- Main Text: Matthew 16:24-17:8
- Accompanying text: Psalm 41:7-10
What this passage means to us
At times Jesus would make statements that on face value seem contradictory, but, when analysed further, are full of meaning. Those statements are examples of “paradox”, a figure of speech used by Jesus as a technique to impart spiritual insights and truth to those who follow him. Jesus had already explained that eternal life comes only through death and resurrection. He had told the disciples that in order to live, you die; to gain, you give; to claim, you deny: to win, you lose, etc. He had explained before that believers need to take up their cross to follow him into life (Matthew 10:38). We interpret this today as meaning that Christians should be willing to suffer and carry burdens as they put Christianity into practice, but it’s more than that. At the time of Jesus there was only one possible meaning to taking up your cross, and that was the action of carrying the cross on which you’d be crucified. We bear our cross and, in so doing, participate in and follow Jesus’ bearing his cross, which he did on behalf of the whole world. Victims of crucifixion would bear their own cross. and, if the victims were too weak, others were made to help carry it to the site of crucifixion. When Jesus was crucified and the cross was too heavy for him, “they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. Him they compelled to bear His cross” (Matthew 27:32). To bear one’s cross implies a spirit of sacrifice, being willing to die for Jesus’ sake, and being willing to lay down our lives for others.
The transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is more than just a healer, a teacher, a miracle-worker, an exorcist, a mystic, a rabbi, a deliverer, or even the promised messiah. He is all those things and more. Matthew describes how Jesus was the living fulfilment of the messianic prophecies, and how the disciples had witnessed the miracles and had listened to his teachings. He also notes Peter’s statement that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), but what did that mean? What was its full impact? Matthew, the ex-tax collector who would have written down detailed accounts of transactions, then records in detail an event which he didn’t witness and in which he played no part. I wonder how he and the other disciples would have felt about not being included in the inner circle of Peter, James and John. How would Judas Iscariot have reacted? After all he was the treasurer – surely, he was entitled to be in the special group? We don’t know. What we do know is that nothing deterred Matthew from writing down his gospel account as it progressed to its climax when Christ declares that “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). The compassionate healings, the amazing miracles, the powerful sermons, Old Testament predictions coming to pass, they all led to this astonishing conclusion. The transfiguration confirms it. Everything was changing and being transformed because of Jesus. Joseph Tkach connects the resurrection appearances to the transfiguration event: “Though Peter, James and John had glimpsed something of Jesus’ full glory at the transfiguration, now all his disciples beheld it as Jesus appeared and disappeared before and among them. It became evident to them that Jesus had authority over space and time as well as over life and death. Jesus’ earthly work involved a transfiguration of the relationship between God and humanity that, necessarily, involved the transformation of the temporal and spatial relations in which human life exists (without that life ceasing to be creaturely human life)” .
Peter in particular was about to have his worldview transformed. Initially and understandably, Peter reacted out of his own cultural and religious experience. To paraphrase his words “Let’s celebrate Jesus as if he’s another Elijah or another Moses. We’ll build three centres of worship, out of deferential respect for each of them”. But was Jesus just another great and wonderful man of God such as Elijah the prophet and Moses the law-giver? The answer is no, he wasn’t and isn’t – Jesus is so much more. Jesus is not another Elijah or another Moses, and what he has to say is not of equal value to the Prophets and the Law of the Old Testament. The voice from heaven proclaims, “Listen to him”, not listen to Elijah or to Moses. Jesus is more glorious, and his teachings and commandments greater – they are the words of eternal life. Peter recalls the impact of the vision, “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He (Jesus) received honour and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, 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 Peter 1:16-18). Therefore today, Christians witness to Christ’s Majesty in our lives, and we obey his words above all others.
Context and Story-line
Jesus had predicted to the disciples that that “he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). In telling them to take up their cross and follow him, it’s clear that Jesus knew beforehand the manner of the death that lay ahead of him, that is, crucifixion.
The story flow continues to the transfiguration event. Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a mountain (probably Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon), where they receive a vision in which Moses and Elijah are in discussion with Jesus. This vision reinforces Matthew’s message to his readers, that Jesus is the Messiah, the one to whom all of us should turn and listen. The face of Jesus “shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light” (Matthew 17:2), reminiscent of when Moses descended from Mount Sinai.
In his exuberance the excited Peter blurts out his idea about having three tents built, one each for Elijah, Moses and Jesus. A bright cloud then covered the disciples and a voice from the cloud announces “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5), echoing the words of voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism, which words none of the disciples had heard. The whole experience was terrifying to Peter, James and John, so much so that they fell facedown to the ground. Jesus, however, comforted them, telling them not to be afraid, and when they looked up to him, the vision disappeared. On the way down from the mountain, Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone of the vision until after the resurrection. The disciples were confused by what had happened, and they wondered whether Elijah was about to return. It’s happened already, Jesus told them, and they understood that he was referring to the ministry of John the Baptist.
Matthew records that Jesus continued to talk about his sacrificial death. “When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.’ And the disciples were filled with grief” (Matthew 17:22).
- Mark 8:34-9:13
- Luke 9:23-36
- 2 Peter 1:16-21
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