Father MacEvilly’s Commentary on Matthew 17:1-9
Posted by Dim Bulb on February 22, 2017
Mt 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:
“And after six days,” St. Mark reckons the same number (9:1); St. Luke (9:28) says, “about eight days after these words,” Both Evangelists are thus reconciled, if reconciled they need be; St. Matthew, in his narrative, does not include the the day on which the preceding words were spoken, nor the last day on which the occurrence he is about narrating took place. Whereas, St. Luke includes not only the six intermediate days referred to by St. Matthew, but also two partial days besides, viz., the first and last. However, in any case, there is no contradiction; for, St. Luke says, “about eight days,” not mentioning the precise number.
“Taketh unto Him Peter, James, and John,” whom, as His most attached and confidential friends, and most highly favoured among the twelve, He frequently admitted to more familiar intercourse—Peter, the head of the Apostolic College; James, the greater, put to death by Herod, and the first to seal his testimony with his blood; and John, the beloved disciple, who was to outlive all the rest. These three He took with Him as the number of witnesses required for legal proof, according to the Jewish law, “in ore duorum vel trium testiam stet omne verbum,” and also to correspond with the threefold witnesses on earth, “tres sunt qui testimonium dant in terra,” as the Heavenly Father, Moses, and Elias, corresponded with the three witnesses in heaven, “tres sunt qui testimonium dant in cœlo,” &c. He confined the manifestation of His glory to these three; because, He desired that the glory of His Transfiguration should not be divulged till after His resurrection.
“Into a high mountain apart.” This is commonly supposed to be Mount Thabor, situated in the centre of Galilee, not far from Nazareth. It is in favour of this opinion, that this event would seem to have occurred in Galilee (v. 21), in the centre of which Thabor is situated. Others say, it was Mount Libanus. This opinion derives some probability from the fact, that it was at Cæsarea Philippi, situated at the foot of Mount Libanus, our Redeemer conferred the Primacy on St. Peter; and it would not seem He departed as yet from that district. St. Luke says, He ascended the mountain (9:28) “to pray,” which was quite in accordance with His custom, and that it was “whilst He prayed,” (v. 29) His Transfiguration took place.
Mt 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.” This word here does not imply any change of substance, but only a change in His external appearance. He did not assume an ærial spiritual body, but only changed the appearance of, and added brightness to, the body He really had. This is clearly conveyed by St. Luke, “the appearance of His is countenance was altered,” &c. (9:29); and St. Matthew here explains it, “His face did shine as the sun: and His garments,” &c. He superadded splendour and glory to His former appearance, the substance remaining the same. He exhibited that glory with which He shall appear in His heavenly kingdom, and when He shall come one day to judge the world. He did not show His Divinity as He shows Himself to the saints in heaven. This, mortal eyes could not endure. He only showed the external glory of His body, which represented, in a certain way, the glory of the Divine Majesty.
“And His face,” over which external splendour was diffused. Most probably, this extended to His entire body. “Did shine as the sun;” in this way was the gift of clarity, arising from the glory of the Divinity and the beatitude of the soul of Christ, shown to the Apostles. The other gifts of impassibility, agility, spirituality, were not exhibited. And, although from the moment of His Incarnation, these gifts of a glorified body, were due to the body of Christ, owing to its union with the Divinity; still, by Divine dispensation, and by a continuous miracle, they were concealed; their manifestation was repressed in His body, and prevented from taking effect. Even this gift of clarity showed itself only in a passing way, for the present occasion, but not to be perpetually manifested, as it is now manifested, in His glorified state; and shall be in the glorified bodies of the just after the General Resurrection. It was by a continuous miracle and Divine dispensation, that the body of our Lord did not exhibit the qualities of glorification from His Incarnation; and that He enjoyed the beatitude of the soul without showing itself in the glory of His body; and it was equally a miracle, that it was gifted with clarity only in a transient way, not manifested as a perpetual gift. Others say, our Lord’s glorious Transfiguration, and the passing manifestation of the gift of clarity, far from being a miracle—for, this clarity naturally arose from the beatified soul of Christ—was rather a cessation of the perpetual miracle by which were repressed the qualities of glorification.
“And His garments became white as snow.” Most of the Greek readings have, “white as light.” But, the Vulgate reading is the more probable, and the comparison more natural. Moreover, all copies of St. Mark (9:2) have, “exceeding white as snow, so as no fuller on earth can make white.” Whether this snowy whiteness and shining brightness were so really impressed on the garments of our Lord, that they assumed these qualities, really and supernaturally on the occasion; and then after the Transfiguration, reassumed their former colour; or, were merely reflected on the garments from the glorified and bright Body of our Redeemer, reflecting its brightness on everything around it, is not easily determined, and forms the subject of dispute among commentators.
There can be no question whatever of the reality of this glorious Transfiguration, no grounds for regarding it as an imaginary scene. For, although the Apostles were before, “heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32), it was after awaking, they were favoured with the sight of His glory.
Our Redeemer’s object in this glorious manifestation would seem to be, by exhibiting His glory, and by adducing the testimony of Moses and Elias, to prepare His disciples for the scandal of the cross, and to animate them to undergo torments and death, by the prospects of the glory which awaited them in the Resurrection, similar to that witnessed by them on this occasion. The difference between the glory of our Redeemer and that of Moses is, that the glorious effulgence was imparted to Moses from without, from his converse with God; it was, moreover, confined to His face, the effulgence of which, owing to its being veiled, was concealed; whereas, that of our Redeemer was from within, from the glory of the Divinity and the beatitude of His soul, which, by a kind of continuous miracle, was kept from imparting the properties of glorification to His body. And, moreover, it extended to the entire body, to the entire sacred person, of our Redeemer.
Mt 17:3 And behold there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking with him.
“And behold,” &c. “And,” denotes, that immediately on His being transfigured, they saw “Moses and Elias talking with Him.” St. Luke (9:32) says, they “stood with Him.” Hence, it was in a standing posture, and not while elevated from the earth, this Transfiguration took place. St. Luke (9:31) tells us, the subject on which they were speaking was, concerning “His death which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Our Redeemer wished to have Moses and Elias as witnesses of His Transfiguration; the former, the promulgator and representative of the Law; the latter, the representative of all the Prophets, of whom he was the greatest; to show, that far from being opposed to the Law and the Prophets, as the Jews calumniously charged Him, the Law and the Prophets bore testimony to Him, and to His death, the great source of scandal to His followers, about which they were conversing. He, moreover, wished to show, He was the Lord of Moses and all the Prophets; and not himself either Elias or any other of the Prophets, as the multitude falsely imagined. St. Luke says, “Moses and Elias appeared in majesty.” Our Lord, by thus wishing that His attendants on this glorious occasion should be robed like Himself, in glorious apparel, meant to show, that He will one day communicate His glory to His chosen servants in heaven. The presence of these glorified witnesses would servo to heighten His glory; and their testimony would add still greater force to His words in the minds of His Apostles.
“Talking with Him.” The subject of their conversation, as we are informed by St. Luke (9:31), regarded His “decease, which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The Greek word (εξοδον) shows, there is question of His exit or departure out of this world, which is rendered “excessum ejus,” by the Vulgate. It regards His future Passion. Some spiritual writers dwell on the words, “excessum ejus,” to point out the excessive love for man manifested by our Blessed Lord in His Passion and unparalleled sufferings. This is, no doubt, a pious and edifying exposition, and is included in the words; but the other, as the Greek clearly shows, is the literal meaning.
St. Luke informs us, that whilst our Redeemer was praying, Peter and his companions, “were heavy with sleep.” While they were thus asleep, it would seem our Redeemer was transfigured; and awaking, they saw Him in this state of majesty, and Moses and Elias speaking with Him regarding His future Passion. It was not before they fell asleep, but after awaking, they witnessed His Transfiguration, as St. Luke informs us. From this, it is inferred by some, that the Transfiguration occurred in the night time. In corroboration of this it is said (Luke 9:37), that our Redeemer came down from the mountain on the following day. Others, with St. Chrysostom, say, it took place in the day time. The fact, that a bright cloud overshadowed them, which most likely occurred in the day, favours this opinion, although this might occur on a calm, bright night also.
Mt 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.
“Then Peter, answering, said.” “Answering,” by a Hebrew idiom, signifies, to commence speaking, without supposing any previous question asked. “Then.” St. Luke tells us, that St. Peter spoke when Moses and Elias were about to depart. Then Peter, transported with joy and almost inebriated with delight, mingled at the same time, with a kind of fear, or rather reverential awe, at the presence of such an unusual exhibition of glory—“For, they were struck with fear” (Mark 9:5)—anxious that this felicity should be perpetual and unalterable, exclaimed, “Lord, it is good (καλον, delightful, very pleasing) for us to be here.” Therefore, do not permit Moses and Elias to depart. “If Thou wilt”—if Thou allow it, with your permission—“let us make here three tabernacles,” i.e., three tents, composed of branches of trees, such as were hastily raised, by travellers, for temporary purposes, and such as were raised on the Feast of Tabernacles. St. Peter wished to raise these as places where our Lord, Moses, and Elias might dwell. St. Mark (9:5), says, “he knew not what he said,” or, as the Greek has it, “he knew not what to say;” and St. Luke (9:34), “not knowing what he said.” Like the sons of Zebedee, who know not the consequences nor conditions of what they asked, “nescitis quid petatis.” Peter spoke inconsiderately, not actually attending to the import of his words, nor how inconsistent and irreconcilable what he desired was, with what he saw and witnessed. Our Redeemer had sharply rebuked him, for trying to dissuade Him from suffering death. He heard two glorious witnesses speaking of His future death, in Jerusalem; and yet, Peter tries to detain them on the mountain, and leave the work of redemption unaccomplished. Moreover, it showed inconsiderateness in Peter, to imagine that glorified saints needed tents to protect them. It was thoughtless in him, to wish to have that glory confined to a few, on the mountain, which was destined for countless numbers, by the sovereign liberality of God; and to prefer the glimpse of glory, which He saw emanating from the glorified humanity and divinity of Jesus, to that effulgent, overwhelming, and dazzling glory, which from the sight of the Divinity, “face to face,” shall be exhibited to the saints for all eternity. “Satiabor cum apparuerit gloria tua” (Psa. 16:15).
Mt 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.
While Peter was speaking thus incoherently, the Heavenly Father interrupted his discourse. “Behold”—to call attention to it as a matter of wonder—“a bright cloud overshadowed them,” that is, enveloped them, diffusing itself around our Redeemer, Moses, Elias, and the Apostles who were near to where our Redeemer was conversing with Moses and Elias. “A bright cloud.” The Almighty is said, frequently in Scripture, to display His Majesty in a cloud (Exodus 16:10; 19:9; 24:15). Hence, the Psalmist says, “qui ponis nubem ascensum tuum,” &c. (Psa. 103) This cloud, which was an indication of the Divine presence, a visible type of the “excellent glory,” as St. Peter terms it (2 Ep. 1:17), showed that our Redeemer needed no tabernacle, made with hands. It served to temper the brightness of the majesty which struck the Apostles with fear. By it, God partly fulfilled the desires of Peter, by showing, He was Himself the pavilion, under whose shade the blessed shall repose for ever; and by it, He was pleased to sanction the public confession of Peter, regarding the Divinity of His eternal Son, by such a public and explicit declaration, and by a command to others, to hear Him. It is said to be a bright cloud, while that in which He appeared, when giving the Law to Moses, was a “very thick one” (Exod. 19:16), to show the difference between the New Law—the covenant of love—and the Old—the covenant of terror. St. Luke (9:34), says, “they were afraid, when they entered the cloud.” Who entered the cloud is disputed. The most common opinion is, that all entered the cloud, and that the cloud became more dense around Moses and Elias. Seeing them, as if vanishing from their sight, the disciples feared much. The very appearance of the cloud, together with the voice, which immediately after issued from it, was calculated to terrify them. Others say, the cloud enveloped only Moses and Elias, when they were on the point of departing. This bright cloud indicated the presence of the Divine Majesty.
“And, behold,” as a thing still more strange and wonderful, “a voice out of the cloud.” Not only were the eyes of the Apostles favoured with the most convincing proof of the Divinity of our Blessed Lord, but through the organ of hearing, a most conclusive proof was afforded them. “This is My beloved Son,” &c. These words are the same in the Greek, as those uttered on the occasion of our Blessed Lord’s baptism. The article is prefixed to “Son” (ὅ νιος), and to “beloved” (ὅ αγαπητος), to show that He was His natural, only begotten Son, to distinguish Him from His adopted sons, who are many in number, angels and men. The words, literally rendered from the Greek, would run thus: hic est ille filius meus, ille dilectus—this is the Son of mine, the beloved. The word “beloved” (αγαπητος), is frequently used for (μονογενης), only-begotten, because an only-begotten son is singularly beloved. Thus it is used in Genesis (22:2). The Septuagint interpreters render the Hebrew word, αγαπητος and μονογενης (Jer. 6:26, &c.; Amos 8:10, &c.), and it is used in this sense by Pagan authors also. Homer (II. vi. 401); Hesiod, referred to by Pollux (Lib. iii. c. 2). The word, αγαπητος, used in connexion with ὕιος, is, in every part of the New Testament, used to designate the eternal Son of God, and used to distinguish Him from those, who are sons by the several titles of creation, redemption, adoption, viz., men and angels.
“In whom I am well pleased.” The beloved object of My eternal complacency and love, “in whom,” and on account of whom, created objects please Me; “in whom,” I am reconciled to a sinful world; who, alone, singularly pleases Me, and in whom nothing else displeases Me. The Aorist form (ευδοκησα), conveys the idea of continuous pleasure, past, present, and future. These words point to our Lord, as the reconciler of God with a sinful world.
“Hear ye Him.” St. Chrysostom observes, that it was only after the departure of Moses and Elias (Luke 9:36), this voice was heard, that it might appear beyond all cavil or doubt, that it was to Christ, and Him only, the words referred. “Hear ye Him”—that is, believe in Him, obey His precepts, embrace His law, no longer hear Moses and the Prophets. They have discharged the duty of bearing witness to Him, the Divine Legate. He is now come, the Legislator of the New Law. Their office has now ceased. Their departure need not be regretted. He, alone, is sufficient for you. By obeying Him, you will merit and secure, for yourselves, a share in the heavenly glory, a glimpse of which has been exhibited to you on the mountain. The words, “Hear ye Him,” are, probably, allusive to the prophecy of Moses, regarding Christ (Deut. 18:15), “A Prophet of thy nation … Him thou shalt hear” (see 3:17).
Mt 17:6 And the disciples hearing fell upon their face, and were very much afraid.
“And the disciples hearing,” the terrible voice of God, which some of the holy Fathers say, resembled loud peals of thunder, “Vox Domini in virtute. Vox Domini in magnificentia.” (Psa. 28)
“Fell upon their face,” probably, for the purpose of adoring the Divine Majesty, and of imploring Him to spare them. “And (that is, ‘for’), they were very much afraid.” For, “what is all flesh, that it should hear the voice of the living God?” (Deut. 5:26.) As they were seized with fear on beholding the glory of the Transfiguration, and on entering into the cloud, so they were terrified still more on hearing the tremendous voice of God. “Human weakness could not bear such refulgent beams of glory, and trembling in every limb, they fell prostrate on the ground” (St. Jerome). It may be, they feared that Moses, on departing, would send forth from the clouds, thunder and lightning, as happened at the giving of the Law (Exod. 19:16), and that Elias would send forth fires from the clouds as formerly (4 Kings 1:10). The Apostles, however, were not so terrified, as not to clearly perceive what occurred (2 Peter 1:18).
Mt 17:7 And Jesus came and touched them: and said to them: Arise, and fear not.
The heavenly benignity of our Redeemer, raises them up. With a gentle touch He dispels the fear with which the thundering voice and majesty of God had prostrated them to the earth. As Mediator, He interposes between the tremendous majesty of God and human infirmity. “Arise, and fear not,” intimating to them that this was the voice, not of an angry God, but of a Father, who meant to confirm them in the faith, and to point out the glory in store for His adopted sons, destined to be co-heirs of His well-beloved Son, to whom they were hereafter to bear testimony.
Mt 17:8 And they lifting up their eyes, saw no one, but only Jesus.
Moses and Elias had disappeared, so had the cloud, and Jesus Himself had laid aside the glory which had dazzled them. He, alone, was visible, in His former humble state of mortality. This shows that it was to Him, and to Him only, the voice of His Father was addressed. The disappearance of Moses and Elias pointed out the temporary and transient glory of the Law and the Prophets, and showed that the Gospel alone was permanent, and destined to continue to the end of ages. The history of the Transfiguration, although differently narrated by the Evangelists, may be thus briefly summed up. While our Redeemer prayed on the mountain, the Apostles, probably, tired by the ascent, and owing to the prolonged prayer, fell asleep, during which sleep our Lord was transfigured. Next, Moses and Elias came, and discoursed with our Redeemer, regarding His death in Jerusalem. The Apostles, roused from sleep by this conversation, and by the glory which surrounded them, saw our Lord thus transfigured, and heard Moses and Elias conversing with Him. When these gave signs of departing, Peter, overwhelmed with joy, wished to detain them, and to construct three tabernacles. Next, came the cloud, enveloping Moses and Elias, and the voice, “hic est filius,” &c., which terrified the Apostles, and cast them on the ground. Afterwards, comforted by our Redeemer, they rose up, and saw only our Lord, Moses having returned to Limbo, and Elias to where he is sojourning, till the Day of Judgment.
Mt 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.
“Tell the vision,” that is, what they had been after witnessing, the glory of the Transfiguration, “to no one,” including, probably, their fellow Apostles, and all others, “until the Son of man be risen again,” &c. St. Luke says (9:36), “they told no man in those days any of these things which they had seen.” The time subsequent to the Resurrection was deemed to be the only fit time for divulging this vision. Several conjectural reasons are assigned for this. Among the rest, it might be, our Redeemer feared, as regarded the other Apostles, that they might be saddened at their not being favoured with this vision, as well as Peter, James, and John; and, as regards the people, He might have feared, they would regard the event as incredible, and seeing afterwards His weakness in His Passion, those who would be induced to believe in Him, might altogether abandon the faith, and thus it would be more difficult to bring them back again. It was only after His resurrection; it was only after He displayed, not only his omniscience, in its prediction, with all its circumstances, but also His Divine power displayed in His own resuscitation—the great proof of His Divinity furnished everywhere in the New Testament—that this vision would not be questioned, and the minds of men would be prepared to believe it. Then it would seem as a confirmatory proof of His Divinity. No danger of scandal from any subsequent manifestation of weakness, and the Apostles would be better able to proclaim it after the descent of the Holy Ghost upon them (see 16:20).