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Matthew 17:1-9

You have little reason to trust me. If you do, it is mainly because you trust A Plain Account, and they trusted me enough to post this. So, whatever credence I have, I would like to spend it all right now just to get you to read the following passages before you go any further with this article or your sermon preparation:

1 Kings 19:11-13; Exodus chapters 19, 24, and 32-34, 40:34; Deut. 4:11-12, 33-36; 2 Chronicles 5; Isaiah 6:1-9; 19:1; Ezekiel 1:28-2:3, chapter 10 (esp. v. 4); Daniel 10:5-12; Matthew 5:1-2; 28:5-18.

I know you are busy; I only ask because I believe I am not asking much. In our text for this week Matthew arranges some of the key elements and images from those passages in a certain way and for a particular purpose. If at this stage you simply take some of those pieces into yourself, the sermon will later integrate through you much more quickly.

Now, before we get to our verses proper, we still need to lay out a few more constituent parts. This is because Matthew 17 begins by reminding us that six days earlier, something important happened. This important happening was Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection. To which Peter responded by rebuking Jesus (Messiah’s don’t die at the hands of their enemies!). To which, in turn, Jesus responded by rebuking Peter. Jesus then insisted his impending suffering was in harmony with the things of God, and invited Peter and the rest of the disciples to continue following him even to adversity and pain.[1]  Several themes from this passage carry into, and escalate in, our text for this week:

  1. Peter is right, kind of. But he misses the fullness of what he has begun to recognize. He also misuses it. All this because of the current state of Peter’s perspective and agenda and the way they shape each other. For the purposes of sermon construction, it is helpful to keep in mind this is also true for those who identify with Peter. It is also necessary to remember that openness to correction and repentance begins with the preacher.

  2. Jesus’ glory and role/identity as Messiah. Contrary to many perspectives, Jesus’ nobility and salvific work are not negated by, nor incommensurable with, his adversity and suffering.

Now to our passage. With the promise “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom”[2] funding their willingness and energy, Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up a high mountain. If you did read the above verses, you now know why: mountains, according to the Old Testament, are places God enjoys revealing God’s presence by using sensible elements. Matthew 17:1-9 is one of those stories. So notice, feel, see and hear. Pay close attention to the sensible things:

  1. Light. The fire that caused the smoke and cloud to glow on Sinai, that encapsulated the heavenly throne in the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel, is now showing through Jesus as his face shines like the sun. The lightning that struck the mountain now flashes in the whiteness of Jesus’ garment. (c.f. 1 John 1:5).

  2. Cloud: The cloud that went before the people to guide them through the wilderness, that came upon the tent of meeting and filled tabernacle and temple at their dedication, that filled the vision of the prophets when they glimpsed the throne of the universe, now envelops Jesus and those near him.

  3. A Voice from heaven. Hear what it says, “This is my beloved son.” It does not say Jesus “has become” or “will be” my Beloved Son. So, “Listen to him.” (I’m going to use old language in hopes of communicating the excitement and importance) Give heed to the perspective and will of Jesus so it might open us to the kinds of agendas and strategies that resonate with all that truly endures in goodness and beauty.

This perspective and will and the resulting agendas and strategies all focus and flow through Jesus. How Matthew arranges the rest of the narrative elements supports this claim.[3]

  1. Jesus converses with Moses and Elijah. Both spoke with God on a mountain. Moses gave the law. Elijah was a mighty prophet whose words and deeds made the will of God evident. Moses said God would later raise up another like him to communicate God’s voice to God’s people (Deut 18:15-19). People in Jesus’ day believed Elijah would be the one to usher in the day of God’s glorious reign (Mal. 4:4-6). Moses died. Elijah did not. The law and prophets, the living and dead, every previous instance of God’s power and glory, all bear witness to Jesus.

Now we pick up again the thread of Peter’s perspective and actions. Notice – because I believe Peter noticed – that Moses and Elijah appear to them, all those present, but Moses and Elijah only talk with him, Jesus. So Peter starts to talk, too. Peter’s impetuousness and presumption is often pointed out when this text is preached, but I have not heard much that situates this properly in the immediate context. Remember, just before Peter had been told that he was the Rock, on whom Jesus would found his Church. Of course he wants to talk to Jesus specifically as a part of the company of Moses and Elijah. Peter is supposed to build up whatever is coming to fruition in Jesus. Jesus said so.

So of course Peter offers to construct three dwellings. Again, Peter is right, kind of. But he misses something important.

First, let’s deal with how Peter was not far off. When Peter says, “Let us make three dwellings,” the word Peter uses is “tabernacle.” What Peter suggests is in line with what Moses did. Moses caught a glimpse of heaven, translated this vision, with God’s help, into an earthly blueprint, and what was constructed according to those plans in the wilderness was called the “Tabernacle.” Do not miss that a cloud of God’s glory filled this tabernacle when it was dedicated.

And again, a cloud overshadows them. So I take this as a rebuke, sure. But a gentle one, unlike the last time God – in Jesus – rebuked Peter with “Get behind me Satan! You have not in mind the things of God, but the things of man.” Peter’s perspective is at least making progress. So now, rather than being called out for aligning himself with Satan, Peter just needs to be quieted and stripped of his need to insert himself and hurry along God’s plan.

In spite of the progress, Peter is still not ready. His Messiah still has work to do, in the world, and in Peter. Peter is taking his job seriously, and it is indeed his job, it’s just not his time.

And there is never any need for Peter to leverage force or cunning to insert himself into Christ’s work anyway. Jesus’ invitation has already done this. As the results of this invitation have unfolded, now, oddly, silenced and rendered inert, the disciples begin to look more like the great prophets. They join the company of Isaiah and Ezekiel by falling on their faces, as those massive figures did when God’s initiative ushered them into similar circumstances.

And, as YHWH did for Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel,[4] Jesus does for his disciples. Jesus comes to them, as he will again on a mountain in resurrected glory, and invites them to move and speak in such an environment without fear.[5] As this foreshadows Jesus own resurrection glory, it foreshadows also how resurrection will come to the disciples. This moment is a foretaste; it cannot yet be permanent. 

This Messiah must still throw everyone a curve and die and rise again, and so Peter and the others will be different kinds of disciples when they continue their Master’s work. At the right time and place, the disciples will indeed build Jesus’ church. And in the end, all will look up and see no one but Jesus alone.

This passage is an instance of words, objects, moments, elements of history and previous texts being arranged around Jesus to enable people to see what is really going on in the fullness of reality. Matthew is arranging our hearing and imagining. Reworking the deepest things at play in our ability to perceive so we too might come to see more of the fullness of what is going on with this person Jesus. And there is no better way to understand our own tasks in preaching this text.

If we are to participate in Christ’s work as re-presented in Matthew, to arrange a situation to help people recognize Christ, our path will be the path of Peter, James, and John. Accepting Jesus’ invitation, we must first take in all that follows, be moved to silence and stillness, then invited and empowered to witness to what has happened without fear or the insertion of our own agendas. [1] Matthew 16:13-28 [2] Matthew 16:28 [3] Perhaps the author went first, and allowed the revelation to shape his own strategizing and laboring as a preacher. [4] Isaiah 6:6-9; Ezek 2:1-3; Dan 10:5-12 [5] c.f. Matt. 28:5, 10, 18