IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 32, October 4 to October 10, 1999

Matthew 17:1-13

by Dr. Knox Chamblin


  1. THE PREFACE. 17:1.

    1. The Context.

      The proximity of 16:13-28, and the "After six days" of 17:1, connect the present event with Peter's confession and with Jesus' prophecies of his death and resurrection and glorious coming. The transfiguration (1) will underscore the truth of Jesus' words that his suffering and death are not his ultimate end but a prelude to his resurrection (v. 21b), and (2) will provide an anticipation of those coming anticipations of the Parousia (v. 28).

    2. The Mountain.

      All the Synoptics speak of a "mountain," Mk and Mt of a "high mountain"; none identifies the mountain. The two most frequent suggestions are Hermon and Tabor. Hermon is northeast of, and relatively near to, Caesarea Philippi (16:13); Tabor is southwest of the Sea of Galilee. But Tabor is not very high (1,929 feet above sea level) and does not lie on the path between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum (17:22, 24). Hermon poses problems because of its great height (9,232 feet) and its location in Gentile territory (Mk 9:14); see Carson, 384. An attractive alternative (mentioned by Carson, 384) is Mount Meron, which is rather high (3,963 feet), is located roughly between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum, and could easily be reached within a week. In any case, for Matthew the important facts are that Jesus is transfigured, and that this occurs on a high mountain.

    3. The Privacy.

      In ascending the mountain, Jesus withdraws both from the crowds (cf. 17:14; 14:23) and from most of the disciples (he takes only three). While Jesus wants at least some disciples to witness what is to happen (for reasons stated under A.), the privacy of the event prevents a fresh outbreak of false Messianic hopes - which would expect Jesus' instant enthronement (glory without suffering) and would impede his fulfilling the Servant's task (glory through suffering); cf. comments on 4:8-10. So during the descent Jesus instructs the three, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead" (17:9).


    1. The Scene of the Transfiguration.

      "The high mountain [oros]" (v. 1) is reminiscent of Sinai (cf. 5:1, where again oros is used). Gundry, 342, draws special attention to Ex 24:16, where the cloud of God's glory covers Sinai for six days (cf. Mt 17:1) before God speaks to Moses from within the cloud (cf. Mt 17:5). The parallels are not exact but suggestive.

    2. The Transformation of Jesus.

      "There he was transfigured [metemorphothae] before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (v. 2). The second sentence explains the nature of the transfiguration (Gundry, 343). The shining of Jesus' face recalls Ex 34:29-30, where twice it is said that Moses' "face was radiant" from his having spoken with Yahweh. Cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18, where, having spoken of the radiance of Moses' face (vv. 7-13), Paul concludes by saying, "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed [metamorphoumetha, as in Mt 17:2] into his likeness" (v. 18).

    3. The Appearance of Moses.

      Strong support for the above reading of 17:1-2, comes from the very next statement: "Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus" (v. 3). It is implied that this conversation disclosed the identity of the two other figures; otherwise how could Peter have made the statement of v. 4? (Note, in view of the above discussion, that according to Lk 9:31 "they spoke about his departure [Greek exodos], which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.")

      It is frequently suggested that Moses represents OT Law, and Elijah the OT Prophets (for the previous references to "the Law and the Prophets" in Mt, see 5:17; 7:12; 11:13). While this is certainly in keeping with Matthew's presentation of Jesus as the One in whom the entirety of the OT is fulfilled (5:17-20), it does not totally explain the present scene. Very significantly, "both Moses and Elijah conversed with God on Mount Sinai, or Horeb (Exodus 33:18-23; 1 Kings 19:9-14)" (Gundry, 343). (Gundry also observes, ibid., that Moses is portrayed in the OT as a prophet, Deut 18:15, and that Elijah is not numbered among the writing prophets.) Within the scene of the transfiguration itself, Matthew focuses more on Moses than on Elijah (instead of the "Elijah with Moses" of Mk 9:4, Mt 17:3 has "Moses and Elijah"); but see below on 17:10-13.


    1. The Witness of God the Father. 17:5.

      1. The corrective. Peter's words, "If you wish, I will put up three shelters - one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (v. 4b), contain Exodus imagery ("shelters," skanas = "tabernacles" or sukkoth); but they also might suggest that Jesus stands on equal ground with Moses and Elijah (despite 16:13-16!). So "while [Peter] was still speaking," God interrupts him to clarify things.

      2. God's witness to the Son. The voice speaks of Jesus exclusively, and identifies him as God's - only - Son (cf. 16:16). The statement "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased," is identical to that of 3:17 (see that discussion).

      3. The Father's command. The Father concludes by commanding, "Listen to him!" - words reminiscent of Moses' prophecy about Jesus in Deut 18:15b. The command is directed to the disciples (and to Moses and Elijah too?), and immediately concerns the teaching of 16:21-28.

    2. The Glory of God the Son.

      1. Jesus the center of attention. Just as notable as Matthew's description of Jesus' brilliance (v. 2), is the absence of such a description for Moses and Elijah (v. 3). The latter two simply appear before the disciples, talking with Jesus. To be sure, Lk 9:30-31 tells us that "two men talked with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory [en doxa]..." (RSV). But then Luke immediately adds: "Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory [tan doxan autou] and the two men standing with him" (9:32). Thus the earlier phrase "in glory" shows Moses and Elijah to be "visitors from heaven" (I. H. Marshall, Luke, 384) and/or to be enveloped in Jesus' own glory. Luke no less than Matthew witnesses to Jesus' singular glory. Moreover (to return to Mt), it is Jesus alone of whom the heavenly Voice speaks; and he is identified in words that would be quite inappropriate for Moses and Elijah. And in the end, v. 8, the disciples "saw no one except Jesus."

      2. Jesus the object of worship. Peter has just confessed Jesus to be "the Son of the living God" (16:16); now God declares, "This is my Son..." (17:5). So while the transfigured Jesus recalls Moses on the mountain, he also recalls Yahweh on the mountain. The brilliance which shines forth from Jesus is not (as with Moses) a reflected glory but an inherent glory, the glory of Yahweh himself (cf. Jn 1:14). Moses, Elijah and the disciples are with Jesus as Moses was with Yahweh. As both Moses and Elijah conversed with Yahweh on Sinai, so here too both of them converse with Jesus, Yahweh incarnate and now disclosed in glory. "Moses meets 'God with us' on a new cloud-covered Sinai just as he met God on the old cloud-covered Sinai" (Gundry, 344). There is an important difference, however. In face of the disciples' (quite predictable) fear over the awesome presence of God, Jesus - God incarnate - comes to them, touches them and speaks to them to dispel their fear (v. 7). Cf. Rev 1:16-17, "In his right hand he held seven stars.... His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: 'Do not be afraid....'" Jesus, "God with us," bridges the gap between the terrifying majesty of God the Father and the frail human beings trembling with fear before him on the mountain. Recalling this event, Peter writes: "We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory [doxan] from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory [doxas], saying, 'This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.' We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain" (2 Pet 1:16b-18). God the Son and God the Father so fill Peter's vision, that he does not even mention that the great figures Moses and Elijah were present as well! Again the mountain is not located; what matters is that it was a sacred mountain, because the glory of both God the Father and God the Son was disclosed there. For the same reason, the mountain where God met Moses was called holy, Ex 3:5 (cf. Michael Green, 2 Peter and Jude, 85). Identifying the geographical location of the mount of transfiguration, would have encouraged the veneration of a place instead of God.

  4. JESUS AND ELIJAH. 17:9-13.

    1. The Disciples' Question. 17:10.

      The questioners are the three disciples of v. 1; they have yet to join the larger company (cf. v. 19). Their question is prompted both by Elijah's appearance on the mountain and also - and more immediately - by Jesus' statement in v. 9. Note that the question begins, "Why then [oun]...?"

      The logical connection between Jesus' statement and the disciples' question is this: Jesus has just said that he, the Son of Man, is going to rise from the dead, which means that he is first going to die (as expressly stated in 16:21). But if Elijah is going to come to "restore all things," how then can there be room for the suffering and death of the Son of Man? Will not Elijah's reconciling and renewing work (cf. Lk 1:17) alter the progress of events and save Jesus from such a fate? (For this reading of 17:9-10, see also Carson 388-89, Gundry 346-47.)

    2. Jesus' Answer. 17:11-13.

      "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things" (v. 11). The second verb (apokatastasei) is a true future and the first verb (erchetai) should, I believe, be interpreted as a futuristic present ("will come," as in KJV and NEB). In using the future tense, Jesus is not speaking of an event that is yet to occur (against Gundry, 347). Rather, he places himself in the position of the prophecy of Mal 4:5-6 as originally uttered (significantly the same verb, apokathistami, occurs in the LXX of Mal 4:6, LXX 3:23). Then in v. 12 Jesus speaks of the prophecy as fulfilled: "But I tell you, Elijah has already come...." Moreover, "they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished" - i.e., caused him to experience suffering and death (v. 12; cf. the report of John's death in 14:1-12). Does this mean that Malachi's prophecy remained unfulfilled, and that the adverse response to John prevented his "restoring all things"? No; but it does mean that the restoration and reconciliation take place by unforeseen means. Israel's failure to recognize John corresponds to her failure to recognize Jesus; and having thus failed, Israel (through her leaders) rejected and eliminated them both (cf. the discussion of 11:16-19). But the Son of Man's suffering (v. 12b) was to be the very means for accomplishing God's saving (or reconciling) purpose. Accordingly, as John's mission was integral to that purpose, it was fitting that his experience, like his preaching, should point to Messiah's work. One of the most poignant ways in which John the Baptist foretold the work of Messiah, was by his own suffering and death. The Elijah of Malachi, far from forestalling Messiah's death, would actually foreshadow his death.