All Scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible (1995 Ed.)
V.1) Six days after Jesus begins to explain the necessity of His suffering, death, and resurrection at Jerusalem, and lays out the requirements of following Him, He selects His closest disciples to behold a manifestation of His divine glory. Jesus evidently took six days from the time of this shocking teaching to set apart Peter, James, and John from the rest of the disciples, and begin their ascent up the “high mountain”.
In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, the fact that there was about a week’s time between Jesus’s hard sayings and their ascent isn’t what’s significant, because Luke also says this in Luke 9 by calling the time period “some eight days”. What’s significant is the fact that it was specifically six days after Jesus laid down His demands for His people. What happens on the day after these six days is a display of His heavenly glory to only a few of His people. All this is a repeat of what the Lord did for the people of Israel, and then for Moses and Joshua, after the giving of the Law, in Exodus 24:12-18. Just as Jesus gave His demands for His disciples, and then six days after showed a special display of His glory to some of them on a mountain, so the Lord gave His demands for Israel, and then six days later called Moses and Joshua closer to the top of Mt. Sinai, where He showed them a special manifestation of His glory.
But why did He choose these three disciples? First, because Peter was the natural leader among them, evidenced by his boldness, outspokenness, and courage. Second, James and John came from the same strong, fisherman stock, and were budding leaders themselves. This is supported by the fact that Jesus nicknamed them “the sons of thunder” (boanerges in Greek); John calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” especially in his Gospel; and they were brought with Peter to be with Jesus during other special events recorded in the Gospels. As the leaders of the apostles and disciples, they needed to see a vision of Christ’s heavenly glory to have the hope and encouragement to regroup the disciples after Jesus’s arrest, crucifixion, and burial.
V. 2) After they ascend up the high mountain, away from all the other disciples, God shows the three apostles Jesus’s heavenly glory by “transfiguring” Him in front of them. This word simply means “change in appearance”, and resulted in His face shining as bright as the sun, and His clothes lighting up in white. This was a manifestation of His divine nature to the apostles, showing them that He was indeed “the Son of Man” of Daniel 7, and “the Son of the living God”, as Peter had acknowledged in the last chapter.
In the context of the story, part of the purpose of this appearance is to assure these apostles that they would eventually see “the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”, as Jesus promises in the last verse of chapter 16 (v. 28). This is just a taste of the heavenly glory that they will see in the future through the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2), and will serve as a source of encouragement and hope after they see their Messiah arrested to be tortured, nailed to a cross, and killed.
Vss. 3-5) Not only do the three apostles see Jesus in heavenly glory, but they also see Moses and Elijah “talking with Him”. Luke 9:31 tells us that they were talking about His death in Jerusalem, but none of the Gospels say whether the apostles could make out their words. However, somehow they did recognize them to be Moses and Elijah, since Peter specifically uses their names in his offer to Jesus.
Peter foolishly asks Jesus if He wants them to make three “tabernacles”, or tents, for them to sleep in, since it’s “good” for them to be there. Although this offer was foolish, it was motivated by a good desire, since he recognized that what they were seeing and hearing was a beautiful and awesome display of Jesus’s heavenly glory. Thus, he wanted to stay on the mountain longer to experience more of this fantastic encounter.
God shows us that Peter’s offer was foolish by the way He responds to it. First, He uses a “bright cloud” to cover the apostles. This is a manifestation of the Father’s glory that He uses to get the apostles attention, and to show them that He’s the One who’s about to speak. Second, He identifies Jesus as His “beloved Son,” who He’s very pleased with. This is a reference to God’s prophecy in Isaiah 42:1 about His “servant” who He “delights” in, which is clear identification of the Messiah. Further, God’s description of Jesus as the Son whom He loves, and with whom He’s pleased, is an implicit declaration of Jesus’s shared nature with God, since He enjoys the special relationship of knowing God as His Father, a relationship that wasn’t fully and clearly experienced by any believer before then. And the fact that God is very pleased with Him shows that He’s never sinned against Him, and never will. It is this divine Man who is the perfect Messiah that God commands the apostles to “listen” to.
But why does He command them to listen to Him? Because they had been failing to do so by hearing His words, but refusing to believe all He said, and to obey all He commanded. Peter had given a gross demonstration of this recently by attempting to persuade Jesus that it wasn’t God’s will for Him to go to Jerusalem and be murdered. But even now, God commanded them to listen to Him because Peter had just put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. How? By offering to build three tents for each of them. To the Jews, Moses represented the first five books of the Bible written by him — known as the Law — and Elijah represented one of the greatest of the prophets, and the last of the prophets to prophesy to Israel in the last days, according to Malachi 4:5. Thus, when God commands the apostles to listen to Jesus, He’s implying that they need to stop listening to the Law and the rest of the Old Testament — “the Prophets” — in the same way that they listen to Jesus. Jesus must be listened to first and above the Old Testament, since He’s God’s beloved Son with whom He’s very pleased.
Vss. 6-8) The apostles respond to God’s spectacular presence and voice by falling down in utter terror. So Jesus approaches them, touches them, and commands them to get up, and to stop being afraid. This is the first test of their obedience to Jesus after being chastised by the Father for not listening to Him. When they look up, their sight confirms the Father’s emphasis on Jesus, since Moses and Elijah are gone, and the only One they see is Jesus, whom Matthew describes as “Himself alone”, suggesting that He’s now back to His normal appearance.
V.9) On their way down the mountain, Jesus forbids the apostles from telling anyone about “the vision . . . until the Son of Man has risen from the dead”. Jesus often calls Himself “the Son of Man” in the Gospels, so they know that He’s referring to Himself. However, it’s also a title used of the Old Testament Messiah, so He’s again affirming that He’s the beloved Son of God, with whom He’s very pleased, and that the Messiah they thought they were hoping for would have to die, and rise from the dead.
But why did He forbid them from describing the vision to anyone until the resurrection? Because this would be another piece of evidence of His messiahship, and would entice His other disciples or followers to force Him to use His divine power to establish a physical, earthly kingdom over Israel. This is consistent with His recent command for His disciples to tell no one that He’s the Messiah and Son of God at the end of chapter 16.
Vss. 10-13) The three apostles respond to Jesus’s command by asking Him why “the scribes say that Elijah must come” before the Messiah does. The scribes were experts in the Old Testament, and so the disciples naturally assumed that they rightly interpreted Old Testament prophecy. On the surface, what they taught about the prophecy about Elijah in Malachi 4:5 seemed to be exactly what it says: “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.”
The “day of the Lord” is the time when the Messiah would come to save God’s people, and to bring judgment on their enemies. That’s what Jesus had been teaching over and over that He’d been sent to do. Hence, He was implying that Elijah had already come. But the scribes interpreted this prophecy literally, and taught that Elijah himself, the Old Testament prophet, would come before the Messiah. Thus, the apostles ask Jesus why they say this, when Elijah clearly hasn’t come, but the Messiah has.
First, Jesus answers by affirming the surface reading of Malachi 4:5-6, which finishes with, “[Elijah] will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers . . .” (Mal. 4:6a). This is a general restoration of “all things” in Israel, through the preaching of baptism and repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and of the nearness of the Messiah’s establishment of His kingdom. In other words, Jesus’s not speaking literally when He uses the phrase “all things”, but in a general sense in the context of the Jews. So, when Jesus says this, He’s agreeing that what Malachi said was true: someone like the great, rejected, prophet Elijah would come, and restore some of the Jews to a proper view of the Law, of themselves, and of their need for forgiveness, and a Savior and King.
However, in verse 12, Jesus tells the apostles that what the scribes got wrong was the identity of Elijah. Rather than being a future figure before the establishment of a physical, earthly salvation and kingdom, the Elijah Malachi had prophesied was someone that the scribes didn’t recognize, and mistreated however they wanted. In the same way, Jesus Himself, the messianic Son of Man, is going to experience suffering from them. By hearing this, the three disciples come to understand that Malachi’s Elijah wasn’t Elijah himself, but John the Baptist, who, according to his father in Luke 1:17, came “in the spirit and power of Elijah”.
Applications for Believers
This passage teaches us at least two important things about learning and applying Scripture.
- Because the Father commanded the disciples to listen to Jesus over the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah, He was implying that Jesus’s teaching is now the primary revelation that people are to learn and obey. And since the New Testament apostles continued Jesus’s teaching through their writings, this includes the entire New Testament. Therefore, even the Old Testament is to be interpreted and applied according to New Testament teaching.
- Old Testament prophecy can’t be assumed to mean literally what it says. Jesus’s teaching of Malachi 4:5-6 is a great example of this. Although the scribes interpreted this passage to be literally speaking of Elijah, it really wasn’t. It was speaking symbolically and figuratively. When we interpret Old Testament prophecy, therefore, we need to consult New Testament teaching on that passage, or that subject, before we come to a conclusion about what it means.