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Matthew 17:1. After six days.—Within a week of Peter’s confession. St. Luke has “about an eight days after,” according to the common Jewish reckoning, by which each part of a day is counted as a day (Carr). An high mountain.—Since the fourth century tradition has fixed on Mount Tabor, in Galilee, as the locality of this event. This opinion is, however, evidently untenable. Not only was Mount Tabor inhabited to its summit at the time (see Robinson), but it seems exceedingly improbable that Jesus would have so suddenly left His retreat in the highlands of Gaulonitis, and transferred the scene of one of His most secret revelations to Galilee, where He was everywhere persecuted. The mountain seems likely to have been Hermon (Lange).
Matthew 17:2. Transfigured.—The transfiguration proper, the general statement that Jesus “was transfigured before them,” is immediately followed out into explanatory details. It was twofold: the radiance of His face, and the gleaming whiteness of His raiment, which shone “like the snow” on Hermon, smitten by the sunshine. Probably we are to think of the whole body as giving forth the same mysterious light, which made itself visible even through the white robe He wore. This would give beautiful accuracy and appropriateness to the distinction drawn in the two metaphors, that His face was “as the sun,” in which the undiluted glory was seen; and His garments as the light, which is sunshine diffused and weakened. There is no hint of any external source of the brightness. It does not seem to have been a reflection from the visible symbol of the Divine presence, as was the fading radiance on the face of Moses. That symbol does not come into view till the last stage of the incident. We are then to think of it as arising from within, not cast from without. We cannot tell whether it was voluntary or involuntary (Maclaren). Are we to think of night or of day? Perhaps the former is slightly the more probable, from the fact of the descent being made “the next day” (Luke). Our conception of the scene will be very different, as we think of that lustre from His face, and that bright cloud, as outshining the blaze of a Syrian sun, or as filling the night with glory. But we cannot settle which view is correct (ibid.).
Matthew 17:3. Moses and Elias.—The appropriate representatives of the law and the prophets. And as all the distinguishing peculiarities of the law and the prophets pointed, as with outstretched finger, to the Messiah, and waited for their accomplishment in His person and in His work, it is not to be wondered at that Moses and Elijah should have had much in their hearts which they would like to say to Jesus, and that Jesus should have much in His heart which He would like to say to them. See Luke 9:31 (Morison).
Matthew 17:4. Let us make.—I will make (R.V.). The transition to the singular is in keeping with Peter’s temperament (Carr). Tabernacles.—Little huts made out of boughs of trees or shrubs (ibid.).
Matthew 17:9. The vision.—See Mark 9:9; Luke 9:36.
Matthew 17:10. Elias must first come.—If Elijah was to come and prepare the way, why had he thus come from the unseen world for a moment only?
Matthew 17:11. Elias truly shall first come.—Cometh (K.V.). Our Lord’s words are obviously enigmatic in their form, and, as such, admit of two very different interpretations. Taken literally, as they have been by very many both in earlier and later times, they seem to say that Elijah shall come in person before the yet future day of the Lord, the great second advent of the Christ. So, it has been argued, the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 shall yet have a literal fulfilment, and John the Baptist when he confessed that he was not Elijah (John 1:21) was rightly expecting his appearance. The words that follow in the next verse are, however, more decisive (Plumptre).
Matthew 17:12. Elias is come already.—So far as the prophecy of Malachi required the coming of Elijah, that prophecy had been fulfilled in the Baptist, all unconscious of it as he was, as coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17) (ibid.).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 17:1-13
A glimpse of glory.—This passage is connected very intimately with that immediately before it. The occurrence it describes took place about a week—about “six days” (Matthew 17:1; Mark 9:2) according to one way of counting—about “eight days” (Luke 9:28) according to another way—“after” the prediction of Matthew 16:28. We may look upon it, therefore, as a following up of what the Saviour had said in the concluding portion of that chapter (Matthew 16:21-28) to the disciples at large, and as intended still further to prepare them all, by preparing three of the chief among them (two of whom were afterwards spoken of as “pillars,” Galatians 2:9), for His (most unexpected) coming passion and death. And it certainly seems to have been well calculated to have this effect, partly by the impressive assurance which it gave to these three of the coming glory of Christ; and partly by the significant way in which it connected that glory with His previous passion and death.
I. The coming glory of Christ.—This was testified to them in various ways. First, by what they are now shown of His person. They see Him (Matthew 17:2) as He is to appear when He comes in His “glory” (Matthew 25:31)—“transfigured” till His very “garments” have the radiance of “light.” Next, by what they are shown of those who appear with Him in “glory” (Luke 9:31). Two chief representatives of the faith of the past, one representing the “law,” and one the “prophets,” are seen in attendance upon Him; and are heard “talking with Him” of that which had yet to be accomplished by Himself (Luke 9:31). Thirdly, by the striking effect thus produced on themselves. It fills them at once with rapture and fear. It overwhelms them, at the same moment, with both confusion and joy. What they ought to say they none of them know. What one of them does say shows what they all feel, viz., that nothing can be better, in their judgment, than for things to stay as they are (see Matthew 17:4). Oh! what fervour and depth, what wonder and joy, what utter contentment there breathes in those words! And how prophetic they are also of that which is to be verified with regard to all faith at the end! (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Fourthly, by that which they are now permitted to see of the glory of the Father Himself. For such we take that “bright cloud” of which we read here to have been—something akin to that mysterious “Shekinah” of which they had heard tell in old days, and which filled them with “fear,” therefore, as they “entered into it,” and felt it both above and around them, on every side. And lastly, by that which they are now permitted to hear of His voice—coming “out of the cloud,” as it did, and proclaiming aloud as well the supremacy and Sonship, as the faultless perfection of Jesus, and calling upon all those who would listen to the Father to listen to Him (end of Matthew 17:8); and testifying to Him so as He who was to come hereafter in the “glory of the Father” (Matthew 16:27). Almost all, in short, that is to mark the consummation itself is anticipated here, as it were. On that “high mountain apart,” these three disciples catch the radiancy of that yet unrisen Sun; and see in this vision what is at last to be seen openly by every eye in the world (Revelation 1:7). The whole scene, in a word, is both a pledge and a sample of the future glory of Christ.
II. The previous passion of Christ.—This vision of His glory was connected with His passion in two remarkable ways. It was so, on the one hand, at the time of the vision itself. In the very midst of its glory, when the Saviour Himself is seen in “glory,” and when the same is true of those visitors from heaven who are heard speaking with Him, this subject of His passion is, as it were, that brought to the front. It is the subject, St. Luke tells us, of which they converse (Luke 9:31). They spake of it also under a peculiar title—viz., as a departure or “decease”—perhaps, because when looked at in the light of that glory it was not so much a death or dissolution of nature as a mere change of place, a going away. They spake of it, at the same time, as being something of great importance and necessity, something to which both they and He were then looking forward as that which had yet to be “accomplished.” They speak so much so, in fact, as even to name the place where it had to be done. And thus show, as it were, that to them His future glory was to follow His passion. First the cross and then the crown. First the shame and then the glory. First death, then fulness of life. So it is, in the very midst of that vision, that their language declares. Hardly less remarkable, next, in the same direction, is that which follows this vision. When it is all over, Jesus touches them and they gain courage thereby to “lift up their eyes” and look round. They see “no one save Jesus only” (Matthew 17:8). Then, rising up together with Him, they come down from the mountain—apparently, for the present, too full of thought to say much. But their Master speaks; and that so as to show at once what is still in His thoughts. See the order of thought. In the distance that coming in glory of which the vision was an assurance. In the foreground that death of which He had previously told them, and which they had heard spoken of during the vision itself. Between the two His “rising again”—whatever that meant (Mark 9:10). Much the same is it, when, perplexed by this saying, they ask Him about Elias (Matthew 17:10). For His answer is such as to fix their attention immediately on that fulfilment of the prophecy of Elias, which was to be found in the appearance of John the Baptist, and to that termination of the career of the Baptist which was a prophecy, as it were, of His death (Matthew 17:11-12). That great catastrophe is what He is thinking of now the vision is over; as that was also what He had thought of and spoken of so plainly before (Matthew 16:21) the vision began.
On the whole, therefore, we see how strikingly mingled is the character of this scene; and, therefore, how doubly calculated to effect the object apparently in view. By one, at least, of those mentioned here, we learn that this assurance of Christ’s future glory was never forgotten (2 Peter 1:16-18). And we can well believe that it would be with the darker lines of the intimation (and with that touch of light in reference to the resurrection by which these were brightened in turn), as we know it was with that very similar twofold intimation of John 2:19-22. And thus would all the disciples through these three, and these three through this special deposit entrusted to them alone for the time (Matthew 17:9), be prepared to overcome that coming trial which was to try them indeed. Forewarned and fore-encouraged; and so doubly forearmed!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 17:1-9. The transfiguration.—
I. The witnesses of the transfiguration: Peter, James, and John—why these three?
1. Because three could keep a secret, but twelve could not. The context shows that it was of extreme importance that the transfiguration should be kept hid till after the resurrection.
2. Because, probably, these three were in deeper sympathy with the Saviour.
3. Notwithstanding their sympathy, the A.V. represents them as falling asleep (Luke 9:23). Trench proposes another translation—“Having kept themselves awake throughout, they saw His glory and the two men that stood with Him.” The A.V. teaches that they slept at the commencement of the scene, but awoke before it was over. But according to the other rendering, they were eye-witnesses of the whole transaction. Either way the language implies that they felt drowsy, that they wanted to sleep. Was this drowsiness natural? Not altogether; the excessive splendour around them produced a sensation of heaviness.
II. The principle of the transfiguration.—
1. One of the Evangelists notes that as “He prayed” the marvellous change in His appearance was effected. In communion with His Father such intense rapture possessed His soul that it visibly glowed through the dark covering of the body. Are we to perceive in this notable occurrence a principle illustrated or a principle defied? Is there anything in it for the race? I believe there is; it is only a marked exemplification of a universal principle—that the outward form receives its lustre or its baseness from the spirit.
2. The word “transfigured” means literally “metamorphosed.”
3. Many critics of no mean ability maintain that the emphatic words in the verse are—“before them.” Professor Tayler Lewis, for instance, says that the tense of the verb suggests that transfiguration was not a rare exception in the Saviour’s career upon the earth. Communing night after night with His Father on solitary mountain tops, it was not unusual for Him to be transfigured; the sweet joy of His soul often pierced like sunbeams through His frail tenement of clay; the extraordinary thing on this occasion was that He permitted the Divine ecstasy to be witnessed by others. Professor Godwin in his “Notes” throws out a similar hint.
III. The celestial visitants at the transfiguration.—Moses and Elias.
1. These departed saints appeared probably as representatives of the ancient economy. Moses was the founder of Judaism, Elias its reformer. Now, the system which the one inaugurated and the other ratified, was about to undergo a change, not, indeed, of destruction but of transfiguration.
2. They further appeared, probably, as representatives of the other world. Jesus is on the eve of His passion. Consequently the attention of the other world is concentrated on this—two appear as a deputation to convey to Him the sympathy of the saints already made perfect. The grandest purpose of this scene was to gird Him for the hour of His agony and death.
3. “They appeared unto Him in glory, and spake of the decease,” literally, exodus or departure. What a strange commingling of colours! Glory and decease, heaven and death, are brought into close juxtaposition.
4. “They talked of the decease which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” In death others are passive, save as they struggle against the dissolution of the nature; but He was active, focussing the everlasting energies of His being upon its performance.
IV. The witness of the Father at the transfiguration.—
1. The bright light—a cloud made luminous by the Divine effulgence within.
2. The voice.
3. “Hear Him.”
V. The effect of the transfiguration.
1. The effect upon the disciples was to exhilarate them, to throw them into a rapture of wonder and joy which they could hardly restrain.
2. The effect upon the Saviour was to gird Him for the coming conflict.—J. C. Jones, D.D.
On the Holy Mount.—Some of the more general lessons which we may learn from this striking scene.
1. We are reminded that seclusion is needed for the highest sort of devotion. Luke tells us that the transfiguration of the Lord took place as He was praying, and so we are warranted in concluding that Jesus and His three disciples withdrew to the mountain-top for special communion with God.
2. We are reminded that a devotional spirit sees new glory in Christ and in His Word. When Peter and his brethren retired apart with Christ He was transfigured before them, and Moses and Elijah shared His brightness. Now, when we give ourselves to the devotional study of the Scriptures, new radiance breaks forth from its pages for us.
3. We are reminded that devotion is not the whole of life. Peter wanted to remain on that summit altogether. But he knew not what he said. There was a world to be redeemed, and how could that be accomplished if Jesus were held back there from the cross? There was, even at that very moment, a poor demoniac in the valley, waiting their descent, in order that he might be cured.
4. We are reminded that devotion furnishes support for the performance of the duties and the endurance of the trials of life. The Redeemer Himself, even in the garden and on the cross, was upheld by the remembrance of this voice from the midst of the cloud; and we know that Peter, long after, when contemplating his decease, looked back upon the whole scene as one of the strongest verifications of the gospel (2 Peter 1:16-18).—W. M. Taylor, D.D.
The transfiguration.—When we set ourselves deliberately to consider what the obstructions were which then lay in the way of a true faith in Christ on the part of the Apostles, we can discern how singularly fitted, in its time, its mode, and all its attendant circumstances, this glimpse of the glorified condition of our Lord was to remove these obstructions and establish them in that faith. For:—
I. It helped them to rise to a true conception of the dignity of the Saviour’s person.
II. It was not a little perplexing, the position which Christ assumed towards the Jewish priesthood and the Mosaic ritual. But if there entered into the minds of our Lord’s Apostles a doubt as to the actual inner spiritual harmony between their Master’s teaching and that of Moses and the Prophets, the vision of the mount—the sight of Moses and Elias, the founder and the restorer, the two chief representatives of the old covenant, appearing in glory, entering into such fellowship with Jesus, owning Him as their Lord—must have cleared it away, satisfying them by an ocular demonstration that their Master came not to destroy the law and the prophets—not to destroy, but to fulfil.
III. The manner of Christ’s death was thus, and of itself, a huge stumbling-block in the way of faith—one over which, with all that had been done beforehand to prepare them, the Apostles at first stumbled and fell. It formed the one and only topic of that sublimest interview (Luke 9:31).
IV. The peculiar way in which Jesus spake of His relationship to God was another great difficulty in the way of faith. It seemed so strange, so presumptuous, so blasphemous, for a man—with nothing to mark him off as different from other men—to speak of God as His Father, not in any figurative or metaphorical sense, not as any one, every one of His creatures might do, but in such a sense as obviously to imply oneness of nature, of attributes, of authority, of possession. So from that cloudy glory which hung for a few moments above the mountaintop the Father’s own loving voice was heard, authenticating all that Jesus had said, or was to say, of the peculiar relationship to Him in which He stood, and saying, “This is My beloved Son,” etc.—W. Hanna, D.D.
Matthew 17:8. Christ central and alone.—The surface lesson of the text is this, that Jesus Christ does not leave us when the extraordinary manifestations of His glory are taken away—when the joy and the splendour of the vision are gone He is still left to His faithful disciples. As Matthew Henry quaintly puts it: “After the special feast is over daily bread will yet be ours.” Let who will depart, then; He lives! He remains! “Jesus only”—it sums up the common heritage of the saints of God through the dim centuries of the past, and it will do so right on until the end.
I. Jesus Christ stands alone here, as elsewhere in Christian experience.—Moses is gone and Elias is gone; law-giver and prophet have vanished; the disciples see only the Master Himself, present in their midst. And this, too, is significant, for the gospel offers to us, not the law and not the prophets, but Christ, and Christ only; Christ linked with the law if you will, Christ fulfilling the law; Christ revealed in the prophets, Christ testified to by the prophets; but Christ standing alone in the matter of salvation to every one of us. To men with eyes turned heavenward, looking toward the unseen, longing, it may be, for visions and revelations, it offers “Jesus only”—the revelation of the Father in the face of the Son.
II. The pre-eminence, therefore, given to Jesus in these exalted moments of discipleship.—Moses and Elias appear, law-giver and prophet stand there, that they may “testify of His glory.” Then they have gone, and you may say of them their splendour has been dwindling ever since, even as the stars disappear when the sun itself has arisen. “These are they,” said Christ of all the prophets and of all the Scriptures, “that testify of Me.” And if you search the New Testament through and through it is always so of Him who is the Author and Finisher of this faith, the Prophet, Priest, and King of this new dispensation. And if men miss this they miss everything, the one point above all else of importance. For long centuries astronomy went wrong and made no progress, until it learned to place the sun in its true position as the centre of the solar system; and so it is with men and with creeds until they come to see Jesus as He is and as the Father has revealed Him.
III. All this points to the sufficiency of Jesus in the life left to these disciples coming down from the mount.—If the vision means anything it means this—whatever else it may imply—Jesus Christ is presented alone to His people, because Jesus Christ alone and in Himself is enough for His people.—W. Baxendale.
1. It is the summing up of revelation.—All others vanish; He abides.
2. It is the summing up of the world’s history.—Thickening folds of oblivion wrap the past, and all its mighty names get forgotten; but His figure stands out, solitary against the background of the past, as some great mountain, which is seen long after the lower summits are sunk below the horizon.
3. Let us make this the summing up of our lives.—We can venture to take Him for our sole Helper, Pattern, Love, and Aim, because He, in His singleness, is enough for our hearts. There are many fragmentary precious things, but one pearl of great price.
4. Then this may be a prophecy of our deaths.—A brief darkness, a passing dread, and then His touch and His voice saying, “Arise, be not afraid.” So we shall lift up our eyes and find earth faded and its voices fallen dim, and see “no one any more, save Jesus only.”—A. Maclaren, D.D.
“Jesus only.”—Consider the words as they are connected with:—
I. Christian doctrine.—
1. The solitariness of Christ’s personal grandeur—Jesus only is the Son of God.
2. The exclusiveness of Christ’s official work—Jesus only is the Redeemer of the world.
3. The permanence of the dispensation of Christ—Moses and Elias are gone, but Jesus remains, and “Jesus only.”
II. Experience of the believer.—Christ is the only unchanging source of the believer’s comfort.
III. The only hope of the sinner.—“Jesus only” is the way to God. “There is none other name,” etc.—Edward Steane, D.D.
Matthew 17:15. Lunatick.—Epileptic (R.V.). “The child was a possessed epileptic lunatic.”
Matthew 17:20. Grain of mustard seed.—See note on Matthew 13:31. The proverbial type of the infinitely little (Plumptre). Ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence.—Such expressions are characteristic of the vivid imagery of Eastern speech generally. To “remove mountains” is to make difficulties vanish. The Jews used to say of an eminent teacher, he is “a rooter up of mountains” (see Lightfoot ad loc.) (Carr).
Matthew 17:21. This kind, etc.—In his eighth edition of the New Testament text, Tischendorf has omitted the twenty-first verse altogether, imagining that it has crept in from Mark 9:29. And indeed it is not found in the original Sinaitic text; or in the Vatican MS.; or in No. 33, “the queen of the cursives.” It is wanting, too, in some of the oldest MSS. of the old Latin translation, as also in Cureton’s Syriac version, and the Jerusalem Syriac, etc. We could suppose that Tischendorf is right in this case. The twentieth verse is complete and needs no appendix of reply (Morison). The verse is omitted in the R.V.
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 17:14-21
A lesson in faith.—The disciples of Jesus were called upon in an especial manner at this time “to walk by faith and not by sight.” Things were to happen which would be wholly contrary to what they naturally expected (Matthew 16:21-22). Therefore it was, perhaps, that our Lord spake to them as in Luke 9:44. And, therefore, perhaps, that He gave to them such a “lesson in faith” as we find in this passage. How this lesson was conveyed may be seen by considering, first, the striking contrast here described, and, secondly, the two-fold explanation of it which is afterwards given.
I. The striking contrast.—On one side of this we have, first, the utter failure of the disciples of Jesus. When those who have been on the Mount of Transfiguration come down again to the rest of their company, they find them in the midst of a large and agitated assemblage (Mark 9:14). Out of these there comes one to the very feet of the Saviour (Matthew 17:14). He has a sad story to tell Him. He has a son—an only child (Luke 9:38)—who is described as an “epileptic” (Matthew 17:15 R.V.)—one “grievously” vexed. At times, indeed, to such an extent as to be ready to fall, in his helplessness, into the “fire” or the “water”—and so be in uttermost danger of wholly losing such life as he has. This helpless case the father had brought to the notice of the Saviour’s disciples during His absence, only to find, however, that, in their way, they were as helpless as it. Whatever they had been able to do in other cases (Matthew 10:8), they could do nothing whatever in this (Matthew 17:16). On the other side, we have, in regard to the same instance, the complete success of the Saviour. What the disciples had thus attempted in vain He accomplishes fully. He does this also, as in other cases, by the simple authority of His word (Mark 1:27). A “rebuke” from Him (Matthew 17:18) is enough. However strong and unwilling (cf. Mark 9:25-26), the demon hears and goes out. He goes out also in such a manner that there is no recurrence of the evil (Mark 9:25). The child was cured—and cured permanently—“from that hour” (Matthew 17:18). In every respect, in short, on the Saviour’s side, there was every evidence of success. Instead of nothing, everything was accomplished. Utter helplessness had been followed up by irresistible power.
II. A twofold explanation.—Twofold because supplied to us from two opposite sides. From the side of the applicant first. With all the father’s depth of distress, and all the urgency of his love and entreaty, we cannot doubt the fact of there being, at first, some deficiency in his faith. This seems implied from what the Saviour said when first He heard of his case, and was told by the man how he had “spoken” to His disciples, but altogether in vain (see Matthew 17:17, also Mark 9:19; Luke 9:41). It certainly comes out in the case of his second application to the Saviour as related by St. Mark. “If Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us” (Mark 9:22). Also, this same smallness of faith is just as certainly at once rebuked and encouraged by the Saviour’s reply—a reply which says, in effect (see Mark 9:23), “If I can;” that is not the question. “If thou canst believe;” that is the point. For “all things can be to him that believeth.” A reply also which the poor father evidently took in exactly that sense, as shown by the tenor and urgency of his immediate response—“Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” Nothing is plainer, in short, so far, than that all turned upon faith. Lack of faith in coming was one great reason of that signal lack of success which had marked the first part of this case. The same is true, also, when we look at it, next, from the side of the disciples. Nothing, indeed, can be more express than our Saviour’s own words on this point. “Why could not we cast it out?” “Because of the littleness of your faith” (Matthew 17:20). And nothing stronger than the cogency of the reasoning by which He demonstrates the truth of this saying. For what is this faith—this true faith—of which He is speaking? It is a principle of activity, like that “grain of mustard seed” of which He once told them before (Matthew 13:31-32), which grows of itself. If you have any at all of it, therefore, you have that which is quite certain to grow into more; and, therefore again, that which will be competent, ultimately, to remove the greatest obstacles that can be. Nothing, in short, can be beyond the power of such true faith to accomplish (Matthew 17:20). Nothing, therefore, is to be sought by us more! (So we may gather from Mark 9:29, as it stands in R.V.) Even, if need be, at the cost of much self-denial in other respects. (So we may understand the addition which “many ancient authorities” make to that verse.)
1. Here is a general lesson to all.—Let all those who come to God come to Him in faith (Hebrews 11:6). Let them have faith enough in any case to be desirous of more. The poor man in this story does not appear to have had more than this to begin. But this little faith—this mere “mustard seed” of it—did all he wished in the end.
2. Here is a special lesson to some.—Even to all such as seek, in any way, to help in ministering the word. Let them believe in it themselves! Let them seek to realise both what it is and how much it can do. Oh, the amount of sterility in the field of the kingdom because of deficiency here! Why is it that we have done so little although having the truth itself in our hands? Because of the littleness of our faith. Because we have not realised, on the one hand, that it was really the truth! And have not realised, on the other hand, that truth vanquishes all!
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 17:14-18. Household trouble.—We have here—
1. A household in misery because of one of its members. Trouble may be intensive as well as extensive. One prodigal may destroy the peace of a whole family.
2. A household troubled by an uncontrollable circumstance. The sufferer in this case was not blamable. Some troubles we bring upon ourselves; others are put into our lot by a power beyond us.
3. A household united in deep concern for one of its members. The father spoke not for himself only, but also for others, “Have compassion on us,” etc. (Mark 9:22). An unfeeling heart is a greater calamity in a family than the most painful affliction.—J. Parker, D.D.
The church and humanity.—The incident may be viewed not only from the point of the household, but from the point occupied by the church. 1. The church expected to have restoring energy.
2. The church overborne by the evil which confronts it.
3. The church publicly rebuked for its incapacity.
4. The church shown to be powerless in the absence of Christ.—Ibid.
The position of Christ.—
1. Christ calm in the midst of social tumult.
2. Christ exposing Himself to severe reprisals in the event of failure. He spoke rebukingly before He performed the miracle.
3. Christ asserting His independence. “Bring him to Me.” Jesus needed no help. “Without Me ye can do nothing,” but without us He can do everything.
4. Christ overruling and destroying evil. He never put evil into any man; always He sought to cast it out.—Ibid.
The restoration of men.—
1. The worst of cases are not hopeless.
2. Devils do not come easily out of men.
3. Jesus Christ not only expels the devil, He gives His own personal help to the recovered man (Mark 9:27). We need Jesus even until we are set in heaven. The devil throws down, Jesus lifts up.—Ibid.
Matthew 17:19-21. Christian work at home and abroad.—
I. The lesson of the failure.—The failure must have been a trial of no mean severity to the disciples. It was failure to fulfil the commission with which they had been entrusted. It was failure under the unsympathetic and scornful eye of the multitude. It was failure after they had been braced by success and lifted up with strange, not to say wild, hopes. It was a sore humiliation, yet was it full-charged with blessing to them. It was of the nature of that baptism of fire by which true men are made more true, and strong men more strong, and which in some form all men undergo who are appointed to signal service in the kingdom of heaven. Our main concern must be to discover the cause of the failure.
1. The failure of the disciples was to our Lord a question of their spiritual life. It was a question of their attainments and habits in the matter of faith, prayer, and fasting. The faith which our Lord desiderated concerned the deepest springs of life and force in the soul. “Prayer and fasting!” It was no mere matter of abstinence from meats and drinks, or of the observance of seasons and forms in prayer and sacrifice. We know how little store, comparatively, our Lord set by these things. Here was a question rather of faith’s maturity and practical prevalence throughout the whole sphere of the spiritual life, of faith’s triumph over everything which tended to bring the man under the dominion of the present and visible; of a faith which would lift the soul into habitual communion with God, and enrich the will with the energies of self-restraint. The cause of failure thus concerned the very element of life which distinguished them as religious and spiritual men, from men who were carnal and irreligious. Here was no question of the want of tact, or aptitude, or courage, or readiness, or energy, or of any of the secondary and accidental qualifications of good workmen, but a question of vital spiritual force.
2. To our Lord the failure of the disciples in this particular instance was a question of degree in the fulness of the spiritual life. His explanation was that there was a disproportion between the inherent difficulties of the case and the power which the disciples had brought to it. “This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” Faith grows by culture—it may be weakened by neglect, it may be corrupted by sin. Had the disciples yielded to weakening and corrupting influences? They had been giving forth spiritual energy in the service of Christ; had they been careful to have the springs of that energy replenished from time to time by communion with God?
3. To our Lord the failure of the disciples was a question exclusively of their spiritual life and attainments, and the spiritual power which these engender. The case was admitted to be exceptionally difficult, but it is implied that a robust faith, a spiritual power duly nurtured by prayer and chastened by fasting, would not have been put to shame in dealing with it. Our Lord’s exposure of the cause of the disciples’ failure thus reveals to us a law of the Christian service—that the power in which the labours and conflicts of the kingdom of heaven on earth are to be sustained is spiritual in kind—the power of a genuine religious life; and that the power is in the proportion in which the life is full.
II. The application of the lesson.—We have failures to deplore as well as successes to celebrate. To our “Why?” the Master might say, “Because of your unbelief,” etc. The demons we seek to cast out of the nations are of a kind which will not go out except on the imperative of a spiritual power of the highest order. The subject has a bearing:—
1. On our national life.—Alas for the apostles of a faith which is discredited by the life of the nation which sends them forth!
2. On the spiritual condition of the churches.—Our missionaries, with few exceptions, will be men who represent the average spiritual power and moral enthusiasm of the churches. We have to look to the churches for the men who are to conduct its affairs at home, and also for material and moral support. Causes of anxiety:
(1) Conformity to the world.
(2) Some popular tendencies of theological opinion.
3. On the spiritual attainments of those more immediately engaged in the service.—Ultimately the question is a personal one.—A. Hannay, D.D.
Matthew 17:21. Prayer and fasting. (A Lenten Sermon.)—Here is an undoubted approval of two things very much called in question—prayer and fasting.
I. The true thought touching prayer is that it makes us more fitted to receive, not that it makes God more ready to give.
II. Jesus couples prayer with fasting to secure Heaven’s choicest gifts.—“This kind,” etc. The church of England, in its staid sobriety of doctrine, recognises the value of the discipline of the soul upon the body, and orders all Fridays throughout the year to be observed as days of abstinence, together with the whole of Lent, the forty days from Ash Wednesday, until Easter; also the Ember-days of the four seasons, with other days named. Jesus Himself, moreover, stamps with authority the practice of the church in this matter, and gives special directions relative to fasting. Hence says He, “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites,” etc. (Matthew 6:16-18). The common-sense view with reference to fasting is this: We ought to be as little indebted to earth as possible; tethered here and pinned to this world by as few material things as will serve; bound by as few cords to animal existence and fleshly life as alone are needed to keep body and soul together. “Set your affections on things above, and not on things on the earth.” This injunction of the Lord Jesus should be the text held in remembrance throughout Lent: “Chasten with stripes the inner man.” There are various ways of doing this. There are many ways in which we may specially now—as at all times we ought to—deny ourselves for our neighbours’ good. Some luxury, doubtless, there is which we, without any great hardship, may give up—some luxury which may minister to the necessity of our poorer neighbour, and make, to a brother that lacketh and hath need, his woeful want less bitter. Yea, let those who have much of this world’s good laid up in store for many years just fast a little during Lent, that those who from chronic want and penury have to keep Lent right through the year may now feast a little, and even in my suggested breach to them of a church rubric, their indulgence shall not be cursed, while our austerities shall be blessed.—Archdeacon Colley.
Matthew 17:22. While they abode.—See R.V. margin. While they were sojourning in Galilee on their way back—on their return from the northern parts about Cæsarea Philippi (Morison).
Matthew 17:24. Tribute money (τὰ δίδραχμα)—“The double drachma;” a sum equal to two Attic drachmas, and corresponding to the Jewish “half-shekel,” payable, towards the maintenance of the temple and its services, by every male Jew of twenty years old and upwards. For the origin of this annual tax see Exodus 30:13-14; 2 Chronicles 24:6; 2 Chronicles 24:9. Thus, it will be observed, it was not a civil, but an ecclesiastical tax. The tax mentioned in the next verse was a civil one. The whole teaching of this very remarkable scene depends upon this distinction (Brown). The half-shekel was worth about fifteen pence. Came to Peter.—At whose house Jesus was probably lodging. Doth not your Master pay tribute?—The question seems to imply that the payment of this tax was voluntary, but expected; or what, in modern phrase, would be called a “voluntary assessment” (Brown).
Matthew 17:25. Jesus prevented him.—Spake first to him (R.V.), i.e. anticipated him. Take custom.—Receive toll (R.V.). Custom on goods exported or imported (Brown). Tribute (κῆνσον).—From the Latin word census, meaning the poll-tax, payable to the Romans by everyone whose name was in the “census” (ibid). Of their own children.—Sons (R.V.), i.e. the princes. Strangers.—This cannot mean “foreigners,” from whom sovereigns certainly do not raise taxes, but “those who are not of their own family,” i.e.d. their subjects (Brown).
Matthew 17:26. Then are the children free.—By “the children” our Lord cannot here mean Himself and the Twelve together, in some loose sense of their near relationship to God as their common Father. For besides that our Lord never once mixes Himself up with His disciples in speaking of their relation to God, but ever studiously keeps His relation and theirs apart (see e.g. on the last words of this chapter), this would be to teach the right of believers to exemption from the dues required for sacred services, in the teeth of all that Paul teaches, and that He Himself indicates throughout. He can refer here, then, only to Himself; using the word “children” evidently in order to express the general principle observed by sovereigns, who do not draw taxes from their own children, and thus convey the truth respecting His own exemption the more strikingly, q.d. “If the sovereign’s own family be exempt, you know the inference in My case;” or, to express it more nakedly than Jesus thought needful and fitting: “This is a tax for upholding My Father’s house; as His Son, then, that tax is not due by Me—I am free” (ibid.).
Matthew 17:27. Lest we should offend them.—Cause them to stumble (R.V.). Misconstruing a claim to exemption into indifference to His honour who dwells in the temple (Brown). A piece of money (στατῆρα).—A stater—a shekel (R.V.). A coin equal to two of the fore-mentioned “didrachms”; thus the exact sum required for both. Me and thee.—Our Lord does not say “for us,” but “for Me and thee,” thus distinguishing the Exempted One and His non-exempted disciple (Brown).
MAIN HOMILETICS OF THE PARAGRAPH.—Matthew 17:22-27
Self-taxation.—In the beginning of these verses we find our Saviour coming back to Galilee from the neighbourhood of Cæsarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13), and making His way once more to “His own city” (Matthew 9:1) Capernaum. Apparently He did so now for the last time in His life, and as one marked step in His journey southward to meet His death at Jerusalem (see Matthew 19:1; Matthew 20:17; Matthew 21:1). This may help to account for the fact, that, on this occasion, He did not wish to be known (see Mark 9:30). And this, in turn, for the peculiar form of the tax-gatherers’ question to Peter (Matthew 17:24) “Doth not your Master pay the half-shekel?” as though they suspected Him, from His being out of the way, of a desire to avoid it this time. And this, once more, for the very positive and apparently displeased character of the Apostle’s reply (Matthew 17:25). As though he would say, “Of course He does—as He has done always before—and as you very well know.”
There are two things to be noted in the way in which the Saviour Himself meets their demand. He treats it as wholly uncalled for, on the one hand, and yet as absolutely irresistible, on the other.
I. As wholly uncalled for.—And that first, it would seem, because of the nature of tribute in general. For tribute then was a thing universally regarded as a token of subjugation and conquest. Hence the irresistible force of the argument in Matthew 22:19-21. Hence also, what we find implied in the language used in Ezra 4:13, viz., that people who are so far independent as to have a well-protected city and walls of their own, would refuse to submit, as a matter of course, to anything of the kind. Peter himself knew of this as a fundamental rule on such subjects. Hence, therefore, he would see at once the extreme unreasonableness of laying a tax on his Master. No one on earth had the shadow of a right of asking “tribute” from Christ. Still more unreasonable was such a demand, when considered in connection with the special character of the tribute in view. As both the amount asked for, and the way in which it was spoken of—“the half-shekel”—seem to point out, it was that poll tax expected from every male in Israel for the temple expenses and service, originally levied only (so it is said), when the census was taken, but afterwards made an annual demand (see Jos., Ant., XVIII. Matthew 9:1; 2 Chronicles 24:9, etc.) How monstrous, therefore, in every way, even to propose such a thing to One who was really the Lord of the temple (Matthew 12:6), and the Temple itself in a sense (John 2:19-21), and also, as Peter himself had not long before both seen and confessed, Son of God in the highest possible sense. Asking this temple-tribute from Him, therefore, was in every way wrong, for it was treating One as a stranger and a subject who was pre-eminently both a Son and a King.
II. As absolutely irresistible.—We find this implied, on the one hand, in the reason advanced. Pay this tribute the Saviour says in effect, however unreasonable the demand for it undoubtedly is, lest “we cause them to stumble” (Matthew 17:27). In other words, lest our refusal to pay it should give them “offence”—or be a “scandal” to them and others—or cause them to think about us otherwise than is correct, or desirable either. How very easily this might have been is just as easily seen. Such a refusal to pay, under the circumstances, would be almost certainly attributed either to unseemly covetousness, or else to contempt for God’s services, or to want of love for His house—to anything, in short, but those other reasons of which the Saviour had spoken. And that, of course, would be a most injurious thing, in almost every way, because a thing which, besides bringing most undeserved reproach on Christ and His followers, would greatly hinder them in their work. Sooner, therefore, than cause such results, the Saviour will put up with this wrong. Sooner than mislead others, or hinder true godliness, or be thought of Himself as profane, He will comply with this otherwise most unreasonable demand. If He cannot even allow it on other grounds, He cannot refuse it on this. The same is taught us also, in the next place, by the method adopted, inasmuch as this shows to how great lengths the Saviour was willing to go in order to carry out His resolve. From this point of view the very strangeness of the almost unique miracle of which we read next, is its best justification. It was, indeed, a kind of stately procession of marvellous signs. Peter was to go to the neighbouring sea and to cast in a hook, and at once secure a fish, and find a coin in its mouth, and find that coin also to be exactly sufficient for the twofold purpose in view (Matthew 17:27). All the more fitted, therefore, was it to show the thought which the Saviour had in His mind. He will not pay that tribute money out of ordinary resources. Probably, in His case, they were already needed in other directions (see John 13:29). He will meet it, instead, by a supply of His own—by an unheard of supply—by an exactly fitted supply—by something which shall show how great is the importance He attaches to doing as now asked! The very fish of the sea shall help Him to avoid giving avoidable cause of offence.
Here, therefore, we may see in conclusion:—
1. A great lesson in doctrine.—It was, as it were, almost under the shadow of the cross that this transaction took place. See what is said in Matthew 17:22-23, and note how we read there for the first time, of the “betrayal” of Christ. We may well judge, therefore, that we have here a kind of parable of what was about to be done on the cross. The temple tribute was due from Peter. It was not due from Christ. He paid for them both. Just so with that “obedience” of His “unto death” by which “the many” are “made righteous” (Philippians 2:8; Romans 5:18-19). “Thou shalt answer for me, O Lord, my God.”
2. A great lesson in conduct.—If we have really laid hold of this hope in Christ, we shall seek to resemble Him in our lives. Especially shall we do so in feeling it incumbent on us to avoid at all costs all really avoidable cause of offence. See such passages as 2 Corinthians 6:3; Romans 14:13; Romans 14:15; Romans 15:3; Matthew 18:5, etc. Anything rather than let our good be evil spoken of, if we can help it.
HOMILIES ON THE VERSES
Matthew 17:24-27. Christ paying tribute.—
1. Tribute is due to magistrates for their public service.
2. Christ is not unfriendly to magistrates and rulers, nor anyway a hinderer of paying anything due to them, for Peter affirmeth that Christ paid ordinarily.
3. He will not exempt His ministers or followers from the common civil duties, whereunto other subjects are liable; therefore He saith to Peter, “What thinkest thou?” etc.
4. Christ by no ordinary course of law was subject unto any power under heaven; for as king’s sons are naturally free from tribute, so is the Son of God naturally free also, for He is the Heir and Owner of all things.
5. Although Christ was the rich Heir of heaven and earth, as of His own workmanship, yet for our cause He voluntarily subjected Himself, and became poor, that He might make us rich; for He had no money to pay His tribute.
6. As in matters of civil loss, Christ did dispense with His own right civil, and subjected Himself to pay tribute, which He was not bound to do, so must His servants do; and not only must they pay tribute, which is their due by civil obligation, but rather than mar the gospel and breed scandal, they must bear burdens which civilly they are not bound to bear.
7. Christ was never so far abased at any time, but the glory of His Godhead might have been seen breaking forth in the meantime, or shortly after, lest His humiliation should at any time prejudice His glory at our hands; as here, at the time when He doth subject Himself to pay tribute, He showeth Himself Lord of all the creatures, who can make the most wild of them come to His angle, and bring money with them in their mouth.—David Dickson.
The coin in the fish’s mouth.—The uses intended by this narrative are:—
II. Ethical.—The doctrine taught is the place of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven. His own place of Sonship by right of nature, and that which He wins for His followers in grace. The moral enforced is that greatness in the kingdom is best proved by service and humility.—Prof. Laidlaw, D.D.
The ethical aspect of the conversation.—A comparison of the synoptic narratives makes it plain that during this homeward journey to Capernaum, probably near its close, occurred the dispute among the disciples, about priority in the kingdom, which drew from the Lord several touching and instructive utterances. There is reason to think this is one of them. The words immediately following our story in Matthew’s Gospel tell us that “at the same time” (ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ὥρᾳ, Matthew 18:1), they came to put their question to Jesus on this topic. Mark says that “being in the house, He asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?” The suggestion has much probability, that with Peter alone in the house, the Lord here forestalls the discussion, and makes this incident bear upon it. It is when viewed in this connection that the present story becomes luminous, and that the words of Jesus about the temple-tax are seen to have their moral design. To teach “the foremost disciple” a lesson of humility and self-effacement, Jesus directs his attention pointedly to His own claim, to His willingness to waive it, and to His reason for so doing, viz., lest offence should follow upon a premature or punctilious assertion of even a Divine right. This, rather than any other, is the point of ethical moment in the narrative, not so much the poverty of His lot as Son of man, His command over the resources of nature and providence as Son of God, the extraordinary manner in which upon occasion His necessities were relieved—not so much these, as the forbearance and self-restraint of the kingdom’s Head; an example to His followers of meekness and self-repression for the kingdom’s sake. The key to the moral intention of the story then, lies in the words, “But lest we cause them to stumble” (R.V.). It was a lesson of meekness and wisdom. Jesus waives the exercise of a right, founded upon the plainest and most momentous grounds, lest the exercise of it in the circumstances should prove a stumbling-block to those who were as yet unprepared to receive the grounds themselves. Thus does Jesus set forth one of the most characteristic features of Christian morality.—Ibid.
Matthew 17:27. The tribute money.—The story of the tribute-money is not one of the great miracles, and yet its lessons are well worth our careful study.
I. There is what, for the want of a better word, we must call the modesty of Jesus.—Rather than offend the prejudices of the people, He would waive His claim. Are not we who call ourselves His disciples too ready to put forth our titles to men’s respect and to stand upon our dignity?
II. We learn something of the poverty of Jesus.—There is a something of greater moment than wealth, and that is character. Money may not elevate, good deeds do. In the conventional meaning of the words, Christ was not worth fifteen-pence; yet He could heal the sick and raise the dead. It will be worth our while to weigh ourselves in the true balances, and to find out Heaven’s assessment of our belongings.
III. The story gives us a peep into Christ’s resources.—Though He had not the money by Him, He knew where it was. The gold and silver are all His.
IV. We learn that God does not often act without human agency.—Christ could have done without Peter. It would have been easy to have willed it, and the fish would have swum to His feet, as He stood by the side of the lake, and have dropped the coin within His reach. But He knew that Peter could catch the fish, and so he was sent to do what He was able. It appears to be the Divine plan to do what men cannot, but not to act for us.
V. The story teaches that he who works for Jesus is sure to get his pay.—Christ wanted fifteen pence, and Peter took out of the fish’s mouth half-a crown. And thus in obeying Christ he paid his own taxes. In keeping His commandments there is a great reward.—T. Champness.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Matthew 17". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29