Matthew 17:1-13 The Transfiguration.
“After six days” may be an indication that this discourse and the preceding one occurred on the Sabbath (v. 1 Cf. Mk. 9:2-8), and he led Peter, James, and John His brother “up on a high mountain by themselves.” These three held a special place among the twelve, who themselves held a special place among his disciples. They had just been told that one day in the future Jesus would “come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works” (16:27). Then they were also told that there were some standing before him who would see his ascension, the Son of Man’s coming to the Father when the prophecies of Daniel 7 and 9 would find fulfillment. Now they are about to witness a coming of Moses and Elijah to the Son, and a dawning of that same glory that would await him at his ascension and will be present at the final judgment.
“He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light” (v. 2). Such was the glory, the same glory that Moses himself witnessed at the giving of the law, which he represented (Ex. 19:3ff.), with Elijah representing the prophets, he also witnessing the LORD’s presence and hearing his voice (I Kgs. 19:11ff.). Here these men are in conversation with Jesus (v. 3). We learn from Luke that they were discussing Jesus’ death, in the midst of the glory (9:31ff.). Peter wanted to make three tabernacles for them (v. 4), but as Luke notes, they were there for one reason, and then they would leave. In coming they were bearing witness to Jesus as the Christ, and the reality that he must suffer death before he began his messianic reign. To this the Father also bore witness. “This is My beloved Son , in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him” (v. 5)!
“Hear Him!” The Father made clear that to hear Jesus was to hear him. For this reason the three apostles rightly “fell on their faces and were greatly afraid” (v. 6). They had just witnessed that this was the same God who had appeared to Moses and Elijah and that Jesus not only stood in fulfillment of the law and the prophetic words through them, but that Jesus was in fact the same God who had appeared to those men then, and who had spoke to them now. However, with Jesus there is his gentle touch and assuring words – “Arise, and do not be afraid” (v. 7), and “when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only” (v. 8), an event not unlike what Daniel experienced (8:18). However, Jesus wanted them to keep this revelation to themselves, not until after his death, but after his resurrection (v. 9). It would only be after his resurrection that they would then be in a position to look ahead to his ascension.
Peter reiterated the words here spoken by the Father when he later wrote about the trustworthiness of the prophetic word, and the confirmation of its fulfillment in Jesus, describing the location as “the holy mountain” (II Pet. 1:16ff.). These words from the Father also hearken back to the beginning of Jesus ministry at his baptism (Cf. Mt. 3:17), which Mark noted at the end of his beginning section on prophetic fulfillment in Jesus (1:1ff), who is believed to have written his gospel as Peter’s assistant, as it were (v. 11). Matthew also recorded these words spoken even earlier in the predictive prophecy of Isaiah, drawing the connection to the Servant spoken of there (12:18ff; Is. 42:1-4). From Moses we also have the prediction of the prophet who would come after him, a clear reference to the Messiah whom must be heard, who would come speaking in the Father’s name (Dt. 18:15ff.).
Peter drew this same connection in his sermon at Solomon’s portico, as recorded by Luke at Acts 3:22-23, which he connects with the fulfillment of the promises of the Abrahamic covenant wherein is included the promise that the nations would be blessed through him (Acts 3:24), which links Luke’s second volume of Jesus’ person and work, with his first (24:25). On the other hand, the appearance of Elijah led the three apostles to ask Jesus why the scribes indicated that Elijah must come first (v. 10 Cf. Mk. 9:11). Most will understand that Jesus’ answer was an affirmation that in reality John the Baptist did come to fulfill this role (vv. 11-12 Cf. 11:14; 16:14; Lk. 1:17), however there is something more to note about this specific prediction. Malachi said that Elijah would come before the “the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (4:5), which did not specifically occur at Jesus first coming.
“The great and dreadful day” would come when the Son of Man ascended upon his throne to reign as the messianic Prophet-Priest-King, with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 AD! This is the event referred to by Daniel, when the Son of Man would come to the ancient of Days and begin his reign at his right hand (7-9). This is also why when Jesus read from Isaiah at the inauguration of his ministry he stopped short of this judgment (Is. 61:2b), leaving it also as the next prophetic fulfillment in line with what would follow his physical earthly work (Lk. 4:18-19ff.; Is. 61:1-2a). The apostles came to understand that John came in “the spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk. 1:17), but it would take the ascension, the sending of the spirit, and the fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions of Matthew 24-25, for them to understand the literal fulfillment of this prediction from Malachi (Cf. 4:6).