Matthew 17:1-9 (Transfiguration Sunday) – February 19, 2023

Matthew 17:1-9 – Transfiguration Sunday


If you preached one transfiguration text, you’ve preached them all… right?

This is one of the stories that is incredibly similar across all three synoptic gospels. When comparing Mark, Luke, and Matthew’s versions of the transfiguration, there are only slight differences. So, I will turn to my standard answer that I’ve given probably six weeks in a row: The Matthean themes are always a road into more nuance and sermon fodder.

We jump significantly in time on transfiguration Sunday. We last left Jesus on another mountain top, in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. And now here we jump to another Mountain with… the prophets.

The last three weeks, Jesus has embodied prophetic ministry of old. From the mountain, he gives instruction (midrash, not a new law) for how this community (that upholds the law and the prophets) should live together. The Sermon on the Mount should bring big Exodus/Moses vibes that call us to see Jesus as the prophetic voice of God calling us to be better community toward one another. And now we jump ten chapters, skipping over a ton of ministry, teaching, and healing, to another Mountain top.

In Matthew, the Mountaintop is a revelation experience (Sermon on the Mount, Transfiguration, and Great Commission).[1] Now, it can easily be argued that it is a revelatory experience showing who Jesus is: The Son of God. And I think to a certain extent that is happening. But when we put all the emphasis of the Sermon on the Mount, the Transfiguration, and the Great Commission on the revelation of Jesus and who Jesus is, we miss the action of who Jesus is talking to and what they are receiving. They are all transition moments.  

So, for example, here in the Transfiguration, we have a not-so-subtle transition of prophetic witness (especially when you combine it with Peter’s declaration of Faith in 16:13-20). To this point in the Gospel, Jesus has carried the prophetic mantle of John the Baptist. He has continued to preach repentance and righteousness. He has proclaimed the coming of the Day of Judgment. He has taught and interpreted the law through moments of preaching and teaching and through tangible actions of healing and feeding. He has continued the traditions of the prophets of old. Each of these things are how the prophetic stories are told (think especially of Elijah and Moses here).

But just before this scene, in Chapter 16, Jesus finally asks the disciples about himself, “Who do you say that I am?” To which Peter ends up saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then Jesus tells Peter that he is the rock on which he will build his church and gives him the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:13-20 – this reading doesn’t come up until August 27th, 2023, so feel free to bring this in and I promise you won’t burn up all your sermon fodder). This is a massive transition scene in Matthew. To gloss over it and pretend that this really doesn’t mean much is a major error—and that’s even more true because we get super apocalyptic after this AND you can start to interpret Jesus’ parables differently from here on out (more on that this summer and fall…unless you bug me about it, and I can tell you more sooner). So, what happens right after this major transitional moment of authority starting to be passed to Peter and the disciples? Matthew 16:21, “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus’ ministry changes after this point because the mantle is beginning to the be passed to the disciples.

And so, after six days, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to a mountaintop. Three prophets and three disciples are together. We are beginning to see a greater shift and transition.

Now, many commentators will argue that this transfiguration scene is a passing of authority to Jesus. R. Alan Culpepper writes, “The divine voice commands the disciples, ‘Hear him’ (akouete autou), which recalls Deut 18:15, where Moses adds, “You shall heed such a prophet” (autou akousesthe). As in the Shema (Deut 6:4), “hear” also means “obey.” The implication is that the authority of Moses and Elijah has passed to Jesus; he is the one they are to hear. Jesus could have no higher authorization as the messianic interpreter of the law and prophets than this (cf. 5:17-18).”[2]

This is a compelling argument. However, that transition of prophetic authority has already occurred at the Baptism. Now, we could say that that was a modern prophet vs THE prophets and that  Jesus needs to receive that deeper prophetic transition from the two greatest prophets. But that would negate what immediately happens as the disciples come down from the mountain with him and ask about Elijah needing to come first. Jesus replies, “‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt 17:9-13). If Elijah has come through John, then the prophetic transition has occurred at the Baptism. If the prophetic transition from the prophets of tradition has already taken place at the Baptism, then this moment at the transfiguration is something else, for someone else. This is the beginning of the transition of prophetic authority to the disciples.

The prophetic mantle will have to be passed on to the disciples once Jesus is gone. They will have to witness what is to come and they will have to continue the prophetic tradition after all of this is over. And so here, Jesus is entering into the new stage of prophetic ministry: passing the mantle.

Why Moses and Elijah in Matthew?

So, narratively, we can have some fun here. Why would Matthew use this scene and why have Moses and Elijah present in this moment? In Luke we are told that Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah about “his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31-33). But we aren’t told what they are talking about here in Matthew. So what if Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah (maybe John the Baptist?) about how to teach the disciples how to carry on the tradition after he is gone. How did Moses teach Joshua? How did Elijah teach Elisha?

Jesus’ tone and teaching change after this. He begins to teach them how to be the church. He begins to teach the importance and care for children (both literal and also possibly those who are new to the faith). He teaches parables that are baffling and can be seen in different light. Parables that would mean more for a church of leaders and prophets who have authority and the keys. All of Jesus’ teachings, even those that are in argument with religious leaders, seem to be directed toward teaching the church.

Preaching Possibilities

Passing the Mantle

When you are in a job or a vocation, are all of your decisions based on today or do you ever consider who will inherit the position after you are gone?

It can be easy for me to sometimes get tunnel visioned. Focusing on how I need to do the work. Sometimes I actually get pretty egotistical and think “I am the only person in the world who can do this job.” Have you ever had those thoughts too? It’s easy to center ourselves around a position or way of being. It’s easy to get stuck in our ways and maybe to even overvalue our self-importance over and against others. “It’s easier to just do the job myself. No one could follow me up and do it better.”

But what if part of us always had an eye on preparing the space for whoever would come after us?

If Jesus is the example here, then how could Peter, James, and John ever live up to “the Beloved.” And yet, Jesus does not expect that. Jesus instead works on setting a place for the twelve to continue the ministry in their own way. Of course by heeding him and following in the tradition of the law and the prophets, but also, by being themselves. How do we as the church prepare the way for those who follow us? Whether it’s help with the altar guild or becoming the next treasurer. Whether it’s setting up the pastor or preparing a congregation to use the last of its resources for the life of a new church to come. How do we pass along the tradition from one follower to the next leader?

[1] R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 324.

[2] R. Alan Culpepper,  326.

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