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.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. (Matthew 17:4-6)
Peter just can’t seem to get out of his own way. You’d think that after he was so sternly rebuked by Jesus at the end of chapter 16, he would have learned to just keep his mouth shut. But here he is, six days later, sticking his foot in his mouth again.
I guess to be fair to Peter, I should mention that there does seem to be at least some disagreement among commentators as to what Peter’s intentions were, what he was thinking, and whether it was something negative. I’m pretty convinced, however, that this is another instance of Peter just not getting it.
First of all, Peter’s speaking here seems to be idle yapping, at least at first. He’s more filling the silence than anything. Mark seems to make that clear in his account when he tries to excuse Peter’s words by saying, “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” (Mk 9:6). Apparently Peter, James, and John were having trouble processing what they were seeing so Peter did what he always did and just started talking.
Secondly, Peter takes the focus off of Jesus. It begins when he says, “it is good that we are here.” [Ummm…. duh. Peter is seeing Jesus (at least partially) revealed in his glory, and his first response is, “Wow. It’s really awesome to be me right now.”] It continues when he offers to build three tents, “one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” This may seem insignificant, but what Peter is basically doing is putting Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. For anyone else, that would be a compliment, but for Jesus, this is a sign that Peter isn’t exalting him as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”. Moses and Elijah are closer to the level of Peter, James, and John than they are to Jesus. Peter doesn’t seem to understand that.
Thirdly, Peter still doesn’t understand Jesus’ mission. The Transfiguration was meant to be a confirmation of the previous passage where Jesus told the disciples he would die and rise again and that they would need to be willing to follow his path, with the promise of eternal reward. But Peter still seems to be thinking in terms of the Conquering King rather than the Suffering Servant. You see that a few verses later when the disciples ask about Elijah in anticipation of the coming of the Kingdom, but you see it in these 3 verses too. When Peter offers to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, he seems to be thinking the Transfiguration is going to lead to something more long-term. Some commentators believe Peter was thinking that Moses and Elijah had arrived to set off a series of eschatological events which would culminate in the Messiah’s victorious coming into his Kingdom. They see significance in the building of tents, which hearkens back to the Feast of Booths or Feast of Tabernacles (tabernacle literally means “tent”) which had taken on eschatological significance in Judaism.
God finally puts Peter out of his misery by interrupting him while “[h]e was still speaking.” Peter was cut off by the appearance of a bright cloud which spoke to them. I think there is significance both in the fact that God interrupted Peter and in what God said. Not only does he repeat what he said at Jesus’ baptism (“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”), he adds: “listen to him.” I think this is God reminding Peter, James, and John exactly who Jesus is and exactly what their response to him should be. The fact that Jesus’ face shone like the sun, the bright cloud, the appearance of Moses and Elijah are all signs that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. They would have drawn Peter, James, and John back to passages where God interacted with Moses and Elijah on Mt. Sinai. In fact, God’s command “listen to him” would have immediately brought to mind Exodus 18:15: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”
This is why “[w]hen the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.” The appearance of the cloud, the representation of the Shekinah glory of God, is what caused Peter and the others to understand more fully what they are witnessing and struck fear into them.
It really is a beautiful picture of what is to come in the days after the Transfiguration, however. There is no temple or tabernacle, but God is present. There is no Levitical priest or intermediary, but God is communicating. Jesus is present as both the incarnation of God and the only intermediary between God and man.
John must have had this experience in his mind when he wrote in the introduction to his gospel: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [literally “tabernacled” or “pitched his tent”] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14)
A few applications stood out to me in this passage:
1. Sometimes we need to just be quiet in the presence of God.
I think God interrupts Peter because Peter’s talking was getting in the way of what Peter was supposed to be learning. Sometimes we need to just come to worship or to a passage of Scripture or to prayer and just be quiet and let God speak to us. Sometimes all our talking gets in the way.
2. We need to be careful not to drag Jesus down to the level of great men.
We are all familiar with the classic argument made famous by C.S. Lewis, that Jesus must be a liar, lunatic or Lord; we can’t make him just a good teacher. And I’m sure we would all agree with that assertion 100%. But I think sometimes we reduce Jesus to the level of a good teacher with our actions even as we name him Lord with our words. We quote his words as “good advice” along with men like Plato, Thomas Jefferson, or C.S. Lewis, but we don’t always view them as commands. We like the idea of Jesus as Savior a lot more than Jesus as Lord, where he has claim over every aspect of our lives. We may find the “Jesus is my homie” t-shirts in bad taste, but we do prefer the idea of Jesus as our friend to the idea of Jesus as the horseman of Revelation, treading “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev 19:15). Just ask yourself this question, have you ever tried to explain away “the God of the Old Testament?” We need to understand that Jesus and the God who inspired fear and trembling throughout the Old Testament are one in the same.
3. A healthy fear of God is a good thing.
The word “overshadowed” jumped out at me. I picture the cloud, the very presence of God, just overwhelming the disciples, like they were in a dense fog, only that fog was the glory of God. It’s reminiscent of Exodus 40:35, “And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” No wonder they fell face down in fear. No wonder Peter stopped talking and fell down before the Lord. The fear of God helps us fall in line with the will and mission of God. When we see God for who he is, our agendas don’t seem so important anymore.