My Dear People,
The Transfiguration scene bears witness to an inner circle among the Twelve: Peter, James, and John. Jesus will single them out again when he invites them to pray with him in the garden of Gethsemane at the start of his Passion (26:37). Here, he takes them up a high mountain, the kind of place viewed as especially suitable for divine revelation in the Old Testament (See Gen 2.2, Exodus 3:19-24; 1 Kings 18-19) and Matthew’s Gospel so far (4:8; 5:1).
Jesus was transfigured, which means he was transformed. His physical appearance changed such that his face shone like the sun. This recalls Moses’ shining face when he came down Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:29-35). However, while there are similarities with Moses, Matthew shows how Jesus outshines him: Moses’ face shone because it reflected the divine glory he had seen, whereas Jesus’ face shone with his own glory, even before the cloud and divine voice are manifested on the mountain. Jesus possesses the glory that Moses saw. However, while Exodus reports that Moses’ face shines “like the sun” and his clothes became white as light.
Two great representatives of the Old Testament appear and begin to converse with Jesus: Moses and Elijah. Both Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet were well-known miracle workers who fasted for forty days (Exod. 24:18; 34:28; 1 Kings 19:8). Both were rejected by some of God’s people; both encountered God’s glory on the high mountain of Sinai (also called Horeb—Exod. 24:16-18: 1 Kings 19:8-12). Finally, both figures were associated with Jewish eschatology and the coming of a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15-19).
Interpreters have traditionally viewed Moses, representing the law, and Elijah, representing the prophets, as summing up the whole Old Testament. Their presence at this moment—shortly after Jesus’ messianic identity is confessed by Peter (12:16) and after he begins speaking of his journey to Jerusalem to be crucified (16:21) signifies that the entire Old testament bears witness to his messianic mission that will culminate in the cross.
In awe, Peter desires to build three tents. He likely has in mind the tents uses for the Feast of Tabernacles, the autumn harvest festival in which the Israelites dwelt in makeshift tents for seven days, commemorating how God’s presence dwelt in the tent of meeting and how the Israelites themselves dwelt in tents as they journeyed through the wilderness on the way to the promised land. The Greek word here translated “tents” is used in the Septuagint, for the tents for this feast pointed to a future fulfillment, anticipating the time when the nations would come to Jerusalem to worship the Lord as king in an eschatological Feast of Tabernacles (Zech. 14:16-20; see Hosea 12:9). When Peter witnesses Jesus transfigured in glory, he may consider the eschatological era to be dawning and thus seek to enter into this experience in a way reminiscent of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Suddenly, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them. In the Old Testament, God’s presence was manifested in the form of a cloud in the wilderness and in the sanctuary in Jerusalem. The word for “cast a shadow over” was used in Exodus 40:35 to describe God’s glory cloud overshadowing the tent of meeting at Sinai. The same glory of the Lord now descends upon the mountain, covering them.
Similar to Christ’s baptism, the transfiguration scene bears witness to the Trinity with the voice of the heavenly Father, the radiance of Jesus the Son, and the glory of the Spirit—signified this time not by a dove but by the cloud (3:16:17). The voice from the cloud repeats verbatim the words of the Father to Jesus at his baptism (3:7): This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. But now these words are directed to the three disciples, to confirm their faith in Jesus’ messianic identity in the face of his approaching crucifixion, recently revealed to them (16:16-17,21). Also different from the baptism scene is the command to the apostles—listen to him. This recalls the promise of a prophet like Moses, to whom the people are to listen (Deut. 18:15,19), and continues the emphasis in the Gospel on Jesus’ authoritative teaching (5:21-22) This divine command to listen to Jesus reinforces his words in the preceding scene, which were about his death and resurrection and about the disciples taking up their crosses and following him (16:21, 24-28).
Fr. Vincent Clemente