THE TRANSFIGURATION UNCOVERED THE GLORY OF MESSIAH TO PROVIDE A PREVIEW OF THE COMING KINGDOM
Grant Osborne: This is an epiphany story in which the divinity of Jesus breaks through and “manifests” itself, with Matthew highlighting that glory in the details added. Matthew builds on Mark 9:2–8 with a few important differences, such as adding “his face shone like the sun” (v. 2b), “Lord” rather than “rabbi” (v. 4), a “bright” cloud (v. 5), adding vv. 6–7 on the disciples’ terror, and putting the messianic secret command into direct speech (v. 9). There is a slight antithetical structure as the story is framed by ascending and descending the mountain (vv. 1, 9) and by Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah (v. 4) then alone with the disciples (v. 8), with the climax of the story being God’s voice from the Shekinah cloud (v. 5).
John MacArthur: And as I said, it comes at a marvelously important time, because it comes at a time when they needed balance. They had just heard about suffering. They had learned that Jesus was a suffering Savior, and now they needed to see a glimpse of Him as a glorious King. They had been reminded that His followers would share His sorrows, and they needed also to know that His followers could share His glory as well. They knew that as a suffering Savior, He called them to self-denial cross bearing, and loyal obedience at any price – even their life. They needed also to know that as a King, He offered them a King’s reward. . .
Now, there’s another thought that I would just add as a footnote here. In my understanding of the Old Testament, it was not uncommon for a prophet, when He made a prediction about a far-distant event and said something was going to happen in the distant future – the coming of the Messiah – to also make a prediction about something going to happen in the near future. . .
And so, I think, in a very real sense, Jesus is accrediting Himself as a true and trustworthy prophet by saying, “Yes, I will come in the future, and the last day, and the great second coming. And to prove it, I predict that some of you won’t die until you see Me in My regal majesty.” And when the near event came to pass, they knew He spoke as a trustworthy prophet and could trust Him as well for the future event.
Charles Swindoll: Too much casual familiarity with the things of God can cause us to lose our awe of Him.
Stu Weber: Jesus had just finished a sobering and motivational discussion with his disciples. They were aware of his upcoming suffering and death. They had been made to realize that suffering and pain was also part of their calling as his disciples. They were probably puzzled and disillusioned. Jesus indicated that at least some of them would not experience death before they saw him in his power and kingdom. What did Jesus mean? Matthew 17 is our answer.
Six days after making the statement that some of them would “see” the kingdom, Jesus took his inner group of three disciples—Peter, James, and John—up on a mountain. There they were amazed by what they witnessed. As overwhelmed as they were, what they saw was only a glimpse of the kingdom. The Old Testament saints represented by Moses and Elijah were there. The New Testament saints were represented by the three disciples. And, most significantly, the Son of Man was transfigured in a demonstration of his awesome glory.
One purpose of Jesus’ transfiguration (17:1-8) was to give these three disciples an encouraging glimpse of eternal reality. This experience had an unforgettable impact on Peter (2 Pet. 1:16-18) as well as James and John.
S. Lewis Johnson: Commentators have troubled over the statement in chapter 16 verse 28: “Verily I say unto you there are some standing here who shall not taste of death till they seen the Son of man coming in his kingdom.” It’s amusing to read the varying interpretations that have been placed upon this. Some have said the kingdom came in his life. Some have said the kingdom comes in the death of the believer. Some have said the kingdom comes at his resurrection. Some have said the kingdom comes at Pentecost. All of these explanations cannot account for one little word in that 28th verse, which incidentally is included in each of the other two accounts: “There be some standing here.” Some.
You see, the Lord Jesus speaks of the special privilege of some as over against all. All the apostles saw the resurrection. All the apostles were at Pentecost. All the apostles experienced these other things. But there are some standing here, he said. Well now the very next text says that he took Peter, James, and John and went up into the mountain. That seems like such an obvious interpretation that we wonder that men have not hit upon it. The early church fathers believed this. They believed that the transfiguration was an anticipation of the kingdom of God upon the earth, that in the glorification of the Son we have that which anticipates the Messianic kingdom on the earth.
Richard Gardner: The revelation given achieves three things:
(1) It confirms the uniqueness of Jesus as God’s Son.
(2) It offers a glimpse of the glory of Jesus’ reign.
(3) It reiterates the fact that Jesus first must suffer, just as Elijah had to suffer before him.
At each point, this disclosure recalls and builds upon issues raised in chapter 16 (cf. 16:15-16, 21, 27-28).
J. Ligon Duncan: we also learn in this passage that Jesus’ cross and Jesus’ glory cannot be separated. They go together. The way to glory is the way to the cross, and therefore no disciple can enjoy the presence of Christ’s glory apart from grasping it.
I. (:1-3) THE VISION – THE TRANSFIGURATION EVENT –
WHAT DID THEY SEE?
R. T. France: Three aspects of the incident contribute to its christological force:
(1) the visible alteration of Jesus demonstrates that he is more than a merely human teacher;
(2) his association with Moses and Elijah demonstrates his messianic role;
(3) the voice from heaven declares his identity as the Son of God.
It is clear that Jesus took them up the mountain in order for them to have this experience, which he intends them to remember for future reference (v. 9). If what happened there provided Jesus himself with reassurance for his coming mission, we are told nothing of this; it is the disciples’ christological understanding which is being enhanced, and the discussion as they return down the mountain (vv. 10–13) similarly focuses entirely on their grasp of the eschatological timetable. This is, then, an experience of the disciples rather than (as in 3:16–17) an experience of Jesus. The reflection on it in 2 Peter 1:16–18 will stress the privilege (and therefore the reliability) of the disciples as “eyewitnesses of his majesty” who also heard for themselves the voice from heaven.
A. (:1) The Target Witnesses
“And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother,
and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves.”
Grant Osborne: Though it is possible that the “six days” is nothing more that a temporal note, it is better to see it as reflecting a Sinai motif, reflecting Exod 24:15–16, where the Shekinah cloud covered the mountain for six days and then Moses entered and heard the voice of God speaking. Jesus is the new, glorified Moses. Moreover, he takes his inner core of disciples, as Moses took Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu (Exod 24:1, 9). These three disciples were especially close to Jesus (cf. 26:37; Mark 5:37; 13:3 [with Andrew]).
S. Lewis Johnson: In the quietness of Caesarea Philippi and under the shadow of snow-crested Mount Hermon, Peter’s confession, thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, had signaled the end of the ministry of the Lord Jesus to the crowds. From now on, while it’s true that he does speak to the crowds, his ministry has taken a new slant, and he begins to speak about his death that he should accomplish at Jerusalem, and he devotes most of his time to the preparation of the apostles for the days when he would no longer be here in the flesh. . .
What did he pray? Well, of course, we cannot say with dogmatism what he prayed because the Scriptures do not reveal that. But in the light of the fact that he has just announced his passion, I think it’s a safe guess to suggest that he was praying in view of the passion, which has now become one of the major themes of his thought and of his teaching. And I think that what we have on the Mount of Transfiguration is the beginning of the prayer life emphasis of our Lord, which will finally reach its climax in Gethsemane when he shall pray, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me.” So it is prayer in view of the passion.
John MacArthur: Now, we ask ourselves, at this point, “Why does Jesus do this? Why does He take Peter, James, and John?”
Let me suggest some reasons. First of all, to be witnesses. He needed to have witnesses to see His glory. Now, Deuteronomy 19:15 laid down and established a principle that any testimony was confirmed in the mouth of how many? Two or three witnesses. And so, the Lord, going to display His glory, wants it confirmed in the mouth of three witnesses – trustworthy witnesses.
And so, they are taken to be those three witnesses. Secondly, they’re taking because they were the intimates of the Savior. They were the closest to Him. They were around Him the most. And very frequently, perhaps, accompanied Him into intimate times of prayer. . .
And thirdly, I think another reason He took them was because they were acknowledged, trustworthy leaders. They were men of great spiritual report and leadership. And when it came time to articulate what happened, they would be trusted. They would be the most believed. They could convince and influence the rest.
William Barclay: Hermon was fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi. Hermon is 9,400 feet high, 11,000 feet above the level of the Jordan valley – so high that it can actually be seen from the Dead Sea, at the other end of Palestine, more than 100 miles away.
It cannot have been on the very summit of the mountain that this happened. The mountain is too high for that. . .
It was somewhere on the slopes of the beautiful and stately Mount Hermon that the transfiguration happened. It must have happened in the night. Luke tells us that the disciples were weighed down with sleep (Luke 9:32). It was the next day when Jesus and his disciples came back to the plain to find the father of the epileptic boy waiting for them (Luke 9:37). It was some time in the sunset, or the late evening, or the night, that this amazing vision took place.
B. (:2) The Transformation of Jesus
- Uncovering of Divine Glory
“And He was transfigured before them;”
Grant Osborne: μεταμορφόω means literally to “transform, change in form” and connotes not just a change externally visible but one that proceeds from inside and changes the whole person. Moses reflected the glory of God in his “radiance” when he descended the mountain (Exod 34:29, 33–35), but here Jesus’ true preincarnate glory shines through his humanity. The disciples were the intended recipients of this glorious event (“in front of them” [ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν]).
Charles Swindoll: Although before the Incarnation God the Son existed in resplendence and magnificence “in the form of God,” He “emptied Himself” of that manifestation of heavenly glory. He took “the form of a bond-servant” and appeared “in the likeness of men” such that all those around Him found Him “in appearance as a man.” Though Jesus displayed His authority and power through teaching and miracles, He continued to cloak His visible glory from others throughout His earthly ministry . . . until that day on the mountain. That event proved to Peter, James, and John that during every moment of Jesus’ human life, He was simultaneously fully divine. That truth of the Incarnation would become the backbone of a body of doctrine related to the person and work of Christ.
D. A. Carson: That Jesus was transfigured “before them” implies that it was largely for their sakes. Whatever confirmation the experience may have given Jesus, for the disciples it was revelatory. As they would come to realize, they were being privileged to glimpse something of his preincarnate glory (Jn 1:14; 17:5; Php 2:6–7) and anticipate his coming exaltation (2Pe 1:16–18; Rev 1:16). Their confession of Jesus as Messiah and his insistence that he would be a suffering Messiah (16:13–21; 17:9) were confirmed. Therefore, they had reason to hope that they would yet see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom (16:28). The contrast between what Jesus had just predicted would be his fate (16:21) and this glorious sight would one day prompt Jesus’ disciples to marvel at the self-humiliation that brought him to the cross and to glimpse a little of the height to which he had been raised by his vindicating resurrection and ascension.
- Countenance of Divine Brilliance
“and His face shone like the sun,”
John MacArthur: And this, beloved, is the greatest testimony to Jesus Christ, I think, of any passage in the Bible. If you really want to know who Jesus is, here it is. The glory is radiating from the inside out. You can only understand it if you can understand the some kind of supernaturally infinite light bulb. The light coming within spreads out, and Jesus is aglow like a divine light bulb. And His brilliance is as the sun. The glow right through His garments sends its beams of light. . .
When Jesus came into the world, He is God, but He took that veil of humanity and clothed the glory. But here He gave a glimpse. This is God. Don’t let anybody come and tell you Jesus isn’t God. The glory came from within. And so, His deity, His majestic kingship, His regal majesty, His royalty as the Son of God the Anointed One of the Father, is seen by the transformation of the Son.
Leon Morris: The shining of the face indicates unusual radiance. It is perhaps curious that his clothing became white as the light, for we do not normally regard light as being white (though we can use the expression “white light”). The meaning appears to be that even Jesus’ clothing became splendid in appearance. J. Behm understands this as the “transformation from an earthly form into a supraterrestrial,” and he explains further, “Before the eyes of His most intimate disciples the human appearance of Jesus was for a moment changed into that of a heavenly being in the transfigured world.”
- Clothing of Divine Brightness
“and His garments became as white as light.”
David Turner: Perhaps Jesus’s transfiguration is intended to anticipate the eschatological radiance of God’s people (cf. Matt. 13:43; Rev. 3:4–5; 7:9; Dan. 12:3; 1 En. 38.4; 104.2; 2 Bar. 51.1–3, 10, 12; 2 Esd. [4 Ezra] 7:97).
John Schultz: The difficulty, as always, is that it is impossible to find the right expressions to describe what heavenly glory is like. Our planet is full of images that foreshadow heaven, but the reality is so much more glorious than the picture. As Ezekiel and John prove to us, everyone who has seen God’s glory knows that it is indescribable. When the Apostle Paul was caught up to paradise, he writes that “he heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.”
C. (:3) The Testimony of Moses and Elijah
“And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.”
Grant Osborne: Scholars debate whether Moses and Elijah represent the law and the prophets or whether they appear as the forerunners of the Messiah (Deut 18:18; Mal 4:5–6). Yet surely these are not antithetical but supplemental. They were the two great miracle-working prophets, and the two witnesses of Rev 11:3–6 are modeled after them, where the first two miracles of 11:5–6a (fire from heaven, the drought) replicate Elijah, and the second two of 11:6b (water into blood, plagues) replicate Moses. It is also possible that Moses and Elijah prefigure Jesus’ rejection by the nation and vindication by God. Only Luke 9:30–31 gives a hint of the content behind their conversation (“spoke about his departure [exodos]”), but the eschatological flavor is dominant here as well.
John MacArthur: So, Moses gave the law – its great giver. Elijah – its great guardian. And what do they represent? The law and the prophets. And what is the law and the prophets? It’s the Old Testament. And why are they there? They are there as the Old Testament saying, “This is the one of whom we spoke.” It is the affirmation of the law and the prophets. A tremendous scene.
It is Old Testament verification. It is all that Jesus said when He said, “I have come to fulfill the law and the prophets,” coming and gathering around Him, standing in His glory and saying, “Yea, it is He.” It is the affirmation. . .
So, what is going on here is a tremendous testimony from the Old Testament saying, “This is indeed the King, and He is indeed on schedule, and death is a part of the plan.” In spite of what some people have tried to do with the life of Jesus Christ, He didn’t die as a well-meaning patriot who got in over His head; He died as the one ordained to die from before the foundation of the world, and His death was as much a part of the plan as His second coming will be. And it’s so important for the disciples to know that.
Daniel Doriani: These men represent three things.
- They represent the law and the prophets. Both the law and the prophets predict the coming of the Deliverer.
- Both labored to deliver God’s people. Moses led Israel out of Egypt, and Elijah fought to deliver them from the terrible, alien grip of Baal, the god who promised them prosperity. So both foreshadowed the work of Jesus.
- Both had an unusual departure or exodus from this world. Moses died alone with God on a mountain, and God took Elijah to heaven on a chariot of fire.
II. (:4-9) THE VOICE – THE TESTIMONY OF THE FATHER –
WHAT DID THEY HEAR?
A. (:4) Clumsy Suggestion of Peter
“And Peter answered and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here;
if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here,
one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’”
Grant Osborne: Peter begins on a clumsy note, as “good” (καλόν) means “pleasant, profitable, desirable” and fits more a nice stroll in the park than a theophany. . . “three tabernacles” — this relates to the Feast of Tabernacles, when people built “booths” of branches and straw, then lived in these shelters throughout the seven-day festival. This festival celebrated the Exodus but also had eschatological connotations (Zech 14:16–20). So Peter wants to prolong the event and be part of what he interprets a sign of the last days.
John MacArthur: Now, it’s interesting. What was wrong with what Peter said? Was it wrong? No, his heart wasn’t wrong, I don’t think. But there was something foolish about it, and I guess it was this; he didn’t understand two things. One, he didn’t understand that this was only a preview, and he had to go back to the valley and go through the suffering, and the hardships, and the cross bearing, and the self-denial, and all that stuff. And the Messiah still had to suffer and die.
And the second thing he didn’t understand was you can’t put Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in equal places. You see, Luke says that when Peter said this, Moses and Elijah were moving away. Moses and Elijah came in a very temporary fashion, and their purpose was to salute their divine successor, the one who fulfilled the law and the prophets. That was their purpose. And then to leave Him alone in the glory of unchallenged supremacy, and to fade away so that the sole remaining object of the adoration of the disciples and the adoration of the Father was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ in glory. . .
Down in Jerusalem, you see, right at this time, they were likely celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. What does the Feast of Tabernacles commemorate? Well, it commemorates the wandering in the wilderness. God delivers His people; they wander in the wilderness, and, during that time, they lived in tabernacles. They lived in booths. And then God led them into the Promised Land. It is a memorial to God, preserving His redeemed people. He redeems them, and He preserves them to take them into the land of promise.” And so, the Feast of Tabernacles was a very important feast. But Peter wasn’t there, and James wasn’t there, and John wasn’t there, and Jesus wasn’t there. And so, it’s just very likely that Peter was thinking about the Feast of Tabernacles, and thinking about the Feast of Booths and realizing how important it was to have such a thing. He has that in his mind.
Now, he knew it was something you had to go to; all male Jews were required to go every year to the Feast of Tabernacles, and he wasn’t there. And James wasn’t there. And John wasn’t there. And the Lord wasn’t there. And maybe he sort of felt, well, we just really need to have our own Feast of Tabernacles. . .
And there’s a final thought. Turn in your Bible to the next to the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Zechariah. Most interesting. Zechariah 14:16, it tells us about the kingdom, when Jesus returns. And, of course, in verse 9, it gives us our point of reference. Zechariah 14:9, “The Lord shall be King over all the earth. In that day there shall be one Lord, and His name one.” So, there’s the Lord in His kingdom reigning – millennial kingdom, glory kingdom, second coming majesty.
And in the middle of that, verse 16 says, “It comes to pass that everyone that is left of all the nations which came to Jerusalem shall go up from year to year” – and how many years are there in the millennial kingdom? A thousand. So, a thousand times they’ll do this. And they go – “to worship the Lord, and to keep the Feast of” – what? – “Tabernacles” – or booths.
At the end of verse 18, it says, “The Lord will smite the nations that don’t keep the Feast of the Tabernacles. And there will be punishment of Egypt and punishment of all nations” – verse 19 says – “that come not up to keep the Feast of Tabernacles.”
Now listen. There’s only one of the Jewish, traditional, week-long feasts that’s supposed to be kept in the kingdom, and that’s it. That’s the only one. The Passover will be remembered. The Communion Table will be remembered, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Why? Because it, too, is a picture of redemption, of the leading out of bondage and into the promise. And so, it will be there, too.
And that just feeds more into Peter, because here Peter thinks he’s in the kingdom anyway. Right? And he knows because he knows the Word of God. And believe me; he would know the passage of Zechariah. Here we are in the kingdom, the King in His glory, Moses and Elijah are here. It’s the same time of year they were supposed to be having the Feast of the Tabernacles. This has got to be the millennium, because in the millennium, we’re supposed to keep this. So, he’s going to build the booths to have the feast. Since it’s a Feast of Booths, let’s get the booths up, and let’s commemorate the marvelous deliverance and preservation of God. So, all of this certainly came together in Peter’s mind and just sort of made him say, “This has got to be it.”
B. (:5) Clarion Approval of the Father
“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them;
and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying,
‘This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!’”
“Clarion” = loud and clear
David Turner: The coming of the voice from the bright cloud is similar to revelations to Israel from clouds in Moses’s day (Exod. 34:29–35; 40:34–38; cf. 2 Macc. 2:8; 2 Cor. 3:7–18). The cloud’s brightness seems oxymoronic, but it suggests the Shechinah, or visible manifestation of God’s glory (Exod. 24:16–17; cf. Ezek. 1:4; 10:4). It also anticipates the accompanying clouds at Jesus’s return (Matt. 16:27; 24:30; 26:64).
Craig Blomberg: The heavenly voice repeats verbatim the words of Matt 3:17 from Jesus’ baptism. Just as God publicly endorsed Jesus as the royal Messiah and Suffering Servant prior to the beginning of the main stage of his ministry, now at the beginning of the road to the cross he repeats his endorsement even more dramatically, though much less publicly. God’s confirmation proves even more crucial because the notion of a suffering Messiah seemed so incongruous. The heavenly voice adds the words, “Listen to him!” Jesus must still be followed and obeyed, even as he heads off to die. The words echo the language of Deut 18:15b on heeding the prophet like Moses who would arise in later days.
Donald Hagner: The present-day church needs once again to discover the absolute authority of the teaching of Jesus. Jesus, as our passage shows, stands in continuity with the revelation of the OT, symbolized by Moses and Elijah, but because of who he is and what he brings (i.e., the kingdom of God, the climax of salvation history), his utterances have a final and incomparable authority. The transfiguration dramatically underlines that fact.
Michael Wilkins: The bright cloud is reminiscent of the way God often appeared in the Old Testament—to Moses on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29–35); God’s Shekinah glory filling the tabernacle (40:34–35); the cloud guiding the Israelites during their wandering in the desert (13:21–22; 40:36–38); the cloud of the glory of the Lord filling Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:10–13); and the Branch of the Lord bringing restoration to Jerusalem, as the cloud of the glory of the Lord shelters Zion (Isa. 4:1–6). Jewish literature recognized the cloud of God’s glory as the time when the Lord would gather his people and reveal the location of the ark of the covenant (2 Macc. 2:4–8).
C. (:6-8) Cowering Fear of the Disciples
- (:6) Falling Down on Their Faces
“And when the disciples heard this,
they fell on their faces and were much afraid.”
John MacArthur: Why are people so afraid in the presence of God? What scares them so much? Well, you see, God is infinitely holy, and men are hopelessly sinful. And you just, all of a sudden, feel naked, don’t you? You feel exposed. Adam and Eve sinned. What’s the first thing they said – the Bible says about it? “And they saw that they were” – what? – “naked.” And they made aprons to cover themselves, and they ran off to try to hide, and God comes through the garden and says, “Adam, where are you?”
- (:7) Comforting Touch of Jesus
“And Jesus came to them and touched them and said,
‘Arise, and do not be afraid.’”
- (:8) Focusing Eyes on Jesus
“And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus Himself alone.”
D. (:9) Cryptic Prohibition Issued by Jesus
“And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying,
‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.’”
Grant Osborne: This is the last of the “messianic secret” passages in Matthew (see 8:4; 9:30; 12:16; 16:20), and it highlights the fact that the true significance of Jesus can only be understood in light of the cross and the resurrection. The transfiguration is at one and the same time a glimpse of his preincarnate glory and a harbinger of the passion events. The two are interdependent. It is like the two sides of his nature—the divine and the human. He is the God-man, and the two aspects cannot be separated from one another. Thus it is impossible for anyone to understand the transfiguration without the cross and the empty tomb.
R. T. France: Jesus had deliberately taken only three of his disciples up the mountain to experience this vision, and now he reinforces that selective intention by telling them not to divulge what they have seen, even to their fellow-disciples. Their natural tendency to talk (and boast?) about their experience must be curbed. But here, unlike in the command to be silent about his Messiahship, there is a time limit. After his death (which is presupposed) and resurrection they may talk about it. This suggests, as we have seen also with regard to 16:20, that the reason for the injunction is primarily to avoid popular misunderstanding, or indeed in this case also misunderstanding by the remaining disciples. As long as his mission of suffering, death and resurrection remains to be accomplished, he does not want people distracted by an account of his heavenly glory which, even if it did not in itself encourage nationalistic hopes of a political Messiah, would be likely to turn their thoughts away from the cross to the glory. After the event, no such distraction would be possible, and Jesus would no longer be there to be a potential political leader. In the light of their Easter experience, and only then, the disciples may be expected to have a clear enough grasp of what it all means to be able to talk responsibly about what they have just seen.
III. (:10-13) THE VISITATION –
WHOM WERE THEY EXPECTING?
A. (:10) Confusion of the Disciples Regarding Eschatological Role of Elijah
“And His disciples asked Him, saying,
‘Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’”
Grant Osborne: In Mal 4:5 Elijah would inaugurate “that great and dreadful day of the LORD,” and in their query the disciples assume this is a divine “must” (δεῖ). The disciples have interpreted the transfiguration as the inauguration of that day and wonder how the Malachi prophecy fits into the equation. Jesus has already told them that the Baptist fulfills the Malachi expectation (11:14), but their question is not “who” but “how” it will come to pass.
Leon Morris: It is interesting that they refer to the teaching of the scribes when they might well have referred to the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 that was the origin of the teaching of the scribes. But since these men were the religious experts, their teaching about important religious matters would be respected by people like the disciples. Their word must indicates a compelling divine necessity; in the view of the learned scribes it was in the divine will that Elijah would precede the Messiah. In view of the prophecy this required no profound insight, but perhaps the disciples want to reinforce their own position by reference to accepted authorities. They do not say who Elijah is to precede, but the prophet speaks of “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” and this is easily understood of the coming of the Messiah. After Peter’s confession narrated in the preceding chapter and now the splendid vision on the mountain, none of them would have had any doubts but that Jesus was the Messiah. But where was Elijah? The scribal interpretation of the prophecy was clearly widely known, but these disciples had not seen a fulfilment. Had Elijah come unnoticed? Were the scribes wrong? They ask Jesus to clear up the point for them.
B. (:11-12) Clarification of Jesus Regarding the Fulfillment of Prophecy
- (:11) Future Final Fulfillment Still Valid
“And He answered and said, ‘Elijah is coming and will restore all things;’”
David Turner: Jesus’s complex answer has three elements.
- First, he alludes to a yet future coming of Elijah, who will restore all things (17:11; cf. 11:14; 19:28; Acts 1:6; 3:21; Mal. 3:22–23 LXX [4:5–6 Eng.]). It is not completely clear whether Jesus is simply acknowledging the scribal teaching before he corrects it in Matt. 17:12 or whether he affirms a past coming of Elijah as John as well as a future glorious coming of Elijah (Gundry 1994:347).
- Second, Jesus reiterates (cf. 11:14) the difficult linkage between John the Baptist and Elijah (17:12a).
- Third, he connects the maltreatment of John with his own coming suffering in Jerusalem (17:12b). The gist of this is that the disciples should focus on John’s past Elijah-like ministry, not the recent appearance of Elijah at Jesus’s transfiguration. If they do this, they will understand that John’s death foreshadowed the death of Jesus.
- (:12a) Present Partial Fulfillment in Contingency Mode
“but I say to you, that Elijah already came,
and they did not recognize him,
but did to him whatever they wished.”
John MacArthur: He is not Elijah, but he was one who came in the spirit and power of Elijah. But because they rejected him, he couldn’t be the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophesy; he couldn’t be the Elijah before the kingdom. So, there yet will be another who will come in the spirit and power of Elijah who will be that Elijah fulfilling that prophesy before the coming glorious kingdom. You got it? Some of you look painfully distressed.
The prophet said this, “Elijah will come.” What he meant was one in the spirit and power of Elijah. An Elijah-like prophet. If they had received John the Baptist, if they had believed his message, if they had received the Messiah, if the Messiah had set up His kingdom, John the Baptist would have fulfilled that prophecy. He would have been that Elijah-like prophet to restore all things for the kingdom. But when they did to him whatever they desired – and what did they do to him? They cut off his head. They refused him. They didn’t allow him to restore.
Then they did – look at verse 12 at the end – “Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer at their hands.” They wiped out the Elijah-like preparer of the Messiah. They killed the Messiah. And so, consequently, they rejected the restoration, and they rejected the kingdom. So, Elijah couldn’t then be that – or rather John the Baptist couldn’t then be that Elijah to fulfill that.
So, we believe that in the future, before Jesus comes again, another great prophet will come in the spirit and power of Elijah to set things right. And he will restore all things. And they won’t do to him what they did to John the Baptist. And they won’t miss who he is. And following him will come the King in His royal majesty and glory.
In Matthew 11 it says – John says – listen to this – “All the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” Now listen to this. “And if you will receive him, this is Elijah.” You see the point? Matthew 11:14. If they had taken John’s message and received him and received the Christ, he would have been that Elijah fulfillment. But because they killed him and killed the Messiah, there has yet to come another one like Elijah. John would have been it – the one.
That’s why Luke 1:17 says, “He came in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers” – and so forth – “to make ready a people for the Lord.” He was to be the fulfillment if they had believed, but they didn’t.
Now, what does this mean as far as the deity of Christ? Just this: the Old Testament said that before the Christ comes, there will one like Elijah. One like Elijah did come. Right? And just because the world rejected him doesn’t mean he wasn’t that fulfilling Elijah.
So, while the Jews would step in and say, “This can’t be the Messiah because there’s been no Elijah.”
Jesus says, “Indeed there was an Elijah, and if you’d listened to him and believed him, he would have fulfilled that Elijah prophecy.” That’s the fifth and final evidence that Jesus is truly the regal, glorious, Christ of God, the Son, the King. Because there was an Elijah who came before Him. The only reason he couldn’t fully fulfill it was because they killed him along with the Messiah. And when He comes again, He will be preceded by another in that same mode.
Michael Wilkins: John the Baptist was a partial fulfillment of Malachi’s Elijah prophecy. He came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17), but he was not a reincarnated Elijah, as some of the religious leaders may have expected (John 1:19–27). John prepared the way for Jesus Messiah (Matt. 3:1–3), and if the people and religious leadership would have repented fully and accepted Jesus’ message of the gospel of the kingdom, John would have been the complete fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy (11:14). But since the people rejected John and he was executed, and will reject Jesus, who will also be executed, another Elijah-type figure will yet have to come in the future (17:11), again preparing the way—but then for the final consummation of the wrathful Day of the Lord prophesied in Malachi.
- (:12b) Correspondence between the Rejection and Execution of Jesus and of John the Baptist
“So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
C. (:13) Connection Made between Elijah and John the Baptist
“Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.”
John Schultz: We may draw the general conclusion from these verses that the events of that moment were not the final act in world history. As the first coming of Jesus in this world is not the only one, so Elijah’s coming was a multiple event. We read in Revelation that God’s two witnesses, Moses and Elijah, will appear again at the end of time.
S. Lewis Johnson: So we conclude, then, that John is Elijah in the sense that he came in the spirit and power of Elijah, and was a figure to which Israel was responsible to respond. They did not respond. And so Elijah in personal identity shall come again preceding the second advent of the Lord Jesus.
But I want to say this, that contingency in John the Baptist’s coming is a contingency that lies only in the human sphere, not in the divine. God who knows the end from the beginning knew exactly what would happen when John the Baptist came. He knew that Israel would not respond. He knew that the people would not respond to the king himself. He knew that the Son must die. In fact, the Scriptures say he planned it all. It all took place according to his determinate counsel and foreknowledge. So the contingency lies only in the human sphere, not in the divine.
There can never be any offer of a kingdom, incidentally, apart from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible does not teach that there is a kingdom apart from a cross. It doesn’t teach that there is a cross and no kingdom. It proclaims a coming kingdom through the sufferings of the cross and the redemption accomplished thereby. Well now, the disciples, who do not understand yet all that our Lord is saying, understood that he spoke to them about John the Baptist when he spoke about the fact that Elijah is come already and therefore they understood at that point that in some sense Elijah had come then.