Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9
Six days after foretelling his death, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and “leads them up a high mountain, by themselves” (Matthew 17:1). Together with Peter’s brother, Andrew, these three disciples have been with Jesus the longest of any of his followers, ever since Jesus called them away from their fishing nets alongside the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18ff).
Perhaps they have earlier mountain treks in mind as they climb the steep slope: Jesus’ extended sermon on the mountain (Matthew 5:1-7:29) or the mountain on which Jesus healed the blind and lame and maimed (15:29). Perhaps they recall an even earlier story of Abraham’s journey with Isaac to the mountain where God provided a ram (the verb ajnafevrw in Matthew 17:1 can mean “to offer a sacrifice,” as it does in LXX Genesis 22:2). What will the followers of Jesus encounter on this mountain, on this occasion? Will it be something new? Or something old?
Early readers of Matthew’s gospel probably heard echoes of Exodus 24 as the events of the Transfiguration unfolded in their hearing, enabling them to perceive Jesus as the “new Moses” who leads and empowers the people of God. They know that older story. Leaving Aaron behind along with the elders, Moses took Joshua with him into the mountain, where, after six days, the glory of the Lord burned on the mountain top and God spoke to Moses in that place, giving to him the words of the covenant with God’s people (Exodus 24:13-18). Similar echoes of Moses’ experience sound in the account of Elijah’s mountaintop encounter with God (1 Kings 19:8ff).
When Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain of transfiguration with Jesus, these echoes from long ago resound in the ears of the disciples (and readers). Jesus and his followers are new players in the old, old story of God’s encounters with God’s people.
New Story, Old Players
A face shining like the sun, clothes of dazzling white, a voice from a cloud: something powerful is occurring on that mountaintop, but it is difficult for the disciples to comprehend. They (along with others) have known Jesus as a teacher, a healer, even a prophet along the lines of Elijah or Jeremiah. To be sure, each of these is a role that Jesus fills, but none alone captures his full identity. Peter gets it right in his confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16), but his human limitation prevents his understanding of what that confession will mean (Matthew 16:23).
On top of the mountain, Peter recognizes that Jesus’ dazzling appearance in the presence of Moses and Elijah is significant–“Lord, it is good for us to be here!”–but he does not fully understand what he is seeing. His suggestion to build three booths, or dwelling places (skh’no” = tent), sounds like an attempt to capture the moment, to preserve it for safekeeping, to domesticate this wild, frightening experience into an everyday, household encounter. One might imagine Peter, jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer, but who cannot quite get it right because he does not fully understand the question.
In his attempt to make sense of the magnificent transformation taking place before his eyes, Peter tries to talk it out, to speak words for the unspeakable. Indeed, while he is still speaking (the Greek construction at 17:5 is a genitive absolute), a bright cloud overshadows all of them and a voice interrupts his speech: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5, cf. the voice at Jesus’ baptism, Matthew 3:17).
There are times when it is best to be quiet.
Do not be afraid: Waiting for the Rest of the Story
Jesus speaks to Peter and the others, “Get up and do not be afraid (Matthew 17:7). His touch is a sign of comfort and healing (cf. Matthew 8:3, 15; 9:29; 20:34), and his words reassure that whatever happens next will be in God’s hands, no matter how frightening the circumstances (cf. Matthew 1:20; 10:26; 28:5, 10).
The dazzling appearance of Jesus reflects Daniel’s apocalyptic Son of Humanity (NRSV “Son of Man,” Daniel 7:9; cf. Revelations 1:12-16; 3:4-5) and previews the appearance of the angel at the empty tomb later in Matthew (Matthew 28:3). It is a powerful vision, rich with meaning, but the time is not yet right for the three disciples to tell others about their experience (Matthew 9:1). Even as a preview of the resurrection, the Transfiguration cannot be fully grasped until after Jesus has been crucified, laid in a tomb, and raised from the dead. Could it be that resurrection is meaningless without the stone, cold reality of death?
Then and now, the full meaning of a mountaintop experience may not become clear until after the return to the valley, after the passage of time. After they come down from the mountain, the disciples listen, as the voice has instructed: they hear Jesus’ parables, they hear his response to friends and foes, they hear his repeated references to the Son of Humanity. Even so, it is not long before these same three disciples fall asleep despite hearing Jesus’ request for their wakefulness and their prayers (Matthew26:36-46). They watch as he is arrested and led away. What they hear, see, and experience in the garden is a far cry from the dazzling display on the mountain.
But the rest of the story–it’s fuller meaning–includes another mountain, to which Jesus has directed his followers after his resurrection. In that place, in the company of the gathered community, Jesus’ followers receive the promise that his story and their story will be forever intertwined, whether they are on mountaintops or in valleys or someplace in between: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).