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Bible Commentaries

Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable
Matthew 17

 

 

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Verse 1

The Synoptic evangelists rarely mentioned exact periods of time. Consequently there was probably a good reason Matthew did so here. Probably he did so to show that what happened on the mountain fulfilled what Jesus predicted would happen in Matthew 16:28. The reference provides a sturdy link between the two events: prediction and fulfillment.

Peter, James , and John constituted Jesus" handpicked inner circle of disciples (cf. Matthew 26:37; Mark 5:37). They were evidently the best prepared and most receptive of the Twelve to receive this Revelation , not the best loved, since Jesus loved all His disciples equally. Interestingly when Moses ascended Mt. Sinai he took with him three companions: Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu ( Exodus 24:1).

The mountain where the Transfiguration happened is traditionally Mt. Tabor, a1 ,900-foot hill that rises conspicuously at the east end of the Jezreel Valley. However, Josephus wrote that there was a walled fortress on its summit then. [Note: Josephus, The Wars . . ., 2:20:6; 4:1:8.] This fact throws doubt on the traditional identification. Other scholars have suggested Mt. Hermon as the site. It was close to Caesarea Philippi, and it was9 ,232feet high. [Note: E.g, Edersheim, The Life . . ., 2:96.] This was probably the location. Another suggestion is Mt. Miron, the highest mountain in Israel between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum at3 ,926 feet (cf. Matthew 17:22; Matthew 17:24). [Note: Walter L. Leifeld, "Theological Motifs in the Transfiguration Narrative," in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, p167 , footnote27.] A fourth possibility is Mt. Arbel on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. It is a high mountain from which the whole of the Sea of Galilee is visible.

Fortunately we do not have to identify the mountain to understand the text. It is significant that the Transfiguration happened on a mountain, however. Moses and Elijah both had intimate encounters with God on mountains, probably Mt. Sinai in both cases ( Exodus 19; Exodus 24; 1 Kings 19). A close encounter with God is what Jesus" three disciples had, too. These were very special revelatory events in all three instances. The location of these "mountain top experiences" also insured privacy.


Verses 1-8

The preview of the kingdom17:1-8 (cf. Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36)

The Transfiguration confirmed three important facts. First, it confirmed to the disciples that the kingdom was indeed future. Second, it confirmed to them that Jesus was indeed the divine Messiah in three ways. The alteration of Jesus" appearance revealed that He was more than a human teacher. His association with Moses and Elijah demonstrated His messianic role. And the voice from heaven declared that He is the Son of God. [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p642-43.] Third, it confirmed to them that Messiah had to suffer.


Verse 2

Jesus underwent a metamorphosis. The Greek word that Matthew used is metamophoo meaning "to transform or change in form." It was not just His appearance that changed, but His essential form became different. [Note: Lenski, pp651-51.] Probably Jesus assumed His post-resurrection body that was similar to, but somewhat different from, His pre-resurrection body (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18; Revelation 1:16).

Matthew"s statement that Jesus was transfigured before the disciples indicates that the transformation was for their benefit. Jesus" face shone, as Moses" face had, and His garments became as white as light because they radiated God"s glory (cf. Exodus 34:29-30). Moses, however, reflected God"s glory whereas Jesus radiated His own glory.

". . . wherever leukos [white] is used here or elsewhere in the New Testament in connection with clothing it always has reference either to that of angels (beings surrounded with glory), or else to the garments of the saints who enter into a glorified state in heaven." [Note: Joseph B. Bernardin, "The Transfiguration," Journal of Biblical Theology52 (October1933):185.]

This vision of Jesus would have strengthened the disciples" faith that He was the Messiah. It would also have helped them understand that the sufferings He said He would experience would not be final ( Matthew 16:21). They would see Him glorified "coming in His kingdom" ( Matthew 16:28).


Verse 3

"Behold" again introduced something amazing (cf. Matthew 1:20; Matthew 2:13; et al.). Matthew probably mentioned Moses first because to the Jews he was the more important figure. Moses was the model for the eschatological Prophet whom God would raise up, specifically, Messiah ( Deuteronomy 18:18). Elijah was the prophesied forerunner of Messiah ( Malachi 4:5-6; cf. Matthew 3:1-3; Matthew 11:7-10; Matthew 17:9-13). Both prophets had unusual ends. Perhaps Moses represented those who will be in the kingdom who had died and Elijah those whom God had translated. [Note: Walvoord, Matthew: . . ., p130.] The disciples may represent those there who had not died. [Note: Barbieri, p59.]

Both Moses and Elijah played key roles in God"s plan for Israel. Moses established the (Mosaic) covenant under which Israel proceeded to live, and Elijah led the people back to that covenant and God after their worst apostasy. Both experienced a vision of God"s glory on a mountain. Both experienced rejection by Israel ( Acts 7:35; Acts 7:37; 1 Kings 19:1-9; cf. Matthew 17:12). Moses was the greatest figure associated with the law, and Elijah was arguably the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. The disciples would later learn that Jesus was greater than either of these great men ( Matthew 17:5; Matthew 17:8). However now the disciples saw Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus.

"The abiding validity of the Law and the Prophets as "fulfilled" by Christ (Mt. Matthew 17:17) is symbolized by the harmonious converse which He holds with their representatives, Moses and Elijah." [Note: M"Neile, p251.]


Verse 4

In addressing Jesus, Peter called Him "Lord," a title of general respect (cf. Matthew 7:21; et al.). That title would later take on the idea of unqualified supremacy when applied to Jesus, but Peter"s appreciation of Jesus was probably not mature enough to recognize that yet. The proof of this is Peter"s rebuke of Jesus ( Matthew 16:22) and his putting Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah here.

Peter did not speak because someone had spoken to him. In countries with monarchies it was and is often customary for subjects to speak to the monarch in his or her presence only if the monarch first initiates conversation. He evidently spoke because he perceived the greatness of the occasion, and he wanted to offer a suggestion. The tabernacles (Gr. skenas) Peter suggested erecting were temporary structures that the Jews pitched for the feast of Tabernacles every year. This was a seven-day feast that looked forward to the time when Israel would dwell in permanent peace and rest in the Promised Land ( Leviticus 23:42-43). It anticipated kingdom conditions. Probably Peter meant that since the messianic age was apparently going to begin soon he would make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, subject to Jesus" approval.


Verse 5

The cloud was bright, Matthew said. This was undoubtedly the shekinah glory of God. God had hidden Himself in a cloud through which He spoke to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai ( Exodus 19:16). He led the Israelites with it after the Exodus ( Exodus 13:21-22), and it manifested His glory to His people in the wilderness ( Exodus 16:10; Exodus 24:15-18; Exodus 40:34-38). The prophets predicted that Messiah would come to set up His kingdom with clouds and that clouds would overshadow the kingdom ( Psalm 97:2; Isaiah 4:5; Daniel 7:13). [Note: See Richard D. Patterson, "The Imagery of Clouds in the Scriptures," Bibliotheca Sacra165:657 (January-March2008):13-27.] If the three disciples remembered these passages, they would have seen another reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. The presence of the bright cloud should have reminded them of the closeness of God"s presence and linked Jesus with God in their thinking.

The cloud may have "overshadowed" (NASB) or "enveloped" (NIV) them. The Greek word epeskiasen permits either translation (cf. Exodus 40:35). However, Luke wrote that they entered into the cloud ( Luke 9:34). The voice from the cloud essentially repeated what the voice from heaven had said at Jesus" baptism ( Matthew 3:17). It confirmed Jesus" identity as both God"s Son and His Suffering Servant (cf. Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 42:1). Thus the voice from the cloud, God"s voice, identified Jesus as superior to Moses and Elijah. Previously the voice from heaven ( Matthew 3:16-17) was for Jesus" benefit, but now it was for the benefit of Peter, James , and John.

The words "Hear Him" or "Listen to Him" with Moses present indicated that Jesus was the prophet greater than Moses whom Moses predicted would come ( Deuteronomy 18:15-18; cf. Acts 3:22-23; Acts 7:37). God had said through Moses of that prophet, "You shall listen to Him" ( Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus was the climax of biblical Revelation , and now people should listen to what He said (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2).

"The voice is that of God, and for the second time [cf. Matthew 3:17] God bursts into the world of Matthew"s story as "actor" and expresses his evaluative point of view concerning Jesus" identity." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p79.]

"The injunction to hear Jesus is an exhortation...that the disciples are to attend carefully to Jesus" words regarding the necessity both of his own going the way of suffering ( Matthew 16:21) and of their emulating him ( Matthew 16:24)." [Note: Ibid, p140.]


Verses 6-8

This revelation had the same effect on Peter, James , and John that the revelation God gave the Israelites at Sinai did ( Exodus 20:18-21; Deuteronomy 4:33; Hebrews 12:18-21) and that the revelation God gave Daniel had on him (cf. Daniel 10:8-12). When people see the glory of God revealed and realize that they are in His presence, they feel terror. The Transfiguration was mainly for the disciples" benefit. Jesus brought the three disciples to the mountaintop, the Transfiguration happened before them, and the voice spoke to them. The disciples did not understand the significance of all they saw immediately. However, it was a revelation that God continued to help them understand, especially after the Resurrection (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-19). Immediately it did give them a deeper conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. [Note: See James A. Penner, "Revelation and Discipleship in Matthew"s Transfiguration Account," Bibliotheca Sacra152:606 (April-June1995):201-10.]

"The purpose of the transfiguration was primarily confirmation. It confirmed several vital facts. One of these was the reality of a future kingdom. The very fact that the transfiguration took place attests this. The presence of Old Testament saints on earth with Christ in a glorified state is the greatest possible verification of the kingdom promises in the Old Testament. The reality of this kingdom is also evident from the connection of the transfiguration with the promise of Matthew 16:27-28. The Son of Man was going to come one day to judge the world and establish His kingdom ( Matthew 16:27). As an earnest of the coming of the kingdom three disciples were permitted to see the Son of Man in His kingdom ( Matthew 16:28). This is exactly the manner in which Peter uses the transfiguration ( 2 Peter 1:16-21)." [Note: Toussaint, Behold the . . ., pp210-11. See also S. Lewis Johnson Jeremiah , "The Transfiguration of Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra124:494 (April-June1967):133-43.]

Why did Jesus let only Peter, James , and John witness His transfiguration? Perhaps they were farther along in their faith than the other disciples. They were, after all, the core group of His disciples. Perhaps it was to avoid further misunderstanding among the disciples as a whole (cf. Matthew 17:9).


Verse 9

This is the last of five times Matthew recorded Jesus telling His disciples to keep silent (cf. Matthew 8:4; Matthew 9:30; Matthew 12:16; Matthew 16:20). This time He told them that they could tell others after His resurrection since this is the first time He told them to keep quiet after He had revealed that He would rise again. The proclamation of the King and the kingdom would begin again after the Resurrection. Temporary silence was important because of popular political views of Messiah and because the signal proof of Jesus" messiahship would be His resurrection, the sign of Jonah.


Verses 9-13

The clarification of the kingdom"s herald17:9-13 (cf. Mark 9:9-13; Luke 9:36)


Verse 10

The disciples in view seem to be Peter, James , and John (cf. Matthew 17:14). It seems unlikely that the disciples viewed Elijah"s appearance in the Transfiguration as the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6. If they did, their question would have been, Why did Messiah appear before Elijah when the scribes taught the reverse order of appearances? Moreover Elijah"s appearance in the Transfiguration did not turn the hearts of the people back to God.

Peter, James , and John"s question evidently arose over an apparent inconsistency involving Jesus" announcement of His death. Elijah"s appearance on the mountain probably triggered it. Elijah was to come and turn the hearts of the people back to God before Messiah appeared ( Malachi 4:5-6). If that restoration happened, how could Jesus die at the hands of Israel"s leaders ( Matthew 16:21)? The disciples were struggling to understand how Messiah"s death could fit into what they believed about the forerunner"s ministry.

Notice that from the Transfiguration on these disciples had no further doubts about Jesus" messiahship.


Verse 11-12

Jesus confirmed the scribes" teaching about Elijah coming, but He said another factor needed consideration. John the Baptist"s ministry had been a success as far as it had gone (cf. Matthew 3:5-6; Matthew 14:5), but he had "restored all things" to only a limited degree. The scribes perceived the ministry of Messiah"s forerunner correctly, but they did not realize that John the Baptist had been that forerunner ( Matthew 11:10). Elijah had already come in John the Baptist. However, Israel"s leaders had rejected him, and he had died without accomplishing the complete restoration of Israel. John had not fulfilled his mission but died doing so. Likewise Jesus would die at His enemies" hands without fulfilling His mission of establishing the kingdom. John had restored all things as much as he could and yet died. Jesus, too, would fulfill His mission as much as He could and yet die. This was the answer to the disciples" question.

"A suffering Forerunner is to be followed by a suffering Messiah." [Note: Plummer, p240.]

"In other words, just as the messianic forerunner"s coming had two phases: John the Baptizer (one to suffer and die), and Elijah the Prophet (one of restoration and glory), so also would the Messiah"s coming. The response to the forerunner foreshadowed the response to the Messiah and necessitated the postponement of the fulfillment specifically promised to national Israel." [Note: J. Randall Price, "Prophetic Postponement in Daniel 9 and Other Texts," in Issues in Dispensationalism, p134.]

God predicted through Malachi that a Jewish revival would precede Messiah"s kingdom ( Malachi 4:5-6), and the revival did not come. Consequently that revival and the kingdom must still be future.


Verse 13

The disciples now understood that John the Baptist initially fulfilled the prophecy about Elijah returning. However, their continuing problems with Jesus" death seem to indicate that they did not really understand that He had to die. This incident reveals another step of understanding that the disciples took, but it was only a small step.


Verses 14-16

The Greek word gonypeteo, translated "falling on his knees" or "knelt," suggests humility and entreaty, not necessarily worship (cf. Matthew 27:29; Mark 1:40; Mark 10:17). Likewise "Lord" was perhaps only a respectful address (cf. Matthew 8:2). The young man"s epilepsy was evidently a result of demon possession ( Matthew 17:18). The impotent disciples were some or all of the nine who did not go up the mountain for the Transfiguration.

There are many instances of the disciples" failures in this section of Matthew (cf. Matthew 14:16-21; Matthew 14:26-31; Matthew 15:16; Matthew 15:23; Matthew 15:33; Matthew 16:5; Matthew 16:22; Matthew 17:4; Matthew 17:10-11). Earlier they had great miraculous powers ( Matthew 10:1; Matthew 10:8). However, their power was not their own; it came from Jesus. As Jesus progressively trained the disciples, He also withdrew some of their power to teach them that it came from Him and related to their trust in Him ( Matthew 14:16-17; Matthew 14:31; Matthew 15:5; Matthew 15:8).

"The sovereign authority of Jesus the Messiah in healing and exorcism is unique; his disciples can draw on it only by faith, and that is what they have failed to do in this case." [Note: France, The Gospel . . ., p659.]


Verses 14-21

The exorcism of an epileptic boy17:14-21 (cf. Mark 9:14-29; Luke 9:37-43 a)

The term "exorcism" means the action of exorcizing or expelling an evil spirit by adjuration or the performance of certain rites. In Jesus" case this involved His authoritatively commanding a demon or demons to depart with no appeal to a higher authority or incantations, which are common in exorcisms that other people perform.

"The contrast between the glory of the Transfiguration and Jesus" disciples" tawdry unbelief (see Matthew 17:17) is part of the mounting tension that magnifies Jesus" uniqueness as he moves closer to his passion and resurrection." [Note: Carson, " Matthew ," p390.]

It also recalls Moses" experience of descending Mt. Sinai only to find the Israelites failing by worshipping the golden calf ( Exodus 32:15-20).


Verses 14-27

3. Instruction about the King"s principles17:14-27

Jesus" instruction of His disciples in view of the King"s coming death and resurrection and the kingdom"s postponement continued. Jesus had taught them about His person ( Matthew 16:13-17) and His program ( Matthew 16:18 to Matthew 17:13). He now taught them principles that clarified His work and His person further.


Verse 17-18

Jesus" rebuke recalls Moses" words to Israel in Deuteronomy 32:5; Deuteronomy 32:20. Unbelief characterized the generation of Jews that had rejected Jesus, and now it marked His disciples to a lesser extent. Their failure to believe stemmed from moral failure to recognize the truth rather than from lack of evidence, as the combination of "perverse" and "unbelieving" makes clear (cf. Philippians 2:15). The disciples, too, were slow to believe, slower than they should have been. Jesus" two rhetorical questions expressed frustration and criticism.

"Jesus has accepted that he will be rejected by the official leadership of Israel ( Matthew 16:21), but to find himself let down even by his own disciples evokes a rare moment of human emotion on the part of the Son of God." [Note: Ibid, p661.]


Verses 19-21

The "we" in the disciples" question is in the emphatic position in the Greek text. The problem, as Jesus explained, was their weak faith (Gr. oligopistia). It was not the quantity of their faith that was deficient but its quality. In spite of the revelation of Jesus that they had received, the disciples had not responded to it with trust as they should have done. They had some faith in Jesus, but it should have been stronger.

"Much earlier, Jesus had endowed the disciples with authority to exorcise demons as part of their mission to Israel ( Matthew 10:1; Matthew 10:8). Consequently, he expects them to draw on this authority. But if they approach the tasks of their mission forgetful of their empowerment and encumbered by a crisis of trust, they render themselves ineffectual." [Note: Kingsbury, Matthew as . . ., p141.]

". . . the expression, "small as a mustard-seed," had become proverbial, and was used, not only by our Lord, but frequently by the Rabbis, to indicate the smallest amount . . ." [Note: Edersheim, The Life . . ., 1:592-93.]

Removing mountains is a proverbial figure of speech for overcoming great difficulties (cf. Isaiah 40:4; Isaiah 49:11; Isaiah 54:10; Matthew 21:21-22; Mark 11:23; Luke 17:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2). In this context the difficulties in view involved exercising the authority that Jesus had delegated to them to heal people. The disciples were treating the gift of healing that Jesus had given them as a magical ability that worked regardless of their faith in Him. Now they learned that their power depended on proper response to Revelation , namely, dependent confidence in Jesus to work through them to heal. Continual dependence on Jesus rather than simply belief in who He is constitutes strong faith (cf. Mark 6:5-6).

"Nothing is impossible for the disciple of Jesus who with faith works within the established will of God. It is therefore the case that not every failure in the performance or reception of healing is the result solely of insufficient faith." [Note: Hagner, Matthew 14-28 , p506.]

Matthew 17:21 does not occur in several important ancient manuscripts. Evidently copyists assimilated it from Mark 9:29 : "And He said to them, "This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.""

The lesson of this miracle for the disciples was that simple belief that Jesus is the King may be adequate when a person first realizes who Jesus is. It can even result in spectacular miracles. However with the privilege of added revelation about the person and work of Jesus comes increased responsibility to trust totally in Him. Failure to do this weakens faith and restricts Jesus" work through the disciple (cf. John 15:5).


Verse 22

Matthew"s reference to time was general. All the disciples were again with Jesus in Galilee. Jesus introduced the subject of His passion again, which the Transfiguration and the events that had followed it had interrupted.

Jesus" statement was direct, but it was also somewhat ambiguous. The Greek word paradidosthai means either "to hand over" or "to betray" depending on the context, which is no help here. Furthermore this verb is in the passive tense so the perpetrator of this action, whomever it would be, remained hidden. In typical fashion Jesus gave His disciples more information, but He did not give them all He could have. More information would have created questions and problems that He did not want them to face yet. This is the first time that Matthew recorded Jesus announcing that He would be betrayed. The Son of Man would be betrayed into the hands of men.


Verse 22-23

Understanding Jesus" death and resurrection17:22-23 (cf. Mark 9:30-32; Luke 9:43-45)

Jesus next gave His disciples His second clear announcement of His passion (cf. Matthew 16:21-24). The reference to it in Matthew 17:12 was only a passing one. He had alluded to it in veiled terms before He articulated it clearly (cf. Matthew 9:15; Matthew 10:38; Matthew 12:40).


Verse 23

The disciples" response shows that they understood and did not like to hear what lay ahead. They grasped Jesus" death but did not yet understand His resurrection. It was not until after Jesus arose from the dead that they understood the Resurrection. Had they understood His resurrection now they would not have been sorrowful.


Verse 24

The two-drachma tax was a Jewish tax that every male Jew between20,50 years of age had to pay toward the maintenance of the temple and its services ( Exodus 30:13). There was no two-drachma coin in circulation at this time, so two adults often went together and paid one shekel that was worth four drachmas. [Note: Carson, " Matthew ," p393. Cf. Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 3:8:2; 18:9:1; and Mishnah Shekalim.]


Verses 24-27

Appreciating Jesus" sonship17:24-27


Verse 25-26

Jesus turned this inquiry from the tax collector into a teaching situation for Peter and presumably the other disciples. Jesus changed the tax from a religious one to a civil one to make His point clearer. The principle is the same in both cases, but it was easier to illustrate in the civil arena of life.

Jesus" point was that as the sons of kings are exempt from the taxes their fathers impose, so He was exempt from the taxes His Father imposed. He meant the temple tax. The temple really belonged to God ( Malachi 3:1). Jesus was teaching Peter the implications of His deity. He was not teaching Peter to fulfill his civic responsibility.


Verse 27

Even though He was exempt, Jesus would pay the tax because He did not want to offend anyone needlessly (cf. Matthew 5:29). Failure to pay the tax would create unnecessary problems. Because Peter was one of Jesus" disciples and one of God"s children through faith in Jesus, he also had no obligation to pay the temple tax (cf. Matthew 12:1-8). Paul later followed Jesus" example of not giving offense in a similar situation ( 1 Corinthians 8:13; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Corinthians 9:22), as all God"s children should.

God had declared Jesus His Son clearly in the Transfiguration ( Matthew 17:5) as well as at Jesus" baptism. Yet Jesus" glory remained veiled as He moved toward the Cross. This established a pattern for His disciples (cf. Matthew 18:1-5). Since the sons of God are exempt from maintaining the temple and its service, the end of this system of worship appeared to be approaching, as it was. Here is another indication that Jesus ended the Mosaic Law ( Matthew 15:11). Again the disciples failed to grasp the major significance of these things until after the Resurrection.

What an impression this miracle must have made on Peter as a fisherman and on his fellow fishermen disciples! Imagine, not only catching a fish but a fish with money in its mouth. This was one of many miracles that Jesus performed for Peter. He healed Peter"s mother-in-law ( Matthew 8:14-15), helped him catch fish ( Luke 5:1-9), enabled him to walk on water ( Matthew 14:22-33), healed Malchus" ear ( Matthew 26:47-56), and delivered him from prison ( Acts 12). No wonder Peter could write, "Casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you" ( 1 Peter 5:7).

Jesus alone could obtain the stater (shekel) as He did. Again the sinless Man fulfilled the command of the Adamic Covenant to exercise dominion over the fish of the sea (cf. Matthew 8:27; Matthew 14:25). Even though He was free from the Law"s demands, being God"s Song of Solomon , He submitted to them and miraculously provided for His disciples to do so. This demonstration of humility and power is even more impressive following as it does an announcement of Jesus" passion.

Jesus proceeded to teach His disciples the importance of following the examples that He provided for them in the next section (ch18).

 


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Bibliography Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Matthew 17:4". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dcc/matthew-17.html. 2012.

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