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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

Matthew 17

Verses 1-27

The Use of Religious Excitement

Matthew 17:4

Although there is no necessity to give much heed to the words of one, who, when he spoke them, was so startled and confused, that he knew not what he said, yet I suppose, in truth, St. Peter was right in the former part of his saying, and wrong in the latter.

1. Why did God bestow upon us the power of religious emotion? It is certain that no power, no faculty of the soul was given in vain. Each has its proper use and end; its proper exercise, its proper degree, and its proper relation to other powers and faculties. It must be so with religious emotion. God sends this religious emotion to many persons in many ways. A deep stirring of the heart and conscience comes to most people in the events of their own lives. What is to be said of these occasional times of excited feeling?

1. That no man must take religious feeling for religion.

2. That God gives these periods of strong feeling as mighty helps to our weak and wavering courage; that they are a spur to the halting obedience, and a goad to the reluctant will.

II. But I think these times of unusual religious fervour have another use. They open to the soul visions of a state of love, and joy, and heavenly mindedness, which, if afterwards they turn into nothing but regret and longing, nevertheless, leave behind them a blessing.

III. How far is religious emotion to form any part of our daily religious life, or, in other words, how far are the feelings to be regularly employed in the service of God? I have done with exceptional religious emotion. What shall we say as to ordinary religious emotion? Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Assuredly, our feelings were not given us for the purpose of being crushed out. Our religion is not one of mere dry duty. The very fact that love holds so prominent a place in it is a proof that, at least, some amount of religious feeling is necessary for a true religious life. But supposing there is in the daily religious life of some more of the element of excitement. Supposing that there are not a few, in whom nothing better than a naturally restless disposition, or a craving after emotional stimulants in spiritual things, accounts for their enjoyment of many church services, much preaching and the like, no one will affirm that the motive which actuates such persons is a very high one. Their religious acts must rank far lower than such as are done from principle and a sense of duty; and though I do not wish to speak of those acts as very meritorious, I come back to the old question: why did God make us able to enjoy certain things more than others? why did God implant in us, though far more in some than in others, a craving after what may move, and stir, and perchance elevate the soul? Take any keen, eager, impulsive, excitable person, may I not believe that God gave such person the power of quick impulse and eager aspiration for some worthy end?

W. Walsham How, Penny Pulpit, vol. xii. No. 705, p. 309.

The Transfiguration

Matthew 17:4

The probable locality was Mount Hermon, not Tabor, as tradition says. The event occurred, according to Luke, while Christ was praying. It was good to be with Christ anywhere. It was good for the disciples now, for the following reasons:

I. It Confirmed Their Belief in a Future State. Centuries had passed since Moses died on Pisgah and since Elijah ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire, yet here they were alive, talking with Jesus.

II. It Taught Them that there was a Spiritual body. Moses and Elias evidently appeared in a bodily form.

III. It Revealed to Them Christ's Divine Character and Mission. Here were Moses, the lawgiver, and Elijah, the chief of the prophets, bearing witness to Him. They spake of His death, which had been foreshadowed in the ancient sacrifices and in the utterances of prophecy. Their sudden disappearance, connected with the words, 'This is my beloved Son,' indicated that type and prophecy were now fulfilled, and that Christ was Prophet, Priest, and King.

IV. It Prepared Them for Coming Trials.

Sorrow often follows closely upon joy.

The joy prepares us for the sorrow.

In conclusion: it was good to be there; it would not have been good to remain there. There was work to be done, sorrow to be lightened, sin to be grappled with and overcome.

F. J. Austin, Seeds and Saplings, p. 13.

References. XVII. 4. J. H. Thom, Laws of Life, p. 379. E. W. Moore, Life Transfigured, p. 1. C. H. Wright, The Unrecognized Christ, p. 29. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Holy-Tide Teaching, p. 150. H. D. M. Spence, Voices and Silence, p. 153. T. B. Hindsley, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxv. 1904, p. 236. E. G. Baines, ibid. vol. lxx. 1906, p. 157. XVII. 4, 5. H. E. Ryle, On the Church of England, p. 112. XVII. 5. C. S. Macfarland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxx. 1906, p. 21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvii. No. 909. XVII. 5, 6, 7. Ibid. vol. xxix. No. 1727.

Jesus Only

Matthew 17:8

Christ gave to His timid followers a glimpse of His glory, but He would not allow them to rest upon it but upon Himself in the human nature that He had assumed; and so, 'when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only'.

I. There is a danger, especially for the young, in letting their religion be based on mere love or regard for a minister or a religious friend. Such personal attachment is natural, but it is neither wise nor safe. Use their teaching as far as you may, but do not lean upon them, or upon any human stay. In the matter of the soul's salvation fix your heart and fix your hope on no man, but on Jesus only.

II. Others there are who allow their religion to be unduly influenced by particular places and circumstances. This is letting association get too great power over us.

III. And, in the days when we feel burdened with a sense of our sin, may we then look to no man, save to Jesus only. The memory of our sins must always make us sad: we must always, to the end of our days, look back upon our sins with shame, and sorrow, and pain; but if we look to no man save to Jesus only for pardon, we need not despair; nay, the true penitent is assured of immediate pardon of his sin. We may gratefully accept the comfort of absolution, the assurance of cancelled guilt, if we lift up our eyes in the time of trouble, determined to see no man, save Jesus only.

IV. But, besides sin, sorrow often makes the people of God go heavily. In the hour of heart-break and of bitter grief, in the time of privation and of sore distress, may we be able to take comfort from the thought that though men are miserable comforters yet the Son of Man, our unseen Friend, is able to bind up every wound.

V. And if this be so with you in sorrow, then in the hour of your own death you will have the one Friend with you who can go down with you into the dark valley, where all other friends must leave you.

VI. Lastly, if Jesus be with us, loved and trusted in the common hours of the common life, not only will He comfort and sustain us when we are called to pass under the cloud and the shadow of sorrow, not only will He uphold us in the hour of death, but He will even give us promised strength, beyond the thought of man to conceive! He will even give us boldness in the Day of Judgment.

Erskine Clarke, Penny Pulpit, vol. xii. No. 676, p. 75.

Matthew 17:8

For the Word of the Law and Wrath must give place to the Word of Life and Grace; because, though the Word of Condemnation be glorious, yet the Word of Life and Salvation doth far exceed in glory. Also, that Moses and Elias must both vanish, and leave Christ and his Saints alone.

John Bunyan.

References. XVII. 8. W. Baxendale, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xli. 1892, p. 195. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Sunday Sermonettes for a Year, pp. 79, 138. W. J. Knox-Little, Church Times, vol. liv. 1905, p. 165. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvi. No. 924. XVII. 14. C. Perren, Revival Sermons in Outline, p. 124. W. T. Houldsworth, Church Times, vol. xxxvii. 1897, p. 139. XVII. 14-21. W. M. Taylor, The Miracles of Our Saviour, p. 319. Archbishop Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, p. 299. J. Laidlaw, The Miracles of Our Lord, p. 278.

Unbelief

Matthew 17:17

The disciples had the power to cast out devils. They tried and failed. They were weak in Christ's absence; they had been dejected by His previous words about His death, and now by His withdrawal to the mountain, and so they had been unsuccessful. They could not cast out because of their unbelief. The child's father was at his wit's end. He had had a poor trembling faith, if any. The scribes and others with none at all, were maliciously chuckling over their failure. To them all Christ comes straight from the Transfiguration, and when He sees their grief, these words which express holy impatience, endless pity, and personal sorrow are wrung from Him. They are:

I. A Cry of Pain. We can understand how the sight should have been more than ordinarily sorrowful to Him, from its sharp contrast with the Transfiguration, and therefore there was pressed out what was ordinarily hidden, the sharp pain and real grief which it was to Him to walk among men.

We all know what uncongenial society means, but perhaps we do not give sufficient prominence to this phase of Our Saviour's life. He was the 'man of Sorrows'; 'Himself bare our sicknesses,' and other passages speaking of Him as bearing the burden of sin, do not point only to His death on the Cross, but to all His earthly life. Remember His nature, perfect purity, perfect love, perfect knowledge, acute human sensibility, and take all these as heightening the daily martyrdom which it was to Him to dwell among men. We see but little of it, but it was most real, and all this was borne for us, and He bears it all still.

II. A Word of Loving Remonstrance. It is not a word of anger, but of remonstrance, seeking to cure, and that is how He stands before human unbelief.

III. A Promise of Infinite Forbearance and Abiding Presence. Christ recognizes in the disciples' weakness without Him a necessity for His still continuing with them. He is staid by their need of Him, as a mother by her tottering child. And in like manner the second clause is really: 'How long will you draw on my forbearance with nothing but the under thought that it is inexhaustible?' So we have the assurance of His pitying presence with us, and that presence is the cure, if we will, for all our ills, and of His endless long suffering. He never goes away from any of us. We cannot break the covenant of His love.

A. Maclaren.

References. XVII. 17. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv. No. 821. W. Howell Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 48. W. J. Knox-Little, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxviii. 1905, p. 97. XVII. 17, 18. H. Scott Holland, ibid. vol. xxxviii. 1890, p. 193. XVII. 19. J. E. C. Welldon, The Spiritual Life, p. 243. E. A. Stuart, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlix. 1896, p. 342. James Denney, Gospel Questions and Answers, p. 39. XVII. 19,20. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Matthew IX.-XVII. p. 352. XVII. 19-21. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. x. No. 549; vol. xlii. No. 2454.

The Victory of Faith

Matthew 17:20 (with 1 John 5:4 )

I. Faith is a Quality which ensures Man's Growth and Expansion. It does not operate suddenly or effect miraculous changes; it takes time like the grain of mustard seed, but it is victorious in the end even against overwhelming odds. In one way or another all the greatest things we know of have been and are achieved by its power. It is faith that removes mountains of difficulty, that overcomes the manifold dangers, oppositions, weaknesses, impossibilities, of this mortal life of ours, and casts them into the sea of human triumph.

a. Take the realm of commerce by way of example. What is it that enables a man to launch forth into enterprises that startle the world, but faith in the practicability of some great scheme which to the cautious and prudent seems only foolhardy and chimerical?

b. What is it that buoys up the lonely scientific worker, through years of painstaking calculation and experiment, but faith in the certainty of an ultimate discovery?

c. Or what, in the sphere of intellectual effort, accounts for the difference between the good or the bad teacher, but that one believes and the other does not believe in the efficacy of the training and instruction it is their business to give. The good teacher is one who believes that his or her efforts will never be wasted, however unpromising the soil on which the good seed is sown.

d. It is faith which has inspired and carried through all the crusades against evil and all the reforms and revolutions that have helped to rid the world of tyrannies, abuses, cruelties, and depravities of every kind.

II. Faith is the Conquering Principle in Religion. For Christian faith is not a thing apart from one's ordinary human nature and imposed upon it from without; it is the expansion of an original inherent moral quality, common to us all; it is the spiritualization of a natural faculty; it is the daily energizing, vitalizing power in which we live and do our best work, brought into contact with the Divine power. So glorified it overcomes the world the worldly spirit with its carnal aims, countless temptations, and unholy methods, being the hardest thing there is to overcome. But even unglorified, it has this overcoming power, and if we only get to see this clearly, we shall not find so much difficulty in transferring to the life of religion a quality which we have learnt to regard as the supreme essential in every secular sphere.

The Mustard Seed of Faith

Matthew 17:20

This text seems to tell me three things:

I. The Infinite Value of even a Little Faith.

That little bit of faith which you have, though it is only like a little grain of mustard seed, is the most valuable treasure you have got. We never know when we plant a seed and water it what it will grow to. Therefore, while not despising the little grain of mustard seed of faith in ourselves, let us not despise it in others. Scatter the seed when you can, and go on bravely, leaving it to the Eternal God to water the seed and make it grow.

II. The Absolute Certainty that Faith Grows. I heard the other day an address by a very able and devout man, who is a great authority in science, and I was very much struck with one thing he said. 'I look back over twenty years, and I would not exchange for anything the solid certainty of Today for the warm feelings of twenty years ago. I would not give up the way that my faith has grown for the more ardent feelings of my youth.' We are taught by feeling, but we walk by faith. And if there are any people discouraged in middle life by the little warmth of feeling they now have, the question for them is. Has their faith grown?

III. The Wonderful Power of Faith. '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.' One hardly dare say to oneself that there is almost an exaggeration in such a statement as that, and yet, when you look at life on a large scale, that is exactly what happens. You could not possibly describe it more precisely. Faith removes mountains.

IV. How is that Faith to grow and Expand that it may become this Strong and Useful Tree? We must see to it that the seed of faith is not dissipated by some flippant remark, is not snatched away by the Evil One in waiting. The seed has no chance unless you give it a chance. But when you have done your part, remember that God is ready to do His part.

Bishop Winnington-Ingram, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxviii. p. 331, 1905.

Reasons of Failure

Matthew 17:20

I. The text covers all failures. 'Because of you:: unbelief.' Jesus had but one explanation. You do not get on in life because of your unbelief. The reason you fail in business is because of your unbelief; the reason why you wither in intellect is because of your unbelief. You do not know how deeply faith goes, you cannot tell what a penetrating power it has and how it takes up all things along with it, and secures them all in one multifold and compendious blessing. Faith is not sentiment, but power. The mystery is that you have been believing the wrong thing, you have been working at the wrong end, and you have been miscalculating the whole purpose of the kingdom of God, which is power power to live, power to think, power to overcome temptation, power to drive out of the life everything that sucks out of it the very pith of existence. You must know that without power you die. And faith is not only power, faith is beneficent power. Power of the beneficent sort would make a new world. Beneficent power never goes about the streets seeking what it can gain for itself; beneficent power parades the road in order to take out of that road everything; that can hinder life, everything that can keep back the light, everything that can prevent the soul growing, expanding, blossoming in God.

II. If faith is beneficent power, then the want of faith inflicts serious injury on society. It is not what you are doing, but it is what you might be doing, that is the great and solemn question, that is continually before the serious mind of the serious man. If I have not faith it is not I who lose only, it is the other man.

Faith conquers all, rules the whole kingdom, and will prosper and succeed and fructify into blessed, beneficent fruits when all your intellectual framework has melted away and is no longer to be seen, for it is not only of works, but of the meanest kind of works, works with which you have nothing to do, it came to you without your seeking, and will wither away because of your mere wordy, tumultuous pride.

III. You are never a man in the full sense until you have faith. Faith is manhood as well as a gospel. Faith is the secret of commerce as well as the secret of eternity. Unless you have faith you cannot be really at your best estate. That is a proposition which must be thought out and thought out carefully, so that you can lay hold upon it and live by it. You were meant to believe that all that ever came before Christ were thieves and robbers; they had not got the right idea of manhood. Manhood is faith; faith is manhood, and unless you have faith you cannot come to the full estate of manhood as God meant you to come to it.

Joseph Parker, City Temple Pulpit, vol. vi. p. 146.

References. XVII. 20. Stopford A. Brooke, The Fight of Faith, p. 38. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached, in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iv. p. 201. T. F. Lockyer, The Inspirations of the Christian Life, p. 63. XVII. 21. Archdeacon Colley, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliii. 1893, p. 115. J. H. Jowett, Meditations for Quiet Moments, p. 110. XVII. 24-7. J. Laidlaw, The Miracles of Our Lord, p. 116. Archbishop Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord, p. 307. W. M. Taylor, The Miracles of Our Saviour, p. 331. XVII. 25, 26. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. Matthew, IX.-XVII. p. 374; see also Creed and Conduct, p. 374. XVII. 27. T. Champness, New Coins from Old Gold, p. 102. C. S. Robinson, Simon Peter, p. 294.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on Matthew 17". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/matthew-17.html. 1910.