Sometimes when God shows us something extraordinary, we miss the point entirely. At His transfiguration, Jesus presented His three closest disciples (Peter, James, and John) with a stunning sneak preview of His resplendent glory: “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:2–3). Ever the impulsive one, Peter jumped into action, saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4, NKJV).
Peter wanted to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah by building three tabernacles—sacred shrines—one for each of them. But God interrupted the well-intentioned, albeit misguided, disciple: “While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:5). Peter had missed the point, and God intended to clear up all confusion.
First and foremost, the disciples needed to understand the superiority of Jesus Christ as the Son of God, far above Moses and Elijah. The presence of Moses and Elijah (who respectively represent the Law and the Prophets) was to signal the arrival of their long-awaited Messiah and the ushering in of the last days. Everything in Israel’s history had been pointing to the time when the Messiah would fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27; Hebrews 1:1–2). God’s command, “Listen to him!” exalted the words of Christ above those of Moses and Elijah. Only Jesus was worthy of worship. The focus is not to be Jesus and anyone else; it is to be Jesus alone.
When the three disciples heard God’s voice, they fell to the ground in terror. Jesus calmed their fears, and when they opened their eyes again, Moses and Elijah were gone. Only Jesus stood in their midst, and their focus was back on Him alone (Matthew 17:6–8). As they walked down from the mountain, Jesus instructed Peter, James, and John, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:9).
The news of the transfiguration was reserved for a later time, after the resurrection. If Peter had constructed three tabernacles at the site, keeping the revelation concealed until after the resurrection would have become impossible. And if Jesus’ closest disciples struggled to comprehend the significance of the transfiguration, how much more would others exploit and misunderstand it? Jesus knew the spectacle would only distract from His mission as He prepared to suffer and die on the cross.
Peter, James, and John would later testify boldly about the transfiguration after the resurrection. Peter never forgot seeing the “majestic splendor” of God’s glory with his own eyes, an experience that inspired him to preach confidently (see 2 Peter 1:12–21, NLT). Many years later, John would write, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Peter wanted to make three tabernacles and stay there for an extended mountaintop experience. He wished to capture God’s presence in an earthly tent. But until the time of the future millennial kingdom, God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, separate from the material things of this world (John 18:36; Romans 14:17).
Peter’s desire to build three tabernacles revealed a common misconception among the Jews, who thought their Messiah would come and reign on earth as a triumphant king and not a suffering servant. Jesus knew His mission (and the mission of His followers) was to deny Himself and take up His cross. Peter would later preach that the Christian path to glory traverses trials and suffering (1 Peter 1:6–8, 11; 1 Peter 4:12–19). C. H. Spurgeon expresses it beautifully in his daily devotional Morning and Evening, “The cross must be carried before the crown can be worn. We must follow our Lord in his humiliation, or we shall never rest with him in glory” (Evening, November 14).
Indeed, the three men who witnessed Christ’s glory would follow in His footsteps. James would die by the sword as the first of the apostles to be martyred for Jesus (Acts 12:1–2). Peter would suffer greatly and eventually give his life for the Lord (John 21:15–19). John would be the last of the three to die, experiencing a life of extreme persecution and exile (Revelation 1:9).