Matthew 17 records a stunning picture with a simple, yet important, message. As we come to Matthew 17 I want us to soak in the amazing picture and then consider what the point of the picture is. Notice the first two verses of Matthew 17 as our introduction to our study. We are told that only six days have passed since the events of chapter 16. Six days have passed since he told his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, be killed by the Jewish leaders, and raise from the dead three days later. Peter rebuked Jesus but Jesus explains the following him means denying ourselves and taking up our crosses just as he would. Now Jesus takes only three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, and brings them up on this mountain.
A Glorious Scene (17:1-5)
Now just take in what happens next. Jesus was transformed before their eyes. The word “transfigured” in most translations is the same Greek word translated “transformed” in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18. His face shone as bright as the shining of the sun and his clothes radiated white as bright light. This must have been a near blinding experiencing. Think about looking at the sun. You cannot do it. You must shield your eyes. You have to look away and simply get the glimpses you can because the light is so powerful to our eyes. This is what Peter, James, and John are experiencing. But then something else surprising happens. Moses and Elijah appear and they are talking to Jesus. It is an amazing moment. It is such an amazing moment that Peter offers a suggestion. Peter says he will make three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The idea seems to be that we do not want this moment to end. Let’s keep this going! Let me build tents and we can stay here. Peter wants to honor these three. Peter does not think that three disciples need tents. But you three need tents. We will give you whatever you need and honor you all in any way we can. Mark’s account tells us that these disciples were terrified in this moment and did not know what to say.
So the Father is going to redirect the minds of these three disciples. While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Now this whole scene is repeating a similar scene that Moses experienced. In Exodus 24 Moses went up the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. Then the glory of the Lord was on the mountain and covered it for six days. This happens again in Exodus 34 when the Lord descends on the mountain in a cloud. This time we read at the end of the experience that Moses’ face was shining (Exodus 34:29-35) which caused the people to be terrified. So we have a similar scene. The disciples are terrified. Jesus is shining like the sun because he has been transformed. The cloud has come over the mountain. So what is going on? Look at verse 5.
A Glorious Message (17:5-9)
A voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” The last time we read something like this happen was at Jesus’ baptism. A voice from heaven proclaimed the exact same words as recorded in Matthew 3:17. This is a very important message. It appears that the apostles understood the symbolism of Moses and Elijah at this event. Listen to Peter’s sermon where he refers to Deuteronomy 18:
“Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days.” (Acts 3:22–24 ESV)
Notice that Peter says that Moses and all the prophets spoke about Jesus, which Elijah would be a representative of the prophets. But there is a picture of superiority that is being given on the mountain. In verse 8 we read that when Peter, James, and John lifted their eyes, all that they saw was Jesus and no one else. This is not a picture of equality between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. This is a picture of Jesus’ superiority. This is a picture that all of the Law and the Prophets were pointing to Jesus. In fact, please notice what the Father said from the cloud. Notice that the Father did not say, “Listen to them.” Rather, the voice said, “Listen to him.” This is what Peter says in Acts 3:22-24 as he quotes Moses. Everyone who does not listen to that prophet (Jesus) will be destroyed from the people. This is our key message that we will consider in just a moment.
But first we need to consider something about this event. At the end of Jesus’ discussion, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28 ESV). Only six days have passed since Jesus said this. Many think that Jesus is talking about this moment in chapter 17 in which we will see Jesus’ glory. But I hope that this is an unsatisfactory answer for you. It is not much of a prophecy to tell a group of people that you will not die until you see something six days later. This would be no stronger than me standing before you and telling you that some of you in this room will not die until we gather for worship next time. It is not saying anything. If Jesus means this moment of glory on the mountain, then he ultimately said nothing at all. I do not have time for a full answer to Matthew 16:28. But please read the preaching of the apostles in the book of Acts who all proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead and took his rightful place on the throne in his kingdom. Jesus is also going to tell Caiaphas that he is going to see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming in the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64). Jesus was not pointing to this revealing of his glory on the mountain that happened on six days later. Jesus is pointing to his rightful enthronement at God’s right hand, establishing his rule, and judging the nations. This would happen in their lifetimes. Jesus would raise from the dead in time and some would see it. Jesus would come in judgment against Jerusalem and some standing there would see that also. Some would see the rule of Jesus established as he began his rule over heaven and earth after his resurrection. By the way, this is the point of the Father calling Jesus “his beloved Son.” This is a reference to Psalm 2:7 where the Lord tells the Son that he will make the nations his inheritance and the ends of the earth his possession.
A Glorious Command
Now you will notice that Jesus tells his three disciples to not tell anyone about what they have seen until he has risen from the dead (17:9). Peter did say something after Jesus’ resurrection about this event. He spoke about it in his second letter. How Peter understood Jesus’ transformation on the mountain is helpful for us to properly understand the message Jesus wanted his disciples to grasp. Peter recounts this event in 2 Peter 1:16-21. The context of this paragraph is Peter is telling his readers that he writing these things down so that they would make every effort to remember what he taught them. Now Peter explains why.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16–21 ESV)
Peter makes the point that the apostles did not make up stories about Jesus. What you are hearing from them are not a bunch of myths and fables. I hope that we will see that people today who argue that the recorded events about Jesus are just stories and myths are not saying anything new. About 2000 years ago people were also saying that Peter made this stuff up. So here is Peter’s defense. First, Peter says he did not make it up. Rather, they were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ majesty. When did they see the majesty of our Lord Jesus Christ? Peter says in verse 17-18 that it was when they were on the mountain. They saw his glory and they heard the voice of the Lord. Now we need to take this point in for a minute. We have people who were eyewitnesses and said that this is what they saw. This is the basis for what we know in history. How do you know that there was a George Washington? How do you know that he was not just a myth to try to unite a fledgling country together? There is only one answer. We trust eyewitness testimony that was recorded about 250 years ago. Peter says you have that in them. They are eyewitness and you can trust their testimony just like any other historical facts you accept.
But then Peter says you have something else. In verse 19 Peter says you also have the prophetic word fully confirmed. God’s word through the prophets proclaimed that these things were going to happen and they did. They did because people did not make up their prophecies but were carried along by the Holy Spirit (1:20-21). They did not speak their words but spoke God’s words, and you have those words also. What is the point? Look at verse 19. You need to pay attention to the prophetic word.
Go back to Matthew 17. The transformation of Jesus was a view of the future glory and exaltation of Jesus. What is the one command given in the whole transformation scene? Look at verse 5. “Listen to him.” The writer of Hebrews opens his sermon by proclaiming that in the past God spoke in various ways and at various times. But in these last days he spoke through his Son (Hebrews 1:1-3). Since God spoke through his Son, then we must listen to him.
So let me make this point this way by asking some questions. Can a Christian do what they want and still be called a Christian? Can we follow our own desires and still be a disciple of Jesus? Let me ask this another way. Does someone have authority over us or not? Too often we want to be the ultimate authority over our lives. But the message of Jesus’ transformation is that we need to listen to him. His glory has been revealed proving that he is the Sovereign Lord who rules over all creation. We do not listen to ourselves. We listen to him.
But let me look at this another way. Do we listen to some of what Jesus says or all of what Jesus says? Does the Father say, “This is his beloved Son. Listen to the things you agree with?” Listen to what he says that makes sense to you. Listen to what you like. Listen to what he says that works for you. There is one point that God wants his disciples to understand from this moment on the mountain. Jesus has the authority that we must listen to and obey. We look to the word of God so that we can listen to him.
I want to make my point from the context. What did the disciples struggle believing six days earlier? They could not believe that Jesus would go to Jerusalem, suffering many things, be killed and raised from the dead (16:21-23). Jesus had a very important message at this moment. To follow Jesus, you must deny yourself and take up your cross (16:24). What does the Father say from heaven? Listen to Jesus. Listen to him. You must deny yourself to follow him. You must carry a cross to follow him. You are not the authority in your life. Jesus is your Lord and Savior. Jesus is your authority.
The context shows that this is the message. Look at Matthew 17:9-13. Elijah already came but they did not recognize him and did whatever they wanted to him. John the Baptist came as the prophesied Elijah and he was killed. John denied himself and took up his cross. Look at the rest of verse 12. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Jesus is going to deny himself and be killed. Listen to him. To follow Jesus then you must deny yourself. Listen to him. Jesus says he will return and reward those who follow him. Listen to him. Do we need authority for our lives? Yes, and our authority is Jesus. Listen to him.
What are you not listening to him in your life? What are you rejecting that he has told you to do? What are you ignoring that you know he has called you to do? What do you need to stop doing because you know Jesus has said to stop? What do you need to change in your life to follow Jesus? Please listen to him. Peter says that they saw his glory. They saw his majesty. What is keeping you from listening to him? What is keeping you from enjoying eternal life that Jesus has promised? Jesus is your authority for life. Listen to him.