The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
10 And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 11 He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. 12 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.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
This discourse involved Peter and brothers James and John — ‘the disciples’ — who were coming down the mountain after the Transfiguration. Luke’s version of this event (Luke 9:28-36) was the gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent in 2016.
Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.
This is Matthew’s description of the Transfiguration:
17 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. 3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 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.” 5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son,[a] with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” 8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
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.”
Before going into today’s reading, it is worth giving John MacArthur’s explanation of a few aspects of this indescribably glorious event which are not always included in sermons elsewhere. Emphases mine below.
The first is the nature of God:
God is a spirit and as a spirit is invisible. The Bible says a spirit hath not flesh and bones. That is God is an invisible spirit, God has no form, God is everywhere. He cannot be confined to a form in fullness of His being. When God does reveal Himself in the Old Testament, He chooses to reveal Himself as light, as blazing glowing light.
It is easy for some of us to forget that God is a spirit, especially when we reflect on Genesis 1:27 which says He created man in His own image.
The second is how His divine nature relates to Jesus’s transfiguration (verse 2):
So when Jesus wants, then, to reveal Himself for who He really is, He pulls back the veil of His flesh and reveals Himself as glorious, radiant, dazzling light, the Shekinah of God. And that’s what we’re seeing in this text.
The third is Peter’s mention of tents, which appears straightforward on its own but also has a greater significance. The Transfiguration took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths, which all Jews were — and are — required to observe. It takes place during the month of Tishri, six months before Passover.
In Jesus’s day, all male Jews were required to go to Jerusalem at this time to commemorate the time the Israelites spent in the wilderness in booths — tents — before God led them to the Promised Land.
However, Jesus, Peter, James and John were not in Jerusalem at this time. So, Peter offered to make tents for Him, Moses and Elijah (verse 4):
… it’s just very likely that Peter was thinking about the Feast of Tabernacles and thinking about the feast of booths and realizing how important it was to have such a thing, he has that in his mind.
The fourth is the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah:
They’re talking about Jesus’ departure, or Jesus’ decease or Jesus’ death. And you know what the Greek word is that they use? Exodos, it’s a Greek word, exodos. They’re talking about Jesus’ exodus. Now when you hear the word “exodus” what figure do you think of? Moses, right? Moses led the exodus. But Moses said this, Deuteronomy 18:15, he said, “A prophet like unto me is going to come, He’s going to be like me.” Well, what do you mean? Well, what is Moses? Well, Moses is the one who led the exodus. They’ll be a prophet like you? You mean another prophet who will lead another exodus? See, they were looking for another deliverer. O, this time He was to be a deliverer in different circumstances. Moses led them out of Egypt to the promised land. They were looking for another exodus leader and they thought they wanted to get out of Roman bondage into freedom. But what God had planned was out of sin into righteousness, out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light, out of bondage to death into life, you see. And so, they were looking for a greater prophet than Moses, another Moses to lead another exodus. And here was Jesus and He was talking about His exodus. And surely Peter thought this is it, folks, this is the greater prophet than Moses. And they’re comparing exoduses in their conversation.
Finally, we have God’s divine affirmation in verse 5. Many Muslims deny that God ever said Jesus is Lord because it is not recorded the way they would like. MacArthur explains this is one of three gospel verses making that proclamation:
Now if you really want to have believable testimony to the deity of Jesus Christ, how about God? Will that do? Three times, Matthew 3:17, John 12:28 and 29, and Matthew 17 verse 5, three times in the holy record of the gospels, God speaks out of heaven and says “This is My Son,” or “This is the One.” Now that is testimony beyond argumentation. And when God gives His testimony, men should listen. And this is a very traumatizing thing. They’re already scared and then in verse 6 it says, “When they heard God’s voice, they fell on their faces.” I mean, they just went flat prostrate prone on the ground with a mouth full of dirt and was scared out of their wits. They were very afraid.
Then we come to verse 9, where Jesus makes it clear the three are not to say a word to anyone. It was not yet time. Matthew Henry’s commentary gives us His reasoning:
If they had proclaimed it, the credibility of it would have been shocked by his sufferings, which were now hastening on. But let the publication of it be adjourned till after his resurrection, and then that and his subsequent glory will be a great confirmation of it … Every thing is beautiful in its season. Christ’s resurrection was properly the beginning of the gospel state and kingdom, to which all before was but preparatory and by way of preface and therefore, though this was transacted before, it must not be produced as evidence till then (and then it appears to have been much insisted on by 2 Peter 1:16-18), when the religion it was designed for the confirmation of was brought to its full consistence and maturity. Christ’s time is the best and fittest for the manifesting of himself and must be attended to by us.
Moving on to today’s reading, the three apostles asked Jesus about Elijah’s second coming. Elijah had been taken into heaven by chariot many generations before. The Old Testament has prophesies concerning his return prior to the Messiah’s arrival. Every Jew knew the prophecy that the prophet Malachi received (Malachi 4:4-5), which also mentions Moses:
4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules[b] that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[c]
The apostles here, Henry tells us, wondered if this was the moment and, if so, why it was so brief and so secret.
Jesus responded saying that, indeed, Elijah does come (verse 11) then adds that Elijah has already come, no one recognised him and, therefore, people treated him accordingly (verse 12) in their spiritual and sinful blindness. And, He said, the same would happen to Him. He left it unsaid that it would occur in His humiliating crucifixion, which would have astounded the three apostles at the time. So, Jesus left prophecy and events understated and unmentioned.
The three disciples then understood that the Elijah Jesus referred to in verse 12 was John the Baptist (verse 13), brutally beheaded by that time by order of Herod for his step-daughter’s amusement.
Henry’s commentary states that the Jewish hierarchy were too busy analysing Scripture to make the connection between Elijah and John the Baptist. Consequently they:
understood not by the signs of the times the fulfilling of the scripture. Note, It is easier to explain the word of God than to apply it and make a right use of it. But it is no wonder that the morning star was not observed, when he who is the Sun itself, was in the world, and the world knew him not.
So, the prophet Elijah himself appeared to these three select apostles in Jesus’s presence. The public Elijah for all divine intents and purposes was John the Baptist who came in the holiness and spirit of the great prophet.
In closing, given the socio-political nature of today’s left-wing and conservative strains of Christianity, John MacArthur reminds us of Jesus’s purpose. This relates to His instruction to the three apostles not to tell anyone of the Transfiguration:
Why? Because if you wait till after the resurrection, they’ll know that I didn’t come to conquer the Romans, I came to conquer death, see. And they’ll know that that’s a spiritual reality, not an earthly one, not a political one, not a material one, not a military one, not an economic one. Jesus is not involved in politics. He is involved in conquering death and sin and hell. And if you wait till after the resurrection they’ll see that. So they aren’t to say anything.
Something to keep in mind during these tumultuous times.
Next time: Matthew 17:14-21