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encouragement theology

The Mountain Top

Lake George from Spruce Mountain
Adirondack Mountains, NY

Thoughts from Matthew 17…

I love to reach the mountain top. We have a favorite peak to climb every year during our family vacation in the mountains. The hike can be difficult, but we battle the bugs and thorn bushes to reach the summit. It is all worth it when you get to the top! The trees pull away to a spectacular view of the mountains and the lake far below. The air is fresher, the bugs seem to quiet, and we take time to bask in the glory of our conquest.

Yes, the mountain top is great, but you can’t live there. We climb to the top to get our dose of nature, but we always need to return. As enjoyable as it is to be up high, we still need to come home for dinner. Our climb is not complete until we return back to the home below.

Jesus gives us mountain top experiences in our lives too. If you have known Him long enough, you are familiar with these times. These are the times when the trees part and everything falls together. You get a glimpse of His plan and you bask in the glory that He knows you and cares for you.

We are encouraged by the mountain tops in our lives, but we can’t live there. There is much more in our lives than to simply sit back and wait for things to go right. We have a lot more to do here on earth, and we have a lot more to learn.

Peter, James, and John had a mountain top experience in this next scene in Matthew 17. They had spent six days in the pagan society of Caesarea Phillippi when Jesus took the three of them up the mountainside. They climbed the slopes of snowy Mount Hermon for an overnight prayer meeting with their Lord. But once they were up on the mountain, Jesus prayed while his friends slept.

We don’t know all that the Lord Jesus talked about with the Father that night, but He must have prayed about His upcoming death and departure. It wasn’t even a week since He dropped the message on His shocked disciples — He was going to die and leave them! He must have been especially burdened for His bewildered followers as there, on the mountainside, He gave three of them a special glimpse of His glory. 

All they knew of Jesus Christ was his outward, humiliated form, yet they trusted Him. They knew He was Lord although they still stumbled in their doubt. How could their Lord talk about dying? Didn’t He know the hideous torture that would await Him if He were captured by the Jews? Wouldn’t they all suffer the same fate? It is one thing to talk about denying yourself when they were on the mountain, but what about when they came back to the real world? How could they face their enemies?

The Lord allowed them to see a glimpse of who He really is. He is not just a simple teacher. He shone out with complete brightness, showing the glory of God. Next to Him stood Moses the lawgiver, for Jesus is the answer and the fulfillment of the law. Also next to Him stood Elijah the prophet, for Jesus is the answer to the promise given by the prophets. 

The three disciples awoke to see Jesus in His glory, talking to the two great men of old. And once again, Peter couldn’t keep his mouth shut, exclaiming, “Lord, it is good that we are here.” The final kingdom is coming and it is time to build shelters! Let’s start with three shelters: for the Lord, for Moses, and for Elijah!

Moses and Elijah are great men, but they do not compare to the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter’s foolish statement puts the three of them as equal, but it is Jesus that they should be listening to. Peter needed to shut up and listen!

We should be encouraged by our experiences, but we cannot live by them. Peter, James, and John experienced the glory of Jesus Christ and instead of listening, they were ready to build shelters! The other disciples weren’t even allowed to know about this experience. They needed to follow His Word instead of trusting their own feelings and memories. They needed to listen to Him!

It was not until years later that Peter learned his lesson. Both Peter and John would remember this time on the mountain as they witnessed the Lord’s glory. John spoke of it in the introduction to his gospel account:

John 1:14
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.

And just before his death, Peter used this memory to remind his listeners about the truth of the gospel:

2 Peter 1:16-18
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. 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,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.

We can be encouraged by the mountain top experiences, but we cannot look for a great experience to save us or to sustain us. We need to follow the truth of Jesus’ word. Experiences will never break through our unbelief, nor will they free us from our confusion. We need to listen to Him!

Previous post: Take up your Cross!


Matthew 17:1-13
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Mark 9:2-13
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

Luke 9:28-36
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.


The High Mountain

Matthew 17:1
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 

Mark 9:2
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 

Luke 9:28
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 

Jesus had taken His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, where Peter had declared Him to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Now, six days later, Jesus took His three closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) up a high mountain to pray.a 

Most commentators agree that the high mountain was likely Mount Hermon.b It was the highest mountain in that region (about 10,000 feet) and was close to their current location in Caesarea Philippi. Luke’s account shows that Jesus brought them up the mountain for a time of prayer.

The Supernatural Lord

Matthew 17:2-3
And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 

Mark 9:3-4
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 

Luke 9:29-31
And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 

All three passages show that Jesus was transfigured, meaning more than a simple appearance change. The root word (metamorphoō, μεταμορφόω) is the same word we use for metamorphosis. It is a complete transformation. He didn’t just look different, He was different!4

They were no longer in the presence of the humble carpenter who led them up the mountain. They were now in the presence of the Eternal God! And He was talking with two of the greatest men from ancient history! 

Most Bible scholars agree that Moses represented the law. He had lived about 1300 years earlier and was regarded by the Jewish people as one of the greatest men who ever lived. God used Moses to bring His people out of slavery in Egypt and to lead them through the wilderness for 40 years. Moses was God’s messenger to bring law to His people and his life is documented in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Although Moses’ death is documented in Deuteronomy 34, no one knows the actual place of his burial.

While Moses represented the law, Elijah represented the prophets. Elijah was widely regarded as one of the greatest prophets. He was well known, not only for his dedication to The Lord, but also for the force and power of his message. One of the most well-known scenes in Elijah’s life was his showdown with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. Elijah’s ministry is documented in 1 Kings 17-22 and 2 Kings 1-2. 2 Kings 2 chronicles the end of Elijah’s life on earth, where he was taken directly to heaven.

It is interesting to note that the disciples recognized both Moses and Elijah. We are not told how they identified them but it was clear that Peter, James, and John knew who was talking with Jesus Christ.

Peter’s Foolish Response

Matthew 17:4
And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 

Mark 9:5-6
And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 

Luke 9:32-33
Now Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep, but when they became fully awake they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. And as the men were parting from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 

Peter reacted without thinking. Upon seeing the glorified Jesus Christ, with Moses and Elijah, he was sure that the kingdom must be coming! The Jewish people celebrated the feast of booths in anticipation of the Messiah’s kingdom.c Now that the kingdom is here, Peter looked forward to building three dwellings: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.

Peter responded with excitement and zeal, but also with ignorance. He is wrong with his rash statement on two significant points:

First, this is not the time to initiate the kingdom. Peter jumped directly from seeing the glorified Christ to picturing Him as a conquering king. But he failed to listen to the Lord before acting, nor did he even pay attention to the conversation between Jesus and these men! Luke’s account says clearly that Jesus was talking with them about His departure. Now was not the time to start His army!

Second, Peter gave Moses and Elijah equal status with the Lord Jesus Christ. His comment put Jesus as one of the three great leaders in the kingdom. Moses and Elijah were great men, but they are only servants of the King. Peter failed to realize that Jesus was the King.

“God will not have anyone put on the same level with His Son, Jesus Christ. If people would bow before Moses, Moses must go. The same for [Elijah].” – H.A. Ironside3

The Father’s Message

Matthew 17:5-8
He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

Mark 9:7-8
And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

Luke 9:34-36a
As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. 

Peter’s rash words were interrupted by a bright cloud and a voice from heaven. God the Father Himself spoke to the startled group on the mountainside.d e He delivered the brief statement:

This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him! 

Jesus was not just a great man, nor was he simply one of the three great figures on the mountain that day. He was the Son of God! He had the love of God, the image of God, and the favor of God. Jesus — not Moses, not Elijah, not Peter’s own opinions — is the one they need to listen to.

The disciples fell down with fear at the voice from heaven. Moses and Elijah were gone and Jesus comforted His terrified disciples with  “Rise, and have no fear.”

The Command to Keep Silent

Matthew 17:9
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” 

Mark 9:9-10
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 

Luke 9:36b
And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.

It must have been surprising to the disciples, but Jesus commanded them to keep silent about what they had seen. Although I am sure that Peter, James, and John would have loved to tell the other nine disciples about their experience on the mountain, this vision was not for them. 

But there will be a much more important event for all of the disciples. Jesus will be arrested and killed as He promised, but He will also rise from the dead. It is the resurrection, not the transfiguration, that will be the basis of our faith (see 1 Corinthians 15).

This is the second time that Jesus predicted His resurrection, but the disciples still didn’t understand. Mark’s account shows that they questioned His announcement, wondering what He meant by “rising from the dead”.

Elijah has Come

Matthew 17:10-13
And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.

Mark 9:11-13
And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

The final part of this scene is a question by the disciples. They now understand that their Lord Jesus Christ is the Messiah, but what about Elijah. Their scribes quote Malachi 4:5-6, predicting that Elijah would first come to restore the people in advance of the King. Since Jesus is the King, what about Elijah?

But Elijah has come! Jesus sent John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17) but the people did not recognize him, nor did they heed him. Instead, they persecuted him until he was murdered by Herod.


References

[1] Stanley D. Toussaint, Behold The King, Kregel Publications, 1980, Matthew 17:1-13, pages 210-213

[2] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Matthew 17, The Glory of the Kingdom

[3] H.A. Ironside, Ironside Expository Commentaries, Address 33, The Kingdom in Embryo, Luke 9:27-36

[4] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Matthew 17:1-13, pages 49-51

[5] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Mark 9:1-13, pages 114-115

[6] Warren W. Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: New Testament, David C. Cook, 2007, Luke 9:27-36, pages 167-168

[7] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, CHAPTER I: THE TRANSFIGURATION (St Matt. 17:1-8; St. Mark 9:2-8; St. Luke 9:28-36.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.ix.i.html

[8] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, CHAPTER II: ON THE MORROW OF THE TRANSFIGURATION (St. Matt. 17:9-21; St. Mark 9:9-29 St. Luke 9:37-43.), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/edersheim/lifetimes.ix.ii.html

[9] Doug Bookman, Life of Christ, Audio Series, Lecture 9, https://www.christianity.com/jesus/life-of-jesus/harmony-of-the-gospels/20-the-transfiguration.html

[10] John MacArthur, Preview of the Second Coming, Part 2, Matthew 17:1-6, Nov 7, 1982

[11] John MacArthur, Preview of the Second Coming, Part 3, Matthew 17:7-13, Nov 14, 1982

[12] Notes from Expositor’s Bible Commentary

  • D.A. Carson, Editor, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, 2010, Matthew 17:1-13

[13] gotquestions.org


Notes

[a] Matthew and Mark both say “after six days”, while Luke is more general, indicating this scene is “about eight days after”.

[b] One traditional view is that Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, a standalone mountain in the Jezreel Valley in Galilee. This view interprets the term, “high mountain apart”, to mean that the mountain was by itself. However, the better understanding is the term “apart” here indicates that Jesus and His three disciples were set apart, not the mountain itself. Mount Tabor would also be an unlikely match for the “high mountain” here because of these reasons:

  • Mount Tabor is not very high — about 1,800 feet. Compare that with Mount Hermon, which was over 10,000 feet.
  • Mount Tabor emerges from the Jezreel valley, in one of the most travelled routes of the Middle East. This would have required them to quickly return to Galilee, cross the crowded plain, and climb the mountain.
  • Mount Tabor had a Roman settlement at its top during the time of Jesus Christ.

Some commentators object to the high mountain being Mount Hermon since its great height would be dangerous and impractical for an overnight hike by Jesus and His disciples. However, the scene in scripture does not require them to be at the actual summit. The better understanding is that they were on the upper slopes of the Mountain.7

[c] The Feast of Booths, also known as the “Feast of Tabernacles” was one of the major Jewish celebrations. It would occur after the fall harvest and the families would camp out in temporary shelters for seven days (see Deuteronomy 16:13-15). One of the major factors of this celebration was to look forward to the Messiah coming into His kingdom, where he would always provide for them and protect them. See here for more information.

[d] The message, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5) has elements from Psalm 2:7, Isaiah 42:1, and Deuteronomy 18:15. All of these are Old Testament references to the Messiah.1

[e] There were three (3) recorded times when God the Father spoke from Heaven:

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