Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 32: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36
1. And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, and James, and John his brother, and leadeth them to a high mountain apart; 2. And was transfigured before them: and his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as the light. 3. And, lo, there appeared to them 473 Moses and Elijah talking with him. 4. And Peter answering said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. 5. While he was speaking, lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and, lo, a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him. 6. And having heard this, the disciples fell on their face, 474 and were exceedingly afraid. 7. Then Jesus approaching touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. 8. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man but Jesus only.
2. And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, and James, and John, and leadeth them to a high mountain apart by themselves, and was transfigured before them. 3. And his garments became shining, exceedingly white as snow, so white as no fuller on earth could make them. 4. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. 5. And Peter answering said to Jesus, Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. 6. For he knew not what he said; for they were terrified. 7. And there came a cloud that overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son; hear him. 8. And suddenly, when they looked around, they saw no other person, but Jesus alone with them.
28. And it happened about eight days after these words, and he took Peter, and James, and John, and went up to a mountain to pray. 29. And while he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was changed, and his raiment became white and dazzling. 475 30. And, lo, two men talked with him; who were Moses and Elijah; 31. Who appeared in a majestic form, and spoke of the decease which he would accomplish at Jerusalem. 32. And Peter, and they that were with him, were overpowered with sleep; and when they awoke, they saw his glory, and the two men who were with him. 33. And it happened, while they were departing from him, 476 Peter said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah: not knowing what he said. 34. And while he was speaking these words, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. 35. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son; hear him. 36. And while the voice was uttered, Jesus was found alone.
Matthew 17:1. And after six days. We must first inquire for what purpose Christ clothed himself with heavenly glory for a short time, and why he did not admit more than three of his disciples to be spectators. Some think that he did so, in order to fortify them against the trial which they were soon to meet with, arising from his death. That does not appear to me to be a probable reason; for why should he have deprived the rest of the same remedy, or rather, why does he expressly forbid them to make known what they had seen till after his resurrection, but because the result of the vision would be later than his death? I have no doubt whatever that Christ intended to show that he was not dragged unwillingly to death, but that he came forward of his own accord, to offer to the Father the sacrifice of obedience. The disciples were not made aware of this till Christ rose; nor was it even necessary that, at the very moment of his death, they should perceive the divine power of Christ, so as to acknowledge it to be victorious on the cross; but the instruction which they now received was intended to be useful at a future period both to themselves and to us, that no man might take offense at the weakness of Christ, as if it were by force and necessity that he had suffered. 477 It would manifestly have been quite as easy for Christ to protect his body from death as to clothe it with heavenly glory.
We are thus taught that he was subjected to death, because he wished it to be so; that he was crucified, because he offered himself. That same flesh, which was sacrificed on the cross and lay in the grave, might have been exempted from death and the grave; for it had already partaken of the heavenly glory. We are also taught that, so long as Christ remained in the world, bearing the form of a servant, and so long as his majesty was concealed under the weakness of the flesh, nothing had been taken from him, for it was of his own accord that he emptied himself, (Php 2:7;) but now his resurrection has drawn aside that veil by which his power had been concealed for a time.
Our Lord reckoned it enough to select three witnesses, because that is the number which the Law has laid down for proving any thing;
at the mouth of two witnesses or three witnesses,
The difference as to time ought not to give us uneasiness. Matthew and Mark reckon six entire days, which had elapsed between the events. Luke says that it happened about eight days afterwards, including both the day on which Christ spake these words, and the day on which he was transfigured. We see then that, under a diversity of expression, there is a perfect agreement as to the meaning.
2. And was transfigured before them. Luke says that this happened while he was praying; and from the circumstances of time and place, we may infer that he had prayed for what he now obtained, that in the brightness of an unusual form his Godhead might become visible; not that he needed to ask by prayer from another what he did not possess, or that he doubted his Father’s willingness, but because, during the whole course of his humiliation, he always ascribed to the Father whatever he did as a divine Person, and because he intended to excite us to prayer by his example.
His transfiguration did not altogether enable his disciples to see Christ, as he now is in heaven, but gave them a taste of his boundless glory, such as they were able to comprehend. Then his face shone as the sun; but now he is far beyond the sun in brightness. In his raiment an unusual and dazzling whiteness appeared; but now without raiment a divine majesty shines in his whole body. Thus in ancient times God appeared to the holy fathers, not as He was in Himself, but so far as they could endure the rays of His infinite brightness; for John declares that not until
they are like him will they see him as he is, (1Jo 3:2.)
There is no necessity for entering here into ingenious inquiries as to the whiteness of his garments, or the brightness of his countenance; for this was not a complete exhibition of the heavenly glory of Christ, but, under symbols which were adapted to the capacity of the flesh, he enabled them to taste in part what could not be fully comprehended.
3. And, lo, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah. It is asked, Were Moses and Elijah actually present? or was it only an apparition that was exhibited to the disciples, as the prophets frequently beheld visions of things that were absent? Though the subject admits, as we say, of arguments on both sides, yet I think it more probable that they were actually brought to that place. There is no absurdity in this supposition; for God has bodies and souls in his hand, and can restore the dead to life at his pleasure, whenever he sees it to be necessary. Moses and Elijah did not then rise on their own account, 478 but in order to wait upon Christ. It will next be asked, How came the apostles to know Moses and Elijah, whom they had never seen? The answer is easy. God, who brought them forward, gave also signs and tokens by which they were enabled to know them. It was thus by an extraordinary revelation that they obtained the certain knowledge that they were Moses and Elijah
But why did these two appear rather than others who equally belonged to the company of the holy fathers? It was intended to demonstrate that Christ alone is the end of the Law and of the Prophets; and that single reason ought to satisfy us: for it was of the utmost importance to our faith that Christ did not come into our world without a testimony, but with commendations which God had formerly bestowed. I have no objection, however, to the reason which is commonly adduced, that Elijah was selected, in preference to others, as the representative of all the Prophets; because, though he left nothing in writing, yet next to Moses he was the most distinguished of their number, restored the worship of God which had been corrupted, and stood unrivaled in his exertions for vindicating the Law and true godliness, which was at that time almost extinct.
And they conversed with Jesus. When they appeared along with Christ, and held conversation with him, this was a declaration of their being agreed. The subject on which they conversed is stated by Luke only: they talked of the decease which awaited Christ at Jerusalem This must not be understood to refer to them as private individuals, but rather to the commission which they had formerly received. Though it was now a long time since they had died and finished the course of their calling, yet our Lord intended once more to ratify by their voice what they had taught during their life, in order to inform us that the same salvation, through the sacrifice of Christ, is held out to us in common with the holy fathers. At the time when the ancient prophets uttered their predictions concerning the death of Christ, he himself, who was the eternal wisdom of God, was sitting on the invisible throne of his glory. Hence it follows that, when he was clothed in flesh, he was not liable to death any farther than as he submitted to it of his own free will.
4. Lord, it is good for us to be here. Luke tells us that Peter uttered these words while Moses and Elijah were departing; and hence we infer that he was afraid lest, at their departure, that pleasant and delightful exhibition should vanish away. We need not wonder that Peter was so captivated by the loveliness of what he beheld, as to lose sight of every other person, and rest satisfied with the mere enjoyment of it; as it is said in the psalm,
In thy presence is fulnessess of joy, (Ps 16:11.)
But his desire was foolish; first, because he did not comprehend the design of the vision; secondly, because he absurdly put the servants on a level with their Lord; and, thirdly, he was mistaken in proposing to build fading tabernacles 479 for men who had been already admitted to the glory of heaven and of the angels.
I have said that he did not understand the design of the vision; for, while he was hearing, from the mouth of Moses and Elijah, that the time of Christ’s death was at hand, he foolishly dreamed that his present aspect, which was temporary, would endure for ever. And what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to the narrow limits of twenty or thirty feet? Where would have been the redemption of the whole world? Where would have been the communication of eternal salvation? It was also highly absurd to conceive of Moses and Elijah as companions of the Son of God, as if it had not been proper that all should be reduced to a lower rank, that he alone may have the pre-eminence. And if Peter is satisfied with his present condition, why does he suppose that earthly supports were needed by those persons, the very sight of whom, he imagined, was enough to make him happy?
Justly, therefore, is it stated by two of the Evangelists, that he knew not what he said; and Mark assigns the reason, that they were afraid; for God did not intend that the apostles should, at that time, derive any advantage from it beyond that of beholding for a moment, as in a bright mirror, the divinity of his Son. At a later period, he pointed out to them the fruit of the vision, and corrected the error of their judgment. What is stated by Mark must therefore mean, that Peter was carried away by frenzy, and spoke like a man who had lost his senses.
5. Lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them. Their eyes were covered by a cloud, in order to inform them, that they were not yet prepared for beholding the brightness of the heavenly glory. For, when the Lord gave tokens of his presence, he employed, at the same time, some coverings to restrain the arrogance of the human mind. So now, with the view of teaching his disciples a lesson of humility, he withdraws from their eyes the sight of the heavenly glory. This admonition is likewise addressed to us, that we may not seek to pry into the secrets which lie beyond our senses, but, on the contrary, that every man may keep within the limits of sobriety, according to the measure of his faith. In a word, this cloud ought to serve us as a bridle, that our curiosity may not indulge in undue wantonness. The disciples, too, were warned that they must return to their former warfare, and therefore must not expect a triumph before the time.
And, lo, a voice from the cloud. It deserves our attention, that the voice of God was heard from the cloud, but that neither a body nor a face was seen. Let us therefore remember the warning which Moses gives us, that God has no visible shape, lest we should deceive ourselves by imagining that He resembled a man, (De 4:15.) There were, no doubt, various appearances under which God made himself known to the holy fathers in ancient times; but in all cases he refrained from using signs which might induce them to make for themselves idols. And certainly, as the minds of men are too strongly inclined to foolish imaginations, there was no necessity for throwing oil upon the flame. 480 This manifestation of the glory of God was remarkable above all others. When he makes a cloud to pass between Him and us, and invites us to himself by His voice, what madness is it to attempt to place Him before our eyes by a block of wood or of stone? Let us therefore endeavor to enter by faith alone, and not by the eyes of flesh, into that inaccessible light in which God dwells. The voice came from the cloud, that the disciples, knowing it to have proceeded from God, might receive it with due reverence.
This is my beloved Son. I willingly concur with those who think that there is an implied contrast of Moses and Elijah with Christ, and that the disciples of God’s own Son are here charged to seek no other teacher. The word Son is emphatic, and raises him above servants. There are two titles here bestowed upon Christ, which are not more fitted to do honor to him than to aid our faith: a beloved Son, and a Master. The Father calls him my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, and thus declares him to be the Mediator, by whom he reconciles the world to himself. When he enjoins us to hear him, he appoints him to be the supreme and only teacher of his Church. It was his design to distinguish Christ from all the rest, as we truly and strictly infer from those words, that by nature he was God’s only Son In like manner, we learn that he alone is beloved by the Father, and that he alone is appointed to be our Teacher, that in him all authority may dwell.
But it will perhaps be objected, Does not God love angels and men? It is easy to reply, that the fatherly love of God, which is spread over angels and men, proceeds from him as its source. The Son is beloved by the Father, not so as to make other creatures the objects of his hatred, but so that he communicates to them what belongs to himself. There is a difference, no doubt, between our condition and that of the angels; for they never were alienated from God, and therefore needed not that he should reconcile them; while we are enemies on account of sin, till Christ procure for us his favor. Still, it is a fixed principle that God is gracious to both, only so far as he embraces us in Christ; for even the angels would not be firmly united to God if Christ were not their Head. It may also be observed that, since the Father here speaks of himself as different from the Son, there is a distinction of persons; for they are one in essence and alike in glory.
Hear him. I mentioned a little ago, that these words were intended to draw the attention of the Church to Christ as the only Teacher, that on his mouth alone it may depend. For, though Christ came to maintain the authority of the Law and the Prophets, (Mt 5:17,) yet he holds the highest rank, so that, by the brightness of his gospel, he causes those sparks which shone in the Old Testament to disappear. He is the Sun of righteousness, whose arrival brought the full light of day. And this is the reason why the Apostle says (Heb 1:1) that
God, who at sundry times and in various ways spoke formerly by the Prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by his beloved Son.
In short, Christ is as truly heard at the present day in the Law and in the Prophets as in his Gospel; so that in him dwells the authority of a Master, which he claims for himself alone, saying, One is your Master, even Christ, (Mt 23:8.) But his authority is not fully acknowledged, unless all the tongues of men are silent. If we would submit to his doctrine, all that has been invented by men must be thrown down and destroyed. He is every day, no doubt, sending out teachers, but it is to state purely and honestly what they have learned from him, and not to corrupt the gospel by their own additions. In a word, no man can be regarded a faithful teacher of the Church, unless he be himself a disciple of Christ, and bring others to be taught by him.
6. And having heard this God intended that the disciples should be struck with this terror, in order to impress more fully on their hearts the remembrance of the vision. Yet we see how great is the weakness of our nature, which trembles in this manner at hearing the voice of God. If ungodly men mock at God, or despise him without concern, it is because God does not address them so as to cause his presence to be felt; but the majesty of God, as soon as we perceive him, must unavoidably cast us down.
7. Then Jesus approaching touched them. Christ raises them up when they had fallen, and by so doing performs his office; for he came down to us for this very purpose, that by his guidance believers might boldly enter into the presence of God, and that his majesty, which otherwise would swallow up all flesh, might no longer fill them with terror. Nor is it only by his words that he comforts, but by touching also that he encourages them.
8. They saw no man but Jesus only. When it is said that in the end they saw Christ alone, this means that the Law and the Prophets had a temporary glory, that Christ alone might remain fully in view. If we would properly avail ourselves of the aid of Moses, we must not stop with him, but must endeavor to be conducted by his hand to Christ, of whom both he and all the rest are ministers. This passage may also be applied to condemn the superstitions of those who confound Christ not only with prophets and apostles, but with saints of the lowest rank, in such a manner as to make him nothing more than one of their number. But when the saints of God are eminent in graces, it is for a totally different purpose than that they should defraud Christ of a part of his honor, and appropriate it to themselves. In the disciples themselves we may see the origin of the mistake; for so long as they were terrified by the majesty of God, their minds wandered in search of men, but when Christ gently raised them up, they saw him alone If we are made to experience that consolation by which Christ relieves us of our fears, all those foolish affections, which distract us on every hand, will vanish away.
“Et voyci, ils veirent Moyse et Elie parlans avec luy;” — “and, lo, they saw Moses and Elijah talking with him.”
“Ce qu’ayant ouy les disciples cheurent sur leur face en terre;” — “which the disciples having heard, fell on their face to the earth.”
“Resplendissant comme un esclair;” — “dazzling like lightning.”
“Et adveint quarid ceux-la furent departis d’avec luy;” — “and it happened when those men had departed from him.”
“Comme si par force et contreinte il fust renu endurer la mort;” — “as if by force and constraint he had come to suffer death.”
“Moise et Elie ne sont pas lors ressuscitez pour eux, et pour le regard de la resurrection derniere;” — “Moses and Elijah did not then rise for themselves, and with respect to the last resurrection.”
“Des tabernacles terriens;” — “earthly tabernacles.”
“Il n’estoit ia besoin de ietter de l’huile au feu pour enflamber davantage le mal;” — “there was no necessity for throwing oil on the fire to inflame the evil still more.”