Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 5While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’6When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ 8And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’
Translation: And after six days, Jesus takes alongside Peter and James and his brother John with him and brings them up into a high mountain by themselves. And he was transformed before them and his face shone like the sun, and his garment became white as the light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking together with him. But Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you desire, I will make three tents here--to you, one, to Moses, one, and to Elijah, one. Yet, while he was speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, "This one is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well-pleased. Hear him." And when the disciples heard, they fell upon their face, and they were struck with great fear. And Jesus came and touched him, saying, "Be raised up and do not be afraid." And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. And as they were coming down out of the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "You may not speak of the vision to anyone until the son of humanity has been raised out of death."
Background and situation: The primary source is Mark--the parallels are Mark 9: 2-9 and Luke 9: 28-36. Both Matthew and Luke follow Mark fairly closely, but with some "tweaks" and changes. As in Mark, Matthew's account of the Transfiguration follows Jesus' remarks about suffering and cross.
Matthew and Mark differ on the person of Peter. In Mark, Peter makes the proper confession--"You are the Messiah"--but winds up getting rebuked by Jesus--"Get behind me Satan!--for not understanding Jesus' path of "downward mobility" and the theology of the cross.
In Matthew, Jesus does not call Peter "Satan". In fact, in Matthew, Jesus gets rather gushy about Peter. Right after Peter makes his confession that Jesus is the "Messiah, the son of the living God," (16:16) Jesus says, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!...you are Peter, and on this rock,I will build my church...I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven..." (Mt 16: 17-19).
Matthew precedes his account of the Transfiguration by adding a saying of Jesus about the "coming son of man"--"For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father" (16: 17) Matthew wants to underline the association of Jesus with the eschatological figure of Daniel 7, i.e. "one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven" (Dan 7:14). That anticipated figure, Matthew says, is Jesus.
The Metamorphosis: "And he was transformed before them and his face shone like the sun, and his garment became white as the light." Our vision is clouded. "Now we see through a glass darkly," said St. Paul. In the "transfiguration", however, the veil is pulled back for a glimpse of the universe's essential spiritual reality, the centrality of Jesus in the world of light.
Matthew tells us that this occurred "after six days" following Jesus' remarks about suffering and the way of the cross. In keeping with the Matthean theme of Jesus as the "new Moses," the "six days" recalls Moses being on the mountain six days in Ex 24: 16. "Six days" also recalls the beginning of creation, and anticipates the seventh day when God's work was completed and God rested. Here, "after six days," Jesus himself is the embodiment of the seventh day, the completion of God's work.
The "high mountain" also recalls Moses and Mt. Sinai, and correlates with several other instances in Matthew where the author locates important and momentous events with mountaintops, notably the Sermon on the Mount. In fact, whenever mountains are mentioned in scripture as a whole, they usually indicate a special revelation of some kind. Think "window into the divine" or "glimpse into heaven."
In Mark's account, Peter, James, and John were said to be "by themselves" at the Transfiguration. Matthew drops this. Why? Matthew wants to avoid the exclusionary association of the phrase of "by themselves." This spectacular revelation is for Peter, James, and John, yes, but not necessarily always and only for a special group. At least potentially, all people may experience "the glory of the Lord."
On the mountaintop, Jesus is "metamorphosized" (metamorphothe). In a glimpse of Easter, Jesus is "transformed." It is a sign of the resurrection--a "vision," Matthew will say, of a transformed world. N.T. Wright says that "transformation" is the meaning of resurrection. In other words, resurrection is not resuscitation of a corpse (as if that needed saying), and nor is it merely "life after death."
The idea of some kind of existence beyond the grave was certainly not new in Israel. People commonly thought that, after death, people became some kind of spirit, or ghost, or even angel. Resurrection, however, was about "transformation"--a translation of the cosmos that is both radically new, and radically renewed--indeed, "a new heavens and a new earth."
Mark puts this story almost literally in the center of his gospel. The first passion prediction late in chapter eight is the "hinge" of Mark's gospel. That dark oracle is followed by transfiguration--a glimpse of the ultimate victory of Christ, which provides strength for the difficult days ahead. No matter what darkness may cloud the future, the disciples are to know and remember their glimpse into the deepest of all spiritual realities, the Resurrection. Matthew maintains that point of view.
Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets, here witnessing to the fulfillment of law and prophets (5:17). Both Moses and Elijah had had ecstatic associations with mountains. Both, some had thought, had been taken directly to heaven.
Matthew had one small problem to resolve. People of the day--and since--believed that Elijah would be a forerunner of the Messiah. If he shows up here on the mountain, after the ministry of Jesus has already begun, how can he be said to have been a forerunner? Matthew will solve this problem by reminding his readers shortly (17: 12) that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist.
The role of Peter: In Mark, Peter addresses Jesus as "rabbi." Matthew changes this to "Lord." Mark never has anything good to say about the disciples, and especially Peter. They never get anything right. Even Mark's Easter story is marked by yet another failure of the disciples. His women disciples were told to go and tell the others, but they didn't do it. Even the women disciples--his most devoted followers--fail.
In Mark, per usual, Peter gives Jesus an incorrect title, another example of the disciples getting it "wrong." Werner Kelber says that a major objective of Mark, which was written during or just after the Roman-Jewish War (AD 66-70), was to encourage the followers of Jesus to look to Galilee, to the beginnings of the movement, rather than to Jerusalem--the "head office," led by Peter--whose leadership Mark appears to discredit.
In Matthew, Peter addresses Jesus with a proper title. He calls Jesus "Lord." Matthew is not opposed to the Jerusalem leadership. In fact, he rather likes them. Where Mark is always negative about the disciples, and especially Peter, Matthew takes a kinder view. For Matthew, as seen above, Peter is the "rock" (16:18).
In Mark's story of the Transfiguration, Peter suggests Jesus institutionalize the vision by letting them build three monuments. (Mark adds an editorial note that Peter didn't know what he was talking about.) In Matthew, Peter asks to build the monuments himself, but does manage to ask Jesus if such a thing would be a good idea--"if you desire," he says, indicating that he's leaving the question up to the Lord.
Unlike in Mark, Matthew adds no note of direct disapproval of Peter's remark. Peter's suggestion of building tents and institutionalizing the vision--of starting a religion, you might say--is simply brushed aside. The voice and the cloud intervene while Peter was still speaking. ("Clouds" are another indicator of special revelation. Clouds are all over the Old Testament--Exodus 24 again, as well as Ez 1, 1 Kgs 8, and especially Daniel 7.)
The voice from heaven recalls the voice that spoke at Jesus' baptism, and, in Matthew, speaks exactly the same words with the addition of: "Hear him." The exhortation to "hear" recalls Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses says that, some day, God would bring another prophet-like-Moses: "him shall you hear."
Hear him when he is shining in glory between Moses and Elijah, and hear him as well as he is hung between two criminals on the cross. Hear him when he talks of the way of the kingdom, and hear him when he says to do it.
The disciples adopt a posture of worship. Grammatically, the expression is curious: "They fell on their face." "They" and "their" are plural, but "face" is singular. Possibly, Peter, James and John represent all of humanity. Faced, so to speak, with the great chasm between human beings and Ultimate Spiritual Reality, the only appropriate posture for the human race is prostration.
The three disciples were also "struck with great fear" (ephobethesan sphodra). (RSV had "filled with awe," which is clearly wrong. NRSV went with "overcome with fear," which is a big improvement.) "Great fear" is a not uncommon reaction to manifestations of the divine. (See Rev. 1:17, as one of many possible examples.)
"Jesus came and touched them," says Matthew. Mark says nothing about any physical contact, but Jesus' touch is a recurrent theme in Matthew. Just as Jesus' touch cured a leper in 8:3, cured Peter's mother-in-law in 8:15, raised Jairus' daughter in 9: 25, and healed two blind men in 9: 29, so his touch here calms the fear of the disciples. "Rise, and have no fear!" On the strength of his touch, and the power of his word, the disciples are able to "raise up their eyes."
In Matthew, Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one of this "vision"--horama, (absent in Mark). (The word may also be translated as "spectacle" or "a sight divinely granted in an ecstasy.") The whole story is not to be told until we have a complete picture--a complete revelation--of who Jesus is. That will not be possible until his death and resurrection.
Until then, this "vision" is an affirmation of the Crucified One who will be victorious, even though that is yet to be seen. From here, there will be a descent into violence, but, through it all, the disciples will be sustained through this "vision" of the completion of the cosmos.
The so-called "messianic secret"--"tell no one"--pops up here and there throughout the synoptics. This is a challenge for modern-day Christians who seem to think that Jesus was some kind of first century evangelist who went around urging people to accept something called "protestant theology" so they could be "saved." (Or, it could be that the absence of self-promotion is confusing to people who live in an age where self-promotion is very nearly an art form.)
Rather, in Jesus' life as told by Matthew, we see "the new world" of God, a "new world" marked by open table fellowship, gender equality, non-violent resistance to oppression, a ministry of compassion, good news for the poor. This "new world" is rejected by the powers-that-be, but radically vindicated by God in the resurrection.
In the transfiguration, the disciples, then and now, are given a glimpse of God's glorious victory, an assurance that the way of Jesus is indeed the true way, and that the "new world" as seen in the ministry of Jesus will indeed come to pass.
Image: Fra Angelico