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.
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.