NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 1: Six days later, Jesus took Peter, James, and John the brother of James and went up high on a mountainside. They were all alone there.
Even though Jesus did not feel bound by Jewish laws and customs as it relates to the doctrine of salvation, He did visit synagogues on the Sabbath and participated in the feasts to show that while this new agreement He came to introduce did not take away all aspects of the Jewish faith, it sure did give them a new dimension by bringing people into a closer relationship with God the Father. According to Matthew, it had been six days since Jesus’ confrontation with Peter, and that may require those who follow Him to give up their all for His cause. Mark, in his Gospel, mentions the same six-day gap in Jesus’ life and ministry. However, Luke and John mention that it was about eight days later that our Lord took Peter, James and John up to the mountain.
At this point in time, Jesus had no interest in being branded a rebel trying to overthrow the Jewish religious establishment and liberate His followers from Roman occupation. So there were occasions when He abided by the standard forms of dress, eating, and observing the restrictions that would affect His followers who wanted to go with Him, such as traveling on the Sabbath. So the difference in time between Matthew’s six-day account and that of John’s eight-day interval is affected by a Sabbath day. For instance, from Sunday after sunrise to Friday before sunset, Jesus continued to minister in Caesarea Philippi. He waited until Sunday morning before going up on to the mountain where the transfiguration took place. So Luke and John’s count included the ensuing Saturday and Sunday, while Matthew and Mark did not. The thing to remember is that John was on the mountain with Jesus when this took place. So Matthew knew when they left, but John knew when they arrived and all that happened up there on the mountain’s slopes.
I wonder if the disciples thought about what occurred to Moses when he was led up on the mountain to converse with God.1 Meeting on a mountain top with God was not new, we see it repeated in the Old Testament.2 Even Elijah had such an experience.3 Matthew chose not to identify this mountain. But since Jesus and His followers were still up in northern Galilee, having just finished His missionary journey to Caesarea Philippi, it would be a mountain in that region. As Dr. Lightfoot says: “So that it seems far more consonant to the history of the gospel, that Christ was transfigured on some mountain near Caesarea Philippi; perhaps that which, Josephus being witness, was the highest, and hung over the very fountains of Jordan, and at the foot whereof the city of Caesarea was placed.”4
Those who have visited in the area of Caesarea Philippi tell us that it lays at the head of the Jordan valley, on the highway from northern Palestine to Damascus. This area is surrounded by picturesque hills, covered with poplar, oak, and evergreen trees, along with fertile gardens watered by the many streams that sprang from the base of Mount Hermon. Caesarea Philippi was a Roman town situated on a triangular terrace, with the present Wady Hashabeh on the north and the Wady Zaareh on the south. On the east, there was also a protecting moat, while the inner city was surrounded by thick walls and guarded by towers. It was not within this heathen city but on the quiet hilltops and the spurs of Mount Hermon that rise to the north of the town, that Jesus found the refuge and peace which He often sought there.
The mountain has been known as Ba’al Hermon, Senir, Sirion, Sion, and by Josephus as Mt. Lebanon. Today the Arabs call it “Jabel A-talg” which translates as “the snow mountain.” More than twenty ancient temples have been found on the mountain or in its vicinity.
Mount Hermon is a massive mountain plateau, twenty miles long from northeast to southwest. Like most of the mountains of Palestine, it is composed of hard limestone, covered at places with soft chalk. On its northern side, the vineyards run up to a height of almost five thousand feet. Above are found scattered oaks, almond, and dwarf juniper trees. The mountain rises to the height of 9,050 feet and is crowned by three peaks. The northern and southern peaks are about the same height, while the western, separated from the others by a depression, is about one hundred feet lower. Mount Hermon commands a marvelous view of almost the entire land of Palestine. From the masses of snow which cover its broad top far into the summer and lie in its ravines throughout the year, flow the copious waters of the upper Jordan. But Jesus did not take His disciples up to these heights to view the land below, but to see a more spectacular view that came from above.
Verse 2: While these followers watched Him, Jesus suddenly changed right before their eyes. The skin on His face became bright like the sun, and His clothes became white as light.
The Greek text has, metamorphoō, which means “to change into another form.” It is interesting that the KJV uses the English word “transfigured” here because there is a difference between transformation and transfiguration. Basically, transformation implies a remaking of the nature of a person or object, which today is called “morphing.” Transfiguration, however, implies a revelation of the true inner nature. The text does not suggest any change in bodily form, but in bodily appearance. This can be compared to a person or thing being moved out of the shadows into the bright sunlight.
Any Jew hearing this account would not be surprised, even one of their own prophets records his experience: “And then those men took me and bore me up on to the sixth heaven, and there I saw seven bands of angels, very bright and very glorious, and their faces shining more than the sun’s shining, glistening, and there is no difference in their faces, or behavior, or manner of dress.”5 It is important to note that Jesus’s figure did not change into a form like those of heathen gods where the image is half human and half animal. Rather, being both divine and human the divine part of His nature was exposed for the disciples to see.
When it comes to the description of the change that took place in his garments, the Latin Vulgate, Ethiopic Version, and Münster’s Hebrew Gospel all say they became, “white as snow,” as does the King James Version.6 However, the New International Version, Complete Jewish Bible, and the Aramaic Version have, “white as light.” In any case, it was whiter than any bleach could make His garments, and it was illuminated with an inner light. Put together, we could say that Jesus’ garments turn as white as glistening snow.
We also see that Jesus shared a phenomenon with Moses when he encountered the Most High God on a mountain. “Aaron and all the people of Israel saw that Moses’ face was shining brightly. So they were afraid to go near him”.7 One Jewish commentator sees a correlation between what happened here with Solomon’s words: “For the law is a lamp, the Word is light, and makes clear that discipline is the way to life”.8 Says the Rabbi, “If Moses, who had spent only forty days in the environment of celestial beings including the Torah, had absorbed so much spiritual light that it blinded ordinary mortals, how much more blinding must be the light of the Torah itself which had existed since long before there had been a material universe.”9 I wonder if this Rabbi knew that he was endorsing the fact that Jesus, Who was the Word, was brighter than the law, and has existed before the foundation of the world.
Also, the Psalmist got a glimpse of the glimmering robe, “You are clothed with glory and honor. You wear light like a robe.”10 This then begs the question, with the exclusiveness of the invitees how did Matthew come into possession of the details when the three disciples present were told to tell nobody about it? This is partially answered in verse 9. It could have been either one or all three who relayed this experience to the other disciples.
So here, far away from the Galilean multitudes and Judean critics with their fantasies of a temporal Warrior Messiah, Jesus told His disciples that He must accomplish His mission not by the sword or with the outward signs of triumph, but through suffering, ignominy, and death. Therefore, we must look at this as a scene of transfiguration closely connected with His announcement to His disciples of the supreme sacrifice which He was about to make and which revealed to them His true character.
Verse 3: Suddenly, two men appeared and were talking with Him. They were Moses and Elijah.
The next question comes naturally: Was it really Moses and Elijah who appeared with Jesus? First, we know that Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot,11 and, we are told that “God buried Moses in Mt. Moab.” This was in the valley across from Beth Peor. But even today, no one knows exactly where Moses’ tomb is.12 So there is no record of their funerals. But we do find this interesting story in Jewish writings about Moses following his death:
“Moses now fell upon his face before God, saying, ‘Permit me to speak to the Messiah before I die.’ God then said to Moses: ‘Come, I will teach you My great name so that the flames of the Shekinah do not consume you.’ When the Messiah, David’s son, and Aaron beheld Moses approaching them, they knew that God had taught him the great name, so they went to meet him and saluted him with the greeting: ‘Blessed be he that comes in the name of the Lord.’ Moses then said to Messiah: ‘God told me that Israel was to erect a Temple to Him on earth, and I now see that He has built His own Temple here in heaven!’”13
Little did the author of this story know that one day Moses would have his prayer answered, and he would talk to the Messiah. Not only that but in this story we find the inspiration that may have been the impetus behind Peter’s request to built three tabernacles. Moses and Elijah meeting the Messiah at this level was consistent with Jewish teaching. In their minds, Moses represents the Law, and Elijah the Prophets. This has been a theme throughout Matthew in relationship to our Lord’s mission.14
It is also necessary to address the question that naturally arises about how could those who died and went to their place of rest to await the resurrection be called back to the sphere of the living where they spoke with Jesus the Messiah? It may be answered by remembering that Jesus had not yet crossed the line between those who died before He was resurrected and those who would die afterward. We know that the medium in Endor, called Samuel out of his rest to speak to King Saul.15 Also, in Jesus’ own parable about the rich man and Lazarus, we are given a picture of Hades where Abraham was also waiting for the resurrection. But the place where Abraham rested quietly and where the rich man ended up in torment was separated by an abyss that no one could cross.16 But after Jesus rose from death, we are told by Paul that all the saints were transferred to His place of rest to await the day when He would return to resurrect them.17 Therefore, since the transfiguration occurred before Jesus’ resurrection, Moses and Elijah were still available for conversation.
One Rabbi said it had always been taught to him that: “Neither did the Shekinah ever descend to earth, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to Heaven, as it is written, ‘The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth He has given to the sons of men.’”18 Some scholars believe that this statement no doubt contained a hidden polemic against the doctrine of Jesus’ ascension.19 This would also fit into Christian doctrine which holds that all believers are at rest awaiting the day of resurrection. But this also conforms to what the Jews were expecting because of what God said to Moses: “Moses, as you have given your life for the Israelites in this world, so in the days of the Messiah when I will bring Elijah the prophet, you two will come together.”20
It also conforms with the teaching of the Rabbis who said: “Others declare that Moses never died; it is written here, ‘So Moses died there’, and elsewhere it is written: And he was there with the Lord.21 As in the latter passage it means standing and ministering, so also in the former it means standing and ministering.”22 So Jews hearing this story of Jesus’ encounter would not find it odd for Moses to be meeting with the Messiah on a mountain top. Also, it is found in the Talmud that one pious Rabbis often talked with Elijah,23 much like a Christian today would claim they were spoken to by the Holy Spirit or that they spoke with God.
In other places, we are told that Elijah often visited a Jewish Academy. They say: “Once, Elijah was late on the first of the month.”24 But also, we are told: “The story is told of two pious men, that one of them shared his meal with his waiter first, while the other did so last. With the one who gave the waiter his share first, Elijah conversed; with the one, however, who gave it to his waiter last, Elijah did not converse.”25 But as to Elijah’s true mission, the Jews were quite uncertain. In one instance, Rabbi Joshua speaks of the tradition given to him: “That Elijah will not come to declare unclean or clean, to move far away or to bring near, but to move far away those families that were brought near by violence and to bring near those families that were moved far away by violence.”26 Jewish scholars interpret this to mean that Elijah will make no changes in the Law, but only bring an end to injustice.
In his sermon on this text, early church preacher Chrysostom gives this exhortation: “Jesus is transfigured to manifest the glory of the cross, to console Peter and the others in their dread of the Passion and to bring their minds to elevated understanding. Those who went up with Him did not hold their peace but were destined to speak of the glory which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem—of His Passion and the glory of the cross. And not only did Jesus elevate their understanding, but also He brought their virtues to a higher level, so that they could meet the requirements expected of them. He had just said, ‘If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’27 He then set before them Moses and Elijah, who were ready to die ten thousand times for God’s decrees and for the people entrusted to them. Each of them, having lost his life, found it. For each of them both spoke boldly to tyrants, the one to the Egyptian, the other to Ahab. They spoke on behalf of heartless and disobedient people. They were brought into extreme danger by the very persons who were saved by them. Both desired to lead people away from idolatry. These were not eloquent men. Moses was slow of tongue and dull of speech.2817 Elijah had the crudest sort of appearance.29 Both were strict observers of voluntary poverty. Moses did not work for worldly gain. Elijah did not possess anything more than his sheepskin.”30
Whatever the reason for Jesus exposing His disciples to this divine transfiguration, it no doubt solidified in their minds that He was certainly from another world. That His human body carried around inside a oneness with God the Father. And that on occasions, that divine nature shown through for only the privileged to see. Since Christ lives within us, perhaps we too can experience moments when those around us see something shining from within us that they realize is beyond just being human in nature. Could that be what Jesus meant when He said: “Let your light shine before men?” If so, then ask yourself, how many times does your light shine so that those around you are amazed and know that you are truly a child of God?
3I Kings 19:8-18
4John Lightfoot, Commentary on the Gospels, Mark 9:2
52 Enoch 19:1 (See also 3 Enoch 18:25; 22:4-9; 26:2-7; 35:2)
9Tzror Hamor, op. cit. Parshat Ki’Tissa, loc. cit., p. 1219
11II Kings 2:11-14
12See Deuteronomy 34:6
13The Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg (1909), Vol. III, From the Exodus to the Death of Moses, Ch. VII, Moses Meets the Messiah in Heaven, p. 905
14Cf., Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 17:12; (also see Deuteronomy 18:15)
151 Samuel 28:11-14
18 Rabbi Jose in the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Sukkah, folio 5a
19 Ibid., Footnote (2)
20Midrash Debarim Rabbah, Section 3, folio 239b
22Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Sotah, folio 13b
23Ibid., Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 7b
24Yohassin (The Book of Lineage), op. cit. p. 147
25Some say it was Rabbi Mari and Rabbi Phinehas the sons of Rabbi Hisda: Babylonian Talmud, op, cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Kethuboth, folio 61a
26Jewish Mishnah, op. cit. Fourth Division: Nezikin, Tractate Eduyoth, Ch. 8:7
292 Kings 1:8
30Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 56.3