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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible
Matthew 17

 

 

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Verse 1

§ 75. — THE TRANSFIGURATION, Matthew 17:1-12.

1. After six days — Luke says “about eight days;” that is, after the conversation mentioned in the last chapter. Luke counts and Matthew omits the first and last days. Taketh… bringeth them. He selects and leads them. Peter, James, and John — The rock and the two sons of thunder. They were the select three of several occasions. Their traits of character rendered them capable of special revelations and manifestations. (Mark 5:37; Matthew 26:27; Luke 8:51.) Into a high mountain — It was formerly supposed to be Tabor, in Galilee; but as our Lord on coming down immediately joins the other disciples, and seems not to have left the region of Cesarea Philippi for Galilee until after the curing of the demoniac, (Mark 9:30,) so distant a mountain as Tabor can hardly have been the scene. Hermon, called Great Hermon, northeast of Gennesaret, is now considered by scholars as the more probable locality.

“It is impossible to look up from the plain to the towering peaks of Hermon, almost the only mountain which deserves the name in Palestine, and not be struck with its appropriateness to the scene. That magnificent height, mingling with all the views of Northern Palestine, from Shechem upwards, though often alluded to as the northern barrier of the Holy Land, is connected with no historical event in the Old or New Testament. Yet this fact of its rising high above all the other hills of Palestine, and of its setting the last limit to the wanderings of Him who was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, concurs with the supposition which the words of the Scripture narrative inevitably force upon us. High up on its southern slopes there must be many a point where the disciples could be taken ‘apart by themselves.’ Even the transient comparison of the celestial splendour with the snow, where alone it could be seen in Palestine, should not, perhaps, be wholly overlooked.” — Stanley.


Verse 2

2. Transfigured — Changed in appearance. Luke tells us that our Lord was praying when the glory began. Before them — As they stood lost in wonder at the phenomenon. It was no transient glimpse. It was a full steady splendour. His face did shine — Compare this with this description of the resurrection glory, when “his countenance was like lightning and raiment white as snow.” Compare also his appearance to John, Revelation 1:3-16. Raiment — Luke says it was “white and glistening.” Mark, “shining exceeding white as snow.” That is, his person was shining and his apparel was white.


Verse 3

3. There appeared… Moses and Elias — Alford well remarks: “The two who appeared to them were the representatives of the law and the prophets; both had been removed from this world in a mysterious manner — the one without death, the other by death indeed, but so that his body followed not the lot of the bodies of all; both, like the Greater One with whom they spoke, had endured that supernatural fast of forty days and nights; both had been on the holy mount in the visions of God. And now they came endowed with glorified bodies, before the rest of the dead, to hold converse with the Lord on that sublime event which had been the great central subject of all their teachings, and solemnly to consign into tits hands once and for all, in a symbolical and glorious representation, their delegated and expiring power. And then follows the divine Voice, as at the Baptism, commanding, however, here, in addition, the sole hearing and obedience of Him whose power and glory were thus testified.”

How, it is asked, did the disciples recognize these celebrated personages? And some have answered that our Lord may have subsequently informed them. But it appears by Matthew 17:4 that Peter knew them at the time. The disciples may have learned their identity by the conversation; or, more probably still, the same elevation of spirit by which they were able to see them at all enabled them to know, as by intuition, who they were. Probably the risen saints, after the crucifixion, were known in the same way.


Verse 4

4. Good for us to be here — It was not a moment of terror but of bliss when Peter spoke this. Amid paradisaic company, and in an atmosphere of paradise, even amid this mountain forest something of the elevation of paradise fills his soul. Three tabernacles — Three tents, booths, or camps. Peter does not say palaces, although he would have held palaces, whether of cedar, marble, or solid gold, none too good for such residents. But the rugged and woody sides of snowy Hermon afforded no implements for the building of such structures, and he proposes tabernacles.

Perhaps he intended a tabernacle not unlike that of Moses in the wilderness; the true purport of which was to be, as it were, the dwelling for the Shekinah, or divine presence. He will have these divine ones not disappear and go back to heaven or paradise. They shall remain there and make it a constant paradise. And there, rather than on Moriah, the temple-mount, shall be the divine presence.

Peter does not propose more than three tabernacles, though six persons are present. The three glorified ones are to be the residents, and for each an apostle for a servant.

The word tabernacle is derived from the Latin word taberna, a shop or shed. The tabernacle of Moses in the wilderness was a building of rectangular figure, about forty-five feet long, fifteen broad, and fifteen high, so constructed as to be taken down, transferred on the march, and again set up. It was a movable temple for God, which was enlarged upon the grandest scale upon a similar model, and completed in the temple of Solomon.


Verse 5

5. A bright cloud — Literally, a cloud of light. Overshadowed them Where the cloud was made of light, the shadow must be a radiance. Them — The former lustre described in Matthew 17:2 belonged to Jesus alone. The others were dim in the comparison. But the “cloud of light” suffuses them all with its glory. A voice out of the cloud — The voice, namely, of God, the Father Almighty. This seems to show that the cloud was the Shekinah, or divine presence. It was the same, perhaps, which filled the temple at the dedication by Solomon. It dwelt in the ancient temple and the tabernacle. This is my beloved Son — As the lustre had been most glorious on him alone, so the voice testifies to him alone. The servants are unnoticed by it, the Son alone is named. Hear ye him — Hear net them, but him. God spake in former times by the prophets, but now he speaks by his Son, Hebrews 1:1. Moses has passed away, and the prophets have ceased; and one in whom the law and the prophets meet has now appeared. How much this scene impressed Peter is evident from his own words, (2 Peter 1:16-18,) written long years afterwards: “For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.”


Verse 6

6. They fell on their face — The lustre of the Saviour’s presence had only made them happy; but the splendour of the Shekinah, and the voice from its excellent glory, filled them with tremor. So Daniel, (Daniel 9:9-10;) and so John, fell before the Saviour himself, Revelation 1:17. This was not simply fear, but the power of the divine voice subduing the power of soul and body.


Verse 7

7. Jesus came and touched them… be not afraid — So the same Saviour touched John in the Apocalypse, (Revelation 1:17.) He “laid his right hand upon him, saying unto him, Fear not.”


Verse 9

9. Vision — Or sight. The word does not intimate that it was not a reality. Tell the vision to no man, until… risen from the dead — Just so the Lord in the last chapter forbade them to tell any one that he was the Christ. See our comment on Matthew 16:20. It was not until they had beheld all the scenes of his death and resurrection, and been empowered by the Spirit from on high, that they were competent to preach the Messiah as he is. Silence and discipline were their present duty. How could they properly preach a crucified and risen Saviour, when they were resolutely opposed to his death, (Matthew 16:20,) and, according to Mark, they questioned what the rising from the dead might mean? They had, indeed, preached in the earlier part of his ministry. But they had only preached repentance because the kingdom of heaven was at hand.

Had they preached the Messiah now they would hardly have held him forth as a dying Redeemer. And had they preached him as a glorious Messiah, superior to Moses and Elias, as set forth in his transfiguration, the Jewish authorities would have held them guilty of treason.


Verse 10

10. Why then say the scribes — The word then seems to imply something previously said in their conversation, contradictory to this opinion of the scribes that Elias should first come. This transient appearance was not a coming at all commensurate with the views of the scribes. What foundation then have the scribes, and how is their view reconcilable with the facts?

The Jews still, in accordance with their interpretation of Malachi, expect the coming of Elias as the forerunner of their Messiah, and pray for his appearance in their synagogue worship. They hold that, since his translation, Elias invisibly revisits the world perpetually. They believe him present at circumcisions; and a seat is provided at the right hand of the child which he is supposed to occupy. It is therefore not so much for his coming that they pray as for his manifestation.


Verse 11

11. Elias truly shall first come — That is, such is the doctrine of ancient prophecy, that thus it shall be. Obviously our Lord speaks of what was future to the prophets who predicted the coming of Elias. He evidently does not mean, as some understand him, that Elias is now to come before Christ’s second advent. Restore all things — Such shall be his office and mission, however unsuccessful in the result. To restore all things is to bring the things of the kingdom from their confusion to a state of restored order before Messiah came. He is a restorer, to set the house to rights before the arrival of a great visitor.


Verse 12

12. Elias is come — We are not to look for him as future; we are not to look upon this transient vision of Elias as the fulfilment of the prophecy; and yet Elias is truly come.


Verse 13

13. John the Baptist — Hence the spirit of prophecy had, by the lips of Malachi, simply designated John by the name of the prophet of whom he was the antitype. Just so Christ is called our passover by the appropriation to him of the name which belonged to his type. See notes on Matthew 3:1; Matthew 11:2.

We may, in conclusion, remark that the narrative of the transfiguration is good proof of the immortality of the soul, and of an intermediate state of the soul between death and judgment. Moses is dead, yet Moses still lives. For Moses appeared living to the apostles on the mount of transfiguration.

In the scene of the Transfiguration we may find the following purposes:

1. It presented a visible exhibition of Christ as in his glorious kingdom just at hand, namely, at his resurrection. It presented to his apostles a purer as well as sublime view of his royalty; elevating their thoughts above the notion of a mere earthly conqueror and king. It presented him as arrayed in his royal robes, when he should be fully invested by God the Father Almighty, in consequence of his sufferings, with a name which is above every name. It was, therefore, a confirmation and pledge (though not a fulfilment) of the utterance which he had given, just one week before, that even some of their own congregation should with living eyes behold him coming in his kingdom. Matthew 16:28.

2. It presented a predictive view of Christ which should be recalled to mind after his resurrection, both to confirm to his disciples the reality of that event, and remind them not only of its verbal predictions from the Saviour’s lips, but of this visible prediction presented to their eyes. Both glories, namely, of the transfiguration and of the resurrection, were the same. And when these three disciples should see the ascending Saviour, they would well remember that they had before seen him in the same splendour on the mount.

3. It presented a signal specimen of our own glorious resurrection in the image of the risen Christ. There is not to be the creation of a new body, as there was not in the transfiguration, by either the bringing into existence new particles of substance, or by the additional accretion of other particles already existing.

Our Lord’s body went into its resurrection or glorified state, and subsided again, without any exchange of its particles of substance. Its substance was, for the time, endowed with higher phenomenal properties. So, chemically, the charcoal becomes a diamond by simply a new arrangement, without any change of identity of the particles.

So the same body that dies, particle for particle and substance for substance, will rise again; yet changed, or transfigured, in so far as it is invested with new properties of glory and of fitness for a heavenly world.

4. It presented Christ as the founder of the new heavenly kingdom, as harmonizing with, though superior to Moses, the founder of the old dispensation, and to Elias, the head of the prophetic order. All the illustrious of past ages stand diminished and humbled before the now glorious Son of man, this transcendent Head of the human race. Adam before the fall was his most nearly equal type; yet still inferior because he fell. Hence, when the apostles afterward went through Jerusalem, and beheld the pomp of the old ceremonial, and the pride of its priesthood, they could call to mind this lesson, and contemn the whole, as nullified by reason of the glory that excelleth.

5. It presents to the Christian Church a symbol of the exalted nature of Jesus, as the second unfallen Adam, as the glorifying restorer of man to his primeval glory; as invested with the robe of Divinity, exalted as a Prince and a Saviour, to conform all his own to his own final glorious likeness. The Gospel of Matthew mostly presents Christ in his laborious and suffering conditions; teaching sublimely and working miraculously, indeed, yet struggling with the trials, and exhibiting the simplicity of mere humanity. But this one scene in Matthew raises Jesus above all human level, and furnishes a full basis for all the glories which the Epistles of Paul and the Revelation of St. John ascribe to his transcendent Person.

6. The Jews, during some part of their history, conceived a theory that there were to be two Messiahs, a glorious and a suffering one. They found in Scripture prophecy such varying accounts and descriptions of the great One to come, some exhibiting him in triumph and splendour, and others showing him in humiliation and death, that they could explain the discrepancy only on the supposition of two different persons. The one they called Messiah, the Son of David, and the other Messiah, the Son of Joseph. Now Jesus, by this manifestation of his own glory, showed both to be united in himself. He was both the suffering and the glorious Messiah.

He was the Son of man and the Son of God. He descended to the humblest depths of our nature to bring us to its utmost heights.


Verse 14

14. Come to the multitude — The preceding conversation, from Matthew 17:9, transpired as they descended the hill. Mark (chap. ix) tells us that this was on the second day after the transfiguration. The Lord found his disciples under question by the scribes for a failure to dispossess a demoniac. As the multitude saw our Lord himself approaching, they ran to him with great earnestness, as if believing that he would be able to accomplish the work. They salute our Lord with joyful reverence. The Lord demands of the scribes why they are thus questioning his disciples; when the father of the demoniac child comes forth and states his case.


Verses 14-23

§ 76. — CASTING OUT OF A DUMB AND DEAF SPIRIT, Matthew 17:14-23.

As Moses, when he came down from the mount of God, found that his people had in his absence turned to idolatry and vice, so our Saviour, on coming from the mount of transfiguration, found that his disciples in his absence had neglected prayer and fasting, and become spiritually weak, and had rendered themselves liable to the taunts of adversaries and the rebukes of the Lord. Great is the contrast between the exaltation of the mount and this humiliation on the low level of the earth.


Verse 15

15. Lunatic — Insane, and deprived by the evil spirit of his reasoning faculties. Mark gives a vivid description of the power of the demon and the sufferings of the victim. The terrible convulsions to which he had been subjected had rent and torn him “from a child.”


Verse 16

16. Disciples… could not cure him — The disciples had perhaps often performed the miracle of casting out demons; but upon this occasion, either from a special weakness of their own or a special strength of the demon, they failed.


Verse 17

17. Faithless and perverse generation — The scribes, who stood by cavilling at the failure; the people, who had brought the devil into such power over themselves and children by their sins; and the disciples, whose weak faith subjected the cause of God to ridicule, are all a part of this faithless and perverse generation, and all have a share in this rebuke of our Lord. He had just come from the celestial transfiguration on the mount; and how terrible was the transition to the company of devils, demoniacs, depraved unbelievers and weak disciples. Suffer you — Moses, in Numbers 22:10, complained, and he was therein sinful; for no sinner may thus rebuke his fellow. But with Christ the pure, not merely the gain sayings of the wicked, but the short comings of humanity, were a true source of profound suffering.


Verse 19

19. Apart — They were doubtless ashamed to discuss this question before the world.


Verse 20

20. Because of your unbelief — During the absence of their Lord, the disciples seem to have become as it were secularized. See introduction to the section. Faith as a grain of mustard seed — That is, in size; in contrast with the size of the mountain it is able to remove. This mountain — This faith, be it remembered, supposes a concurrence between God and man.

On the part of God a mission or duty assigned to the man, for which the power of faith is granted; and without this, the true faith is impossible. On the part of man there must be exercised all the granted faith-power, by which he puts forth the act, or pursues the course which is opened in the way of duty before him. When these two things combine, it is literally true that anything is possible. If the man’s mission be to remove the Andes into the Pacific it can be done. If there be no duty to it, there can be no true faith for it; and the attempt to do it would not be faith but rash self-will. God gives no man faith wherewith to play miraculous pranks. On the other hand, if there be the duty and the God-given power of faith, and yet it be not exercised with the full strength of heart and the firm trust in God which knows the impossibility will be done, no miracle shall follow. This the disciples had not, even to a mustard seed’s amount; and a mustard seed’s amount could have as easily accomplished its mission as my hand moves a pen. There doubtless lives many a Christian now with faith sufficient to remove real material mountains, if God had any such work for him to do. Yet it may be safely presumed that our Lord used the word mountain as well as the mustard seed by way of figure. He may have used it as Isaiah 40:4, prophesies that “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain shall be brought low.” Or as Zechariah 4:7, declares that the “great mountain shall disappear before Zerubbabel.”


Verse 21

21. This kind — The word kind may mean the entire species of evil spirits, and then our Lord would mean to say that to cast out evil spirits requires prayer and fasting. Or it may mean that this special kind of evil spirits which infested this child requires special faith, or special effort to give effect to that faith. The latter is the more obvious, and therefore the more probable meaning. That there are various grades of spirits of evil is not improbable in itself; and the idea is sustained by many proofs. The very fact that Beelzebub is prince of devils, shows this. Mark, by his glowing description of the fierceness both of this demon and of the demons at Gadara, evidently means to convey the idea that there are demons of more than ordinary fierceness. Matthew tells us (Matthew 12:45) of one who took “seven other spirits more wicked than himself.” And Paul (Ephesians 6:12) evidently describes divers orders of evil. We may safely conclude, therefore, that our Lord meant to say that this sort of demon required more than ordinary spiritual vigour to expel him. And here we have a solemn intimation that we have all, nigh unto us, spiritual foes of various power, whose force can be overcome by the vigorous use of the means of training our spiritual strength.


Verse 22

22. While they abode in Galilee — The miracle and conversation of the last paragraph plainly took place not far from the mount of transfiguration, which was in the vicinity of Cesarea Philippi. Thence, according to Mark 9:30, they crossed over Gennesaret to Galilee, where the present scene transpired. Into the hands of men — Though he was the Son of man, and the model of humanity, it was fatal for him to be betrayed into the hands of men. Our Lord first broached the subject of his death at the scene of the apostolic inauguration in Matthew 16:21. And (as in our comment on that passage we have noted) so unexpected a turn after delivering to them the kingdom, struck them with consternation. He now, after his transfiguration, reveals the same sad assurance. Matthew says they were exceeding sorry. Luke says that our Saviour told them, Let these sayings sink down into your ears, if not into their understandings; and he adds: They understood not this saying, and it was hid from them that they perceived it not: and they feared to ask him.


Verse 24

§ 78. — MIRACLE OF COIN IN THE FISH’S MOUTH, Matthew 17:24-27.

24. They… tribute money — Not the Roman tax-gatherers, for they would not have proposed the payment as a matter of question. This tribute money was a contribution of the Jews to the maintenance of the temple services. It was enjoined by God, through Moses, (Exodus 30:11-16,) and amounted (Exodus 38:26) to a bekah, or half a shekel. Doth not your master pay the didrachms? is the question in the Greek. From which it appears that the Greek didrachm or double drachm was equivalent to a bekah or half shekel. That is, four drachms made a shekel. See note on Matthew 17:27. Came to Peter — Their awe of our Lord did not permit them to approach him with the matter.

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Verse 25

25. He saith, Yes — Peter is here, perhaps, as often, a little too forward. He wishes to speak favourably for his Master. Jesus prevented him — Introduced the matter as soon as Peter came into the house, and before the latter had time to do so.


Verse 26

26. Then are the children free — Kings do not take tribute of their own sons. Now of the temple God is king, and I am his Son. Why then, Peter, did you so far forget my Sonship as to pledge me to become a tribute-payer? Peter had but lately confessed his Lord in the most solemn style, at Cesarea Philippi, as Son of the living God. He had but a few days previously heard God’s voice, on the mount of transfiguration, proclaim Jesus as his beloved Son. Why then should God’s Son pay tribute for his own house? Nevertheless our Lord did not avail himself of this divine exemption.


Verse 27

27. Offend them — Put a snare or entrapment in their way, by which they should fall into the supposition that I depreciate God’s house. See note on Matthew 18:7. Go thou to the sea — As I am Son of the King of all the universe, the earth is my patrimony, and the sea is my treasury. Go and draw upon it. Take a coin from the fish’s mouth and pay thy contribution and mine. Piece of money — In Greek a stater. This, being a half shekel for each of the two, must have been current for a shekel, which was about sixty-two cents. See note on Matthew 17:24.

 


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Bibliography Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Matthew 17:4". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/whe/matthew-17.html. 1874-1909.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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