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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 17

Contending for the FaithContending for the Faith

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Verse 1

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

And after six days: The events that are about to transpire are some of the most remarkable in all of the New Testament. Only a few days earlier, Peter verbally affirmed that "Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (16:16). Now, after having six days to contemplate the colossal weight of this truth, three of the disciples are about to encounter a visual confirmation of the fact.

There is an apparent difference in chronology between Matthew’s account and Luke’s. Matthew notes that these events occurred "six" days afterwards whereas Luke 9:28 says the event occurred after "eight" days. There is no discrepancy, however, because Matthew apparently counts only the intervening days between the events of Matthew 16:28; Matthew 17:2 while Luke includes both the day on which Matthew 16:28 occurrs and the day on which Matthew 17:2 occurrs.

Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother: The mountain scene provides more than just proof of Jesus’ divinity—it provides encouragement. Shortly after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, he refused to accept Jesus’ prophecy of His fate in Jerusalem. Jesus responded to Peter’s faithlessness with one of His most severe rebukes: "Get behind me Satan!" Now, with the dark scenes of Jesus’ death lurking in the apostles’ minds, they need reassurance. Three of them will come to know firsthand that death is no match for God. If God can transfigure His Son and bring Moses and Elijah from the realm of departed souls, He can also raise Jesus from the grave.

The fact that Jesus takes only Peter, James, and John shows us the fellowship and closeness He has with them in particular. The "inner three," as they are sometimes called, are Jesus’ closest companions. They are the only three who witness Jesus in this glory, and, in a few days, they will be the only ones to witness His agony in Gethsemane (26:37).

Their presence provides more than companionship. Fowler notes that "the choice of three men is to provide witnesses sufficient in number to establish the reality of the fact in any court (Vol. 3, 584). By recording the names of the three, Matthew establishes to his Jewish audience the truth of the event: In the mouth of two or three witnesses every word is established (Deuteronomy 19:15; Matthew 18:16; John 8:17; Acts 10:41).

and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart: Matthew does not mention the name of the mountain on which this grand event occurs, but most likely it was one of the spurs of Hermon. Just days earlier, Peter made his confession in the northernmost region of Israel near Caesarea Philippi, a city nestled at the base of the towering Mt. Hermon. To describe one of its spurs as "a high mountain" is geographically appropriate.

Some suppose the transfiguration site was Mt. Tabor in Lower Galilee, but this tradition is improbable for several reasons. Although the six intervening days give ample time for Jesus and His followers to travel back to Lower Galilee, it seems unlikely they would do so. Previously Jesus departed from there due to the opposition (16:4). Why would He return for the Transfiguration? In addition, Mark records that after the transfiguration, Jesus and His disciples pass quietly back through Galilee to Capernaum. It is from here that Jesus sets His sights on Jerusalem (Mark 9:30-33). It seems unlikely that Jesus would make a hasty journey to Tabor only to return north to Capernaum. Furthermore, Tabor is not a "high mountain," and there was likely a fortified city on the top of Mt. Tabor during this period (Broadus).

Verse 2

And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

And was transfigured before them: No doubt, the synoptic writers struggle to describe this glorious event. Matthew says that Jesus is "transfigured" before them. The Greek is from metamorphoo from where we get the English word "metamorphosis." Instantly, Jesus is changed from one form to another. The human form of their Master suddenly pales to the radiance of His divinity. For a brief and glorious moment, the face of God comes shining through.

and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light: Matthew describes the scene in terms of "light." Mark says His clothes were "white like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them" (Mark 9:3). Luke simply says His face was altered and His robe became white and glistening (Luke 9:29). Regardless of the evangelist’s choice of words, the point is Jesus’ "radiance." The scene before us is one of splendor and beauty. Jesus is illuminated much like the Shekinah glory of God, which dwelled between cherubim in the Most Holy Place during the Mosaic Dispensation. Perhaps John has this scene in mind when he writes, "We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Surely the event is still fresh in Peter’s mind years later as he reminisces about what he had seen on the "holy mountain." To those who enjoy like precious faith, a more mature Peter writes of Jesus, "For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (2 Peter 1:17).

Matthew’s account is significant in light of his Jewish audience. Many centuries earlier, the great lawgiver Moses climbed a mountain and was brushed by God’s presence. Exodus 34:29 says that upon his descent from Sinai, Moses’ face shined so brightly that the people feared. However glorious Moses was, his glory pales in comparison to the luminous brilliance of our Lord (2 Corinthian 3:13). This fact serves to remind us that a greater than Moses is here.

Verse 3

And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias: Why do Moses and Elijah appear during the transfiguration instead of Abraham, David, Isaiah, or one of the other Old Testament sages? Indeed, why does God present anyone at all besides Jesus?

The answer is found in the identity of the two who appear with Jesus. Moses is Israel’s lawgiver. From Sinai, he mediates God’s covenant (Exodus 20:19; Galatians 3:19). To speak of Moses, therefore, is to speak of the Law. In fact, the entire Old Testament canon is often referred to as Moses and the Prophets. Israel is greatly indebted to him.

Elijah epitomizes the prophetic ministry. If ever there was a man of iron resolve, it was Elijah. Macarthur observes, "This prophet was zeal personified, a godly man of unmatched courage, boldness, and fearlessness. He had a heart for God, he walked with God, and, more than any other Old Testament Saint, he was the instrument of God’s miracle-working power" (65).

The appearance of Moses and Elijah, therefore, serves to reveal at least two great truths. First, their appearance assures the apostles that Jesus’ death is in perfect harmony with the Old Testament. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are the final piece in God’s redemptive puzzle. All that Jesus is and does serves to fulfill the Law and Prophets (Luke 24:25-26).

Second, the appearance of Moses and Elijah serves to prove that Jesus is greater than the Law. Although in the midst of these great men, in reality Jesus stands alone. Moses and Elijah stand face to face with their Creator as He ushers in a new era. "The Law and the Prophets were until John," Jesus says, "but since that time the kingdom is preached" (Luke 16:16). John will later write, "Law came by Moses but grace and truth by Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Jesus now serves as supreme lawgiver and prophet. Deuteronomy predicts a time when such a Prophet will arise to take Moses’ place—now it has been fulfilled (Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22-26; Acts 7:37).

talking with him: We are not told the minute details of the conversation that occurs between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, but what we do know says it all. From a human perspective, one might expect men of this magnitude to discuss the events of history, changes in human society, or the highlights of their individual ministries. This is not the case. Only one topic has any lasting relevance. Only one act can satisfy God’s holy justice. Only one sacrifice will take away the sins of the world—the death of the Lamb of God (John 1:29). With characteristic clarity, Luke simply says they "spoke of his departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31).

The Greek word (exodus—"departure") that Luke uses to describe Jesus’ death is the same term from which we get "exodus." The connections between Jesus’ death and the Israelite exodus are striking. Centuries earlier, Moses led Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and in a few days Jesus will lead His people out of the slavery of sin. Centuries earlier, Moses contemplated the daunting task of leading his people out while on a mountain, Mt. Horeb, and now Jesus stands on His mountain, contemplating the same feat. Centuries earlier, Moses had battled a wicked pharaoh, yet now Jesus battles the one who had been behind that wickedness, Satan himself. Finally, just as Moses descended the mountain to journey toward Egypt after speaking with God, so now Jesus will enter His own Egypt (Jerusalem) to pay the price of liberty.

Verse 4

Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus: Peter, the most outspoken of Jesus’ disciples, speaks out in awe and amazement. We do not know how long the disciples have watched in enraptured silence, but Luke notes that Peter speaks just as the event is about to end (Luke 9:33). As the heavenly visitors are departing, Peter no doubt realizes that the encounter is nearly over and speaks in attempt to prolong the event. Luke says that Peter speaks "not realizing what he was saying." Mark adds, "For they were greatly afraid" (Mark 9:6). Since Mark might have been a student of the apostle Peter, it is probable that he received this piece of information from Peter himself.

Lord, it is good for us to be here: We can almost hear the excitement in Peter’s voice as he blurts forth this phrase. Peter literally says, "It is excellent for us to be here." What he and his companions are experiencing is not of the natural realm. Lenski is right in noting that Peter must have felt as if they are very near heaven (657).

if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: It is difficult to know exactly what Peter is thinking as he makes this unsolicited suggestion. Perhaps he is offering genuine oriental hospitality. If angelic guests have enjoyed the comforts of Abraham, why should he not offer these heavenly visitors the same? But if this is his motivation, it is a strange proposal in reference to beings from the other world (Broadus 371). More than likely, Peter has something else in mind—something that centers on the Feast of Tabernacles, which the Jews will soon celebrate in Jerusalem.

The Feast of Tabernacles commemorates two things for the Jews: the ingathering of the summer crops (Exodus 23:16; Leviticus 23:39; Deuteronomy 16:13) and the dwelling in booths ("tabernacles") as Israel journeyed from Egypt. The celebration begins on the 15th day of Tisri (September or early October) and is to autumn what Passover is to spring. Just as Passover marks the beginning of the summer dews, so Tabernacles (Booths) marks the start of winter rains. Edersheim notes that during the eight-day festival, booths of leafy branches are erected everywhere, and people live in them to commemorate their forefather’s ordeal in the wilderness (Life, Book VI, 149).

"Tabernacles" is more than a national festival. For many Jews it points to a future time when, in the Messianic Kingdom, the remnant of the nations will join with Israel in the Great Messianic Feast (Zechariah 14:16). Since Jesus’ transfiguration likely occurs during the same month as the festival, this probably leads Peter to suggest the building of booths. Furthermore, since the national feast is closely connected to the historical exodus, Peter might have mistakenly connected Jesus’ "departure" (exodos) to the upcoming celebration in Jerusalem (see comments on verse three).

As is so often the case, the disciples simply do not understand the magnitude of Jesus’ ministry. The transfiguration is not the beginning of some Messianic festival, for much has yet to be fulfilled. Jesus has to die, His kingdom has to be established, and God’s judgment has to occur.

Verse 5

While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

While he yet spake: There is no indication that Jesus acknowledges Peter, yet Peter’s words illicit a response. God the Father intervenes before Peter can finish speaking. Previously, when Peter hinted that his Master need not suffer, Jesus rebuked him (16:22-23); now it is God’s turn. Peter’s suggestion to build booths hints of retreat from what lies ahead in Jerusalem. God’s voice from the cloud sets the record straight.

a bright cloud overshadowed them: The cloud that overshadows them is no ordinary cloud. Broadus notes that clouds are usually dark, but this one is full of light, which in the night must have been a sublime spectacle (Broadus 372). As if the transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah are not strange enough, the mountaintop is now shrouded in hazy illumination. Luke adds that the disciples are fearful as they enter the cloud (9:34).

It is not surprising that God appears in a cloud. From ancient times, the cloud has been a familiar part of Israel’s dealings with her Creator. At Sinai, God’s glory was veiled in a cloud (Exodus 24:16; Exodus 34:5). Later, upon completion of the tabernacle, a cloud enveloped it as the Lord’s glory descended (Exodus 40:34), and it was a cloud that led Israel by day just as fire led her by night (Exodus 40:38). On various occasions, the cloud also served to vindicate the mission of God’s servants. For example, after Aaron instructed the congregation of Israel, the Lord appeared in the cloud (Exodus 16:10), and when Moses’ authority was questioned, God vindicated him by appearing in a pillar of cloud (Numbers 12:5). For Israel, therefore, the "cloud" is a symbol of God’s leadership and sovereignty. On the mount of transfiguration it symbolizes the same.

and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him: God’s statement is simple yet profound, clear yet mysterious. The fact that Jesus is God’s "beloved Son" serves as the key to redemptive history. If the Father is deity, then so too is His Son. If Jesus is God’s Son, then He supersedes Moses and Elijah. Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house, but Jesus, as Son, is over His house (Hebrews 3:1-6). Elijah epitomizes the prophetic ministry, but now God speaks through His Son (Hebrews 1:1).

It is not surprising that God is "well pleased" with Jesus since it is on Jesus’ shoulders that the redemptive plan is successfully laid. Paul captures this idea well when he writes, "And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name" (Philippians 2:8-9).

What father would not be proud of such a son? Though by this time in Jesus’ ministry the popular acclaim of the masses has dulled to a whisper, the fickle crowds are no measure of success. Jesus is pleasing to the Father, and this is all that counts. Fowler notes, "At Jesus’ baptism the Father had expressed His approval of the Son’s determination to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15; Matthew 3:17). Here, He repeats His expression of approval, now of the Son’s determination to give Himself to death as humanity’s Redeemer (Matthew 16:21-28)" (598).

Verse 6

And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.

By now, Peter has probably completely forgotten about building booths. God’s glory envelopes the disciples, and His voice drives their terrified faces to the ground in true oriental fashion. Like Israel of old gathered round about Sinai, the disciples feel the breath of God and are breathless. God’s presence is overwhelming.

There is a grand lesson in the reaction of the apostles: When a person truly meets God, he cannot help but be overwhelmed by His power and majesty. Peter has been silenced, and he and his fellows are driven to their knees in terror. There is no "casual worship" going on here.

Verse 7

And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid

In loving gentleness, Jesus now stoops to touch the prostrate disciples. The scene has faded, the glimpse into the heavenly realm is over, and now it is time to go. They have much work to do, and a long road of suffering and glory lies ahead. They cannot stay on the mountaintop forever. A valley beckons.

Verse 8

And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

Apparently the disciples have remained in their prostrate position from the very moment God began speaking. Now, at the touch of Jesus, they lift their heads. Mark notes that the disciples look around (9:8), probably in anticipation of catching yet another glimpse of Moses and Elijah. Jesus stands alone in their midst.

That the disciples are left alone with the Lord is significant. When Peter had wanted to build booths to keep Moses and Elijah forever in their presence, God responded firmly: Jesus is the final authority, "Hear Him." It is theologically symbolic that the disciples lift their eyes and find only Jesus. Just as Moses and Elijah have faded from view, so also do the Law and the Prophets, leaving Jesus and His words to stand alone as the ultimate authority.

Verse 9

And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

And as they came down from the mountain: It is impossible to determine the exact time the group descends the mountain. Depending on their altitude, it is possible that they camp on the way down. Luke’s narrative tells of a great crowd that meets Jesus the "next day, when they have come down from the mountain" (Luke 9:37). There is little evidence as to whether the transfiguration occurs during the day or night. Nevertheless, because the disciples are asleep when the event begins (Luke 9:32) and because darkness is a suitable backdrop for the radiance of the scene, it is likely that the transfiguration occurs sometime during the middle of the night.

Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead: At once Jesus tests the disciples’ willingness to "hear Him." Jesus commits them to silence until after His resurrection. Luke indicates that they obey Jesus’ command (9:36).

The command for silence is much the same as in 16:20. Due to opposition and perhaps even the faithlessness of the apostles, the scene is best left to the hearts of those who witness it. Mark says, "So they kept this word to themselves, questioning, what the rising from the dead meant" (9:10). Mark’s comment probably does not mean that the three did not discuss the event even among themselves, but rather that they spoke none of these things to others. The longer they thought about and discussed the event among themselves, the more joyously they would speak of it when the proper time arrived (McGarvey 151).

Verse 10

And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?

The rabbis maintain that before the Messiah ushers in his kingdom, the prophet Elijah will come. Israel will regain her spiritual fervor, and a glorious reign will begin. Some believe that Elijah will personally anoint the Messiah.

This belief is based not only on tradition but also on Scripture. Malachi predicted, "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse" (4:5-6).

Jesus does not deny this truth. What the Jews fail to realize, however, is the fact that this prophecy is a "spiritual prediction" not a "literal prediction." The spirit and power of Elijah were to rest upon John the Baptist, just as the angel prophesied at his birth. John’s task will be to turn the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16-17; compare Matthew 11:10 with Malachi 3:1).

Having seen Elijah on the mountain, the disciples are naturally curious. If Elijah must come first, why has he appeared at so late a date? They believe Jesus is the Messiah, and He had already been with them three years. Elijah, on the other hand, has just appeared moments earlier. Their question is logical: "On what basis do the scribes teach that Elijah must come first?"

What further confounds them is their misconception about Elijah’s mission. If Elijah is to restore Israel and be the harbinger of the Messianic kingdom, then why has he faded from view? Why has he not remained to complete his work?

Verse 11

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.

Here we see the non-sectarian nature of Jesus. When the scribes are right, and on this occasion they are, Jesus affirms them. Nevertheless, while they are right, they are also sadly wrong (Lenski 663). In their materialistic thinking they have missed Elijah. They have failed to hear the call of one "crying in the wilderness."

Jesus’ comment that Elijah will "restore all things" is a paraphrase of Malachi 3:6, where Malachi prophesied of a turning of the hearts of fathers to children and children to fathers. Keil notes that this prophecy does not refer to estrangement within families because such is not the sin of Israel at this time; rather, Malachi refers to a spiritual separation between Israel and her righteous ancestors. Because of her love for God, Israel should feel a kindred spirit with men like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Instead, however, her wickedness estranges her from her godly lineage. Only reformation through repentance can restore the fathers and children (Keil, Minor Prophets 472).

Malachi’s prophecy does not emphasize simply an outward formalism or perceived change, but rather an inner change of the heart without which all outward reforms and restorations are vain (Lenski 663). This was the same kind of change John the Baptist demanded by saying, "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance" (3:8). To restore the heart, therefore, was "to restore all things" as Jesus explains.

Verse 12

But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.

I say unto you, That Elias is come already: John has come already and has prepared the way for those who will listen. Jesus knows that the scribes’ vision of some universal reformation is not going to happen. Israel has always had free will. God never forces His people to accept their Messiah, and thus many refuse Him. John’s work was a success for those whose hearts were right, but a curse awaits those who rejected him. Ultimately, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah brings her face to face with swift and sudden destruction from the Romans in A.D. 70.

and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed: It should have been obvious that John was the forerunner of the Messiah. He preached a message of change and lived the complimentary lifestyle (Matthew 3:1-12). Many Jews, however, did not recognize John or the purpose of his mission. The ungodly discounted him as some kind of a demonic (11:18). The religious leaders sent their delegations to discredit him (John 1:19-25), and finally, in an act of cowardice, Herod murdered him (14:1-12).

Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them: The same evil that extinguished the flame of John will attempt to destroy Jesus. This statement is yet another attempt by Jesus to prepare His apostles for His death.

Verse 13

Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.

Only now do the apostles see clearly what they should have recognized all along: Elijah is John the Baptist, Jesus is the Messiah, and neither escapes death.

There is no contradiction between Jesus’ affirmation that John is Elijah and John’s denial of being Elijah in John 1:19-28. The Apostle John notes that various priests and Levites come from Jerusalem, asking John, "Are you Elijah?" Because Elijah did not die (2 Kings 2:11) and because Malachi prophesied of his return (3:5), many Jews assume a literal reincarnation of the prophet. John the Baptist’s rugged lifestyle and fiery message lead many to think that he is Elijah literally. John rightly denies that he is. John is Elijah in only a figurative way because both came in the same spirit and power (Luke 1:17).

Verse 14

And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,

And when they were come to the multitude: Luke notes that the events of this section occur the day after the transfiguration (9:37). As Jesus and the "inner three" emerge from the mountain, they find a great crowd gathered. Particulars about the crowd’s gathering are impossible to determine, but Matthew’s use of the definite article (ton ochlon) has led some to conclude that this is a group who assembled before Jesus’ departure onto the mountain (McGarvey 152). The difficulty with this view, however, is that no crowd has been mentioned since Jesus gave His sermon on self-denial eight days earlier, and it is Mark, not Matthew, who gives the details of that account. Compare Matthew 16:24 with Mark 8:34. Perhaps the same crowd has remained with Jesus during the intervening days, but it seems just as likely that Matthew uses the definite article to suggest nothing more than "the usual crowd" that seem to gather whenever Jesus and His disciples pass by. The indication is that crowds constantly come and go.

Mark notes that certain scribes are in the group on this occasion, and, as usual, they take it upon themselves to plague Jesus’ ministry. Their presence this far north of Jerusalem shows that by this time in Jesus’ ministry, their deep concern has led to a constant vigil.

there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying: While Jesus is on the mountain, a man comes to His remaining apostles in hopes of having them exorcise a demon from his son. The apostles fail in their attempts. Mark 9:14-17 notes that the scribes seize on this failure and enter into an argument with the apostles. When Jesus returns, He attempts to enter into the discussion, but before He can fully engage the scribes, the man comes kneeling and explaining his pathetic tale.

Verse 15

Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.

Lord, have mercy on my son: Mark and Luke use the term "Teacher" rather than "Lord." It is impossible to assess the depth of the man’s faith. He might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, but since the term "Lord" (kyrie) sometimes simply means "Sir," one cannot make any definitive assessment. One thing is clear, however: he has enough faith in the Messianic troupe to seek its help. Perhaps he has seen Jesus perform miracles previously or has heard about Jesus’ power. Possibly he comes to the disciples out of desperation. In any event, not even the apostles’ failure causes him to leave. Now he falls at Jesus’ feet.

for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water: Luke adds that he was an only child (Luke 9:38). The depth of the man’s concern is evident from his comment in Mark 9:22. There he places himself in the same plight as his son. "Have compassion on us and help us," he begs Jesus, "for he is a lunatic."

The Greek term translated "lunatic" refers to that which relates to the moon (lunar). More literally, the term means "moon-struck" and in this case refers to epilepsy, which the ancients believe to be caused by the influences of the moon.

The child is an "epileptic" of the worst kind, not only because the ailment produces all types of horrible dangers for the child, but also because it stems from demon possession (17:18). Fowler notes that the epilepsy is the physical malady upon which his demon possession is superimposed (620). When taken together, the synoptic versions paint a terrifying picture of how the demon is trying to destroy the boy. It almost never leaves him (Luke 9:39), and the situation seems hopeless.

We should note that not all physical ailments are caused by demon possession; some are simply natural. On this occasion, however, the cause is of satanic origin, and thus we see the difficulty the disciples face. This case is not simply a case where the disciples need to invoke God’s power to heal, but rather it is a case where a demon, with its own personal will and volition, must be dealt with.

Verse 16

And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him

The disciples previously cast out demons during their mission in Galilee months earlier (10:1-18). But as noted above, this time the task proves more difficult. Jesus’ rebuke in verses 17 and 20 gives us a clue about why they failed. Although they have been with Jesus for so long and had seen His miracles, they still lack their own deep personal faith. They have sufficient power at their disposal, but they can only access that power via a concerted dedication to the Heavenly Father.

One must not overlook the emotional impact all of this must have had on the child’s father. This man who came to seek the Jesus’ help was quickly disappointed by His disciples. Barnes suggests that these are not the apostles but are other followers of Jesus. For proof he cites Mark 9:38, saying that it is probable many people attempt to work miracles who are not personal attendants of Jesus’ ministry (Barnes, Matthew-Mark, p. 179). Barnes’ theory, however, begs the question. Mark 9:38 certainly indicates that other than the 12 have faith to perform miracles, but in this instance, it is illogical to think that the father of the boy begs for help from any besides the nine apostles. This incident reveals the frailty of Jesus’ trainees. Fowler is correct to note that at this point they are simply learners still struggling with doubts and mistakes (622).

Verse 17

Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.

Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation: In general, the entire Jewish nation of Jesus’ day is faithless and perverse. John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, yet few accepted him (17:12). Likewise, Jesus preaches and performs miracles, and they refuse Him too. Jesus repeatedly preaches against the people of His own generation, describing them as wicked, evil, and adulterous (12:39, 45; 16:4). Though Jesus’ outburst is brief, it allows us to see how the nation’s moral bankruptcy sorrows Him. Jesus knows that these people will meet destruction if they do not repent. His words on this occasion are borrowed from Deuteronomy 32:5; Deuteronomy 32:20. Paul also uses these words in Philippians 2:15.

The Jews are not only "faithless," they are "perverted." "Perverse" is from a Greek word diastrefo that means "twisted, contorted, and depraved." So steeped are they in their evil ways that all of their thinking is warped. They are unable to think straight or act correctly. Everything about this generation is rotten to the core.

how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? Jesus responds with exasperation. Essentially, He is asking, "When will my patience run out? Do you think that I will be on this earth forever?" Jesus’ comment possesses an element of the human emotion as well as divine longing. For nearly three years He has endured their faithless foolishness. He has exhausted Himself in teaching, training, and loving this people; nevertheless, they seem no closer to God. Although Jesus will remain with them for several more months, a time is coming when He will no longer be with them but will return to the glory of the Father. Who will rescue them from their unbelief then? It is as if in Jesus’ voice we hear a longing to finish the Father’s work so He can go home, even if that means death, in order to drink freely of the glory so recently tasted on the mountaintop. Jesus’ words arise not from self-pity, however, but from a concern for the spiritual welfare of those He loves.

bring him hither to me: Jesus is willing to help in spite of this perverted and faithless generation and in spite of the failure of His own apostles. By commanding them to bring the child, Jesus takes the attention away from the scribes and places it upon Himself.

Verse 18

And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.

Mark and Luke note that the demon lashes out while the people are bringing the boy. Mark says that when the demon sees Jesus, immediately he convulses the boy (9:20). In one last frenzied effort, the evil spirit asserts his diabolical will. At this outburst, Jesus inquires of the boy’s father as to the extent and length of the demon possession. The boy has been plagued with the demon since childhood (Mark 9:21-22). Luke notes that Jesus heals the boy and delivers him again to his father—an act that amazes the multitude (Luke 9:42-43). Matthew notes that the healing occurs instantly and is complete. Years of suffering and agony are over for the boy and his father. Jesus’ loving touch has restored the tranquility of their home.

Verse 19

Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?

Matthew says that the disciples come to Jesus privately to inquire about their failure. Mark indicates that they wait until Jesus is in the house (9:28). No doubt they are more than a little embarrassed about the incident and want to avoid any future fiasco. Although the nine are somewhat faithless, at least they turn to Jesus now. They neither hide nor diminish their failure but accept it forthright as their own. Here we see the candor of the gospel writers in painting the apostles as they really are.

Verse 20

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: The problem on this occasion is the same as in other of their failures: insufficient faith. Twice on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee, their cries of fear resulted from insufficient faith (Matthew 8:26; Matthew 14:31). On another occasion, their faithlessness makes them worry about having no bread (16:8). In addition, their inability to cast out the devil will not be the last time they struggle with this debilitating problem. At Jesus’ arrest, these same disciples will scurry away into the night shadows, leaving their faith far behind.

Their failure does not stem from a lack of courage, enthusiasm, or desire to heal the boy. The problem is their dedication to God. Fowler catches the spirit of the passage by saying, "So, Jesus’ disciples’ previously effective ministry became ineffective, because they had grown self-reliant, supposing that busyness and activity could substitute for humility, prayer and worship of God" (634). Apparently these seasoned followers of Jesus have come to think that their previous accomplishments are their own. This kind of self-reliance undermines their faith in God as the only true source of healing power.

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you: Jesus completes His rebuke by using an illustration from nature. Some believe that He is referring to the growth of the mustard seed as in Matthew 13:31-32. The seed begins as the smallest of all seeds but soon grows into the largest of herbs. Thus interpreted, the analogy means that Jesus is telling His disciples that their faith must expand to meet their ever-challenging circumstances.

This interpretation, however, does not seem to be Jesus’ point because it neither fits the context nor the overall circumstance. While the disciples’ faith certainly needs to exhibit incremental growth, Jesus is not talking about what the mustard seed "can" become. He is talking about what the mustard "is." It is small! Likewise, Jesus is not talking about what the disciple’s faith can or should become but what it is. It is small!

Jesus is contrasting the "mustard seed" and the "mountain." In this instance, He might even have gestured toward Mount Hermon, which towers above them just to their north. The rebuke is thus poignant and picturesque. The apostles have "little faith" which, in reality, is no faith at all. Fowler calls it, "doubt asserting itself as self-trust" (635). That which they possess (if it is proper to call it "faith") is not of any substance, but rather is impotent, wavering, and tossed like the wind-driven sea (James 1:6-8). Real faith, no matter how little or much, is all of the same quality. True faith does not waver. Had the disciples possessed even a "speck" of the genuine kind, they would not have failed. Broadus says, "For a very minute faith can work a very great miracle" (377).

Jesus is not suggesting that His apostles literally rearrange the earth’s geography in order to demonstrate their faith. When at last they are converted (Luke 22:32), however, their faith will turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

Verse 21

Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting

Although the "best" ancient manuscripts of Matthew do not include this verse, Mark indicates that Jesus says it (Mark 9:29). Perhaps it was a marginal note that a scribe mistook for a textual correction, and by adding it to his copy, he thus placed the verse into future copies of Matthew. Note too that "fasting" is not found in any of the "best" manuscripts of any gospel (MacArthur 81; Broadus 377; and Plummer 243).

If the word is indeed an interpolation, the original would read, "This kind does not go out except by prayer." The expression "this kind" seems to suggest "other kinds." Trench notes that just as there is a hierarchy in heaven, so also is there an inverted hierarchy of hell (Miracles 398). For proof, he cites Matthew 12:45 where the demon, once expelled, returns with seven others more wicked than himself. Likewise, Ephesians 2:2; Ephesians 6:12 suggest this same idea. If there is a hierarchy, the demon that the disciples confront is a particularly wicked and tenacious one. Successful at thwarting the apostles, the demon tried to defy Jesus also (Mark 9:20 and Luke 9:42).

Verses 22-23

And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men: And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.

And while they abode in Galilee: After a brief ministry in the region of Caesarea Philippi and revealing His glory on the mount of transfiguration, Jesus now begins to journey south (17:24). Mark indicates that He desires to travel secretly (9:30). Broadus believes the group accomplishes this secrecy by having the twelve separate into groups and take different routes with a predetermined rendezvous near Capernaum (377). The reason for such secrecy is obvious: Jesus wants to spend time with them alone. Soon He will rally the little band, and they will march to Jerusalem for the last time. As yet, the disciples are not ready for the daunting conclusion that lies ahead. The hope that their Master will soon victoriously proclaim His Messianic Kingdom lingers in the apostles’ minds. What they fail to realize is that He must die first. The price of the crown will be a cross. Over the course of the last six months of His personal ministry we see Jesus, therefore, in the process of withdrawal—not because He fears death but because He needs private time with the twelve. It is during this period in Galilee while they are "moving about together" that Jesus speaks for a third time about His Passion. (16:21; 17:12). Luke says the disciples do not understand Jesus’ saying for "it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it" (9:45).

And they were exceeding sorry: Though logic eludes them, the disciples become very emotional. They are filled with great sorrow, and to avoid the risk of further disappointment, they do not ask Jesus any more questions about the prediction. Although the text does not say it, possibly the disciples are also offended by the saying. It is unconscionable for their leader to predict execution instead of exaltation.

Verse 24

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?

And when they were come to Capernaum: Having left the region of Caesearea Philippi (Matthew 16:13), Jesus and His disciples now briefly come to the village of Capernaum. Most likely this is Jesus’ final visit to the town He has called home. Here He has based His ministry, healed the sick, and raised the dead (9:18-26). This town knows Jesus well.

they that received tribute money came to Peter: No sooner does Jesus enter the village than certain "tax collectors" approach. It is interesting and significant that they single out Peter for questioning. The reason seems obvious: Peter is both a resident of the city and is recognized as a leader among Jesus’ apostles. Also, because Peter and Jesus are the only ones mentioned in the episode, it is likely that Jesus is staying with Peter while the other disciples find lodging elsewhere.

and said, Doth not your master pay tribute? By "tribute" these leaders refer to the "temple tax." This tax had its beginning during the time of the Exodus. When the tabernacle was first built, God provided for its maintenance and operation by a levy of a "half shekel" tax. Every male of military age, twenty years and older, was required to pay this tax. Moses commands, "The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord…It will be a memorial of the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives" (Exodus 30:15-16; see also 2 Chronicles 24:6). Later, when the temple replaced the tabernacle, the tax continued, although for a time it was temporarily reduced to a third of a shekel by Nehemiah because of the extreme poverty of the exiles who were then returning from Babylon to Judah (Nehemiah 10:32).

MacArthur notes that the "two drachma tax" translates the single Greek word "didrachma" which means "two drachma" or "double drachma." He further notes that while there was no actual two-drachma coin in circulation during Jesus’ day, the term is used because two drachmas are equivalent to the Hebrew half shekel amount required (MacArthur 86). In Roman coinage the amount is two denarii, hence the equivalent of two days’ wages for the common laborer (Fowler 652).

At this time, the "temple tax" is collected even from Jews outside of Palestine and is paid into the "Corban," or treasury of the Temple (Ellicott 252). Jews within Palestine are expected to give before the time of the Passover while those in foreign countries are allowed until Pentecost or even the Feast of Tabernacles (Broadus 378). Although the Roman government approves of this tax, it is apparently voluntary and thus differs from the compulsory Roman poll tax (McGarvey 154). Plummer says the tax is like a voluntary church rate, and no one could be compelled to pay (244). The Mishna suggests that certain individuals (women, children, priests, slaves) are exempt from the levy altogether.

Jewish commissioners collect the levy because no "publican tax collectors" working for Rome were deemed worthy to touch such offerings earmarked for "holy" service. Josephus records that after Titus destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in A.D. 70, the emperor Vespasian decreed that Jews throughout the Roman Empire continue to be assessed the tax in order to maintain the pagan temple of Jupiter Capitolinus. MacArthur says, "The tax was imposed as a calculated, vindictive reminder both to Jews and to the rest of the world of the high cost of opposing Rome" (87).

Verse 25

He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

He saith, Yes: Cornered and caught off guard, Peter replies with a natural response. "Yes, my Master does indeed pay the Temple Tax." No doubt he has seen Jesus pay the tax before, and there is no reason to assume any different mode of action now. Peter might also suspect that the collectors’ question is an insinuation that Jesus will not pay, and so Peter quickly answers in the affirmative (Plummer 244).

The answer Peter gives is not satisfactory. While Jesus is willing to pay any tax owed, Peter needs to understand the implications of his earlier confession that Jesus is "the Son of God" (16:16). He does not fully realize what this truth means. Jesus, therefore, again uses the situation at hand to teach a great spiritual lesson on the real essence of Messianic authority—even as it pertains to tax gathering. Fowler says, "But Peter, in his concern to place his Teacher in a favorable light with the tax people, had overlooked the relationship of Jesus’ divine Sonship to their question" (656).

And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers? It is unclear whether Peter intends to tell Jesus about the street encounter with the Jews, but Jesus already knows about it. Here the KJV word "prevent" is archaic since the Greek simply means "anticipation." The house in which this scene takes place is probably Peter’s home in Capernaum where Jesus is apparently staying.

Jesus’ question deals with authority and obligation. In other words, Jesus asks Peter who pays the tax to support the royal family? Is it the king’s children or those outside the palace? The answer is obvious. Peter knows that it is absurd for a king to tax himself or members of his own royal household. To suggest he do so is tantamount to denying his authority and royal privilege. The king’s subjects bear the obligation to support the royal family.

Verse 26

Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.

Jesus now makes His point: if ever there was a tax that He was not under obligation to pay, it is this one. MacArthur says, "He was the One whom the Temple was built to honor and to whom its sacrifices and offerings were made" (88). Jesus is the Son of the King and, as demonstrated in the previous verse, bears the rights of the Royal Family. Peter has already acknowledged the Sonship of Christ (16:16) but still fails to make the logical connection as it now relates to the temple tax. Jesus masterfully uses Peter’s immaturity to gently remind him of that which he has previously confessed: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

While it is clear that Jesus is not obliged to pay the tax, the question is whether the disciples also have the right to claim such an exemption. Lenski answers in the affirmative, saying that through Jesus the disciples are sons of the King by adoption and are not on a common level with the Jews. They are thus exempt also (675). Although one should not deny the close relationship of Jesus to His disciples, the context seems to support the idea that the disciples are not exempt. Note the following facts:

1. The question asked by the "temple tax collectors" pertains only to Jesus. Never in their conversation do they ask if Peter or the other eleven pay the tax. The apostles’ obligation to pay the tax is never in dispute (Plummer 246).

2. The contrast of Jesus’ argument in verses 25-26 is between those of the royal household and those outside the royal household. The argument does not depend on the number of "children" in the household. Fowler is right in saying, "The argument does not depend upon whether the royal family is represented by one son or by several" (Fowler 657; Plummer 245). Jesus’ use of the plural "sons" merely relates to the argument of the previous verse. Contextually, He is the only "Son" in question. The plural of the next phrase, "lest we should offend them" (verse 27), does not imply that Peter is exempt but simply that Peter has himself not paid (Broadus 379). For different reasons, therefore, both payments will be made at the same time.

Verse 27

Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.

Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth: From a purely human perspective, Jesus’ command seems absurd. Such a command probably even challenges Peter’s faith. Nevertheless, Peter is to go immediately to the sea, cast in a hook (presumably not baited), and draw out the first fish. Jesus’ directive not only is a means of obtaining money to pay the temple tax, it also provides Peter with another lesson in what his confession of Jesus’ Sonship really means. As deity, the Son of the King is sovereign over the natural realm. If Jesus wants money to come from a fish’s mouth, then so be it. To a former fisherman like Peter, Jesus’ words no doubt make a lasting impression.

thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee: The coin Peter is to take from the fish’s mouth is the sater, equal to four drachmas (tetradrachmon) or equal to two Jewish half-shekels. The required half-shekel (two drachma) per person amount, therefore, is met exactly. MacArthur notes that because there are no actual two drachma coins in circulation, it was customary for two Jewish men to pay their tax together using the sater (89). Ellicott notes that this whole episode demonstrates the extreme poverty of Jesus and the apostles. Having returned from their extended travels in the north of Palestine, they are absolutely penniless with not even a sater between them (254).

Jesus’ compliance derives not from obligation but from humility. Not wanting to "offend" the Jews, He orders the tax to be paid. Jesus’ statement "lest we offend them" does not, however, simply refer to upsetting the Jewish leaders because they are already displeased with His ministry. The idea here is that Jesus does not want to put any kind of stumbling block in the way of His fellow Jews. Had Jesus refused to pay the tax, some might have mistakenly concluded that He despises the Temple and its worship. They might consequently reject Him. Jesus’ mode of conduct here sets forth a pattern for every Christian. It is better to humble oneself and do that which is not obligatory than to refuse and cast the wrong impression. In reality, Jesus’ attitude here sets the stage for the dispute about greatness that follows in the next chapter. Even Jesus is willing to humble Himself.

Bibliographical Information
Editor Charles Baily, "Commentary on Matthew 17". "Contending for the Faith". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ctf/matthew-17.html. 1993-2022.
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