6 March 2011

Matthew 17:1-9

"And he was transformed before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white." (v. 2)


This account is rich in references to the Messiah (the anointed one whom the Jews expected God to send as their liberator) and allusions to Jewish history. According to tradition Elijah would return as the herald of the Messiah and there was a belief that Moses would accompany the Messiah. On their way down the mountain the disciples asked about Elijah returning and inferred from Jesus' answer that John the Baptist played that role (verses 10-13). Moses, the supreme law-giver, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, together represent the Jewish covenant and journey with God. The Transfiguration can be interpreted as heralding a new covenant.

The luminous (or bright) cloud (verse 5) is a recurring visible symbol of the Shekhinah (the indwelling of God) (eg Exodus 13:21), while Jesus' brightly shining face recalls the radiant face of Moses when he had been in the presence of God (Exodus 34:29-35). The unseen voice echoes the message from the heavens at Jesus' Baptism. This is a reaffirmation of Jesus' person and role as he stands on the threshold of the most challenging part of his mission. It will underpin his commitment through Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46) and on to his crucifixion at Calvary.

For the disciples this preview of the glory of the resurrected Jesus is an answer to their earlier questioning of Jesus' statements about his forthcoming suffering and death (Matthew 16:21-23) - though it's a vision they will lose sight of during Jesus' arrest and execution. Peter's first reaction is to want to do something practical rather than to focus on learning from the experience. Such "dwellings" (verse 4) are temporary shelters (also called 'booths' or 'tabernacles'), which commemorate God's protection during the wilderness years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness (Leviticus 23:33-43).

The Transfiguration site is possibly Mount Hermon near Caesarea Philippi where Jesus was beforehand. Mountains are often linked to intense experiences of God's presence. But however much the disciples might like to stay, they must come down the mountain. Their first encounter will be with an epileptic boy (Matthew 17:14-21). It's a reminder that 'mountain top' experiences, moments of particular closeness to God, are not an end in themselves. They are meant to sustain us through difficult challenges and dark days of doubt and to inspire us to commit ourselves fully to the tasks set for us.

To Ponder

What is the most significant aspect of the Transfiguration for you?

What have been the your 'mountain top' experiences for you? How do you use the inspiration and insights you derive from the high points of your Christian journey to strengthen your faith when difficulties and doubts arise?

You probably don't have the obvious change in appearance that Moses experienced when he had been with God. So what is it about you that would tell people when you have been in the presence of God?

Bible notes author

Philip Sudworth

Philip has retired from a career in the education service. He is now kept busy by voluntary work with local children's charities.