|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
The Season of Epiphany begins (Jesus' Baptism) and ends (Jesus' Transfiguration) with a heavenly voice making Jesus known to the world. (epiphany = "to make known"). I've often wondered why Bible publishers don't print the words of God in a separate color: perhaps green for God, red for Jesus, black for everyone else. Note also that the "green" Epiphany Season begins and ends with "white" Sundays. The same is true of the "green" Pentecost Season, starting with Holy Trinity and ending with Christ the King.
In dealing with the transfiguration, one can highlight the common elements from the synoptics or emphasize the unique perspective of each account. I tend to do the second. There are phrases that Matthew adds to Mark's account and some that Matthew omits. I plan to go through Matthew's account and highlight his differences from Mark (9:2-9). I operate from the assumption that Mark was written first and formed the basis for Matthew's account.
Robert Smith (Matthew) begins his comments on ch. 17 with:
The narrative of chap. 17, involving the inner circle of three disciples (17:1-13) and then the other nine (17:14-21) show once again how the disciples swing between faith and doubt, between understanding and misunderstanding in their response to Jesus. Only three are with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration (vv. 1-13). They descend to discover the powerlessness of the nine in relation to the epileptic boy (17:14-21). That weakness is connected with the distress of all 12 at the announcement of Jesus' passion (17:22-23; cf. 167:21-28). [p. 207]
Both Matthew and Mark indicate that this event took place six days after something (Luke has "about eight days" 9:28) -- presumably it refers to those events that started with Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus' first "passion prediction" (Mt 16:13 ff., Mk 8:27 ff.). More about this will come later.
Why tell us about the "six days"? This is perhaps a connection with Moses and the mountain from Exodus 24:15-16: "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." Matthew will make some stronger connections to Moses later.
Smith (Matthew) suggests some other possibilities: "The festival of Tabernacles or Booths comes six days after the Day of Atonement in the fall of the year at the beginning of the rainy season, .... But perhaps after six days is simply intended to focus attention on the fact that the transfiguration occurred on the seventh or climactic day." [p. 208]
This is the first time the "inner three" are set apart in Matthew. The next time Jesus takes them with him is in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:37). The three who behold his heavenly glory also see his earthly agony [Hare, Matthew, p. 201]. In both cases, they, especially Peter, respond poorly. On the mountain Peter wants to build booths, and God has to interrupt his plans as we will see. In the Garden Jesus tells them to stay awake and pray, but they fall asleep three times. If these are the "creme of the disciples," perhaps there is hope for us who might fall asleep during devotions or react poorly to situations in the church or life.
This also suggests that we as pastor might need an inner group of leaders/supporters who share special moments with each other, that aren't necessarily shared with other leaders or members in the congregation. In fact, Bill Easum says two things that relate to this. (1) "The pastor should not see the whole congregation as his/her flock, but the staff (paid and unpaid) is his/flock -- those people who are giving extraordinary time to the church." Jesus had no problems spending extra time with his three key leaders. (2) "The number one job of pastors is to grow spiritual giants. It is the number one job of the congregational leaders to grow other leaders." [at a workshop in Sacramento, January 11-12, 2002]. While this approach might work in large congregations, can it work in the "mom & pop" size congregations where the pastor is expected to look after everyone? On the other hand, Jesus only had a "flock" of 12. At times he ignored them to take care of himself.
The only other occurrence of "high mountain" in Matthew is when the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and offered them to Jesus (4:8-9). Could similar temptations have been part of this mountaintop experience? Could Jesus have been tempted to stay on this mountain with all his glory and splendor rather than come down to the "faithless and perverse generation" (17:17)? Could the force behind Peter's desire to build three booths be a temptation to capture of this glorious and avoid the painful cross? A friend often referred to Peter in the transfiguration texts as having an "edifice complex" -- a possible sermon title?
Some other important events on "mountains" (oros) in Matthew: That's where Jesus does his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (5:1); where Jesus went to be alone to pray (14:23); where great crowds came to Jesus to be healed (15:29); where the risen Jesus meets the eleven disciples (28:16).
It is possible to take all of these events as "mountain-top" experiences: a time of learning, of praying, of being healed, and encountering the glorified Christ. The "mountain" may include huge crowds, bright lights, joyful singing, enthusiasm galore; or it may be a time of quiet solitude. I doubt that any of the three were expecting what happened to them on the mountain -- neither Jesus' transfiguration nor what happened afterwards. Our God is a God of surprises.
The Greek word translated "transfigured" is metamorphoomai. Mark also uses this word for the transfiguration. Paul also uses this word to talk about a transformation that is to take place within us.
Ro 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
2C 3:18 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.
As I will mention later in these notes, I think that this story is as much about a transformation of the disciples as it is about the transfiguration of Jesus.
Matthew tells us that Jesus' face shown like the sun. This part of the transfiguration is not recorded in Mark (although a similar phrase is in Luke 9:29). Moses had a shining face after his encounter with God (Exodus 34:29-35). Matthew emphasizes the "Moses-connection".
Also, Matthew puts "Moses" before "Elijah." The order is reversed in Mark. We are told that they are speaking with Jesus, but not the content of their speech, which is given in Luke 9:31. I've always wondered, how did they know it was Moses and Elijah? Did they have pictures of them hanging in their synagogues? Did they have their names over their pockets on their presumably white robes -- or perhaps their names were printed on the back, across their shoulders like football players? However they knew who they were, they represent the law and the prophets; and there were traditions about both that they had never died. There is a connection between Jesus and the Law and the Prophets, but the fact that the scene ends with "Jesus only" indicates his superiority over the others.
In all three synoptic accounts, Peter speaks; but all three have him giving different titles for Jesus: "Lord" (or "sir") in Matthew; "Rabbi" in Mark; "Master" in Luke. Given the more positive picture that Mt presents of Peter -- only Matthew has Jesus building his church on this "rock" (16:18), his "kyrie" probably is a confession of faith: Jesus is Lord, rather than the polite address, "sir".
In all three accounts, Peter says, "It is good that we are here." Why is it good that they are here? Why is it good that people are at worship? Do they come to only see Jesus in all his glory and to try and capture that event with booths -- to lock up their glorious experience with Jesus in a box?
In Matthew, Peter asks, "If you wish I will build three booths." In the other accounts, he says that "we" will build. Peter is singled out more in Mt. What are the skene that he plans to build? The word can mean a "tent" or "temporary shelter." It can mean "tabernacle" as a worship place (the dwelling place of God in the OT). It can mean a "house" -- a permanent dwelling place. Why would these three need houses? I think that these skene hearken back to the exodus and Peter's attempt to enshrine or preserve or, at least, prolong this moment on the mountain. There's trouble for them down in the valley.
Matthew leaves out the negative comment about Peter and the disciples from Mark 9:6: "For he did not know what he is saying. For they were terrified." As I mentioned earlier, Matthew presents Peter in a more positive light than Mark.
However, the next line, unique to Matthew, is wonderful, "While he was still speaking...." God interrupts Peter! God comes in a bright cloud. If ever there was a time to feel about 2 inches tall, it might be when one is interrupted by God! Matthew presents the scene as if God were indicating to Peter, while he was still speaking, "Shut up and listen to me!"
Only Matthew includes "in whom I am well-pleased," which exactly repeats the words at Jesus' baptism (3:17). This connection wouldn't have been made by the disciples, since they weren't present at the baptism, but a connection, I think Matthew intends for us, the readers to make. Why is God pleased with Jesus? At his baptism, I think it comes from Jesus desire "to fulfill all righteousness" (3:15). At the transfiguration, the "righteousness" is more clearly defined by Jesus' first passion prediction. Doing what God requires (righteousness) is more important than Jesus' own life.
"Listen to him." "Listen" (akouete) is a present imperative, implying continual or repeated actions: "Keep on listening to him" or "Continue to listen to him." God gave Ten Commands in the OT. In the NT, we have this one command. (It should be printed in green.)
This command to listen contains many possibilities for a multitude of sermons. Connected to Romans 10:17, we can conclude that the Christian faith comes through our ears: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ."
We could connect the command with Luther's explanation to Holy Communion, "The benefits of this sacrament are pointed out by the words...."
This could be an opportunity to talk about silence in worship. Without explanation, silence in the liturgy can be interpreted as "somebody forgot something". It is an opportunity to unplug the noise from our ears and tune in to God.
I'm sure that every church has a cadre of "doers." Unfortunately, sometimes these very valuable workers are not always willing to stop doing (or talking) and listen to God. With nearly every council I've served with, I have found it difficult to get them to take time (20-30 minutes) for study -- listening to God through the word and sharing with one another, spending time in silent meditation, and prayer. There is a time for action -- and I'll talk about that a little later. I also note that the ears can't really do anything. They can only receive what someone else has done, such as speaking words.
What are they to listen to? Certainly the words of Jesus, but all that Jesus has taught them (i.e., the entire Gospel of Matthew) or just what Jesus had recently said to them? Matthew 28:19 would seem to indicate that we are to listen to everything Jesus said. In the liturgical context, the Revised Common Lectionary has us hearing a number of lections from the Sermon on the Mount during the Epiphany Season, just prior to this text. (Unfortunately, none of those are heard this year.) Those lessons could lead one to stress that specific teaching of Jesus as something God commands us to listen to. Especially, since, in the opening instructions, Jesus said repeatedly, "You have heard..., but I say to you...." (5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43 -- the word for "heard" is the same word for "listen" in our text).
One could also look at the "hearing/listening" passages in 13:13ff. to illustrate different ways (good and bad) that we might listen to him.
Another specific "hearing" passage that comes after our text is in 18:15ff. The hope is that the sinful member will listen and be restored to the community -- and especially to the one who had been offended.
In the more immediate context of our text, the word from Jesus that they (especially Peter) were unable to hear was the first passion prediction (16:21). Peter rebukes Jesus for saying such words. Peter's problem, as Jesus indicates it, "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (16:23b). The same problem might be evident in his desire to build three booths.
What is ironic, and I said that I would say more about this context, is that just before this rebuking, Peter's has made his good confession. After that Jesus declares: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. ... (16:17-19). God has revealed to Peter who Jesus is: "The Messiah, the Son of the living God," but this revelation doesn't help Peter understand what Jesus will do -- he will suffer, die, and be raised. Peter rebukes him. Jesus wants him "behind him." Jesus wants him to set his mind on divine things.
In a similar way, in the transfiguration, God has revealed to Peter and the sons of Zebedee who Jesus is: the glorified, beloved Son of God, but this revelation doesn't help Peter understand what he should do. He wants to build booths. God wants him to listen.
I think that the command "to listen" refers specifically to the passion prediction and the subsequent discipleship section (17:24-26). Although Peter's rebuke of Jesus centered on his unwillingness to hear about Jesus' coming suffering; that bias also kept him from hearing Jesus' word about the resurrection to life after three days. Even after Jesus' suffering and death, it seems that the disciples had difficulties hearing and believing the word of resurrection.
Jesus had made it clear earlier that just listening is not enough, but that one also has to act on them in order to be like a wise man who built his house on solid foundation (7:24-27). Carter (Matthew and the Margins) writes about this:
Listening that does not lead to action has severe eschatological consequences (7:24, 26; cf. 10:14; 13:19-23). In contrast to the crowds, disciples hear and understand Jesus' teaching (13:10-17, 23; cf. 15:10). But hearing and understanding are not automatic. The devil can disrupt the process so that faithful discipleship does not follow (13:19). Persecution (13:20-21), daily concerns, and wealth (13:22) can do the same thing. To listen, then, is to understand and live by taking up one's cross (16:24-26). To listen is a central quality of discipleship. [p. 351]
After Peter's confession and after the transfiguration, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell others who he is (16:20; 17:9). In the transfiguration account, only Matthew uses the word "vision". Rather than a "visionary" experience of the three disciples, the word could refer to the fact that they had seen something that can't normally be seen. Like Peter's confession before, what they were able to see was a gift from God. It didn't come from human wisdom or understanding. It would be impossible to try and explain the Mystery to others.
17:6-7 is unique to Matthew. These verses suggest another way of preaching this text. They might be considered as a transfiguration of the disciples. Did this glorious "vision" produce faith in them? No, extreme fear. (Some translations, e.g., RSV, use the more positive "awe" for phobeo in v. 6, but that translation makes no sense in v. 7 where the same phobeo is used.) Being in direct relationship to God, hearing the voice from the cloud did not produce faith, but fear -- so much fear that the disciples lit. "fell on their faces" -- that could be a posture of worship (although not used that way in Matthew) or perhaps cowering fear. The other time Matthew uses the idiom, "fall upon the face," it is what Jesus does in the garden as he prays, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want" [26:39]. Could Jesus have been afraid of what he was about to face?
In addition, the word for "fall" (pipto) is used in just a few verses later of the epileptic boy falling into the fire and into the water. He is doing what he shouldn't be doing -- but at the same time, his actions are out of his control. Could the same be said of the disciples on the mountain?
What does Jesus do for these cowering disciples? He comes to the cowering disciples. This same word is used of the resurrected Jesus coming to the worshiping and doubting disciples on the mountain (28:18). Jesus touches them -- an act that always denotes healing in its other uses in Matthew (8:3, 15; 9:20, 21, 29; 14:36; 20:34). Jesus tells them: "Get up" or "Be raised." Egeiro is Matthew's technical term for "resurrection" of the dead (10:8; 11:5; 14:2; 16:21; 17:9, 23; 20:19; 26:32; 27:52, 63, 64, 28:6, 7). Although Matthew uses the word with other meanings, such as the non-miraculous "getting out of bed" of Joseph (1:24; 2:13, 14, 20, 21) and miraculously of the paralytic (9:5, 6, 7); and nations rising against nation (27:4). The instance of the word immediately prior to this verse (16:21) and the three occurrences following (17:9, 23; 20:19) all refer to being "raised to life." I believe that Matthew intends that meaning to color his use in 17:7. These cowering, scared-stiff disciples, who are hiding their heads; are raised by Jesus to a new life. Ironically, it is not the "glowing," glorified Jesus who does it, but the down-to-earth, human Jesus who comes and touches and speaks to the disciples.
The disciples are transformed from fearful, anxious, inactive, cowards to brave, confident, active, champions of the faith. How much do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from Jesus?
In addition to our need for this divine touch, I think that we are also called to offer it to the world. For our congregations and our people, rather than seeking to appear "glorious" as God's people, perhaps it is more helpful to be simply human beings who offer a healing and life-giving touch to the scared, worried, anxious people with whom we come in contact.
As a minister who has a beard, young children have often called me "Jesus" and sometimes "God". I certainly am not any of the persons of the Trinity -- except perhaps, the trinity of "me, myself, and I". At the same time, I realize that there is something about the office I serve and there is something about being "little Christs" for all believers that means we do convey God's presence to the people around us. We don't do it with brightly glowing faces as Moses and Jesus, but with the very human touch and the comforting words, "Don't be afraid!" The transfigured Jesus was not approachable, nor approaching. The down-to-earth Jesus is.
Long (Matthew) relates these contrasting parallels between the transfiguration and the crucifixion in Matthew:
In the transfiguration, Jesus' clothes shine with the glory of God; at the crucifixion, the soldiers gamble over his garments. In the transfiguration, Jesus is surrounded by Moses and Elijah: at the cross by two criminals. In the transfiguration, Jesus is declared to be "God's Son" by the voice of God from the cloud; at the crucifixion the words "he said, 'I am God's Son'" become a taunt of mockery on the lips of the religious authorities. At the end of the transfiguration, Moses and Elijah have departed, leaving Jesus to stand in singular glory; at the end of the crucifixion, Jesus dies in humiliation while the crowd stands around waiting to see "whether Elijah will come to save him." In both events, three of Jesus' followers are specified as witnesses -- the transfiguration by Peter, James, and John, and the crucifixion by Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Solome, the mother of Zebedee's sons. The parallel's suggest that we are to read one story in the light of the other, anticipating in the shining splendor of the transfiguration the suffering by which this glory will be won and discerning in the shame of the cross the very glory of God. [p. 194, with reference to Garland, Reading Mathew 183-84]
Briefly stated, I think that the account of Jesus' transfiguration needs to become our transformation -- not that we are to shine like Jesus, but that we are to be transformed in our thinking about Jesus, about his mission and our mission to the world. In contrast to that section on the Sermon on the Mount where the church is pictured as a city lit up and shining on a hill, those who have been transformed and "enlightened" by Jesus know the need to come down from the hill, to be the human presence of Jesus to fearful people -- offering the touch of new life to help the cowering to stand tall.
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