Thought for the day
Special moments of “presence” are important to us, even though we may not often speak of them. These can happen in all sort of ways: at the birth of a child, in nature, while listening to music, in prayer, as we contemplate a work of art and so forth. In any case, always unexpectedly. Often we would be a little embarrassed to talk about such “epiphanies” for fear of seeming foolish or naive but, nevertheless, such intimations of something more really matter to us personally because they give the holy a foothold in our own experience. We would like to prolong such experiences, but that is not their nature (as Peter discovered!).
Help us, Lord, to recognise you more and more in the present moment of our lives, that our love for you may be real and our hope in you strong.
Matt 17:1 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. 2 And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with him. 4 So Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will make three shelters —one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they were overwhelmed with fear and threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Do not be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone.
Matt 17:9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
The account of the Transfiguration can be found in Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36 and here in Matthew. It may also be mentioned in 2 Peter 1:16-18 (see comment below). The Transfiguration account recalls the Baptism of Jesus and, in a way, looks forward to the prayer in Gethsemane. In this Gospel, Peter has just made a profound confession of faith (16:16) and so, he is “on the right track.” Nevertheless, the place of suffering in the identity of Jesus as Messiah still continues to elude him. The continuation of the story in vv. 10-23 is essential for our appreciation of what Matthew is trying to teach here.
Kind of writing
This is an “epiphany”, an appearance or revelation of a divine person. Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the same basic story, which is one of transformation in prayer, a mystical moment, in which some of the disciples are involved. It bridges the time between the Baptism and the Resurrection.
After that basic account, each writer shapes the story for his own particular goals. In Mark, it is to encourage the disciples on the way of the Cross. In Luke, it is a moment of prayer, marking the departure of Moses and Elijah.
Our Gospel, Matthew, invests the story with apocalyptic language (transfigured, face shone like the sun, dazzling white, touched), thus letting the reader know that Jesus is of ultimate significance in God’s plan for human history and so also for us.
Matthew recounts the Transfiguration as an apocalyptic vision, one of those “moments” of transcendence and transformation, never to be forgotten. The concentric pattern tells us that the centre is v. 5, that the divine voice is given a central role.
a. Narrative introduction (v. 1)
b. Jesus is transfigured (vv. 2-3)
c. Peter’s response (v .4)
d. The divine voice (v. 5)
c*. The disciples’ response (v. 6)
b*. Jesus speaks (v. 7)
a*. Narrative conclusion (v. 8)
x. Postlude (v. 9)
Old Testament background
There are four Old Testament texts to keep in mind. Deuteronomy 18:15 promises a prophet like Moses at the end. Malachi 4:5 predicts that Elijah will have a role ushering in the end of time. Most important are the passages from Exodus and the prophet Daniel.
i. Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15–18)
ii. Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29–30)
iii. So he came near where I stood; and when he came, I became frightened and fell prostrate. But he said to me, “Understand, O mortal, that the vision is for the time of the end.” As he was speaking to me, I fell into a trance, face to the ground; then he touched me and set me on my feet. (Daniel 8:17–18)
iv. I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; the people who were with me did not see the vision, though a great trembling fell upon them, and they fled and hid themselves. So I was left alone to see this great vision. My strength left me, and my complexion grew deathly pale, and I retained no strength. Then I heard the sound of his words; and when I heard the sound of his words, I fell into a trance, face to the ground. But then a hand touched me and roused me to my hands and knees. (Daniel 10:7–10)
New Testament foreground
This story echoes in the ministry the Baptism of Jesus and marks some kind of appropriation of what happened then. The Resurrection is in our minds as well, because of the dazzling white garments and the explicit mention at the end. Also, Matthew wrote for a Jewish-Christian community and portrays Jesus as a Moses-type figure (in this Gospel, John the Baptist is identified as the latter-day Elijah). Jesus has just been talking about his death and Peter has quite spontaneously rejected the cross.
It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. (2Corinthians 12:1–7)
Verse 1 The number “six” echoes the timing in the Exodus account above. Peter, James and John form a triad and feature together in the Gospels (call, Transfiguration, discipleship dispute, Gethsemane). No purpose is given for the journey up the mountain (like in Mark and unlike in Luke). The mountain is the symbolic place of encounter with God, especially in the Mosaic traditions. Matthew regularly refers to mountains: Matt 4:8; 5:1, 14; 8:1; 14:23; 15:29; 17:1, 9, 20; 18:12; 21:1, 21; 24:3, 16; 26:30; 28:16. The comparative statistics are: 16-11-12-5.
Verse 2 “Transfigured”: this is difficult to imagine or interpret – some kind of glimpse of the future, Risen Lord. “Like the sun” is an apocalyptic feature (cf. Rev 1:16 and Mt 13:43). “Dazzling white”: this reminds us of the resurrection as in Mt 28:3. These symbolic details tell us Jesus entered the transcendent world of God. Cf. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor 3:18)
Verse 3 Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, and thus are symbolic of continuity and fulfilment. In Jewish tradition, the end of time was to be marked by their return (cf. Deut 18:15 and Mal 4:4-5)
Verse 4 Jesus is called “Lord” not “rabbi” as in Mark, because Peter believes. The experience is wonderful and Peter wishes to hold on to it. “Tents” are a hint at the feast of Succoth / Tabernacles. Sukkoth celebrated God’s accompaniment of his people in the desert. Peter apparently thinks the figures are equal, a misunderstanding corrected in 5.
Verse 5 Bright cloud: this is a kind of oxymoron, expressing mystery and transcendence (that is, God is present). The words are identical to the Baptism (Matthew 3:17), with the addition “Listen to him!”. The words hint at other OT resonances: Messiah (Psalm 2:7), beloved son (Isaac, Genesis 22:2) and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 42:1; 44:2).
Verse 6 Not psychological fear or fright, but existential dread or awe before the mystery.
Verse 7 Everybody who is anybody in the Bible is told not to be afraid! Jesus touches them — a detail only in Matthew and reminding us of Daniel’s visions. This is a further indication of Matthew apocalyptic reading of the Transfiguration.
Verse 8 Suddenly, the experience is over. The real, lasting glory of Jesus follows on the cross and Resurrection.
Verse 9 Matthew alone calls it a “vision” making the important connection with the Resurrection. The other occurrences of “vision” are all in the Acts (Acts 7:31; 9:10, 12; 10:3, 17, 19; 11:5; 12:9; 16:9–10; 18:9).
Pointers for prayer
1. The transfiguration experience was one that, for Jesus, clarified his relationship with his Father and strengthened him for the future. What have been the experiences, the moments of insight, that have clarified your sense of who you are, and what is your relationship with God?
2. On the mountain the disciples saw Jesus in a new way. Sometimes in friendship there are moments of sharing in which we get to know a friend in a new and deeper way. Have you had that experience in human friendship, or in your relationship with Jesus and God. Recall when that happened, and what it was like for you.
3. The clear vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah was followed by a frightening experience of being in a cloud and it was in the midst of the cloud that the disciples were instructed “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him”. Have you had the experience of learning the truth about life and about your relationship with God from moments of confusion as well as from times of special joy?
4. After their special experience the disciples came down the mountain again. We cannot live each day at the level of special spiritual experiences, but the memory of them can strengthen us in difficult times. What memories encourage you in time of trouble?
God of glory, it is good for us to be here. Reveal your Son to us now in the message of the prophets and the witness of the apostles, that we may heed his voice and receive him in faith.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.