah, and to Him only.
Fahling: They had been zealous for the Lord and His Law, one as the lawgiver, the other as a fiery reformer; but neither of them had been able to stop transgression.

Note that the resuscitation of Moses does not confer life upon others, but the resuscitation of Christ does.

From Luke's account we know what the topic of conversation was. [see Luke 9:30 “His exodus.”

Stoeckhardt: To His departure, which Jesus was to fulfill in Jerusalem, which was told Him by the two citizens of heaven upon the command of God, belonged also the last departure of His agonizing death, that Jesus should enter into His glory through suffering.

For the most part, Moses, Elijah and Jesus were rejected by their own people. But the Father strengthened His Son through the transfiguration, a foretaste of eternal glory, and the conversation of two mighty prophets. They were in glory. But He alone, on this occasion, was glorified already in this life.

Matthew 17:4 Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."

Here Peter is not responding to what Moses and Elijah said. Commentators debate the question whether the three disciples understood the conversation of the other three. Some say yes, some no. We don't know.

Nothing is said of tents for Peter, James and John. But that does not matter, for Luke 9:33 informs us that Peter did not know what he was saying. What was good about being there? It must have been a remarkable experience. And the suggestion about the three tents likely means that Peter wanted this to continue. Furthermore, the announcement of Jesus' death, 16:21, must have staggered them. Perhaps Peter thought it would be better to stay there than to face Jesus' prediction.

Matthew 17:5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!"

So far as we know, Jesus did not respond to Peter's statement. But we do know that the situation interrupted what Peter was saying. The first three words of this verse are a genitive absolute. The words clearly indicate that Peter was interrupted.

There are two remarkable things. Both bright cloud and voice come from heaven. Very plainly the disciples heard what the Father said.

Bengel: A voice came from heaven, first Matthew 3:17; secondly, on this occasion; thirdly, and lastly, a little before our Lord's Passion, John 12:28. This speech has three divisions which regard the Psalms, the Prophets, and Moses. . . . Psalm 2:7 'You are My Son; Isaiah 42:1 'In Whom My Soul delights; Deuteronomy 18:15 'Unto Him you shall harken.'

The Father is approving totally of the person and work of the incarnate Christ. All three Synoptics have "keep on hearing Him." The best translation would be "Listen to him." Or even "Hear him." It is more than "obey him." Because of their false Messianic notions and weakness the disciples needed to hear this. And they did hear Jesus. Read 2 Peter 1:16-19.

Stoeckhardt: We too are directed to the voice of Christ, to Christ's Word, which is God's Word, and not to wonderful visions. We have enough in His Word. That is a bright light, which gives light to us in this dark world, and shows us the way of salvation, and it will shine until the dawn of the bright day, and Christ, the Morning Star arises, and we then see the Light of His Light.

Matthew 17:6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified.

Ylvisaker: If the sight of Moses and Elijah had made them 'sore afraid' they were even more distressed by the spoken word. In their terror, they throw themselves upon the ground, realizing that they stand face to face with the holiness of God.

Only Matthew reports this prostration on the ground. In the presence of that which is holy and filled with majesty, sinful men become frightened, Genesis 3:10; Judges 6:22; 13:22; Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 8:17; 10:9; Habakkuk 3:16; Revelation 1:17a.

Matthew 17:7 But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid."

Only Matthew reports that He approached them, not vice versa. And thus it always is. Because of our sins and sinfulness we are afraid to approach Him. But He mercifully comes to us. Furthermore, He touched them. Like a parent touching a frightened child. They lay prostrate because they were afraid. He counters with a command to get up. And how often does not Jesus say: "Don't be afraid." He is the only One Who can truly say this because He alone can and does dispel fear.

Hendricksen: The words 'Be not afraid' in one form or another are found throughout Scripture . . . When they are uttered by him who is able and eager to supply whatever is needed in any circumstance of life they really help.
Bengel: They were prostrated by what they saw and heard; they were raised again by His familiar and efficacious touch.

Even Christians are frightened by what they see and hear. The preacher must use the Gospel to raise them up and drive away their fears.

Matthew 17:8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

At the bidding of Jesus they got up, with fears dispelled. Quite naturally they looked about them, likely expecting to see something of which they had seen before. That only Jesus remained and that they saw only Him is stressed in all three Gospels. That is precisely what Jesus willed.

Bengel: 'Jesus alone" hence it is evident that He is the Son, who is to be heard, not Moses, nor Elias.

First there was ecstasy over the sight. Then there was terror. But, finally, they heard and saw Jesus alone. A whole sermon could be preached on this verse. Sinful, human beings are fickle. Ecstatic one moment, fearful the next. Subjective feelings are deceptive. Christ and His Word give us "a steady new spirit" and "strengthen us with a willing spirit" (Psalm 51:10 and 12) This is true faith. Look at Galatians 2:20.

Matthew 17:9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Both Matthew and Mark record this command of Jesus. He includes all the disciples.

"What you have seen" is found only here in the Gospels, but eleven times in Acts. In each case it means "that which is seen, a sight divinely granted." It really happened. They truly saw it. Some commentators think that the other disciples were not yet prepared for such a vision or might become jealous of the three if they learned about it. That cannot be proved.

Hendricksen: Every danger of a premature public proclamation must be avoided. When the proper time arrives, that is, after the Son of Man's resurrection, the story of the Transfiguration can, will, and must be proclaimed.
Lenski: Even if all the disciples had wrong expectations concerning the Messiah, these wrong, fleshly expectations, if the news of the Transfiguration had been spread abroad, would have been fanned into flames and would have caused a great deal of harm . . . Jesus constantly avoided the use of the title 'Messiah' because it had become connected with fanciful and extravagant political ideas of earthly grandeur.

And, quite obviously, the three did obey Jesus by telling no one. We stick to what Peter says in 2 Peter 1:16, the three were eye-witnesses of His majesty. That is why He took them along. And Jesus sealed the lips of these witnesses. Note that Jesus calls Himself "the Son of man," the term always used when He referred to His suffering, death, and resurrection.

"Raised from the dead"  in the form used here is used frequently in the New Testament only of Christ and of believers, never of the ungodly. This eliminates some of the faulty ideas of the millennialists.

Note that both are true: Christ was raised and He also rose from the dead.

A final remark with reference to two words:

The word  "mountain"  in verse 1 draws this remark from Bengel:

Several very remarkable divine manifestations have been made on mountains. See Acts 7:30,38.

And the word "cloud" in verse 5 draws this remark from Ylvisaker:

There came a cloud and overshadowed them as a token of God's presence, Exodus 13:21f; 16:10. Also on Mt. Sinai the Lord came in a similar way, but on that occasion it was in 'a thick cloud', Exodus 19:9, as an indication of the sternness of God's authority and judgement; now He appears in 'a bright cloud' as a token of His gentleness, His amiable grace. Now the sweet melody of the Gospel shall be heard.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series A, Festival Season Sundays Gospel Texts, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1980, pp. 49-52. Used with permission.

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