The importance of Jesus as the fulfillment of what Moses and Elijah stood for comes out even more clearly in what happens in Matthew 17 on the Mount of Transfiguration. Peter, the man of action, was not one to keep silent and merely marvel at what he was privileged to see. He thought he had to say something. So he blurted out, “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” (v.4). This was exactly the wrong thing to say. The point of what was happening was that Jesus was the unique Son of God, the king of glory. Moses and Elijah were there to honor him. But Peter’s suggestion had the effect of putting Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the same footing. Or perhaps Peter even thought it was an honor for Jesus to speak to these other two great men.
This time it was God the Father himself who corrected Peter, rather than Jesus, who had corrected Peter earlier when he sought to deflect him from the cross (Matthew 16.23). The text says, “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!’” (v.5).
It would be impossible for any Jewish reader to miss the importance of this cloud, for it would immediately suggest the Shekinah Glory cloud of the Old Testament and indicate that God himself was present to speak as He had spoken before on Mount Sinai. The Shekinah Glory was a striking phenomenon, and it is mentioned frequently in both the Old and New Testaments. In all it is referred to fifty-eight times in the Bible in at least ten different books.
The cloud is first mentioned at the Exodus when it appeared to lead the people. The text says, “By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Ex.13.21-22). The cloud protected the people from the pursuing Egyptians (Ex.14.19-20). It was probably this cloud that descended on Sinai when Moses went up the mountain to receive the law from God (Ex.19.16-20). When the wilderness tabernacle was completed, the cloud of glory filled it so that even Moses could not enter (Ex.40.34-35). After this, the cloud is referred to many more times throughout the Pentateuch. It appeared at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (I Ki.8.10). It is even possible that the same phenomenon was involved in Jesus’ ascension, when “a cloud hid him” from the disciples’ sight (Ac.1.9).
Luke says that the disciples were afraid as the cloud began to envelop them (Luke 9.34), which is quite understandable, but they became even more terrified when they heard a voice that they knew was God’s. What God said was similar to what He uttered at Jesus’ baptism, recorded in Matthew 3.17: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” It was an echo of Psalm 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1, which indicates that Jesus was both the Son of God, who is mentioned in the Psalm, as well as the suffering servant, who is described in Isaiah, an important combination of ideas. What is new here is the command: “Listen to him!”
Just as the first part of this instruction is an echo of Psalm 2.7 and Isaiah 42.1, so this part seems to echo Deuteronomy 18.15, where Moses told the people of Israel, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.” This was an early messianic prophecy, indicating that the Messiah would function among other things as God’s spokesman. Now this Messianic figure has been raised up. He is Jesus, and the duty of Peter as well as all others is to be quiet and listen to what Jesus has to say.
Could anything be more relevant today? We sometimes hear people say in a crisis situation, “Don’t just stand there; do something.” One theologian stated, when he is thinking about the truths of God revealed in Scripture, “Don’t just do something; stand there.” He means that it is more important to stand firm on the truths of Scripture than to be active in Christian work. Similarly, we might say as we work at trying to understand what God said to Peter, “Don’t just say something [which is what Peter was doing]; listen to Jesus.”
I know that we need to speak. The Bible needs to be taught; it is what the ministers of the Gospel are chiefly called to do. Every believer should be witnessing. But it is not activity we need so much as to hear the words of Jesus. It is not a vision we need so much as to learn from Him. Charles H. Spurgeon said, “It is better to hear the Son of God than to see saints or to build tabernacles.”
Do you hear Jesus? Do you obey him? Or are you so caught up in the theories of mere men or even in otherwise worthwhile Christian activity that you miss that which alone is really needful? Consider Luke 10.38-42, Martha was distracted with much serving. Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
C.T. Studd wrote, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.” (Once wealthy, he died penniless).
Pastor Steve can be reached at PastorSteve@MaranathaBibleChurch.org