Dress for the job you want, they say. But Jesus didn’t. Except for this one time. Far from the cities of power, three trusted friends glimpsed him dressed in regal glory.
They had just declared him as God’s anointed ruler (16:16), and he said they would see him rise to power in his Father’s glory (16:27-28). For a brief moment they saw it:
Matthew 17:1-8 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 Six days later, Jesus takes Peter and James and John his brother. He leads them up a high mountain on their own. 2 He was visibly transformed before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothing became as bright as sunlight. 3 And look! They saw Moses and Elijah in dialog with him.
4 Peter responded to Jesus, “Lord, it’s so good for us to be here. If you like, I’ll set up three shelters here: one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and take note: a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my son, the one I love, the one I’m pleased with. Listen to him!”
6 Hearing it, his followers fell on their faces, utterly terrified. 7 Jesus came over to them, reached out to them, and said, “Stand up! Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one else, just Jesus.
We’ll come back to Moses and Elijah, but the main voice is the one that speaks from the cloud, identifying Jesus as my Son. The Father is not visible, but he is present in the cloud. In a pillar of cloud, he rescued Israel from Pharaoh and led them (Exodus 13:21-22; 14:24; 16:10). On Mount Sinai, he spoke from the cloud (Exodus 19:9; 24:16; 34:5). The cloud of his glory filled the house they built for him (Exodus 40:34-38; 1 Kings 8:10-12). Even in exile, Ezekiel saw an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light, with the light falling on a figure like that of a man and a voice speaking from the cloud (Ezekiel 1:4, 25-28).
God speaks rarely, but consistently. Remember Jesus’ baptism?
A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17).
So, this must be important:
- This is my Son: Jesus is the eternal Son, but here the Father affirms him as the Son who restores heaven’s reign to the earth (compare Psalm 2; 2 Samuel 7), underscoring the significance of Peter’s declaration in 16:16.
- whom I love: The Father’s beloved is the one he has chosen to rule with his authority. That’s how Luke understood the voice from the cloud: This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him (Luke 9:35).
- with him I am well pleased: The one the Father delights in is the one to whom he is pleased to give kingship over earth.
The restoration of God’s reign on earth has been God’s message all along. Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the fulfilment of these promises. That’s why Matthew 12:18 quoted Isaiah 42:1:
“Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”
That’s why it’s so crucial to Listen to him! The restoration of heaven’s reign requires earth to be responsive to God’s anointed. Divine rule is restored as the nations recognize his authority and learn to obey the Commander-In-Chief who is present among us (Matthew 28:18-20).
On Mount Sinai, the voice from the cloud was so terrifying that God’s people asked him not to speak directly to them. For the rest of the Old Testament, God spoke to them through Moses and the prophets. When God did speak again on the mount of transfiguration, the disciples fell facedown to the ground, terrified. God directed them to listen to his Son, the one who is the revelation of heaven’s kingship on the earth.
Facedown on the mountainside, they heard Jesus’ reassuring voice raising them up, draining their fear (17:7). They looked up to see only Jesus, their closest friend. But after this experience, I doubt they ever looked at him in quite the same way.
They had just begun to see him as God’s anointed, the Son with the authority of the living God (16:16). Now they knew this was not their own idea; it was the decree of Heaven.
Earth itself is reconciled in the one with whom heaven is well pleased.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 643-644:
The experience is described in v. 9 as a “vision,” and is narrated in vivid terms of the disciples’ visual and auditory sensations. The location on a high mountain away from other people adds to a sense of otherness and marks this incident as of a different character from the dealings with ordinary people and situations which make up the rest of the Galilean and journey narratives. The other-worldly atmosphere is further enhanced by the visible presence of Moses and Elijah, men long since removed from the earthly scene, and by the supernatural aura of brightness in the appearance of Jesus and of the cloud. We cannot, and need not, know what a cinecamera on the mountain would have recorded; in the experience of the disciples heaven has invaded earth and the super-human glory of the Messiah has been revealed. They, unlike their nine colleagues (“some of those standing here”), have been privileged to “see the Son of Man coming in his kingship,” (16:28) even while he has still to complete the earthly mission of suffering and death through which that kingship is yet to be established. The discussion on the way down the mountain will underline that paradox.
- Heaven’s proclamation of Jesus (Mt 3:17)
- Declaring Jesus king (Mt 16:13-16)
- Jesus as global leader (Mt 16:13-17)
Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added. instead of NIV.