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Bible Commentaries

John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 17

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-27


The Transfiguration

1-8. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2; Luke 9:28).

St. Leo rightly apprehended the historical situation when he said that in the Transfiguration the principal object aimed at was that in the hearts of the disciples the scandal of the cross might be removed, and that throughout the terrible and humiliating events which were shortly to happen they might be sustained by the remembrance of the revelation which they had been vouchsafed.

The Transfiguration revealed Christ in His divine glory as Son of God. If, as is generally supposed, it took place at night (see Luke 9:37), the spectacle of the face of Christ, shining like the sun in its strength, must have been inexpressibly glorious. His form shone, not like that of Moses with borrowed light, but with a glory which came from within, and was His own. 'We were eye-witnesses of His majesty,' said one of the witnesses (if 2 Peter is authentic). 'And we beheld His glory,' said another, 'the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth': 2 Peter 1:16-18; John 1:14.

Moses and Elijah appeared, the former as representing the Law, and the latter the prophets, and Christ was seen in the midst of them as greater than both. 'The unity of the Old and New Covenant is wonderfully attested by this apparition of the princes of the Old in solemn yet familiar intercourse with the Lord of the New; and not the unity only, but with this unity the subordination of the Old to the New, that “Christ is the end of the Law” (Romans 10:4), and the object to which all prophecy pointed. (Luke 24:44; Acts 10:13; Acts 28:23; Romans 3:21), that therefore the great purpose of these had now been fulfilled; all which was declared in the fact that, after their testimony thus given, Moses and Elias disappear, while Christ only remains' (Trench).

Whether the Transfiguration was a vision seen in trance, or a waking reality, has often been discussed. In favour of the former view it is urged that their eyes were 'heavy with sleep,' but St. Luke, who alone mentions this fact, is careful to add that 'they remained awake throughout,' or at least (for the expression is somewhat ambiguous) that they were thoroughly awake at the actual time of the vision. That it was a real objective occurrence, and not a mere illusion, is shown, (1) by its appearing simultaneously to the three apostles; (2) by the conversation between Christ and the visitors. The appearance of Christ with two of His saints apparently in glorified bodies is an earnest of the time of the 'redemption of the body,' when the Lord Jesus Christ 'shall fashion anew the body of our humiliation, that it may be conformed to the body of His glory.' The narrative in St. Matthew and St. Mark is derived from St. Peter. That in St. Luke is largely independent, and may be in part derived from St. John, the only other surviving witness when St. Luke wrote.

1. After six days] Lk 'after about eight days,' either an independent calculation or another way of reckoning. An high mountain] not Mt. Tabor, the top of which was occupied by a fortress, but more probably Hermon, which is near Caesarea Philippi, and is an 'exceeding high mountain '(9,000 ft.), which Tabor is not (1,800 ft.). 2. Transfigured] lit. 'metamorphosed.' The glory of the Godhead burst through the veil of flesh. St. Luke alone mentions that the change took place while Jesus was praying.

3. Moses and Elijah were recognised through the supernatural power of insight which enabled them to be seen.

4. Three tabernacles] or, 'booths.' Peter wished to prolong the stay of the heavenly visitants, and offered to build them temporary houses on the mountain for their accommodation. He felt that it was good to be there in such glorious surroundings, and by no means wished to descend to earth again, to begin the fatal journey to Jerusalem of which Moses and Elijah were speaking (St. Luke). St. Mark adds: 'He wist not what to answer, for they were sore afraid.'

5. A bright cloud] i.e. the visible glory which, according to Jewish ideas, manifested the divine presence. It is the same as the pillar of cloud and fire in the wilderness, the cloud that filled Solomon's Temple, and the visible glory which, according to the rabbis, rested upon the ark, and was called the 'Shechinah.' This is my beloved Son] Lk 'This is my Son, my chosen.' These words, in which the Father Himself testified to Christ's divine Sonship, are similar to those spoken at the Baptism; but whereas those were spoken in part at least to Christ Himself, these were spoken entirely to the disciples. They contain a striking confirmation of Peters late confession, and further teach what the Apostles found it so hard to learn, that the old dispensation was to be entirely superseded by the new. 'Hear,' said the voice of the Father, 'not Moses and Elias, but my beloved Son.'

9-13. Elijah and the Baptist (Mark 9:11).

9. The vision] lit. 'the thing seen.' The word does not imply the unreality of the occurrence. To no man] Not to the multitudes, lest they should be carried away by political enthusiasm; nor to the other disciples, because they were not yet in a fit state to receive the lesson that it taught. To be witnesses of the Transfiguration was a special reward of the Three for their greater faith and greater spiritual receptiveness. 'To him that hath shall be given.' Risen again] Another clear prophecy of the Resurrection.

10. Why then say the scribes?] Jesus, by forbidding the incident to be spoken of (Matthew 17:9), seemed to attach little importance to the present appearance of Elijah. 'Why then,' ask the disciples, 'do the scribes attach so much importance to it? And why are we forbidden to reply to their leading objection to your Messiahship, by saying that Elijah has come, and that we have seen him.' Elias must first come] The Jews expected a personal return of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah, not another prophet like him: see on Luke 1:17. It was supposed that his peculiar activity would consist in settling ceremonial and ritual questions, doubts and difficulties, and that he would restore to Israel, (1) the golden pot of manna, (2) the vessel containing the anointing oil, (3) the vessel containing the waters of purification, (4) Aaron's rod that budded and bore fruit.

11. Elias truly, etc.] RV 'Elijah indeed cometh, and shall restore all things.' The future 'shall restore' is best explained as a quotation of the exact words of the scribes, and not as a prophecy that Elijah will come in person to prepare the way for Christ's Second Advent, though some understood it to mean this. Restore all things] see Malachi 4:6; Acts 3:21. The Baptist, to whom Jesus alluded, did not in fact 'restore all things,' nor bring about the perfect moral purification anticipated by the prophet Malachi, but that was the fault of his hearers. The possibility of the Baptist's failure was distinctly contemplated by Malachi, for he adds, 'lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.' Malachi spoke of, and Christ understood by his words, a moral restoration of the nation. The scribes looked for the restoration of the pot of manna, stricter ceremonies, and similar frivolities.

12. But have done] Herod, not the scribes, actually killed John, but Herod only did what the scribes would have been glad to do: cp. Luke 7:30, Luke 7:33.

14-20. Healing of the lunatic (epileptic) (Mark 9:14; Luke 9:37). St. Mark's account is much the fullest. Christ descends from the mount to resume His works of benevolence. He who had communed with God and His prophets in the very atmosphere of heaven, now mingles in the common life of men, and concerns Himself with their troubles. He was full of grace as well as truth. Raphael brings this out in his great picture, which depicts the Transfiguration and the healing of the epileptic boy upon the same canvas.

The scribes had taken advantage of Christ's absence to undermine His influence with the multitude, and their designs had been assisted by the failure of His disciples to heal a peculiarly severe case of epilepsy (Mk). The return of Jesus discomfited the scribes. The epileptic was healed, 'and they were all astonished at the majesty of God' (LK). J. Lightfoot remarks, 'It was very usual with the Jews to attribute the more grievous diseases to evil spirits, especially those wherein either the body was distorted, or the mind disturbed or tossed with a frenzy.' The demon of epilepsy, in the case of infants, was called 'Shibta,' in the case of adults, 'Cordicus.' How far the language of Christ about demons is an accommodation to the ideas of the time is discussed at end of Matthew 4.

15. Lunatick] i.e. epileptic, because epileptics were supposed to be affected by the changes of the moon (luna).

17. O faithless] The rebuke is addressed not only to the discipies, but also to the father of the lad and the multitude.

20. Unbelief] RV 'little faith.'

Faith as a grain of mustard] i.e. the smallest amount: see on Matthew 13:31. Ye shall say unto this mountain, etc.] a proverbial expression: see on Matthew 21:21;

21. The RV and Westcott and Hort omit the whole v., but it is too strongly attested to be lightly rejected. The parallel in Mk (RV) omits 'and fasting': see on Mark 9:29.

22, 23. Jesus predicts His passion (Mark 9:30; Luke 9:43).

22. Abode] RV 'were gathering themselves together.' Galilee] mentioned because the last miracle had taken place beyond its borders, near Caesarea Philippi.

23. Sorry] They thought only of the Passion, not of the Resurrection, the allusion to which they did not in the least understand. St. Mark says, 'But they understood not the sayjng, and were afraid to ask him.'

24-27. The halfshekel or Temple tribute (peculiar to St. Matthew). Jesus is asked to pay the usual tax towards the maintenance of the temple services. As son of God He claims exemption, yet pays lest He should be thought to dispise the temple. A significant indication of Christ's conciousness of a special relationship to god, unlike that of other men.

24. They that received tribute money] RV 'the half-shekel' (Gk. didrachama). Every male Isralite above the age of twenty was required by the Law (Exodus 30:11-16; Exodus 38:25-26) to pay half a shekel annually (i.e. about eighteen-pence) towards the maintenance of the Temple worship, as 'a ransom for his soul unto the Lord.' It was usually paid between the fifteenth and twenty-fifth of Adar (March), i.e. about Passover time, so that the money was now considerably overdue.

25. Custom] i.e. taxes on merchandise. Tribute] i.e. taxes on persons and property.

26. Then are the children (RV 'the sons') free] Therefore Jesus, being the Son of the Heavenly King, is free from the Temple tax. 'Children' (sons) is not meant to include the apostles or Christians generally. The plural is only part of the simile.

27. Lest we should offend them] i.e. 'lest we give the collectors, who do not know that I am the Son of God, the false impression that I dishonour the Temple, and so hinder their conversion, go thou,' etc. Offend] RV 'cause to stumble.' A piece of money] lit. 'a stater.' A silver stater was exactly four drachmæ or denarii, i.e. a shekel, enough to pay for two. For me and thee] not 'for us.' The two cases were different. In our Lord's case the payment was a condescension, in Peter's a debt.

There are many authentic historical instances of valuables being found inside fish. Polycrates, tyrant of Samos (6th cent. b.c.), threw into the sea an emerald signet set with gold, the work of the Samian artist Theodorus. A few days later his cook found the signet inside a large fish, which a fisherman had presented to the monarch.

Although the supernatural element in this miracle is not greater than in the other physical miracles, yet its dramatic character, and the absence of the motive of benevolence which so generally characterises our Lord's miracles, suggest to some critics that we have here not strict history, but a mixture of history and tradition, the nucleus of historic fact being that our Lord sent St. Peter to catch a fish, and that this fish, when sold, realised a shekel. This explanation of the incident is quite possible.

 


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Bibliography Information
Dummelow, John. "Commentary on Matthew 17:4". "John Dummelow's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcb/matthew-17.html. 1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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