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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 17

Poole's English Annotations on the Holy BiblePoole's Annotations

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Matthew 17:1-9 The transfiguration of Christ.

Matthew 17:10-13 He instructs his disciples concerning the coming of Elias,

Matthew 17:14-21 healeth the lunatic,

Matthew 17:22,Matthew 17:23 foretells his own passion,

Matthew 17:24-27 and payeth tribute.

Verses 1-2

Both Mark and Luke have recorded this history. Mark saith, Mark 9:3, his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them. Luke saith, Luke 9:28,Luke 9:29; And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter, and John, and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as he prayed, the fashion of his countenance was altered, and his raiment was white and glistering. All three agree the place, upon a mountain. Matthew saith it was six, Luke saith eight days after the preceding discourses. Luke mentions our Lord’s praying, which neither of the others mentions, and saith his transfiguration began while that he was praying. They all agree the company that was with our Saviour,

Peter, James, and John; which were the three our Saviour took with him when he went to pray before his passion, Matthew 26:37. Peter was to be a great instrument in carrying on the works of the gospel. James was he whom Herod killed, Acts 12:2. John was he who outlived all the apostles. He intended to have these three witnesses of his agony, Matthew 26:37; he prepareth them for that, and for the future testimony they were to give him, by making them eye witnesses of this his glorious transfiguration. This, as to his person, lay in the change of his countenance, looking gloriously as the sun, and his raiment looking extraordinarily white.

Verses 3-4

Mark adds, Mark 9:6, For he wist not what to say; for they were sore afraid. Luke addeth, Luke 9:31-33, who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him. And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here, &c.: not knowing what he said. So as the history seemeth to be thus: After six or eight days Christ took Peter, James, and John, and went up into a mountain, and prayed. While he prayeth his disciples fall asleep. Waking, they saw him with his face shining gloriously, like the sun, and his garments white as snow, and two men talking with him about his death and passion, whom they (by revelation) knew to be Moses and Elias. They were sore afraid, and Peter, not well knowing or considering what he said, saith to Christ,

Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. It is most likely that Moses and Elias appeared in their own bodies. As to Elias, there was no difficulty, for his body was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. For Moses, it is said the Lord buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day, Deuteronomy 34:6. The devil and the archangel had a dispute about his body, Jude 1:9. It is very probable God raised up the body of Moses for this transfiguration testimony, that by the law and the prophets, represented in Moses, the giver of the law, and Elias, one of the most famous of the prophets, the disciples might be confirmed in their faith concerning Christ as the true Messias, and also fortified against the scandal and temptation of that ignominious death which he was soon after to undergo; and that these three apostles, being the highest number of witnesses, by the law of Moses, to confirm a thing, might be judged competent witnesses of what they saw and heard. Do not think Peter’s saying, let us make here three tabernacles, &c., proceeded from any pleasure or satisfaction that he had from this glimpse he had of the Divine and excellent glory; for how could this consist with that fear with which Mark saith they were possessed? but that, as Mark saith, he wist not what to say, or, as Luke, not knowing what he said. Which I take to be, as a reasonable, so the best excuse can be made for the errors and weakness discovered in his speech, as if Moses and Elias, or Christ, could have dwelt there, &c.

Verse 5

Mark and Luke relate the same without any considerable variation, only Luke saith, they feared as they entered into the cloud. It seemeth that the cloud did encompass them, so as they seemed all as if they had been within the cloud. This still increased their fear. It is observable, that God did very often make his appearances to people in a cloud, making the clouds his chariots, Exodus 16:10; Exodus 40:34; Numbers 11:25; Psalms 104:3; to teach us humility, not to pry too much into his secrets, who covereth himself with thick darkness, and likewise to consult our weakness, who are not able to behold him as he is. This is said to be a bright cloud, so differing from the cloud in which he appeared under the law, but without doubt it had something of a shadow in it, and was chosen of God for some abatement of the brightness of his glory. This cloud encompasses Christ, Moses, and Elias, and also Peter, James, and John.

And behold a voice out of the cloud: they saw no visible shape, no more did the Jews, Deuteronomy 4:15, only, as St. Peter (who saw it) expresses it, 2 Peter 1:17, there came such a voice from the excellent glory. He speaks of this very time, as may appear from 1 Peter 1:18. The voice is the same which was heard upon the baptism of Christ, Matthew 3:17; only there is added to it, hear ye him: you need no Elias to instruct you, hear him. Thus Moses saw what he had before prophesied of, Deuteronomy 18:15,Deuteronomy 18:18, fulfilled: he in this ministry as a servant in the house of God had prophesied, that the Lord would raise up a prophet from amongst their brethren like unto him, and put his words into his mouth and he should speak unto them all that God should command him, Deuteronomy 18:18; and, Deuteronomy 18:15, unto him ye shall hearken. God had now fulfilled that word, and he declares that this prophet was his Son, his beloved Son, and commands them to hear him. Which words establish Christ as the only Doctor and Teacher of his church, the only one whom he had entrusted to deliver his truths and will to his people, the only one to whom Christians are to hearken: nor doth this destroy the ministers of the word, who are no more than the interpreters of what he hath said, and are no more to be regarded than as by them we hear Christ speaking more plainly and frequently unto us. This appearance of God from time to time in a cloud, and that not in any visible shape, but in an excellent glory, causing a voice to be heard, lets us see the audaciousness of those who by any pictures or images pretend to make any representation of any person in the Trinity. And this command from God to us to hear Christ, lets us also see the audacity of those who take upon them to impose upon Christians what Christ never spake.

Verses 6-8

Mark saith no more than, And suddenly, when they had looked round about, they saw no man any more, save Jesus only with themselves. Such is the majesty and glory of God, that a cloud will not so veil it as that a man is able to behold any appearance of it without some consternation; something more than that fear of reverence, without which none ought to draw nigh unto him. Paul fell to the earth when a light from heaven shone upon him, Acts 9:3,Acts 9:4. The disciples here fell on their faces, and were sore afraid. This lets us see the goodness of God in hearkening to the people’s request, Exodus 20:19; Deuteronomy 5:28; Deuteronomy 18:16,Deuteronomy 18:17, and speaking to us by men like unto ourselves: by Moses under the Old Testament; by Christ (that Prophet mentioned Deuteronomy 18:15) under the New Testament, and such as he commissioned to declare his will, Hebrews 1:1,Hebrews 1:2.

And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. To deliver them from the fear of a spectrum, or apparition, he toucheth them, and saith in effect, It is I; be not afraid. They look up, and see the excellent glory and the cloud was withdrawn, as also Moses and Elias, and they and their Lord were left alone; and he goeth down from the mountain with them. Whether this mountain was Tabor, or some other mountain much nearer Caesarea Philippi, is of no consequence for us to be satisfied in.

Verse 9

Mark saith the same, Mark 9:9. Luke saith, Luke 9:36, They kept it close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen. The other two evangelists record the precept; Luke and Mark, their obedience to it. The most probable reason of this charge given by interpreters is, lest his after sufferings should have shaken again their faith, as to the Divine nature of Christ, before he was by his resurrection from the dead declared to be the Son of God with power, as the apostle speaks, Romans 1:4.

Verse 10

Before these words, Mark saith, Mark 9:10, And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. Then he addeth, And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come. The disciples (as appeareth) were as yet very imperfectly instructed in the doctrine of man’s redemption by Christ, though Christ had before told them, that as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so he should be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth. How dull the best of men are to apprehend spiritual mysteries, which are above the reach of our reason! The Jews had a tradition, and retain it to this day, That before the coming of the Messias Elias should come; they build it upon Malachi 4:4,Malachi 4:5. That they had such an expectation appeareth by their sending to John the Baptist, John 1:21, to know if he were he, meaning Elijah the Tishbite (for him they expected); and this was their great error, and still blindeth them. The disciples had now seen Elijah, and possibly might wonder at our Saviour’s forbidding them to speak of the vision, as thinking that nothing could more conduce to the receiving of him as the Messiah: or possibly they might wonder at Elijah’s so soon leaving the earth, the Messiah being come, whom they expected he should come before. So as though they were fully satisfied that Christ was the true Messiah, yet they knew not how to reconcile their faith to the promise, or to their tradition built upon the promise. This causeth the question.

Verses 11-13

Mark saith, Mark 9:12, He answered and told them, Elias verily comes first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him. Our Saviour agreeth to the promise, but showeth their mistake as to the true sense of it. They understood the promise of Elijah the Tishbite: the promise referred only to one of his spirit, and such a one was come, that was John the Baptist, as the angel told Zacharias, Luke 1:17, He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias. Very much of the power and spirit of Elijah was evident in John. Elijah was full of zeal for God, 1 Kings 19:10; so was John the Baptist. Did Elijah freely reprove, not only Baal’s priests, but even Ahab and Jezebel? John as freely reproved Herod and Herodias, and the Pharisees and Sadducees. Was Elijah an austere man? Such was John the Baptist. Did Elijah flee unto the wilderness to save his life? John Baptist, for some time, lived and preached there. Elijah living in a corrupt time, was a great means or instrument to restore decayed religion: so was John the Baptist, in the time wherein he lived. This notwithstanding, not the Jews only, but some Christians, and that not only papists, but some protestants, think, that besides the Elias which is long since come, there is another Elias, who shall come before the end of the world. They found their opinion upon this text in a great measure,

1. Because our Saviour here saith, ερχεται πρῶτον, he doth come first; and Mark saith, ελθων πρῶτον, ἀποκαθιστᾷ, coming first, restoreth all things. Now John the Baptist was both come and gone; nor had he restored all things. Besides, they say, that John denied himself to be Elias, John 1:21; and it is plain, that not the scribes and Pharisees, but the disciples, only understood the prophecy of Elijah the Tishbite; and Malachi saith, that Elijah should come before the terrible day of the Lord, which day, they say, is the day of judgment, in the constant language of Scripture. But to all this is answered,

a) That the Baptist, John 1:21, only denied himself to be that Elias about which they inquired, according to their tradition.

b) That it is true, that the disciples were led away with the Jewish tradition, and looked for Elijah the Tishbite, but Christ both here and elsewhere correcteth their error.

c) That not only the day of general judgment is called the terrible day of the Lord, but the gospel time, Matthew 3:10, when the axe was laid to the root of the tree, &c.; so Acts 2:20; and the day of the Jews’ particular judgment, which some understand hinted in those texts.

d) That our Lord first repeateth the words of Malachi, and so he saith, Elias shall come, or is coming; and then he expounds the words of Malachi of John the Baptist.

e) That the words of Malachi 4:6 are expounded by the angel, Luke 1:16,Luke 1:17, and there applied to John the Baptist.

f) That John did fulfil the words of the prophet, by endeavouring the conversion of the Jews, and prevailing in a great measure.

g) That the last words in Malachi, lest I smite the earth with a curse, plainly show that the text in Malachi cannot be understood of the day of judgment.

And though the name of Elias be given to John, yet it is no more than the giving the name of David to the Messias, Ezekiel 37:24. So as there is no other Elijah to be expected, but the Elijah prophesied of by Malachi was (as our Saviour doth expound it) John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded.

They knew him not, their tradition blinded them so as they could not discern the prophecy of Malachi fulfilled in him, so did unto him whatsoever they listed; and, saith our Saviour, so shall they do with the Son of man, that is, with me, who am the Son of man.

Verses 14-16

The same history is told us both by Mark and Luke, but with considerable difference; we have it, Mark 9:17,Mark 9:18, thus, And one of the multitude answered and said, Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit; and wheresoever he taketh him, he teareth him: and he foameth, and gnasheth with his teeth, and pineth away: and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out, and they could not. As an introduction to this, Mark saith, Mark 9:14-16, that when our Saviour came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them. And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him. And he asked the scribes, What question ye with them? Luke gives us this account, Luke 9:37-40, And it came to pass, that on the next day, when they were come down from the hill, much people met him. And, behold, a man of the company cried out, saying, Master, I beseech thee, look upon my son: for he is mine only child. And, lo, a spirit taketh him, and he suddenly crieth out; and it teareth him that he foameth again, and bruising him hardly departeth from him. And I besought thy disciples to cast him out; and they could not. When our Lord went up to the mountain where he was transfigured, he left at the foot of it the multitudes, and nine of his apostles, he took only three with him. How long he stayed there no evangelist tells us. The multitude and his disciples stayed waiting for his coming, probably not far of; some of the scribes were got to them, and they were arguing together. The day after our Lord, and Peter, James, and John, were come down from the mount, they go to the multitude, who received him with great passion, and saluted him. He begins to inquire what they were discoursing about; but was by and by interrupted with a certain man, who comes and falls down upon his knees before him, begging mercy for his son, who (as Matthew reports his condition) was lunatic and sore vexed, often falling into the fire, and often into the water. Mark saith, he had a dumb spirit, that it tore him, he often foamed and gnashed with his teeth. Luke saith, that it was the man’s only child, that he had a spirit, that he cried out, it tare him, he foamed, and was bruised by it, &c. By the description of this young man’s disease, it appeareth to have been what we call the falling sickness, wherein men fall down, foam, and beat themselves. With this disease the devil joined, so as at certain times of the moon this disease took him, and the devil acting with it, he was dumb, at least for the time, and fell sometimes into the fire, sometimes into the water, foamed, gnashed with his teeth, tore himself: this seems to have been his condition. The father (during Christ’s absence) had attempted a cure by his disciples, but the text saith they could not (the reason we shall hear afterward); upon this he crieth unto Christ for his help.

Verses 17-18

Mark relates this part of the history much more largely, Mark 9:19-27, he answereth him, and saith, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? Bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming. And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him? And he said, Of a child. And oft times it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us. Jesus said unto him, if thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. When Jesus saw that the people came running together, he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him, Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I charge thee, come out of him, and enter no more into him. And the spirit cried, and rent him sore, and came out of him: and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said, He is dead. But Jesus took him by the hand, and lifted him up; and he arose. Luke relates this shorter, but addeth nothing to what is in the other evangelists, Luke 9:41,Luke 9:42. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation. Christ here calls them so not with respect to justifying faith, but that faith which respected the Divine power as to working miracles. Every revelation of the Divine will is the object of faith; Christ had revealed to the Jews that he was sent of God, and furnished with such a power; this the Jews, and particularly the scribes, did not believe. The faith of the father of this child was but very weak in the case; no more, as we shall see afterwards, was the faith of the disciples; so as he may be understood to respect them all, though in different degrees. He calls them perverse, because they had so often seen and experienced his power of this nature, yet their faith was not clear and strong. He biddeth that the young man should be brought to him, and it was done. And when he saw him, ( saith Mark), straightway the spirit tare him, & c. Our Saviour could easily have prevented this, but probably he suffered it that the miracle might be more evident. However, it letteth us see how hardly the devil parteth with his possession in us in any degree, and how ready he is to run to the length of his line in doing us mischief. Christ asked his father how long he had been so vexed; his father tells him, from a child. By this also the miracle was more illustrious, which probably was the reason why Christ propounded the question. No evils are too inveterate for Christ to remove. The father renewth his request, and in it showeth the weakness of his faith: If (saith he) thou canst do any thing. His coming to Christ, and crying to him, argued that he believed he could do something; his saying if thou canst do any thing speaks the weakness of his faith. Christ tells him, if he could believe, all things are possible. Nothing ties God’s hands but his creatures’ unbelief. It is said, that Christ could not in Capernaum do many mighty works because of their unbelief. Upon this the father cries out,

Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief. Men may truly believe, and yet have a mixture of unbelief. God rewards a weak faith, to souls labouring under the sense of their weakness, and desiring an increase of strength. Christ rebukes the spirit (called a dumb and deaf spirit, because it made the person such that was thus affected with it). Christ commands the spirit out, and so to come out as never more to enter into him. The evil spirit roars, rends him, comes out, and leaveth him as one dead: which still confirmeth us in his malice to mankind; he will do what harm he can when he cannot do us the harm he would.

Verses 19-21

Mark repeats only what we have here Matthew 17:19,Matthew 17:21. The reason assigned here by our Saviour why his disciples could not cast out this devil, was their unbelief; not their total want, but the weakness of their faith. Christ here again lets us see the power of faith, and the mischief of unbelief. I take the plain sense of the text to be this, That there is nothing which may tend to the glory of God, or to our good, but may be obtained of God by a firm exercise of faith in him. Whether our Saviour here speaketh of a faith of miracles, or no, I will not determine; I rather think that he speaketh here of any true faith: we must have the power and promise of God for its object. The promise of working miracles by a Divine power committed to them, was a particular promise made to the disciples, Matthew 10:1-42, and so was only the object of their faith. But I take our Saviour’s words to extend to a further latitude, though, as to miraculous operations, it was only applicable to them. There is nothing which God hath promised to give or bestow on any but faith will obtain from him, if attended by a fervent prayer, to which fasting is subservient, as preparing us to it. There are some things which are obtained by a stronger faith, and by more fervent and importunate prayers, than others are. A mercy sometimes seem to us to come out of the hand of God with more difficulty, and wrestling for it; but there is nothing within the latitude of a promise, but is to be done and obtained by the vigorous exercise of faith, and by fervent and importunate prayer. The apostles had yet but a weak and imperfect faith, and they had not used such fervent and importunate prayer in this case as they ought to have done; thence did this work appear so difficult unto them.

Verses 22-23

Mark saith, Mark 9:30-32. And they departed thence, and passed through Galilee; and he would not that any man should know it. For he taught his disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day. But they understood not that saying, and were afraid to ask him. Luke saith, Luke 9:44,Luke 9:45, he said unto them, Let these sayings sink down into your ears: for the Son of man shall be delivered into the hands of men. But they understood not this saying, and it was hid from them, that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him of that saying. It is said that Christ taught his disciples as they were able to hear, Mark 4:33. He tells them, John 16:12, he had many things to say unto them, but they could not bear them at that time. Christ a long time concealed the doctrine of his passion, and resurrection from the dead, from them, until he had confirmed them in the great point of his Divine power, and his being the true Messiah; now he begins to deliver this doctrine unto them, that what they should now soon see might not weaken their faith in him as the Messiah and the Son of God; partly in regard of that inveterate opinion which had possessed the generality of the Jews, that the Messiah should be a temporal prince, and should deliver the Jews from that servitude under which they were, and had for a long time been; partly in regard of the difficulty to conceive how he who was the Son of God could die. Once or twice before therefore he had begun to speak to them about his passion, Matthew 16:21. Moses and Elias had some discourse with him about it, Luke 9:31. The text saith, they understood it not; it was hid from them; they perceived it not; they were afraid to ask him.

They were exceeding sorry: possibly they were sorry that they could not understand it, and reconcile it to the notion of the Messias they had drank in; for it seems hard to assert they were sorry for what Christ said about his suffering, because the Scripture saith, they understood it not, thinking our Saviour had not spoken plainly of a matter of fact which should be, but that he intended something else besides what his words seemed plainly to import.

Verses 24-27

The Jews were by God’s law, Exodus 30:13, obliged to pay a half shekel, which was for the service of the sanctuary, Exodus 30:16, this was paid every year. The half shekel amounted in our money to fifteen pence, or thereabouts. Whether this were the tribute money here demanded and paid, some doubt, and say that the Romans having the Jews now under their power, imposed this payment upon every head, as a tribute to the emperor; which being a customary payment, they thought the Jews would less stumble at, though it was changed from a sacred to a civil use, from a homage penny to God, to be a homage penny to the conquerors. The agreement of this sum with what was required by the law, together with what our Saviour saith afterward, will incline us to think that this tax was that religious tax mentioned in Exodus 30:13-16, and that the collectors were some officers deputed for that service by the priests. When Peter came into the house, our Saviour prevents his propounding the question to him, (for Peter had before told them, Yes he did), by asking him of whom the kings of the earth use to receive tribute, of their own children, or of strangers? Where by children we must not understand their political children, that is, their subjects, but their natural children, for otherwise Peter would not have said, Of strangers, nor would our Saviour have answered, Then are the children free; for there is nothing more ordinary than for princes to receive tribute of their subjects. That which our Saviour seemeth to mean is this: This tribute is gathered for my heavenly Father. I am his Son, I am not bound to pay it.

Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, lest we give them occasion to say we break the law of God,

go thou to the sea, ( the sea of Galilee, which was near),

and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find στατηρα, a piece of money, to the value of about a half crown in English. How this money came in the mouth of the fish is a very idle dispute, considering that he that speaks was the Creator of all things.

That take, and give unto them for me and thee. The papists, who think they have found here an argument for the primacy of Peter, because Christ paid this tribute for him, and not for the other disciples, do not only affirm what they do not know, but forget that Capernaum was the city in which Peter lived, (we heard before of Christ’s curing his wife’s mother there of a fever), and that Peter was the only man of whom this tribute was demanded. This portion of Scripture affords us this instruction: That it is the duty of Christians to yield something of their own right, when they cannot insist upon and obtain it without a scandal and prejudice to the gospel, and the concern of religion. If this were required in pursuance of the law, Exodus 30:12,Exodus 30:13, and our Saviour had refused to pay it, the scribes and Pharisees would have clamoured against him as violating the law of God. If it were required as a civil tax, they would have clamoured against him as a man that went about to stir up sedition or rebellion. Having therefore first asserted his right and immunity, he departeth from it to prevent a scandal. We must never part with God’s right; but to depart from our own is not only lawful, but oftentimes very advisable and expedient. Our Saviour chooseth rather to work a miracle than to give a scandal, and by this miracle he also confirmed his immunity, that he was the Son of him who is the King of kings, and so not in strictness obliged to pay it.

Bibliographical Information
Poole, Matthew, "Commentary on Matthew 17". Poole's English Annotations on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mpc/matthew-17.html. 1685.
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