NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 9: As Jesus and His followers were descending off the mountain, He gave them this command: “Don’t tell anyone about what you just saw on the mountain. Wait until the Son of man has been raised from death. Then you can tell people about what you saw.”
Since Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels were made available between AD 50-70 to be distributed among the assembly of believers, the story of our Lord’s transfiguration was kept hidden from public knowledge until that time. We do not know if Peter, James, or John verbally revealed what occurred on the mountain before our Lord’s ascension, but we have every reason to believe they kept their promise not to divulge what happened until the appropriate time.
Early church scholars had a number of things to say about this unusual request by Jesus of His disciples. Chrysostom preached: “For the greater the things said about Him, the harder it was for the many at that time to accept them. And the offense of the cross increased all the more thereby. Therefore, He told them to be silent about the transfiguration. He again reminded them of the Passion, and He almost mentioned the reason why He told them to be silent. For He did not command them never to tell anyone but ‘[to wait] until He is raised from the dead.’ Saying nothing about the painful part, He told them only of the good. What then? Were they not going to be offended after this? Not at all. For the silence that was being demanded was only for the time before the crucifixion. After this, they were thought better prepared to receive the Spirit. They had the voice of the miracles advocating for them, and everything that they said from then on was easier to receive. For the course of events announced His power more clearly than a trumpet, and no stumbling block interrupted these events.”1
So in Chrysostom’s mind, Jesus knew that His disciples would be better prepared to tell the world about their walk with Him and what He taught them after He was gone and they had been endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit. Also, they would have so much more to share once they had seen how the Lord triumphed over death and the grave, which would make this story of the transfiguration that much more believable. Furthermore, if Peter wanted to erect three tents until He stopped him, once the word got out how many others would want to do the same and thereby create an unnecessary holy site. That’s the same reason why we do not know for sure the exact spot on which He was born, died, buried, or ascended into heaven. This may have been what led Jerome to give this commentary: “The preview of the future kingdom and the glory of His triumph had been shown on the mountain. So He does not want this to be told to the people in case it should be deemed incredible because of its greatness and also so that after such great glory the event of the cross that follows should not cause untaught minds to stumble.”2
Verse 10: The followers asked Jesus, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come before the Messiah comes?”
This shows us that the disciples were very much aware of the unwritten teachings of the scribes. They were not just ignorant fishermen who had little clue of what their religion taught. We find where Jewish writers acknowledge: “There is a huge amount of Rabbinical literature in Talmud and other Jewish writings about the role of Elijah as a celestial scribe and as a precursor of the Messiah. These discussions are mostly linked with the pseudonym ‘Metatron’.3 That is based on Elijah and his miraculous translation to heaven in a ‘chariot of fire,’4 and upon the prophecy that Elijah would be sent by God before the coming of the Day of Lord and that he may turn during the Messianic age ‘the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers’.5 In these sources, Elijah is both the herald as well as an active partner of the Messiah. In the time of the second Temple, it was taken for granted that Elijah was to be the predecessor of the Messiah as we see also in the New Testament.”6
The Jews had a curious teaching about Elijah and the Messiah’s coming. In their writings, we find a reference to a document called: “Seder Olam,” which means: “Order of the World.”7 It is explained as: “The earliest extant post-exilic chronicle in Hebrew, and is a chronological record extending from Adam to Bar Kochba’s revolt during the reign of Hadrian.”8 And according to further evidence, this teaching was in the classrooms based on God’s promise to the children of Israel in Moses’ day,9 and influenced their belief system up through the time of Jesus and beyond.10 In the Seder Olam, we read: “In Ahaziah’s second year, Elijah was hidden and will not be seen again until King Messiah will come, then he will be seen, then hidden a second time until Gog and Magog come.”11
However, they made it clear: “Israel has long ago been assured that Elijah would not come either on Sabbath eves or on festival eves owing to the people’s preoccupation. Assuming that as Elijah would not come the Messiah also would not come.”12 In their commentaries on the Scriptures, Rabbis taught: “King Messiah, who is to redeem Israel at the end of the days…anoint the altar of burnt-offering, and all its vessels, and consecrate the altar, that it may be an altar most holy, on account of the crown of the priesthood of Aaron, and his sons, and of Elijah, the great Priest who is to be sent at the end of the captivity.”13 Not only that, but they wrote: “Though you may be dispersed unto the ends of the heavens, from there will the Word of the Lord gather you together by the hand of Elijah the great priest, and from there God will bring you by the hand of the King Messiah.”14
Even at the beginning of the Early Church, skeptic Jews constantly spoke against Jesus as the Messiah because Elijah did not come and anoint Him.15 And long since then Jews are still questioning the appearance of Elijah right before the coming of the Messiah: “There are some Sages who say that Elijah’s coming will precede the coming of the Messiah. All these and similar matters cannot be definitely known by man until they occur for these matters are undefined in the prophets’ words and even the wise men have no established tradition regarding these matters except their own interpretation of the verses.”16 So we can see how ingrained this concept was in the thinking of all Jews, including Jesus’ followers. Not only that, but Jesus Himself did not dismiss this idea.
Verse 11: Jesus answered, “They are correct in saying Elijah is expected to appear. And it is true that Elijah will make all things clear once he arrives.”
Do our Lord’s words echo that of the Rabbis who were teaching about bringing things to the Temple in Jerusalem? They wrote: “The disciples prepare [their hallowed things] in purity in Galilee! — They let them remain, and when Elijah comes he will purify them.”17 Could it be that we can identify in this statement, Jesus’ followers from Galilee that would be brought to Jerusalem? And by saying that Elijah would clear things up, this also was foreshadowed by the sayings of the Rabbis: “But now Elijah writes down the deeds of all generations.18 Ahaziah the King of Judah died following the Eternal’s word that Elijah had spoken.”19
This was confirmed by the Rabbis who said: “Shall it be assumed that our Mishnah is not in agreement with Rabbi Jose? For does not Rabbi Jose say: If so, what loss does any fraudulent claimant suffer? Therefore, let the whole amount be retained by the Court until ‘the coming of Elijah’?”20 And elsewhere we read: “the remainder must lie until [the prophet] Elijah comes.”21 But after agreeing that Elijah would come before the Messiah is revealed, Jesus had more to say about his coming.
It is important that we distinguish between our Lord’s initial coming into the world and His second coming to the world. From all that is said by the apostles, including Paul, and what we find in the revelation given to John, Elijah is only tied to the advent of Christ’s initial ministry in order to bring the good news of the new agreement of grace. We find this clearly explained by what Jesus says next.
Verse 12: But I tell you, Elijah has already come. People did not know who he was, and they treated him badly, doing whatever they wanted to do. It is the same with the Son of man. Those same people will make the Son of man suffer.
Once again our Lord insists that such revelation of what they saw be held until the appropriate time to let it be known. He does not go into great detail, but I’m sure it had a lot to do with what He knew would happen very soon, and how that would affect the message they were sent out to preach once He had ascended. There was something unrecorded in this conversation that led to the question they asked. Perhaps it was because they saw Him talking to Elijah, or that they held onto the belief contained in the words of the prophet Malachi, “Look, I will send Elijah the prophet to you. He will come before that great and terrible time of judgment from the Lord. Elijah will help the parents become close to their children, and he will help the children become close to their parents.”22
Origen gives us his view: “The disciples who went up with Jesus remembered the traditions of the scribes concerning Elijah, that before the advent of Christ, Elijah would come and prepare for Him the souls of those who would receive Him. But the vision on the mountain, in which Elijah appeared, did not seem to be harmonized with what had been said since Elijah seemed to them to have come with Him rather than before Him. So they say this thinking that the scribes were wrong. To this the Savior replies, not denying what was handed down about Elijah but saying that there was another coming of Elijah before that of Christ unknown to the scribes.”23
And Chrysostom preached this: “The Samaritan woman also said, ‘The Messiah is coming; when he comes, he will show us all things.’24 And they themselves asked John, “Are you Elijah or the prophet?”25 For this opinion was strong, as I said, both the one about Christ and the one about Elijah, but they did not interpret it as it should have been. For the Scriptures speak of two comings of Christ, both this one that has taken place and the future one. Paul spoke of these when he said, ‘For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright and godly lives in this world.’26 Behold the first advent, and listen to how he declares the coming advent: ‘Awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.’”27
Verse 13: Then the followers understood that when Jesus said Elijah, He was really talking about John the Baptizer.
But what they didn’t understand was that this prophecy had already been fulfilled in the arrival of John the Baptizer. But just as the leading Jews and religious leaders had rejected John the Baptizer, they would also reject Him as well.28 So when that suffering and rejection came, they would have this revelation on the mountain to remember and could hold onto their faith with an even tighter grip. This involvement of Elijah in the first coming of the Messiah was part of Jewish Scripture and tradition. Now Jesus wanted them to concentrate on His second coming. For that event, believers will not be looking for Elijah again, but all the things that Jesus would describe such as a great falling away of believers, wars, rumors of wars, persecution, bloodshed, etc. So as Christians, when we see such things begin to happen, we should not do as the disciples did, get their eyes on Elijah, but keep our eyes on the skies as we await His appearance.
1Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 56.6
2Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Vol 3., 17:9
3Metatron is an archangel in Judaism. He is thought to be Enoch transformed into an angel
4II Kings 2:11
6The Midrash of the Messiah, The Messiah and His Meal in Midrash Ruth, Chapters V, VII and VIII and its roots and reflections in corresponding Jewish literature, by Risto Santala, Tummavuoren Kirjapaino Oy, Finland 2002
7See Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Shabbat, folio 88a
8Ibid., Footnote (2)
10Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nashim, Masekhet Yevamoth, folio 82b
11Seder Olam, Part 2 – The Prophets (23)
12Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Eiruvin, folio 43b
13Targum Jonathan Ben Uzziel on the Pentateuch, Exodus, Ch. 40, Sec. 28, Pekudey, pp. 571-580
14Ibid., Deuteronomy, Ch. 30, Sec. 51, Nitstsabim, pp. 650-655
15St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 49
16Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, op. cit. Sefer Shoftim, Melachim uMilchamot, Ch. 12, Halacha 2
17Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Chagigah, folio 25a
18II Kings 1:17
19Seder Olam, Part 2, The Prophets, Asa to Ahaziah (23)
20Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Baba Metzia, folio 3a
21Ibid., Masekhet Baba Bathra, folio 94b
23Origen: Commentary on Matthew, 13.1