Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 17:1-13
Though truly a man (and not excited about dying), Jesus showed His inner circle that He was also truly and fully God. This event would give them courage to continue to follow Him. But it also forces us to ask ourselves if we take Jesus seriously enough in our lives—is He just another buddy, or is He our Lord and God?
A voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! Matthew 17:6
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
Getting Started: Things to Think About
A Mountaintop Experience
What is a "mountaintop experience"? Have you ever had one? Are such experiences actually better on a mountaintop? I have to admit that there’s something about being on a mountain that makes life astonishing. Is it the crisp, thin air? Is it the proximity of feeling “closer” to God? Follow that up with this question: how many important spiritual events in the Bible take place on a mountain? (You can go back to Abraham/Isaac, Sinai, Elijah, and more.) I’ll be honest, I get the impression that those events are about being alone with God; the mountain symbolizes isolation with God. (I realize that it’s also just a function of the geography of that region, but mountains do seem spiritual.)
Meeting Your Heroes
Yes, you’ve all heard that you should never meet your heroes, but I say that’s bupkis. If your hero is a loser, then that person shouldn’t be your hero! (Or you should have a healthier perspective on the failures of every person.) So, ask: who are your heroes? Don't let anyone in your group hold back. Shoot for the moon. Then, ask: what they think it would be like if they met those heroes all at the same time. As a history guy, I love the idea of the men represented on Mt. Rushmore and would love to meet them. I’m guessing I would be flabbergasted. So—now imagine that Moses and Elijah are standing in front of you talking to God. !!!!! I’m guessing that would be pretty ridiculous.
Transformers: More Than Meets the Eye
If you want something that’s just lighthearted, bring in a Transformers toy. I used to love those things. Then ask, “Can you think of examples of people who were more than meets the eye?” By this, I’m thinking of people in movies. In any fantasy series, there are always people who, at first glance, look inconsequential, but you find out that they were actually the king in disguise, or a master warrior, or whatever. This happens a lot in Lord of the Rings (like basically every character) but is also common in Narnia, The Hunger Games, and even TV series like Dr. Who and (humorously) Friends. But the ultimate “more than meets the eye” guy in my view is Yoda. “Judge me by my size, will you?” YEAH!!! You GET ‘EM Yoda!!! (Mr. Miyagi is a close second.) What was amazing was not their greatness but their ability to “cloak” it in humility. Kinda like what Jesus had to do.
This Week's Big Idea:
Of Course Jesus Is Fully God. Why Are We Asking?
You might look at the title of this lesson and think it’s kind of a waste of time. No one debates this! Well, YOU might not question who Jesus is, but a lot of groups do, including some who identify with Christianity. So let me summarize for you some of the ways people get this question wrong:
Jews. There are maybe 14 million Jews in the world today. Their attitude toward Jesus hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—there is only one God, and it is blasphemy for Jesus to call Himself the Son of God, making Him equal with God.
Mormons (Latter Day Saints). There are possibly 15 million Latter Day Saints in the world in a number of denominations. If you ask them if Jesus is God, they would say yes. But if you press them with the question “Is Jesus God in the same way that God the Father is?” they would have to answer no. They believe that Jesus was the first creation of God, making their Jesus the literal brother of Satan and everything else. If we define “fully God” as being fully like the Father, then there are a lot of Mormons out there who are not “fully” Christian. Uh oh.
Jehovah’s Witnesses. The JWs claim more than 20 million members around the world. Like the Mormons, they believe that Jesus was the first thing that God created (and then Jesus created everything else), meaning they think Jesus is Michael the Archangel. They believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man and that He was the only perfect sacrifice for forgiveness of sins. But if you ask one “Is Jesus fully God like God the Father?” the answer is “no”.
Oneness Pentecostals. There are probably at least 25 million people in the world associated with the different groups/denominations teaching this subtle variation of an old heresy. If you ask them if Jesus is God, they would answer yes. If you asked them if Jesus is God in the same way that the Father is God, they would answer yes. (!) Here’s the question you wouldn’t think to ask: “Is the distinction between Jesus and the Father more than just a manifestation of appearance?” That answer would be no. They believe that Jesus and the Father are the same being. Jesus is the appearance of God in human form, but there wasn’t a different God the Father still in heaven. Jesus is God the Father.
Muslims. There are more than 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, and that number is growing fast. They believe that Jesus was a great prophet (though Muhammad was the final prophet), but just a prophet, just a man like any other man. There is only one God, so any notion of a Trinity is blasphemous to them.
“Christian Atheism.” This is a real thing—there are a lot of people out there who claim that what Jesus taught is enlightening, and they care a great deal about Christian ethics, but they don’t believe that Jesus was God in any way. But there is another version of this that Pastor Craig Groeschel captured in his book title, The Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn't Exist. It’s brilliant. Can you guess where it is going? Here are the chapter titles:
When you Believe in God but Don’t Really Know Him,
When you Believe in God but Don’t Think He’s Fair,
When You Believe in God but Aren’t Sure He Loves You,
When You Believe in God but Trust More in Money,
When You Believe in God but Pursue Happiness at Any Cost,
When You Believe in God but Don’t Want to Go Overboard
If we truly believe that Jesus is God, shouldn’t we do everything He told us to do?
But let me make sure to answer the first question: why do we care if Jesus is fully God? It’s simple—if Jesus isn’t fully God, then we aren’t fully saved. God Almighty is infinite in every way, right? So our offense against Him is thus infinite. Who can make good on an offense against an infinite being? Can a group of finite beings (like even the greatest angels) make an infinite payment? Nope. The only way God’s “injury” can be truly satisfied is by a being equal to Himself. That’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus being fully God is the only way to make sense of God’s forgiveness and holiness coexisting. People who think a lesser god can satisfy Almighty God simply don’t appreciate holiness or sin.
Part 1: Presence (Matthew 17:1-6)
After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and his brother John and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. He was transformed in front of them, and His face shone like the sun. Even His clothes became as white as the light. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appeared, talking with Him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here! If You want, I will make three tabernacles here: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said: This is My beloved Son. I take delight in Him. Listen to Him! When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified.”
In Matthew, Peter’s confession (see last week) is the central element of Jesus’ ministry. Matthew immediately follows that with this proof/reassurance for what would otherwise be an inexplicable statement: Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, was about to die. The transfiguration serves as a “yes, that’s all true” illustration. We don’t know exactly when it happened (remember that ancient writers were not nearly as concerned with chronology as we are today). It seems reasonable to put it less than a year before the crucifixion. The “after six days” could refer to the events in last week’s lesson, or it could just be hearkening back to the six days God’s glory rested on Sinai before giving Moses the law. Jesus took just His “inner circle” for this event. They were the key witnesses for this, for the raising of Jairus’s daughter, and His agony in Gethsemane. Why have an inner circle? Well, you can’t have everybody be everywhere. And I’ve heard it argued that Jesus was setting up a chain of command for after His death (knowing that there needs to be structure for any human organization to function well). I wonder if Jesus simply enjoyed having “best friends”. Certainly those three had the gumption and drive to take the reins when their time came.
So what exactly happened on this mountain? No one knows for sure. The Greek word behind “transformed” is basically metamorphosis which means a literal change in physical form (think butterfly). It is described as His face and clothes changing color, but I think we all realize that it was more than that. Jesus changed. For a moment, He took off His “cloak of humanity” (see the bottom for more on this and how this can lead into a world of heresy). And then, there’s Moses and Elijah! (see the aside for more) What were they talking about? According to Luke, Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe encouragement. Peter, of course, couldn’t keep his mouth shut and decided to ruin the moment with a rather selfish statement: let’s just stay here. Humorously, Jesus ignored him. And then God injected the final word, something that we must all memorize and remember all the time. “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” Seriously: write that down on a board and memorize it. Then ask what those phrases means. ((1) who Jesus is, (2) that God affirms His mission, and (3) we are to follow Him. The word “listen” means more than “hear”.)
Here’s what I would emphasize: mountaintop experiences aren’t to be selfishly pursued. God doesn’t give them to us for us to hoard. He expects us to take what we have seen and heard and take it back down into real life and share it with the people in the valley, so to speak. We can’t stay on the mountain. The people, the mission, is in the valley.
Aside: Where Is This Mount?
Two mountains are claimed to be the otherwise unnamed Mount of Transfiguration: Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon. Tabor was the traditional site going as far back as the 3rd century. It is 6 miles east of Nazareth and very lonely, looking much higher than its 2,000’ elevation. I think it’s stunning. Of course, there is now a church and monastery and shrines on its top.
Many today argue for Mount Hermon, located 20 miles past Caesarea Philippi (where the preceding Gospel events took place; Tabor is more than 40 miles from Caesarea). Mount Hermon is more than 9,000’ tall, by far the “highest” mountain in the land. It was also much more private than Tabor, which was likely fortified by the Romans in Jesus’ day. In summary, we don’t know where the transfiguration took place, but there are multiple locations that make good sense.
Part 2: Purpose (Matthew 17:7-9)
Then Jesus came up, touched them, and said, “Get up; don’t be afraid.” When they looked up they saw no one except Him—Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”
The disciples had finally been overwhelmed, so they collapsed. And then it was just Jesus again. He touched them gently to affirm that He was still Jesus. Their senses were overwhelmed at the voice of God, but then they hear the voice of Jesus, and they were encouraged. The past, the history, the law and the prophets were gone—Jesus was the One who was to carry out this mission. Jesus alone. And then we have another appearance of the “Messianic secret”. Hopefully, your group understood last week why the secret was important. Realize that this included to the other disciples! I’m sure Jesus didn’t want Peter, James, or John to overstate their privilege.
The reason for this amazing event is clarified in Jesus’ command: “until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” This event is about proof. Jesus didn’t wake up after death and become a kind of god, Jesus was God the whole time. This short pulling back of the curtain was intended to make it clear to the inner circle that Peter was not only right in calling Jesus the Son of God, but also that the Son of God was equal with God. Jesus was no mere man: He was God.
But let me throw this out there. Even though the lesson is about Jesus being fully God, be sure to include that Jesus was also fully man. I’ve heard some people try to use this event to show that Jesus was not truly human, but that He just walked around in a “Jesus suit” and every once in a while needed to take it off to stretch His legs. Jesus was born of Mary, a true human child. That’s why we say that we don’t know exactly what happened here; Jesus did not cease to be human for these moments, but somehow it was clear to the disciples that He was more than that.
Aside: This Event in the Synoptic Gospels
A unique feature of studying Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the “Synoptic Gospels”) is being able to compare their accounts of the same events. All three include a report of the transfiguration. (Interestingly, John does not include it; the best reason I’ve seen given is that John tried to emphasized that Jesus revealed His glory throughout His ministry.) When Matthew and Mark share the same material, Matthew is usually abbreviated; however, this time Matthew is greatly expanded. Remember that Matthew wrote his Gospel to prove to Jews that Jesus is their Messiah. An event with Moses and Elijah appearing to a glorified Son of Man would be absolutely key to that argument. That would also be why Matthew chose to include the detail about the disciples falling on their faces. (Conversely, Luke, who wanted to emphasize Jesus as the Suffering Servant, included the detail about their conversation concerning Jesus’ impending death.)
By including it immediately after Jesus’ prediction of the Kingdom, Matthew demonstrates that he believes Jesus meant this event and not the Second Coming. All three of them place it after His prediction of death and His command to take up one’s cross, meaning that the transfiguration was equally meaningful to them despite their differences. To Mark, this would have been an encouragement to keep serving and following Jesus. To Luke, this would have been reinforcement for Jesus to stay strong through His death. To Matthew, this would have been proof of His deity. In other words, this one event was very important to Jesus’ disciples.
Part 3: Perspective (Matthew 17:10-13)
So the disciples questioned Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” “Elijah is coming and will restore everything,” He replied. “But I tell you: Elijah has already come, and they didn’t recognize him. On the contrary, they did whatever they pleased to him. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them about John the Baptist.
This might seem like a strange way for the disciples to wrap up their experience on the mountaintop, but we have to remember Jewish lore. The Jews knew that Elijah would come before the Messiah to prepare the way for Him to bring in His kingdom. Well, they just saw a great king, and they saw Elijah, so what does that mean? Is the kingdom about to come? How did they miss Elijah? Or did they get the Old Testament wrong all this time? No, they were right, but they didn’t know it. And that’s the point. Elijah did not physically return to earth, but someone with his power and authority did: John the Baptist. That’s why all of the Gospel writers placed such a heavy emphasis on John—they realized how important John was to God’s plan. John did come to prepare the way for the king, but instead of receiving him, the people killed him! The Jews, the disciples, they had gotten everything all wrong. The Messiah wasn’t coming to inaugurate a physical kingdom on earth. The Messiah, and His forerunner, was coming to show humanity how far away from God’s kingdom they were and to make a way for them to be able to enter it. The Messiah came to invite people into a kingdom they were unworthy to enter. And His death would actually lower the castle gate, so to speak. When Jesus came back, however, it would be to conquer evil for all eternity. (And I do wonder if John realized what he had been signed up for.)
There are two big lessons coming from this passage. First, Jesus is God. Don’t sell that short. And make sure to pound home that if Jesus is God, we must listen to Him. How do we listen to Him? Most importantly by doing what He says. Take your group through the Sermon on the Mount and ask them what Jesus was commanding and if they are actually trying to do it. Second, following Jesus will lead us through suffering. We all try to get out of this, but we shouldn’t. Ask your class “Can you become a soldier without going through boot camp? Can your become a doctor without going through medical school?” (Or find something age appropriate.) The point is that everyone in those professions has had a shared experience of struggle and suffering. They wouldn’t be right without it. So can we really be a follower of Jesus if we have not experienced at least some of His rejection and frustration? I doubt that any of us will be killed for our Christianity (although that happens regularly in other parts of the world), but we will face opposition. And we should not hide from it.
In that sense, the transfiguration is also an encouragement to us. Yes, following Jesus may result in hardship and loss, but Jesus is God, and Jesus is still the One who can gently touch us on the shoulder and say “don’t be afraid”. What I hope your classes do at the end is spend some time in quiet worship. Many of them will be going into a corporate worship service (which is appropriate), but give them time to reflect on Jesus’ majesty and glory, their own unworthiness, and the need to then treat Jesus with great reverence. Then ask yourself, does my life point others to Jesus?
Aside: Moses, Elijah, and Heaven
Why Moses and Elijah? Having just finished the Torah in our Bible reading plan, you should understand the place of Moses in Israel’s self-identity: the man who talked to God (multiple times!) on a mountain. You might not know why Elijah would be singled out among all the great prophets. Well, Elijah also talked to God on a mountain, and his miracles (calling fire from heaven multiple times, bringing a great drought) are by far the greatest apart from Moses’ or Jesus’. But Malachi specifically associated Elijah with the Messiah (4:5), so it had already been revealed to him the importance of Elijah to God’s ongoing plan.
What does this have to do with heaven? Well, did the disciples know what Moses or Elijah looked like? Of course not! While it’s possible that Jesus told them who these strangers were, don’t you think that would have kinda broken the mood? (“Peter, this is Moses.”) No, I think the disciples simply knew who they were. This is how I explain how there will be no strangers in heaven. We will all simply know who everybody is. No forgetting of names. For those children who never received a name, God Himself will name them.
Closing Thoughts: Jesus Was Fully Man, Too
The Hypostatic Union. While it is critical to affirm that Jesus is fully God, we don’t want to make the mistake of swinging the pendulum too far the other way and forget that Jesus was (and is) also fully human. That is just as important to salvation, for as the ancient Father said, “That which is unassumed is unhealed.” In other words, if Jesus was in any way not completely human, then that part of humanity was not atoned for by His sacrifice. Jesus “had to be completely like His brothers in every way.” But how is that remotely possible? Humans are sinful, even broken. Wouldn’t becoming human itself taint Jesus’ divinity in some ugly way? Of course not! God created humans to be good, to bear His image. There is nothing in humanity itself that makes it an enemy of God. But human beings were created with the power of choice, and we have all chosen to rebel against God. Some even say that Adam’s “original sin” had actually corrupted the gene pool so that everyone is now bent toward sin. And yet Jesus, born of that same gene pool, resisted all such desire to sin. How?
The term often used for this is the “hypostatic union”. Hypostasis is the term used in the Bible for God’s nature. In the centuries to come, the word came to be used more of the idea of personality (namely Jesus being a distinct person from the Father). So this term came to mean that the two natures (divinity and humanity) were brought into unity in Jesus. In other words, Jesus is not two different persons (Christ the God and Jesus the man) cohabiting a body but one person. However, it was very important for the early Fathers to emphasize that these two natures were never confused (part-man and part-god mixed together) but also were they never divided or separated (Christ the God never left Jesus the man or argued with him). For us, what matters is that we can’t understand it. Jesus was 100% and 100% man and we simply cannot explain it analytically.