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Bible Commentaries

Joseph Benson's Commentary of the Old and New Testaments
Matthew 17

 

 

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Verse 1-2

Matthew 17:1-2. After six days — Reckoning exclusively from that in which the discourse recorded in the preceding chapter was delivered, to that on which the transfiguration took place, or, including those two days, about eight days after, as Luke has it: Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother — The three disciples whom he honoured with a peculiar intimacy, (see Mark 5:37; and Matthew 26:37,) and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart — From the people and his other disciples. Jerome tells us, that there was a tradition in his days, handed down from the times of the apostles, that this was mount Tabor, famed in ancient history for the victory which Deborah and Barak gained over Sisera, 4:14. Dr. Macknight, however, thinks “the order of the history determines the transfiguration to some mountain not far from Cesarea Philippi, rather than to Tabor, which was situated in the south of Galilee. For after the transfiguration, it is said, Mark 9:30, that they departed and passed through Galilee, and then came to Capernaum. Now it is not very probable that the evangelist would in this manner have narrated our Lord’s journey from the mount of transfiguration to Capernaum, if that mountain had been in Galilee, the region in which Capernaum stood. Yet upon the faith of the tradition mentioned above, the Christians very early built a monastery and church on the top of Tabor, which church was dedicated to Jesus and his two attendants, Moses and Elias. And from 2 Peter 1:18, they called the mountain itself, the holy mountain. And he was transfigured before them — Namely, before these three disciples. It was necessary that so remarkable an occurrence should be supported by sufficient witnesses; and hence it was that the three above mentioned were chosen, because so many were required among the Jews to establish a fact, and no more were chosen, because this number was sufficient. The word μετεμορφωθη, rendered here, transfigured, may either imply that there was a transformation made in the substance of his body, according to the import of the word in Ovid, and other writers; or that the outward appearance only of his body was altered, which seems most probable from the expression used by Luke, who says, το ειδος του προσωπου αυτου ετερον, the appearance of his countenance, or person: was changed: and this change, according to that evangelist, took place while he was praying, chap. Matthew 9:29. And his face did shine as the sun — Became radiant and dazzling, and shone like the sun in its unclouded, meridian clearness; and so was incomparably more glorious than the face of Moses at the giving of the law. And his raiment was white as the light — Became, says Mark, shining exceeding white, as snow, so as no fuller on earth could white it. Was white and glistering, says Luke, or white as lightning, as λευκος εξαστραπτων properly signifies. It seems it was bright and sweetly refulgent, but in a degree inferior to the radiancy of his countenance. “The indwelling Deity,” says Mr. Wesley, “darted out its rays through the veil of his flesh: and that with such transcendent splendour, that he no longer bore the form of a servant. His face shone with divine majesty, like the sun in its strength; and all his body was so irradiated by it, that his clothes could not conceal his glory, but became white and glistering as the very light, with which he covered himself as with a garment.”


Verse 3-4

Matthew 17:3-4. And behold — To heighten the grandeur and solemnity of the scene; there appeared unto them — That is, unto the disciples as well as Jesus; Moses and Elias — Luke says, two men, which were Moses and Elias, and Mark, Elias with Moses. Moses, the great lawgiver of the Jews, and Elijah, who had been a most zealous restorer and defender of the law, appeared in the glories of immortality, wherewith the blessed above are adorned: talking with him — And, according to Luke, the subject of their conversation was, the decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem, that is, his departure out of the present life, or the sufferings and death whereby he was to atone for sin, and effect the redemption of mankind: a subject the most important of all others, and therefore the most proper to employ the thoughts and tongues of these illustrious personages, the most illustrious, certainly, that had ever met together on earth in one place. But the three disciples were seized with an irresistible drowsiness, and fell into a deep sleep. They awoke, however, time enough to see Christ’s glory, and that of the two men who stood with him. Probably the streams of light which issued from Christ’s body, especially his countenance, and the voices of Moses and Elias talking with him, made such an impression on their senses as to awake them. Lifting up their eyes, therefore, they must have been amazed beyond measure when they beheld their Master in the majesty of his transfigured state, and his illustrious attendants, whom they might know to be Moses and Elias by revelation, or by what they said, or by the appellations which Jesus gave them in speaking to them. Peter, particularly, being both afraid and glad at the glorious sight, was in the utmost confusion. Nevertheless, the forwardness of his disposition prompted him to say something, and just as Moses and Elias were departing from Jesus, he said, Lord, it is good for us to be here — So doubtless they found it. Both before and after this transfiguration they had many refreshing seasons with their Master, heard many ravishing sermons, and saw many wonderful miracles; yet in no place, and on no occasion but this, were they ever heard to say, It is good for us to be here. Peter fancied, doubtless, that Jesus had now assumed his proper dignity; that Elias was come, according to Malachi’s prediction; and that the kingdom was at length begun. Wherefore, in the first hurry of his thoughts, he proposed to provide some accommodation for Jesus and his august attendants, intending, perhaps, to bring the rest of the disciples, with the multitude, from the plain below, to behold his matchless glory. He thought this was better for his Master than to be killed at Jerusalem. He said, therefore, If thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles — He says, three, not six, because the apostles desired to be with their Master. They were words of rapturous surprise, and, as Mark observes, very improper. But, perhaps, few in such an astonishing circumstance could have been perfectly masters of themselves.


Verses 5-8

Matthew 17:5-8. While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them — Such, probably, as took possession first of the tabernacle, and afterward of Solomon’s temple, when those holy places were consecrated. See Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11; where we are told that the cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister, because of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord. This, it is well known, used to be termed the shechinah, or visible symbol of the divine presence. A similar cloud, it seems, now overshadowed Jesus and his two glorified attendants, and therefore is termed by Peter, 2d 2 Peter 1:17, the excellent glory. And behold a voice out of the cloud — Namely, the voice of God himself; This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased — The same testimony which the Father bore to Jesus at his baptism, as recorded Matthew 3:17, where see the note. Thus, for the full confirmation of the disciples’ faith in Jesus, Moses, the giver of the law, Elijah, the most zealous of all the prophets, and God speaking from heaven, all bore witness to him. Hear ye him — As superior even to Moses and the prophets. This command of the Father plainly alluded to Deuteronomy 18:15, and signified that Jesus was the prophet of whom Moses spake in that passage, and concerning whom he enjoined, Unto him shall ye hearken. Luke informs us that the three disciples feared as they (namely, as Moses and Elias) entered into the cloud; but now, at the very moment when they heard the voice coming from the cloud, probably as loud as thunder, (see John 12:29,) and full of divine majesty, such as mortal ears were unaccustomed to hear, they fell flat to the ground on their faces, being sore afraid; an effect which visions of this kind commonly had on the prophets and other holy men to whom they were given. See Genesis 15:12; Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 2:1; Daniel 10:8; Revelation 1:17. It seems human nature could not of itself support such manifestations of the divine presence. In this condition the three disciples continued till Jesus came and touched them, and, raising them up, dispelled their fears. And when they had lifted up their eyes (Mark says, When they had looked round about) they saw no man — Saw no man any more, says Mark, save Jesus only with themselves. In Luke we read, When the voice was passed, Jesus was found alone.

This transfiguration of our Lord was doubtless intended for the following, among several other very important purposes: 1st, To prevent his disciples from being offended at the depth of affliction into which they were soon to see him plunged. For their beholding him clothed with such glory would tend to establish them in the belief of his being the Messiah, notwithstanding the sufferings which he was to pass through; and the conference which he had with Moses and Elias concerning those sufferings, and the death in which they were to terminate, might make them sensible how agreeable it was to the doctrine of Moses and the prophets that the Messiah should be evil-entreated and die before he entered into his glory. 2d, To arm them for, and encourage them under, their own sufferings, by a demonstration of a future state, and a display of the felicity of that state. Here they see Moses, who had died in the land of Moab, and was buried in a valley in that land. Deuteronomy 34:5, alive in a state of glory. This then was a demonstration to them of the immortality of the soul, for Moses, it is certain, had not been raised from the dead with regard to his body, Christ being the first-fruits from the grave, or the first whose body rose to immortal life, as is evident from 1 Corinthians 15:20; 1 Corinthians 15:23; Acts 26:23; Colossians 1:18; Revelation 1:5. Here they also see Elijah, who indeed had not died, but had been translated, that is, as the apostle expresses it, had not been unclothed of the body, but clothed upon with an immortal body, or whose mortality had been swallowed up of life, 2 Corinthians 5:4. He was therefore in that state of glory in which the saints will be after the resurrection and the general judgment. The disciples, therefore, had thus full proof, even of a two-fold state of future felicity awaiting the righteous, first, in their souls, immediately after death; and secondly, in both their bodies and souls after the resurrection. And it is remarkable that St. Paul particularly distinguishes these states, 2 Corinthians 12:2-4, speaking of being caught up both unto paradise, the state and place of holy souls after death; and also into the third heaven, the state and place of the faithful after the resurrection. This discovery, made to the disciples, was of great importance, and very necessary in those times when the opinions of the Sadducees were so prevalent; and it appears from all the epistles in the New Testament, that the apostles derived great support under their sufferings from the prospect of the future glory that awaited them, in their hopes of which this vision must have greatly confirmed them. 3d, To show them the superiority of Christ as a teacher, lawgiver, and mediator, to Moses and Elias, who, though both eminent in their stations, were only servants, whereas this was God’s beloved Son; and, of consequence, that he was to be preferred to all that had preceded him, whether patriarchs or prophets, and therefore that the gospel was more excellent than the law, the Christian than the Jewish dispensation. For when Moses and Elias (representing the law and the prophets) were present, the Father from heaven commanded that his Son should be heard in preference to them. 4th, That the preceding dispensations of the law and the prophets were in perfect harmony with Christ and his dispensation, were introductory thereto, and to terminate therein; for when Moses and Elias had disappeared, Jesus remained as the sole teacher of his disciples, and of consequence of his church and people.


Verse 9

Matthew 17:9. Jesus charged them — Tell the vision to no man — Not to the rest of the disciples, lest they should be grieved and discouraged because they were not admitted to the sight; nor to any other persons, lest it should enrage some the more, and his approaching sufferings should make others disbelieve it. “He knew,” says Macknight, “that the world, and even his own disciples, were not yet capable of comprehending the design of his transfiguration, nor of the appearing of Moses and Elias; and that if this transaction had been published before his resurrection, it might have appeared incredible, because hitherto nothing but afflictions and persecutions had attended him.” Till the Son of man be risen again — Till the resurrection shall make it credible, and confirm your testimony about it. Accordingly we learn from Mark and Luke, that they kept the matter close, and told no man in those days any of those things which they had seen. They questioned, however, one with another, what the rising from the dead should mean, Mark 9:10. They had never heard from the doctors that the Messiah was to die, far less that he was to be raised from the dead. On the contrary, they thought he was to abide for ever, John 12:34, and that there was to be no end of his kingdom; wherefore they were utterly at a loss to understand what their Master meant when he spake of his rising again; and being afraid to ask a particular explication of the matter, they disputed much among themselves about it to no purpose.


Verses 10-13

Matthew 17:10-13. His disciples asked, &c. — Being much surprised at the sudden departure of Elias, and at their Master’s ordering them to keep his having appeared a secret, they had no sooner finished their dispute about what the rising from the dead should mean, than, addressing themselves to Jesus, they said, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come — Before the Messiah, if no man must know of his coming? As if he had said, Since Elias has gone away so soon, and since thou orderest us to keep his appearing a secret, how come the scribes to teach, on all occasions, that Elias must appear before the Messiah erects his empire? As they supposed that Elias was to have an active hand in modelling and settling the Messiah’s kingdom, they never doubted that he would abide a while on earth; and knowing that the scribes affirmed openly that Elias was to appear, they could see no reason for concealing the thing. Jesus answered, Elias truly shall first come, and restore, or regulate, all things — Jesus not only acknowledged the necessity of Elijah’s coming before the Messiah, according to Malachi’s prediction, but he assured his disciples that he was already come, and described the treatment he had met with from the nation in such a manner as to make them understand that he spake of John the Baptist. At the same time he told them, that though the Baptist’s ministry was excellently calculated to produce all the effects ascribed to it by the prophets, they need not be surprised to find that it had not all the success which might have been expected from it, and that the Baptist had met with much opposition and persecution. For, said he, both the person and the preaching of the Messiah himself shall meet with the same treatment.


Verses 14-18

Matthew 17:14-18. And when they were come to the multitude — Namely, the day following, Luke 9:37, there came a certain man, kneeling down to him — In great humility before Jesus, and with deep reverence for him, and saying, Lord, have mercy on my son — Compassionate his miserable condition, for he is lunatic and sore vexed — With terrible fits. “This man’s disease,” says Dr. Campbell, “we should, from the symptoms, call epilepsy, rather than lunacy. The appellation given it ( σεληνιαζεται) shows the general sentiments, at that time, concerning the moon’s influence on this sort of malady.” It appears from Mark 9:17-20; Luke 9:39; (where see the notes,) that the disorder, whatever it was, was owing to his being possessed by an evil spirit; he might, nevertheless, be properly said to be lunatic, though his case was chiefly preternatural, as the evil spirit would undoubtedly take advantage of the influence which the changes of the moon have on the brain and nerves. I brought him to thy disciples — This he had done in Christ’s absence; and they could not cure him — Could not cast out the evil spirit, as appeared by their having attempted it without success. Christ gave his disciples power to cast out devils, when he sent them forth to teach and preach, Matthew 10:1; Matthew 10:8, and then they were successful; yet, at this time, they failed in the operation, though there were nine of them together: and Christ permitted this, 1st, to keep them humble, and to show them their dependance upon him, and that without him they could do nothing; 2d, to glorify himself and his own power. Jesus answered, O faithless and perverse generation — In these words our Lord might first intend to reprove both the disciples and the father of the child, for the weakness of their faith. With respect to the disciples, this appears evident from Matthew 17:20; but the reproof, contained in the words, could not be designed principally for them: for though their faith was weak, they were not faithless, nor do they appear to have deserved so sharp a rebuke. It seems to have been intended for the people, and, perhaps, especially the scribes, who are mentioned, Mark 9:14, as disputing with the disciples, and, it should seem, insulting over them, as having now met with a case that was too hard for them; a distemper which they could not cure, even by the name and power of their Master. And this conduct of the scribes, which proceeded from their unbelief, was highly criminal, since Jesus had already given so many undeniable demonstrations of his power and divine mission. Therefore he treated them no worse than they deserved, in calling them a faithless and perverse generation, and in adding, how long shall I be with you — Namely, ere you be convinced? How long shall I suffer you, or bear with your infidelity? A reproof much more applicable to the scribes, than either to the disciples or the father of the child, the weakness of whose faith proceeded from human infirmity, rather than from wilful obstinacy and perverseness. After having thus rebuked the scribes, he turned to the father of the child, and said, Bring him hither to me — And while he brought him the evil spirit tare him, and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming, Mark 9:20; Luke 9:42. Doubtless Jesus could easily have prevented this attack of the devil, but he wisely permitted it, that the minds of the spectators might be impressed with a more lively sense of the young man’s distress. He then rebuked the devil. — Commanded him to come out of the youth, Mark 9:25. And the child was cured from that very hour — The cure was immediate and perfect! Great encouragement this to parents to bring their children, whose souls are under the power of Satan, to Christ, in the arms of faith and prayer! He is able to heal them, and as willing as able.


Verse 19-20

Matthew 17:19-20. Then came the disciples to Jesus — Namely, the nine disciples, who had been left with the multitude, when Jesus and the three others went up to the mount. They were silent before the multitude, ashamed, it seems, that they could not cast out this evil spirit, and, perhaps, vexed lest through some fault of their own they had lost the power of working miracles, formerly conferred upon them. But when they came with Jesus to their lodging, they asked the reason why they could not cast out that particular demon? Jesus said, Because of your unbelief — Because in this particular you had not faith. You doubted whether I could or would enable you to cast out this evil spirit, and I permitted him to resist your efforts, to reprove the weakness of your faith. For if ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed — If ye have the least measure of the faith of miracles; ye shall say to this mountain, Remove, &c. — Ye shall, by that faith, be able to accomplish the most difficult things in all cases wherein the glory of God and the good of his church are concerned. It is certain that the faith here spoken of may subsist without saving faith: Judas had it, and so had many, who thereby cast out devils, and yet will, at last, have their portion with them. It is only a supernatural persuasion given a man, that God will work by him in an extraordinary and supernatural way, at that hour. Now, though I have all this faith, so as to remove mountains, yet if I have not the faith that worketh by love, I am nothing. To remove mountains, was a proverbial phrase among the Jews, and is still retained in their writings, to express a thing which is very difficult, and to appearance impossible.


Verse 21

Matthew 17:21. This kind — Of devils, goeth not out but by prayer and fasting — Joined with an eminent degree of the faith he had been describing. He intended by this to excite them to intercede with God for his more abundant co-operation; and by such extraordinary devotions to endeavour to prepare their souls for his further influences. What a testimony have we here of the efficacy of fasting, when added to fervent prayer! Some kinds of devils the apostles had east out before this without fasting.


Verses 24-27

Matthew 17:24-27. When they were come to Capernaum — Where our Lord now dwelt. Hence the collectors of the sacred tribute did not ask him for it till he came to this the ordinary place of his residence. They that received the tribute-money came to Peter — Whose house was in Capernaum, and probably in his house Jesus now lodged, and therefore he was the most fit to be spoken to as being the house-keeper, and they presumed he knew his Master’s mind. And said, Doth not your Master pay tribute? — This was a tribute or payment of a peculiar kind, being half a shekel, (that is, about fifteen pence,) which every master of a family used to pay yearly to the service of the temple: to buy salt, and little things not otherwise provided for. It seems to have been a voluntary thing, which custom, rather than any law, had established. He (Peter) saith, Yes — My Master pays tribute. It is his practice to pay it, and I doubt not that he will pay it now. And when he came into the house Jesus prevented him — Just when Peter was going to ask him for it: Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom, &c. — Of whom are they accustomed to take it? Of their children, &c. — Of their own families, or of others? Peter saith — Of strangers — Of persons not belonging to their families. Jesus saith, Then are the children free — From any such demand. The sense is, This tribute is paid for the use of the house of God. But I am the Son of God. Therefore I am free from any obligation of paying this to my own Father. Lest we should offend them — That is, give them occasion to say that I despise the temple and its service, and teach my disciples so to do; go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, &c. — He sends Peter to the lake with a line and a hook, telling him, that in the mouth of the first fish that came up, he should find a stater, ( στατηρα) a Grecian piece of money so called, equal to two didrachma, or one shekel of Jewish money, the sum required for himself and Peter; Peter having a family of his own, and the other apostles being the family of Jesus. How illustrious a degree of knowledge and power did our Lord here discover! Knowledge penetrating into this animal, though beneath the waters; and power, in directing this very fish to Peter’s hook, though he himself was at a distance! How must this have encouraged both Peter and his brethren in a firm dependance on Divine Providence! “Jesus chose to provide this tribute-money by a miracle, either because the disciple who carried the bag was absent, or because he had not as much money as was necessary. Further, he chose to provide it by this particular miracle, rather than any other, because it was of such a kind as to demonstrate that he was the Son of the Great Monarch worshipped in the temple, who rules the universe. Wherefore, in the very manner of his paying this tax, he showed Peter that he was free from all taxes; and at the same time gave his followers this useful lesson, that, in matters which affect their property in a smaller degree, it is better to recede somewhat from their just rights, than, by stubbornly insisting on them, to offend their brethren, or disturb the state.” — Macknight.

 


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Bibliography Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Matthew 17:4". Joseph Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/rbc/matthew-17.html. 1857.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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