Notes Matthew chapter 17
© copyright 1997 drs Gijs van den Brink
Jesus Is Transfigured on the Mount 17:1-13
17:1. After six days. According to Matthew, the Transfiguration took place six days after the conversation from the previous chapter (16:21-28). Luke reads ‘about eight days after’ (Luke 9:28). Luke is counting inclusively (cf. John 20:26), i.e., he is including the day of the conversation and the day of the Transfiguration.
a high mountain. Tradition has it that all this happened on Mount Tabor. But it is more probable that we are concerned with a mountain near Caesarea Philippi (16:13, possibly Mount Hermon).
Just as Moses went up the mountain with three companions (Exod 24:1-9), so Jesus also took three disciples with Him, who would later be with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, in His humiliation (26:37 ff), on the mount to be witnesses of His glory (2 Peter 1:16-17). Luke 9:28 tells that Jesus went up into the mountain to pray. Great revelations are received by those who separate themselves to meet God.
2. There he was transfigured before them. The Transfiguration may well have taken place at night. For the disciples were ‘heavy with sleep’, and they came down again on the following day, Luke says (Luke 9:32,37).
His face shone like the sun. The white robe and the shining face indicates the splendour, the radiance of the heavenly bodies. Mark (9:3) and Luke write of shining, glistering white (cf. Mark 16:5; Matt 28:3); Acts 1:10). The images of the sun and the light indicate heavenly glory.
Jesus’ glory, which did not shine upon Him from without but from within (cf. the use of the word metamorpho in Rom 12:2 and in 2 Cor 3:18) indicates that for a moment he received a glorified, a heavenly body.
3. there appeared before them Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah came to talk with Jesus about His decease, which He should accomplish at Jerusalem (see Luke 9:31), for the cross was only six months away from Him.
Moses and Elijah are also named together in the last book of the OT, Malachi (4:4-5). In addition to this, both have had an unusual departure from the world (Deut 34:5-7; 2 Kings 2:11), and Moses is called the example of the Messiah (Deut 18:15) and Elijah his forerunner (Mal 4:4). For their collective role in the last days, cf. Rev 11:1-14, especially v.6.
The disciples recognised Moses and Elijah without their being introduced. In heaven the saints will be recognised by a kind of heavenly obviousness, a direct knowledge. God reveals what is important and useful.
4. it is good for us to be here. Of course it was good for Peter, James and John to be here on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Therefore Peter suggests making three tabernacles for the three heavenly guests, as earthly counterparts of heavenly tents (Luke 16:9; John 14:2), so that they would have a place on earth to stay and to prolong the glorious experience. But the transfiguration was not meant to stay. First, Jesus’ departure, His death (Luke 9:31), must be accomplished (Matt 16:21).
5. a bright cloud enveloped them. Before Peter had finished speaking, he was interrupted by the Lord God, who appeared in a shining cloud as He had done in former times. This is not a raincloud, but the cloud in which God conceals Himself when He reveals Himself on earth (Exod 16:10; 19:9; 24:15-18; 33:9-11; 1 Kings 8:10). This cloud also appeared during Israel’s journey through the wilderness and when Solomon dedicated the Temple. We also hear of clouds when people were taken up into heaven (Acts 1:9; 1 Thess 4:17; Rev 11:12).
The appearance of the shining cloud was the real climax of the experience on the mount. Peter’s tents are not necessary. God’s own dwelling comes down on earth and provides accommodation for His people (them = Jesus, Moses and Elijah; not the disciples: they heard the voice from the cloud and Jesus came to them, v.7).
This is my Son, whom I love. God spoke to strengthen and confirm the diciples’ faith. Content-wise, nothing more was said than in Peter’s confession (16:16). But the audible voice from above confirms the inward voice of the heart (16:17). God had said the same thing at Jesus’ baptism (3:17). The words make us think of the Son of God in Ps 2:7 and the Servant of the Lord in Isa 42:1 and mean that Jesus is the Messiah.
Listen to him is aimed at the disciples and is reminiscent of Deut 18:15. God wants them to listen to Jesus, especially to His commandment to go the way of the cross (16:21-28, esp. v.24).
6-8. they fell face down to the ground. When the disciples hear the voice of God, they are overcome by an overwhelming fear because of the nearness of God, and fall to the earth cf. Dan 8:17; 10:9; Rev 1:17).
Jesus came and touched them. Moses and Elijah disappeared, but Jesus remained. He who can lay His hand on them and free them from all fear. With Jesus, a touch is always intended to convey a blessing. This may be healing (8:3; 9:29) but may also be a comfort or a strengthening, as here (cf. Rev 1:17).
Don’t be afraid is an expression found throughout the Bible, especially where men meet angels. What first strikes the inhabitants of heaven about the children of men is their fear.
9. Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. They were forbidden to speak of these things while Jesus was still with them. This is the fifth and last time that we find the injunction to silence in Matthew’s gospel (8:4; 9:30; 12:16; 16:20). Only after the resurrection may Jesus openly be preached as the Messiah. If the disciples had revealed it, it would simply have whipped up the enthusiasm of the people and would not have had a favourable effect on the leaders of the country. In this way God’s plan would have been disturbed. Later the apostles did bear witness to the Transfiguration, 2 Peter 1:18.
For the title ‘Son of Man’ see commentary on 8:20.
10. Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first. It was enough for the disciples to know that Jesus was the Messiah. Therefore they did not come to Him with many questions, but with only one: What about the coming of the prophet Elijah (Mal 4:5) and the scribes’ explanation of it?
11. To be sure, Elijah comes. In the first instance, Jesus confirms the teaching of the scribes, on the basis of Mal 4:5, that Elijah will return first and restore all things.
The restoration that Elijah was to bring must be spiritual-moral, not political. It was to be a restoration of mutual relationships (Mal 4:6). This only happens through conversion and forgiveness (Luke 1:16; Matt 3:6).
12. Elijah has already come, and they did not recognise him. But Jesus then goes further and says that this prophecy has been fulfilled in John the Baptist (cf. Matt 11:10-14). John came in the spirit and the power of Elijah, as a prophet (Luke 1:17), just as the Messiah will come in the spirit and power of David, as a king (Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23; 37:24; Hosea 3:5). He was the ‘Elijah’ who, according to the prophecy, was to be a herald of the Lord (Mal 3:1; 4:5).
The Jews said rightly that Elijah should come, but their understanding of Malachi’s prophecy was wrong insofar that they believed that the prophet would descend from heaven in person and would bring about not only a religious-moral revival, but also a political one.
In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer. The people as a whole did not recognise John as the promised Elijah, as the herald of the Messiah (Matt 3:7; 11:16-19; 14:1-11; 21:32), although many of them were baptized (Matt 3:6; 21:32; Luke 1:16). The suffering forerunner will be followed by a suffering Messiah.
13. Then the disciples understood. The forerunner from Mal 4:5 was not Elijah, therefore, whom they had just seen (v.3), but John the Baptist, whom they had all most likely seen and heard.
Matthew tells us the disciples understood, which means that they had obtained a satisfactory answer to their question (v.10).
Jesus Heals a Boy with an Unclean Spirit 17:14-21
14. When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus. This happened on the day after the Transfiguration (Luke 9:37). It appears to have been a dark morning after a clear night on the mount: the disciples who remained behind had not been able to heal a sick boy (v.16).
Immediately after the Transfiguration Jesus is confronted with sickness and the inability of the disciples, who still have to learn the secret of His authority.
15. He has seizures and is suffering greatly. Mark tells us that the boy was deaf and dumb at times (9:17,18,25). He suffered from epilepsy (selniazetai = he is moonsick, see commentary on 4:24). All these symptoms were the consequence of demonic possession (v.18; Mark 9:17; Luke 9:39). Above all the evil spirit tries to kill the boy by throwing him in the fire or into water (Mark 9:22).
The father throws himself on Jesus’ mercy and goodness (‘have mercy’), but his faith in Jesus’ power was not so great that it did not need to grow (cf. Mark 9:22,24).
16. they could not heal him. Jesus was confronted with His disciples’ powerlessness against demonic powers. Previously they had received from Him power over unclean spirits (10:1) and had exercised it in practice (Luke 9:6), but now they were unable to heal the boy.
The power they had once received could therefore perish and should have been maintained by belief and prayer (v.20-21). Whoever does not maintain a gift is admonished (1 Tim 4:14). The disciples’ experience here resembles that of Gehazi (2 Kings 4:31 ff).
17. O unbelieving and perverse generation. In response to the disciples’ inability to heal this boy, Jesus makes a general comment on His experience with the people. The complaint that this generation is perverse is to be found in Moses (Deut 32:5) and in God Himself (Deut 32:20; cf. Num 14:27; Isa 65:2), cf. Phil 2:15; Acts 2:40.
how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? reminds us on the one hand of Isa 46:4, where God says that He will carry and put up with the people even to the end. On the other hand, we see in these words that Jesus is the Wisdom of God (Prov 1:22), who was once with the Father (Prov 8:22-31), who descended to earth to bring salvation, godly life (Prov 8:35-36), but who after being rejected by the people (Prov 1:24-25,29-30) will disappear again (Prov 1:28), cf. Matt 23:37-39.
At any rate, in this complaint Jesus witnesses to the difference between the earthly and the heavenly man. It is the difference between the Transfiguration on the mount and sickness, possession and inability at the foot of the mount.
18. Jesus rebuked the demon. Jesus rebuked the evil spirits and commanded them (Mark 9:25), not the people in whom they live. Jesus’ expelling the spirit caused the suffering to disappear and the boy was healed from that very moment (lit., ‘from that hour’, cf.8:13).
19. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked. The disciples did not try to defend themselves, but asked Jesus, when they were alone with Him, why they had not succeeded in driving out the demon. Possibly this was the first time, since they had received their ‘equipment’, that the disciples had been worsted in the battle against evil spirits, and that therefore they asked the reason in some surprise.
20. Because you have so little faith. In His answer Jesus speaks of effectual faith and of a little faith (oldest mss.), smaller than a mustard seed, hence invisible and identical to unbelief (most mss., e.g. KJV).
if you have faith as small as a mustard seed. It is not the measure of faith which is ultimately the determinant, but the greatness in which one believes, the omnipotence of God and Jesus. Even if this belief is no greater than a grain of mustard seed (the smallest seed visible to the naked eye), it can still remove mountains, i.e., render the impossible possible. This belief always comprises a total surrender to God and a relationship of discipleship with Jesus.
you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’. Jesus did not literally mean moving mountains, and did not even put any stress on performing extraordinary, spectacular miracles, but with this picture He makes it clear that nothing promised in God’s Word will be impossible for those who believe. The image of moving mountains also links up with what the OT says, which will come to pass in the last days (Isa 40:4; 49:11; Zech 14:10). The promises about the Kingdom of Peace are being fulfilled in the spiritual realm now. Jesus promises a share in His power to everyone who believes (even though his belief is meagre and weak), a share in the power of the Kingdom of God, which now becomes visible, among other ways, in having power over demons and illnesses (vv.14-19).
21. [But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.] This verse is not found in the oldest manuscripts, but is in the majority.
‘This kind’ is demonkind. Fasting is not an expression of sadness and mourning here (see commentary on 9:14), but a support of prayer (cf. Acts 13:3; 14:23). See also commentary on Matt 6:16-18.
Jesus Again Predicts His Death and Resurrection 17:22-23
22. The Son of Man is going to be betrayed. It appears that Jesus often prepared His disciples for His suffering and death. This happened in Gaulanitis (Caesarea Philippi, 16:13) after Peter’s confession of faith (16:21), in Galilee after the Transfiguration on the Mount (here) and in Judea just before Jerusalem (20:17-19). This suffering and death might not be something they did not expect. Yet that happened, because the disciples did not want to hear about it when it was mentioned.
The passive ‘(is going to) be betrayed’ means that this is a deed of God (cf. Rom 8:32) and is strongly reminiscent of Isa 53:5,12 (cf. Rom 4:25). So Jesus foretells that God will deliver Him, the Servant of the Lord, to death for the redemption of mankind.
‘Son of Man’, see commentary on 8:20.
23. on the third day he will be raised to life. On the third day Jesus will be raised by God. The third day is the day of resurrection (Hosea 6:2), the day on which God appears (Exod 19:6), and the day of salvation in general (Gen 22:4 ff; 42:18; Josh 2:16; Esther 5:1; Jonah 2:1).
And the disciples were filled with grief. The reaction was different from the previous time. Then Peter contradicted the Lord Jesus (16:22), now the disciples were grieved exceedingly. But this time too they did not understand what was going on (Mark 9:32).
The Temple Tax 17:24-27
24. This story is only to be found in Matthew. Perhaps as a former tax official he was exceptionally interested in this affair. According to Exod 30:13 (cf. Exod 38:26; 2 Kings 24:6,9) all adult (over 19 years of age) Israelite males who were entered in the lists of the population had to pay a half shekel (= 1 didrachma) annually as a temple tax (later called two-drachma tax). The collection of this special tax began in the country outside Jerusalem on 15 Adar (March) and ended in the capital city ten days later, just before the Passover. After the destruction of the temple the Romans continued with the collection for the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome. A two-drachma coin was about the wages for two days’ work (Matt 20:2,9; Roman denarius = Greek drachma).
Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax (litt. the two drachmas)? Because Jesus was often to be found beyond Capernaum, the tax collectors had no idea what Jesus’ attitude to the occurrence would be. They posed a general question, which may be seen in the plural ‘the two drachmas’ (i.e., not simply referring to this year). The words are therefore certainly not to be considered as critical. The collectors do not ask Jesus personally (cf. 9:11), but Peter, the spokesman of the disciples (16:15-16).
This is Jesus’ last visit to Capernaum, where He had lived so long. It did not even last a day and nothing of public character happened. He was there only with His disciples.
25. “Yes, he does,” he replied. Peter takes it as obvious that Jesus pays the capitation-tax (or did he know from previous years?) and does not hesitate a second in giving the answer. He did not even think of asking Jesus, but drew his conclusion directly from His attitude (3:15;5:17;cf. 8:4).
When Jesus comes home (into the house, cf. 9:28) He knows what has happened and begins to speak about it before Peter can utter a word.
From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes–from their own sons or from others? The sons are the princes and the others the subjects.
26. the sons are exempt. Jesus and the disciples are the sons of the great King (cf. 5:35). If even the servants of the temple (the priests) were exempt from this tax (SB I, 762 with reference to Lev 6:16), how much more He who is more than the Temple (cf. 12:6). But Jesus did not want to be an offence to anybody and therefore paid for the sake of the witness, although he was not compelled to do so (v. 27).
27. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. There are some commentators who find it difficult to accept this verse as a word of Jesus. They read here that Jesus performs a miracle to save His position and do not consider it suitable of Him. Some of them consider that the verse must be explained in this way: Jesus urged Peter to catch a fish and sell it, and pay the temple tax with the money. In that case it must have been an enormous fish, which he could sell for four days’ wages! (see v.24).
But the simplest and literal explanation is that Matthew does indeed relate a miraculous occurrence, even though he does not say that Peter did what Jesus said. Only He Who knows everything could be aware of the fish. Only He Who is all-powerful could arrange for the fish to bite Peter’s hook. Jesus here demonstrates His omniscience and omnipotence, which goes to show that He does not fulfil His tax commitment as a slave to the law, but as a Son of God Who stands above the law and the temple. A four-drachma coin was exactly enough for both Jesus and Peter. Apparently Jesus had been prevented from making the previous payment.
Jesus also pays for Peter, who often represents the disciples and the church (16:15-19). In this way He is saying that the church too must do its duty after His example, out of love for the people and for the sake of witness. Cf. Matth.22:15-22).