PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 17.1

THE HEAVENLY MEETING ON A MOUNTAIN

 

Matthew 17:1-13 (NIV)

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

ALL OF THE STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This incident happened six days after they were in Caesarea Philippi.
  2. Jesus chose Peter, James and John to accompany him.
  3. He led them up a high mountain by themselves.
  4. He was transfigured in their presence.
  5. His face shone like the sun.
  6. His clothes became white like the light.
  7. The disciples saw Moses and Elijah appear and they were talking with Jesus.
  8. Peter spoke out to Jesus.
  9. He told Jesus that it was a very good thing that they were there with him seeing these things.
  10. He said they should build three shelters, one for each of the three.
  11. As he was saying this a bright cloud covered them.
  12. A voice spoke from within the cloud.
  13. It was God’s voice.
  14. He told them that Jesus was his Son.
  15. He said that he loved Jesus.
  16. He said that he was very pleased with what Jesus was doing.
  17. He told the disciples to listen to Jesus.
  18. At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples fell with their faces to the ground, full of fear.
  19. Jesus came and touched them.
  20. He told them that there was no reason to be afraid and for them to get up.
  21. When they looked up, they saw no one but Jesus.
  22. Jesus gave them an instruction while they were coming down from the mountain.
  23. He said that they were not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection.
  24. The disciples asked Jesus why the teachers of the law said that Elijah would come before the Messiah appeared.
  25. Jesus agreed that Elijah would come.
  26. He said that when Elijah came, he would restore all things.
  27. Then he told them that Elijah had already come.
  28. He said when the Elijah person described in the Old Testament had come but that the people didn’t recognise him as for who he was.
  29. The people (especially the authorities) had mistreated him instead of honouring him.
  30. He added that the same thing was going to happen to himself at the hands of the same people.
  31. The disciples understood that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

There is so much to love about the way the Bible does its job of making Jesus known. Even the way it has been recorded is impressive. When you consider that three ex-fishermen are about to witness an amazing one-off visit of Moses and Elijah and listen to a discussion they had with Jesus, there was nothing about the beginning of that day that could have prepared them for it. As often happens, the information we are given raises all kinds of questions. All too often we provide answers from our own speculative reason. It has been a long-held working hypothesis of mine that the Bible is as inspired in what is left out as it is in what we are told. My own way of describing this feature is to say that the Holy Spirit has given us an owner’s manual rather than a manufacturer’s set of specifications and engineer’s drawings – to use an automotive metaphor. I remember a time Nola and I were picking up an Opel rental car at Frankfurt Railway Station. I didn’t even know how to start the thing, so we sat there in the car park while I tried everything I knew with no success. The owner’s manual, in that case, was in German, so it was of little use to us. When a very kind local came to our aid, he ended up reading the book and showing me how it worked. I think the Bible is God’s owner/operator’s manual for this life. We don’t necessarily get to see the manufacturers designs or specs. So we shouldn’t worry too much about using speculative reason to answer questions that come up because of details that are not included in the text.  We should simply assume that if we really needed to know those things, God would have given us the information.

On this occasion, Jesus chose three of the twelve disciples to accompany him. Everyone assumes that this was the inner-circle of his leadership team, but there is little hard evidence to substantiate it. One of the sharp things about Jesus’ ministry as a whole and the way the stories are told was to focus on what happened rather than go into detail about why. When we later discover that Jesus told the disciples not to say anything about what they had seen until after the resurrection, we presume that the experience was not designed to be part of the core curriculum for that part of the discipleship course. It was important for some to witness it, but its significance would become clear on the other side of the cross and resurrection. If I were one of the three who witnessed this event, I would have had trouble keeping my mouth shut. And I would be much more likely to talk about the spectacle of it all rather than on what God had told them to focus upon.

More on those things later. We ought to heed the warning of most of the Old Testament about missing the point about what theologians call “divine election.” In case we think that Peter, James and John were the three Jesus ‘liked’ more than the others, we need to remember that God’s whole plan in pouring special love on Israel was not because they were more likeable than people of other nations. His choosing was a calling. That calling was to make his message of indiscriminate redemptive love known to every family on the earth (Genesis 12:3). Because they swapped that idea for the “God-likes-us-more-than-he-likes-you” idea, they ended up missing the coming of the Messiah/King. So when Jesus chooses three from twelve, it is for the same reason. We will see a bit later in the story that Peter’s first reaction was so off course that God needed to speak from heaven to correct his thinking.

There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

This is a very weird experience. When they got to a certain spot on the mountain, Jesus was transfigured. The word in the original language means that his essential form was changed. There is a cute aside to this word. I don’t think it is stretching the point, but if the word was literally translated it would refer to someone being changed through personal encounter. Jesus was on earth, but heaven was present in such a way that he temporarily manifested the measureless glory of heaven rather than the lost glory of the earth. The same word is used in Romans 12 when we are challenged to be “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” Our total commitment to God is the environment that will transform our minds. The same is true for the Galatians if they will just leave behind the sad shadows of heaven represented by festivals and sacred days and the other symbols that give way to the glory of the presence of Jesus in the life of a believer. He says he wants Jesus Christ to be “formed in all of you.” (Galatians 4:19). On this occasion, on the mountain, Jesus became white and bright. Peter talks about this in his second letter,

For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the majestic glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.

As soon as Jesus was changed, the disciples saw two other people show up. Once again, we are not given any detail as to how they knew it was Moses and Elijah, but their identity was unmistakable. Let me emphasise how strange this was. The glory was where Jesus and these two great men of God were. It seems that the three disciples were in the ‘grandstand watching.’ Matthew tells us they were having a conversation. I’m going to break my rule here about not referring to other gospel accounts of the same incident. It is the Lucan account that gives us detail of what the conversation was about,

And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

The Greek word for the NIV English word, ‘departure’ is the word, ’exodus.’ We are also told that this ‘exodus’ was going to be accomplished or achieved. It was a work that was going to be carried out, and it was going to succeed. The Greek word for ‘accomplish’ is also loaded. It refers to a work that is in progress coming to its final and complete fulfilment. It is mission accomplished. I can only presume that the Passover was going to make possible the exodus. My mind boggles when I try to imagine the conversation between the two heroes and the Son of God who would complete what they had only dreamed about. This very small reference has become a symbol of what is the core of my own understanding of the work of Jesus on the cross. Jesus death made it possible for all of us to leave whatever it is that has enslaved us, restricted us, oppressed us. It is no longer a shadow looking forward to something greater. It is not about human politics or empires. It is about a freedom that starts on the inside and works all the way out until it transforms relationships, households and whole communities. It wasn’t about God’s anger toward us being assuaged. It was about the enemy of God’s purposes for the earth (including us) being defeated. We have been set free to live as destined and beloved children of our heavenly Father. It is a significant enough issue to warrant Moses and Elijah travelling all the way from heaven to talk with Jesus about (I’m not sure what kind of a journey that might have been, but I’m closer to finding out than I was a few years ago).

 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Here comes the “God-likes-me-better-than-he-likes-you” perspective. There are a lot of ways that Peter’s words could be taken. He could have been referring to the fact that Jesus had picked the three best men for the job of responding to what was going on. I have listened to so many testimonies where people have shared about something wonderful God did only to feel the not-so-subtle undertow that presumes that the reason this happened was that they were just a little more worthy of those things than others. A testimony that is supposed to be about the greatness of God ends up being an opportunity to draw attention to how significant I am.

Perhaps Peter was referring to the fact that this is such a special occasion that it was just as well the three of them were there so that they could start a building fund right on the spot and raise the capital for three memorial shelters to be built. Perhaps they could have the names of the three people on each of them so that everyone could pick and choose according to the hero they preferred. It is interesting that Peter later (see the quote from 2 Peter 1 above) called the mountain a “sacred” mountain. No doubt about that being true at the time. Its sacredness had nothing to do with geography or topography. It was sacred because for a few minutes the glory of heaven was present: Moses, Elijah, Jesus and God himself (or at least his voice). Once that was over it lost its special significance. This has got to be the case. I know there is something strong in us that wants to identify the mountain and then keep going there, even though Jesus, Moses and Elijah are no longer having a conference there. Go to Azusa Street in Los Angeles and see if there is anything special other than a brass plate on the footpath. Go to Loughor in Wales and see if the little chapel is still pouring out heaven’s presence. I’ve been to Wesley’s Chapel in London and also to Herrnhut in Germany where the Moravians experienced their visitation. Great places to remember, but none of the ‘shelters’ seems to be an automatic conduit to heaven. Nothing bright or white. Those places and this mountain are simple reminders of what is the greater glory. The opportunity to experience the heavenly presence of Jesus anywhere.

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

Peter didn’t get a chance to lay out any more ideas. God thought he had already gone too far off centre as it was and sovereignly intervened. I’ll guarantee the three disciples weren’t aware that God was listening in or that their idea was so drastically off the track that God stepped in to make sure they didn’t miss the message. If you have read other comments in this series, you will be aware of the principle I have adopted of letting the story provide the context for interpretation rather than elsewhere. I can’t guarantee such a principle will stand up to the scrutiny of some, but I believe we should allow the details of the story to speak first and then go looking for Greek or Hebrew words or some first-century cultural detail from some other source. These will always be helpful, but must not be primary. It is God’s comment that provides the bottom line for me about this experience. If I were to answer the question as to what I thought was going on, I think God was again validating the majesty and kingly authority of his Son, Jesus. They were heading for troubled waters where every foundational principle they had forged for three years was going to be directly challenged. Jesus was going to a set of circumstances where he would look nothing like a king and where there would be no visible evidence of his glory. This perspective is backed up by what Peter refers to in his letter. They were eyewitnesses of his majesty. They were telling what happened, not just inventing clever stories. If Peter had answered Jesus previous question by saying that he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then this occasion provided a supremely eminent re-assurance of that same fact. It should have stood them in good stead for what was coming.  I said it should have.  Sadly what they had experienced here got lost somewhere along the way.

They were still talking buildings and memorials when they heard the voice of God, and he told them Jesus was his Son. He was pleased with everything Jesus was saying and doing. Peter and the others must have wondered about some of the things Jesus seemed to be saying and doing, but God gave his seal of approval to all that had been going on. Finally, God told them to listen carefully to what Jesus was saying. Never mind the details of how white his garments were or how bright the shine around him was. The message of this story is simple. This is Jesus, the Messiah. Listen and carefully heed what he says. The same is true for them as it is for us.

This story makes me wonder about people who place so much importance on books people write about their experience of seeing some form of heaven. I’m just not interested. It’s not that I don’t think heaven is important. I am simply noticing here that when Peter, James and John could have written about their experience of seeing Jesus with Moses and Elijah. They could have gone into great detail, and it probably would have been a best seller. What God wanted to focus on was the fact that Jesus was his Son, the Messiah and for that reason, they needed to keep their focus on HIM and what he was telling them. I think we should focus our attention on the same and leave the discovery of heaven to sometime in the future when we will have the experiences needed to be a genuine authority – i.e. after we die.

The experience of hearing the voice of God was even more, awe inspiring than seeing a white and bright Jesus talking to the two men of God. It was also a loving but significant correction. They needed to change their mind about the building program. While they were processing all of that, they were lying on their faces saying nothing and full of fear. An un-bright and un-white Jesus tapped them on the shoulder and told them they had nothing to fear. I cannot express my gratitude for that. The former training of the three disciples was all about how awesome God was and what might happen if you found yourself stepping over a line into some place that was designated as special because God lived there (e.g. the holy of holies in the temple). Jesus encouraged them to change that idea as well. God’s perfectly loving presence was no place to feel threatened or afraid. Even his loving rebuke was no reason to think a lightning bolt was going to strike you down. When they got up, the only person with them was Jesus. I’m sure they listened carefully to what he said.

 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

I think the disciples would have been surprised to hear Jesus say this. He didn’t say why. He just gave them a command. As mentioned previously, this kind of command presumes that the value of what they had experienced would be important in the future, rather than the present. There would come a time when Jesus would be physically gone, and they would need to keep clear about the fact that Jesus WAS the Messiah and that they should treat everything he said as important for all people from all generations and all nations to hear and heed. I wasn’t on the mountain, but I have experienced something of the presence of Jesus, and I am totally committed to the idea of hearing and re-hearing what he has said – and not trying to domesticate it to my set of cultural or personal preferences. There are some things Jesus has said that I believe, but also have a measure of unbelief. When Jesus said the “look at the fields, they are white for harvest” I look out from my front and back porch and wonder how that can be true of my neighbourhood that seems so unripe. I need to keep listening to Jesus until I know exactly what he said because his word has become part of my experience. Until then I need to keep listening, even if I don’t get all of it. I need to keep following even if I don’t always understand.

 

The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

One of the small but significant words in the final part of this story is the word, “THEN.” You might need to read the whole section a few times to understand why it presents a challenge. Now let me provide the immediate context by putting Jesus’ command and the disciples’ question together:

JESUS: “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

THE DISCIPLES: “Then why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

The question posed by the disciples doesn’t seem to have any direct bearing on what Jesus has said. I notice some of the translations solve the problem by leaving it out. When they take that option, they are presuming that the disciples have moved on from what Jesus said to the subject of the promised coming of an “Elijah” person before the Messiah. We also need to remember that they were having difficulty embracing what Jesus had said about his death, let alone his resurrection. There is a funny little irony here. They have just been given a divine wrap on the knuckles by God. They had been reminded of the fact that Jesus WAS the Son of God (Messiah). They were told that God was pleased with the way Jesus was going about his work. Finally, they were told to make sure they listen carefully to what he said to them. The next thing he said involved him talking about his death and resurrection – and all they can do is ask a theological question about Elijah! When you are stuck for understanding something, just get theological. It appears to be a safer option than trying to accept something Jesus has said that appears to be otherwise unthinkable (i.e. the idea of a Messiah being killed).

This is how I draw my own conclusion. I am suggesting that they had just experienced the most profound endorsement of Jesus’ Messianic identity. When Jesus again linked “Messiah” with “death and resurrection” they were trying to back off from that idea by presuming that “Elijah” hadn’t come yet. Whatever Jesus was talking about would presumably be a way off. Jesus resolves this matter by telling them that John the Baptist was the promised “Elijah” and that the religious and political authorities had rejected him – even killed him. At least the disciples got that message and understood that the Messianic agenda was not waiting for any more prophetic pieces to be put in place. Sadly, these three disciples were given opportunity not only to experience Jesus’ majesty as a form of reassurance but still couldn’t make a connection that finds no contradiction in heaven. I am talking about the idea of ruling through dying. It is the trademark of the character of God who was revealed fully by Jesus Christ. It continues to be a stumbling block to a world that seems hell-bent on associating power and rule with wealth, privilege, opulence and oppression.  We still need to heed God’s advice:  “Listen to JESUS.”

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.

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