Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentMatthew 17
THE TRANSFIGURATION; THE COMING OF ELIJAH; THE DISCIPLES' FAILURE WITH THE DEMON-POSSESSED BOY; THE PASSION PROPHESIED AGAIN; JESUS PAYS TRIBUTE WITH THE MONEY IN THE FISH'S MOUTH
And after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart.
Luke makes the time interval "eight days" (Luke 9:28); but there is no discrepancy from Mark and Matthew. Luke used the inclusive method of reckoning time, counting the portion of a day at either end of the period, whereas Mark and Matthew counted only the complete days. A suggestion of this is in the precise terminology used. Matthew has it "after six days," and Luke stated that it was "about eight days." Today people might say, "six or eight days."
Matthew was omitted from that inner circle of three disciples who witnessed the marvel here related, and one can find only amazement at the complete detachment and objectivity of his narrative. Peter, James and John formed a kind of inner committee, or cadre, within the Twelve, and were the exclusive witnesses of the transfiguration, the raising of Jairus' daughter, and the agony in Gethsemane. Peter would take the lead in establishing the church; James would be the recognized leader of the church in Jerusalem; and John would receive the final revelation. The experience on the mount of transfiguration would better equip them for future duties and responsibilities. The Saviour's prophecy of his approaching death and humiliation had doubtless imparted some measure of shock and disappointment to the Twelve, and that event was possibly designed to lift their spirits, strengthen their faith, and lead them into an acceptance of the approaching passion of our Lord.
The location of the wondrous unveiling of his glory is not given; but there are excellent and convincing reasons for placing it at Mount Hermon, or one of its supporting peaks. Robertson stated that "The tradition that places the transfiguration on Mount Tabor is beyond question false." F1 He would appear to be correct for these reasons: (1) Tabor does not qualify as a "high" mountain, being only 1,800 feet in elevation, compared with Hermon's 9,000 feet. (2) Tradition favoring Tabor, first advocated by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, F2 is much too late to have much weight. (3) Mount Tabor was populated, having a fortress on top, during the time of Christ, F3 and was not suitable for such an event as the transfiguration. To have ascended Tabor would not have taken them "apart," as Matthew expressed it. (4) Mount Tabor was three days journey removed from the last named geographical placement of Christ and his disciples; and, although a sufficient time interval of six or eight days had elapsed, none of the gospel narratives mentions a journey of any kind. Hermon, on the other hand, was nearby and is the most likely site. (5) Furthermore, when the gospels again take up the narrative, they were still in the vicinity of Hermon. Peter, in after years, called it the Holy Mount (2 Peter 1:18), and in the words of A. L. Williams, "We may conclude that we are not intended to know more about it, lest we should be tempted to make more of the material circumstances than of the great reality." F4
And he was transfigured before them; and his face did shine as the sun, and his garments became white as the light.
The glory of Christ was revealed. The effulgence of the Godhead made his face luminous and shone through his garments. Again from Williams,
It is a subjective vision that is here
related, no mere inward impression on
brain or nerve with nothing external
to correspond, but a real objective
occurrence, which was beheld by mortal
eyes endued with no supernatural or
abnormal powers, except insofar as
they were enabled to look on this
partial emanation of the divine
The heavenly glory of Christ irradiated his face and clothing, demonstrating his eternal nature in a way to make the apostles who witnessed it absolutely certain that Christ was God in human form. The profound impression made by the event was permanent. Long afterward, John wrote, "We beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14).
And behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elijah talking with him.
How did the apostles recognize Moses and Elijah? The conversation seems to be the most logical source of that information. It may be concluded from this incident that the saints will know the redeemed of all ages in their glorified state in heaven. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Christ was strong proof of his deity, since Christ was able to recall from the hosts of righteous dead those typical representatives of previous dispensations. Moses the great lawgiver, and Elijah the great prophet, were there summoned from the dead to resign their commissions and to lay their homage at his feet. Then the apostles KNEW that Christ was not merely some great Elijah or other notable, and they were certain beyond all doubt that he was the One greater than all others, superior even to Moses and Elijah.
And Peter answered, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, I will make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
Again Peter was wrong, not so completely wrong as when he rebuked the Lord, but still wrong. Luke added the words, "not knowing what he said" (Luke 9:33). Peter was still thinking of Jesus AND Moses, or of Jesus AND Elijah, or of Jesus AND both of them. The suggested tabernacles were small booths used by the Jews for the feast of tabernacles. What Peter had in mind is not clear, but his error is glaring enough. He was proposing some kind of EQUALITY for Jesus to share with Moses and Elijah. Christ did not rebuke Peter, but what followed exposed his error in the most astonishing manner.
While he was yet speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
The triple "behold" is significant. Miracle was piled upon miracle in the succession of astounding occurrences. Here is a manifestation of the Trinity almost as definite as that at the baptismal scene in Matthew 3:16. Christ was present, radiant in heavenly light; the Father spake out of heaven; and the cloud strongly suggests the Holy Spirit, although it is not so identified. The frightened apostles fell on their faces in abject terror at that overwhelming display of divine power. The exact nature of the bright cloud is not known, but Peter called it "the excellent glory" (2 Peter 1:17).
The words out of the cloud were the same as those at Jesus' baptism, except that the words "Hear ye him" were added. Like all of God's commandments, this is exclusive and means "Do not hear Moses; do not hear Elijah, etc."
Verses 6, 7
And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
Christ's touch was that like he used in healing and raising the dead. It imparted power and strength. It emphasizes the state of utter incapacity into which the apostles' terror had plunged them. The message "Be not afraid" was the same which came to them over the storm-tossed waters of Galilee, dispelling their apprehensions and indicating the end of the experience.
And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, save Jesus only.
The big words in this whole passage are "Jesus only." Moses and Elijah were no longer visible, having been caught away in the cloud; thus, the message was definite and emphatic, "Jesus only!"
The significance of this is apparent in the consideration of other possibilities.
They might have seen no one after the cloud lifted. How unhappy would have been their lot if all the glory had departed, leaving no one. In such a case, no salvation, no hope would have been indicated. They might have seen MOSES ONLY. This would have indicated the Law as still supreme, and forgiveness would yet have remained impossible. They might have seen ELIJAH ONLY. What a catastrophe that would have been. James and John could have called down fire upon the villages; Herod would have been slain like Ahab; the Pharisees would have met their match; Herodias would have fared like Jezebel. They might have seen all three, as suggested by Peter's rash proposal. His statement, "Lord, it is good for us to be here," seems to indicate that he thought it was better to be there with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, than to be there with Jesus only. At first glance, this may appear to have been an attractive possibility. It certainly was so for Peter; but such could not possibly be true. Some things bespeak better conditions by their absence than by their presence. If one were able to see the sun, moon, and stars all at once, it would be a dreadfully dark day!
This is the message humanity needs. He is the only Saviour, the only Mediator, the only Authority in heaven or upon earth. He is the only means of access to God (John 14:6), the only hope of the world, the only Judge of the world, and the only Atonement for man's sin.
And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead.
Silence was commanded because nine of the apostles had not witnessed the transfiguration, and there was a possibility of jealousy developing among them, as indeed it did a little later; also the primary reason, as noted earlier, was the need not to compromise the Saviour's death which he would soon accomplish in Jerusalem.
An extremely important supplement to Matthew's account is in Luke who gave the subject matter of the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah. "(They) spake of his decease which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). This conversation was calculated to encourage and reassure the apostles who had been severely shocked and disheartened by the Saviour's revelation of his death and sufferings, to be followed by his resurrection. It seems that the apostles focused all their attention upon his death and continue not to realize, though they had been told, that he would also rise from the dead. The subject matter during the transfiguration showed that the death of Christ was a part of the Master Plan and that it was of the utmost concern and interest on the part of all previous generations as represented by Moses and Elijah. It also revealed Christ as the Great Architect of the crucifixion. Evil men, dominated by Satan, would have their part in it, but only Christ would accomplish his death. These events, coupled with the sublime conversation, should have enabled the apostles more readily to accept the somber events of his approaching passion.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come?
This question shows that the evil insinuations of the scribes had done their work even in the apostles' hearts. Their recognition of Elijah on the mountaintop probably caused them to think that Elijah would "restore all things" as was expected of him; but then, upon reflection, it appeared that such a momentary appearance as they had just witnessed would not allow time for such a mission. They promptly asked Jesus about it.
And he answered and said, Elijah indeed cometh, and shall restore all things: but I say unto you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but did unto him whatsoever they would. Even so shall the Son of man also suffer of them. Then understood the disciples that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
A difficulty, to some, appears in the use of the future tense in Matt. 17:11, causing the conjecture that there are two fulfillments of the prophecy of Elijah's coming, the first being in the coming of John the Baptist, the other to come near the end of time when Elijah will appear (so goes the speculation) and "restore all things," before the second advent of our Lord. Interesting as this speculation is, it is rejected on the simple words of the text to the effect that Christ was speaking of John the Baptist. The tense, whether future or not, should give no concern. In assigning a study of the Old Testament, a professor is well within the bounds of legitimate speech when he says, "Now Abraham comes before Moses, and Moses comes before David." The utmost accuracy of our Lord's word must be allowed; but the possibility of just such a misunderstanding was anticipated and eliminated by the plain assertion, "He spake unto them of John the Baptist." Also, "Elijah is come already!"
Verses 14, 15
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a man, kneeling to him, and saying, Lord have mercy on my son: for he is epileptic, and suffereth grievously; for oft-times he falleth into the fire, and oft-times into the water.
The word "epileptic" as used in the English Revised Version (1885) is an error, as may be seen by consulting any Greek lexicon or commentary. The word is "lunatic." This class of disease was given separate listing in Matt. 4:24, and doubtless many of this kind were healed. In the case here, there is the additional complication of demon possession. The fact that there was a double affliction could have accounted for the difficulty the disciples had in healing the boy, failing, in fact, to do so. (See on 8:28).
And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
The latent doubt planted in the apostles' hearts by the Pharisees must surely have played a part in the inability to heal the lunatic. Their faltering faith, coupled with the double difficulty at hand, made them powerless to effect a cure. These same disciples had once returned with joy over the fact that demons were subject to them in the name of Christ (Luke 10:17ff); but then they were powerless in the presence of that lunatic boy. This indicates the difficulty the apostles had in maintaining their faith under the rising attacks of the Pharisees, the revelation that Christ would suffer death, and the temporary absence of Jesus with three of their number on the Holy Mountain.
And Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? bring him hither to me.
This blanket indictment of all present, including the Twelve, especially the nine who had failed, gives an insight into the frustration which threatened the Master's heaven-born mission to men. How long was this to continue? Had all the miracles and wonders gone for nothing? Instead of growing in faith, the apostles were obviously weakening under the withering climate induced by Pharisaical opposition to the Master and the waning of his popularity that resulted from the campaign of his foes in Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he did not lose patience with them but prepared to perform another mighty wonder before their eyes.
And Jesus rebuked him; and the demon went out of him: and the boy was cured from that hour.
Christ succeeded, of course, even though his apostles had failed; thus his name and honor were vindicated. A strange sidelight on this cure is the obvious fact that not all demon-possessed persons were morally corrupt. There is no suggestion of such in the case here. Just how Satan's servants were able to possess even innocents on some occasions is not revealed. The verse here is Matthew's first intimation that a demon was involved, but Jesus' words immediately afterwards left no doubt. Christ rebuked, not the disease, but the demon. As Trench observed, all disorders in nature are traceable to their fountain source in the kingdom of evil, whose head is Satan.
Other graphic details are given by Mark, describing Jesus' conversation with the father and the final tearing of the child as they brought him to Jesus. (See also Luke 9:42). Spurgeon saw in the intensified activity of the demon a pattern of Satan's vigorously increased opposition against those who are in the act of coming to Christ for salvation. He wrote, "Sinners, when they approach the Saviour, are often thrown down by Satan and torn, so that they suffer exceedingly in their minds, and are well nigh ready to give up in despair." F6 Any gospel minister can recall instances of mighty oppositions to souls on the brink of decision for Christ.
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast it out?
They discreetly waited until they were alone with Christ, avoiding embarrassment that might have resulted from asking him publicly; and, in view of the reasons Jesus gave, they were correct in the exercise of such prudence.
And he said unto them, Because of your little faith: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
The reasons for the apostles' failure were (1) their lack of faith, (2) the double difficulty of the case at hand, and (3) their failure to exercise the privilege of prayer and fasting. At this place in Matthew, some very ancient authorities include Matt. 17:21 which reads, "But this kind goeth not out save by prayer and fasting." Mark 9:29 reads, "This kind can come out by nothing, save by prayer." The disciples had some faith, else they would not have tried to cast it out. The fact that they had previously cast out demons but could not cast out that one shows that some demons are more malevolent and stubborn than others. This opens a whole field of questions regarding the character and variety of demons, but the Scriptures afford little information on such a point. The necessity for prayer (certainly) and fasting (perhaps) was stressed. The child had long been possessed by the demon, and the usual pattern of demonic destruction was evident in the danger incurred from falls into the fire and into the water. It is noteworthy that Satan's purpose, wherever revealed in Scripture, invariably appears destructive. In the cases of Job (Job 1:16), Judas (Luke 22:3), the swine (Matthew 8:32), and in many others, death and destruction always resulted quickly when Satan or his emissaries had a free hand to work their will.
Nothing shall be impossible unto you,
is a very strong statement by the Lord. One is tempted to make our Lord's remark about removing mountains mere hyperbole, but no such restriction seems justified from the text. To the true believer, and especially to the apostles, all things were possible through faith. To every true child of God, all moral and material difficulties vanish. The tragedy is that most disciples, like the nine in the case here, are hindered by seeds of doubt and unbelief, and perhaps also by the lack of fervent and devoted prayer.
Verses 22, 23
And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be delivered up into the hands of men; and they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised up. And they were exceeding sorry.
THE SECOND ANNOUNCEMENT OF JESUS' PASSION
One additional and very significant detail is added by this recapitulation of the prophecy of his Passion. That is that he would be "delivered up," or "betrayed" as the word is translated in Matthew 10:4 (English Revised Version (1885) margin).
From Mark, it is known that Christ at that time had returned to Galilee and was in retirement there, using every possible means to instruct and prepare the apostles for the awful events looming so near in the future. The fact that they were "exceeding sorry" shows what enormous difficulty attended this revelation for them. It was, in fact, incomprehensible; and most of the things Christ taught them on that subject were to remain unrealized by them until after the events. Looming nearer and nearer were the dark scenes of Calvary, blotting out their view of the oft-repeated promises of his resurrection. The ability of finite men to understand so gargantuan a fact as God in Christ dying for the sins of the whole world was strained to the breaking point. Never was there a better example of the weakness of the flesh (all flesh) than in the shocked and perplexed attitude of the Twelve. They had been given all the facts, but full realization would come afterwards.
The curtain rings down on the retirement in Galilee. We may suppose that Jesus stressed over and over the sad outlines of the Passion; and the apostles, unable to comprehend it, nevertheless remembered his words which would spring up in their hearts unto eternal life as soon as the gloom of Calvary was drowned in the light of his resurrection.
And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received the half-shekel came to Peter, and said, Doth not your teacher pay the half-shekel?
This half-shekel was a Jewish poll tax levied annually for the support of the temple, a tax which Jesus perhaps had paid often in the past; but the appearance of the solicitors with an inquiry placed a different face on things. IF Christ paid the tax, it would mean, in a sense, that he was laying claim to no special dignity but was accepting the status of an ordinary Jew, rabbis being exempt. To be sure, Jesus might have claimed exemption as a Jewish rabbi, or teacher; but to have done so would have compromised his higher claim to be the Messiah, which claim was widely known, though disputed by his enemies. A refusal to pay it would have involved him as a technical lawbreaker; and it is likely that the dilemma involved in these various facets of the problem was what prompted the inquiry in the first place. The poll tax was generally left to voluntary compliance; for centuries no enforcement structure existed and no penalties for default were prescribed or enforced. However, about the time of Christ, regulations had been posted, with mild penalties; but these were rarely enforced. F7
Verses 25, 26
He saith, Yea. And when he came into the house, Jesus spake first to him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? The kings of the earth, from whom do they receive toll or tribute? from their sons, or from strangers? And when he said, From strangers, Jesus said unto him, Therefore the sons are free.
Peter was probably completely unaware of the dilemma posed for Christ in the matter of payment, or non-payment, of the half-shekel; but, in his quick and ready impulsiveness, he accepted the obligation for Christ and himself also. Jesus' speaking to Peter first showed that he knew what had taken place without need of any report from Peter. Only God has such omniscience; and this is therefore another instance in which the deity of Christ is implied and affirmed by all that was said and done. Where did Christ learn the skilled Socratic method of teaching by asking questions, thus drawing from Peter's own mouth the essential truth he sought to convey? His wisdom was from above, and he needed not that any man teach HIM.
Peter had already confessed Jesus as God's Son, making him a Son of the King, in the highest and truest sense of those words. The well-known fact that the children of kings' palaces were exempt from taxation was thus elicited from Peter that he might see that Jesus was exempt from the half-shekel tax. The tax was for God, the true King; Jesus was his Son, therefore Jesus was exempt. Furthermore, the half-shekel was in the nature of a ransom or atonement; and how could he who came to give himself a ransom for all be required to pay this trifling temple tax as ransom for himself? Though Christ had perhaps paid this tax in the past (based upon Peter's ready acceptance of the obligation), he was now the declared Messiah, and to pay it then would involve some inconsistency, hence the necessity for Jesus to be absolutely sure that Peter recognized his true status of exemption. In spite of all this, and to avoid focusing on an insignificant detail, Christ paid it anyway, although in such a manner that he could never be charged with having done so in any sense of renunciation of his high office as the world's only Redeemer.
But, lest we cause them to stumble, go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a shekel; that take, and give unto them for me and thee.
In paying that temple tax, Jesus did so out of charity and good will, not out of obligation. Trench wrote:
Christ was a Son over his own house,
not a servant in another's; the head
of the Theocracy, not one of its
subordinate members - so that it was
TO HIM in his Father that offerings
were to be made, not FROM HIM to be
Christ's submission to this tax reminds one of his request for baptism at the hands of John the Baptist. There, he might likewise have claimed an exemption, which fact John strongly affirmed, but he did not claim it. It was his perfect observance of all obligations and, as in the case here, his going beyond all true obligations in order to do that which was becoming, thus leaving no cause for offense, that enabled him to say that he had come to "fulfill" the law and the prophets. Born under the law, he came not to destroy, but to fulfill, its every provision in the most perfect and exacting sense.
The miracle of the coin in the fish's mouth does not appear to be one of outright creation, but rather one of absolute and perfect control over all things in nature. The existence of a fish with a coin in its mouth, which it had swallowed and was too large to go down, is not hard to understand. There have been many examples similar to this; and Wilson tells of a cod caught with a watch in its stomach, and the watch was still running! F9 The miracle is seen in the absolute power and knowledge of the Master who directed the fish to Peter's hook and at the precise moment required. Trench wrote:
We see here, as at Jonah 1:17, that in
the lower spheres of creaturely life,
there is unconscious obedience to him;
that these also are not out of God,
but move in him, and are, without
knowing it, for grace or for judgment,
the active ministers of his will. F10
Note also that Christ never touched the money. There is no evidence that he ever did. On the occasion of the question about the tribute money, he said, "Show me the tribute money!" Money was apparently something that others touched, but not the Saviour.
Footnotes for Matthew 17
1: A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922), p. 102, footnote.
2: A. Lukyn Williams, Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961), Vol. 15 II, p. 171.
3: J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 683.
4: A. Lukyn Williams, op. cit., p. 172.
6: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons (New York: Funk and Wagnalls), Vol. 2, 297.
7: A. Lukyn Williams, op. cit., p. 179.
8: Richard C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1953), p. 409.
9: A. Lukyn Williams, op. cit., p. 181.
10: Richard C. Trench, op. cit., p. 164.
11: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 134,
12: R. A. Torrey, Difficulties in the Bible (Westwood, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1907), p. 109.
13: Albert Barnes, op. cit., p. 135.
14: Revised Standard Version.
15: Emphatic Diaglott.
16: Goodspeed, New Testament in Modern Speech.
17: Williams, The New Testament.
18: Moffatt, The New Testament.
19: Paul Blanchard, American Freedom and Catholic Power (Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press), pp. 138-139.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Ibid., p. 16.
22: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons, Volume 5 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company), p. 20.
23: Robert Milligan, Commentary on Hebrews (Nashville: World Vision Publishing Company), pp. 73-74.