While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and bright.cloudfrom the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” — Matthew 17:5

with Tony W. Cartledge

Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.

Matthew 17:1-9

Keeping Secrets

Superheroes are ubiquitous these days: blockbuster movies, TV series, comic books, and children’s cartoons regularly feature drab “normal” characters who can quickly transform themselves into tights-wearing superheroes at a moment’s notice. It’s all fantasy, but one that people have enjoyed at least as long as Superman comics have been around.

Our text for today describes the one man in history whose transformation was not just super, but supernatural. What’s more, those who choose to follow Jesus can be transformed, too.

A special appearance(vv. 1-2)

We often refer to this memorable story as the “Transfiguration of Christ.” Matthew’s account is set near the end of Jesus’ ministry, as he prepared to make his final journey to Jerusalem. As if seeking to renew his strength for the journey – and to give instruction to his closest followers – Jesus led his 12 disciples northward in Canaan to the territory near the city of Caesarea-Philippi, and they rested there near the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon in a beautiful and fertile area. Nearby was a temple dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor, and not far away was an area devoted to the nature-god Pan. Jesus was about to show them who truly deserved their worship.

Three men among the Twelve were closer to Jesus than the others (compare Matt. 26:37; Mark 5:37, 13:3). Perhaps Jesus depended on them to learn some lessons first, and then explain them to the others. So it was that he took Peter and James and John with him as they climbed the mountain in search of an isolated spot for a special time of prayer.

As they prayed, something totally unexpected happened. Jesus’ appearance was suddenly – and radically – changed. Matthew and Mark describe it by using a Greek word that is the root of our word “metamorphosis.” Jesus was transformed. Luke tells us that “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew says “his face shone like the sun.”

What the Gospel writers seem to be suggesting is that Jesus, who had been disguised as a Galilean peasant, threw off his human image and reverted to his heavenly, glorified appearance. Perhaps his clothes shone so brightly because his body, like his face, was shining through. If the event took place at night, as we might suppose, the effect would have been especially impressive.

Jesus was transformed. Somehow, some way, something miraculous happened. God’s eternal world and time bloomed into our ordinary world and time, and the disciples were granted a brief vision of something beyond.

Matthew expected readers to recall that Moses’ face had also shone so brightly after spending time with God that it frightened the Israelites, and he had to wear a veil (Exod. 34:29-35). As the disciples looked at Jesus, “his face shone like the sun.”

Special guests(vv. 3-4)

Suddenly, Jesus was not only transformed, but also standing in the company of Moses himself, along with the prophet Elijah (v. 3). Luke says that Moses and Elijah appeared “in glory,” suggesting that their appearance may have been much like that of Jesus. The Old Testament claimed that Elijah did not die, but was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kgs. 2:11). Moses’ death was shrouded in such mystery that a rabbinic tradition presumed that God had also taken him directly to heaven.

The presence of Moses and Elijah carried significant symbolism. Judaism had strong traditions that Moses and Elijah would return to earth before the “Day of the Lord.” Moses represented the Law, and Elijah the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets were the twin traditions upholding Israel’s faith. Yet now the Law and the Prophets, present in Moses and Elijah, were upholding Jesus and giving way to him.

Of the three dumbfounded disciples, Peter alone had the wherewithal to speak, though he wasn’t sure what to say. He knew the moment was special. He didn’t know how long Moses and Elijah would stay, but felt an obligation to show them proper hospitality. So, he spoke up in fumbling, embarrassed words and offered to cut down limbs from the trees to build temporary shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah (v. 4).

It’s almost comical to think about it – the idea that Moses and Elijah, having “beamed down” from heaven in fiery, glorified bodies, would have any interest in taking up lodging in a hillside lean-to. At least Luke was kind enough to add, “he didn’t know what he said.” The suggestion, however, was not entirely inappropriate, because faithful Jews built similar shelters every year when they observed the “Feast of Booths,” which celebrated the Exodus.

Special words(vv. 5-8)

If Jesus responded to Peter’s request, Matthew does not record it, for as he was speaking, a bright cloud descended with surprising suddenness, enveloping them all (v. 5). The disciples, understandably, were terrified. In addition to the inherently spooky nature of the event, they would have remembered that in the Old Testament, when God appeared, it was often in a cloud. (See “The Hardest Question” online for more.)

Try to imagine the scene: when the cloud descended over Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and the three disciples – God was present. They could feel the divine nearness. And they were shaking in their sandals.

From the cloud came a voice – obviously to be understood as the voice of God – and the three awestruck disciples fell to their faces. When God spoke, the voice repeated the same words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism, with the addition of an injunction to pay him heed: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (v. 5).

As quickly as the voice had spoken, all was still and the cloud departed. When the bedazed and bedazzled disciples peeked out through their fingers, there was Jesus alone. Only Matthew says that Jesus came and offered a comforting touch and encouraging words: “Get up and do not be afraid” (v. 7).

“This is my Son … ,” God had said. “Listen to him!” Had they been awake, or sleeping? Was it real, or was it a dream? Matthew, alone of the Gospels, called it a vision (v. 9). Whether visionary or real, the effect was the same. The disciples were overwhelmed with wonder.

That Jesus was left alone after the heavenly visitors departed underscored his supremacy to the law and the prophets, for Moses and Elijah were gone. Only Jesus remained (v. 8). Just as God’s voice had spoken at Jesus’ baptism, validating his call and his ministry, so now God’s voice had spoken again to impress the disciples with the truth that Jesus knew who he was and what he was doing – and they had best give attention to his words.

One can imagine how excited the disciples were to have caught a heart-stopping glimpse of Jesus’ true nature, with Moses, Elijah, and the voice of God from a cloud witnessing to his divinity. Surely they would have been buzzing with exhilaration, anxious to tell others what they had seen – and no doubt they would have been completely confused when Jesus instructed them to keep it to themselves: “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (v. 9).

Why would Jesus want them to keep such amazing news a secret? Because neither the disciples nor the broader coterie of his followers could yet comprehend what Jesus was really about. Jesus knew how many people expected God to send a military messiah who would lead an uprising against Rome. He had trouble enough controlling that sentiment as it was, even among his own disciples. If word of Jesus’ divine transformation and attestation became public knowledge, public clamor for Jesus to lead a political uprising could derail his mission.

Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection would it be appropriate to reveal what the disciples had seen, reinforcing the divine intention behind the crucifixion and resurrection. In a sense, the transfiguration foreshadowed Jesus’ ascension to heaven, which would also take place on a mountain (Matt. 28:16-20). In the meantime, the three disciples would have to sit tight on an awesome secret.

The good news of this story is that Jesus’ transformation carries with it the promise of our own inner and ultimate transformation. It may be hard for us to believe this. The real world we inhabit surrounds us with family demands, financial concerns, work to do, and people to please. Yet, we are also privy to what the disciples saw as a touch of heaven come to earth, and the witness “This is my Son … Listen to him!” When we listen to Jesus, he calls us to be born again, to be transformed, to become new creations by his power.

That may not happen immediately, but it does happen. We can experience God’s saving grace in a moment, but our transformation is a life-long process. As Paul described it to the Corinthians: “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (1 Cor. 3:18).

Amazing. NFJ

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for February 26, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Matthew 17:1-19

 


Youth

Parent Prep

Our students can seem to change from one day to the next. Sometimes these are because of the fads that are in society and other times these are because they are trying to figure out who they are. It’s alright for them to be doing this as long as the changes aren’t destructive. Support your students through these changes and don’t push your views onto them. Watch and support their growth as they transform into who God has created them to be.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Video
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Gandalf Returns” from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers via www.youtube.com

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: Matthew 17:1-19