Read­ing Time: 11 minutes

(Ref. Text: Dan 7:9–10.13–14; 2Pet 1:16–19; Matt 17:1–9)

God places us in the world as his fel­low work­ers-agents of trans­fig­ur­a­tion. We work with God so that injustice is trans­figured into justice, so there will be more com­pas­sion and caring, that there will be more laughter and joy, that there will be more togeth­er­ness in God’s world.”  “The trans­fig­ur­a­tion of Jesus is one of the typ­ic­al facts of the resur­rec­tion of the body; not only of the glor­i­ous change, but of the renewed life of the body and of the gen­er­al judg­ment day.” 



This Sunday is the 18th Sunday (A) of the Church’s litur­gic­al cal­en­dar. Since August 6, 2017 which hap­pens to be the feast of the Trans­fig­ur­a­tion of Jesus occurs on a Sunday, the feast with its read­ings, replaces the read­ings of the 18th Sunday (A). The par­al­lel texts to Mat­thew 17:1–9 are Mark 9:2–8 and Luke 9:28–36. Among the three evan­gel­ists, only Luke under­lines that Jesus went up the moun­tain with his three dis­ciples to pray. And as he was pray­ing, Luke says his coun­ten­ance changed. That is, he was trans­figured. This is not sur­pris­ing because Luke gives much import­ance to pray­er. He con­ceives pray­er as intim­acy with God. Before tak­ing any ini­ti­at­ive, Jesus always con­sults his Fath­er in and through pray­er to be enlightened and instruc­ted on the best way to act. The trans­fig­ur­a­tion of Jesus is detailed explan­a­tion of the exper­i­ence nar­rated by Daniel (cf. First Reading).

The Context of Matthew 17:1–9

Six days after Peter’s con­fes­sion on Jesus’ iden­tity, Jesus took the three Apostles to a high moun­tain for this won­der­ful exper­i­ence (cf. Matt 17:1). While on this moun­tain, Jesus was trans­formed or trans­figured (Greek: meta­morph­oō). In the first cen­tury Juda­ism and in the Chris­ti­an (New) Test­a­ment, there was the belief that the right­eous get new and glor­i­fied bod­ies to enable them enter heav­en (cf. 1Cor 15:42–49; 2Cor 5:1–10). Thus, Jesus’ trans­form­a­tion means the right­eous will share the glory of God. This event fol­lows the ana­lys­is of the con­tent of the para­bol­ic dis­course (Matt 13). Before his entrance into Jer­u­s­alem, the final des­tin­a­tion and apex of his mis­sion, it was neces­sary that Jesus meet with the two cent­ral fig­ures of Juda­ism – Moses and Eli­jah. As the former cus­todi­ans of the To’rah (Law) and the Neviìm (Proph­ets), Jesus had to meet with Moses and Eli­jah to take over the Law and the Proph­ets which he has not come to abol­ish but to bring to ful­fil­ment (cf. Matt 5:17).

Moses and Elijah

Imme­di­ately after Jesus meta­morph­osed, Moses and Eli­jah appeared on the scene. But why these two? The most likely explan­a­tion is that Moses the law­giver appears as the rep­res­ent­at­ive of the old cov­en­ant and the prom­ise of sal­va­tion, which was to be ful­filled in the pas­sion, death, and resur­rec­tion of Jesus. On the oth­er hand, Eli­jah appears as the proph­et of the eschat­on – the end times (cf. Mal 4:5–6; Mark 9:11–13). Accord­ing to Matthew’s account, which dif­fers from Mark and Luke, the meta­morph­osed Jesus rep­res­ents the new Moses, who meets God on the new Sinai, in the cloud (Matt 17:5. Cf. Exod 24:15–18), with a lumin­ous face (Matt 17:2. Cf. Exod 34:29–35; 2Cor 3:7–4:6), assisted by the two import­ant per­son­al­it­ies of the Hebrew (Old) Test­a­ment, who had already bene­fit­ted from the divine rev­el­a­tion on the Sinai (cf. Exod 19; 33–34; 1kgs 19:9–13), and rep­res­ent the law and proph­ets, which Jesus has come to bring to ful­fil­ment (cf. Matt 5:17). Luke goes fur­ther and explains that both Moses and Eli­jah dis­cussed the death of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:31), but failed to give the con­tent or detail of such dis­cus­sion. We under­stand this was an offi­cial han­dover cere­mony between Moses, Eli­jah and Jesus. As Jesus approached Jer­u­s­alem, it became neces­sary to col­lect the import­ant doc­u­ments from Moses and Eli­jah. Both have com­pleted their ten­ure and there­fore, must hand over everything to Jesus. Hence­forth, everything about the Law and the Proph­ets will be under Jesus’ care. Is there any oth­er inter­pret­a­tion to these two fig­ures? Based on Luke 24:4 and Acts 1:10, some sus­tain that Moses and Eli­jah rep­res­ent the two angels that com­for­ted Jesus. This is unlikely to be true. First, because the two men men­tioned in Luke 24:4 did not com­fort Jesus, but the women who were per­plexed because they found Jesus’ tomb empty. Secondly, the two men men­tioned in Acts 1:10 appeared not to Jesus but to the dis­ciples dur­ing Jesus’ ascen­sion. The only place where an angel com­for­ted Jesus is dur­ing his agony in the Mount of Olives (cf. Luke 22:43). In the text just cited, it is only one angel that is men­tioned. To inter­pret Moses and Eli­jah as angels is to empty the meet­ing of these two with Jesus of its theo­lo­gic­al and salvif­ic contents.

And he was transfigured before them…

And he was trans­figured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matt 17:2). This is how Mat­thew described Jesus’ new look on get­ting to the moun­tain. Jesus took Peter, James and John with him, but only he was trans­formed. This is inter­est­ing. The three dis­ciples were not trans­figured because they were there only as wit­nesses. As a dazzling light is so bright that you can­not see for a short time after look­ing at it, the three dis­ciples must have lost their sight for a while. When Jesus was trans­formed, his appear­ance changed. This means the three dis­ciples now see Jesus in his glor­i­fied state (cf. John 17:5; 2Pet 1:17). But why this phys­ic­al trans­form­a­tion on the part of Jesus? Today, due to the desire to look young, impress oth­ers and appear spot­less, many people sub­ject them­selves to series of phys­ic­al dis­fig­ure­ment in the name of sur­gery, to modi­fy their physique. Jesus’ trans­form­a­tion was not on this level. Moreover, his trans­form­a­tion was not his decision. It was solely God’s decision.

To explain this divine trans­la­tion, Mat­thew uses the Greek verb meta­morph­oō (also meta­morph­oomai). Meta­morph­oō has both out­ward and inward sig­ni­fic­ances. When the nature of the change is inward, meta­morph­oō means be changed, be trans­formed. In this case, the change has to do with char­ac­ter, mind­set and per­son­hood (cf. Rom 12:2; 2Cor 3:18). On the oth­er hand, when the change of form is out­wardly clear, meta­morph­oō means change in appear­ance, be trans­figured. It is in this sense that the verb is used in Mat­thew 17:2. There­fore, Jesus’ trans­fig­ur­a­tion was out­ward. An out­ward change that pro­duced inward trans­form­a­tion in the dis­ciples. While Mat­thew and Mark use the same verb, Luke dif­fers, and situ­ates this event with­in the con­text of pray­er. This should not be a sur­prise because the theme of pray­er is so dear to Luke. For Luke, Jesus’ reas­on for going to the moun­tain was to pray (cf. Luke 9:28). And while he was pray­ing, his face was altered, and “his clothes became bright as a flash of light­ning” (Luke 9:29). It was after this that Moses and Eli­jah spoke with him. The trans­form­a­tion of Jesus has both imme­di­ate and remote con­nota­tions. While the imme­di­ate end recalls the glory he pos­sessed before his incarn­a­tion (cf. John 1:14; 17:5; Phil 2:6–7), the remote end is a ref­er­ence to his future apo­theosis (cf. 2Pet. 1:16–18; Rev 1:16). Has your encounter with God effected any change in you?

Peter’s reaction

Then Peter said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, we will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Eli­jah” (Matt 17:4). Peter’s reac­tion is inter­est­ing. Imme­di­ately they saw Jesus change, he sug­ges­ted to Jesus that it would be a good idea and decision if they could build three tents for him, Moses and Eli­jah. While Mark (9:6) notes that Peter did not know what to say because they were ter­ri­fied, Luke (9:33) says Peter did not even know what he said. This obser­va­tion from Mark and Luke means Peter was in a state of con­fu­sion. Because he was highly excited by this divine and unique exper­i­ence, he man­aged to utter some­thing without know­ing what he was say­ing, and without even being aware that he was speak­ing. Con­trar­ily, if we keep to Mat­thew who omit­ted the obser­va­tions of Mark and Luke, Peter knows exactly what he said. There are at least two sig­ni­fic­ances of his sug­ges­tion. First, he may have desired to erect new booths of meet­ing where God could once more com­mu­nic­ate with his people (cf. Exod 29:42). Secondly, he might be allud­ing to the tem­por­ary shel­ters con­struc­ted dur­ing the cel­eb­ra­tion of the feast of Tab­er­nacles (cf. Lev 23:42). Whichever be the case, Peter and the oth­er two apostles may have found ful­fil­ment of the prom­ised glory at the very moment of Jesus’ trans­fig­ur­a­tion. How­ever, Peter’s reac­tion reflects his char­ac­ter. His spon­taneity is also noticed in his attempt to stop Jesus from going to Jer­u­s­alem in obed­i­ence to his Fath­er (cf. Matt 16:21–23); and in his prom­ise to be with Jesus until death, a prom­ise he nev­er main­tained although he regret­ted his fail­ure (cf. Matt 26:30–35.69–75). The encounter with God is an encounter that changes a will­ing heart. This is not a myth (cf. Second Reading).

This is my beloved son…listen to him

While Peter “was still speak­ing, behold, a bright cloud over­shad­owed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, say­ing, this is my beloved son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to him” (Matt 17:5). As the celes­ti­al voice ordered the dis­ciples to listen to Jesus as the new Moses (Deut 18:15. Cf. Acts 3:20–26), they pros­trated them­selves before him (cf. Matt 28:17). The voice com­ing from the cloud is very sig­ni­fic­ance. The same thing happened dur­ing Jesus’ bap­tism (cf. 3:17). As Peter spoke, a bright cloud or a cloud full of light over­shad­owed them and a voice from the cloud declared Jesus son of God and summoned them to listen to him.

Gen­er­ally, cloud sym­bol­izes God’s pres­ence to guide and pro­tect (cf. Exod 13:21; 19:16). ‘This is my beloved son’ is an allu­sion to Psalm 2:7 (cf. also Isa 42:1). The invit­a­tion to listen to the son of God implies obed­i­ence. We should remem­ber that whenev­er and in whatever God is involved, the only true hear­ing is obed­i­ent hear­ing. That is, sin­cerely obey­ing what is heard (cf. Jas 1:22–25). When the dis­ciples heard the voice from the cloud, they threw them­selves on the ground with their faces down, ter­ri­fied. Throw­ing one­self to the ground is a sign of devo­tion, before high-rank­ing per­sons or divine beings. It is a sign of ador­a­tion. It is the atti­tude of a cre­ated being in the pres­ence of the holy of hol­ies. No cre­ated being remains on his/her feet while in God’s pres­ence. I hope this will make people espe­cially Chris­ti­ans re-think their atti­tude espe­cially, while in God’s house. Just think of so many things we do in our vari­ous churches and you will dis­cov­er we still have no fear of God.

In fact, Jesus’ meta­morph­os­is was:

  1. A rev­el­a­tion of the shek­i­nah (glory) of the son of God;
  2. A con­firm­a­tion of Jesus’ chal­len­ging teach­ing to the dis­ciples at Caesarea Phil­ippi (cf. Matt 16:13–17); and
  3. A use­ful exper­i­ence for the dis­ciples who were dis­cour­aged after Jesus reminded them of his immin­ent suf­fer­ing and death (cf. Matt 16:21).

The dis­ciples should not tell any­one what they exper­i­enced. How­ever, after Jesus’ resur­rec­tion, they were to announce to every­one all they have exper­i­enced (cf. Matt 28:16–20).

They were extremely frightened

When the dis­ciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were highly afraid” (Matt 17:6). When the dis­ciples heard the voice that affirms Jesus as his dear son, invit­ing them to listen to him, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. Why? Gen­er­ally, people’s under­stand­ing of fear is uni­direc­tion­al – neg­at­ive. But fear has both neg­at­ive and pos­it­ive sig­ni­fic­ance. Neg­at­ively, fear is that emo­tion exper­i­enced in the face of danger or in anti­cip­a­tion of a par­tic­u­lar pain or danger. It is being afraid, uneasy, anxious and appre­hens­ive about some­thing or about a prob­able situ­ation. It is anxious feel­ing. Pos­it­ively, fear is the feel­ing of pro­found respect for someone or for some­thing. It is regard with feel­ings of respect and rev­er­ence to God (cf. Luke 1:50), or towards a per­son (cf. Eph 5:33). That the dis­ciples were greatly afraid should be under­stood in this sense. In the Hebrew (Old) Test­a­ment, fear (Greek: phobos), that is, rev­er­ence, was a com­mon exper­i­ence of the Israel­ites in the pres­ence Elo­him (cf. Exod 19:16; Deut 5:5). As the psalm­ist observed, the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him. That is, on those who revere him (cf. Ps 33:18). The atti­tude of the dis­ciples recalls what Moses did in the pres­ence of the Almighty. When Moses heard the voice of God, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God (cf. Exod 3:6). Mat­thew 17:6 could be reph­rased in this form “when the dis­ciples heard this [the voice of God], they fell on their face and revered God.” This is a won­der­ful les­son. No cre­ated being hears the voice of God and remain stand­ing. Hence, Paul affirms, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heav­en and on earth and under the earth…” (Phil 2:10). ‘Every knee should bend or bow (Greek: pan gonu kampsē)’ is a Hebrew idiom sig­ni­fy­ing wor­ship. In Exodus 20:7, God told Moses to remind the Israel­ites that they should “not invoke the name of the Lord, their God, in vain.” Unfor­tu­nately, due to the care­less­ness of the con­tem­por­ary soci­ety and the so-called mod­ern­ity, this com­mand appears out­dated. Hence, people men­tion the name of God any­how and without regard. They hear the name of God and show no rev­er­ence. Even their atti­tude in the house of God is marked with dis­respect. Whatever we do in the pres­ence of God that that has noth­ing to do with wor­ship, must be elim­in­ated. Next page

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