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‘And after six days Jesus takes with Him Peter, and James, and John his brother, and brings them up into a high mountain apart.’
‘After six days.’ Here we must ask the question, six days from when? The answer could possibly be ‘after the confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi’, or it could signify six days ‘after saying these words’. The fact that Luke has it as ‘about eight days after’, however, possibly warns against our trying to read too much into the ‘six days’. (Luke’s ‘about eight days’ includes a part day at the beginning and a part day at the end, and is therefore the equivalent of these six days). It would thus appear simply to literally indicate the passing of time an unusual situation in Matthew, although of course taken from his source. Nevertheless as he could easily have abbreviated it out, as he so often does with extraneous material, this suggests that at the very minimum it is because he wants to maintain the link between the Transfiguration and what has gone before. This would seem to confirm the fact that he sees the Transfiguration as at least a partial fulfilment of the promise in Matthew 16:28, if not the whole.
Some have seen the six days as connected with the six days in Exodus 24:16, but surely if Matthew had intended us to identify with those he would have introduced ‘and on the seventh day’ as it does in Exodus. Nor are the circumstances anything like identical. In Exodus 24:16 Moses was already higher up the mountain prior to waiting for the six days, and the waiting was in order to enter the cloud. Furthermore Moses did not initially take up only three people, he took up seventy four, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, the seventy elders and Joshua. The differences are thus significant. If Jesus (or Matthew) had wanted us to identify the two scenarios surely more effort would have been put into some kind of nearer parallelism. The emphasis in Matthew, as in the other Gospels, is on Moses AND Elijah, even if Moses does come first, in other words on the Law and the Prophets.
‘Peter and James and John.’ It is clear that these three are selected out as special and especially trustworthy witnesses from among the disciples (compare Matthew 26:37; Mark 5:37). Three is a number indicating completeness which is why we so often find threes in Scripture.
‘Into a high mountain apart.’ The suggestion of a high mountain indicates an ‘other worldly’ experience for Him. Compare Matthew 4:8. This in the same way as going up into ‘the mountain’ always seems to indicate a specially blessed experience for His disciples, although at a lower level.
The mountain where the Transfiguration happened is traditionally said to have been Mount Tabor, a 600 metre (1,900 foot) hill that rises conspicuously at the east end of the Jezreel Valley. However as Josephus wrote that in those days there was a walled fortress on its summit it would not really have been the place to go for peace and solitude, and it is not really describable as ‘a high mountain’. Others have suggested Mount Hermon. This was close to Caesarea Philippi, and was 3000 metres (9,232 feet) high. But that would be an unlikely place to find Scribes and a crowd waiting at the bottom (although crowds did go long distances seeking Jesus). Another suggestion is Mount Miron, the highest mountain in Israel between Caesarea Philippi and Capernaum at 1,000 metre (3,926 feet) high. A fourth possibility is Mount Arbel on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. This is a high mountain from which the whole of the Sea of Galilee is visible. Mount Miron would appear a likely candidate, but clearly no one thought the question important, which tends to confirm that we are to learn a lesson from the fact that it was a ‘high mountain’.
Jesus Is Confirmed As The Son of God, Begins To Establish His New Congregation, Reaches Out To Gentiles, Is Acknowledged As Messiah By His Disciples, and Reveals His Inherent Glory (13:53-17:27).
The advance of the Kingly Rule of Heaven leading up to the final consummation having been made clear by His parables Jesus is now confirmed as the Son of God (Matthew 14:33; Matthew 16:16; Matthew 18:26) and begins to establish a new open community (Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:32-39; Matthew 16:18; compare Matthew 12:25; Matthew 12:50; Matthew 5-7; Matthew 9:15-17). This idea of commencing a new open community was not in itself a novelty among the Jews. The Pharisees had formed their own open community, the Essenes had formed an open community, Qumran had formed a closed community, the disciples of John the Baptist had formed their own open community. The difference was that all of those communities were preparatory, each in its own way awaiting the coming of God’s future Kingly Rule. But as we have seen, Jesus was now establishing God’s Kingly Rule among men (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 6:33; Matthew 11:12; Matthew 13:38; Matthew 13:41). Those who came to Him therefore entered under God’s Kingly Rule.
And as He does so a new vision opens before Him, and His outreach goes out to the Gentiles as well as the Jews (Matthew 15:21-28; Matthew 15:31; Matthew 16:13). His acceptance of this comes out in His feeding of both Jews and Gentiles with the bread of heaven (Matthew 15:32-39). It is thus on mixed Jewish and Gentile territory that He is revealed to be the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). The section closes with a clear demonstration of His Sonship and authority over the Temple (Matthew 17:24-27).
But all this is built on the fact of rejection by His own home town (Matthew 13:53-58) and by the civil authorities, the ‘powers that be’, in Galilee (Matthew 14:1-13), followed by the continuing hostility of the most religious and respected men of the day, in combination with the teachers from Jerusalem (Matthew 15:1-14; Matthew 16:1-4). Those who ‘hear’ do not hear, those who ‘see’ do not see, and their hearts are hardened. But those who follow Him will both hear and see (Matthew 16:17; compare Matthew 11:25; Matthew 13:7), even though their faith is small (Matthew 14:31 (compare Matthew 6:30); Matthew 17:20). We can thus understand why He found it necessary to move north. The way was not to be easy.
One theme of this section is feeding. The food of the godless authorities is the head of John the Baptist on a platter (Matthew 14:11) while in contrast those who seek Him feed on the bread of Heaven (Matthew 14:13-21). The Gentiles who seek Him may ‘eat of the children’s food’ (Matthew 15:27-28). They too thus eat of the bread of Heaven (Matthew 15:32-39). The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees is false teaching (Matthew 16:5-12). That is not to be partaken of.
Note how, following the ministry of chapter 10, mention had been made of the imprisonment of John (Matthew 11:2), followed by the approach of the Scribes and Pharisees to ‘attack’ Jesus (Matthew 12:1-14). Now those ideas are repeated and intensified. The imprisoned John is martyred (Matthew 14:1-12) and the aggressive Pharisees and Scribes are now ‘from Jerusalem’ (Matthew 15:1).
Analysis of the Section Matthew 13:53 to Matthew 17:27
a Jesus comes to His home country. A prophet is without honour in His own country (Matthew 13:53-57).
b He did not many mighty works in His home town because of their unbelief, but because of His mighty works Herod thinks that Jesus is John raised from the dead (Matthew 13:58 to Matthew 14:2).
c Herod arranges for the execution of John and does to him whatever he will (Matthew 14:3-12).
d Jesus reveals His glory, and that He has brought food from Heaven, by feeding five thousand at one time. Then He is alone in the Mountain (Matthew 14:13-21).
e Jesus walks on the water in a stiff and contrary wind and Peter is called on to walk the way of faith in the face of the tempest (Matthew 14:22-31).
f They proclaim Him as the Son of God (Matthew 14:32-36).
g The Scribes and Pharisees challenge Jesus about ritual washing (Matthew 15:1-9).
h Jesus shows that the Pharisees are rejected because they have not been planted by the Father and are blind guides (Matthew 15:10-20).
i The Canaanite woman may, as a Gentile ‘puppy’, eat of the children’s food (Matthew 15:21-28).
j The crowds throng to Jesus, and the dumb, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are healed and ‘they glorified the God of Israel’ (Matthew 15:29-31).
i The feeding of four thousand on Gentile territory. They eat of the children’s food (Matthew 15:32-39).
h The Pharisees and Sadducees seek a sign and are refused one, apart from that of Jonah, and are described as evil and adulterous for doing so (Matthew 16:1-4)
g The disciples are to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12).
f Jesus is confessed as the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:13-20).
e The Son of Man must suffer, and His disciples are called on to walk the way of suffering (Matthew 16:21-28).
d Jesus’ glory is revealed to His three chosen disciples in the high mountain. Then they see no man but Jesus only (Matthew 17:1-8).
c Elijah has come but ‘they have done to him whatever they would’ and they realise that He means John the Baptist and is referring to what happened to him (Matthew 17:9-13).
b The disciples fail to heal the paralytic boy because of their unbelief, but faith will move mountains, thus although Jesus will be tried and executed He will be raised from the dead (Matthew 17:14-23).
a Jesus is not recognised in His own country as the Son and therefore pays the Tribute, but He does it from His Father’s treasury (Matthew 17:24-27).
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus is unrecognised for what He is because He is known too well as the son of the carpenter, and in the parallel He is unrecognised even though He is the Son of God. In ‘b’ Jesus is unable to heal in His own country because in their unbelief they do not bring their sick, although His mighty works connect Him with the resurrection, and in the parallel the disciples fail to heal because their faith is insufficient, and Jesus reveals His faith by assuring His disciples of His resurrection. In ‘c’ Herod does to John the Baptist whatever He wills, and in the parallel John the Baptist is declared by Jesus to be the coming Elijah, to whom men did what they willed. In ‘d’ Jesus displays His glory be feeding five thousand and more from five loaves and two fishes, and in the parallel He displays His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. In ‘e’ Jesus walks on water in a stiff and contrary wind, and Peter stumbles, and in the parallel Jesus reveals He must walk the way of suffering, as must His disciples, and Peter again stumbles. In ‘f’ He is proclaimed to be the Son of God, and in the parallel He is proclaimed by Peter as the Son of the Living God. In ‘g’ the Scribes and Pharisees dispute about ritual washing, and in the parallel Jesus warns against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. In ‘h’ the Pharisees are declared not to have been planted by His Father, and to be blind guides, and in the parallel the Pharisees and Sadducees are refused the kind of sign that they want and are declared to be evil and spiritually adulterous. In ‘i’ the Canaanite woman is allowed to eat of the children’s food (that of Israel), and in the parallel the four thousand ‘eat of the children’s food’. Centrally in ‘j’ the crowds in Gentile areas throng to Jesus; the dumb, the maimed, the lame, and the blind are healed (His Messianic work is done among them) and ‘they glorify the God of Israel’.
‘And He was transfigured before them, and his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.’
And there in that high mountain the disciples saw an amazing transformation take place. They saw Jesus transfigured before them. Before their eyes His face shone like the sun, and His clothing became ‘white as light’, glistening and other worldly, and glorious. And they must have been shaken to the core, for this was not what they had been expecting when they went up with Him into the mount. It was true that Peter had declared Jesus to be ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’. But those had been words which manifested a conviction that had taken hold of his heart. This was something different. They were seeing that He was. They were being made to recognise as never before the uniqueness of Jesus.
And well they might for there is no other occasion in Scripture where this kind of appearance is seen as being true of a human being. It is seen to be true to some extent of heavenly figures (see Matthew 28:3; Daniel 10:5-6; Revelation 1:13-15), but never of an earthly One. For here there is no thought that it is the presence of God in glory that has caused it. This is no reflected glory, as it was with Moses when his face, and only his face, shone in Exodus 34:29, when he had been face to face with God in the cloud. (We should note also that that was semi-permanent and that Moses brought it down from the mountain with him. It was not a once for all revelation. It was borrowed glory intended to impress the people below. So its source was different, its aim was different, and the detail of the description is very different). The idea here is rather that the inward glory of Jesus is being revealed to His disciples. In that ‘high mountain’, having come closer, as it were, to Heaven, what He was in Himself could not remain hidden. The sun was the brightest light then known to man, and beyond man’s reach, and spoke of heavenly glory, while garments as white as light indicated total purity and unearthliness. He was thus here being revealed as of absolute glory and purity, and as basically One Who was from Heaven.
The description is, of course, making clear what was seen, not defining it. Glory shone out from Him. The parallels in the other Gospels mainly concentrate on the clothing. Mark says it was unearthly. It was ‘as no scourer on earth could whiten it’. Luke says it was ‘glistening’ (exastraptown), a word used in Daniel 10:9 of the glistening feet of a rather spectacular angel. But ‘white as light’ here in Matthew goes further. It brings to mind Psalms 104:2, ‘You are clothed with honour and majesty, Who cover yourself with light as with a garment’. This confirms that the aim here is to bring out Jesus’ ‘unearthliness’, and here in Matthew even His divinity.
Daniel 7:9 speaks of the Ancient of Days (God) as having ‘raiment as white as snow’ (compare Matthew 28:3), and this is in fact picked up by copyists who later incorporated it in the Transfiguration text of both Matthew (D and versions) and Mark (A D and versions). But even if we reject those readings on the basis of the evidence the comparison does confirm the heavenly nature of the ‘whiteness’. So Jesus is being revealed as a heavenly figure, and more.
This is backed up by the fact that the word for ‘white’ (leukos), when used elsewhere in the New Testament, either refers to the clothing of angels, or else to the clothing of glorified saints who have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus. It symbolises what is pure and is not of earth.
However Luke also confirms that ‘the appearance of His countenance was altered’, and Matthew here describes it as ‘shining like the sun’. This connects Him with the righteous who will in the future shine forth as the sun in the Kingly Rule of their Father (Matthew 13:43), but here it is seen as His already, not something that He has to receive in the future. He is already the Righteous One (compare Acts 3:14) shining like the sun. One day all the righteous ones, made righteous by His coming and the divine activity upon them (see on Matthew 5:6), will be like Him for they will see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). Matthew may well also have had in mind the Sun of righteousness Who would arise with healing in His wings (Malachi 4:3).
This growing in righteousness and glory of His people so that they become ‘the righteous’ is in fact revealed in similar terms to the Transfiguration in 2 Corinthians 3:18. There it comes about through beholding/reflecting the glory of the Lord. But there it is we and not the Lord whose shining is likened to the shining of Moses’ skin.
Comparison can be made with the faces which were ‘as lightning’, again of the angels in Matthew 28:3; Daniel 10:9. But as the sun is brighter and more permanent than the lightning, so was His glory seen to be more glorious as compared with theirs. If the ideas are being borrowed and to some extent improved on in order to bring out what is unique, the outshining of the glory of Jesus (compare Hebrews 1:3), they are not just being duplicated. In contrast with them He is the outshining of the glory of God and the ‘stamped out image’ of His substance (Hebrews 1:3). As Peter puts it, ‘we were eyewitnesses of His majesty’ and ‘He received honour and glory from God the Father’ (2 Peter 1:16-17).
However, the main immediate comparison that would probably have been made by the Apostles as they saw Him in His glory on the Mount, would be with the glory of the Lord as He came down on the Tabernacle (and later the Temple). There He met with the children of Israel, and there His holiness was manifested. See Exodus 29:43; Exodus 40:34-35; 1 Kings 8:11. But here the glory is seen rather to have emanated from Jesus, revealing that Jesus Himself was, in His humanity, God’s Dwellingplace, and it is important in this regard to note that the glory is seen as being that of Jesus Himself, for the voice of the Father ‘came out of Heaven’ (2 Peter 1:18), from the cloud, not from Jesus Himself.
This ‘vision’ might well also have reminded the disciples of another vivid scene in Isaiah 6:1-8. That too was a glorious vision of a King in His glory, for although His glory is not mentioned there, it is implied in the fact that the seraphim covered their faces before Him and in the moving of the foundations, and there can be little doubt that the disciples would have seen that appearance in Isaiah in the light of the Shekinah, the revelation of the glory of God in His Dwellingplace. And there too He was accompanied by heavenly attendants who spoke to Him. There too the cloud came down (the house was filled with a smoke cloud), and there too a voice spoke from Heaven, referring to the need to listen (which would not be heeded in the case of Isaiah’s listeners). So there are a number of similarities. Of course here on the Mount Jesus could not yet be on a throne because He had not yet been glorified, but that is how He will be depicted in Matthew 25:31. Here He is being depicted rather as the beloved Son, prior to His coronation (Matthew 28:18), but it is probably still in terms of that vision of Isaiah (compare also Isaiah 60:19). This ties in again with Matthew’s emphasis on Isaiah and his prophecies in Matthew 3:2 to Matthew 20:28.
Later in Revelation 1:13-16 similar descriptions will be used of Jesus, in a similar manifestation of glory, there described in terms of His face shining as the sun and as walking in the midst of His ‘congregation’, (seen in terms of seven ‘congregations’ which represent the universal congregation), and having the keys of Death and of Hades. These are concepts which tie in with this whole passage from Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:8, which reveals as it does the increasing manifestation of Christ, first as the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16) revealed in power in establishing His congregation and bringing the keys which release from Hades (Matthew 16:18), and then as the glorious Son making known His glory (Matthew 17:2; Matthew 17:5; Revelation 1:17). And all this in terms of tribulation and kingship (Matthew 16:24-25; Matthew 16:28; Revelation 1:9). It is no coincidence that the Apostle John was present at both visions. Revelation 1:0 was an even greater (because totally heavenly) manifestation of what happened here.
‘And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah talking with him.’
And then to cap His glory Moses and Elijah appeared before the amazed eyes of the disciples and talked with Him. Men of Heaven came down to earth. ‘Behold’ indicates something new that is happening of which note should be taken. His glorious Transfiguration had undoubtedly revealed His heavenly nature and status (compare John 17:5), but now the question is, what did the presence of Moses and Elijah reveal, and what did it mean? Note that they were ‘talking with Him’. It was not just to be seen as a series of strange visions, but as something that actually took place in which Moses and Elijah had a part to play.
It is quite possible that the disciples did not know who the visitors were at first, although it is equally possible that both Moses and Elijah wore things that identified them. Elijah’s prophetic dress would certainly have been very distinctive. But their conversations would probably be the sealing factor.
Unquestionably the first significance of their presence is that it indicated that both the great Lawgiver of Israel, and the great representative of the Prophets who, as the greatest of all the prophets, was to return again to turn many to God (Malachi 4:5), were there to witness to Jesus. And they were both there in their heavenly state, supporting Jesus, and seeing Him as the central figure, and as the One to Whom they looked, and to Whom they offered their support. It confirms that both of them supported what Jesus was doing, and that in Him a greater than Moses, and a greater than Elijah (compare Matthew 12:41-42), had come, in order to ‘fulfil the Law or the Prophets’ (Matthew 5:17). And that is no doubt what they were talking to Him about. In this regard it should be noted that the book of the Prophets had closed with the words ‘Remember you the law of Moses My servant --- behold I will send you Elijah the prophet’ (Malachi 4:4-5). Now they were both there testifying to Jesus.
A further point that might be significant was that both of these men had previously gone into mountains for the very purpose of experiencing the mighty presence of God in person (Exodus 24:15; 1 Kings 19:8-18). And now here they were again in the mountain, but this time sharing in the glory of Jesus.
Matthew, like Luke, has reversed the order from ‘Elijah and Moses’ as found in Mark. Part of the reason for this might have been in order to fit in with the order in Matthew 5:17. But it may also signify that as a Jew he is putting a greater emphasis on Moses. To the Jews Moses had an unparalleled pre-eminence.
However, the grounds for seeing a ‘second Moses’ motif, rather than a second exodus motif, are not solid, unless we simply see by that that Jesus ‘fulfilled’ both Moses and Elijah, and more. While there are superficial similarities to the book of Exodus they are not exact enough to indicate that. Jesus is not here to be seen as a second Moses nor as a second Elijah. He is greater than both and fulfils both, and both point to Him. In Him ‘Israel’ are finally ‘coming out of Egypt’ for good (Matthew 2:15). And we should note in this regard that Matthew deliberately omits the fact that they were speaking of His coming ‘exodus’ (Luke 9:31) which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem, which would be strange if he particularly wanted to emphasise Jesus as a second, or even superior, Moses. Furthermore the reversal of the order actually makes it more difficult to see a pointer forward to a new Elijah (John), followed by a new Moses (Jesus) as lying behind the two names.
So what the presence of Moses and Elijah is accomplishing is the confirmation of Jesus’ unique status as the One to whom they had pointed as representatives of the Law and the Prophets. They had pointed forward. He is the fulfilment of it all. And what Matthew’s order may be intended to suggest is that he saw them as representing salvation history from its commencement to that time, with Moses as the great initial Deliverer, and Elijah as the final preparer of the way. And now the One has come for whom both have prepared, and they must point to Him and then withdraw. Their task is done. For Elijah’s work has been completed by John the Baptist. But none of the three disciples would ever forget that they had seen these great men bear witness to their Master. It threw new light onto many things.
But there is possibly a further significance in the mentioning of these two, for Moses was the one who originally formed ‘the congregation of Israel’ into a cohesive unit, and miraculously fed them with bread in the wilderness, and Elijah had been responsible in the northern kingdom of Israel for establishing ‘the sons of the prophets’ and for taking care of the seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal whom God had reserved to Himself (1 Kings 19:18), who represented what was left of the congregation of Israel that was still acceptable to God, thereby establishing a new ‘congregation’ from the remnant. And he also miraculously fed a woman and her son with bread (1 Kings 17:12-16), while his successor too, who shared his spirit (2 Kings 2:9; 2 Kings 2:15), miraculously fed a hundred of his followers with bread (2 Kings 4:42-44, compare Matthew 4:1-7). Thus these two may be seen as pointing ahead to the One who will form and miraculously feed in a far greater way the final new ‘congregation of Israel’, preserved out of the old.
‘And Peter answered, and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If it is your will I will make here three booths, one for you, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” ’
Peter appears to have considered that this wonderful scene was something that was intended to be permanent, or at least strove to make it so, although Mark tells us that he also spoke out of fear, not knowing what to say. So we must not judge him too harshly. But what he says does demonstrate that to him at least what he was seeing was actually happening and not just a vision. For he suggested that he and his fellow disciples should build three booths, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah (for such great leaders could hardly be expected to build their own). His probable idea was that these booths would shield their glory from the people (see Luke 9:31) and act as sanctuaries to which people could come to consult with them. It may also have included the idea that as they had apparently come to assist Jesus in His work, they must therefore be given accommodation suited to their status (as tents of generals might be around that of the king). They would have been seen by Peter as useful men to have around. For both Moses and Elijah had been highly experienced in dealing with aggressors in their day, and Peter might have seen in their presence a hope of the fulfilment of his confession about the Messiah, without any suffering, which would lead to these mighty three acting to bring in the Kingly Rule of God. His view would be that such heavenly visitants could hardly fail to achieve their aims. And in his ignorance the last thing that he wanted was for them to leave. The mighty Peter who had been blessed by God with the revelation about Jesus’ Messiahship, is now seen to be the foolish Peter whose ideas are ridiculous in the extreme. He is being taught that he has much to learn.
Possibly also there was the thought that the people would be able to come up the mountain and seek the wisdom of these three great teachers, and see in their presence the sign that up to this point Jesus had refused to give. Perhaps, Peter might have thought, this was what Jesus had been leading up to? His idea was probably that this would indeed then cause a stirring among the people and an establishing of the truth in their hearts, after which, led by these three ‘greats’, the people would go forward to conquer the world. Their prayer of, ‘Your Kingly Rule come’ would be dramatically answered (at this stage the Apostles were still looking for an earthly ‘kingdom’ - Acts 1:6).
Compare how both James and John are thinking of Jesus in similar physical terms when they try to pre-empt Peter later for the positions at His right and left hand sides (Matthew 20:21), and how John will describe the two witnesses in Revelation 11:5-6 in terms which appear to have Moses and Elijah in mind, although by then his ideas had been straightened out and he recognises their secondary position and that Jesus’ throne and kingship is in Heaven, so that their presence simply leads up to the Rapture and the final judgment, pictured in vivid terms.
There was, of course, in this idea of Peter’s a diminishing of the status of Jesus which Peter apparently did not appreciate, but he was soon to be made aware of it in the voice that followed, which would single out Jesus as unique, and greater than Moses and Elijah, as the One Who alone was to be listened to. Moses and Elijah were of the past. The future lay with Jesus and His words. He would not share His glory with another. (Nor indeed could they share it).
‘While he was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed (or ‘enveloped’) them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, hear you him.” ’
For even while he was speaking a voice from Heaven spoke out and corrected him. This was also accompanied by a bright cloud which overshadowed ‘them’. This might refer to overshadowing Jesus, Moses and Elijah, or it might include the disciples as well. In the Old Testament this kind of manifestation regularly indicated the presence of God in the past, especially at the time of the Exodus, and would do so in last days (Psalms 97:2; Isaiah 4:5; Ezekiel 30:3; Daniel 7:13; Zephaniah 1:15). So here the Father had come down to testify to His Son ‘from Heaven’ in the fulfilment of His ongoing purposes.
Then a voice spoke from the cloud. This was not the faint ‘bath qol’ (daughter of a voice) spoken of by the Pharisees. It was a firm, strong and powerful voice that brought dread into the hearts of the disciples. And it repeated the words spoken after Jesus’ baptism. “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17), adding “Hear you him.” ’ Once again we have echoes of the Exodus (Exodus 20:0).
As we have already seen these words indicate that Jesus is the coming King (Psalms 2:7) and the coming Servant of the Lord of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1). But the combination indicates more than that. It indicates a unique relationship with the Father (Matthew 11:25-27; Matthew 14:33; Matthew 16:16). He is ‘My beloved Son’. The final words ‘hear Him’ (compare Deuteronomy 18:15) then turn them away from Moses and Elijah to Jesus, the greatest Prophet of all. He and He alone is the One to Whom they must now look. To us this is so obvious that it hardly needed to be said. But to those disciples, brought up to revere Moses and the prophets, and to look to them for all truth, it was a salutary lesson. Jesus was now to be all in all to them. They would have a totally new view of Him from now on.
‘And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were very much afraid.’
There is really no doubt that these three disciples must have been filled with awe from the beginning (as the other Gospels make clear). What they were seeing and experiencing was truly awesome. They would unquestionably have been shaken by the unbelievable glory emanating from Jesus, they would have been bewildered and astonished by the mysterious appearance and presence of men who had been heroes to them all their lives, and whom they knew were passed on and no longer of this world, and now the bright cloud which engulfed them and the voice that spoke to them was the final straw. They recognised that ‘God was in this place’. Here it is especially the voice that has made them very much afraid. We can compare this with the fear that Israel of old had known when God spoke to them directly (Exodus 20:19-20; Deuteronomy 5:24-27). Here were the foundations of the new Israel experiencing the same problem. And thus they fell down to the ground and buried their faces. They did not want to see or hear any more. It was all too much for them.
‘And Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.’
The three disciples had been so very much afraid at the realisation of the nearness of God, accompanied no doubt by a deep awareness an sense of His presence, that they had fallen on their faces, hiding their eyes in the ground. Thus we are not told what followed, for they knew nothing more until Jesus came to them and touched them, telling them to stand up and not be afraid. And when they then lifted up their eyes the vision had gone and they were alone with Jesus. ‘They saw no man but Jesus only.’
Their being touched by Jesus in this way parallels the touching of Daniel by the angel whose description has lent something to this narrative (Daniel 10:10). But it is not just a matter of borrowing ideas, for as we have been told, Jesus constantly touches people (e.g. Matthew 8:3; Matthew 8:15; Matthew 9:29; Matthew 20:34). The point is that the disciples were traumatised, just as Daniel had been, and in need of supernatural help. There the angel had helped Daniel up. Jesus may well have done the same here. It is a reminder that when we are desolated we can be sure that Jesus will always approach us and touch us when we fall before Him. But in this case it was more than that, and perhaps the sequence of hearing a voice, falling on their faces, being afraid, receiving a touch, and being told not to be afraid was intended to indicate that what they had seen was a heavenly visitation as in Daniel.
They must have experienced a feeling of great relief, and at the same time of great disappointment, when they rose to their feet. On the one hand they had failed to see the end of what was being enacted out, and now it was gone, but in another they had now got Jesus back, seemingly just as He was before, although they would never be able to see Him in quite the same way again. The lesson had, however, been learned. Others could go on looking to the past. But they now knew that the past pointed to Jesus, and that He was the future, for those who were the greatest of the past had themselves said so. So they not only ‘saw Jesus only’, but knew that He was all that they would need for the future. They could still learn from Moses and the prophets, but now only because they pointed to Jesus.
As we close this passage we should stop for a moment and try to consider and experience its deeper significance. We can become so tied up with our explanations of ‘this and that’ that we overlook the whole. The experience would never be forgotten and would forever be spoken of in the future with an awed voice (2 Peter 1:15-18). The manifestation of the eternal glory of Jesus in a light that outshone the sun, and of His purity as revealed by the unearthly and dazzling whiteness of His clothing, the appearance from the past, and from beyond, of the great Moses and the fiery Elijah, the bright cloud that overshadowed them, the sense of the presence of a holy God in a way never known by them before, the terrible voice speaking from the cloud concerning His beloved Son, all were reminders of the purpose for which they had been chosen, even though as yet their conceptions of what it was were so small. They knew now that this was something beyond anything that they could have previously conceived. Jesus was the Son of the living God indeed.
‘And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead.” ’
Jesus makes clear, as they descend from the mountain, that the vision had been meant for them and them alone, until after His resurrection. The last thing He wanted was for the crowds to be stirred up to do something foolish. He did not want to be the cause of a revolution. And again He reminds them that as the Son of Man He must arise from the dead.
Jesus And The Disciples Descend From The Mountain. The Truth About John the Baptist (17:9-13).
As they were coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded silence about what they had seen until He had risen from the dead. (They would be unaware of how soon that would be). It was not only the idea of His Messiahship that He did not want spreading (by those who did not fully understand it), it was the whole idea of Who He really was, to those who were not ready to receive it.
However they were now totally confident that He was the Coming One, and that the ‘last days’ were here. But in view of this they could not understand why Elijah had come and gone. They were puzzled. It was clear from what they had seen that the work of Moses and Elisha was now completed. Why then did the Scribes teach that Elijah would first come preparatory for God to act? Jesus’ reply was clear and simple. Elijah had come. He had come in the person of John the Baptist (compare Luke 1:15-22). But He incorporated within His reply a further warning of His coming suffering. They must not be deceived by having seen His glory into thinking that He could therefore not suffer.
a As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying (Matthew 17:9 a).
b “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead” (Matthew 17:9 b).
c And his disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must first come?” (Matthew 17:10).
d And he answered and said, “Elijah is indeed coming, and will restore all things” (Matthew 17:11).
c “But I say to you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but did to him whatever they would” (Matthew 17:12 a).
b “Even so will the Son of man also suffer of them” (Matthew 17:12 b).
a Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist (Matthew 17:13).
Note than in ‘a’ Jesus commanded them, and in the parallel they understood what He meant. In ‘b’ He refers to the resurrection of the Son of Man, and in the parallel to the prior death of the Son of Man. In ‘c’ is the question about the coming of Elijah, and in the parallel is the answer that Elijah has indeed come. Centrally in ‘d’ is the emphasis that the Scripture must be fulfilled.
‘And his disciples asked him, saying, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must first come?” ’
But the disciples were puzzled. They now accepted that He was the greater than Elijah, and that the last days were here, but why then had Elijah not come as the Scribes had declared? Were they wrong in that belief? Furthermore if Elijah was to restore all things as the Scribes taught, why would the Son of Man be treated in such a way that He needed to be raised? Surely that would mean that the Scribes would be on His side? None of it seemed to make sense. This last would be especially relevant if they had caught on to the fact that it was these very Scribes who would cause Jesus’ death.
‘And he answered and said, “Elijah is indeed coming, and will restore all things, but I say to you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but did to him whatever they would. Even so will the Son of man also suffer of them.” ’
In His reply Jesus first confirms that the promise that Elijah would come and ‘restore all things’ was true. ‘Restore all things’ is probably quoting the Scribal viewpoint, without necessarily accepting their interpretation of it (it is not found in Scriptures concerning Elijah, but Sir 48:10 paraphrases Malachi 4:6 as ‘to restore the tribes of Jacob’. Compare Isaiah 49:6 where ‘the preserved of Israel’ are in mind). But then He pointed out that that had already happened. Elijah had come (compare Matthew 11:14). But the Scribes had failed to recognise him as well (because he had not restored things in their favour and exalted them and their teaching), and thus they had ‘treated him as they would’. This last is a typically Jewish description representing the self-will of evil men (compare Daniel 8:4; Daniel 11:3; Daniel 11:16).
So the Scribes had failed to recognise the very one of whom they had spoken, and they had caused him to suffer just as they will also cause the Son of Man to suffer. Indeed their very treatment of Elijah means that such treatment must be anticipated for the Son of Man as well. If they fail to recognise the one, they will not recognise the other (compare here Matthew 21:23-27).
‘Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist.’
Then the disciples realised that He was speaking of John the Baptist. He was the Elijah who was coming. They had taken a further small step in understanding. But we may ask, can we really say that John had ‘restored all things’? Clearly a phrase like that can mean a number of things. It could not possibly be taken literally, for then he would have forestalled the Messiah. If ‘Elijah’ literally ‘restores all things’ there would be nothing left for anyone else to do. But what then was prophesied of the coming Elijah? It was that he would ‘turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers’ (Malachi 4:6). He would restore all that was necessary in God’s purposes. He would put right the basics. And this was to be in order to forestall the judgment of God and make His people ready for blessing and not cursing. This was the ‘restoration of all things’ that was promised.
And that was certainly also promised of John the Baptist. He would turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16). And he would go before God’s face in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to walk in the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people (Luke 1:17). This was the restoration promised, and this John fulfilled. This was why there was such fruitful ground awaiting the coming of Jesus (John 4:38).
‘And when they were come to the crowd, there came to him a man, kneeling to him, saying,’
Coming down from a mountain regularly results in a crowd, for they would be waiting for Him (compare Matthew 8:1). We do not know which mountain this was but by now they were probably back in Galilee. This is confirmed in Mark by the presence of Scribes. The man knelt before Him in order to back up his plea. The word suggests humility and entreaty.
The Failure Of The Disciples To Cast Out A Demon (17:14-18).
On arrival at the bottom of the mountain they came across a crowd of people who were with the disciples and there discovered that while Jesus was in the mountain they had been unable to heal a boy who gave the appearance of being epileptic as a result of the presence of a powerful demon active within him. Observing this Jesus expresses His concern at the faithlessness of that generation and heals the boy. This incident is always connected with the Transfiguration and it may well be that there is an indication in this that without the presence of Jesus with them the disciples’ faith had been affected. They were not sure where He had gone or what He was doing. It may also indicate that with Jesus involved in heavenly activity and out of the way the demon world felt more assured.
But we should note that Matthew, unlike Mark, lays little stress on the demonic power at work here, although noting it at the end. He speaks rather of the boy being ‘cured’. There was seemingly a mixture of disease and demon possession. Perhaps indeed the demon possession had taken place as a result of using occult methods to try to cure the boy of epilepsy. Matthew’s main aim here is to bring out the failure and lack of faith of the disciples. And as usual he abbreviates considerably.
A vivid picture is found here of how little the disciples could achieve without the power of Jesus with them. That is why Jesus’ last words in Matthew are, ‘lo I am with you always’ (Matthew 28:20). Without Him they could do nothing.
a And when they were come to the crowd, there came to him a man, kneeling to him (Matthew 17:14).
b Saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously, for regularly he falls into the fire, and regularly into the water” (Matthew 17:15).
c “And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him” (Matthew 17:16).
d ‘And Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” (Matthew 17:17 a).
c “Bring him here to me” (Matthew 17:17 b).
b And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon went out of him (Matthew 17:18 a).
a And the boy was cured from that hour (Matthew 17:18 b).
Note that in ‘a’ the man came to Jesus and knelt before Him, and in the parallel the boy was subsequently cured. In ‘b He learned about the demon’s activity in the boy, and in the parallel He cast it out. In ‘c’ the boy was brought to the disciples but they could not cure him, and in the parallel Jesus said ‘Bring him to Me’. Centrally in ‘d’ Jesus bemoaned the faithlessness and perversity of that generation.
The Problem of Unbelief, The Reason For Unbelief, And The One Who Will Triumph Through Faith (17:14-23).
At the commencement of this section we learned of the problem of unbelief (Matthew 13:58) which was connected with the power of Jesus and the idea of resurrection (Matthew 14:1-2). Now in this parallel passage we discover an example of unbelief in the disciples (Matthew 17:14-18), which is followed by describing the kind of faith that is required (Matthew 17:19-21) and the example of the One Who has that faith and Who as a result will come through suffering and death, to resurrection (Matthew 17:22-23).
“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is epileptic, and suffers grievously, for regularly he falls into the fire, and regularly into the water.”
He asked Him to have compassion of his son. Here the son is described as ‘affected by the moon’ (lunatic), translated as epileptic because of the symptoms, and also, some have suggested, because epileptics were seen as ‘moonstruck’. But in Mark it is made clear that he is possessed by a ‘dumb spirit’, and that this was thus no ordinary epilepsy. It is unlikely that the Apostles would have been thwarted by an ordinary case of epilepsy. The presence of this evil spirit is confirmed here by the fact that it is stressed that it tends to cause the son to be cast into either fire or water. The suggestion appears to be that it happened to an abnormal extent, as though the demon had perverse pleasure in being selective, although it may simply be that the father vividly remembered such incidents and was using them to impress on Jesus the seriousness of the situation.
‘Lord.’ This was probably showing due reverence to a recognised prophet.
“And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not cure him.”
But then came the body blow. The disciples had been unable to cure the boy. It is noteworthy that we are shortly to learn that they were themselves shocked at their failure. They had expected to be successful, as it would appear up to this point they always had been. They were unable to understand their failure themselves. Thus they had clearly exercised a certain amount of faith, sufficient usually to achieve success. But it had not been enough. Before we are too critical we should note that probably all nine of the remaining Apostles were there and that not one of them had been able to be successful. It would seem that this was a particularly powerful demon.
The failure of the disciples has been a theme of this section. They did not understand about the loaves and the fishes (Matthew 14:16-21); they were afraid of the ghost at sea (Matthew 14:26-27); they could not understand why only what came from inside could defile a man (Matthew 15:16); they had wanted Him to send the Canaanite woman away without meeting her deepest need (Matthew 15:23); they failed to be aware of how the crowds could be fed (Matthew 15:33); they became anxious about having no bread in spite of all that they had seen and had been taught (Matthew 16:5); the disciples had failed to recognise in John the Baptist, the coming Elijah (Matthew 17:10-11). And now they have failed to cast out this demon. It is being made quite clear why they must have Jesus with them when they go out to disciple all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). Furthermore Peter had lost his faith as he looked at the ferocity of the tempest (Matthew 14:28-31); had sought to dissuade Jesus from the path of suffering (Matthew 16:22); and had wanted to keep Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus (Matthew 17:4). His moment of insight (Matthew 16:16) was seen as far outweighed by his failure to see. But what a different picture is revealed after Pentecost once the living Christ has possessed them through His Spirit.
‘And Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to me.” ’
Nevertheless Jesus was concerned about their failure, because of what it revealed about them. It meant that they were still only marginally better in themselves than others in their generation. They were lacking in what He desired to see in them. For He saw the whole generation of that time as lacking in faith, as unreliable, and as constantly disobedient and wayward (compare Matthew 12:39), and the disciples as being only a little better. They too were lacking in full faith and were perverse (constantly turning from the right path). Note how the two go together. The root cause of unbelief is the disobedient heart. For the ideas compare Deuteronomy 32:5. And because of this their failure was such that it caused Jesus great distress. He had hoped for so much more from them. In His view they should not have failed. Their faith should have been true. But it appeared that as soon as He left them to themselves they began to fail again.
‘How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?’ This brings out something of the trial that it was for Jesus to walk on earth in the midst of unbelief and failure which was so foreign to His own being. Had we been among them we would have been amazed at the greatness of their faith. But to Jesus it was very different. Their very attitude tore at His heart. Why was it that they were unable to understand and believe? He found it very hard to bear when He knew how faithful their Father was, and how He loved them.
‘Generation.’ The one generation that had less excuse than any other, for it was the generation that had had Jesus among them, and had proved itself for what it was (compare Matthew 12:41-42).
‘And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon went out of him, and the boy was cured from that hour.’
Then Jesus rebuked the evil spirit and it came out of him. There was no spirit, whatever its power and importance, that could do anything but obey Jesus. He had bound their master, He had no problem, even as a human being, in controlling his minions. Matthew stresses the instantaneous nature of the healing. This might suggest that as one of the disciples he was very conscious of how long they had tried to do it and had failed.
For ‘from that hour’ compare Matthew 8:13; Matthew 9:22; Matthew 15:28 referring to the centurion’s servant, the woman with constant bleeding, and the Canaanite woman, in each case concerning people with insistent faith, and people who came to Him against the odds. He always responded promptly to determined faith.
‘Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” ’
The disciples were deeply concerned by their failure. And when they were able to get Jesus alone they came to Him and asked why they had failed to cast the demon out. Their puzzlement brings out that they were not used to failing in this way. They had been taken by surprise.
The Reason For Their Failure (17:19-21).
The disciples learn that their failure was due to the lack of quality in their faith. What was needed was the kind of faith that can only be built up by depth in prayer (Mark 9:29). It was their failure to spend their time in continuing prayer that was at the root of their unbelief (Matthew 14:16-27; Matthew 14:31; Matthew 15:5; Matthew 15:8).
a Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” (Matthew 17:19).
b And he says to them, “Because of your little faith” (Matthew 17:20 a).
b “For truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:20 b).
a “You will say to this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place’, and it will remove, and nothing will be impossible to you” (Matthew 17:20 c).
Note that in ‘a’ they ask why they could not cast it out, and in the parallel that with proper faith they will be able to cast anything out. In ‘b’ their failure was due to little faith, and in the parallel all that is required is faith the size of a grain of mustard seed.
‘And he says to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Remove hence to yonder place’, and it will remove, and nothing will be impossible to you.” ’
Jesus explains that the reason that they had failed was because of the insufficiency of their faith. That it was quality of faith and not the size of it that mattered comes out in the comment that followed. If faith is of the right quality then only the tiniest amount is required, faith the size of a mustard seed, and the mustard seed was, in Palestine, the smallest of all seeds used by Galilean farmers and proverbially small. But with the right quality of faith even mountains can be removed by a word. Indeed, Jesus stresses, with the right quality of faith nothing is impossible. So what needs to be developed is faith, and this can only be developed by regular prayer. The need to build up faith is Matthew’s emphasis.
It is in Mark 9:29 that He makes clear that such faith is developed by much prayer. We are never told how much the disciples prayed, but from this it was clearly not enough. Jesus was not, of course, advocating actually removing mountains. That would hardly be within God’s will, and believing prayer must be within His will (1 John 5:14). He was speaking about every kind of difficulty. Compare especially Zechariah 4:7. ‘Removing mountains’ was a proverbial figure of speech for overcoming great difficulties (compare Matthew 21:21-22; Isaiah 40:4; Isaiah 49:11; Isaiah 54:10; Mark 11:23; Luke 17:6; 1 Corinthians 13:2).
‘And nothing will be impossible to you.’ Nothing would be impossible for the one who truly believed God. This was because of the greatness of their God (see Matthew 19:26). His point is that nothing is too hard for the Lord (see Genesis 18:14; Job 42:2; Jeremiah 32:17; Jeremiah 32:27), and therefore nothing is impossible for the one whose faith is true.
‘And while they gathered in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of man will be delivered up into the hands of men,” ’
This is the first specific indication that they are back in Galilee. At the opening of this section Jesus was in His home town (probably Nazareth although Matthew does not say so) and left it because of their unbelief (Matthew 13:53-58). Now He will return to His home town (Capernaum - Matthew 17:24 compare Matthew 4:13) where they still do not recognise Him. Matthew centres the salvation history around Galilee. He depicts Jesus’ ministry only from when it commences in Galilee (Matthew 4:12-16), as continually returning to Galilee, and as finalising in Galilee in the resurrection appearance on the mountain (Matthew 28:16-20), after the interlude in Jerusalem. This may be seen as confirming that he is a Galilean.
‘While they were gathered.’ Mark has ‘passing through’. This may suggest that the wider group of disciples were gathering ready for the trip to Jerusalem for Passover, so that prior to travelling to Jerusalem Jesus wants them all to be aware of what lies ahead. As the Son of Man He will be delivered by God into the hands of men. There may here be a wordplay on ‘Man’ and ‘men’. The One Who has come representing man, and as born of woman, will be delivered into men’s hands for them to do their will with Him. Men will show once and for all what they will do with a man who dares to be too much like God.
Others see the verb as meaning ‘gathered around Him, moved around together’, indicating that He was teaching them as they moved around.
As we have seen the chiasmus indicates that this must be taken together with the previous passages. Here therefore Jesus’ words are a demonstration of true faith. He is ready for His Father’s will, and is voluntarily following the path that will lead to it.
It is possible that ‘handed over’ has in mind Judas Iscariot. This might be Jesus’ first attempt to win Judas from the path he has chosen to tread.
Jesus Again Warns Of His Coming Arrest, Execution, And Rising Again (17:22-23).
Then Jesus presents the final example of faith. He is not just calling on His disciples to believe. He too will evidence His faith by going forward in the hands of God Who will deliver Him (‘will be delivered’ is a divine passive) into the hands of men. The result will then be that they will kill Him. But on the third day God will then raise Him from the dead. So He is going forward with His faith fully in His Father.
Jesus had given constant indications of the suffering that He must face almost from the beginning (Matthew 9:15; Matthew 10:38; Matthew 12:40 and compare John 2:19-22) but from the time of the disciples’ open recognition of Him as ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ He has proclaimed with even more force the necessity for His humiliation, death and resurrection in accordance with Isaiah 53:7-12. See Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:9; Matthew 17:12. But now it is included so as to demonstrate that He has the faith that He desires of His disciples. Initially He had spoken of it in Caesarea Philippi, but now it is in Galilee. He knows that His hour is near.
a And while they gathered (came together) in Galilee, Jesus said to them (Matthew 17:22 a).
b “The Son of man will be delivered up into the hands of men” (Matthew 17:22 b).
c “And they will kill him” (Matthew 17:23 a).
b “And the third day he will be raised up” (Matthew 17:23 b).
a And they were very upset (Matthew 17:23 c).
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus spoke seriously to them of what was coming, and in the parallel they were very upset. In ‘b’ we have a description of God’s first act in the coming drama and in the parallel God’s last act. Centrally in ‘c’ is the fact of what men will do in the face of God’s activity.
“And they will kill him, and the third day he will be raised up.” And they were very upset.’
And He then makes clear what will follow. ‘They will kill Him.’ He is in no doubt about what His fate will be. Man is to be allowed to do His worst. But the last word will be with His Father. On the third day He will be raised up. Jesus has total faith in His Father. For the rising up on the third day see on Matthew 16:21. ‘The third day’ might simply signify ‘within a short time of less than a week’, being in contrast with ‘seven days’ (compare the use of ‘three days’ and ‘seven days’ in Genesis).
The concentration of the disciples, in so far as they understand it at all, is on His words about death, and they are therefore very upset at this talk of death. They still cannot really bring themselves to believe it.
‘And when they were come to Capernaum, those who received the shekel came to Peter, and said, “Does not your teacher pay the didrachma (shekel)?” (Matthew 17:24).
The didrachma or shekel tax was probably that payable to the Temple treasury. It was payable yearly by Jews around the world, and contributed greatly to the Temple funds. It was an indication of their submission to God as His servants. Note the stress here on whether Jesus paid it. Peter, of course, had to pay it as well, and they may have approached him as the head of the house in which they were staying (compare Matthew 8:14). But the whole point of this narrative is as to whether Jesus should have to pay it (‘does not your teacher pay?’), although it does then lead on to the question as to whether any ‘son of God’ should pay it.
Jesus has, of course, with some of His disciples, been out of range of the collectors. Thus it is only when He arrives home that He is approached through Peter. As Passover was approaching the tax was due to be paid. The indirect question was probably simply a courtesy, but it raised the right background against which Jesus could make His position clear to Peter. The collectors did, of course, expect the answer to be ‘yes’.
Jesus Again Reveals His Sonship (17:24-27).
In contrast with man’s coming treatment of Him Jesus continues to reveal His Sonship preparatory to what is coming. What follows is not just an outlandish display of power and knowledge with little significance, it is a specific indication that He is no longer subject to men. To pay the Temple Tax to His Father from His own earthly resources would have been to indicate that He was still subject to men, and an acknowledgement that He was not truly the Son. But by offering it from the abundance of the seas, His Father’s treasury (the fish have no ruler - Habakkuk 1:14), as a sacrifice of righteousness (Deuteronomy 33:19), He makes clear His independence of men, and that He offers it as His Son.
Note On The Temple Tax.
The Law of Moses directed in Exodus 30:11 ff. that whenever the people of Israel were ‘numbered’, every male over twenty years old, rich and poor alike, should give a half shekel for the support of the Tabernacle as a kind of ransom. It was on this basis that Josiah demanded a special contribution to repair the temple (2 Chronicles 24:6). After the return from the captivity, Nehemiah and his followers "made ordinances" (thus not seeing it as something that was required by the law of Moses, but as something that was by voluntary agreement) that every year men should pay the third part of a shekel in order to provide sacrifices, etc., for the Temple (Nehemiah 10:32).
In Josephus the tax is a didrachma and in the Mishna the tax is a shekel, and according to LXX the didrachma, as spoken of here in Matthew, was the equivalent of one shekel. Thus the tax being required here is one shekel. The leaders had thus retained Nehemiah’s plan of making it annual, but had increased the sum to one shekel. The extra half shekel may have been seen as a voluntary further contribution for particular purposes, or it may be because they saw they saw the sacred shekel as worth twice the value of a shekel. (Thus half a sacred shekel is one shekel). The Mishna has a separate treatise on the subject of this tax. Priests, women, children, and slaves, were exempt from the tax, but might give if they wished. The Jews in Palestine were expected to give it well before the time of the Passover; those in foreign countries were allowed until Pentecost or even until Tabernacles, and there was a special chest in the temple for contributions due from the previous year so that people could catch up. Commissioners were sent throughout Palestine to collect the Tax (‘those who collect the didrachma’). They were distinct from the public servants who collected the government tax. In foreign countries the money was deposited by the leading Jews in some fortified city until it could be escorted to Jerusalem. (Josephus "Antiquities" 18, 9, 1.) Cicero states that gold was exported every year from Italy, and all the provinces, in the name of the Jews, to Jerusalem, and commends Flaccus for prohibiting this exportation from Asia Minor, the region around Ephesus (Cicero, "for Flaccus," 28.) Josephus says ("Antiquities" 3,8,2) that the gift in Exodus 30:11 was from men between twenty and fifty years old, a statement which may suggest that those were the limits in his times. After Titus destroyed Jerusalem, Vespasian decreed that the Jews everywhere "should bring two drachmas every year for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, as before they were wont to pay for the temple at Jerusalem." (Josephus’ "War," 7,6,6.).
The tax was in fact voluntary, but there was considerable pressure on people to pay it, and most appear to have done so fairly willingly. The Sadducees appear to have objected to it on the grounds that it was a recent imposition and not in the Law. The community at Qumran appears to have objected to it as a yearly tax supporting a Temple they did not agree with. They argued for a once for all redemptive tax. The tax had to be paid in Tyrian coinage, possibly so as to ensure that no human or animal image was on the coin. It was because of this that there were moneychangers in the Temple, doing a roaring trade. The voluntary contributions to the Temple were quite distinct from this yearly shekel, which was specifically required (by custom if not by the law), and were varied in amount (Mark 12:41 ff). Entirely separate from these was the tax due to the Roman government in the Roman province of Judea and Samaria (Matthew 22:1).
End of note.
a When they were come to Capernaum, those who received the shekel (didrachma) came to Peter, and said, “Does not your teacher pay the shekel?” (Matthew 17:24).
b He says, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke first to him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?” (Matthew 17:25).
b And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Therefore the sons are free” (Matthew 17:26).
a “But, lest we cause them offence, you go to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when you have opened his mouth, you will find a shekel, that take, and give it to them for me and you” (Matthew 17:27).
Note that in ‘a’ we have reference to those who collect the tax, and the request concerning payment of the tax, and in the parallel the desire not to cause them offence, and Jesus’ method of paying the tax. In ‘b’ Jesus asks the question concerning sons and strangers and in the parallel gives His conclusion with regard to both.
‘He says, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke first to him, saying, “What do you think, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? From their sons, or from strangers?” ’
As they expected Peter did say ‘Yes’. He knew of no reason why Jesus as a good Jew should be exempt, and probably knew that He had paid it without demur in previous years. But Jesus then challenges his assumption and makes him stop and think. He asks him who should pay tribute to a king. Should it be his sons, or should it be those outside the family?
‘The kings of the earth.’ Compare Psalms 2:2. Even the non-Davidic kings do not expect their own families to pay taxes. How much less then will the Father of the Davidic King expect it of His Son ‘The Anointed One’ (‘You are My Son’).
‘And when he said, “From strangers,” Jesus said to him, “Therefore the sons are free.” ’
When Peter necessarily replies, ‘of strangers’, Jesus then points out that therefore the sons, (and especially the Son), are free of the burden of the tax, for no King will look to his sons for the tax. This primarily means Himself as the Father’s Son, but it also includes in the end all those who through Him are sons of God.
“But, lest we cause them offence, you go to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first comes up, and when you have opened his mouth, you will find a shekel, that take, and give it to them for me and you.”
Thus Jesus is presenting Peter with a dilemma, for if what Jesus says is true, He Himself should not pay the Temple tax, and nor should Peter. But He is not desirous of making an issue of it, thereby causing offence, so He arranges to pay it in such a way that it is clear to Peter that it is not strictly He Who is paying it. And He does this by paying it out of His Father’ treasury. The treasures of the sea are God’s for the fish have no ruler over them (Habakkuk 1:14). And it is out of the abundance of the seas that the sacrifice of righteousness is offered (Deuteronomy 33:19). Thus by arranging to pay the Tax out of the fishes mouth Jesus evidences to Peter that He is the Son of God, because He pays the tax with His Father’s own money, while at the same time paying the tax, not as tribute, but as an offering of righteousness. Thus to all who know of this His Sonship is made clear.
Others have suggested that the idea is that money found by Peter belonged to Peter, thus if Peter paid both taxes with the coin he found then Jesus had not been involved in paying the tax. But this seems somewhat devious.
‘Cause offence.’ Or ‘cause to stumble’. The idea may be that it will be putting the collectors in difficulties, so that they would have to appeal to Jerusalem, and then put pressure on Him as the Son of God. Thus as a result of His action they would be caught up in sin, and that was something that He did not want.
This is the only place in the New Testament where fishing takes place by hook in order to catch an individual fish. It confirms that only one fish was to be caught. There are a number of fish in the Sea of Galilee capable of carrying a coin in their mouths, and there are a number of stories about coins being found in fishes mouths. The only reason for doubting the story as it stands is therefore scepticism. The recourse to ‘legend’ is the approach of those of ‘little faith’.
Some have suggested that Jesus was speaking jocularly and telling Peter to pay the tax by doing some fishing. But there is no real reason for doubting that Jesus meant what He said and that Peter did what He said and discovered that everything happened as He had said. It would be a test of Peter’s faith that might reassure him after his failure to walk on the waters.
This miracle is an outstanding example of ‘the gift of knowledge’ (1 Corinthians 12:8) combined with an act of God’s sovereignty. Jesus knew from His Father that the coin was there, and how to go about catching the right fish. And His Father then arranged for Peter to catch that fish. Note that the coin (a tetradrachma) was for both, for Peter too was an adopted son of God. But the primary lesson was of Jesus’ Sonship.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Matthew 17". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29