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Power and Glory

Matthew 17:1-13

Lesson audio

Six days later Jesus *took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and *led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, "Get up, and do not be afraid." And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone.

(Mat 17:1-8 NASB)[1],[2]


It is the favorite question of pestiferous three year old children. It is also a tool of inquiry for those who would understand.

Why the Transfiguration at all?

This is (obviously) no accidental happening – there are no accidents with God.[3] Indeed, then, why?

  • So that – as promised – some might see the kingdom of God coming in power before they die.[4]
  • To confirm to the disciples – with great power – that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, as Peter has confessed a few days before.
  • Per Crucem ad Lucem – from the Cross to the Light. He tells them of His suffering to come; but He also shows them where this will lead.
Why these three disciples?
  • Because these three are the most preeminent among the Apostles, the closest to Christ.
  • These, being the closest to Him, are also the most fearful of His prophecy of His own death. To counter this fear He gives them the vision of what follows the Cross.
  • It provides to these three the “testimony of two or three witnesses” needed under the Law to establish something in court.[5] Moses and Elijah are two; the Father is the third.
  • Perhaps most important, so that they may learn the necessity of coming down from the mountain top of God to the valleys of sin below. They wanted to stay; God had other plans. They must carry the Good News to the world.
Why Moses and Elijah?
  • Moses and Elijah represent “the Law and the Prophets.” By their appearance they show the supremacy of Christ to the Law and the Prophets.
  • So that the disciples might know that Christ is Lord of the dead (Moses) and the living (Elijah, who never died.)
  • Both of these spoke to Him about His coming departure, so that Christ, the Son of Man, might be encouraged. And that His disciples might be encouraged too.

Baptism and Transfiguration

It is a distinct point: the voice of God has thundered from the heavens before – at the baptism of Jesus by John. At that incident, there is no fear recorded; the scene is gentle and calm. In this scene there is fear; why?

  • First – by the other accounts – Peter offers to build three tabernacles.[6] It isn’t specifically stated, but evidently this was the wrong thing to do. So the disciples are aware of their failings before Almighty God.
  • There is, of course, the uncanny nature of the encounter. They’re not quite sure what to make of it – but there’s plenty to fear here.
  • From the Old Testament we know that no one may see the glory of God – and live.[7]

So fear besets them. It takes the familiar voice saying, “Get up, and do not be afraid” to conquer that fear. It’s like a child with a nightmare; what a relief to wake up and see the familiar, loving face of the father who rescues you from danger. It is necessary, for the storms of fear must be calmed before teaching can begin.

And when they look up, who do they see? Jesus, Alone. It tells us something:

  • It tells us of the unity of the Trinity. You need not hear the Father thunder from heaven, nor the Spirit in the form of a cloud – all that is God is in Jesus, the Christ.
  • It tells us that our practical example is Jesus, the person of God in the body and soul of man.
  • It tells us, as the Father commanded, that we are to hear Him.

Elijah Must Come

As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead." And His disciples asked Him, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" And He answered and said, "Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.

(Mat 17:9-13 NASB)

Transfiguration – sample of what is to come

God has a curious way of repeating Himself – poetic, in a sense. In the Psalms we see poetic echo in words; here we set up a poetic echo whose second half will be the transfiguration of the children of God. The baptism of Christ is our sign of the first transfiguration – the transfiguration of the soul in Christian baptism. The Transfiguration on the Mount is the sign of the second transfiguration to come – the transfiguration of the entire human being, body, mind, soul and strength.

At the Resurrection the glory of God will indeed be revealed, His children transfigured so that no longer do they need to hide their face from it, but rather see it and praise Him.

One might ask: is there any reason for this? Why a bodily resurrection? Why not just a happy transition to ghost-hood? Permit me a simple thought.

There is in this world much evil; we shall take as our example Adolf Hitler. Do you think that Hitler got what he deserved for his actions in this world? I submit you don’t; how can one be properly punished for six million deaths? Where then is the justice of God? Either God is unjust or God is weak – or both.

Or He isn’t finished yet. God has yet to close His books on Hitler – or you. Or me, either.

Elijah will come

The disciples are worried about what they have been taught in prophecy. It is clear that before the “great and terrible Day of the Lord” Elijah is to come to turn the hearts to God.[8] They associate this with the coming of the Messiah; as yet they have not perceived that the Messiah will come twice – once as the Lamb of God, then as the Lion of Judah. Christ makes it clear that Elijah also comes twice – and at this coming, it’s John the Baptist of whom He speaks.

Many believe that at the next coming Elijah himself will return. This is based not only upon what Christ says here (which, after all, could mean another man like Elijah, as John the Baptist was) but upon the idea that every man must die once.[9] Elijah, along with the other man who did not die, Enoch, are believed in this view to be the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11.[10]

It should be pointed out that this interpretation is not the only one for this chapter; in another view the witnesses are seen to be the Old Testament and the New Testament. The argument will continue, I suspect, until the Lord returns.

What are you going to do about it?

It is often useful to end a lesson with, “so what?” What is it that the teacher expects the student to do as a result of the lesson?

  • Rejoice. Here is the evidence of the life to come and its glory. This is where the Cross leads, and we will share it with our Lord.
  • Watch and Pray. Be ready for His return at all times. There are many predictions of the time of His return – but there is always time to be ready, if you will seize it.
  • Reach out. This is good news; that’s what “gospel” means. Take that good news to all who will hear.

[1] Parallel accounts are found in Mark 9:2-13 and Luke 9:28-36

[2] There appears to be a discrepancy in the number of days between Luke and Matthew. This is generally explained by Luke counting inclusive of ending dates, Matthew only the days between.

[3] Which – to borrow a great line from Peter Kreeft – is what distinguishes God from a Los Angeles freeway. Dual meaning intended.

[4] Matthew 16:28

[5] Deuteronomy 19:15

[6] It is approximately the time of year for the Feast of the Tabernacles, in which the devout Jew constructs a tent and camps out, so that he may know what it was like for his ancestors in the wilderness.

[7] Exodus 33:18-23

[8] Malachi 4:5-6

[9] Hebrews 9:27

[10] Revelation 11:1-12

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