Commentary on Matthew 16:24—17:8
Truth be told, I have always dreaded preaching on the Transfiguration.
The story of the disciples seeing Jesus in dazzling glory on a mountain top seems so far removed from everyday life that it is hard to know how to connect it with the lives of hearers. The Narrative Lectionary helps the preacher by connecting this story with what immediately precedes it — the pivotal conversation between Jesus and his disciples about his identity and mission and what it means to follow him.
Peter was right on the mark when he confessed to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), yet he did not have a clue about what the mission of the Messiah entailed. When Jesus began to talk about his impending rejection, suffering, and death, Peter began to rebuke him: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” This in turn earned Peter a sharp rebuke from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Matthew 16:22-23).
It is here that the Narrative Lectionary picks up the story, as Jesus continues to teach his disciples, telling them that whoever wants to follow him must deny themselves and take up their cross. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
Matthew doesn’t tell us how the disciples responded to Jesus’ words. He simply tells us that six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and John with him up a high mountain, where he was transfigured before them. For one shining moment the disciples were granted a foretaste of Jesus’ coming glory. “His face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white,” and the great prophets Moses and Elijah appeared, speaking with Jesus (Matthew 17:2-3).
Once again Peter is quick to speak: “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” (Matthew 17:4). While the text does not tell us what motivated Peter’s response, I cannot help but think that Peter wanted to hold onto this moment of glory and to stop Jesus’ downward journey toward suffering and death.
But Peter is interrupted by the heavenly voice from a bright cloud, echoing the voice at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). Peter and James and John fall to the ground, overcome by fear. Jesus approaches and touches them saying, “Get up (literally, ‘be raised’), and do not be afraid” (Matthew 17:7). When the disciples look up, they see Jesus alone, presumably no longer in dazzling glory, but the very human Jesus they have always known.
This Jesus will insist on going down the mountain, where he will walk right into a crowd of need and brokenness and heal a suffering boy (Matthew 17:14-21). What is more, he will continue to talk about his impending suffering and death, much to the distress of his disciples (Matthew 17:22-23; 20:17-19). He will continue to tell his disciples what lies ahead in Jerusalem — how he will be mocked and flogged and crucified. He will continue to tell them that the way of discipleship is one of humility, servant hood, and self-denial.
Surely now after this experience of seeing Jesus in his glory and hearing the voice from heaven, the disciples will pay attention to what Jesus is telling them, right? Not exactly. In the scenes that follow, we see that the disciples are preoccupied with figuring out who is the greatest, and who will get the seats of honor in Jesus’ kingdom. In spite of all that they have seen and heard, they just don’t get it.
The disciples’ lack of comprehension foreshadows how miserably they will fail Jesus during his final days. Jesus will take these same three disciples with him into the garden and ask them to wait and watch with him while he prays. But this simple task will prove too much for them, and they will fall asleep — three times. When Jesus is arrested, they will all abandon him and flee. And of course, in the court of the high priest, Peter will deny three times that he ever knew Jesus.
And yet, in spite of these epic failures, Jesus will not give up on his disciples. Indeed, he will meet them again in Galilee as the Resurrected Lord and entrust his mission to them (Matthew 28:16-20).
So it turns out that the story is not so far removed from our everyday lives. Like the first disciples, our thoughts and actions often move in the opposite direction of Jesus. We want to climb to the top and stay there; we look for success and power and status. But Jesus insists on going down the mountain, emptying himself of glory, power, and status for the sake of a broken world. We look for ease and comfort; Jesus takes the path of self-denial, service, and suffering. We seek gain for ourselves; Jesus pours out his life for others.
So Jesus calls us to a radical reversal of direction. He calls us to follow him down the mountain, from the bright light of the transfiguration to the darkness of Gethsemane and Golgotha. Though we would prefer to stay with Jesus where all is clear and bright, far from the problems and evils of the world, Jesus insists on going down into the valley of our sin and suffering.
It is not that Jesus’ glory is any less when he descends the mountain, but it is a glory that is much harder for us to perceive. The divine majesty hidden in weakness, suffering, and death is incomprehensible to us. Yet it is here that God’s greatest glory is shown, in the fullness of God’s love poured out for us. Here Jesus shows us the glory not of overwhelming power and dazzling beauty, but of unfathomable mercy and love.
In spite of our slowness to understand, in spite of our self-absorbed preoccupations and self-seeking ambitions, Jesus will not give up on us, just as he did not give up on the first disciples. Jesus will stop at nothing to show us mercy, to reconcile us to God and to one another, and to transform us into vessels of his love and mercy for the world.
When Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him, it is not that he calls us to seek danger, hostility, and suffering. But he calls us to love others with the same kind of self-giving love that he has shown us, whatever the cost. To follow Jesus on this path is surely to encounter suffering. Yet Jesus assures us that the way of the cross is the way that leads to life (Matthew 16:25).