Lectionary Commentaries for February 23, 2020
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9

Eric Barreto

Three weeks on the Sermon on the Mount led us to yet another mountain, this time the Mount of Transfiguration.

As I noted a few weeks back, the mountain is not just a vivid location for this scene but also one imbued with theological significance. Like Moses at Mt. Sinai, Matthew’s Jesus will hear God’s voice directing the prophet and the people alike. Jesus and his disciples will bear witness to the prophetic embodiment of Israelite tradition in Moses and Elijah and hear the voice of God affirming Jesus’ vocation. This dazzling scene is a powerful high point of the Gospel narrative but also one that Christians today may need some help comprehending.

After all, such moments of luminous encounter with God are not all that common. Moreover, the significance of the appearance of Moses and Elijah require some theological explanation. In the end, what does the transfiguration have to do with a walk of faith today? Your preaching can help us make these connections, especially to an emotional, experiential aspects of our faith.

Our text begins with a chronological marker indicating that the transfiguration follows by six days Peter’s dramatic confession and immediate misapprehension of the character of Jesus’ identity and ministry. Peter inherits “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:19) but also gets called “Satan” when he seeks to turn Jesus away from the path leading to the cross (verse 23). Matthew 16 then closes with a promise; judgement is coming surely and, importantly, quickly (verses 27-28).

Thus, the transfiguration scene must be read in light of Peter’s insight and failure but also Jesus’ unflinching promise. In short, glory and the cross mix. Suffering and promises of judgment are intertwined. The cross and the glory of God are not at odds.

Six days hence, these promised, transformative realities are confirmed in dramatic fashion. Jesus and three disciples climb “a high mountain,” and there in these heights Jesus is “transfigured before them.” He is numinous and brilliant. His face shines as do his clothes. Jesus radiates light.

That would be enough to stun the disciples and perhaps even Jesus, but then Moses and Elijah also stroll into the scene and start a friendly chat with Jesus. We do not learn immediately how Jesus responds to these events.

Yet Peter’s reaction is recorded even as its precise significance might elude us. Peter offers to “make three dwellings here.” I have heard sermons critiquing Peter for wanting to contain this moment, keep it under a dwelling place to protect it from encroachments. Perhaps his misapprehension of Jesus’ mission in Matthew 16 is still driving his reaction.

But there are other possibilities too. Perhaps Peter is reacting with awe and a deeper understanding of the scene than we tend to assume. What if the offer of dwellings is an act of hospitality for these three servants of God? What if Peter’s reaction is not to be critiqued but understood?

After all, because of the unusual departures of both Moses and Elijah in the Hebrew Scriptures, both played an outsized role in eschatological expectations among many Jews in the first century. While we learn of Moses’ death in the closing verses of Deuteronomy, we also learn that “no one knows his burial place to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6).

But first, God shows Moses “the whole land” (Deuteronomy 34:1), the promise made to Israel but a land upon which Moses will not tread. Moses, Deuteronomy 34:5 reports, “died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command.” Even in death, Moses is obedient to God’s call. We also learn that even at the age of 120, Moses’ body was not approaching decline; Moses dies because the Lord says it is time.

Later tradition will even note that Moses is buried by God’s own hands, thus explaining why no one knows where he is buried, for no human was there to bear witness to God’s final gift to this mighty servant.1 The very last verses of Deuteronomy laud Moses as an unparalleled prophet, a liberator of his own people though the Lord. Thus, when Moses appears on the mount of transfiguration, he embodies the heights and possibilities of the Israelite prophetic tradition. For Matthew, Moses’ presence affirms the many ways the Gospel of Matthew has sought to align Jesus and Moses.

Elijah’s death is similarly evocative to the theological imagination of first century Judaism. After sharing the spirit of prophecy with Elisha, “… a chariot of fire and horses of fires separated the two of them, and Elijah ascend in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces” (2 Kings 2:11-12; see also Sirach 48:12 and 1 Maccabees 2:58). This dramatic, powerful scene feeds a prophetic hope of Elijah’s return since he did not die in a typical way. Elijah’s return is promised in Malachi 4:5, an expectation Matthew himself alludes to in Matthew 11:14 and Matthew 16:14.

And so, the Transfiguration emerges from a stream of tradition expecting the return of the great prophets Moses and Elijah as harbingers of a divine revolution. Their presence marks Jesus as their heir, their collaborator in this holy work.

And if the presence of Moses and Elijah is insufficient proof of Jesus’ call, then God’s voice settles the matter entirely in verse 5. The voice moves the disciples to fear. Peter, at least, moves from a gesture of hospitality to a holy fear in the presence of the very voice of God.

But Jesus touches them (a detail not to be missed as we see here an embodiment of Jesus’ compassionate, healing, and courage-inducing touch) and asks them not to fear, showing them a scene now more ordinary than numinous. The world has gone back to what it was. No prophets of old. No audible divine voice. No light emanating from Jesus’ face. The world has gone back to what it was. But the disciples cannot return to the same world as they descend from this mount. They have been changed.

But how? How can we help describe this scene of a transformative encounter with the divine? Perhaps we join Elisha exclaiming phrases of awe that don’t quite form sentences. Perhaps we join Peter wanting to host these prophets of old, prophets who have loved a people and yet lost so much. Perhaps we stand in simple silence wondering what this all means.

In the end, it may be best to draw our churches not to a moment of full comprehension of all the theological allusions to be found in this text but to an experience, a feeling. What would it be like to encounter the fullness of God’s promises, not just in words but in the very presence of God’s prophets and God’s unmistakable voice?


  1. See James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A Guide to the Bible As It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 860-1.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18

Alphonetta Wines

Like a real estate agent who knows that location, location, location is the key to a successful business enterprise, in matters of faith, relationship, relationship, relationship is of utmost importance.

Jesus affirmed this in Matthew 22.

When asked about the greatest commandment, he said:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37b-40).

If good communication is the key to good relationships, what might that look like in the divine/human relationship? How might God connect with human beings, beings whose first response to God is to retreat in fear, making communication and relationship with God impossible?

In the New Testament, God is incarnate, human and divine, in Jesus. In the gospels, Jesus, in his humanity, operates as a consistent presence who communicates through ordinary language. In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, however, God appears infrequently, but in many forms, each appropriate for its context. Some manifestations are visible, others are invisible. While these appearances can be thought of as spiritual, biblical writers seem to want their readers to think not only spiritually, but to think of physical manifestations as well.

In the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, God appears: to the man and the woman in the Garden of Eden, at the Tower of Babel, to Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Balaam, Joshua, Deborah, Gideon, Manoah and his wife, Samuel, Elijah, Solomon, Shadrack, Meshack, Abednego, Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and to Moses. Non-physical examples include the voice that called Samuel to be a prophet and God’s promised blessing to Solomon in a dream for choosing wisdom rather than riches when he was appointed to lead Israel. Physical manifestations include Balaam’s encounter with the angel of the Lord with a drawn sword in his hand.

The Bible records more theophanies connected to Moses than any other character. These include God’s appearance as a cloud engulfing Moses on Mt. Sinai and as a fire by people at the foot of the mountain. Later in the Exodus story, God will use this same manifestation, a cloud by day and fire by night, during Israel’s journey to the Promised Land.

Here in this passage, God prepares Moses to receive the guidelines, including the Ten Commandments, that will order Israel’s life as a newly formed nation. Readers accustomed to the nonstop pace of contemporary living are likely to miss the significance of how long this process takes.

It took six days of just being in the presence of God to get Moses ready for this life changing encounter. While the Bush That Did Not Burn prepared Moses to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, apparently, he needed something more, a deeper relationship with God to prepare him to receive the vision of how different the new nation would be. Six days of being alone in the presence of God was just the beginning. It took that long to prepare Moses to be taught by God so he could teach Israel how to be in relationship with God and with one another.  

God did the work of creation in six days. Six days were the prelude, laid the groundwork for all that would follow. God rests on the seventh day signalling a time of completion, making room for creation to fulfill its purpose. For Moses, the seventh day marked a new beginning. Neither he nor Israel would ever be the same again.

Forty days and nights can seem like a mighty long time. Yet, that was how long it took for God to teach Moses the design for the new nation.1 This was to be a nation of good healthy relationships between God and humanity, and among human beings. Starting with the Ten Commandments, people needed to understand that God and everyone was due respect. Israel would be a nation that worshiped One God, not many. Moreover, God is holy and not to be worshiped any kind of way—no graven images, no taking God’s name in vain. 

This was to be a community where the sabbath day was kept, giving everybody a break from the stress and activity of everyday life. These were to be healthy relationships where neighbors’ lives, including family members, household members, and belongings were to be treated with kindness. There would be no false witness against one’s neighbor. This way of life was so different than anything on earth, it took time to explain to Moses what God had in mind.

The goal of this new community was to embody what Jesus would articulate many centuries later when he spoke love of God, neighbor, and self.  It is a reminder that it’s not enough just to show up. We need to be present, and tuned in to God, in the church, in the community, in every aspect of our daily lives. Everyone would have to do their part.

This passage has a lot to teach about being in the presence of God. In today’s fast-paced world, it is often hard for people to spend even five minutes quietly alone before God. However, if one learns to slow down, be quiet, and be patient in the presence of God, if one tarries, God will show up.

Moses’s experience with God on Mt. Sinai is a reminder that the things of God take time. In the words of a gospel song:

You can’t hurry God (No no) You just have to wait
Trust and give him time. No matter how long it takes
He’s a God you can’t hurry You don’t have to worry
He may not come when you want him
But he’s right on time Right on time

As with the people at the base of the mountain, just because we don’t see anything doesn’t mean that God is not working on our behalf. Learning to trust God and wait on God’s timing is as important today as it was for Moses and the Israelites.


  1. Conversation with Rev. Carol Grant Gibson, February 3, 2020.


Commentary on Psalm 2

Cameron B.R. Howard

Psalm 2 does little to contradict the common stereotype that “the God of the Old Testament” is a deity overflowing with wrath.1

The poem uses a variety of synonyms to refer to God’s anger, wrath, or fury (verses 5, 12). It employs a violent image of God’s chosen king using an iron rod to break the nations, which then shatter into bits like an ordinary piece of pottery (verse 9). The psalmist even offers a glimpse of God seated in the heavens, laughing scornfully and inspiring terror in the world’s rulers below (verses 4-5).

Yet, the psalmist does not present God’s rage as unprovoked. The psalm begins with a rhetorical question that invites the audience’s incredulity. Why must the nations continue to conspire against the Lord and against the Lord’s anointed one, the Israelite king? How could the nations — even all nations joined as one force — imagine they could overpower the sovereign God of Israel and the earthly ruler whom he has appointed? It is this hubris that inspires mockery by God and by us, the readers, drawn in by the psalmist’s rhetoric. God scoffs at the efforts of the most powerful leaders on earth; their conspiracies are but a joke to God. Their plans are thwarted before they are even formulated.

The behavior of the nations — then and now — is terror and violence. Their fury incites God’s fury. In response to their conspiracies, their plots, their war plans, God unleashes wrath. Swirling anger is not, however, the only experience of God articulated in the psalm. The anointed one, the king, testifies to God’s claim on his life: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you'” (verse 7). In addition to evoking a familial tenderness that stands in stark contrast to the international antagonism prominent in the psalm, this claim of parentage is also a legal claim. As Yahweh’s son, the king is Yahweh’s legal heir. The inheritance is no small parcel of land, but rather “the nations,” even to the “ends of the earth” (verse 8).

Psalm 2 draws connections between Israelite kingship and God’s cosmic kingship and, therefore, is classified as a royal psalm. As William Brown explains, royal psalms create “an indissoluble link between King and king. […] God’s sovereign rule is made manifest through the earthly king (2:7-12).”2 That link is drawn in this psalm through the parental metaphor. Thus, as God’s heir, the king becomes the one who wields the iron rod that destroys the conspiratorial nations. The Israelite king is the instrument of God’s power in the world.

At verse 10, the psalmist shifts his address to the very kings and rulers he has mocked at the beginning of the poem. Though they have provoked God’s wrath, anger need not be the nations’ only experience of God. They have the opportunity to orient their posture away from the service of their own power and toward the service of Yahweh (verses 11-12a). Without that change in orientation, God’s anger inevitably will flare, and the nations will indeed perish.

The last line of Psalm 2, “Happy are all who take refuge in him,” echoes the initial words of Psalm 1, “Happy are those….” This repetition brackets Psalms 1 and 2 together, and the unit serves to introduce the book of Psalms as a whole. However, the line also provides a fitting conclusion to Psalm 2 on its own. The last image of God provided by the psalm is not an angry God prepared to destroy the nations, but rather God as refuge, a place of quiet and safety in the midst of the world’s raging. The description here resonates with Psalm 46, where the language of God as refuge is woven throughout that psalm. Perhaps most evocative of Psalm 2 is Psalm 46:6-7: “The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice; the earth melts. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” The violence of the world, brought on by the hubris of the nations, will continue. Nonetheless, God provides protection from the uproar that rages in the earth. Even as God wreaks havoc on those who oppose him, God provides a refuge for those who serve him.

The references in Psalm 2 to God’s “anointed one” (Hebrew mashiah, “messiah”) refer quite concretely to the earthly Davidic monarch ruling over Israel. The New Testament later adopts this same language of God’s anointed one, or messiah, to describe Jesus. The language of Jesus as Son of God, also a favorite term in the New Testament, similarly echoes the parental metaphor used of Yahweh and the Davidic king in this psalm. At the Transfiguration of Jesus, read from Matthew 17:1-9 with this week’s lectionary, the voice from the cloud invokes this same parent-child relationship, declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Matthew 16:5). Thus it is clear that the “God of the Old Testament” and the images used to describe God there — be they furious and wrathful or tender and parental — persist in the New Testament as well. Indeed, the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament are one and the same. The powers of this world continue in their conspiratorial fervor, while God — the one God, sovereign over the earth — remains our refuge.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 6, 2011.
  2. William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 188.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21

Edward Pillar

The transfiguration of the Lord Jesus as recorded here in 2 Peter is a message to us about the content and character of the coming king and his kingdom.

The writer of this letter, along with his sisters and brothers in Christ, is clearly facing opposition to the message that he has sought to faithfully proclaim. At the heart of the opposition are the objections to either the entirety or to aspects of the message about the return (parousia) of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It may well be the key to this opposition is not simply the timing of this turn (2 Peter 3:4), but also the preached character of the king and his kingdom. Sometimes we see that people would prefer Jesus to be some kind of tyrant king, rather than the king revealed in the transfiguration—a king of good, loving, and generous character.

We cannot be entirely sure about the precise content of the objections faced by the preachers and teachers, but within the whole context of 2 Peter we note that there seems to be a relationship between the parousia of Jesus rooted in the prophetic words we read in the Old Testament (2 Peter 1:19; 3:2) and an emphasis upon living lives of good character (2 Peter 1:5-7; 3:11).

What makes most sense here is that the Writer is contrasting the gospel message with the myths perpetrated by the “false prophets” (2 Peter 2:1). Interestingly, we know that in the mid-first century there was skepticism put about by the Epicureans about what they called the myths of the Christians. This was when the Epicureans considered that the lives of the Christians didn’t seem to reflect the Epicureans interpretation of the Christians’ teaching.

Moreover, the Epicureans were also skeptical of the existential threat perpetrated by messages about punishment in the afterlife. The Transfiguration communicates a very different idea about the life and character of the kingdom of God—one based not on fear, judgement, and threat, but on love, mercy, justice, and goodness.

The writer is adamant that his testimony is true and writes about his eyewitness (and ear-witness) account of what we know as the transfiguration.

Jesus: enthroned by God

The transfiguration of the Lord Jesus Christ confirms that Jesus has been or is being enthroned by God. The Writer speaks of being an eyewitness to his “majesty”—a term often used to designate divine splendor. We also know that the Emperor Gaius Caligula liked to apply this term to himself—he was the only one of the early Roman emperors who claimed divinity for himself during his lifetime.

At the point of writing the author and his readers are very familiar with the news of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, which confirmed his enthronement over all other kings—including the Roman emperor. We are being reminded that Jesus—enthroned by God—is superior to the highest earthly ruler. The values and ethos of the kingdom of Jesus subvert the values of the dominant culture of the day.

What then follows is a clear articulation of the character both of the King and his kingdom.

Jesus: The Son of the Father

The writer seems to be at pains to stress that not only did he witness the transfiguration of Jesus with his eyes, but he also heard the words of God the Father. This is conveyed twice here. First, that Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father, and second, when the voice speaks, “this is my Son…” No doubt we will be reminded here of the words spoken over Jesus at his baptism, a clear anticipation of his revealing as King.

We therefore understand that the identity of Jesus as King is founded upon this deep, strong, and wonderful relationship with God as Father. Jesus is not an isolated, autonomous King, but a King in a familial relationship.

We should also note therefore that the message of the transfiguration remind us that the kingdom of King Jesus has family relationship at its heart. The King relates to the citizens of the kingdom as Lord, but also as brother; the citizens relate to one another as sisters and brother; and maybe we also want to suggest that the citizens of the kingdom of Jesus relate to those outside the kingdom with the spirit of this same family kindness, love, and welcome.

Jesus: The King who is loved

Jesus, the transfigured One, is also the one who is loved, “my Beloved.” Love is massively transformative. The life, ministry, and teaching of Jesus is founded upon and arises from the sure foundation of Love. Jesus is faithful to the call to love God and to love neighbor, even to the extent that he loves and forgives at the cross. The power of the resurrection is the power of love to create life.

The life of the Kingdom of Jesus is also founded upon this love. Love that forgives, welcomes, is kind, gentle, merciful, and good. We can note the way in which the Writer calls his readers to live lives of good character—see 2 Peter 1:5-7, and then explicitly in 3:11-12 relates their good character to the revelation of “the day of God.” The call upon the disciples is that even as they wait for the revelation of King Jesus their lives should reflect the character of both the King and his kingdom.

The transfiguration, which in this passage is used as prima facie evidence of the content and character of the coming kingdom, reminds us that love is at the heart of this kingdom.

Jesus: the King faithful to his mission

God speaks of Jesus at his transfiguration as the one, “with whom I am well pleased.” But from what does this pleasure arise? Why is God pleased with Jesus, and why then might God be pleased with the disciples of Jesus?

First, it is the pleasure of the Father for his Son. A pleasure that is innate in the relationship, needing no explanation. As this is true for Jesus, so it is also true for the followers of Jesus. God delights in his daughters and sons simply because they are his daughters and sons.

Second, it is the pleasure of the Father as his Son is faithful to his own identity. The event of the transfiguration suggests that the identity of Jesus is found within this loving relationship with his Father. The life, purpose, and mission and Jesus thus is to be true to his identity—to love even as he is Himself loved.

This then is the founding identity of all citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus—to know that they are loved. And this is also the mission and purpose of the kingdom in which they live—to love as they are loved. This is why the writer highlights the character of the readers in 2 Peter 1:5-7—this is the very essence of the kingdom.

The authentic, confirming witness of the prophets

It is important then to note that the writer, having already emphasized the authenticity of his evidence as eye- (and ear-) witness to the event of the transfiguration, now makes clear that his witness statement about the content and character of the King and his Kingdom is fully in line with all that the prophets had spoken about. This double witness is commended to the readers in order to encourage them and create a light of hope within them even as they live in an era where the culture and society promotes and rewards injustice, disregard of God, and dismissal of loving kindness.