Matthew 17:1-21 (AD 29)
In our previous passage (Mark 8:27-9:1) Jesus had predicted great suffering for himself. He followed that up with a memorable affirmation from the Father about who Jesus was. The ‘appearance’ of Moses and Elijah may not be as theologically bewildering as it seems, as it’s likely that this event was a vision from God rather than a physical visitation. Real enough that Peter wanted to build booths for them to hang out under,. The word translated “seen” in v.9 (‘horama’) refers to a supernatural vision from God. It’s the same word used in Acts 7 and 9 to refer to what Moses’s sight of the burning bush, and God’s visions to Ananias in Damascus to tell him about Saul.
The point is that great fathers of the faith were in a vision with Jesus, but it was Jesus about whom the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (v.5). Another reminder that Jesus wasn’t merely a prophet, and that his death would have a tangible and timeless effect rather than being merely symbolic or a useful teaching point.
The disciples’ terror at hearing those words directly from God the Father was understandable. I love the sea and can happily stare at it. But being up close when it’s very active can be terrifying, even when it’s not angry, and even when I feel safe. The sheer majesty of it can be too much. Similarly with God: as loving and tender as he is we cannot trifle with him, or redefine him to suit our preferences because he will remain who and what he is as well as his love: holy, majestic, almighty.
And yet whilst momentary terror can be an appropriate response, it is not how we are to live. Jesus didn’t just speak comfort, he “touched them” (v.7). As God on earth he didn’t just need to awe people, he wanted the disciples to be comforted by and at ease with him, without complacency.
God expects us to be in awe of his terrifying holiness and power, which we will be if we understand him at all, but also to know the tender touch of his comfort and concern. Our love for Him will only grow as we realise that he is all of those things.
The reference to the second coming of Elijah, taken from the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 shows that the prophecy concerned someone who would be like Elijah rather than being Elijah himself. That similar person was John the Baptist. Orthodox Jews – to this day – set out a cup of wine for Elijah at their Passover festival, hoping that he is about to come soon. They see him in the Malachi prophecy as being the harbinger of the coming of God, bringing judgement to the wicked and victory for God’s people. It is their tragedy that they do not accept Jesus’ words that Elijah was not literally coming back, but that Elijah was represented by the life of John the Baptist, who ushered in the ministry of Jesus himself.