The Transfiguration – Matthew 17:1-13

The transfiguration is a theologically rich event which appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). In the previous few verses, Jesus told his disciples ,“The son of Man is coming in glory” and that some of them “would not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:27-28). This is a difficulty since the kingdom of heaven did not literally come during the lifetime of the disciples. There are several suggestions for dealing with 16:28, including the next story in Matthew as the fulfillment. Peter, James, and John will see Jesus glorified, although this still falls short of the “son of Man coming in his kingdom.” For many commentators, the Transfiguration is a foretaste of the coming of the Son of Man in glory.

Transfiguration Raphael

Jesus takes three disciples to a high mountain (17:1) six days after Peter’s confession and Jesus’s prediction of his death, his resurrection, and his prediction that some standing there would not taste death until they see the son of man coming in his kingdom. Nolland calls this a “first, anticipatory fulfillment” (Nolland, Matthew, 699). “Six days later” may refer to Exodus 24:15-18. Moses waited six days on Mount Sinai with the surrounding cloud of God’s glory before the Lord called to him to enter the glory of God for forty days and nights. There are other allusions to God’s glory on Mount Sinai in this story.

Since there is hint which mountain this is, it is likely another allusion to Sinai (Exod 24) and Horeb (1 Kings 19). Both Moses and Elijah both experience the glory of the Lord on the mountain. Now Peter, James, and John will witness a similar revelation on the mountain. The adjective ὑψηλός refers to something which is tall, such as a high mountain, but also for something which is exalted or even noble. It is possible the word refers to a mountain like Hermon, although it is not likely Jesus, and the disciples could have hiked to the top of this 9000-foot mountain.

The traditional site on Mount Tabor is possible since this is a mountain in the Jezreel Plain and the tradition dates to the fourth century. But Tabor is not particularly high (about 1300 feet) and there was a settlement at the top of the mountain in the first century. Psalm 89:12 refers to Tabor in parallel to Hermon, Jeremiah 46:18 refers to Tabor and Mount Carmel in parallel. In the Second Temple Period, Mount Tabor was used to light signal flares to announce the new moon, but any hill north of Caesarea Philippi would do.

Why these three disciples? Peter, James, and John are the inner circle. These three disciples are eyewitnesses of the baptism of Jesus, the Transfiguration, Jesus’s agony in the garden, and the resurrection. These are the only three given nicknames as far as we know, Cephas, and the “sons of thunder.” In Acts, Peter and John are the two apostles who are the eyewitnesses who preach in Acts 3 and suffering at the hands of the Sanhedrin. James will be the first disciple to be executed for his testimony (Acts 12).

The three disciples allude to Moses’s experience on Mount Sinai. When Moses first went up the mountain in Exodus 24:9, he takes Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (and seventy elders) and they “seethe God of Israel.” When Moses went up the mountain to get the two tablets, “the cloud covered it and the glory of God settled on it” (24:15), and it remained there for six days (24:16). Immediately following this, God tells Moses to have the people make an offering (25:1-7) which will become the tabernacle (25:8-9), the tent where Moses will meet with God.

The context is important. Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus told him he was right; God had revealed this to him. But Jesus then expanded on what the Messiah was going to do: he was going to Jerusalem to be executed and raised from the dead. When Peter rebuked Jesus, Jesus said he was thinking the thoughts of men and was being used by Satan himself!

Jesus appears with the glory of God (17:2). The verb translated “transfigured” (μεταμορφόω) refers to a change that is visible to others (BDAG). His face glowed (λάμπω) like the sun. The word associated with a shining light. This phrase is added to Mark’s story to connect the story to Moses’s experience in God’s presence. Moses’s face glowed when he came down from the mountain.

This led to a classic translation error: the Hebrew קרן can mean “to wear horns” as well as “a ray of the sun” (HALOT). The Latin Vulgate translated the verse as Moses “had horns” when he came down from the mountain; The LXX has a perfect passive form of διξάζω, a rare word meaning “honor.”

His clothes became “white as light.” Mark used the verb στίλβω, to “be radiant” and adds a clarification that no one could ever bleach clothing this white. Matthew simply compares the whiteness to light. Shining white garments are typical of theophanies in the New Testament and other apocalyptic literature (Rev 19:14, for example). In Daniel 7:9, the Ancient of Days has “clothing white as snow.”

Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus (17:3). Why these two? Law and Prophets? Traditional forerunners of the messiah? Both are associated with the wilderness and Mount Sinai. Moses and Elijah speak with Jesus. The verb (συλλαλέω) is “to exchange thoughts with,” they are having a discussion. In Exodus 34:35, the word is used when Moses enters the tent of meeting to speak with God. This is the same verse that describes Moses’s face as shining.

Peter, James, and John experience a theophany modeled after Moses and Elijah’s experience at Mount Sinai. That Jesus is presented as the true son of God is confirmed by the voice from heaven in Matthew 17:4.

Why Does Peter Rebuke Jesus? – Matthew 16:21-27

After Peter declares the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus defines the messiah’s mission: he is going to Jerusalem where he will be killed and rise again on the third day (16:21). Why does Peter rebukes Jesus? This is not what Peter expected to hear, so Peter tells Jesus this is not at all what the messiah is going to do.    

Jesus and Peter

This is not the idea of the Messiah known among the Jews of the first century. Although Christians read Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 through the lens of Jesus’s suffering, few Jews (if any) in the first century read those passages as messianic. The one suffering was Israel itself, not God’s Messiah suffering in a priestly role to deal with the real enemy of all people, sin and death.

Jesus predicts he will suffer many things and be killed, raised on the third day, a prediction repeated in 17:22-23 and 20:17-19. Peter’s confession is correct, Jesus is the Messiah. But these three predictions make it clear the Messiah’s mission is to suffer and die, and then be raised to new life.

Peter rebukes Jesus: “this shall never happen!” (16:22). The verb ἐπιτιμάω expressed strong disapproval, criticize, or issue a serious warning (BDAG). The word is used when Jesus silences demons (Matt 17:18) and when he “rebuked the waves” when he calmed the storm (Matt 8:26). The reason for Peter’s serious rebuke of Jesus is the prediction that the Messiah will suffer and die (even if he is raised from the dead) is not consistent with the kind of Messiah the Jews were hoping for. When Peter says, “you are the Messiah,” he this thinking only in terms of restoring a kingdom to Israel, led by a new David (or son of David) who will establish a kingdom of peace and prosperity.

Since this is a private discussion, Peter might be saying something like, “don’t say that kind of thing in front of the other disciples!”

Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him a stumbling block (16:23). Jesus takes Peter’s understanding of the Messiah’s role as a temptation by Satan. The classic “Get thee behind me Satan!” expresses the seriousness of this temptation. To what extent was Jesus tempted to avoid the cross?

The ESV translates this as “you are a hindrance to me,” but the word translated “hindrance” is stronger than that. Both the NRSV and NIV (2011) have “you are a stumbling block to me.” A stumbling block (σκάνδαλον) is anything that might trip you up (literally), so it became a metaphor for something that causes a person to sin. Causing someone to sin is an important concept in Matthew 18, but here it refers to a trap, an enticement to not fulfil the plan the father has laid out for the son: to go to Jerusalem and submit willingly to death on the cross.

Peter’s confession was “revealed by God” but his understanding of the messiah’s mission is “based on the thoughts of men.”

The one who wants to follow the messiah must be willing to lose everything (16:24-27). When Jesus refers to “taking up one’s cross” he means be willing to die for the sake of Jesus. This is not some vague burden you must bear, but literally picking up the cross they Romans are going to execute you on! There is irony in following Jesus. The world might see following Jesus as a loss, but the only way to really find your life is to lose it for the sake of Jesus.

Looking ahead to Matthew 18-20, Jesus will continue to demand an extremely high level of commitment from his followers. They are not joining a revolutionary movement in the tradition of Judas Maccabees, following Jesus will lead to persecution and death.

But, as Jesus says, what can a person give in exchange for their soul?

What are the Keys to the Kingdom? Matthew 16:18-19

After Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus tells Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church built on “this rock.”  He then gives Peter the keys to the kingdom so that whatever he binds on earth will be bound in heaven.  Virtually every phrase in Matthew 16:18-19 has been taken out of context and applied to various Christian church structure. In order to avoid misinterpreting these verses, we need to read phrases like “keys to the kingdom” in the context of Second Temple period Judaism.

Keys to the Kingdom

The “gates of hell shall not prevail” is a well-known phrase which turns up in contemporary worship and is often misunderstood. Does Jesus mean Satan will not prevail against the church?

Davies and Allison suggest the phrase ought to be read in the context of “the end time scenario, when the powers of the underworld will be unleashed from below, from the abyss, and rage against the saints.” For example, in 1 Enoch 56 the writer describes end times chaos when the kings of the east trample the land of the elect, “In those days, Sheol shall open her mouth, and they shall be swallowed up into it and perish. (Thus) Sheol shall swallow up the sinners in the presence of the elect ones” (56:8).

In 1QH, the writer praises God “because you saved my life from the pit, and from the Sheol of Abaddon” (xi.19). But for the unrighteous, “And the doors of the pit close upon the one expectant with injustice, and everlasting bolts upon all the spirits of the serpent” (xi.18). The “gates of hell” are closed and locked for the unrighteous:

1QHa Col. xi:16-18 And when they rush forth, Sh[eo]l [and A]bad[don] open; [al]l the arrows of the pit 17 make their voice heard while going down to the abyss; and the gates of [Sheol] open [for all] the deeds of the serpent. 18 And the doors of the pit close upon the one expectant with injustice, and everlasting bolts upon all the spirits of the serpent.

The “gates of hell” is likely a reference to the hostility the disciples will face once they begin their mission to bring the gospel to the Jews and then to the world. They will be attacked, persecuted, and some will die because of their testimony for Jesus. This fits better with second temple Judaism use of the phrase “gates of hell.” “Jewish literature “gates of Hades” is frequently idiomatic for “powers of death” (Blomberg, Matthew, 253). For example, in Isaiah 38:10, when Hezekiah is about to die, he says, “I am consigned to the gates of Sheol for the rest of my years.”

Peter is given the “keys to the kingdom” so that whatever he binds and looses on earth, will be bound or loosed in heaven. This phrase has been used to support the primacy of Peter and the bishops of Rome, so that Peter could forgive sin. “Jesus instituted the Sacrament of Penance and transmitted the power to forgive sins to Peter and, later, to the other Apostles.”

It is true that keys are associated with authority. In Isaiah 22:22, the Lord will establish the authority of Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, “and I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” This verse sounds much like Jesus’s words in Matthew.

But in the context of the Second Temple Judaism, the idea of “binding and loosing” refers to interpreting the Torah and applying it to new situations. If the command was applicable, then it was “bound.” If they determined it was a commandment not applicable in a specific circumstance, then it was “loosed.”

Powell observes the rabbis (and Matthew) did not consider “loosing the Law” as “dismissing scripture or countering its authority.” God’s Law is perfect, but the problem was the Law’s intention and how that intention can be brought forward into a new situation. This is something akin to dispensationalism’s horizontal and vertical truth or drawing principals from the Old Testament Law.

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Hananiah b. Teradion says, “[If] two sit together and between them do not pass teachings of Torah, lo, this is a seat of the scornful, “as it is said, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful (Ps. 1:1). “But two who are sitting, and words of Torah do pass between them—the Presence is with them, “as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord and gave thought to His name (Mal. 3:16).” I know that this applies to two. How do I know that even if a single person sits and works on Torah, the Holy One, blessed be he, sets aside a reward for him? As it is said, Let him sit alone and keep silent, because he has laid it upon him (Lam. 3:28).

m.Aboth 3:2 R. Halafta of Kefar Hananiah says, “Among ten who sit and work hard on Torah the Presence comes to rest, “as it is said, God stands in the congregation of God (Ps. 82:1).  “And how do we know that the same is so even of five?  For it is said, And he has founded his group upon the earth (Am. 9:6). “And how do we know that this is so even of three?  Since it is said, And he judges among the judges (Ps. 82:1). “And how do we know that this is so even of two?  Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke with one another, and the Lord hearkened and heard (Mal. 3:16). “And how do we know that this is so even of one?  Since it is said, In every place where I record my name I will come to you and I will bless you (Ex. 20:24).”

Rather than giving Peter the authority to forgive sin, Jesus is telling Peter (and the other disciples) to apply his teaching to new situations in which they find themselves as they continue his ministry after the resurrection.


Bibliography: J. Marcus, “The Gates of Hades and the Keys of the Kingdom (Matt 16:18–19),” CBQ 50 (1988): 443–55; Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: A Paradigm for Ethical Discernment from the Gospel of Matthew,” Currents in Theology and Mission 30 (2003): 438-445; 438.

Upon this Rock – Matthew 16:17-19

When Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter’s answer is correct, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Matthew’s expansion of Mark 8:27-30 is important: Peter is the rock on which Jesus will build his church (16:17-19). What did Jesus mean when he called Peter “the rock”?

Primacy of Peter

Jesus says God has revealed this to him (v. 17). Jesus pronounces a blessing on Peter when he confesses Jesus as the Christ. Like the beatitudes (using μακάριος), this expresses Peter’s happy state because Jesus’ Father in heaven has revealed this to him (he is not expressing the opinions of the crowds).

“My Father in Heaven” echoes the Lord’s prayer, but Jesus confirms his relationship with God which Peter just confessed. Simon Bar-Jonah, the Greek Βαριωνᾶ reflects the Aramaic בַּר יוֹחָנָן, υἱὲ Ἰωάννου “son of John.” Gundry argues Matthew changed the name from John to Jonah to associate Simon with “the sign of Jonah” (12:39; 16:4). For more details, see this article: Robert W. Wall, “Peter, ‘Son’ of Jonah: the Conversion of Cornelius in the Context of Canon,”  JSNT 29 (1987): 79–90. Other examples of renaming: Abraham (Gen 17:5), Sarah (Gen 17:15), Jacob (Gen 32:28), Jerusalem (Isa 62:2–4; cf. Zech 8:3; Bar 5:4), the conquering saints (Rev 2:17; cf. Isa 65:15), and Aseneth (Jos. Asen. 15:7) (Allison and Davies, Matthew, 2:626).

Jesus calls Simon “Peter” or Cephas in Aramaic and declares he will build his church on “this rock.” According to John 1:42, Jesus has already given Peter the nickname “the rock.” So this is a confirmation of the appropriateness of that nickname (Blomberg, Matthew, 251).

Does this verse designate Peter as the leader of the twelve apostles after the resurrection? Does the word “church” necessarily mean “the Christian Church” in the same sense it is used in Acts or Paul’s Letters?

First, Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” What is the “rock” on which Jesus will build? The problem is the demonstrative pronoun this is feminine, referring to the feminine noun “rock.” The pronoun may not refer to the name Peter because Peter (Πέτρος) is masculine. The pronoun could refer to Peter, to Peter’s confession, or to Jesus himself.

Second, the metaphor is a structure built on solid bedrock. The word petra (πέτρα) bedrock or massive rock formations (BDAG), but by the first century the word was used interchangeably with the masculine πέτρος. A solid building is built on the bedrock rather than soil. The best example is the Temple Mount where the stones at the base of the Western Wall are placed on solid bedrock. Jesus made this point in the final parable in the Sermon on the Mount, the wise man builds his house on rock, the fool builds on sand (7:24-27). In Ephesians 2:19-22, Paul describes the “church as the Temple of the Lord,” built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as “the chief cornerstone.” Although there is some discussion on what the cornerstone means in that verse, the point is that the foundation of the building is itself secured to Christ Jesus.

Another possibility: πέτρα can refer to the foundation of an “impregnable position or a rocky fortress” (BDAG). In the context, the “gates of hell shall not prevail” may reflect a siege metaphor, so instead of a “church” the building built on the foundation is a solid Temple fortress. In fact, the Temple in Jerusalem was a strong military defensive position which held out against the Romans for some time.

Third, this verse was interpreted in church history as supporting the primacy of Peter as the chief apostle, and his church is the Roman church. As is often said, the Vatican is built on Peter’s grave, so quite literally the church is “built on Peter.”

Fourth, the word translated church in most English Bibles (ἐκκλησία) does not always mean “the church” in the same sense it is used later in the New Testament. The Greek word refers to an assembly of people, but Jesus may have used the Hebrew/Aramaic qahal, an assembly gathered for worship. If the feeding of the 5000 intentionally evoked the gathering of Israel in the wilderness, then (perhaps) this assembly is Jesus’ followers as a new Israel. Craig Blomberg says, “It is virtually impossible to sustain the view that Jesus is here offering the church as an alternative to the kingdom” (Matthew, 253). So too, John Nolland, “It is doubtful whether Jesus anticipated the emergence of the church as an entity separate from Israel” (Matthew, 667).

I agree, reading later church structure into Matthew 16:16 is a mistake and misses the point about what Jesus is doing in his ministry.

Who is the Son of Man? Matthew 16:13–20

Matthew’s gospel has been leading up to this question from the beginning: who is Jesus? (16:13-16). Jesus uses the title “son of man” several times in Matthew (see this on Matthew 10:23 for example).

Banias Pan's Cave

Traveling to Caesarea Philippi, about 25 miles north of Bethsaida. The town was known as Panias, now Banias. Herod Philip built a Roman city on the site and renamed it to honor the Roman empire. One of the three headwaters for the Jordan river is in Caesarea Philippi. Matthew doesn’t tell us why Jesus and his disciples traveled to this location. The only thing that is important to Matthew is the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples.

While they are on the road, Jesus asks the disciples what the people are saying about him (v. 13-14). The question does not ask, “who do they think I am,” but “who the Son of Man is.” This sets the question in the context of Daniel 7:14, even if Jesus is using Son of Man to refer to himself.

The disciples offer several responses. Some in the crowds think Jesus might be John the Baptist, presumably raised from the dead. Others think he is Elijah who would come before the Messiah. This idea comes from Malachi 4:5, (see also Mark 6:15; Luke 9:8; Matt 17:10; Mark 9:11; John 1:21).

Still others think he might be one of the prophets, specifically Jeremiah. This is unique to Matthew, although in 2 Maccabees 15:12-16 Judas Maccabees has a vision of the righteous priest Onias and the prophet Jeremiah, who gives Judas a holy, golden sword as gift from God to strike down his enemies.

2 Maccabees 15:12–16 What he saw was this: Onias, who had been high priest, a noble and good man, of modest bearing and gentle manner, one who spoke fittingly and had been trained from childhood in all that belongs to excellence, was praying with outstretched hands for the whole body of the Jews. 13 Then in the same fashion another appeared, distinguished by his gray hair and dignity, and of marvelous majesty and authority. 14 And Onias spoke, saying, “This is a man who loves the family of Israel and prays much for the people and the holy city—Jeremiah, the prophet of God.” 15 Jeremiah stretched out his right hand and gave to Judas a golden sword, and as he gave it he addressed him thus: 16 “Take this holy sword, a gift from God, with which you will strike down your adversaries.”

In 2 Esdras 2:18 the Lord will send Jeremiah and Isaiah to the people when he opens the tombs and the dead rise from their places. Based on Deuteronomy 18:15–18, There was a Jewish messianic expectation that a great prophet like Moses would come at the time of the Messiah.

After hearing what the people are saying, Jesus asks, “but what about you?” Who do the disciples think the Son of Man is? Peter’s response is a turning point in the Gospel of Matthew, he declares that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the son of the living God (16:16). In Matthew 12, the Pharisees decided who Jesus was, he is not the messiah and casts out demons by the power of Beelzebul. After this break with the Pharisees, Jesus begins to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of Heaven through parables (Matthew 13) and do a series of signs demonstrating to his disciples who he is, such as walking on the water (Matthew 14:22-33). Following Peters confession, Jesus will take three disciples up a mountain and God will reveal his glory and declare that Jesus is his beloved son (Matthew 17:1-13)

It is important to read Peter’s confession in the context of Second Temple Judaism: Christ is Messiah. This is the first time Jesus is identified as the Messiah in Matthew’s Gospel, although from the first line of the book Jesus is identified as the Messiah, the son of David. Although the title “son of man” does evoke a messianic passage (Daniel 7:14), Peter’s confession is the first time someone has specifically called Jesus the Messiah.

Peter also says Jesus is the “Son of the living God.” The king of Israel was like “son of God” (Psalm 2). In Matthew 14:33 the disciples confessed Jesus as the son of God. Nolland suggests the “disciples in the boat” (14:33) may not have included Peter (suggested by Nolland, Matthew, 665). 2 Samuel 23:1 also describes of David as anointed by God. “Living God” is a standard description of God in first century Judaism, that he is the “living God” means he is the real and only God.

It is possible this confession was something Matthew’s original readers would use in worship, although that is impossible to know for sure. In any event, after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to explain to his disciples the mission of the messiah, that he will go to Jerusalem and be killed and be raised on the third day.