David Guzik Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 17 - Jesus Transfigured, Triumphant, and Taxed
A. Jesus is transfigured.
1. (1-2) The transformation of Jesus before His disciples.
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.
a. Jesus took Peter, James, and John: Jesus did not invite all the disciples, but only these three. Perhaps Jesus did this to prevent the account of this amazing miracle being told of before the time was right (Matthew 17:9). Others have suggested that He did it because these three needed closer supervision than the others.
i. After six days: "Luke's 'about eight days after Jesus said this' (Luke 9:28) is based on a Greek way of speaking and means 'about a week later'." (Carson)
b. Led them up on a high mountain: There have been several suggestions for the location of the Mount of Transfiguration.
Mount Tabor (about 1,900 feet, 580 meters); but it isn't high, and isn't on the way from Caesearea Philippi to Capernaum.
Mount Hermon (about 9,300 feet, 2,835 meters) is high; but perhaps too high and too cold on its summit, where they seem to have spent the night. It also would not be close to the Jewish crowds that met Jesus immediately on His descent from the mountain (Matthew 17:14, Luke 9:37).
Mount Miron (about 3,900 feet, 1,190 meters) was the highest mountain in a Jewish area, and is on the way between Caesearea Philippi and Capernaum. Carson favors this location.
i. "The name of the 'high mountain' can never be known; for those who knew the locality have left no information. Tabor, if you please; Hermon, if you prefer it. No one can decide." (Spurgeon)
c. He was transfigured before them: The word transfigured speaks of a transformation, not merely a change in outward appearance. The effect was extremely striking; Jesus became so bright in appearance that He was even difficult to look at (like the sun).
i. "The verb metamorphoo ('transfigure,' 'transform,' 'change in form') suggests a change of inmost nature that may be outwardly visible." (Carson) It may be that this glory shone forth in the Garden of Gethsemane, when those who arrested Him fell back when Jesus said, "I am."
ii. Essentially this was not a new miracle, but the temporary cessation of an ongoing one. The real miracle was that Jesus, most of the time, could keep from displaying this glory. Yet John said, We beheld His glory. Peter wrote, We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.
iii. "For Christ to be glorious was almost a less matter than for him to restrain or hide his glory. It is forever his glory that he concealed his glory; and that, though he was rich, for our sakes he became poor." (Spurgeon)
iv. This happened as a fulfillment of Jesus' promise in Matthew 16:28. We should remember that chapter and verse divisions were certainly not in the original writings of the apostles, and did not come until the 16th Century.
d. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light: It was His face that did shine as the sun. He wasn't transformed into another being with another body; it was His own face that shone.
i. Jesus has His disciples with Him when He shines in His glory. He is not glorified apart from them, because they share in His glory. Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me. (John 17:24)
ii. "Another thing which we may learn from our Lord Jesus Christ having shown himself to his apostles thus robed in brightness is, that we are scarcely aware of the glory of which the human body is capable." (Spurgeon)
2. (3) Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
a. Moses and Elijah: Remarkably, these two Old Testament persons appeared and spoke with the transfigured Jesus. Moses had lived some 1400 years before; Elijah some 900 years before; yet they were alive and in some sort of resurrected, glorified state.
i. It is fair to think that these two particular persons from the Old Testament appeared because they represent the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). The sum of Old Testament revelation came to meet with Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration.
ii. We can also say that Moses and Elijah represent those who are caught up to God (Moses at Jude 9 and Elijah at 2 Kings 2:11). More specifically, Moses represents those who die and go to glory, and Elijah represents those who are caught up to heaven without death (as in the rapture described in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
iii. From this we see: "Saints long departed still alive; live in their personality; are known by their names; and enjoy near access to Christ." (Spurgeon)
b. Talking with Him: Luke 9:31 tells us the theme of their conversation; they spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They spoke of the upcoming work of the cross, and presumably of the resurrection to follow.
i. "And where could there have been found greater subjects than this wondrous death, and his glorious resurrection?" (Meyer)
ii. "They 'appeared unto them' but they 'talked with him': the object of the two holy ones was not to converse with the apostles, but with their Master. Although saints are seen of men, their fellowship is with Jesus." (Spurgeon)
3. (4-5) Peter equates Jesus with Moses and Elijah and is dramatically rebuked by a voice from the cloud of God's glory.
Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "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." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!"
a. 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: Mark 9:6 and Luke 9:33 point out that Peter didn't know what he was saying when he said this. Though said without careful thought, the effect of his words put Jesus on an equal level with Moses and Elijah, building equal shrines for each of them.
i. "Peter suggested the retention of the three in association: Moses, the law-giver; Elijah, the reformer; and Jesus, the Messiah." (Morgan)
ii. "The booths [tabernacles] (the word normally means 'tents') would be temporary shelters of branches, such as were erected for the Feast of Tabernacles." (France)
iii. "How selfish the one thought, 'It is good for us!' What was to be done for the rest of the twelve, and for the other disciples, and for the wide, wide world?" (Spurgeon)
b. A bright cloud overshadowed them: This is the cloud of God's glory, called the shekinah in the Old Testament. From this cloud of glory, God the Father spoke.
i. "When God draws near to man it is absolutely necessary that his glory should be veiled. No man can see his face and live. Hence the cloud, in this instance, and in other cases." (Spurgeon)
c. This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him! The Father, from heaven, rebuked Peter's attempt to put Jesus on an equal footing with Moses and Elijah - and while he was still speaking. It was important to interrupt Peter, so that all would know that Jesus is unique and the beloved Son - He deserves our special attention, so Hear Him!
i. One might say that everything that the Father said came from the Scriptures.
In Psalm 2:7, the Father says to the Son: You are my Son.
In Isaiah 42:1, the Father says to the Son that He is One in whom My soul delights. Or as Matthew 12:18 quotes the passage: in whom My soul is well pleased!
In Deuteronomy 18:15, God the Father says through Moses the prophet about the coming Jesus, Him you shall hear.
ii. "The occasion was most august, yet no better words are needed by the Lord himself concerning his own Son than those recorded in former ages in the pages of Holy WritSo that this voice of the Lord utters three Bible words, and surely if the Lord speaks in the language of Scripture, how much more should his servants? We preach best when we preach the word of God." (Spurgeon)
iii. This is another development of the significant theme in Matthew of the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. With these words from heaven, God the Father clearly set Jesus above the Law and the Prophets. He is not merely another or even a better lawgiver or prophet. Jesus is the only begotten Son.
iv. "If the Father says, 'This is my Son,' observe the graciousness of our adoption! With such a Son the Lord had no need of children. He did not make us his children because he needed sons, but because we needed a father." (Spurgeon)
d. Hear Him! If we should listen to anyone, we should listen to Jesus. One would think that a voice from heaven would say, "Listen to me!" But the Father said, "Hear Him!" Everything points us to Jesus.
i. "Which words establish Christ as the only Doctor and Teacher of his church, the only one to whom Christians are to hearken: nor doth this destroy the ministers of the word, who are no more than the interpreters of what he hath said, and no more to be regarded than as by then we hear Christ speaking more plainly and frequently unto us." (Poole)
ii. "If Peter be our master, let us call him so; if Calvin be our master, let us call him so; and if Wesley be our master, let us call him so; but if we be disciples of Jesus, then let us follow Jesus, and follow him with other men only so far as we perceive they followed Christ." (Spurgeon)
4. (6-8) The disciples react with a holy fear.
And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid." When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.
a. They fell on their faces and were greatly afraid: They didn't fall on their faces when they saw Jesus transfigured; not when His face shone like the sun; not when His clothes became as white as the light; not when Moses and Elijah appeared with Him; not when Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus; and not even when the cloud of glory appeared and overshadowed them. But when the disciples heard the voice from heaven, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid.
i. "They were in the immediate presence of God, and listening to their Father's voice: well might they lie and prostrate and tremble. Too clear a manifestation of God, even though it related to Jesus, would rather overpower than empower us." (Spurgeon)
b. Arise, and do not be afraid: The disciples were once again uniquely in awe of Jesus. This helps explain the purpose of the Transfiguration: to reassure the disciples that Jesus was the Messiah, even if He would indeed be crucified as He had so surprisingly revealed.
i. Note the context: Jesus just revealed His humiliation and sufferings to them. It makes sense that they receive another divine testimony to Jesus' status as the Son of God at this time.
c. When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only: It is significant that their entire focus was forced upon Jesus once again. The cloud was gone; Moses had left, and Elijah had disappeared.
i. It might have been that after the events of the transfiguration, no one remained for the disciples. Theoretically, when the experience was over, there would have been no Moses, no Elijah, and no Jesus. This is exactly the experience of many. They have some spiritual experience, or receive some ministry from the Holy Spirit of God; but when it is over, it is over - done and gone. Nothing remains.
ii. It might have been that after the events of the transfiguration, only Moses remained for the disciples. Theoretically, when the experience was over, there would have been only Moses. Though Moses was a great man, compared to Jesus he was like the moon is to the sun. It would be sad to exchange the grace and truth that came by Jesus for the law that came by Moses; but there are those sad ones who see Moses and his law only.
iii. It might have been that after the events of the transfiguration, only Elijah remained for the disciples. Theoretically, when the experience was over, there would have been only Elijah. Elijah was a man great for the power of his word and the boldness of his national reforms. Yet all this doesn't compare to the person and work of Jesus only.
iv. It might have been that after the events of the transfiguration, all three remained. At first, this might have seemed to be the best - why not all three? Yet now that Jesus has come, Moses and Elijah can fade into their supportive roles, and never be put on the same level as Jesus.
v. "Though the apostles saw 'Jesus only,' they saw quite sufficient, for Jesus is enough for time and eternity, enough to live by and enough to die byO look to him, and though it be Jesus only, though Moses should condemn you, and Elias should alarm you, yet 'Jesus only' shall be enough to comfort and enough to save you." (Spurgeon)
vi. "At this day, my brethren, we have no Master but Christ; we submit ourselves to no vicar of God; we bow down ourselves before no great leader of a sect, neither to Calvin, nor to Arminius, to Wesley, or Whitfield. 'One is our Master,' and that one is enough, for we have learned to see the wisdom of God and the power of God in Jesus only." (Spurgeon)
5. (9-13) The problem of Elijah coming first.
Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead." And His disciples asked Him, saying, "Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things. But I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did not know him but did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that He spoke to them of John the Baptist.
a. Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead: Wisely, Jesus told the disciples to not speak of the transfiguration until after His resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus was the final confirmation of His ministry and glory; until then, reports of the transfiguration would be more likely to test the faith of those who did not see it rather than strengthen their faith.
b. Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first? The disciples had heard that Elijah must come, according to the promise of Malachi 4:5: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
i. Their question may go like this: "Jesus, we know that Elijah comes first before the Messiah. We know You are the Messiah, yet we just saw Elijah, and it seems that he came after You."
c. Indeed, Elijah is coming first and will restore all things: Jesus reassured the disciples that Elijah would indeed come first. But the first coming of Jesus did not bring the great and dreadful day of the Lord. Instead, the Malachi 4:5 coming of Elijah is probably best identified with the appearance of the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-13, and then the Second Coming of Jesus.
d. But I say to you that Elijah has come already: Yet there was also a sense in which Jesus could rightly say "Elijah has come already." Elijah had arrived in the work of John the Baptist, who ministered in Elijah's spirit and power (Luke 1:17).
i. This is evident from a comparison of the life and work of both Elijah and John the Baptist.
Elijah was noted as being full of zeal for God; so was John the Baptist.
Elijah boldly rebuked sin in high places; so did John the Baptist.
Elijah called sinners and compromisers to a decision of repentance; so did John the Baptist.
Elijah attracted multitudes in his ministry; so did John the Baptist.
Elijah attracted the attention and fury of a king and his wife; so did John the Baptist.
Elijah was an austere man; so was John the Baptist.
Elijah fled to the wilderness; John the Baptist also lived there.
Elijah lived in a corrupt time and was used to restore failing spiritual life; so was it true of John the Baptist.
B. Jesus casts out a difficult demon from a boy.
1. (14-16) A demon too tough for the disciples to handle.
And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him."
a. Have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic: This particular boy's epileptic symptoms were demonic in origin (Matthew 17:18), though this certainly could not be said about every case of epileptic symptoms, either then or today. The narrative in Mark 9:14-29 tells us that the boy was made deaf and dumb by this demon.
i. "Matthew describes the boy by the verb seleniazesthai, which literally means to be moonstruck." (Barclay)
ii. "When Moses came down from the mountain he was confronted by Israel's apostasy (Exodus 32); so on Jesus' return from the mountain he enters a scene of spiritual conflict and unbelief." (France)
iii. "There the mountain; now the valley. There glorified saints; here the lunatic. There the King in His heavenly gory; here the representatives of baffled and beaten faith." (Morgan)
iv. "It is easy to feel Christian in the moment of prayer and meditation; it is easy to feel close to God when the world is shut out. But that is not religion - that is escapism. Real religion is to rise from our knees before God to meet men and the problems of the human situation." (Barclay)
b. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him: Sometimes Jesus' followers fail, but Jesus never does. The man was wise for going straight to Jesus when His followers failed.
i. On previous occasions, the disciples did cast out demons (Luke 10:17). Yet here they could not cure him. This is because there are ranks of demonic powers (Ephesians 6:12), and evidently some demons are stronger (more stubborn, resistant) than others. Since the disciples had been given the authority to cast out demons before (Matthew 10:8), apparently this demon was more difficult than most.
ii. Their failure was in fact good for them. Their failure taught them.
It taught them not to get into a rut of mechanical ministry.
It taught them the great superiority of Jesus.
It taught them to wish for the presence of Jesus.
It taught them to come to Jesus with the problem.
iii. "They were confounded at their want of success-but not at their want of faith, which was the cause of their miscarriage!" (Clarke)
2. (17-21) Jesus easily casts the demon out.
Then Jesus answered and said, "O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" So Jesus said to them, "Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting."
a. O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? There is a sense that Jesus is frustrated with His disciples. His season of ministry before the cross was coming to an end, and perhaps He felt frustration that the disciples did not have more faith.
b. Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him: Jesus delivered the demon-possessed boy instantly. What was too hard for the disciples was not too hard for Jesus.
c. Because of your unbelief: Jesus laid the inability of the disciples to cast out the demon at their unbelief. To be successful in a battle against demons, there must be trust in the Lord God who has complete authority over the demons.
i. "There are some things which are obtained by a stronger faith, and by more fervent and importunate prayers, than others are. A mercy sometimes seems to come to out of the hand of God with more difficulty, and wrestling for it." (Poole)
ii. There was no point in blaming the boy or his father or the demon, though the demon was strong and had been there long. The fault lay in the disciples. "When the ministers of the Gospel find their endeavours, with respect to some places or persons, ineffectual, they should come, by private prayer, to Christ, humble themselves before him, and beg to be informed whether some evil in themselves have not been the cause of the unfruitfulness of their labours." (Clarke)
d. If you have faith as a mustard seed: The faith that we must have has more to do with what kind of faith it is than with how much faith there is. A small amount of faith, as small as a mustard seed (a very small seed), can accomplish great things if that small amount of faith is placed in the great and mighty God.
i. Little faith can accomplish great things; but great faith can accomplish even greater things. What matters most is what our faith is in, the object of our faith. "The eye cannot see itself. Did you ever see your own eye? In a mirror you may have done so, but that was only a reflection of it. And you may, in like manner, see the evidence of your faith, but you cannot look at the faith itself. Faith looks away to itself to the object of faith, even to Christ." (Spurgeon)
ii. You will say to this mountain, "Move from here to there": "Jesus here in effect calls faith an 'uprooter of mountains,' a phrase current in the Jewish schools for a Rabbi distinguished by legal lore or personal experience." (Bruce)
e. This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting: We show our faith in and reliance on God through prayer and fasting. It displays an occupation with and dependence on Jesus.
i. Great prayer and fasting also display earnestness before God that brings answer to prayer. We often pray dispassionately, almost asking God to care about things we care little or nothing about.
ii. Prayer and fasting demonstrate:
Great willingness to identify with the afflicted person.
Great appreciation of the strength of the demonic world.
Great dependence upon God.
Great desire to fight and sacrifice for the sake of deliverance.
iii. "He that would overcome the devil in certain instances must first overcome heaven by prayer, and conquer himself by self-denial." (Spurgeon)
D. Look forward to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
1. (22-23) Jesus reminds His disciples about His future sufferings.
Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up." And they were exceedingly sorrowful.
a. The Son of Man is about to be betrayed: Though they were frequent, these reminders about Jesus' suffering and resurrection were disbelieved and forgotten by the disciples until after His resurrection (Luke 24:6-8).
b. And the third day He will be raised up: Jesus rarely told His disciples about His coming death without also telling of His coming resurrection. We know that the disciples didn't really comprehend the glorious triumph of the resurrection, because they were exceedingly sorrowful.
2. (24-26) Time to pay the temple tax.
When they had come to Capernaum, those who received the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax?" He said, "Yes." And when he had come into the house, Jesus anticipated him, saying, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers?" Peter said to Him, "From strangers." Jesus said to him, "Then the sons are free."
a. Does your Teacher not pay the temple tax? This was a normal tax or fee applied to every Jewish man. Faithful Jewish men paid this obligation; others sought to escape the responsibility.
i. "It was, however, also a matter of controversy, as the Sadducees disapproved of the tax, and the men of Qumran paid it only once in a lifetime." (France)
ii. "Payment could be made in person at the Passover festival in Jerusalembut collections were made in other areas of Palestine and abroad a month earlier. This incident therefore takes place about a month before Passover." (France)
iii. "After ad 70, when the temple was destroyed, the Romans diverted this tax to the temple of Jupiter in Rome, after which it ceased to be a matter of patriotism and became a symbol of their subjection to a pagan power; the fact that the story is nonetheless recorded is one of the incidental indications that Matthew's Gospel should be dated before ad 70." (France)
b. From whom do the kings of the earth take customs or taxes, from their sons or from strangers? Peter gave the quick and natural answer to this question. But then Jesus explained that He is not liable to pay this tax, because the Father doesn't require it of His own Son.
i. "Rabbis were exempt from paying this tax, and so were the priests in Jerusalem; would Jesus claim a similar exemption? The question assumes that he does pay regularly, and Peter agrees." (France)
3. (27) Jesus pays the tax anyway, and by miraculous provision.
"Nevertheless, lest we offend them, go to the sea, cast in a hook, and take the fish that comes up first. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a piece of money; take that and give it to them for Me and you."
a. Nevertheless, lest we offend them: Jesus was not obligated to pay this tax under the principle He had just discussed with Peter; that as a son, not a servant, He did not have to pay this temple tax. Yet Jesus also recognized the importance of avoiding needless controversy, and so was willing to pay the tax so as to not offend those who questioned.
i. The use of the Greek word skandalizein leads Barclay to write: "Therefore Jesus is saying: 'We must pay so as not to set a bad example to others. We must not only do our duty, we must go beyond duty, in order that we may show others what they ought to do."
b. Cast in a hook: Peter was a professional fisherman who used nets, not a hook and a line. It must have humbled Peter to fish in this manner, and we can imagine that he hoped none of his other fishermen friends saw him trying to catch one fish at a time.
i. "How this money came into the mouth of the fish is a very idle dispute, considering that he that speaks was the Creator of all things." (Poole)
c. Take that and give it to them for Me and you: Jesus trusted in the miraculous provision of God. It's not everyday - or any day - that someone catches a fish and takes a coin out of its mouth. But Jesus used God's provision to pay His taxes.
i. "Thus the great Son pays the tax levied for his Father's house; but he exercises his royal prerogative in the act, and takes the shekel out of the royal treasury. As man he pays, but first as God he causes the fish to bring him the shekel in its mouth." (Spurgeon)
ii. We don't know why Jesus did not tell Peter to provide enough to pay for all the disciples. Perhaps it was implied or understood. Matthew Poole argued that this tribute at this time was only required of Jesus and Peter because it was the collection from the city of Capernaum, and only Peter and Jesus were at this time residents of Capernaum.
iii. Yet He did pay for Peter; as a foreshadow of the work of redemption for all men. Jesus, who did not actually owe the price, paid it nevertheless - and at the same time, with the same price, paid for Peter as well.
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