Reflection of the Week (Matthew 17, ESV)
“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.” – Matthew 17: 1-8 (ESV)
From the trek up the mountain recalling Moses’ ascent up Mount Sinai, to the hovering cloud symbolizing God’s presence, this passage is dense with scriptural allusion. But the intention behind all of the references to, indeed appearances by figures of, the past, is not to reinforce the power of a sacred tradition but rather to point to the eternal One who in that present moment—and this one—bridges past and future and is always presently making all things new.
This account portrays a profoundly beautiful moment in which the disciples, and by extension we, get a glimpse of eternity. In this moment, Peter, James, and John see Jesus adorned with the splendor of his divine glory: they see him as he is now and will be: sitting at the right hand of God and radiating God’s goodness. They see, too, those great men of the Hebrew faith—Moses and Elijah who respectively represent the law and the prophets—long dead on earth but alive in God’s eternal reality that exists outside of time. They hear God himself speak! In that moment, the barrier between heaven and earth dissipates and the disciples are able to experience the past, present, and future co-inhabiting the same scene. They witness famous figures of the past; they hear God’s voice as it is speaking in the present; they see the glorified Christ as he will appear when he returns for his people. They experience, just for a moment, the heaven on earth for which they have been taught to pray.
At first, the disciples, or Peter at least, treat the experience with a surprising assertion of familiarity and practicality (as if the ghosts of long dead saints and a glowing fire-ball Christ were commonplace occurrences: no big deal). Perhaps they thought they were dreaming. Perhaps this curious juxtaposition of past and future prompted Peter’s attempt to interject a useful present activity: to build a set of tents for each. Interestingly, this plan, which erroneously places Jesus on an equal level with his forerunners, serves the future by commemorating a once in a lifetime interaction (between Jesus and the Hall of Famers) that will soon be past. While it projects an interest in the present, Peter’s suggestion reveals his preoccupation with the past and the future and his avoidance of the truth right in front of him. How often do our own similar preoccupations with what was or what will be make us miss a present revelation of Jesus?
Fortunately for the disciples, God interrupts Peter with His own not-so-optional suggestion: “This is my beloved son…listen to him.” God’s voice from the cloud shoves Peter and the disciples into the present and into the presence of Christ. They hit the ground, face-down in terror. All their plans for fabricating greater Jerusalem’s next pilgrimage destination are “overshadowed” by a “bright cloud” and silenced by God’s resounding proclamation.
It is then that Jesus—the eternal Son of Man, Emmanuel: God with us—is able to touch them, and to lift them, saying, “’Rise, and have no fear’” (v7). And next comes the profound culmination: they look up and “see no one but Jesus only” (v8). The phrasing itself begs us to pause and consider the weight of this realization: they see no one […] but Jesus only. God’s purpose is thus accomplished in this moment when the disciples lift their eyes and see Christ alone, preeminent, supreme: the fulfillment of the past and the hope for the future. Maybe this is the first moment in which they truly see him. Just him. Now. God in their midst. Saying, “have no fear.”
As I read this passage again, I ask myself what it will take for me to ‘see no one but Jesus alone.’ What remnants of the past or expectations for the future are clouding my vision of my real and present Savior? What spiritual or natural milestones am I missing the experience of while I plan for the future’s past? When and where have I missed the kingdom come because I’m too busy trying to build something destined for temporality? Jesus doesn’t want my commemoration, he wants my active adoration as I see him for who he really is.
If you need to terrify me with your awesome, authoritative voice to make me see Jesus, do it! In your mercy, repeat once more, ‘this is my beloved son.’ Bring me to my knees, and redirect the gaze of my heart towards the face of my living, loving Savior. May I be consumed with Jesus only and lose sight of all my plans for earthly gain or attempts to fit you inside of a tent of my own making. Help me to understand the power and sweetness of your presence and to live in eternity, to carry heaven on earth as I allow that presence to fill all my being. Let there be nothing between my soul and my Savior. I want to see Jesus!