Revelation and Discipleship
Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (April-June 1995): 201-10
James A. Penner
In his book The Training of the Twelve, Alexander B. Bruce wrote that ’the transfiguration is one of those passages in the Saviour’s earthly history which an expositor would rather pass over in reverent silence.’More than a decade ago, Thomas Best referred to the Transfiguration as ’arguably the most neglected of the major synoptic traditions.’ This situation has improved very little, especially in regard to the account in Matthew, perhaps because it is less unique than the account in Luke. However, ’reverent silence’ contributes little to understanding, and importance should not be measured by uniqueness.
The purpose of this article is to help break that silence and perhaps inspire exegetical study of this passage through outlining two particular elements in Matthew 17:1-9.
Liefeld suggests that a number of motifs are present in the Transfiguration narrative, and he states that the central theme of the Transfiguration is revelation. However, he considers all the Synoptic accounts together, rather than looking at the emphases of the individual Gospel writers. Not all the themes he mentions relate to the account in Matthew and one of his primary motifs, namely, an eschatological one, seems to be minor, if not lacking, in Matthew’s account. In noting Matthew’s unique contributions as well as his use of traditional material, this writer contends that Matthew’s account centers on a revelation of Jesus as the Son of God and the impact of that revelation on the disciples.
The Nature of Jesus
In Matthew 16:16, Peter confessed Jesus as ’the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ to which Jesus replied that such an identification can come only through revelation (v. 17). The Transfiguration pericope is linked to this confession through the temporal reference of ’six days’ in 17:1 and the similarity between Peter’s confession and the proclamation by God in 17:5. The Transfiguration is a confirmation from God Himself, which further reveals the nature of Jesus for the sake of the disciples, who so often doubted or misunderstood, even after giving such a confession.
The central focus of the Matthean Transfiguration account is God’s proclamation, ’This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!’ Morris suggests that this statement was, in part, an assurance for Jesus. However, this has only secondary significance, if any, since the words were directed to the disciples. Plummer suggests that the identification was meant as an assurance to the disciples in light of Jesus’ prophecy of His death in 16:21; even though the Messiah was rejected by His own people, He was not rejected by God the Father. This suggestion may have some validity, but since the focus of the proclamation is on Jesus as ’my Son, whom I love,’ it would seem that the primary emphasis is an identification and confirmation of Jesus’ nature and purpose. ’Listen to him’ is then the expected response of the disciples in light of such a recognition, and it is also a correction of their lack of understanding demonstrated through Peter’s suggestion that three shelters be built.
The command to listen also points to Jesus’ significance as the Son of God. While referring to Jesus as ’a prophet like [Moses]’ to whom they must listen (Deut. 18:15-20), the command seems also to separate Him from Moses and Elijah, setting Him on a completely different plain. The disciples are to listen to Him even more than they would to Moses or Elijah.
Some suggest the unique ’deaths’ of Moses and Elijah are the link between Jesus and the visitors and thus the reason for their appearance. However, unlike Luke, Matthew did not refer directly to Jesus’ death in the Transfiguration pericope, but only in a discussion after the appearance (Matt. 17:12; Mark 9:12; Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah’s appearance and God’s subsequent command to listen to Jesus do not seem to center on the prophecy of Jesus’ death in Matthew 16:21.
On the basis of Deuteronomy 18:15 and Malachi 4:5, some suggest that Jesus is the fulfillment of ’the prophet,’ represented by Moses and Elijah. Jesus is indeed ’a prophet like [Moses],’ but the same association is not present with Malachi 4:5, since John the Baptist is identified as Elijah immediately following the Transfiguration pericope (Matt. 17:10-13).
The appearance of Moses and Elijah in this account seems to center on the Law and the Prophets, indicative of the entire Old Testament. Matthew consistently connects the Law and Prophets as a single entity (5:17; 7:12; 11:13; 22:40). Gundry, while stating that Jesus was the new Moses, says that Moses and Elijah do not symbolize the Law and the Prophets, since Elijah was not one of the writing prophets. However, Elijah stands prominent as a prophet and there is no reason to suggest that because his name is not attached to a specific writing, he cannot stand as a representative of the prophets. In the Hebrew Old Testament the designation of <ya!yb!n+ is not exclusive to those writings bearing the name of a writing prophet. The appearance of Moses and Elijah, particularly in light of God’s pronouncement, seems to indicate that the issue at state, at least in part, is the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament.
Mounce suggests that the appearance of Moses and Elijah represents a correspondence between the cross and God’s will revealed in the Old Testament. This would be an adequate explanation except for the command to listen to Jesus, seemingly in contrast to listening to the others. The three being together does confirm a unity between Jesus and the Law and the Prophets and shows that the Old Testament bears witness of Jesus. However, as the Son of God, Jesus is set above the others as the new and greater Moses and Elijah, giving a new covenant while interpreting and fulfilling the Old Testament. Jesus, while a prophet like Moses (Deut. 18:15), is far superior to him, and is the One to whom the disciples must listen.
Peter’s suggestion to build three tents was likely for the purpose of honoring Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but it put the three on equal standing. It was not enough to acknowledge Jesus’ authority as equal to that of Moses and Elijah. His authority, based on His intimate relationship with the Father, is far greater. The proclamation from God was a rebuke of Peter’s mind-set as much as a rebuke of his suggestion as such.
Old Testament imagery is obviously a part of the Transfiguration account. Some suggest eschatological imagery, based particularly on the Feast of Booths, the glorious appearance of Jesus, and the appearance of Elijah. The reference to the glory of the Son of Man immediately before the Transfiguration pericope in Matthew 16:27-28 may suggest some eschatological overtones. However, Matthew placed emphasis on Mosaic allusions, particularly in the material unique to this Gospel. The reference to six days is temporal, but its inclusion may allude to a Mosaic theme (Exod. 24:16). Other important allusions are the mountain (Exod. 19; 24; 34), the glowing face (Exod. 34:29-35), the bright yet overshadowing cloud with the voice coming from it, and the disciples’ fear. These allusions point to Exodus 19 and 24. Also of particular significance is Exodus 34:5, in which Moses ascended Sinai, a cloud descended, and the Lord ’stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord.’ In the Transfiguration the Lord descended in a cloud and proclaimed Jesus’ identity.
These elements suggest a particular connection between Jesus and Moses. Jesus is identified with the prophet to come and yet He goes beyond all Mosaic similarities because He is the beloved Son in whom God Himself delights. Jesus takes the place of Moses and Elijah, being far greater than both. The superior and more glorious nature of Jesus and the covenant of which He is the Founder is shown visibly through His transformation and through God’s proclamation. His uniqueness is further demonstrated by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah after God’s proclamation. Jesus alone was left for the disciples to honor, though the full significance of His nature and mission would often be seen by the disciples only after His death and resurrection. As the Son of God, Jesus was portrayed as far above any other. His nature, mission, and message are completely unique.
A characteristic feature of the Transfiguration account in Matthew is an emphasis on discipleship. Recognition of the nature of Jesus as the Son of God necessitates obedience. The proclamation from God served as both an identification of Jesus and a command for the disciples to listen.
The disciples in Matthew’s Transfiguration account have both negative and positive characteristics. Represented by Peter, the disciples showed a lack of understanding regarding Jesus’ nature, even after receiving revelation about that nature (Matt. 16:17). In spite of this lack of recognition, however, they received acceptance and comfort from Him.
Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, the disciples are generally portrayed in a more gentle manner than in Mark. This characteristic is demonstrated in this pericope through the addition of eij qevlei’ (’if you wish,’ Matt. 17:4) in Peter’s suggestion and the omission of any reference to a lack of understanding. This allows for a demonstration of discipleship that, in part, is positive.
Also Matthew included reference to Jesus’ compassion in Matthew 17:7, which is not found in the other accounts: ’But Jesus came and touched them. ’Get up,’ he said. ’Don’t be afraid.’ ’ Different meanings of Jesus’ touch and statement in this verse have been suggested. Beare suggests that they enhance the understanding of Jesus’ majesty. Daniel relates Jesus’ statement, ’Get up. Don’t be afraid,’ to the proclamation in verse 5 as something they are to obey. However, the touch and assurance seems more comforting than majestic or commanding. Some suggest an ’ordination’ in which Jesus transmits His authority to the disciples, but this seems out of context with the pericope. Others suggest that the touch refers to healing. It is true that touching was used in healing and raising the dead, including the imperative ejgeivrw (’Get up’), but healing does not seem to be a major theme of this pericope. Other references to mhV fobei’sqe (’Do not be afraid’) in the Synoptics center around the caring and compassion of Christ for His disciples. God the Father cares for them and they are not to fear in the presence of a traumatic or spectacular event. This statement and touch of Jesus are an assurance of help and divine presence.
Jesus’ touch and call demonstrate compassion and gentleness without condemnation. The disciples seriously misunderstood Jesus’ true nature, as shown by Peter’s suggestion, which immediately resulted in God’s response. They had been admonished by the Father Himself, but the time for compassion and perhaps a spiritual or psychological ’healing’ had come.
Discipleship is a caring relationship with Jesus, as demonstrated through His compassion. It is also a relationship of obedience, in recognition of Jesus’ Person, mission, and message. His followers are to listen to Him above all others. Jesus’ exalted position is the reason for this respect and obedience, but this does not keep Him from caring for and meeting the needs of the disciples. Above all else, discipleship is a relationship with the Lord.
The Transfiguration account in Matthew centers on a revelation of the Person, message, and mission of Jesus, along with the expected response. As the Son of God, His message corresponds to the Law and the Prophets, but His authority is significantly greater. The expected response is discipleship--a relationship of obedience and compassion.
1. Jesus is on a plane completely different from any other, even such great men of God as Moses and Elijah. Any time the unique Person and position of Christ are neglected or lessened, one is on the side of the disciples who were firmly rebuked by the Father.
2. A person who claims allegiance to God must realize his need for uncompromising obedience to Jesus, the Son of God.
3. Though Jesus is unique in position and authority, He also demonstrates a compassion and loving care for His disciples. When they fall, Jesus does not add to their burden of guilt, but lovingly reaches out to them and lifts them from their fear, enabling them to continue on. He is compassionate and gentle.
The revelation of the Person of Jesus, the call to disciples to obey, and revelation of Jesus’ compassion are demonstrated throughout the Gospel of Matthew but is seldom, if ever, shown quite so succinctly and lucidly as in the Transfiguration pericope. The Transfiguration account revealed to the disciples the nature of the Person whom they were following and prepared them for the final stage of Jesus’ ministry, as He led them toward Jerusalem (Matt. 16:21; Luke 9:51).
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