Lectionary Commentaries for February 19, 2023
Transfiguration of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9

Ronald J. Allen

I have heard many sermons on the transfiguration, many of which contain variations on a disturbing line: “This story is outside our contemporary experience. I do not know what to make of it.” True, the transfiguration is outside our experience. But preachers who say, “I do not know what to make of it” only reveal that they have not done their exegetical homework. We can understand how the story functions in the world of the First Gospel and can make connections to today.

With respect to the historical setting, Matthew likely wrote around 80 CE, when the church experienced conflict both without and within. With respect to conflict beyond the congregation, many scholars believe that Matthew’s church (itself a Pharisaic synagogue whose members believed that Jesus was God’s eschatological rabbi bringing about the transition from the broken present age to the Realm of God, the new world) was in conflict with other Pharisaic synagogues who did not share that belief. With respect to conflict within the synagogue, members of the community were evidently in tension regarding the degree to which the church should require the growing body of gentile converts to adopt Jewish practices. There was also tension regarding how to relate to the Roman Empire. As an old hymn says, there were “fightings and fears, within, without.”1

With respect to the narrative setting, Matthew 1:1 through 16:20 invites the reader into the journey towards the Realm of God, the eschatological world. In 16:21-28, Matthew depicts Jesus speaking in the mode of vaticinium ex eventu, prophecy after the fact: Jesus foretells events, many of which had already occurred by the time Matthew wrote, namely that Jesus would suffer as part of the movement towards the Realm, and that the disciples would suffer similarly, as the powers of the old age would do everything possible to resist the Realm. Matthew wants the community to interpret their struggles beyond and within the congregation as suffering on behalf of the Realm.

Matthew writes the First Gospel, in part, because some in the congregation are losing confidence in the coming of the Realm. Some are drifting away. Matthew shapes the narrative of the first gospel to encourage them to remain faithful even in the midst of the fractiousness of their moment in history. 

In this context, Matthew offers the story of the transfiguration as a word of assurance. Although the gospel writer portrays only three people present—Peter, James and John, the executive committee of the twelve, so to speak—Matthew intends its message for the whole community.

The key to the meaning of the event is the transfiguration itself. God reveals Jesus to the three disciples and to the readers of the gospel in the body Jesus will have when God resurrects him. For Matthew the power of the resurrected Jesus continues to operate in the world but the final and full coming of the Realm will not occur until Jesus returns in his resurrection body. At the transfiguration, God gives the Matthean church a vision of the future: Jesus as he will be on the day God resurrects him and as he will be when he returns to complete the work of replacing the old world with the new. 

The resurrection is the definitive sign that the path of transformation towards the new age is already underway. Matthew wants the church to believe that participation in the Realm is worth suffering through the fractiousness they are experiencing with the synagogue down the street and within their own community. Matthew reinforces this theme through the words, “Listen to him,” that is, “Pay attention to what Jesus has just told you in Matthew 16:21-28. Jesus was faithful even when rejected, and God resurrected him and will return him. If you endure, God will be similarly faithful to you. You will be resurrected and will be part of the new world.”

The presence of Moses and Elijah underscores a simple but important point. From Matthew’s perspective, the work of God through Jesus extends the work of God in Israel into the eschatological frame of reference. With the coming of the Realm, God will make good on the promises that God has made, to make blessing possible for the whole human family, including gentiles.

Congregations and Christians today are divided with regard to whether they expect a singular apocalyptic transformation from the old age to the new. But across this spectrum, many congregations associated with the historic denominations are faltering in their witness to the Realm and need to hear Matthew’s encouragement to be faithful, even when in conflict with other congregations, with members within their own community, and with forces in the larger culture. The preacher might point to signs in the church and the world today that are comparable to the transfiguration—individual actions, movements, and events that embody the values and practices of the Realm. 

When preaching from the lectionary, of course, the preacher does not simply engage in a conversation with the text, but does so in light of the place of the text in the lectionary. In the lectionary, the transfiguration has a transitional function. The Advent, Christmas and Epiphany Day texts point to Jesus as God’s agent in the apocalyptic transformation of the world from the old age to the new. The texts on the Sundays after Epiphany emphasize Jesus’ teaching about the nature of the Realm and how to live in its light. The story of the transfiguration climaxes the season after Epiphany Day by demonstrating the truth of the claims of Advent, Christmas and Easter: Jesus is indeed the agent of the Realm, and aspects of the future world are already present. Lent, a season of theological reflection, begins on Ash Wednesday after the transfiguration. The transfiguration offers a vision of the future to sustain the congregation through the sober days of Lent. 

The preacher might use the picture of Jesus in transfiguration as a way of speaking not only about Jesus, but also about the church in a season of struggle within the church and with the  culture. Our encounter with Jesus should leave the church a transfigured community—present in the old age but shining with the light of the new. 


  1. Charlotte Elliot, “Just As I Am Without One Plea.” Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), 339.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 24:12-18

Callie Plunket-Brewton

“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.” (Exodus 24:17-18a) The setting of this story is spectacular. The sight of a mountain whose highest point is covered by a cloud is beautiful; it is a view featured in numerous paintings and photographs. While it is impossible to say exactly what so many people find moving about a cloud cropped mountain, it is likely that many people would describe such a vista as majestic or awe-inspiring.

Some might also say that the size of the mountain, whose top reaches into the upper atmosphere is a reminder of our own relative insignificance. The majesty of Mount Sinai in the narrative of Exodus 24 is intensified by the fact that the cloud that settled upon the mountain was no ordinary cloud but enshrouded the very presence of God, whose appearance, the text reads, “was like a devouring fire.”

The significance of all of this grandeur would not have been lost on the ancient Near Eastern audience. Mountains are the site of divine revelation throughout the ancient world, even in cultures as far-flung as Greece and Japan, a mountain is a common location for a theophany. In the case of Exodus 24:12-18, not only is the divine made visible on the mountain that one associates with the very foundation of the people of Israel as God’s people, Mount Sinai, but the story that precedes this one details a covenant meal shared by the leaders of the people of Israel and their God.

Within the story of the sacred meal, one finds another vivid description of God’s glory: “[T]hey saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” Interestingly, in spite of the fact that the story notes that the people saw God, it does not describe God’s physical presence but the brightness of the ground on which God was revealed to them, and even this description of the “pavement” is a little vague, using words, such as “something like” and the simile “like the very heaven” to describe it.

God’s glory is beyond the capacity of the human being to describe, much less comprehend, and there is something absolutely reassuring about that power being revealed in the context of a covenant-making ceremonial meal. God’s power is on the side of the people of Israel, supporting their leaders, and establishing them as a people.

To say that God’s power is on their side is not to say that the people are entirely safe from that power being directed against them, however. And so Exodus 25-31, which seems to be the content of God’s revelation to Moses in the midst of the cloud, provides a verbal blueprint for the creation of the tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant as well as the main practices associated with the worship of Yahweh. The emphasis in these chapters falls on the necessity of maintaining the holiness of the site of the tabernacle and the cultic activity that takes place within it as well as the holiness of the people themselves.

The heart of Exodus 25-31 contains detailed descriptions of the sacrifices that are to be offered at the tabernacle along with the divine assertion: “I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the LORD their God” (29:45). The key is the word “dwell.” In Exodus 24:16, the text reads, “Then the glory of the Lord dwelled on Mount Sinai.”

The NRSV translates the verb in this sentence as “settle,” which makes for smoother English, but the verb there is actually the same Hebrew verb one finds in 29:45, which is translated as “dwell.” “Dwell” is also the same root one finds in the Hebrew name for the tabernacle. While “tabernacle” in another context might simply refer to one’s dwelling place, in Exodus this simple term takes on new meaning because of the identity of the one who will dwell there. It is no small matter for a god as terrifying and powerful as Yahweh to decide to dwell in the midst of a people and to enter into a covenant with them. All of the signs of God’s power in chapter 24 make this point abundantly clear.

And yet there is something altogether reassuring about God’s promise and provisions to dwell with the people. While a covenant with God is not something to be entered into lightly, it is the case that God invites and welcomes the people into a relationship. Indeed, Exodus 24:12-18 with its awe-inspiring view of the presence of God and Moses’ bold willingness to walk into that cloud of devouring fire suggests that a relationship with God, while not exactly comfortable, is exhilarating. In preaching a text like this one, it is important to balance the wonder and the majesty of God’s presence with God’s promise to be with and for the people of Israel. As the narrative of exodus continues through the Pentateuch, one sees just how tenacious and faithful God is to this promise.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 6, 2011.


Commentary on Psalm 2

Joel LeMon

Psalm 2 makes a striking claim: in the face of terrifying threats, God creates and preserves order through God’s anointed one, a righteous messiah.1

The psalm conveys this central theme through a complex polyphonic structure. In fact, the text of Psalm 2 contains no less than three discrete voices: the voice of God, the voice of the rulers of the earth, and the voice of God’s anointed king, who in turn quotes God and speaks directly to all the other rulers of the earth. To understand the discursive nature of the psalm, one must attend carefully to its constituent parts.

The first section (verses 1-3) describes a world in which God has established order through a divinely sponsored king. However, the entire world is currently in an uproar, with the kings of the earth plotting rebellion against God’s rule. By employing the terms “nations” (goyim) and “people” (ummim) in verse 1, the psalm suggests, in fact, that everyone seeks to overthrow God’s order.

The world is rebelling not simply against God, but against God’s anointed one (verse 2b), God’s meshiach—a Hebrew word that comes to us in anglicized form as messiah; its Greek translation christos is preserved in English as Christ. To be anointed, to have costly oil poured over one’s head, signified a change in status. An anointed one was aligned with God in a powerful way in order to perform a special prophetic, priestly, or kingly function. Given that God’s power resided uniquely with the anointed one, it should be no surprise that the fury of the nations is directed at the king as well.

One might expect this sort of universal upheaval to worry God and God’s anointed. Such is not the case, however. The second section of the psalm (verses 4–6) portrays God’s response, and the third section gives the king’s response (verse 7–12) to the chaotic world.

From God’s throne high above in heaven, God laughs then utters a statement of his own. There is one man in one place (“my king on Zion” verse 6) who represents God and confronts the strife of the entire world.

Then this king speaks (verses 7). His words are exactly what one would expect from an ancient Near Eastern monarch. He begins by establishing his authorization to rule by quoting God directly in verses 7–9. The king is the divine son, with all the attending rights and privileges.

Modern Christians typically have a restricted view of what it means to be God’s son, with the term applying solely to Jesus Christ. However, in the ancient world, it was quite common for a king to claim to be the son of God or the son of a particular god. Since a king’s power over his people was absolute, a king sought the highest possible endorsement for his rule. Divine sonship provided just that.

So, for the king in Zion (i.e., Jerusalem) to claim to be Yahweh’s son was completely conventional within its time. In fact, it is likely that every king in Jerusalem made the same claim. Because God says “today I have begotten you,” (verse 7) many interpreters suppose that this psalm originated as a ritual of royal installation, perhaps even a yearly ritual of re-installation for the king in Jerusalem.

It is also completely conventional for an ancient Near Eastern king to describe his military prowess in expansive, even wildly hyperbolic terms. Thus the description of breaking and dashing the enemy to pieces in verse 9 is actually somewhat muted given that the violence in this text is, in fact, potential violence. The king can accomplish this utter domination of the surrounding nations (goyim) if he were to ask God for the victory.

At this point, the psalm manifests some internal tensions about the actual state of the world. Verses 1-3 suggest that the world is already completely under the control of God and God’s anointed. Verses 8-9 imply rather that the world is potentially under the king’s control, though that domination is not currently realized.

In fact, there was never a time in the history of Jerusalem when its king governed a wide ranging empire. The biblical accounts of the reigns of David and Solomon are the closest to affirming the idealized picture of vast geopolitical might. But even in that time, Jerusalem’s reach did not stretch very far into the larger Near East.

Jerusalem certainly never enjoyed anything remotely close to the power of the great empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia. In fact, for most of its history, the kings in Jerusalem were only small players on the larger world scene, usually paying tribute to more powerful rulers. It was the kings in Jerusalem who were more often “kissing the feet” (verse 12) of foreign kings, a sign of submission before a powerful suzerain. The psalm concludes, however, by imagining the real historical situation completely in reverse, with the powerful kings of the earth doing obeisance before Yahweh.

Psalm 2 provides critical background for understanding both what it means and what it meant to recognize Jesus as messiah (i.e., the Christ) and Lord. In Matthew 17:1-9, the gospel reading for this Sunday of the Transfiguration of our Lord, the disciples catch a glimpse of the glory and power of the Jesus. Jesus’ special status as king and divine son are suddenly revealed, but only for a moment and only to select few. Given the expectations that attended the office of kingship, Jesus’ true identity as messiah would surely be misinterpreted.

Indeed, throughout the New Testament, the kingship of the Christ defies expectation. Jesus’ power outstrips that of any king, ancient or modern. However it comes not through military might but through emptying himself of power—through suffering, humiliation, despair, even the death of criminal.

When we read Psalm 2 on this particular Sunday, we hear its theme first articulated in its ancient Judean context and then reinterpreted in the New Testament context, in light of the reign of Christ.

In our own time, the message resonates as well. We feel the psalm’s fundamental tension as to whether the world is actually under God’s ultimate control (verses 1-3) or whether God’s order has yet to be realized fully (verses 10-11). Yet we also hear God’s clear response to the chaos and strife that fill the earth. God’s word to the word comes through one man, the anointed king, God’s son: “Blessed are all of those who take refuge in him” (verse 11).


  1. Commentary first published on this site on March 2, 2014.

Second Reading

Commentary on 2 Peter 1:16-21

Joel B. Green

The primary question 2 Peter wants to address appears later in the letter: “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4). “His” refers, of course, to Jesus, whom the letter identifies as Christ, Savior, and Lord. And “coming” refers to Jesus’ end-time, or eschatological, coming. The false teaching that concerns our author centers on the denial of the eschatological return of Jesus. Intertwined with this tenet of the faith is the expectation that Jesus’ coming places on life in the present. If eschatology and ethics are woven together, then denying Jesus’ future coming pulls the rug out from under the call to faithful living in the present. If there is no future judgment, then why not always be “on the lookout for opportunities to sin” (2 Peter 2:14 Common English Bible)? In short, having rejected the church’s eschatological expectation and its linked promise of divine judgment, these false teachers relaxed their ethical mores: “They have left the straight road and have gone astray” (2:15).

Against this false teaching, 2 Peter sketches a series of counterarguments, the first two of which we read in today’s reading:

  • The author supports the apostolic message by recalling the apostles’ firsthand testimony to the transfiguration of Jesus, demonstrating Jesus’ appointment by God to the future role of eschatological ruler and judge (2 Peter 1:16-18).
  • The author grounds the apostolic message in the Scriptures, claiming that in them, “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (1:21), and insists that their meaning should not be renegotiated according to personal whim (1:19-21).

Jesus’ transfiguration

Contemporary western folk are much more likely than the ancients to dismiss the transfiguration story as legendary, or perhaps, to attempt to explain it with reference to natural phenomena (say, a lightning strike illuminated Jesus’ face). Recent study of visionary experiences underscores the wisdom of taking more seriously reports of this nature, of setting aside modern prejudice against the plausibility of such experiences. Accordingly, the pivotal question is no longer one of veracityDid it happen?but of significance: What does it mean? 

Matthew, Mark, and Luke relate an event in which Jesus ascends a mountain with three followers, Jesus is transformed in their presence, Moses and Elijah appear, Peter proposes to construct three tents, and the divine voice speaks of Jesus’ identity (Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36). In different ways, each prioritizes Jesus’ identity by displaying in the present, if only for a moment, a portrait of Jesus’ future glory.

What role does the transfiguration play for 2 Peter? It validates the promise of Jesus’ future coming.

For 2 Peter, the apostolic message is not like those “cleverly devised myths” (1:16) people used to tell about the old Greek and Roman gods. Instead, their message is based on what the apostles had seen (Jesus’ majesty) and heard (God’s affirmation of Jesus). Note how the report concerning Jesus’ transfiguration is bookended with emphases on first hand testimony: we saw, we heard (1:16b, 18).

Speaking of Jesus’ status, the author piles word upon words: “majesty,” “honor,” “glory”and so identifies Jesus with God, “the Majestic Glory” (1:16-17). To this the author adds affirmations from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1: “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (1:17). The result is threefold: 

  1. God appointed Jesus as messianic king, God’s coregent, so Jesus has divine responsibility as ruler and judge.
  2. Jesus’ majestic coregency with God does not rest on human claims or legends, but on God’s own voice.
  3. Therefore, the apostolic message of the coming, end-time judgment is not a fable but derives from God’s own action and declaration.

Prophetic Scripture

Since it was God who spoke of Jesus’ identity and status at the transfiguration, and since in doing so God spoke in the words of Israel’s Scriptures, it follows naturally that 2 Peter turns now to the reliability of those Scriptures.

Our author may have in mind particular scriptural texts that urge the belief that the long-awaited one must come to set the world right. This is possible, but the words “prophetic message,” “prophecy of scripture,” and “prophecy” (1:19-21) probably refer more widely to the whole of Israel’s Scriptures, what Christians call the Old Testament. In the post-resurrection scene with the disciples in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus strikes a similar note: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with youthat everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). And Paul speaks of what happened with Christ “in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Which ones? All of them!

Jesus’ transfiguration thus serves, first, to interpret the Scriptures. We read this event in light of Scripture and we read Scripture in light of this event. Jesus’ transfiguration serves, second, as testimony to the dependability of the Scriptures. Not surprisingly, both the event of Jesus’ transfiguration and the Scriptures have their source in God.

Like the apostolic witness to Jesus’ transfiguration, the Scriptures derive their credibility not from human invention but from God’s action. 2 Peter will press further as he counters these false teachers, but we already see how the author bolsters the apostolic message that Jesus will indeed come as ruler and judge. And the promise of future judgment casts its shadow backwards, calling for holy, godly lives in the present.


1. For example, Anne L. C. Runehow, Sacred or Neural? The Potential of Neuroscience to Explain Religious Experience, Religion, Theologie und Naturwissenschaft 9 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007).

 2. For example, Numbers 24:17; Psalm 2:8; Daniel 7:13-14.