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The former part of this chapter gives us an account of our Saviour's glorious transfiguration, he laid as it were the garments of frail humanity and mortality aside for a little time, and assuming to himself the robes of majesty and glory, the rays of his divinity darted forth, his face shined with a pleasing brightness, and his raiment with such a glorious lustre, as did at once both dazzle and delight the eyes of the beholders.
Here observe, 1. The reasons of our Lord's transfiguration,
1. To demonstrate and testify the truth of his divinity; that he was Christ the Son of the living God; according to St. Peter's confession just before. This divine glory was an evidence of his divine nature.
2. Christ was thus transfigured, to prefigure the glory of his second coming to judgment, when he shall be admired of his saints, as here he was admired by his disciples.
Observe, 2. The choice which our Saviour makes of the witnesses of his transfiguration, his three disciples, Peter, James and John. But why disciples? Why three disciples? Why these three?
1. This transfiguration was a type and shadow of the glory of heaven: Christ therefore vouchsafes the earnest and first fruits of that glory only to saints; upon whom he intended to bestow the full harvest.
2. Three disciples were witnesses sufficient to testify this miracle. Judas was unworthy of this favour, yet lest he should murmur or be discontented at his being left out, others are also left out besides him.
3. These three, rather than others; because,
1. These disciples are more eminent for grace, zeal, and love to Christ; and, consequently, are most highly dignified and honoured by him. The most eminent manifestations of glory, are made by God to those that are most eminent in grace.
2. These three were witnesses of Christ's agony and passion, to prepare them for which, they are here made witnesses of his transfiguration. This glorious vision from Mount Tabor fitted them to abide the terrors of mount Calvary.
Learn, that those whom God singles out for the greatest trials, he will sit beforehand with the best enablements.
Observe here, the glorious attendance upon our Saviour at his glorious transfiguration; they were two men, Moses and Elias. This being but a glimpse of Christ's glory, not a full manifestation of it, only two of the glorified saints attend upon Christ at it; when he shall come in his full glory, ten thousand of thousands shall attend him. These two attendants were two men, not two angels; because men were more nearly concerned in what was done; they were not only spectators but partners. Man's restoration was Christ's principal aim: the angels' confirmation his less principal design. But why Moses and Elias?
1. Moses the giver of the law, and Elias the chief of the prophets, attending both upon Christ, did shew the consent of the law and the prophets with Christ,and their fulfilling and accomplishment in him.
2. Because these two were the most laborious servants of Christ, both adventured their lives in God's cause, and therefore are highly honoured by Christ. Such as honour him, he will honour.
Observe here, 1. The person supplicating, Peter. No doubt the other two, James and John, were much affected, but Peter is more fervent and forward; yet there is no arguing with the Papists from his fervency to his superiority; his personal prerogatives were not hereditary.
Observe, 2. The person supplicated, Jesus; not Moses, nor Elias; the disciples make no prayer, no suit to them, but to Christ only. Prayers to saints departed are both vain and unlawful.
Observe, 3. The supplication itself, and that was for their continuance where they were. It is good for us to be here. O what a ravishing comfort is the fellowship of the saints! but the presence of Christ among them renders their joys transporting.
Observe, 4. Their proffer of service to farther this continuance; Let us make three Tabernacles. This motion was well meant and devout. St. Peter will stick at no cost nor pains for the enjoyment of Christ's presence and his saints' company, yet was the motion unadvised and rash. St. Peter erred in desiring a perpetuity of that condition which was but transient and momentary. This vision was only a taste of Glory, not a full repast. He errs, in that he would bring down heaven to earth, and take up with Tabor instead of heaven. He errs, in that he would enter upon the possession of heaven's glory, without suffering, and without dying. Peter would be clothed upon, but was not willing to be unclothed.
Learn, 1. That a glimpse of glory is enough to wrap a soul into ecstasy, and to make it out of love with worldly company.
2. That we are apt to desire more of heaven upon earth than God will allow: we would fain have the heavenly glory come down to us, but we are unwilling to go by death to that; we know not what we say, when we talk of felicity in tabernacles upon earth.
Observe here, 1. A cloud was put before the disciples' eyes, for two reasons.
1. To allay the lustre and resplendency of that glory which they were swallowed up with. As we cannot look upon the sun in its full brightness, but under a cloud by reflection; so the glory of heaven is insupportable, till God veils it and shelters us from the surcharge of it.
2. A cloud overshadows them, to hinder their farther prying and looking into the glory. We must be content to behold God here through a cloud darkly, ere long we shall see him face to face.
Observe, 2. The testimony given by God the Father out of the cloud concerning Jesus Christ his son: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Here note, 1. The dignity of his person, he is a son, therefore, for nature coessential, for dignity coequal, for duration coeternal, with the Father; and a beloved son, because of his likeness and conformity to him. A father's likeness is the cause of love; a unison of wills causes a mutual endearing of affections.
Note, 2. The excellency of his mediation, In whom I am well pleased. Christ in himself was most pleasing to God the Father, and in and through him he is wll pleased with all believers. Christ's mediation for us makes God appeasable to us. .
Note, 3. The authority of his doctrine: Hear him, not Moses and Elias, who were servants, but Christ my Son, whom I have commissioned to be the great Prophet and Teacher of my church: therefore adore him as my Son, believe in him as your Saviour, and hear him as your lawgiver. He honours Christ most, that obeys him the best. The obedient ear honours Christ more than either the gazing eye, the adoring knee, or the applauding tongue. This is my beloved Son, hear him.
Observe here, 1. The effect which this voice from heaven had upon the apostles, it cast them into a passion of horror and amazement. They were sore afraid, and fell on their face.
Learn thence, that such is the majesty and glory of God, that man in his sinful state cannot bear so much as a glimpse of it, without great consternation and fear. How unable is man to hear the voice of God! and yet how ready to despise the voice of man; If God speaks by himself, his voice is too terrible; if he speaks by his ministers, it is too contemptible.
Observe, 2. The person by whom the disciples were recovered out of these amazing fears unto which they were cast; namely, by Christ: Jesus came and said, Be not afraid. It is Christ alone who can raise and comfort those whom the terrors of the Almighty have dejected and cast down.
Observe, 3. The manner how Christ recovered them out of this passionate amazement, it was three-fold:
1. By his gracious approach, he came unto them. Christ will come with comfort unto his children, when they are disabled from coming to him with comfort.
2. By his comfortable touch; He came and touched them. Christ comforts believers by a real and close application of himself unto them. An unapplied Christ saves none, comforts none.
3. By his comforting voice, He said, Be not afraid. It is a word of assurance, that there is no ground or cause of fear; and it is a word of assistance. It is verbum operatorium: he that said unto them, Arise, Be not afraid, did by his spirit breathe life, and convey strength into their souls, to enable them to arise.
Observe, 4. The strict injunction given by Christ to his disciples, not to publish or proclaim this vision till after his resurrection, for two reasons:
1. Lest it should hinder his passion; for had the rulers of the world known him to be the Lord of life and glory, they would not have crucified him; therefore Christ purposely concealed his deity to give way to his passion.
2. Christ being now in a state of humiliation, would have his majesty veiled, his glory concealed, and consequently forbids that the glorious vision of his transfiguration should be published and accordingly charges his disciples, That they tell the vision to no man till he was risen.
As if Christ had said, Tell no man the things which you have seen; not the residue of the disciples, That they tell the vision to no man till he was risen.
As if Christ had said, Tell no man the things which you have seen; not the residue of the disciples, that they be not troubled, that they were not admitted to see with you; nor those believers which now follow me, that they be not scandalized at my sufferings after so glorious a transfiguration.
Here we have the disciples' question, and our Saviour's answer. They ask our Saviour, how the observation of the Jewish doctors holds good, that Elias must come before the Messias come? We see the Messias, but we see no Elias; our Saviour answers, that Elias was come already: Not Elijah in person, but one in the spirit and powers of Elias; one of his spirit and temper; to wit, John the Baptist, who was prophesied of under the name of Elias. And great indeed was the resemblance between the Elias of the Old Testament, and of the New, namely John the Baptist; they were both born in bad times; they were both zealous for God and religion; they were both undaunted reprovers of the faults of princes; and they were both hated and implacably persecuted for the same.
Learn, that hatred and persecution, even unto death, has often been the lot and portion of such as have had the zeal and courage to reprove the faults of princes; Elias is come, and they did unto him whatsoever they would.
Observe here, 1. A sick patient brought to Christ, the great physician, for cure and healing. A lunatic, that is, a person, at certain times of the moon, afflicted with the falling sickness.
2. This sickness of his was aggravated by Satan, who bodily possessed him, and cruelly cast him into the fire and into the water, but rather for torture than dispatch.
O how does Satan, that malicious tyrant, rejoice in doing hurt to mankind! Lord, abate his power, since his malice will not be abated.
Observe, 3. The person who brought him forth for cure, his compassionate father, who kneeled down and cried out, need will make a person both humble and eloquent. Everyone has a tongue to speak for himself; happy is he that keeps a tongue for others.
4. The physicians that he was first brought unto: first, to the disciples; and when they could not cure him, then to Jesus. We never apply ourselves importunately to the God of power, till we begin to despair of the creature's help.
These words are a severe rebuke given by Chrsit to his own disciples.
Where, observe, The person upbraided, his discples: and the sin upbraided with, unbelief. O faithless generation! Yet was it not the total want of faith, but the weakness and imperfection of faith, that they were upbraided with and reproved for.
Hence learn, 1. That secret unbelief may lie hid and undiscerned in a person's heart, which neither others nor himself may take notice of, until some trial doth discover it. The disciples were not sensible of that unbelief which lay hid in them, till this occasion did discover it.
Learn, 2. That the great obstacle and obstruction of all blessings, both spiritual and temporal, coming to us, is our unbelief: O faithless generation! Others conceive that these words were not spoken to the disciples but to the Scribes, which Mark 9 . says, at this time were disputing with Christ's disciples, and perhaps insulting over them, as having found out a distemper which could not be cured by Christ's name and power; and these he called now, as he had done heretofore, a generation of vipers.
Observe here, With what facility and ease our Saviour cured this poor man, who was bodily possessed by Satan: with one word speaking, he delivered the distressed person from the malice and power of Satan.
Thence learn, That how long soever, and how strong soever Satan's possession has been in a person, Christ can eject and cast him out both easily and speedily.
Observe here, How ashamed the disciples were of this open rebuke given them by their Master; they privately ask him the case of their ill success, Why they could not cast out Satan, according to the power promised them to work miracles? Our Saviour tells them, that their power to work this miracle now failed them for a double reason.
1. For their unbelief, by which we are to understand the weakness of their faith, not the total want of faith.
2. Because they neglected the special means appointed by God, in order to that end, to wit, fasting and prayer: that is a fervour of devotion, joined with faith and fasting.
Thence learn, That fasting and prayer are two especial means of Christ's appointment, for enabling us victoriously to overcome Satan, and cast him out of ourselves and others. We must set an edge upon our faith by prayer, and upon our prayer by fasting.
Question. But what are we to understand by faith as a grain of mustard-seed?
Answer. 1. Some do thereby understand a faith that groweth and increaseth as a grain of mustard-seed, or a faith as strong and active in heart as mustard-seed is on the palate. And by removing mountains, understand the performing things that are most difficult; as if Christ had said, Did your faith increase as a grain of mustard-seed grows, it would enable you to surmount all difficulties whatsoever.
2. Others by faith as a grain of mustard-seed, understand, the least degree of sincere faith on God, it being a proverbial speech among the Jews, used pro reminima, for the least thing; as if Christ had said, "Had you the least measure of that faith which cast out fear and doubting of success in the discharge of your office, you might perform things most difficult, and even this faith in its effects would be mighty." Dr. Whitby.
Observable it is, how frequently our Saviour forewarned his disciples of his approaching sufferings. All was little enough to arm them against the scandal of the cross, and to reconcile them to the thought of what he was to suffer for them, and they were to suffer with him.
Learn, That we can never hear too much of the doctrine of the cross; nor can we be too often instructed in our duty to prepare for a suffering condition. As Christ went by his cross to his crown, from a state of abasement to a state of exultation, so must all his disciples and followers likewise.
Observe here, 1. The question put to Peter; Doth your master pay tribute? This tribute-money originally was a tax paid yearly by every Jew to the service of the temple, to the value of fifteen-pence a head. But when the Jews were brought under the power of the Romans, this tribute-money was paid to the emperor, and was changed from a homage-penny to God, to a tribute-penny to the conqueror. The collectors of htis tribute-money asked Peter, whether his master would pay it or not.
Observe, 2. The answer returned, positively and suddenly. He does pay. Peter consults not first with our Saviour, whether he would pay it; but knowing his readiness to render to all their due, he says, Yes. There was no truer paymaster of the king's dues, than he that was King of Kings. He preached it, and he practised it: Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's.
Yet Observe, 3. Our Saviour insinuates his own exemption, privilege, and freedom form paying this tribute-money, as he was the Son of God, the Universal King; subjects pay tribute, but king's children are free. Though Christ was free from paying tribute by a natural right, yet he would not be free by a voluntary dispensation.
Therefore Observe, To prevent all scandal and offence, he works a miracle, rather than the tribute money should go unpaid. Whether Christ by his almighty word created this piece of money in the mouth of the fish, (which was half a-crown for himself and St. Peter, who had a house in Capernaum, and was there to pay his poll) or whether Christ caused the fish to take up this piece of money at the bottom of the sea, is not necessary to enquire, nor possible to determine. Our duty is, reverentially to adore that Omnipotent Power, whcih could command the fish to be both his treasurer to keep his silver, and his purveyor to bring it to him.
2. Industriously to imitate his example, in shunning all occasions of offence, especially towards those whom God has place in sovereign authority over us.
Observe lastly, The poverty of our holy Lord, and his contempt of all worldly wealth and riches: he had not so much as fifteen pence by him to pay his poll. Christ would not honour the world so far as to have any part of it in his own possession. The best man that ever lived in the world had not a penny in his purse, nor a house to hide his head in, which he could call his own.
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Burkitt, William. "Commentary on Matthew 17". Burkitt's Expository Notes with Practical Observations on the NT. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany