Bible Commentary in 8 Volumes
The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Notes on Chapter 17
Verse 1. After six days— Mark 9:2, has the same number; but Luke says, Luke 9:28, after eight days. The reason of this difference seems to be the following: Matthew and Mark reckon the days from that mentioned in the preceding chapter, to that mentioned in this; Luke includes both days, as well as the six intermediate: hence, the one makes eight, the other six, without any contradiction.
Peter, James, and John— He chose those that they might be witnesses of his transfiguration: two or three witnesses being required by the Scripture to substantiate any fact. Eminent communications of the Divine favor prepare for, and entitle to, great services and great conflicts. The same three were made witnesses of his agony in the garden, Matthew 26:37.
A high mountain— This was one of the mountains of Galilee; but whether Mount Tabor or not, is uncertain. Some think it was Mount Hermon. St. Luke says, Christ and his disciples went up into the mountain to pray, Luke 9:28.
Verse 2. Was transfigured— That fullness of the Godhead, which dwelt bodily in Christ, now shone forth through the human nature, and manifested to his disciples not only that Divinity which Peter had before confessed, Matthew 16:16, but also the glorious resurrection body, in which they should exist in the presence of God to eternity.
White as the light.— But the Cod. Bezae, some of the ancient versions, and several of the fathers, read wv ciwn, as snow; and this is the reading in Mark 9:3.
Verse 3. Moses and Elias— Elijah came from heaven in the same body which he had upon earth, for he was translated, and did not see death, 2 Kings 2:11. And the body of Moses was probably raised again, as a pledge of the resurrection; and as Christ is to come to judge the quick and the dead, for we shall not all die, but all shall be changed, 1 Corinthians 15:51, he probably gave the full representation of this in the person of Moses, who died, and was thus raised to life, (or appeared now as he shall appear when raised from the dead in the last day,) and in the person of Elijah, who never tasted death. Both their bodies exhibit the same appearance, to show that the bodies of glorified saints are the same, whether the person had been translated, or whether he had died. It was a constant and prevalent tradition among the Jews, that both Moses and Elijah should appear in the times of the Messiah, and to this very tradition the disciples refer, Matthew 17:10.
We may conceive that the law in the person of Moses, the great Jewish legislator, and the prophets in the person of Elijah, the chief of the prophets, came now to do homage to Jesus Christ, and to render up their authority into his hands; as he was the END of the law, and the grand subject of the predictions of the prophets. This appears more particularly from what St. Luke says, Luke 9:31, that Moses and Elijah conversed with our Lord on his death, which he was about to accomplish, (plhroun to fulfill,) because in it, all the rites, ceremonies, and sacrifices of the law, as well as the predictions of the prophets, were fulfilled.
Verse 4. Peter said-let us make, etc.— That is, when he saw Moses and Elijah ready to depart from the mount, Luke 9:33, he wished to detain them, that he might always enjoy their company with that of his Lord and Master, still supposing that Christ would set up a temporal kingdom upon earth.
Verse 5. A bright cloud overshadowed them— Or as six MSS. and Ephraim read it, a cloud of light, nefelh fwtov; which reading GRIESBACH has admitted into the text. As a bright cloud, or a cloud of light could not overshadow, or cast any kind of shade, the word epeskiasen should be translated, surrounded them. A cloud was frequently the symbol of the Divine presence; but such a cloud had always something very remarkable in its appearance. Ezekiel, Ezekiel 1:4, represents it as a great cloud, and a fire unfolding itself, and a brightness about it, and out of the midst thereof, as the color of amber out of the midst of the fire; and in Ezekiel 1:28, he tells us that this was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. See also Exodus 16:10; 40:33, etc.; Ezekiel 43:2, and 1 Chronicles 5:14. But it was generally in a thick, dark cloud, that God manifested himself under the law; see Exodus 19:9; 20:21. This might be designed as emblematical of the old covenant, which was but the shadow of the good things which were to come, Hebrews 10:1; and the cloud of light mentioned here, the emblem of that glorious display of God, in his Gospel, by which life and immortality were brought to light, 2 Timothy 1:10.
This is my beloved Son— outov estin o uiov mou o agaphtov, en w eudokhsa, This is my Son, the beloved one, in who I have delighted, or, been well pleased. God adds his testimony of approbation to what was spoken of the sufferings of Christ by Moses and Elijah; thus showing that the sacrificial economy of the old covenant was in itself of no worth, but as it referred to the grand atonement which Jesus was about to make; therefore he says, In him HAVE I delighted, (eudokhsa,) intimating that it was in him alone, as typified by those sacrifices, that he HAD delighted through the whole course of the legal administration; and that it was only in reference to the death of his Son that he accepted the offerings and oblations made to him under the old covenant. Hear HIM. The disciples wished to detain Moses and Elijah that they might hear them: but God shows that the law which had been in force, and the prophets which had prophesied, until now, must all give place to Jesus; and he alone must now be attended to, as the way, the truth, and the life; for no man could now come unto the Father but through him. This voice seems also to refer to that prediction in Deuteronomy 18:15. The Lord shall raise up a Prophet like unto me: HIM SHALL YE HEAR. Go no more to the law, nor to the prophets, to seek for a coming Messiah; for behold he IS come! Hear and obey him, and him only.
This transfiguration must have greatly confirmed the disciples in the belief of a future state, and in the doctrine of the resurrection; they saw Moses and Elijah still EXISTING, though the former had been gathered to his fathers upwards of 1400 years, and the latter had been translated nearly 900.
Verse 6. Fell on their face— Dismayed by the voice, and dazzled by the glory of the cloud. So Daniel, Daniel 8:17, and Saul of Tarsus, Acts 9:4.
Verse 7. Jesus came and touched them— Exactly parallel to this account is Daniel 8:18, I was in a deep sleep, i, e. (a trance) on my face towards the ground; but he TOUCHED me, and set me upright. From Jesus alone are we to expect Divine communications, and by his power only are we able to bear and improve them. It is very likely that this transfiguration took place in the night, which was a more proper season to show forth its glory than the day time, in which a part of the splendor must necessarily be lost by the presence of the solar light. Besides, St. Luke, Luke 9:37, expressly says, that it was on the next day after the transfiguration that our Lord came down from the mount.
Verse 9. Tell the vision to no man— See the note on Matthew 16:20; and farther observe, that as this transfiguration was intended to show forth the final abolition of the whole ceremonial law, it was necessary that a matter which could not fail to irritate the Jewish rulers and people should be kept secret, till Jesus had accomplished vision and prophecy by his death and resurrection.
The whole of this emblematic transaction appears to me to be intended to prove, 1st. The reality of the world of spirits, and the immortality of the soul. 2dly. The resurrection of the body, and the doctrine of future rewards and punishments, see Matthew 16:27. 3dly. The abolition of the Mosaic institutions, and, the fulfillment of the predictions of the prophets relative to the person, nature, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the glory that should follow. 4thly. The establishment of the mild, light-bringing, and life-giving Gospel of the Son of God. And 5thly. That as the old Jewish covenant and Mediatorship had ended, Jesus was now to be considered as the sole Teacher, the only availing offering for sin, and the grand Mediator between God and man. There are many very useful remarks on this transaction, by the late venerable Bp. Porteus.
Verse 10. His disciples— instead of HIS disciples, some MSS., with the Coptic, Armenian, Vulgate, all the Itala except two, and Origen, read simply, oi maqhtai, THE disciples, i.e. those only who had been with him on the mount, Peter, James, and John.
Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?— As the disciples saw that Elijah returned to heaven, knowing the tradition of the elders, and the prophecy on which the tradition was founded, Malachi 4:5, 6, Behold I send you Elijah the prophet, before the great and terrible day of the Lord shall come; and he shall turn the hearts, etc., it was natural enough for them to inquire what the meaning of the tradition, and the intention of the prophecy, were.
Verse 11. Elias-shall first come, and restore all things.— Or will reform, apokatasthsei; this word our Lord quotes from the Septuagint; who render the Hebrew µynb l[ twba bl bwçhw vehesheb leb aboth al banim, he will cause the heart of the fathers to turn to the children, by, ov apokatasthsei kardian patrov prov uion, who will convert, or restore, the heart of the father to the son. We are not therefore to understand the version of the Septuagint quoted by our Lord in any other sense than the Hebrew will allow. No fanciful restoration of all men, devils and damned spirits, is spoken of as either being done, or begun, by the ministry of John; but merely that he should preach a doctrine tending to universal reformation of manners, and should be greatly successful: see Matthew 3:1-7, and especially Luke 3:3-15, where we find that a general reformation had taken place, 1. among the common people; 2. among the tax-gatherers; and 3. among the soldiers. And as John announced the coming Christ, who was to baptize with the Holy Ghost, i.e. to enlighten, change, and purify the heart, that the reform might be complete, both outward and inward, he may be said, in the strictest sense of the word, to have fulfilled the prophecy: and that he was the Elijah mentioned by Malachi, the words of Gabriel to the virgin Mary prove; Luke 1:17. And he (John) shall go before him (Christ) in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, etc.; and that his ministry was powerfully effectual for this purpose, we have already seen.
Verse 12. Knew him not— Or, ouk epignwsan auton, They have not acknowledged him. That is, the Jewish rulers have not acknowledged him, did not receive him as the forerunner of the Messiah. But it appears that all the rest acknowledged him as such; and some, from the power and demonstration of his preaching, were inclined to think he was more, even the Messiah himself: see Luke 3:15.
Verse 13. Then the disciples understood— When he spoke of the sufferings of this prophetic Elijah, and also of his own, which had been the subject of the conversation on the mount, during the transfiguration, they clearly apprehended that he spoke of John the Baptist.
Verse 14. When they were come to the multitude— It appears that a congregation had been collected during our Lord’s stay on the mount: how great must have been the desire of these people to hear the words of Christ! The assembly is self-collected, and no delay on the preacher’s side discourages them-they continue to wait for him. In the present day how rare is this zeal! How few by the most pathetic invitation can be brought together, even at the most convenient times, to hear the same doctrines, and to get their souls healed by the same wonder-working Christ!
Kneeling down to him— Or falling at his knees, gonupetwn. The ancients consecrated the EAR to memory; the FOREHEAD to genius; the RIGHT HAND to faith; and the KNEES to mercy: hence those who entreated favor fell at and touched the knees of the person whose kindness they supplicated. See Wakefield’s Commentary; and see the note on Exodus 9:29; where the subject is largely explained.
Verse 15. My son-is lunatic— selhniazetai. One who was most affected with this disorder at the change and full of the moon. See on Matthew 4:24. But this lunacy was occasioned by a demon, see Matthew 17:18, and Mark 9:17; Luke 9:38. In this case, the devil intended to hide himself under the appearance of a natural disorder, that no supernatural means might be resorted to for his expulsion. See a remarkable account on Luke 9:39.
Falleth ofttimes into the fire, and oft into the water.— The paroxysms of his disorder frequently recurred; and among his numerous falls, some were into the fire and some into the water: so that, on this account, his life was in continual danger. Those who are under the influence of the devil are often driven to extremes in every thing. Such are often driven into the fire of presumption, or the waters of despair. Satan takes advantage of our natural temper, state of health, and outward circumstances, to plague and ruin our souls.
Verse 16. Thy disciples could not cure him.— No wonder, when the cure must be effected by supernatural agency, and they had not faith enough to interest the power of God in their behalf, Matthew 17:20. A spiritual disorder must have a spiritual remedy: natural means, in such cases, signify just-nothing.
Verse 17. O faithless and perverse generation!— These and the following words may be considered as spoken: 1. To the disciples, because of their unbelief, Matthew 17:20. 2. To the father of the possessed, who should have brought his son to Christ. 3. To the whole multitude, who were slow of heart to believe in him as the Messiah, notwithstanding the miracles which he wrought. See KYPKE.
Perverse, diestrammenh, signifies-1. Such as are influenced by perverse opinions, which hinder them from receiving the truth: and, 2. Such as are profligate in their manners. KYPKE. This last expression could not have been addressed to the disciples, who were certainly saved from the corruption of the world, and whose minds had been lately divinely illuminated by what passed at and after the transfiguration: but at all times the expression was applicable to the Jewish people.
Verse 18. Jesus rebuked the devil— Deprived him of all power to torment the child; and obliged him to abandon his present usurped habitation.
There are some souls whose cure God reserves to himself alone, and to whom all the applications of his ministers appear to be utterly ineffectual. He sometimes does all without them, that they may know they can never do any good without him. QUESNEL.
Verse 19. Why could not we cast him out?— They were confounded at their want of success-but not at their want of faith, which was the cause of their miscarriage! When the ministers of the Gospel find their endeavors, with respect to some places or persons, ineffectual, they should come, by private prayer, to Christ, humble themselves before him, and beg to be informed whether some evil in themselves have not been the cause of the unfruitfulness of their labors.
Verse 20. Because of your unbelief— Are we preachers of the Gospel? Do the things of God rest upon our minds with a deep and steady conviction? Can we expect that a doctrine which we do not, from conviction, credit ourselves, can be instrumental in our hands of begetting faith in others? So we preached, end so ye believed. The word preached generally begets in the people the same spirit which the preacher possesses. Instead of apistian, unbelief, the famous Vatican MS. and Cod. Cyprius, six others, Coptic, Ethiopic, Armenian, and Arabic, Origen, and Chrysostom, read oligopistian, littleness of faith. The disciples had some faith, but not enough-they believed, but not fully.
As a grain of mustard seed— Some eminent critics think this a proverbial expression, intimating a GREAT DEGREE of faith, because removing mountains, which St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:2, attributes to ALL FAITH; i.e. the greatest possible degree of faith, is attributed here, by our Lord, to that faith which is as a grain of mustard seed. However this may be, there can be no doubt that our Lord means, as BISHOP PEARCE well remarks, a thriving and increasing faith; which like the grain of mustard seed, from being the least of seeds, becomes the greatest of all herbs; even a tree in whose branches the fowls of the air take shelter. See WAKEFIELD’S Comment, and the note on Matthew 13:32.
Verse 21. This kind goeth not out but by prayer, etc.— touto to genov, this kind, some apply to the faith which should be exercised on the occasion, which goeth not out, doth not exert itself, but by prayer and fasting; but this interpretation is, in my opinion, far from solid. However, there is great difficulty in the text. The whole verse is wanting in the famous Vatican MS., one of the most ancient and most authentic perhaps in the world; and in another one of Colbert’s, written in the 11th or 12th century. It is wanting also in the Coptic, Ethiopic, Syriac, Hieros., and in one copy of the Itala. But all the MSS. acknowledge it in the parallel place, Mark 9:29, only the Vatican MS. leaves out nhsteia, fasting. I strongly suspect it to be an interpolation; but, if it be, it is very ancient, as Origen, Chrysostom, and others of the primitive fathers, acknowledged it. But while candour obliges me to acknowledge that I cannot account for the fact here alleged, that a certain class or genus of demons cannot be expelled but by prayer and fasting, while others may be ejected without them, I can give a sense to the passage which all my readers will easily understand: viz. that there are certain evil propensities, in some persons, which pampering the flesh tends to nourish and strengthen; and that self-denial and fasting, accompanied by prayer to God, are the most likely means, not only to mortify such propensities, but also to destroy them. For other remarkable circumstances relative to this case, see the notes on Mark 9:17, etc.
Verse 22. They abode in Galilee— Lower Galilee, where the city of Capernaum was.
The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men— mellei-paradidosqai eiv ceirav-The Son of man is about to be delivered into the hands, etc. I am fully of the mind of two eminent critics, Grotius and Wakefield, that paradidosqai should be here translated delivered, or delivered up, not betrayed; and that the agency, in this case, should be referred to God, not to Judas. Jesus was delivered up, by the counsel of God, to be an atonement for the sin of the world. See Acts 4:27, 28. Against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed to do what thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done, Herod and Pontius Pilate-were gathered together.
Verse 23. They were exceeding sorry— Since the conversation on the mount, with Moses and Elijah; Peter, James, and John could have no doubt that their Lord and Master must suffer, and that it was for this end he came into the world; but, while they submitted to the counsel of God, their affection for him caused them to feel exquisite distress.
Verse 24. They that received tribute— This was not a tax to be paid to the Roman government; but a tax for the support of the temple. The law, Exodus 30:13, obliged every male among the Jews to pay half a shekel yearly; for the support of the temple; and this was continued by them wherever dispersed, till after the time of Vespasian, see Josephus, WAR, book 7. c. 6, who ordered it afterwards to be paid into the Roman treasury. The word in the text, which is generally translated tribute-ta didracma, signifies the didrachma, or two drachms. This piece of money was about the value of two Attic drachms, each equal to fifteen pence of our money. The didrachma of the Septuagint, mentioned Exodus 30:13, was twice as heavy as the Attic, for it was equal to a whole shekel, this being the value of that piece of money at Alexandrina, the place where the Septuagint translation was made; for the half shekel mentioned in the above passage, they render hmisu tou didacmou, the half of a didrachma.
Verse 25. He saith, Yes.— From this reply of Peter, it is evident that our Lord customarily paid all taxes, tributes, etc., which were common among the people wherever he came. The children of God are subject to all civil laws in the places where they live -and should pay the taxes levied on them by public authority; and though any of these should be found unjust, THEY rebel not, as their business is not to reform the politics of nations, but the morals of the world.
Verse 26. Then are the children free— As this money is levied for the support of that temple of which I am the Lord, then I am not obliged to pay the tax; and my disciples, like the priests that minister, should be exempted from the necessity of paying.
Verse 27. Lest we-offend them— Be a stumbling-block to the priests, or rulers of the Jews, I will pay the tribute-go thou to the sea-cast a hook, and take the first fish-thou shalt find a piece of money, stathra, a stater. This piece of money was equal in value to four drachms, or two shekels, (five shillings of our money,) and consequently was sufficient to pay the tribute for our Lord and Peter, which amounted to about half-a-crown each. If the stater was in the mouth or belly of the fish before, who can help admiring the wisdom of Christ, that discovered it there? If it was not before in the mouth of the fish, who can help admiring the power of Christ, that impelled the fish to go where the stater had been lost in the bottom of the sea, take it up, come towards the shore where Peter was fishing, and, with the stater in its mouth or stomach, catch hold of the hook that was to draw it out of the water? But suppose there was no stater there, which is as likely as otherwise, then Jesus created it for the purpose, and here his omnipotence was shown; for to make a thing exist that did not exist before is an act of unlimited power, however small the thing itself may be. Some suppose that the haddock was the fish caught by Peter, because this fish has a blackish mark on each side of its neck or shoulders, as seems to exhibit the impression of a finger and thumb. The haddock is the gadus eglesinus. But this being a sea fish, could not be a native of the sea of Galilee or Tiberias, etc., for the river Jordan runs through the sea of Galilee, and falls into the Dead Sea, which has no outlet to the ocean: no sea fish of any kind can be found there; and we may add to this, that Belzoni, a learned traveler, who examined the produce of the lake of Tiberias, found only trouts, pikes, chevins, and tenches. That it may, besides these, have some fishes peculiar to itself, as most extensive fresh water lakes have, need not be denied; but it could have no sea fish.
THE account of the transfiguration, the peculiar case of the lunatic, with his cure, and the miracle wrought to pay the tribute money, render this one of the most interesting and instructive chapters in the New Testament.
“Is like an ocean into tempest toss’d, To waft a feather, or to drown a fly.”