The Transfiguration

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 – 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

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)

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 – ‘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 – ‘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)

“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)

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.

‘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)

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.”
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?”

‘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)

The Disciples’ Failure to Heal

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

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’.

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

“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; 1Co 13:2; et al.).’

‘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

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 Temple Tax

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(!).

‘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)

“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’)

“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)

Similarly: ‘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)

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.’

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