The Transfiguration, 1-13

17:1 Six days later Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James, and led them privately up a high mountain. 17:2 And he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.

After six days – Matthew follows Mark here.  (Luke says, ‘about eight days’, Lk 9:28).  An eyewitness touch, but not of mystical significance (as if echoing the six days of creation, followed by the Sabbath rest). This note does (a) pin down the Transfiguration to its place in space and time; (b) link the Transfiguration with the first announcement of our Lord’s sufferings and death, 8:31. In view of this latter point, ‘there can be no doubt that the primary intention of it was to manifest the glory of that death in the view of heaven, to irradiate the Redeemer’s sufferings, to transfigure the Cross.

This note of time links the Transfiguration with the first prediction of the sufferings and glorification of Christ.

Mt 17:1–8 = Lk 9:28–36
Mt 17:1–13 = Mk 9:2–13

Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John the brother of James – Three was the number of witnesses required to verify the truth of any thing, Deut 17:6. These three had witnessed the raising of Jairus’ daughter, Mk 5:37, and would also be with him in the garden of Gethsemane, Mk 14:33. Why these three? We cannot really say, but we do know that they formed an ‘inner circle’ of disciples to whom Jesus was especially close. Peter was often the spokesman for the Twelve, and despite his impulsiveness had really spiritual insight and courage, Mk 8:29. John was, we believe, the closest of all to Jesus, being the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’.

‘Christ did not take all the disciples with him, because the thing was to be kept very private. As there are distinguishing favours which are given to disciples and not to the world, so there are to some disciples and not to others. All the saints are a people near to Christ, but some lie in his bosom. James was the first of all the twelve that died for Christ, and John survived them all, to be the last eyewitness of this glory; he bore record.’ (Jn 1:14) (MHC)

He led them privately up a high mountain – Lk 9:28 informs us that he went to pray. The mountain is traditionally thought to have been Mount Tabor, but may well have been Mount Hermon (2,814m), which is close to Caesarea Philippi.

There he was transfigured – ‘The transfiguration, coming as it does here after the bleak predictions of rejection, emphasises the link between self-sacrifice and glorious vindication in the economy of the God who reigns and yet suffers.’ (Green)

This is reminiscent of Moses (with Joshua), who was himself transfigured on the mount of revelation, Ex 34:29. But Moses’ was a reflected glory, 2 Cor 3:7,13, whereas Jesus’ glory was his own, and he was only reassuming the glory that had been his with the Father from before the beginning of the world, Jn 17:5.

As Cole remarks, it is slightly misleading to call this ‘the Transfiguration’, as though Jesus were taking on a temporary form that was alien to him. No: this was a momentary revelation of his true nature; the real Transfiguration (metamorphosis) had been at Bethlehem, Phil 2:6f, when our God ‘was contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’ (Wesley)

Rejecting the idea the the main purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the three disciples for the ordeal of their Master’s suffering, Calvin asserts that it was rather to demonstrate the voluntariness of his death, ‘that he was not dragged unwillingly to death, but that he came forward of his own accord, to offer to the Father the sacrifice of obedience.’ He adds: ‘The disciples were not made aware of this till Christ rose; nor was it even necessary that, at the very moment of his death, they should perceive the divine power of Christ, so as to acknowledge it to be victorious on the cross; but the instruction which they now received was intended to be useful at a future period both to themselves and to us, that no man might take offense at the weakness of Christ, as if it were by force and necessity that he had suffered. It would manifestly have been quite as easy for Christ to protect his body from death as to clothe it with heavenly glory.’

‘We are thus taught that he was subjected to death, because he wished it to be so; that he was crucified, because he offered himself. That same flesh, which was sacrificed on the cross and lay in the grave, might have been exempted from death and the grave; for it had already partaken of the heavenly glory. We are also taught that, so long as Christ remained in the world, bearing the form of a servant, and so long as his majesty was concealed under the weakness of the flesh, nothing had been taken from him, for it was of his own accord that he emptied himself, (Php 2:7) but now his resurrection has drawn aside that veil by which his power had been concealed for a time.’ (Calvin)

As for the theological significance of the Transfiguration, ‘It was a “temporary exhibition of his glory” – to use Calvin’s words – which would enable the disciples after the Resurrection to realise for certain that “even during the time that he emptied himself, Php 2:7, he continued to retain his divinity entire, though it was concealed under the veil of the flesh.” This temporary exhibition of his glory, even while it lasted, was not complete; but “under symbols which were adapted to the capacity of the flesh” (whiteness of clothes, shining of face (Mt)) God enabled the disciples “to taste in part what could not be fully comprehended.” (Calvin)’ (Cranfield)

‘Thanks to God, transfiguring manifestations are not quite strangers here. Ofttimes in the deepest depths, out of the groanings which cannot be uttered, God’s dear children are suddenly transported to a kind of heaven upon earth, and their soul is made as the chariots of Ammi-nadib. Their prayers fetch down such light, strength, holy gladness, as makes their faces to shine, putting a kind of celestial radiance upon it. (Compare 2Co 3:18, with Ex 34:29-35).’ (JFB)

‘This Greek verb is used by Paul to describe the present work of the Spirit in the inner life of the believer. (Rom 12:2 2 Cor 3:18) That work will be completed when this same Spirit gives “life to your mortal bodies” as when he raised Jesus from the dead, (Rom 8:11) and as here in Jesus’ momentary glorification.’ (New Geneva)

His face shone like the sun – ‘The face is the principal part of the body, by which we are known; therefore such a brightness was put on Christs face, that face which afterward he hid not from shame and spitting. It shone as the sun when he goes forth in his strength, so clear, so bright; for he is the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world. The face of Moses shone but as the moon, with a borrowed reflected light, but Christs shone as the sun, with an innate inherent light, which was the more sensibly glorious, because it suddenly broke out, as it were, from behind a black cloud.’ (M. Henry)

His clothes became as white as the light – Despite modern illustrations, white was not a common colour for clothing (since it soiled too easily). It is the colour of ‘unearthly purity’ (Cole). Cf. Mk 16:5.

‘His transfiguration did not altogether enable his disciples to see Christ, as he now is in heaven, but gave them a taste of his boundless glory, such as they were able to comprehend. Then his face shone as the sun; but now he is far beyond the sun in brightness. In his raiment an unusual and dazzling whiteness appeared; but now without raiment a divine majesty shines in his whole body. Thus in ancient times God appeared to the holy fathers, not as he was in himself, but so far as they could endure the rays of his infinite brightness; for John declares that not until “they are like him will they see him as he is,”‘ (1 Jn 3:2) (Calvin)

Putting the synoptic accounts together, it becomes apparent that the light shone, not upon Christ, but from within him. Compare Isa 52:14.

John is perhaps referring the Transfiguration in Jn 1:14. Peter certainly refers to it in 2 Pe 1:16f.

‘All his body was altered, as his face was; so that beams of light, darting from every part through his clothes, made them white and glittering. The shining of the face of Moses was so weak, that it could easily be concealed by a thin veil; but such was the glory of Christs body, that his clothes were enlightened by it.’ (M. Henry)

‘So much here is allusive: the cloud, betokening the divine majesty; the voice from heaven, as at the baptism; the mixture of Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1 with overtones of Deut 18:15; the disciples’ awe before the unveiled glory of God, just as Moses and Elijah had fallen down with awe before the Lord on Carmel and Sinai; the title agapetos, ‘Beloved’ (NIV whom I love, 5), already a messianic designation in pre-Christian Judaism; the divine affirmation of Peter’s confession.’ (Green)

17:3 Then Moses and Elijah also appeared before them, talking with him. 17:4 So Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you want, I will make three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

Moses and Elijah – Representing, as commentators are wont to point out, the Law and the prophets – the whole of the OT witness to the coming Messiah. But the witness this time is not in the form of a book, but in the form of living men; not to a coming Messiah, but to a Messiah who has now come. See Mt 17:3; Lk 9:30. Elijah had been taken into heaven without seeing death, 2 Ki 2:11, and was seen as Christ’s forerunner, Mk 9:11; 11:14; Lk 1:17. Moses had prophesied Christ, Deut 18:15; Jn 1:45; Lk 24:27. ‘It was particularly proper that he should appear, when his prophecies and types were about to be fulfilled, and his rites to be done away.’ (Barnes) Think of what this teaches about the intermediate state. Moses had died and had been buried. But now he is very much alive. He is not asleep, but thinks, feels, and talks.

‘Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets witnessing to the Messiah and being fulfilled and superseded by him. Each of them had had a vision of the glory of God on a mountain, Moses on Sinai (Ex 24:15) and Elijah on Horeb. (1 Kings 19:8) Each of them left no known grave (Dt. 34:6; 2 Ki. 2:11). The law of Moses and the coming of Elijah are mentioned together in the last verses of the OT. (Mal 4:4-6) The two men at the empty tomb (Lk 24:4 Jn 20:12) and at the ascension (Ac 1:10) and the ‘two witnesses’ (Rev 11:3) are sometimes also identified with Moses and Elijah. ‘ (NBD)

Moses had died; Elijah had been taken up into heaven without dying. Between them, then, they represent, far in advance of the event, the two groups of people who will be taken to ‘be with’ Christ at his coming in glory.

The Transfiguration confirms that the OT bears witness to a suffering and dying Messiah. But it also confirms, in the persons of Elijah and Moses, the existence of life beyond the grave.

‘It is interesting that Abraham, for all his forward-looking to Christ, Jn 8:56, was not present: perhaps it was because Abraham was, even physically, trhe father of many a Gentile as well as Jews. We may all be children of Abraham, Rom 4:16, but scarcely of Moses: and the Lord’s mission was, as yet, only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Mt 10:6.’ (Cole)

Moses and Elijah lived hundreds of years apart, and yet now appear together. As if to draw a veil over the relationship between their former and their present state, in the providence of God Elijah taken up to heaven without dying, and and the site of Moses’ grave has always been unknown, Deut 34:5f.

They appeared before them – This eyewitness experience is emphasised in v2 (Jesus took Peter, James and John with him), and v7 (the voice addressing the disciples), and also in 2 Pet 1:16.

They were talking with him – Lk 9:31 adds that they were talking about his coming death (‘exodus‘) which he was to fulfill (‘pleroo‘) in Jerusalem. The death of Christ and what followed constituted a new exodus, a saving act to which the first exodus pointed. ‘To redeemed spirits, that death was an object of intense interest. By faith in that death they had been saved; and now that the Redeemer of mankind was about to die, it is no wonder that this was the burden of his and their thoughts.’ (Barnes)

‘No Synod on earth was ever more gloriously attended than this. No assembly was ever more illustrious. Here is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Here are Moses and Elias, the chief of the prophets. Here are Peter, James, and John, the chief of the apostles.’ (Brentius, quoted by Ryle)

Although he might be despised and rejection by the contemporary Jewish leaders, 8:31, cf. v38, testimony is here paid to Christ by two of the most illustrious personages of the OT.

“I will put up three shelters” – ‘Perhaps Peter wanted to prolong, even institutionalise, the encounter.’ (Green)

17:5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my one dear Son, in whom I take great delight. Listen to him!”

“This is my Son…” – ‘This was the voice of God. This was the second time that, in a remarkable manner, he had declared this. See Mt 3:17. This was spoken to confirm the disciples; to declare their duty to hear Christ rather than any other, and to honour him more than Moses and Elijah; and to strengthen their faith in him when they should go forth to preach the gospel, after he was shamefully put to death. After this, it was impossible for them to doubt that he was truly the Son of God. See 2 Pet 1:17,18.’ (Barnes)

Whereas at his baptism the voice from heaven addressed Jesus, here the voice addresses the three disciples. It was evidently for their benefit that the whole episode took place. 2 Pet 1:17 refers to the evidential value of the voice.

‘This was spoken to confirm the disciples; to declare their duty to hear Christ rather than any other, and to honour him more than Moses and Elijah; and to strengthen their faith in him when they should go forth to preach the gospel, after he was shamefully put to death. After this, it was impossible for them to doubt that he was truly the Son of God.’ (Barnes)

“Listen to him!” – These words echo Deut 18:15, and identify Jesus as the great prophet like Moses’

‘When he enjoins us to hear him, he appoints him to be the supreme and only Teacher of his Church…he alone is appointed to be our Teacher, that in him all authority may dwell.’ (Calvin)

See Mt 7:28; Jn 10:27-28.

Think of the various sayings of Jesus that it would be well for us to listen to today.

17:6 When the disciples heard this, they were overwhelmed with fear and threw themselves down with their faces to the ground. 17:7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Do not be afraid.” 17:8 When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone.

They were overwhelmed with fear – ‘Not surprisingly, Peter and the others experienced a mixture of emotions: confusion, joy (v5) and fear. Jesus, however, was not afraid: he was in his proper and familiar element, cf. Mt 17:6f. ‘But Jesus – amidst all this blaze of glory, and celestial talk, and the voice from within the cloud, the voice of God himself, proclaiming him his beloved Son, whom all are to hear – is perfectly at home.’ (JFB)

‘The whole incident has set the seal of the Father’s approval upon the whole passion teaching Jesus has just given, and asserts the divine nature of the person who gave.’ (Green)

When they looked up, all they saw was Jesus alone – ‘Ah! Bright manifestations in this vale of tears are always “departing” manifestations. But the time is coming when our sun shall no more go down, and the glory shall never be withdrawn.’ (JFB)

‘Note, Christ doth not leave the soul, when extraordinary joys and comforts leave it. Though more sensible and ravishing communications may be withdrawn, Christ’s disciples have, and shall have, his ordinary presence with them always, even to the end of the world, and that is it we must depend upon. Let us thank God for daily bread and not expect a continual feast on this side of heaven.’ (MHC)

‘The memory of visions will fade, but the unchanging Word abides forever. The glorious vision was not an end in itself; it was God’s way of confirming the Word. (see 2 Pet 1:12-21) Discipleship is not built on spectacular visions but on the inspired, unchanging Word of God.’ (Wiersbe)

17:9 As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Do not tell anyone about the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.”

Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen – Presumably, this even includes their fellow-disciples. We must assume, then, that Peter is the source in all three Synoptic Gospels, for Matthew had not been present, and James was dead long before Luke was interviewing eyewitnesses, Lk 1:2. See also Mk 8:30.

Bearing in mind their puzzlement, v10, ‘it would be time enough to tell the other disciples about this experience when they themselves had begun to understand it.’ (Cranfield)

Chester explains this temporary prohibition in terms of the fact that ‘they haven’t yet grasped that he must die. All that’s in their head is glory, power, majesty. They’re just thinking about basking in this glory. Look at verse 5: ‘Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”’ Peter wants to stay with glory. He doesn’t want Jesus to go back down the mountain and rejoin the road to the cross.’

‘This enjoining of silence to the disciples, would…be of use to them, to prevent their boasting of the intimacy they were admitted to, that they might not be puffed up with the abundance of the revelations.’ (MHC)

17:10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the experts in the law say that Elijah must come first?” 17:11 He answered, “Elijah does indeed come first and will restore all things. 17:12 And I tell you that Elijah has already come. Yet they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted. In the same way, the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” 17:13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

Many commentators think that this verse should be read as a question: “Is Elijah to come first and set all to rights?”

This question seems to have been prompted by the appearance of Elijah at the Transfiguration, along with the confirmation that Jesus was the Messiah. The reasoning would seem to be this: ‘We acknowledge that you are the Messiah. But why Elijah has not yet come, as we expected?’

‘The most likely explanation of the disciples’ question would seem to be that they are wondering how Jesus can be what the Transfiguration has indicated that he is, in view of the fact that Elijah has not yet come, or that they are asking why the scribes maintain something which cannot be true, since the Messiah has come, and Elijah has not yet prepared his way.’ (Cranfield)

“Elijah does indeed come first” – On this point Jesus agrees with the teachers of the law.

‘Though John the Baptist is not personally Elijah risen from the dead (6:14-16; cf. Jn 1:21), Jesus teaches that Elijah was indeed the Old Testament type who prefigured the Baptist’s ministry.’ (cf. Lk 1:17) (New Geneva)

‘It is as if Jesus is saying that the most realistic interpretation of Mal 4:5 and the scribal expectations is not the vision they have just seen but the hard facts of recent history. John the Baptist has fulfilled the role of Elijah redivivus. Like Elijah he withstood the powers that be, and paid the penalty. The same fate would befall the Son of Man, v12. But that would not be the end of the story. The Son of Man will be raised from the dead, v9, and the transfiguration has been the pledge of it.’ (Green)

“and will restore all things” – ‘And put things in order’. ‘Here it means that Elijah would put things in a proper state; be the instrument of reforming the people; of restoring them, in some measure, to proper notions about the Messiah, and preparing them for his coming. Before the coming of John, their views were erroneous, their expectations worldly, and their conduct exceedingly depraved. He corrected many of their notions about the Messiah, Mt 3:1 and was the instrument of an extensive reformation; and thus restored them, in some degree, to correct notions of their own economy and of the Messiah, and to a preparation for his advent.’ (Barnes)

Elijah has already come – in the form of John the Baptist, who came in the Spirit and power of Elijah, Lk 1:17.

“They did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wanted” – That is, they put him to death, Mt 14:10.

‘Just as Elijah suffered at the hands of Ahab and Jezebel, (1 Kings 19:1-10) so John suffered at the hands of Herod and Herodias (6:18 note). If John, who restored all things by calling the people of God to repentance and godliness, was put to death, should it be surprising (Mk 9:12) that the Son of Man faces the same lot?’ (New Geneva)

The Disciples’ Failure to Heal, 14-20

17:14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 17:15 and said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers terribly, for he often falls into the fire and into the water. 17:16 I brought him to your disciples, but they were not able to heal him.”
Mt 17:14–19 = Mk 9:14–28; Lk 9:37–42

As Green notes, ‘a high spiritual experience is often followed by a crashing anticlimax.’

‘The real question in this story is not so much “How is this boy going to be healed?” as it is “Why were the disciples unable to heal him?”’ (Bruner)

Mark’s account is much more detailed than that of Matthew or Luke.  However, these shorter accounts contain some details that are missing from Mark.  ‘Thus Matthew records that the father of the grievously afflicted boy “approached Jesus and kneeling before him said …” ; and also that the Master pointed to lack of sufficient faith as the cause of the disciples’ failure to heal this boy (Mt 17:14, 20). And Luke a. indicates the time when the miracle occurred—“on the next day,” that is, the day after the transfiguration—b. reproduces a significant item of the father’s moving appeal—“he is my only child”—; and c. closes his account by stating, “All were astonished at the majesty of God” (Mk 9:37-38, 43).’ (Hendriksen)

‘The contrast between these verses and those which precede them in the chapter is very striking.  We pass from the mount of transfiguration to a melancholy history of the work of the devil  We come down from the vision of glory to a conflict with Satanic possession.  We change the blessed company of Moses and Elias for the rude intercourse of unbelieving scribes.  We leave the foretaste of millennial glory, and the solemn voice of God the Father testifying to God the Son, and return once more to a scene of pain, weakness, and misery, – a boy in agony of body, a father in deep distress, and a little band of feeble disciples, baffled by Satan’s power, and unable to give relief. – The contrast, we must all feel, is very great.  Yet is is but a faint emblem of the change of scene that Jesus voluntarily undertook to witness when he first laid aside his glory and come into the world.  And it is, after all, a vivid picture of the life of all true Christians.  With them, as with their Master, work, conflict, and scenes of weakness and sorrow will always be the rule.  With them, too, visions of glory, foretastes of heaven, seasons on the mount, will always be the exception.’ (Ryle)

When they came to the crowd – As originally reported by an eyewitness, this might well have been, ‘When we came to the crowd’.

A man came to him – ‘The man is like many today: he longs to get behind the representatives of Jesus, with whom he is disappointed, to the Master himself.’ (Green)

“Lord, have mercy on my son” – ‘On top of the mountain Jesus came into special contact with the glory of his Father; now at the foot of the mountain Jesus comes into special contact with the misery of humanity. On the Mount of Transfiguration the main words from a proud Father were “my dear Son; listen to him”; now in the Valley of Need the initial words of a despairing father are “my suffering son; have mercy on him.” Divine majesty and human misery.’ (Bruner)

“I brought him to your disciples” – Presumably, to the nine who were left after the three had ascended the mount of Transfiguration with Jesus.

“They were not able to heal him” – As Carson (God With Us) observes, this forms part of a pattern of success and failure on the part of the disciples (see Mt 14:16–21, 26, 27, 28–31; 15:16, 23, 33; 16:5, 22; 17:4, 10, 11).

17:17 Jesus answered, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I endure you? Bring him here to me.”

Who is Jesus complaining about here?  The father?  The nine disciples?  The crowd?  The entire ‘generation’?  And what was his tone of voice?

‘Juxtaposing “perverse” and “unbelieving” to this generation implies that the failure to believe stems from willful neglect or distortion of the evidence.’ (Carson)

“Bring him here to me” – ‘These are almost the identical words Jesus used with the insufficient five loaves and two fish (“Bring them here to me,” Mt 14:18). Both the seemingly insufficient bread and, now, the seemingly unhealable boy are to be brought “here to me.” Whether the problem is insufficient resources or ill health, in Jesus’ hands the problem begins to be solved.’ (Bruner)

17:18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him, and the boy was healed from that moment.

The boy was healed – ‘The description is clearly of an exorcism, but the addition of the boy was cured suggests that a physical disorder (probably epilepsy) was involved as well as demon-possession; accounts of exorcisms do not usually refer to ‘healing’ of the person concerned.’ (France)

‘This is another incident in which the casting out of a demon produces healing of a physical infirmity (cf. Mt 4:24; 9:32-33). This reveals a holistic understanding of the interplay of spiritual and natural forces in this world. While not all illness or disease is a direct result of demonic activity, the fallenness of this world impacts our entire being. True healing involves the whole person, physical, emotional, and spiritual. The tendency for modern people is to fragment people by not recognizing that the human condition is intertwined with a fallen human nature and active demonic forces…But we should not go too far and suggest that there is always a direct demonic source of every illness. A balanced understanding of the interplay of spiritual forces has been the mark of Christianity from earliest days, even up to the modern missions movement, where medical and evangelistic missions brought physical and spiritual healing to millions.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

17:19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we cast it out?” 17:20 He told them, “It was because of your little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you.”

“It was because of your little faith” – See Mt 6:30; 8:26; 14:3; 16:8.  As Carson remarks, if faith consists of believing strongly that something will happen, then the disciples probably approached this situation with such ‘faith’.  But their faith was not so much lacking in quantity, as in quality.  The problem was not so much ‘small faith’ (Jesus is about to say that faith as small as a mustard seen can move mountains) as ‘poor faith’.

‘They approached the epileptic with a kind of faith that treats the authority entrusted to them like magic: all you have to do is say the right formula, push the right buttons, and out pops a miracle.’ (Carson, God With Us)

‘But (adds Carson) real faith is less magic than trust, less rite than relationship. It does not so much seek to exercise power as to know, obey, love, and serve God. Within such a relationship, the supernatural authority is unexceptional; outside it, such authority quickly degenerates to the category of neat trick.’  This is, perhaps, why Mark’s account adds Jesus’ comment about the necessity of prayer (Mk 9:29).

‘We tend to locate our problem in less deep locations—in our temper, weaknesses, habits, lusts, addictions, moods, vanities, or ambitions. But in fact the root of all such bitter fruit is our failure to believe God.’ (Bruner)

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” – As Carson says, ‘removal of mountains was proverbial for overcoming great difficulties (cf. Isa 40:4; 49:11; 54:10; Mt 21:21–22; 1 Cor 13:2; et al.).’

Here is yet another example of Jesus giving similar teaching on different occasions, although varying the details.  As Evans observes, ‘Matthew’s form of the saying parallels Luke 17:6 (which mentions a mustard seed, but speaks of a sycamore tree, not a mountain) and Mark 11:23 (which speaks of a mountain, but does not mention a mustard seed).’

‘This mountain’ is probably the mount of Transfiguration, near the foot of which they were standing.

“Nothing will be impossible for you” – Nothing, that is, which is done out of faith in Jesus and in obedience to his commands.  To forget this would be to resort to the kind of ‘magical’ approach that had led to the present failure.

This is not, accordingly, a carte blanche for God to do everything we might ask him to do.  We must pray, “Your will be done” (Mt 6:10).  Jesus’ own miracle-working powers did not deliver either John the Baptist from the sword nor himself from the cross.  ‘Not everything is beneficial’, writes Paul in 1 Cor 6:2.  More remarkably still, the great apostle was able to satisfied in every circumstance (i.e. with plenty or with nothing) through the one who strengthened him (Phil 4:12f).

‘The meaning of the verse is that strong faith can accomplish the apparently impossible, for the man of faith is drawing upon divine resources.’ (Tasker)

[Some manuscripts add Mt 17:21 But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting. It is apparent from Mt 9:14 that the disciples did not fast.

Second Prediction of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, 22-23

17:22 When they gathered together in Galilee, Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 17:23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they became greatly distressed.

They became greatly distressed – Apparently, they heard only the ‘bad’ news (Jesus would be killed) and not the good news (he would be raised).  Hence they showed no sign, after Jesus’ crucifixion, of expecting the resurrection.

The disciple’s reaction represents a second failure, close on the heels of the first (their inability to heal the demonised boy).

The Temple Tax, 24-27

17:24 After they arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, “Your teacher pays the double drachma tax, doesn’t he?” 17:25 He said, “Yes.” When Peter came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do earthly kings collect tolls or taxes—from their sons or from foreigners?” 17:26 After he said, “From foreigners,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. 17:27 But so that we don’t offend them, go to the lake and throw out a hook. Take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a four drachma coin. Take that and give it to them for me and you.”

Green remarks that this story (unique to this Gospel) would have been of particular interest to Matthew, in view of his former profession(!).

Capernaum – where Peter lived, Mt 8:24; and where Jesus himself resided for a while, Mt 4:13.

‘This assessment of two drachmas (a half-stater, or half-shekel), was collected annually for the support of the Temple. Jesus anticipated Peter’s confusion by trying to show him that members of the royal family are exempt from the tax. Thus Jesus, the Son of God, was not personally obligated to pay for the support of God’s house because, being God, it was his Temple. (Mal 3:1) Nevertheless, to avoid offense, he would pay. The miraculously caught fish yielded a four-drachma coin, or shekel, which was equal to two half-shekels, sufficient for Jesus and Peter.’ (Ryrie)

Peter…said, “Yes” – ‘Peter’s quick answer in defense of Jesus, rattled off so that critics would not depreciate the Master, turned out to be itself an unwitting depreciation of Him, a failure to grasp Jesus’ unique status as Son.’ (Carson, God With Us)

“What do you think?” – Although the knowledge of God in Christ is opposed to humanly-devised philosophies, it is not opposed to rationality as such. ‘The elaborate emphasis of the NT on truth is not to be overlooked. It is referred to more than 170 times in the NT. Many traditional forms of logic were employed by Jesus and Paul. In the debates of Jesus with his contemporaries he made repeated appeals to the rational powers of his hearers (“What do you think?”- Mt 17:25; 18:12; 22:17; Lk 10:36). Paul carries on profound discourses in his Epistles, leading one to conclude that he expected his readers to use their minds to the fullest. Writing to the Corinthians he says: “I speak as to sensible men Gk phronimos,”intelligent, wise”; judge for yourselves what I say”.’ (1 Cor 10:15) (Ramm, ISBE, art. ‘Apologetics, Biblical’)

“From whom do earthly kings collect tolls or taxes…?” – ‘It is best to see these two verses as a parable. The point is that, just as royal sons are exempt from the taxes imposed by their fathers, so too Jesus is exempt from the “tax” imposed by his Father. In other words Jesus acknowledges the temple tax to be an obligation to God; but since he is uniquely God’s Son, he is exempt. The focus of the section is thus supremely Christological.’ (Carson)

“Then the sons are free” – ‘By “the children” our Lord cannot here mean Himself and the Twelve together, in some loose sense of their near relationship to God as their common Father. For besides that our Lord never once mixes Himself up with His disciples in speaking of their relation to God, but ever studiously keeps His relation and theirs apart (see, for example, on the last words of this chapter)—this would be to teach the right of believers to exemption from the dues required for sacred services, in the teeth of all that Paul teaches and that He Himself indicates throughout. He can refer here, then, only to Himself; using the word “children” evidently in order to express the general principle observed by sovereigns, who do not draw taxes from their own children, and thus convey the truth respecting His own exemption the more strikingly:—q. d., ‘If the sovereign’s own family be exempt, you know the inference in My case;’ or to express it more nakedly than Jesus thought needful and fitting: ‘This is a tax for upholding My Father’s House: As His Son, then, that tax is not due by Me—I AM FREE.’’ (JFB)

‘Jesus corrects his understanding, by pointing out that if the kings of the earth do not tax their own sons, then he must be exempt from the temple tax, because he is the unique Son of the heavenly Father. This is what Peter has just confessed him to be: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God’ (16:16).’ (Teaching Matthew)

“But so that we may not offend them” – A principle also followed by Paul, 1 Cor 8:13; 9:12, 22.

France remarks: ‘Jesus was quite prepared to ‘give offence’ where the issue was central to his mission, but a premature assertion of independence from Jewish ritual would have served no useful purpose.’

Apparently, the musht fish was known to be attracted to foreign objects in the Sea of Galilee.  In this case, the real miracle (if the disciples did as Jesus instructed; we are not told that they did) was not the presence of a coin in its mouth, but Jesus’ prior knowledge of this.  Paul writes of such a ‘gift of knowledge’ in 1 Cor 12:8.

Richard Bauckham has argued that the purpose of the miracle was to teach the lesson that ‘God does not exact taxes from his people’, but provides for them, ‘as a father provides for his children’.  He further argues that Jesus and his followers may well have been virtually penniless at this time.  (Cited by Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 133)

We might note here that Blomberg fell foul of the ‘heresy-hunting’ of Norman Geisler, who announced that ‘Blomberg denied the historicity of the fish with the coin in its mouth’.  In fact, what Blomberg did (in an article published in the mid-1980s) was to note that the text itself does not, strictly speaking, give any account of a miracle.  It records the command of Jesus (which may, as noted above, entail a ‘gift of knowledge’), but does not record whether Peter actually carried out the command.  (Nor, it might be added, does the text describe this as a ‘miracle’, or ‘wonder’, or anything like that).  A brief account from Blomberg’s point of view can be found in his introduction to Defining Inerrancy, by J. P. Holding and Nick Peters.

‘The point of the story lies in the pronouncement. Roman citizens were exempt from taxation; taxes were paid only by the subject peoples. The disciples are citizens of the kingdom of God and therefore (in principle) free from taxation. But to avoid scandal (cf. Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14) they should voluntarily comply. They should not flaunt their freedom: to pay the tax does not involve any sacrifice of principle.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘The nearby presence of two predictions of the cross and resurrection (16:21–23; 17:22, 23) remind the Christian reader that it would not be long before the temple and its claims would become obsolete. The crucial meeting place between God and His covenant people would be the Lord Jesus Himself, the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5).’ (Carson, God With Us)

We must make up our minds about Christ, and then we shall be in a position to make up our minds about his miracles.

Contemporary and future significance

Green explains why this story turned out to be so important that it could not be left out of the gospel narrative:

‘After AD 70, when the temple had been razed to the ground, the Romans reassigned the temple tax to the upkeep of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. This infuriated the Jews, and after repeated complaints it was revoked under the Emperor Nerva in AD 96. But when Matthew was writing, perhaps early in the 80s, the temple tax, reassigned to Rome, was an exceedingly contentious issue. Men would sometimes be stripped in the streets to see if they were circumcised and therefore liable to the tax! Christians saw themselves as distinct from Judaism: they were no longer the servants of the Lord, but his sons. They felt they had no need to contribute towards the Jewish temple, still less its Roman replacement! But lest their refusal to pay should set a bad example to others and spark off a major confrontation with the Roman authorities, which would do great harm to the cause of the gospel, let them go the extra mile and pay the tax. Had not Jesus done the same?’

Green adds that Jesus ‘was free of the law, and yet, so as not to give offence, he was subject to the law in every way. ‘Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men,’ wrote Peter, the other main actor in this story. Jesus did just that. The temple tax would go into the treasury of the very Establishment that would betray him to death. Yet he did it. He refused to use his freedom as an excuse for claiming personal immunity and escaping obligation. Jesus set an example in the voluntary abnegation of his rights, and this provided a great challenge and stimulus in the developing life of the church. He did it, even though such obedience was part of the path which led him to the cross.’

Pay your taxes!

Bruner:

‘This story, along with the Pay-Taxes-to-Caesar story (22:15–22), gives Christians in anti-Christian states a reason to pay taxes: in order not to offend, and so perhaps to win, non-Christian neighbors. Paying an anti-Christian institution taxes might seem treasonous to Christ. It must have been difficult for disciples in the first century to pay taxes to those who vigorously opposed them (whether they were the Sadducean priests at the Jerusalem temple between AD 30–70, or the Roman state after the destruction of the temple, or the new Pharisaic leadership in Jamnia after AD 70). The disciples were probably challenged by some not to pay taxes to the temple—as a declaration of independence. But Jesus did not think that nonpayment of taxes was an impressive statement of faith. Jesus would rather resist the world at other points, die on another mountain. This text applies to some congregations in my denomination (The Presbyterian Church, USA) that would withhold funds from the larger body as a way to protest some of the denomination’s policies. I think Jesus would find this tactic bullying and self-assertive rather than reconciling and self-limiting.’