Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9
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.
- Charlotte Elliot, “Just As I Am Without One Plea.” Chalice Hymnal (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), 339.