Jesus’ Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1–13

Read the Passage: Matthew 17:1-13

Context (17:1–3)

Matt. 17:1–13 contains one of the most interesting and well-known narratives in Jesus’ ministry—that is, the account of the transfiguration of Christ. This narrative is given in each of the Synoptic Gospels, is mentioned by Peter at 2 Pet. 1:17–18, as well as John (cf. John 1:14). The reason why Jesus chose to reveal His divine glory, which he had earlier set aside (cf. John 17:5; Phil. 2:7), to the disciples is unclear. Perhaps this event was for the disciples’ later benefit (cf. Rom. 15:4). It is clear that the transfiguration was a planned event, as in each of the Synoptic Gospels this event is preceded by Jesus’ promise that some of the disciples would “see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). It is also important to note, as Luke informs us, that Christ’s purpose in ascending the mountain with Peter, James, and John is to pray (see Luke 9:28).

In Luke’s narrative of the transfiguration we learn that upon ascending the mountain—likely Mt. Heron—the disciples dozed off, for they “were heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). While they slept, Jesus was transfigured into a glorious state, presumably in prayer, and He talked with Moses and Elijah. None of the Gospel writers record the exact content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah; however, Luke summarizes their discussion in writing they “spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). It seems logical that Moses’ represents the law and Elijah represents the prophets. The law and the prophets was a Jewish euphemism for the entire Old Testament. Of course, both the law and the prophets repeatedly prophesy and testify about Jesus’ birth, death, burial, and resurrection (Deut. 18:15–22; Ps. 22; Isa. 53).

Conversation (17:4–8)

Peter, James, and John must have eventually learned that they were of special focus in Jesus’ ministry. Christ only allowed Peter, James, and John to see His raising of Jairus’ daughter (cf. Mark 5:35–43), here He allowed them alone to see His transfiguration, He would later give them alone special teaching about the end times (cf. Mark 13:3–28), and they alone would see His anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:32–42). Yet, at this point in time the disciples seem unaware that they were participating in a special event. Upon seeing Jesus transfigured—that is, transformed or changed in form—the disciples are greatly afraid. Their fear is only exacerbated when they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 17:5). Note that God delivered this same message, from Isa. 42:1, at Jesus’ baptism (cf. Matt. 3:17).

Each of the Synoptic Gospels records Peter’s recommendation upon seeing Jesus’ transfiguration, as well as the presence of Moses and Elijah. Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4). It is unclear exactly why Peter made this suggestion; however, from the other Gospel accounts, we do know that Peter made this suggestion “because he did not know what to say” (Mark 9:6) and “not knowing what he said” (Luke 9:33). Further, Luke notes that Peter made this suggestion as Moses and Elijah were departing (cf. Luke 9:33). It seems likely that Peter’s suggestion may have been made because he thought that Jesus was physically inaugurating the Kingdom of God (cf. Zech. 14:16) and wanted to keep the Feast of Tabernacles (cf. Deut. 16:13–17).

Command (17:9–13)

After the departure of Moses and Elijah, Jesus commanded the disciples, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead” (Matt. 17:9). Note that Jesus had previously referred to Himself as “the Son of Man” twelve times in Matthew’s Gospel, even doing so explicitly to the disciples (see Matt. 16:13). Clearly, the disciples were still bewildered by Christ’s transfiguration, for here they do not ask Jesus about his rising from the dead. Rather, still focusing on the Kingdom implications of the events they had just witnessed, they ask about Pharisees’ teaching on Elijah. Jesus responded by teaching, in accord with Mal. 4:5–6, that Elijah would precede the coming of the Messiah. Further, Christ taught that “Elijah has come already” (Matt. 17:12; cf. Matt. 11:14), which the disciples rightly understood to be a reference to John the Baptist.

Application Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration? Why did Christ only reveal His glory to Peter, James, and John? Why did Jesus command them to keep this event secret?
  2. In what ways will our future, glorified bodies be similar to Jesus’ transfigured body (cf. Rom. 8:11; 1 Cor. 15:49; 2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:20–21; 1 John 3:2)?
  3. What effect do you think the transfiguration had upon Peter, James, and John? What have been some landmark events in your Christian life?
  4. Is it significant that the message of the voice from heaven is recorded in all of the Synoptic Gospel accounts of this event, as well as at 1 Pet. 1:17?
  5. How could John the Baptist clearly teach that he was not Elijah (cf. John 1:21), while Jesus clearly taught that John was Elijah (cf. Matt. 11:14; 17:12)?