Studi biblici/Matteo 17:1-9/Matthew 17:1-9
|In the Christian life, we are called to live by faith, and not by sight. This is not, however, a blind faith, but a well-founded trust in the eye-witnesses of the truth of Christ, who now guide us to become His followers. Like columns that rest firmly on rock, they support authoritatively our faith: they are the Apostles Peter, James and John, to which it was granted, (as later it was for Paul), to stand before the majesty of the risen Christ, that which is hidden to human eyes. This is the experience described by the Gospel text we are looking at today, which tells us about the Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9). This experience confirms them in the basic statements of the Christian faith and allows them to transmit that message, a message unchanged in its power, reaching us today. In our Christian life, their experience allows us to continue trusting in Christ, His word and promises, inspite of difficulties, to the destination they had the preview.|
The Mountain Top Experience
A Close Encounter
The human heart aspires naturally to the encounter and communion with its Creator. A close encounter with God is, at the same time, something that scares us which we would rather escape from. Yet we carry within us a sense of guilt, which we would hardly admit, but it is there and it is well founded, "because fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:18).
In modern culture, these feelings can be revealed by science fiction stories and movies, where encounters with alien beings, superior to us, are portrayed. They are most of the time, hostile to humanity. One of the most famous exceptions is the film by Steven Spielberg in 1977, "Close Encounters of the ThirdKind". The film tells of the extraordinary encounter between humanity and extraterrestrial intelligence through a narrative, almost fable-like, with a classic happy ending. Steven Spielberg at the end of making the film commented: "I wanted Close Encounters to be a very simple story, experienced by an ordinary person, who is to be a witness to an extraordinary event, a shocking and haunting experience, the kind of experience that completely changes one’s life." One of the peculiarities of the film is its happy ending : the aliens in fact come not to conquer and destroy, but in peace, thus reversing a classic image of science fiction cinema.
However, according to biblical teaching, we would do well to fear a close encounter with God, "... For our God is indeed a devouring fire" (Hebrews 12:29). Jesus Christ has come to reconcile us to this God and to return us to our ultimate destiny, which is communion with God, with Christ and with Christ. Through Jesus today, we can meet God in part. But this experience will one day be full and complete. This will happen when we will leave this reality in order to enter a different dimension. As the Apostle says: "... For we groan while we are in this tent, since we are weighed down, because we do not want to be unclothed, but clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Corinthians 5:4).
The first disciples of Jesus, and especially Peter, James and John, had the privilege of a preview, a close encounter with God and with that different dimension. They were permitted to see the glory of Christ in the Biblical episode, known as "The Transfiguration". That's what we will examine today in Matthew's version.
The Biblical text
- "Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with him. So Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will make three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!”. When the disciples heard this, they were overwhelmed with fear and threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Do not be afraid.” When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.'" (Matthew 17:1-9).
The experience that was permitted to Peter, James and John accomplished what Jesus had foretold: "I tell you the truth, there are some standing here who will not experience death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom." (Matthew 16:28). At the Transfiguration, they have the privilege of a preview of the future glory of Christ, which is a special confirmation of the divine identity of Jesus. It is also the further reassurance that coming suffering Jesus had announced would not be adefeat. The Transfiguration confirms to the disciples that Jesus is undoubtedly more than an earthly teacher. He is the divine Messiah. Jesus shines with the glory of God hidden from flesh and revealed only to the elect. Furthermore, Jesus’s association with Moses and Elijah shows them Jesus’ messianic role. This experience reveals to them that the full manifestation of the glory of Christ and His Kingdom is a future reality that belongs to a different order of things, different from the dimension we presently experience on earth. Let's examine this text in detail. An experience that they would remember forever
1. "Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain." (1).
Repeatedly in the Gospels, Peter, James and John appearas the inner group of disciples of Jesus, a select representative group representative, pillars of the Church, those to whom was given the leading role as transmitters of revelation and guidance. Interestingly, such a group also surrounded Moses. There are three who accompany him on Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive His Law: "But to Moses the Lord said, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from a distance" (Exodus 24:1). The others had to worship God from a distance. Not everyone, in fact, but only the elect, and in certain circumstances, are given the privilege of receiving the grace of meeting with God.
The Apostle Paul had a similar experience, in fact, "he was caught up into paradise and heard things too sacred to be put into words, things that a person is not permitted to speakr "(1 Corinthians 12:4). This election foreshadows the fact that God is pleased to draw from the mass of lost humanity those whom He has appointed, to receive the grace of salvation.
The mountain where the Transfiguration took place is traditionally regarded either as Mount Tabor,a mountain in Galilee that rises about 400 meters above the surrounding plain or Mount Hermon a mountain range on the border between Syria and Lebanon. The latter consists of three peaks, the highest of which reaches 2,814 m. Mount Hermon is often mentioned in the Bible, as the northern border of the Promised Land, near Caesarea Philippi. Moses and Elijah also had close encounters with God on mountains, probably in both cases, in the Sinai.
The mountain has always had a symbolic significance for mankind - and the Bible confirms it. In order to meet God, one must rise above the reality of this fallen world, above the noise and confusion of the crowd. You need to part with it, in order to see things from a different and higher perspective. In order to encounter God, it is necessary to be able to hear His voice, in silence, undisturbed. Historically, in mysticism, this was also called ascesis, the elevation of one’s spirit from the contingent to the eternal, from the world to God.
2. "And he was transfigured before them: and his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as the light."(2).
In front of Peter, James and John, Jesus undergoes a transformation. This is literally a “metamorphosis ". The terminology does not suggest that what is described is only a figure of speech or that it was just an optical illusion or a dream. But, no matter what the skeptics say, it was a real "change of shape", for the benefit and instruction of those who had witnessed it.
This event recalls what happened when Moses had the privilege of appearing in front of God’s glory: " Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand – when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him". Moses, however, only reflected the glory of God, but Jesus Himself radiates glory. At the Transfiguration, His appearance as an ordinary human being, was transcended, in order to reveal His divine nature, something that to unregenerate human eyes was imperceptible. Only to regenerated eyes, in fact, does Jesus appear as He is. As the Letter to the Hebrews describes, associating this transformation with God, "the radiance of his glory and the representation of his essence" (Hebrews 1:3). Whiteness in Scripture always characterizes holiness: his clothes became dazzling.
Interestingly, the same glorious nature will also belong to those who follow Him as Lord and Saviour, as the Scripture promises: "Dear friends, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. We know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is" (1 John 3: 2). The teaching of Scripture makes this clear : at the resurrection of the dead, the justified will be transformed and will receive a body different from their body in this world, that is to say a spiritual, incorruptible, glorious and eternal body like that of the risen Christ. In the words of the Apostle Paul, by the grace of God, we will “put on our heavenly dwelling”, sharing the glory of God himself. At the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John had a foretaste of the glory that Jesus would have after His exaltation.
3. "Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with him" (3).
The amazing things they were given to see had not yet finished. Two figures, identified as Moses and Elijah appear. They are the key characters of the Israelite faith. Both had repeatedly prophesied the coming of the Messiah. Moses had established the (mosaic) Covenant, in which Israel lived and Elijah in that covenant had brought back Israel, after a period of great apostasy. Both had experienced the glory of God on a mountain. Both also had the experience of being rejected by Israel. Moses was the greatest figure associated with the Law. Elijah was the greatest of the prophets of the Old Testament. Now they converse with Jesus, showing that they are in harmony with Him. They honour Him and the honour is mutual : Jesus too has honoured the Law, stating that He had come not to abolish it. He has also fulfilled prophecies, in His person and work.
4. "So Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will make three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."(4).
Peter thinks he is, at this moment, at the end times, when the Messianic King, accompanied by Moses and Elijah, returns triumphantly and the Christ begins to reign in glory and power. He imagines, perhaps, that this is the Day of Judgment, when all nations line up before Him to honour Him and to hear the word of His judgment. Peter expresses his gratitude for being a participant in this event. He does not mean so much, "It is good for us to be here", but “What a privilege for us to be here!”, “What an honour." Then Peter offers them his services, as he proposes to raise for each one of them a shelter, or rather, three canopies, in order to highlight the presence and glory of those three characters, or possibly three shelters to protect them from the weather. He does not realise that the experience of which he is a sharer is not permanent. It was not, in fact, anything other than a temporary preview for the disciples’ benefit, of the final consummation of all things: it is not the enactment itself. That event would come, but not at that time.
5. "While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!” (5).
The bright cloud comes or wraps them in its shadow. This is something well known and unequivocal to the Israelites : the Shekhinah, the manifestation of the presence and majesty of God who dwells among His people, thus proving Himself to be not only transcendent, but also immanent. In this cloud, or fog, God hid during the Exodus, accompanying His people, talking to them and manifesting His glory. Even the prophets had foretold that the Messiah would come and establish His kingdom, surrounded with clouds. The way in which God revealed himself to Israel in the past, also occurs on this occasion. What a great lesson for Peter, James and John. They had all this imprinted in their minds as the very presence of God, inseparably associated with the person of Jesus
God's presence is further confirmed by the same voice that was heard at Jesus’s baptism (3:17). It confirms the identity of Jesus as the Son of God and His suffering Servant, and also His superiority to Moses and Elijah. If the first voice is for the benefit of Jesus, now it is for the benefit of Peter, James and John.
Even the words "Listen to Him" are not a generic exhortation: they echo the Old Testament: "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you – from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him" (Deuteronomy 18:15). This also proclaims how Jesus is the climax of the biblical revelation and the history of redemption, the Word par excellence. If we ignore this Word or relativise it, we do it only to our detriment, "Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? "(Hebrews 12:25).
6. "When the disciples heard this, they were overwhelmed with fear and threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Do not be afraid.” When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone." (6-8).
On Peter, James and John, this revelation has the same effect as the revelation that God gave to the Israelites at Sinai and to Daniel. Before the presence and glory of God, they remain terrified. Jesus, however, approaches them, reassuring them that they have no reason to fear.
Though God is "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 24:29) and they rightly fear to be punished by Him (1 John 4:18), they can approach God with full trust through Christ, because He, for them, is sitting "on the throne of grace". Through Him, they can find mercy and grace (Hebrews 4:16). In fact, they were chosen and called to the grace of salvation, to be reconciled with God and attain their ultimate destiny, namely communion with God. This is the same that happens again in John's vision in Revelations: "When I saw him I fell down at his feet as though I were dead, but he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid! I am the first and the last, and the one who lives! I was dead, but look, now I am alive – forever and ever – and I hold the keys of death and of Hades! " (1:17-19).
We do well then, to be terrified at the prospect of ‘a close encounter with God’, because our sins will be fully revealed with the wages they deserve. But if Christ is our Saviour, we should not be afraid. He has paid the price for them and we have been forgiven, pardoned. Yet Jesus tells us: "Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away." (John 6:37). Significantly, in our text, it states that: "When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone" (8) because in the end the only one who counts is Jesus. Jesus alone is our Mediator: "For there is one God and one intermediary between God and humanity, Christ Jesus, himself human " (1 Timothy 2:5) ..
7. "As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.'" (9).
The experience of the Transfiguration ends with an exhortation of Jesus to Peter, James and John not to tell anybody about this experience, but only after His resurrection, which for them, at that time was still a mystery. Jesus, in His eternal wisdom, knows better than us when is the best time to do anything. Jesus is our Teacher who must guide us, especially when we proclaim the gospel and teach the Christian doctrine. "A person has joy in giving an appropriate answer, and a word at the right time – how good it is!" (Proverbs 15:23).
The Transfiguration of Jesus took place primarily for the benefit of Peter, James and John, the apostles, so that they would have had a pivotal role in the transmission of the gospel. Jesus led them up a high mountain to witness His glory manifested before them. They heard the voice of God. They did not immediately understand the full implications of what they wtnessed but it would be a revelation that would continue to make them understand things more deeply, especially after the Resurrection. Then it would give them a deeper conviction that Jesus was the Saviour of the world.
The purpose of the Transfiguration was to confirm various facts of vital importance. One of these was the reality of the coming kingdom of Christ, endorsed by the presence of Moses and Elijah, Jesus. The Son of Man had come to judge the world and establish His kingdom: "... the Son of Man will come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will reward each person according to what he has dones "(Matthew 16:27).
It is in anticipation of that moment that the disciples had been allowed to see the Son of Man in His divine glory. They would have liked to have remained in that dimension, but there was still much to do on the “plain". In a world wounded by sin, that dimension would cause them pain and suffering. However, they would be encouraged by thinking back to this moment and would celebrate the memory and renew their commitment. The high mountain would allow them to continue to see things from a higher perspective, knowing that God was indeed ‘with them’.
Today mountaineers have, a desire to climb on top of a peak. The climber Hans Kammerlander, wrote: "This 'disease', is also an addiction. I never thought of being dependent on the mountain. I realised on the last meters of Everest, that this time I was exhausted but I felt that if I had not reached the top, I would have had to go back up there. Inside of me, I had too much need of being there, on that high mountain. It is this dependence on the mountain that always pushes us forward”.
Encouragement to continue in the Christian journey in this world, without losing heart, is what we too need. We will not necessarily have exciting experiences like the Transfiguration, but we can depend on thinking about what God has done in our lives through Jesus: this is our Mountain Top. Greater even than experience is the "sure Word" of Scripture which teaches that we must continue to look forward with confidence, drawing from it our major and permanent encouragement. It is the same as Peter writes in his second epistle:
- "For we did not follow cleverly concocted fables when we made known to you the power and return of our Lord Jesus Christ; no, we were eyewitnesses of his grandeur. For he received honor and glory from God the Father, when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory: “This is my dear Son, in whom I am delighted.” When this voice was conveyed from heaven, we ourselves heard it, for we were with him on the holy mountain. Moreover, we possess the prophetic word as an altogether reliable thing. You do well if you pay attention to this as you would to a light shining in a murky place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."(2 Peter 1:16-19).
The prophetic Word of Scripture is a reliable thing: we do well to pay attention to it.
Paolo Castellina, March 1, 2014
Sunday, March 2, 2014, the last Sunday before Lent. Biblical texts: Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Psalm 2 , Exodus 24:12-18.
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_Encounters_of_the_Third_Kind and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_encounter
-  "From that time Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day" (Matthew 16:21).
-  Eg. "he allowed no one to accompany him, except Peter, James and John the brother of James "(Mark5:37).
-  "James, Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars" (Galatians 2:9).
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Tabor
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Hermon
-  Alternatively, it is called the Mount Meron (the highest mountain of Israel (1208 m), cf. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Meron or even Mount Arbel, overlooking the lake of Galilee, 380 m. above the surrounding area, cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mount_Arbel
-  Exodus 19, 24, 1 Kings 19.
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asceticism
-  Exodus 34:29, 35.
-  1 Corinthians 15:42-49, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10.
-  Acts 7:35, 37; 1 Kings 19:1-9, cf. Matthew 17:12.
-  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shekhinah
-  "On the third day, as it was morning, there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud on the mountain and there was a very strong sound of a trumpet. All the people who were in the camp trembled "(Exodus 19:16).
-  40:34-38."And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them the way; night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and night. He is not away the pillar of cloud by day, nor the pillar of fire by night, from before the people "( Exodus 13:21-22),
-  Exodus 16:10, 24:15-18,
-  Psalm 97:2, Isaiah 4:5, Daniel 7:13.
-  Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1.
-  Exodus 20:18-21, Deuteronomy 4:33, Hebrews 12:18 - 21.