The glory of God: Elijah’s coming

TransfigPeter’s Response. As in 16:13-20, Peter again responds, again without a full understanding.  Consider Peter’s proposal to make three tents (skēnḗ; also “booth” or “tabernacle”). What did he intend? It has been variously understood as traveler’s hut, the “tent of meeting” where God spoke with Moses outside the camp (Exod 33:7), a more formal tent used in the Festival of Booths (cf. Lev 23:42–43; Zech 14:16ff), and even as the Jerusalem Temple tabernacle.  It is this last image that Matthew may have in mind as background – notwithstanding Peter’s intention.  It is the Temple tabernacle where the Shekinah, the fiery cloud that symbolized the continuing presence of God among the people, dwelt over the ark of the covenant.  The response to Peter’s proposal is three-fold (Boring, 364)

  1. The heavenly cloud of God’s presence ap­pears, as on the tabernacle of Moses’ day and the later Temple. As of old, the heavenly voice comes from the cloud, and the God who had previously spoken on Mount Sinai only to Moses speaks directly to them. The heavenly voice speaks in exactly the same words as at the baptism (see 3:17), confirming the identity and mission of Jesus declared there, and confirming the confession Peter himself had made in the preceding scene (16:16).
  2. Although three transcendent figures are present, the heavenly voice charges the disciples to hear Jesus. As in the Shema (Deut 6:4), “hear” carries its OT connotation of “obey” and is the same command given with regard to the “prophet like Moses” whom God would send (Deut 18:15; cf. 13:57). The disciples fall on their faces in fearful response to the theophany, as in Exod 34:30; Dan 10:9; and Hab 3:2 LXX.
  3. Jesus comes to them (only here and 28:18 in Matthew, another parallel between this scene and the resurrection appearances) and touches them, and they see no one but “Jesus alone.” To focus all attention on Jesus and to distinguish him from Moses and Elijah, who have now disappeared, Matthew subtly rewritten Mark so that the word alone might stand here as the emphatic closing word of the scene. The heavenly visitors depart, but Jesus stays—Jesus alone. Without heavenly companions, without heavenly glory, he is the “tabernacle” (skene), the reality of God’s abiding presence with us (cf. 1:23; 28:20). The disciples descend from the mountain into the mundane world of suffering and mission, accom­panied by Jesus, God with us.

Coming down from the mountain” corresponds to going up the mountain in 17:1 and rounds off vv. 1-9 as a complete scene. Jesus’ calling the event a “vision” (only so in Matthew) does not imply the modern contrast between subjective experience and objective reality, which reduces the event to the disciples’ subjectivity. Jesus raises no questions about the reality of the event. Rather, the designation “vision” relates the event to the visionary/apocalyptic tradition, as has 16:17 (cf. Dan 8:16-17; 10:9-12, 16-19). The mention of the Passion/Resurrection as the end of the scene is not an expression of the messianic secret, as in Mark, but it reminds the disciples of all the barriers they themselves have experienced in believing Jesus as Messiah will suffer and die.  If they have had such problems comprehending and trusting Jesus’ revelation to them, then how much more so will others have trouble believing the good news.  Yet, it will be from a post-Easter perspective that others will be called to identify themselves with the disciples in the story.

Also laying in the background, another lesson each disciple, good and faithful Jews, needed to absorb was that as great as Moses and Elijah were, each was only God’s servant, not his Son (3:17). Moses was the prototypical prophet, but he spoke of Jesus as the definitive eschatological prophet whose words must be heeded (Deut 18:15–19). Elijah’s ministry courageously stood for the law of Moses, but Jesus as the definitive teacher of that law brings it to its ultimate goal (5:17–19).

John and Elijah. 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 Then the disciples asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

The disciples have just experienced the Transfiguration and heard Jesus’ prediction of his death and Resurrection – and then the disciples ask about Elijah.  It may well seem an awkward shift in a conversation, but v.10 is not merely responding to v.9, but looks back at all of 16:13-17:9, portraying the advent of Jesus as the eschatological event, as the Messiah/Son of God who fulfills his ministry as the rejected and dying Son of Man, who will be vindicated by God at the resurrection. The disciples, who know already of Jesus’ identification of John as Elijah (11:10, 14), voice the objection of the scribal opponents of Matthew’s church to the Christian claims: How can the Christ have come already, since the Scripture says that Elijah must come first (Mal 3:23-34)?

In short, Jesus’ response is that Elijah has already come in the person of John the Baptist (vv.12-13). What is sometimes confusing is “Elijah will indeed come and restore all things” (v.11)  Hadn’t Elijah/John already come? Boring offers four suggestions (365):

  1. The future tense simply reflects the quotation from Malachi,
  2. The future tense may reflect the scribal expectations rather than Jesus’ own understanding,
  3. While Elijah/John had come the restoration in its fullness is still a future event
  4. More likely, the future restoration of all things has already begun in the advent of John the Baptist.

That Elijah had already come is an important declaration. The understanding that Elijah has not yet come will appear again in this gospel (16:14, 27:45).  Elijah/John is paralleled to Jesus:  he was sent from God, was opposed and killed by members of the kingdom of this world, was Messianic in that he was the forerunner of the Messiah.  And as it was with John, so with Jesus – this generation failed to recognize him because they were persuaded by the kingdom of this world.  Beginning with John/Elijah, the disciples are forming the new citizenry of the kingdom of God.

Notes

Matthew 17:4 three tents: the booths in which the Israelites lived during the feast of Tabernacles (cf John 7:2) were meant to recall their ancestors’ dwelling in booths during the journey from Egypt to the promised land (Lev 23:39-42). The same Greek word, skene, here translated tents, is used in the LXX for the booths of that feast, and some scholars have suggested that there is an allusion here to that liturgical custom.

Matthew 17:5 cloud cast a shadow over them: In the Old Testament the cloud covered the meeting tent, indicating the Lord’s presence in the midst of his people (Exodus 40:34-35) and came to rest upon the temple in Jerusalem at the time of its dedication (1 Kings 8:10)

This is my beloved Son . . . listen to him: This echoes the words of Matthew 3:17. The voice repeats the baptismal proclamation about Jesus, with the addition of the command listen to him. The latter is a reference to Deut 18:15 in which the Israelites are commanded to listen to the prophet like Moses whom God will raise up for them. The command to listen to Jesus is general, but in this context it probably applies particularly to the preceding predictions of his passion and resurrection (Matthew 16:21) and of his coming (Matthew 16:27, 28)

Matthew 17:6-7 When the disciples heard this…Rise, do not be afraid: This text does not appear in the Marcan or Lucan versions.  The language echoes Daniel 10:9-10, 18-19:  “When I heard the sound of his voice, I fell face forward in a faint. But then a hand touched me, raising me to my hands and knees. The one who looked like a man touched me again and strengthened me, saying, “Fear not, beloved, you are safe; take courage and be strong.

Matthew 17:6 fell prostrate: epesan epi prosōp­on autōn – lit. “to fall on one’s face.”

Matthew 17:9 the vision: horama, a noun used elsewhere in the New Testament (all in Acts) only for apparently ‘inward’ experiences.  Matthew alone uses this word to describe the transfiguration. It is probably not useful to enquire how ‘physical’ the experience was; at least it impressed Peter as sufficiently real to require the erection of booths. But the whole scene is clearly ‘numinous’—light, brilliance, the cloud, a voice from heaven, the disciples’ fear, and the appearance and sudden disappearance of men of long ago. Nothing like it occurs elsewhere in the Gospels. until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead: only in the light of Jesus’ resurrection can the meaning of his life and mission be truly understood; until then no testimony to the vision will lead people to faith.

Matthew 17:10 Elijah: The clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).  According to Mal 3:23-24 the return of Elijah will precede the coming of the Day of the Lord.  But whether Elijah was to be the forerunner of the Messiah is not so clear.

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 361-67
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