The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Juan de Maldonado’s Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9

Posted by Dim Bulb on March 14, 2011

Mat 17:1  And after six days Jesus taketh unto him Peter and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart:

After six days. REFERRING to the same period, S. Mark (9:2) and S. Luke (9:28) say that these events took place after eight days. The difficulty is answered by S. Jerome, S. Chrysostom, Bede, Theophylact, and Euthymius on the passage, and by S. Augustin (De Consens., ii. 56) by the assertion that S. Matthew and S. Mark have not counted the day on which the events happened, but S. Luke has ; that S. Matthew and S. Mark count the time exclusively and S. Luke inclusively of the two days on which the events happened ; or that possibly S. Luke only wrote generally, and therefore said “about eight days”.

Taketh. Many questions may here be asked.

1. Why Christ chose to be transfigured? To this question S. Hilary, S. Chrysostom, and Euthymius reply that it was to console the disciples when they should be grieved at His death; Theophylact, that it was to preserve the truth of His words (21:27), that He would come in the glory of His Father. Either of these opinions is more probable than that of the heretics, that Christ wished to show that His death would not be by compulsion, but of His own free-will, as He was the Lord of so much glory.

2. The next question is, why He was not transfigured in the sight of all the disciples ? The answer is easily seen in verse 9, where He commanded those three Apostles, who had seen His glory, not to inform any person of the vision till the Son of man had risen from the dead ; for Christ would not have His glory published for the reasons there given.

3. The third question is, why was His glory shown to three witnesses, and neither more nor fewer ? Probably because He wished that there should be some witnesses of His future glory ; for “in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall stand” (Dent, 29:15; Matt, 18:16). In addition, it may be said that He had three disciples more especially capable of receiving His secrets. These three He used to take with Him on His more private occasions (as in Matt 16:37).

4. The fourth question is, why He pleased to show this spectacle to these rather than to the others ? One reason has already been given; another is that Peter was both the first of the Apostles and loved Him most of all. He Himself loved S. John the most. S. James was the next after S. Peter, and the most ardent in faith. As such, he was the first put to death by Herod (Acts 12:2). This reason is given by Origen (Tract, iii. on S. Matt.}, S. Ambrose (On S. Luke ix.), S. Augustin (On Galat. ii.), S. Jerome, Theophylact, and Euthymius (in their Commentaries). SS. Ambrose and Augustin are mistaken in saying that this James was the brother of the Lord ; for the Evangelist says that He was the brother of John, and the son of Zebedee.

Into a high mountain. The Evangelists do not say what mountain this was, nor apparently does any ancient author of credit. It was long the opinion that it was Mount Tabor, which S. Jerome says, in his Loc. Hebr,, was in the midst of the plains of Galilee, and was very lofty and round in shape. Whether it were this or some other, we may ask why Christ went up into a mountain to display His glory ? One reason is found in 5. Luke 9:28. He says that Christ went up to pray. He was accustomed, for this purpose, to ascend mountains, where the solitude was greater and more complete, and there was a wider view of the heavens (S. Mark 6:46 ; 5. Luke 6:12). The words of S. Luke, “He went up to pray,” are not perhaps to be taken as if He went up with that intention, but because in all events of great importance it was His custom to commence with prayer ; and He probably did not inform the Apostles when He went apart from them that He was going up the mountain for His Transfiguration, but for prayer, lest He might give occasion for envy to those who were left below. The glory of God has most frequently been shown from mountains, which are nearer to heaven and more remote from men. So the majesty of God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:11), and was, as S. Hilary says, a type of the Transfiguration.

Mat 17:2  And he was transfigured before them. And his face did shine as the sun: and his garments became white as snow.

And He was transfigured before them. We should observe, as S. Jerome says, that Christ did not change the nature of His body, but only the external form and appearance.

As snow. Almost all the Greek copies read, “as light,” our version says, “as snow” as do some Greek copies. This reading is probably the correct one, both because S. Mark (9:3) has it, and S. Hilary and almost all ancient writers concur, and because the comparison is more just and more common. For we do not compare whiteness to the sun, but to snow; and what is bright to the sun. The glory of the blessed also is prefigured by white robes, as in Apoc. 1:14; 3:4, 5, 18 ;  4:4 ; 6:11 ; 7:9, 13 ; 19:14.

Mat 17:3  And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him.

Moses and Elias. We may reasonably enquire why Christ wished for the presence of these witnesses from the other world. S. Hilary says that it was to confirm the doctrine of the Resurrection, by the restoration to life of Moses. But the question here was not of the Resurrection, but of the future kingdom of Christ. There appear to have been two reasons : one, that the Apostles might not think the thing a fiction ; the other, that the future kingdom of Christ might be represented to the life, at the advent of which two witnesses are mentioned by S. John (Apoc 11:3) as about to be sent. The reason of these two having been chosen rather than any others, is held by all ancient authors to have been that the Law might be represented by Moses, and the Prophets by Elias ; and that the Law and the Prophets tend towards Christ, and have their fulfilment and termination in Him. So Tertullian, iv., Cont Marcion. From this he refutes these heretics, showing that Christ was not contrary to the Law and the Prophets. S. Hilary, S. Jerome, Bede, Euthymius (in loc.)  S. Ambrose (On S. Luke ix.), S. Augustin (De Quinq. Hæres., vii.), and in another place S. Chrysostom and Euthymius, give as reasons that both Moses and Elias worked many miracles, and that, as some said that Christ was Elias, others one of the ancient prophets, and Moses was the most ancient, Christ, to show that He was the Lord of life, brought up the still living Elias, and Moses, who was dead, as His witnesses. It is probable, as S. Jerome says, that Christ was willing to gratify the Scribes and Pharisees who had demanded a sign from heaven, and He, therefore, called Elias from heaven, and Moses from Hades (de Inferno]. Others, as Euthymius, say that the disciples might imiate the meekness of Moses and the zeal of Elias. Tertullian (Adv. Prax) thinks that the promise of God in Numbers 12:8, that He would speak with Moses face to face, was fulfilled here.

The truest reason of the appearance of Moses and Elias would, perhaps, appear to be that which a learned Doctor of the Church of our own times has signified : that Christ was to represent the image of His second coming. But before this, Moses and Elias would come, as is clearly to be gathered from Apoc 9:3: “And I will give unto My two witnesses, and they shall prophesy a thousand two hundred and sixty days clothed in sackcloth. These are the two olive trees and the two candlesticks that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if any man will hurt them, fire shall come out of their mouths, and shall devour their enemies ; and if any man will hurt them, in this manner must he be slain. These have power to shut heaven that it rain not in the days of their prophecy, and they have power over waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with all plagues as often as they will.” In these words Moses is openly described.

We may ask whether they truly appeared ? That they did so is the opinion of all the authorities except Strabus and S. Thomas. The former (On S. Luke ix.), thinks that the appearance was not of themselves, but of their similitudes. The latter, in his comments on the passage, imagines that Elias, indeed, who was not dead, was truly present ; but that Moses, who was dead, did not appeartruly and perfectly, but that his soul alone did so, taking not his own but some other body. The opinion of all others is more probable, that each was present truly and each wholly. It was not fitting that the truth should be
proved by a falsehood ; and it is agreeable to reason that as Christ showed not a false and shadowy, but His true and express glory, so that it should be confirmed not by false and imaginary, but by true witnesses. It has been asked how the Apostles could recognise Moses and Elias, whom they had never seen ? Euthymius answers that their forms had been well described in the ancient books of the Hebrews, or were familiar from tradition. Theophylact supposes that the Apostles might have known them from the conversations they carried on. Moses might have said:”Thou art He whose Passion I prefigured in the Lamb which was slain, and in the Passover which I celebrated”. And Elias, perhaps: “Thou art He whose Resurrection I foreshadowed in the widow s son whom I raised to life”. S. Luke (9:30, 31) relates that there were conversations among them, but not on these subjects:

“And behold two men were talking with Him, and they were Moses and Elias appearing in majesty, and they spoke of His decease which He should accomplish in Jerusalem”. They did this probably to confirm what Christ had said just before of His coming death, and that the Apostles might no longer be offended. Again, it may have been, as many think, that the Apostles knew them by inward inspiration. S. Luke says that Peter and they who were with him were heavy with sleep, which S. Chrysostom supposes to have been not true sleep, but a stupor closely resembling sleep ; for how could they sleep in the midst of so much glory ? Unless, perhaps, in the meantime they began to sleep, whilst Christ was praying, as they did at the Passover ; and by divine permission, that in the mean while Moses and Elias might come. S. Luke appears to point to this when he says: “And waking, they saw His glory, and the two men that stood with Him”.

Mat 17:4  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 Elias.

Answering, Let us make here three tabernacles. “Answering” is a Hebraism for “speaking”. S. Peter said nothing of himself or the other Apostles, he only spoke of Christ, Moses, and Elias. It has been doubted why he wished to make tabernacles there, and to remain in the place. S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Euthymius say that it was for fear of the Jews, lest Christ, as He had said before, should fall into their hands, whilst they would be safe on the top of the mountain, and, if needs were, be defended by Moses and Elias, the former of whom destroyed the Egyptians and Amalekites, and the latter two or three centurions, with their soldiers, by calling down fire from heaven. But this idea seems hardly worthy of S. Peter. The true reason seems to have been that which S. Peter himself gave: It is good for us to be here”. Some explain the word “good” as used here, as meaning not useful and safe, but pleasant. The glorious company of Christ, Moses, and Elias pleased S. Peter, and he supposed that he himself and the other two would enjoy it, if they remained on the mountain always. There seems another reason. S. Luke (9:33) says that S. Peter said this when he saw Moses and Elias departing, and he was grieved, and wished to remain there always.

Mat 17:5  And as he was yet speaking, behold a bright cloud overshadowed them. And lo a voice out of the cloud, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye him.

Behold a bright cloud. The majesty of God is frequently revealed from clouds (Exod 16:10; 19:9, et passim ; and David, Ps 1075). To vindicate His majesty, Christ will come on the clouds to judgment (sup., xxiv. 30 ; xxvi. 64).

It is easy to see why this should be so. A. cloud is of heaven. The divine majesty was therefore declared by a cloud, that so God who spoke, and who is the ruler of the heavens, might be shown to be true, and not false nor earthly. This is the reason why the cloud here descended, that the voice which said from heaven, “This is My beloved Son,” might be believed to have been no other than the voice of God, as Euthymius says. It might have been, as S. Ambrose suggests, a cloud interposed between the Apostles and heaven, to enable them to endure the majesty of God speaking to them, as was the case with Moses when God spoke to him through a cloud. S. Chrysostom and Theophylact have observed that this cloud was bright, and not like that in the Old Testament, dark and black, because God came down now, not to terrify, but to teach. It may more probably have been because the brightness might agree with the subject in hand, the glory and transfiguration of Christ.

And lo, a voice out of the cloud, saying. S. Chrysostom rightly observes that this cloud was sent after Moses and Elias had departed, that without doubt it might be referred to no other than Christ.

This is My beloved Son. SS. Ambrose and Jerome think that there should be an emphasis on the word “This,” as if the meaning were, “Not Moses, and not Elias, but this is My beloved Son”. There seems indeed to be an emphasis on the word, but a different one. For the Apostles did not doubt that not Moses, nor Elias, but Christ, was the Son of the living God, when a little before, when they had not yet beheld the glory of Christ, Peter had confessed it. There was no need, therefore, that Christ should be distinguished from Moses and Elias by a voice from heaven.

The emphasis, then, is as follows. This that is, He whom you have seen like the sun and full of glory is My Son. For this voice was not sent to teach the disciples that Christ was the Son of God, but to show them in what likeness He would come again, and to confirm what Christ had said (Matt 16:27): “The Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father, with His angels”; and to approve the confession of S. Peter (v. 16) : “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God,” that he might be a more sure witness of the future kingdom of Christ; as he himself testifies (2 Pet. i. 18): “This voice we heard brought from heaven when we were with Him in the holy mount”.

Hear ye Him. God appointed, or at least showed, that Christ was their Lawgiver, and was to be obeyed. “To hear” means, in Hebrew, “to obey” (Heb. 1:6). Tertullian (v., Marcion, lib. iv.) explains it thus: “Hear Him, that is, not Moses nor Elias, as if in this place the Law and the Prophets were done away”. The followers of Calvin would have us fix these words in our minds as if we should listen to none besides, but to Christ Himself only. It were to be wished that their advice were followed more carefully, and that men would listen to no heretics at all. We should never have any such, then, for our guides, and they would have none to listen to them.

Mat 17:6  And the disciples hearing fell upon their face, and were very much afraid.
Mat 17:7  And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them: Arise, and fear not.

Mat 17:8  And they lifting up their eyes, saw no one, but only Jesus

Fell upon their face. The followers of Calvin explain this wrongly. They say that the Apostles fell on their faces to pay worship, for the Hebrew words nâphal pânı̂ym  mean this. This is frequently the case, but not always. For (1 Sam 17:49) Goliath fell on his face, but not to worship, but as dying; and Daniel (8:18; 10:9) did the same, but not to worship, but as amazed and terrified by the vision. In the present instance this meaning cannot be received; for the Evangelist (verse 7) has stated why they so fell. Hence it is clear that they were as lifeless, or half-dead ; and Christ is said to have touched them, as we touch those who are in great prostration, to restore them to themselves. They fell down, then, from fear, not veneration. But why did they fear? Who that heard God speaking would not fear? (Ps 38:4, 5, 6; Amos 3:8).

Mat 17:9  And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying: Tell the vision to no man, till the Son of man be risen from the dead.

Verse 9. Tell the vision to no man. They were probably prohibited, as S. Jerome and Bede think, from speaking of what had happened, that they might not inform the people at large of it; for no evil could have happened from the other Apostles knowing of it ; and there would have been this good, that they would have been the more confirmed in faith, whilst if the multitude had been informed of it, the unhappy result might have followed which has been mentioned before (16:20). For they who had heard of Christ s glory, if they had subsequently beheld His Crucifixion, might have thought themselves deceived as it were by a false report of His glory, and have fallen away from faith. So think S. Chrysostom, Euthymius, S. Jerome, Bede, and Theophylact. It appears more in accordance with the Gospel that Christ did not desire even the other Apostles to know it. (Vide Mark 9:1o; Luke 9:36.)

Till the Son of man be risen from the dead. Why this was not to be revealed before has been explained already. Why Christ wished it to be known afterwards is clear. The evil that might have happened before could not have happened subsequently, and the Gospel was then to be published everywhere.

6 Responses to “Juan de Maldonado’s Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9”

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