In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the sermon, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
So, continuing with some study and reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 for this Sunday’s sermon… I had a really good conversation with our contemporary worship leader (check out David’s myspace, and look for his new CD that’s hot off the presses as well) about picking music around the themes that are emerging from this text for Sunday. As often happens, there’s something about conversing around a passage of Scripture, hearing another’s reflections, wonderings, and interactions with it, that helps one dive into it more oneself.
Ok, that said… There are several things I’ll want to come back to, but let’s talk a little more at this point about the words from the “voice from the cloud”: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (v5) As I said in the first post, these words showed up on the “lips” of this cloud earlier in Matthew’s Gospel in the scene of Jesus’ baptism in chapter 3 (v17 in particular). This tidbit is where I see the most fertile interpretive soil this time around, so let me say a few more things about it upon further reflection.
1. Who is addressed by the Voice? In Matthew 3:16-17, immediately upon Jesus’ baptism, “he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.'” The Voice of the Father is apparently making an announcement to those present. The difference in Mark’s version serves to highlight Matthew’s intentions here. In Mark 1:11, the Voice from heaven addresses Jesus: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” The difference is significant for Mark’s theological aims and proclamation. The “messianic secret” is present in all three of the synoptic gospels, but in Mark it is particularly pronounced. We see it further in the absence of any reference to Jesus’ Sonship by one of the people in the gospel until the Roman centurian’s profession of faith after the crucifixion in 15:39. The voice in 1:11 speaks only to Jesus and there is no indication in the text that anyone else is privy to these words from God. But in Mark 9, we do hear God speak to Jesus’ Sonship, as in Matthew, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
We can see this connection in the differences in Peter’s profession in Matthew and Mark, which immediately precedes our passage. Responding to Jesus’ demand, “Who do you say that I am?”… in Matthew 16:16, Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But in Mark 8:29, Peter simply says, “You are the Messiah.” In Mark, no human proclamation of Jesus’ Sonship until the Roman centurian; in Matthew, Peter is aware of Jesus’ Sonship, but (as in the other gospels) misunderstands the meaning of Messiahship.
So, if you’re still with me, that point leads into the next observation and reflection upon this text…
2. Narrative context of this verse? This reaffirmation of Jesus’ identity and exhortation to the disciples to “listen to him” comes, as I said above, in the scene following the “who do you say that I am” scene in which Peter correctly identifies Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, only to rebuke Jesus (16:22) for his crazy talk about going to Jerusalem to suffer and die and be raised up three days later (16:21). This, in turn, gets Jesus back on his case (16:23) and then into the bit about taking up their cross, etc. (16:24-28)
In Matthew, Jesus tells of his journey to Jerusalem, his inevitable suffering and death, and his rising three days later three times in 16:21, 17:22, and 20:17-19. The transfiguration, and consequently the words from the Father, occur after the first one and prior to the other two. Again, the first time Jesus told the disciples these things, he was met with stern rebuke from Peter. Jesus’ efforts at shifting the disciples’ expectations and understanding of what messiahship meant and entailed began in his words on discipleship in 16:24-28. Being witnesses to the transfiguration and the vision of Moses and Elijah would have been, no doubt, a phenomenal experience, but such a fantastic event probably wouldn’t have done much to change the messianic expectations and assumptions of Peter, James, and John. So here’s where the words from the cloud come in. The addressees are clearly the disciples, so the natural question would be…
3. Why this word from God to Peter, James, and John at this point in the narrative? Reasserting the same affirmation of Jesus’ status as God’s Son, God’s love for him, and God’s pleasure with what he’s doing, as had been done at Jesus’ baptism seems to reaffirm God’s blessing and power at work in his ministry. Baptism and those words of identity and affirmation were the springboard for that ministry of teaching, proclamation, and healing (4:23). Now, Transfiguration and a restatement of those words of identity and affirmation are the springboard for the culmination of Jesus’ ministry–betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection (17:5, 22-23). This part of his ministry does not square with what the disciples expected (again, Peter said as much at the end of ch 16) so it would seem that a vocal witness re-anchoring the disciples in the identity of Jesus as God’s beloved Son, the expression of pleasure at Jesus’ ministry, and the exhortation to the disciples to “listen to him” might help them allow Jesus to redefine messiahship in his person and actions rather than evaluating Jesus’ claims to messiahship based on whether or not he fit their faulty criteria.
These words from God are directed at the disciples with the purpose of keeping them faithful to Christ and open to a different sort of messiahship and a different sort of salvation/deliverance. They just don’t seem to get what seems to be as plain as the nose on their face–that Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, will be executed and in doing so will accomplish their salvation.
Anticipating this text’s intersection with our story and the implications of our “living in the world of Scripture,” are we not like the disciples in this regard? Do we not mistake, misinterpret, and misunderstand Jesus and the gospel of the kingdom more often than we’d like to admit? Whether it comes down to our misunderstanding the scope of the kingdom and God’s mercy, the rigors and joys of discipleship, or the depth and power of grace, it seems to me that we need to hear these words afresh: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”