Peter’s Suggestion During the Transfiguration
Q: What is the significance of Peter’s suggestion on the Mount of Transfiguration?
A: It is a strange suggestion. Here is how Luke records the incident:
“About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)” (Luke 9:28-33, NIV)
Luke’s last comment — that Peter did not know what he was saying — has prompted a lot of speculation since it implies that there was something wrong with Peter’s suggestion. Mark adds the detail that this was something Peter said because “he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid” (Mark 9:6).
One suggestion that is very common is that Moses symbolizes the Law and Elijah symbolizes the Prophets (the Law and the Prophets being the two halves of the Old Testament under one way of counting the books), and so by Peter suggesting that a shelter be put up for Christ along side Moses and Elijah, Peter was suggesting that Christ was no more important than the Law or the Prophets.
This is certainly an acceptable allegorical interpretation of the passage. However, it does not suffice as a literal interpretation of the passage. Luke’s account gives us two clues which Matthew and Mark omit that make it easier to see what was inappropriate about Peter’s suggestion. First, he specifically states that Moses and Elijah “spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” — thus the content of their discourse concerned Jesus’ imminent suffering and death. Second, Luke records that Peter spoke up “[a]s the men were leaving Jesus.” Peter thus tries to detain them after their mission to testify to Christ’s suffering and death has ended
Thus Peter’s suggestion was inappropriate because, due to being overwhelmed by the glorious experience of the Transfiguration and wanting it to continue, he nervously stuttered out a proposal to the awesome figures involved to prolong it, ignoring the purpose for which it had been given — to give a foretaste of Christ’s future glorification while testifying to the means by which it will be achieved — his suffering and death.
Thus Augustine (cited by the Catechism of the Catholic Church) writes:
“Peter did not yet understand this when he wanted to remain with Christ on the mountain. It has been reserved for you, Peter, but for after death. For now, Jesus says: ‘Go down to toil on earth, to serve on earth, to be scorned and crucified on earth….” (Sermons 78:6; cited in CCC 556).
Thus this is one more example of the apostles — who would later go on to write infallible Scripture — not understanding the inner essence of Christ’s earthly mission before the Resurrection.
[NOTE: The point about infallibility is added lest anyone who does not understand the concept of papal infallibility think Peter making an inappropriate suggestion somehow prevents him from later teaching infallibly. We know it can’t prevent that since he later wrote two infallible encyclicals — 1 and 2 Peter. The doctrine of papal infallibility only teaches that the pope is protected from teaching error when he is solemnly defining a doctrine for all the faithful, and by blurting out his suggestion Peter was certainly not attempting to solemnly define a doctrine for all the faithful. Only Protestant misunderstanding of the doctrine of papal infallibility would ever see this passage as relevant to that issue.]