The ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus in Matthew 17

The lectionary gospel reading on Sunday, the last Sunday before Lent in Year A, is Matt 17.1–9, Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration. There some important things to note in relation to this passage as we think about preaching on it or hearing it preached.

All three Synoptic accounts place this immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus then starts to talk about his betrayal and death. They seem to want us to hold these two truths together: that the Son of Man is one who is humble and obedient even to death, and yet he is also the one spoken of in Daniel 7 where he comes to the Ancient of Days and receives a kingdom that will never end. Both of these are true about Jesus, and both must be held together. This is made clear by the final saying of Jesus in the previous pericope (section):

Amen I say to you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (Mark ‘the kingdom of God come with power’) (Matt 16.28).

All three gospels then follow this by specifying the short time period of about a week between that and the revelation on the mountain, the only place in Matthew where he is so specific about a time period. The ‘some’ makes sense when we see Jesus taking with him only his inner circle of Peter, James and John, as he does later at Gethsemane (with Andrew, they are the first to be called to follow Jesus, and named first in the list of the Twelve in Matt 10.1–4). John then talks of having ‘seen [Jesus’] glory’ (John 1.14) and 2 Peter 1.17–18 also includes testimony to this incident—which is striking, give that so much scholarship would deny that 2 Peter was actually written by Peter.


The language of ‘transfiguration’ (which derives from the Latin of the Vulgate here), is rather unhelpful. There is a ‘transformation’, but in contrast to the other incident of divine revelation from heaven at Jesus’ baptism in Matt 3, the perspective is that of the disciples, not of Jesus himself. So he Jesus takes the three and leads ‘them’ up the mountain (Matthew is much more direct that Luke in this account, and even at points more direct and dramatic than Mark), he is transformed ‘before them’ and Moses and Elijah appear ‘before them’. In fact, the whole emphasis in Matthew’s account is on the disciples (count how many times ‘they’ or ‘them’ occur). As is clear from the ending of the episode, where Jesus is alone, the point is not a change in Jesus, but a change in their understanding of who he is. The full truth will only come after his death and resurrection, but these privileged three have a foretaste, an anticipation ahead of time, which will only really make sense later.

The three Synoptics vary considerably in the exact language that they use to describe Jesus’ appearance; it is difficult to know what it would have looked like had we been there and filmed it on our iPhones, but what the gospel writers want us to know is its significance. The language Matthew uses here is that of divine presence, picking up Old Testament language of God as clothed in light (compare Ps 104.2); some manuscripts have ‘white as snow’, but the rather unusual comparison ‘white as light’ is more likely original. White clothes can be the hallmark of angelic figures and even the High Priest (compare Matt 28.3, Mark 16.5, Luke 24.4 and Rev 1.13–16 with its reuse of imagery from Dan 10.5–6) but his ‘face shining like the sun’ is an indication of divinity, both within the biblical narrative and within pagan belief.

There are striking connections with Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai in Ex 24.9–18, where he ascends a mountain, with companions, there is an overshadowing cloud, and a revelation of God’s glory. But, although there are parallels here with Sinai, there are also key differences; the glory of Moses’ face was reflected glory which faded with time, but the glory of Jesus here is a revelation of who he really is, and continues even when the vision (Matt 17.9) has passed; this is not so much of a transformation as a pulling back of the ‘veil of flesh’ (Wesley) to reveal the true nature of the Son of Man. (There might be a hint of change in Jesus in the comment in Mark 9.15 that the crowd were ‘amazed’ when they saw him—but there is no equivalent comment in Matthew). The key difference, though, is that where Moses is the focus of transformation in the Sinai account, here the focus is Jesus, and he is radiant with the glory of God himself.

In popular readings, Moses and Elijah are often thought to represent the law and the prophets; this is hinted at in the picture at the top, the depiction by Peter Paul Rubens, who has included the tablets of the Ten Commandments with Moses. But Elijah was not one of the writing prophets, and in Jewish tradition the mysterious circumstances of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo (Deut 34.5–6) and Elijah’s being taken up to God on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11) earned them the title of ‘the deathless ones’. Their presence with Jesus is an anticipation of Jesus’ own conquest of death. They also signify the rescuing of God’s people from slavery to freedom (Moses) and the call to faithfulness (Elijah); both encountered God on the mountain (Sinai/Horeb) and both experienced rejection by and suffering at the hands of God’s own people, which makes the connection between the suffering Jesus has just spoken of and the glory which he will receive.


Peter’s clumsy interjection, offering to make shelters and capture the moment, is ameliorated by Mark and Luke in their explanation that he didn’t know what to say in the context of such an unsettling experience. He appears to want the experience to persist, or perhaps to try and make his own contribution when he really should have been simply attending to what was before him. He has not yet understood that this is a drawing back of the curtain, giving him and the other two a glimpse of the heavenly reality of who Jesus really is.

They are covered with a ‘cloud full of light’ in Matthew’s unique description, and rather than ‘overshadowing’ them as in Mark and Luke, it comes with a startling suddenness marked by the ‘behold!’ (idou) which had also introduced the appearance of Moses and Elijah in verse 3. All through the story of scripture, clouds signify the presence of God (which is more easy to understand if you live in a country where the sky is blue for much of the time) and this evokes fear as well as awe (compare Ezek 1.4); ‘falling on their faces’ is a common expression of fear (see Rev 1.17) or worship and entreaty. The voice of God here echoes what was said at Jesus baptism (Matt 3.17), and this time there is no ambiguity as to whether the words are addressed to Jesus or to those watching—the audience of the three disciples are commanded or invited to listen to him. Jesus is not simply one like Moses or Elijah; he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. The words also echo Is 42.1, making again the connection between suffering and glory.

Jesus’ final action—unique to Matthew—is that Jesus ‘comes to them’, touches them, and commands them ‘Get up—do not be afraid’. Only here and at his final meeting with them in Galilee (Matt 28.18) is this intensive form of the verb (proserchomai) used of Jesus; in all other occurrences it is other people who ‘come to’ Jesus. They are left with the memory, but otherwise only with Jesus—but his company is enough.

Luke moves on to the next episode of Jesus’ ministry, but both Matthew and Mark fill out the details of the disciples’ puzzlement. They still do not understand the significance of this vision or insight—and indeed, they will not until they have begun to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are slowly putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Jesus’ identity and how he is fulfilling the purposes of God. We are like those who have been given the puzzle box, with the finished picture on the outside so that we can see with hindsight where the pieces fit together.


This rather striking, unusual and numinous encounter with Jesus sits in rather stark contrast to the material either side in Matthew’s narrative. Its position in the lectionary hides that rather, though does place it adjacent to the temptations of Jesus in the desert in Matt 4.1–11, offering a different kind of contrast. But this sense of the transcendent irrupting into the mundane is an important reality of the Christian faith. Paul talks of the ‘transformation’ that is effected by God as we continually offer our lives as ‘living sacrifices’ in Rom 12.1–2. Alluding to Sinai, but also connecting with some of the ideas and imagery here, Paul talks of our transformation as we see the transformed face of Jesus:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18)

Paul goes on to contrast this spiritual truth with the mundane realities of life by talking about ‘having this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Cor 4.7).

Last weekend, our church small group were talking about the work of the Holy Spirit; we watched the Bible Project video on the Holy Spirit, and for Pentecost they portray figures as both receiving flames but becoming lit up by them, so they themselves are shining. One member of the group was excited by this as a vivid depiction of what Spirit does, and as she described it her face did indeed light up! Others talked about the transformation that they had seen when friends came to faith. Despite the dominance of materialism, our culture is fascinated by the supernatural, the numinous and the transcendent—though we are often reluctant to talk of our experiences in this area.

The whole theme of the Book of Revelation is that the events we would otherwise understand as mundane and of this world are actually the working out of a cosmic spiritual battle, and that numinous and ‘supernatural’ experiences are part and parcel of this.

In any relationship, it takes time to understand and get to know someone, and even with people we know well, there are times when we gain particular insight into their character by something they do or say which gives us fresh insight into who they are. This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves? And is it one which we are living out as his continuously transformed disciples?

(Shorter and slightly different versions of this article were previously published in 2019 and 2017.)


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12 thoughts on “The ‘transfiguration’ of Jesus in Matthew 17”

  1. Great article.
    However, I found the Bible Project (BP), as linked, distracting, rather than enhancing: it could be something JW’s could accept, as the Holy Spirit being only energy, power.
    (Therefore, what follows may be seen as an over long distraction.)
    In the BP, there is no indication of the person of Holy Spirit as God: no sense that that Holy Spirit could be blasphemed, no sense of the Tri-unity.
    Many in the reformed tradition would see the Sheckina Glory that Moses encountered in the burning bush as a Christological manifestation, a Christophany, -the I Am(s) of Christ.
    And yes, the Spirit in cloud and fire represented God’s presence in the desert in answer to Moses , as did his tabernacling, and in the tent of meeting, with Moses. Hence Christ, dwells or tabernacles with us.
    Exodus 33 (ESV) 7-16
    7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise up, and each would stand at his tent door, and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his eassistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent.
    Moses’ Intercession

    12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? mIs it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

    But it is a dwelling in and an indwelling in our union with Christ ulimately to be glorified (stunningly, sublimely unimagimable) and heirs with Christ.

    Romans 8 (ESV):
    9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus[d] from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
    Heirs with Christ

    12 So then, brothers,[e] we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons[f] of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”

    Do we truly see Jesus as he is for who he is:

    Colossians 2: 6-12
    (v9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority)

    6 Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

    8 See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits[a] of the world, and not according to Christ. 9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

    Indeed, the curtain in the Temple was torn from top to bottom at Christ’s crucifixion, to give access as a Royal Priesthood of ordinary believers, into the Holy of Holies, the throne room of God, into his presence.

    This is no dead orthodoxy.

    Sorry, I’ve gone on far too much, beyond the opening page welcome, getting carried away in worship, as is it not merely abstract doctrine. No doubt many, who visit this blog would hope that I would be carried as away.
    If Ian, you permit this to be posted , thank you for your patience and hope it doesn’t put off folks your target audience, visiting your site for scholars.

    Reply
  2. I just love you learned exegetes, constantly picking through and shuffling the biblical evidence – which can only be taken at face value from one writer’s experience to another. Sufficent for a ‘believer’ is that the bibilical record gives some evidence of a difference in the appearance of Jesus – sufficient for this to have been witnessed and recorded by at least one onlooker, whose personal account of this phenomenon is probably most graphically recorded by the introduction in the First Letter of John: “That which we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands….”

    I am not a ‘sola scriptura’ afficionado, and yet this testimony of John is sufficient for me (whoever wrote it). What I depend on for my belief in this testimony from Scripture is the ‘gift of Faith’ which I have been given, through which, with the Holy spirit’s guidance, I understand the basic message of the Incarnate Christ into whom I have been baptized.

    I also understand what Jesus meant when he said: “I bless you Father, Lord of Heaven and of Earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children”. Jesus also said, “Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven”. Sadly, so much of scholarship is more about ego than openness to God.

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    • Thanks for your refreshing comment, without a hint of cynicism (sarcasm alert).

      I am quite content to listen to other voices, who say how much these ‘academic’ exegeses assist them in the practice of ministry.

      Btw, how is it that you are able to read John’s testimony in your own language? Might it be because some academics have picked through and shuffled the evidence, so you don’t have to…? (irony alert)

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  3. I guess we all connect with faith in different ways – I really enjoy the exegetical aspects, which as a preacher may not be what I say at the lectern, but never-the-less form an important part of the background information that cradles the present-day interpretation and application of scripture. Exegesis helps me to imagine ‘standing in the shoes’ of those who were writing – connecting with their experiences, joys and failures in their own journeys of faith, and seeing my own journey & the journeys of those around me, reflected in those joys and failures. I understand if others don’t enjoy exegesis or find it helpful – it takes all sorts, but I (for one) appreciate it and the fresh perspectives that it brings.

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    • Yes, I agree. It is worth noting here that I am not offering a sermon or sermon outline, only the exegesis that needs to be done as an essential (though sadly often passed over) step in preaching.

      We need to know what the text meant and means, before we can know what it means for us.

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  4. Have you considered a note at the end of your Matthew pieces saying which sources you used to help? I recognise lots of France here!

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    • My reason for suggesting this (sorry, hit return before completing my comment) is so that you can point others to valuable resources to help them.

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    • I actually cited RT France in my sermon today, but I suspect his name didn’t mean much to the congregation! “Three aspects of the [transfiguration] contribute to its Christological force: (1) the visible alteration of Jesus demonstrates that he is more than a merely human teacher; (2) his association with Moses and Elijah demonstrates his messianic role; and (3) the voice from heaven declares his identity as the Son of God.”

      They got that. But they smiled with how I opened. “In the Harry Potter books, which enthralled our children but which I am ashamed to admit rather passed me by, the students have to take a course in ‘Transfiguration’. At the start of term feast …. Hermione Granger says: ‘I do hope they start right away, there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in Transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else, of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.’ To which Percy Weasley replies: ‘You’ll be starting small, just matches into needles and that sort of thing.’ “

      Reply
      • That’s a great connection! How funny!

        I think Steve was suggesting that it is *preachers* who will want to know about France. I actually mention him quite a lot in other posts. I generally try to use several commentaries in thinking about these passages; last lectionary year looking at Luke I make use of Green, Parsons and some others. But the problem is: France is so insightful and so comprehensive, and on controversial matters I think he is almost always the most persuasive!

        (Mentioning commentators or ‘when I was thinking about preparing this sermon’ is, I think, like pointing to the scaffolding that is holding up a stage, rather than performing the play.)

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  5. Although I can understand the argument that Jesus’ words about some not tasting death before they see the kingdom referring to the transfiguration, I cant say Im wholly convinced. The reason is the context of His words – His coming in His kingdom, but in the context of judgement. Just because the transfiguration passage is inserted just after those words doesnt seem to me to be good evidence that that is what he had been talking about.

    In Matthew particularly, the context of His coming in the kingdom is the judgement of human beings, not going up a mountain and meeting Elijah and Moses. There is also not even a hint of angels!

    ‘Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life[f] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

    28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”’

    Assuming Jesus did speak the words in v28 straight after the proceeding teaching, it doesnt seem logical to me that He is talking about the transfiguration. In context, it clearly means the Son of Man coming in judgement. I also think it’s odd that He would indicate the time frame for such an event as effectively within the lifetime of some of those who were listening, when the transfiguration happened just a week later!

    From my own reading, it seems the main reason why many commentators interpret Jesus’ words as referring to the transfiguration is simply to counter the view from atheists etc that Jesus was a ‘failed’ prophet who predicted His return in judgement within a few decades, which then didnt happen. But that for me is not a good enough reason for interpreting Jesus’ words in a rather unnatural way, to effectively force a particular meaning into them.

    Whilst the Son of Man reference undoubtedly comes from Daniel, the transfiguration was more about revealing His glory and who He was, in connection with Moses and Elijah, rather than Him coming in His kingdom. Even if we accept His words to reference Daniel (which many atheists dont get), I would argue they more likely refer to his ascension, to the right hand of the Father which Stephen subsequently got a glimpse of. It was only after Jesus left this earth after completing His mission did that happen.

    But even that understanding is not wholly satisfactory because in the ascension there is no context of the judgement of humans.

    The other view is that of the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in AD70, the so called preterist understanding. Given that Jesus had been talking about this destruction within a ‘generation’ that would seem to make more sense, and the predicted timing correlates with Jesus’ words of ‘some here will not taste death before…’. The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem were clearly seen as judgement on Israel. This also fits with Daniel’s words referring to His death and the ending of the sacrificial system which effectively ended after the Temple’s destruction. Whilst to our ears today Jesus’ words seem to imply the judgement of all mankind, it may be He is primarily referring to Israel, given that was the main focus of his mission.

    I am still unsure how to properly understand this passage and its parallels in the other Gospels, so I would welcome comments.

    Peter

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  6. So a paradigm shift? Probably along with the hot and cold plus pit of stomach thing when the realisation hits. Most common example, smile and wave back at vaguely recognised person across the street then realise they’re looking at someone behind you. So Peter lurches and wants to build a shrine for the guy he’d probably just had breakfast with? Peter so wants to do the right thing. I am glad Jesus corrects but doesn’t dump us for that.

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