Matthew 17:1-13 Putting Jesus Down to My Level
In The Lord of the Rings, by J. R. R. Tolkien, the theme of hidden glory is one of the themes running through Tolkien’s masterpiece. Consider the various characters. Strider, the Ranger, is, in fact, the King of Gondor. The elves, usually cloaked in human form, occasionally show their true radiance. And Gandalf the Grey, whom the Hobbits mostly appreciate for his fireworks displays, is much more than they can imagine in his person and power.
We also see the theme of hidden glory in the Star Wars series. In the first movie entitled A New Hope, Luke Skywalker and his newly acquired protocol droid, C3PO, are forced into a mini adventure, chasing after R2D2, who has escaped on a search for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan is, in reality, a great Jedi, yet he has been living on Luke’s desert home planet for years. This general, who fought in one of the greatest wars in Galaxy history, has willingly worn the cloak of a strange desert hermit. Luke’s uncle calls him a “crazy old man.” When we first meet him, we have no idea how hugely important Obi-Wan really is.1
“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 to them, talking with Him.” (Matthew 17:1–3, HCSB)
As a Christian, I need a reminder of Who Jesus truly is. (Matthew 17:1-3)
This section begins with a revealing of that same hidden glory. This section continues where the prophecy left off in the last chapter. Jesus said that some would not die before they would see Him in His splendor. So a week later, Jesus shows His glory to James, Peter, and John. He goes on the mountain and is transformed. The text does not name the place where this miracle took place. It was probably on Mount Hermon, which is close to Caesarea Philippi.2
In this transformed state, Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah. Why these two? They represent the “Law” (Moses) and the “Prophets” (Elijah). Both were “caught up” to God (Jude 9, and 2 Kings 2:11). They represent people who die and go to heaven (Moses) and those who will be raptured (Elijah) – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. They are probably the two witnesses in Revelation 11:3-13.
Here we have a scene with Jesus in His glory. He is the not just the carpenter’s son. Nor is He just the young boy from Nazareth. He is not just a poor boy from a poor family. The disciples saw Jesus as God saw His Son. That is the definition of vision: seeing what God sees.
“Without revelation people run wild, but one who listens to instruction will be happy.” (Proverbs 29:18, HCSB)
It is like Proverbs 29:18. Revelation, prophetic vision, is seeing what God sees. Without it, we run wild. We fall into sin. That’s why we need reminders. We need to keep our eyes on Jesus.
“Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that lay before Him endured a cross and despised the shame and has sat down at the right hand of God’s throne.” (Hebrews 12:1–2, HCSB)
God gives us mountaintop experiences that are transformative. They change the way we see the world and ourselves. Business, as usual, is no longer possible after you have seen the vision of God’s good future revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Such experiences give us confidence in the presence and power of God’s steadfast love that endures forever, and they sustain us through trials and tribulations.3
But here is the problem: Instead of raising Jesus up, we bring Him down.
THREE WAYS WE TONE JESUS DOWN
1. Some bring Him down to the same level as prophets. (Matthew 17:4-6)
Peter made the mistake of placing Jesus down on the same level as Moses and Elijah. (17:4). We know this is a mistake because the Bible records that elsewhere.
because he did not know what he should say, since they were terrified.
(Mark 9:6 HCSB)
As the two men were departing from Him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it’s good for us to be here! Let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”–not knowing what he said.
(Luke 9:33 HCSB)
As a side note, Jon Courson makes a couple of observations about this scene:
“This is one of many arguments against reincarnation. Moses and Elijah returned not as cows, butterflies, or someone else living in some other time. They returned as Moses and Elijah. It is also interesting to me that Peter recognized them instantly. There is no record of a formal introduction, no record of Jesus saying, “Peter, meet Moses. Moses, Peter. Elijah, Peter. Peter, Elijah.” No, there was simply immediate recognition. This tells me that when we get to heaven, we’ll recognize everyone there. No need for introductions, no need for name tags, and no forgetting of names.”4
Yet, God rebukes Peter’s assertion very clearly. (Matthew 17:5).
“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!” (Matthew 17:5, HCSB)
This is why they were terrified (Matthew 17:6).
“When the disciples heard it, they fell facedown and were terrified.” (Matthew 17:6, HCSB)
Moses having been the first great lawgiver and Elijah the first great prophet in Israel. But Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are not equals, for in Jesus revelation had reached its peak, and He was pronounced by God as His Son.5
The point of this exchange is that God wants to make it very clear to Jesus’ disciples and to everyone – Jesus is not just some other prophet. Jesus is not just some other religious figure. Jesus is God’s Son. As such, He is to be placed on a higher pedestal than the Old Testament Jewish prophets. The writer of Hebrews makes this point very clearly.
“Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s household, as a testimony to what would be said in the future. But Christ was faithful as a Son over His household. And we are that household if we hold on to the courage and the confidence of our hope.” (Hebrews 3:5–6, HCSB)
The world makes the same mistake. They equate Jesus with Buddha, Mohammad, or even some modern prophets. Jesus is greater than any other prophet. Therefore, we learn to listen only to Him. Another related danger is that we may place other Christians at the same level as Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns us about this danger:
“Scripture does not present us with a collection of Christian types to be imitated according to our own choice. Rather, in every passage, it proclaims to us the one Jesus Christ. It is him alone whom I ought to hear. He is one and the same everywhere.”6
I don’t look to any pastor with the same authority as Jesus. A Christian does not place any Christian leader higher than Jesus Himself. Doing that lowers Jesus and His significance in life.
2. Some bring Jesus down to just a personal spiritual vision. (Matthew 17:7-9)The disciples didn’t see Jesus in a personal vision. It was a shared experience. God even spoke during their experience. But there is a danger is turning my relationship with Jesus to just a series of personal spiritual visions. When God gave someone a vision, it was a deeply personal experience designed to provide proof that a person’s dependence upon God was trustworthy. For example, when Paul saw Jesus on the Damascus Road, Jesus confirmed that Paul would be a missionary to other people. He literally changed Paul’s destiny.
Personal spiritual visions are designed to strengthen the faith of the follower. However, people usually take visions as a way to make themselves sound or seem more spiritual. In Isaiah 6, the prophet bowed down to God because of the prophet’s sin. Visions humble us. This is the reason that God told Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 that Paul could not share his personal vision with others. The reason was that God knew that if Paul shared it, Paul would stop promoting Jesus. He would stop lifting Jesus up. So the problem with personal visions is that we can easily make the vision about ourselves and not about the Person who gave the vision – Jesus.
3. Some bring Jesus down to the level of a self-help book. (Matthew 17:9-10)
Some people don’t look to Jesus as the Son of God. Instead, they may look at Jesus as a personal Genie. These same people will look at the Bible as a magic book. Some will see the Bible as a spiritual prescription intending to fix immediate problems. Others will look at the Bible as a spiritual instruction manual.
Christians can make the mistake of putting the Bible in as high regard as Jesus. The Bible is the Word of God. But without Jesus, it is just another book. Jesus is what makes the Bible the “Living Word” active in our lives. Jesus is the battery source that makes the Bible phone work. Without Jesus, you just have a dead phone. It can’t talk to you and you can’t talk to it.
Without the resurrection, the power of Jesus and His place is meaningless. For this reason, Jesus takes the time to explain the reason why He must go to Jerusalem. Yes, the disciples heard from God about how Jesus is more powerful than Moses and Elijah. Yet, without the cross and the resurrection, the power of Jesus is meaningless.
The Bible is only as powerful as a Christian’s faith in Jesus. The Jews looked at the prophecies about Elijah and considered the passage important to prophecy. But because it focused on the future, they never considered that the prophecy was meant to speak to them today. The focus of the Bible is not me. The focus of the Bible is on Christ. I place my faith in Jesus – He is the One who can truly help me.
As a Christian, I should lead people up to Jesus. (Matthew 17:10-13)
Moses and Elijah lead people to Jesus. Prophets and servants of God lead people to Jesus. (Matthew 17:10-13). This is why Elijah will restore all things – for the Jews. God is going to use Elijah in the tribulation to teach His people that they need Jesus. The antichrist will kill Elijah, but then God will prove His power over that world leader by raising Elijah and Moses back to life and sending them back to heaven. What does that have to do with Jesus? Because when Jesus comes later in Revelation 19, the Jews will realize that they worshiped the wrong guy.
The disciples then understood that John the Baptist was to help people come to Jesus. We need to do the same thing. We don’t spend time putting Jesus down on the same level as other things. As Christians, we have to learn to lead people by lifting up Jesus.
Jesus changed my life, not some machine.
He healed me, not some kind of new medicine.
Jesus delivered me, not some new way of thinking.
He is the source of the changes in my life. We can accept that technologies are useful, but Jesus has power over them. We need to be lifting Him up in our lives.
When the Kansas City Hyatt Regency walkway collapsed in 1981, Failure Analysis Associates linked the tragedy to an improperly placed bolt that was unable to support the weight imposed on it. When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, Failure Analysis Associates helped trace the failure to O-rings that cracked in cold Florida weather. While fumes at the rocket-fuel plant in Henderson, Nevada, overcame fifty-five people in 1992, Failure Analysis Associates found a leaking chlorine gas line responsible.
Naturally, then, when San Diego’s undersea sewage line burst in early 1992, the city called the “master of disaster”—Failure Analysis Associates. Nine months and $352,000 later, after poring over data, creating computer models, consulting engineers in various disciplines, and scrutinizing the broken pipe sections, they determined that trapped air had caused the eruption. Not even in existence twenty years ago, this company has become a necessity today because of present labor rates and escalating litigation.
God has a single spiritual engineer—his Son—and a single organization—his church. His son unerringly diagnoses our failures; he understands their bases and unfailingly prescribes their cure. The church holds safely in forgiveness those who “hire” God’s engineer through faith in his redemption of sins. If an earthly company is worth its fee for telling us how we fail, isn’t Christ more than worth his for guaranteeing how we can succeed?7
Jesus leads them up on a high mountain, from which their help is to come.8
“I lift my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?” (Psalm 121:1, HCSB)
Our help does not come from below. Our help can only come from above.
1 Jeannine K. Brown, Matthew, ed. Mark L. Strauss and John H. Walton, Teach the Text Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2015), 200–201.
2 Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1996), 60.
3 Joseph S. Harvard III, “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 17:1–13,” in Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Chapters 1–28, ed. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, First Edition., vol. 2, A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 67.
4 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 136.
5 Myron S. Augsburger and Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Matthew, vol. 24, The Preacher’s Commentary Series (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1982), 18.
6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, ed. Martin Kuske et al., trans. Barbara Green and Reinhard Krauss, vol. 4, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 204.
7 Virgil Hurley, Speaker’s Sourcebook of New Illustrations, electronic ed. (Dallas: Word Publishers, 2000), 73–74.
8 O. C. Jr. Dean, “Translator’s Preface,” in God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter, ed. Jana Riess, trans. O. C. Dean Jr. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 84.