The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-8)
It seems a great pity, as indicated in our closing remarks in the previous chapter, that its final verse was not made the opening one of this seventeenth chapter. The Lord Jesus Christ had intimated a week before that some would not die until they had seen the kingdom of God come with power. In the corresponding accounts in both Mark and Luke this announcement is linked directly with the transfiguration scene. The announcement is, in fact, the key to a right understanding of this glorious vision that was intended to be a representation of “the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1). This is confirmed for us by the apostle Peter, who in his second Epistle said, “We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty… when we were with him in the holy mount” (2 Peter 1:16,18). There the Savior appeared in that glory in which He will be manifested when He returns to take His great power and reign (Revelation 11:17).
Jesus took Peter and James and John up into a high mountain (mount Hermon) where He was to give them a vision of the kingdom as it shall yet be displayed. The three favored apostles, who beheld His glory and heard the Father’s voice, represent Israel restored to the Lord in the latter day and so entering into the blessings of the kingdom.
The transfiguration was a metamorphosis, a change from within; the glory of Christ’s eternal sonship shone out through the veil of His flesh so that the disciples might have ocular proof of His true character as Immanuel—God and man in one person.
“There appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.” These two men of a past dispensation represent two groups of believers: Moses represents those who die before the coming in of the kingdom and will be raised in glorified bodies; Elijah depicts those who will be changed at the rapture and caught up without passing through death (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18), preparatory to the bringing in of the millennial glory (John 11:25-26). Elijah and Moses also speak of the law and the prophets, both of which bear witness to Christ’s atoning death, whereby God is able to provide a righteousness for men who have none of their own (Romans 3:21,24-25). The subject of their discourse was our Lord’s redemptive work, soon to be accomplished (Luke 9:30-31).
“Let us make here three tabernacles.” Peter’s suggestion came without real consideration. He was so overwhelmed with the glory of the vision that he would have gladly remained on the mount in such wonderful company. But he erred in putting Moses and Elias, eminent servants of God though they were, on a par with Jesus, the Son of God become flesh.
“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” A cloud shut out the Old Testament worthies, and Jesus was left alone. The Father’s voice spoke from Heaven the second time, attesting the perfection of His Son and His delight in Him, whose voice they were commanded to heed.
Awed by what they had seen and heard, the three apostles fell prostrate as worshipers in the presence of God as seen in the Lord Jesus Christ. Reaching forth His loving hand, our Lord touched each disciple reassuringly, and bade them stand up, fearing nothing. He would have His own feel at ease in His presence, for though He is Lord of all, He is our kinsman-redeemer, who assumed our humanity, apart from sin, in order to bring us to God.
“They saw no man, save Jesus only.” There could be no thought of three tabernacles now, for Moses, the law-giver, and Elijah, the restorer, had vanished away. The Lord Jesus alone remained—He who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
Jesus is not a mere man who, by dint of spiritual enlightenment and surrender to the Father’s will, became more divine than any other man. He is God the Son, one person of the eternal trinity, manifested in the flesh and thus the one mediator between God and man. Peter’s confession and the Father’s voice after the transfiguration tell the same blessed story. Jesus had to be who He was in order to do what He did. No one less than the Son of God could make propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).
The vision passed, but Jesus remained. When the morning came He led His disciples down from that mount of special privilege to face the appalling effects of sin in the valley below, for the time had not yet come for the kingdom to be displayed in universal power and glory.
Explanation of the Coming of Elijah (Matthew 17:9-13)
Foreseeing His rejection Jesus commanded the chosen three to say nothing to anyone of what they had seen in that never-to-be-forgotten time, until after He rose from the dead. The cross must come before the kingdom.
The perplexed disciples asked their Master, “Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?” These teachers of the law had good authority for this, for in Malachi 4:5-6 it was plainly declared, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” The kingdom follows the great and dreadful day of the Lord. It is in fact a continuation of that day, after its preliminary judgments shall have ended. What then of Elijah? Was he to be looked for first?
Jesus replied, “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.” But He explained that he had come already and his testimony had been rejected and he, himself, put out of the way. And even as they had treated the forerunner, so would they treat the Son of man.
“Then,” we are told, “the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” He had come in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare Messiah’s way (Luke 1:17).
It seems clear from the prophetic Scriptures that a similar Elijah-testimony will be given in the dark days of the great tribulation before the manifestation of the Lord in judgment. The vision of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 would appear to confirm this.
As Jesus and the three disciples talked together they came upon a great multitude of troubled people, as depicted in the next few verses.
The Healing of the Demon-possessed (Matthew 17:14-21)
This scene at the foot of the mountain illustrates the effect of the second advent, binding Satan and giving to the troubled nations deliverance from his power. Having descended to the plain after the night of vision, they found a distracted father, who had brought his demon-possessed son to the other nine disciples, pleading with them to help. But they were out of touch and, although commissioned to cast out demons (Matthew 10:8), found themselves powerless in this particular case. Disappointed in the servants, the distressed father recognized the Master as He came toward them, and began at once to implore Him to free his son from the demon. Kneeling, he begged the Lord to have mercy on him and heal his boy, explaining that he had brought him to the disciples, and they could not cure him. One can understand how poignant was the father’s grief and how distressed he was when the disciples could not help. In expectancy of heart he turned to the Lord Jesus, pleading as many other fathers since have pleaded for the deliverance of sons who have come under the power of the evil one in various ways.
After rebuking the nine for their lack of faith, Jesus called for the boy to be brought to Him. His heart was moved by the father’s plea. Turning then to the demon-possessed youth Jesus rebuked the foul spirit who departed from the boy, and he was cured from that hour.
On the mount the disciples had been taken into God’s confidence and given a foreview of the kingdom to be ushered in with power and majesty at our Lord’s second advent. In the plain, they beheld anew something of the ravages of sin and Satan, under which this poor world suffers and groans still, and from which it will be freed completely only when Christ returns. But all down through the present age of evil the Lord Jesus is the One who hears the prayer of faith and gives deliverance to those who put their trust in His Word. No case is too difficult for Him. His disciples are often powerless because of unbelief and failure to recognize their own inability to work apart from Him who commissions them to represent Him in this world.
When alone with the Lord, away from the multitude, the perplexed disciples inquired why they had been unable to expel the demon in this case. The answer was, “Because of your unbelief.” Again the Lord declared that if they had faith even as a grain of mustard seed, mountains of difficulty could be removed and absolutely nothing would be impossible to them.
But true faith and self-indulgence are never found together; therefore, He added, “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” The flesh and its appetites must be kept in subjection in order that faith may flourish. Occupation with the glorified Christ is preliminary to service for Him in a world where Satan expresses his antagonism to all that God is doing. Satan is overcome only by dependence on Christ as indicated by prayer and fasting. No man is competent to meet Satan in his own strength. Prayer is the expression of dependence upon God, which alone gives victory. Fasting is the evidence of such concern for spiritual blessing that desire to satisfy earn al appetite is held in abeyance. May we not see in these words of the Lord the reason for many of our unanswered prayers?
The Temple Tax (Matthew 17:22-27)
Again Jesus forewarned the disciples of what He was soon to experience, but although their hearts were grieved they did not grasp the full significance of His words. The Galilean ministry of the unrecognized King was soon to come to a close. He foresaw all that would befall Him at the hands of man, but He looked beyond with prophetic eye to His resurrection when God was to bring Him back from the dead. So often had Jesus spoken of this and so plainly that it seems incredible that the disciples should have failed to comprehend His words. Yet it was so. Not until all had been fulfilled did they recall and understand that of which He had spoken so definitely (see Mark 9:30-32 and Luke 9:43-45).
The incident with which this chapter closes reveals another aspect of Peter’s impulsiveness, and yet of the Lord’s wondrous grace. The tribute money referred to here was the half-shekel of silver that was commanded to be paid as the redemption money at any numbering of the people (Exodus 30:11-16). In the course of time it had come to be considered and levied as a poll-tax for the support of the temple services. The collectors of this tax came to Peter and inquired as to whether Jesus paid it. Without consulting his Master, Peter answered in the affirmative.
When Peter entered the house in Capernaum a little later (probably his own home) Jesus anticipated him and put the question, “What thinkest thou, Simon? Of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?” Peter answered unhesitatingly that it was of strangers. Only a little time before Peter had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. Therefore, Jesus was under no obligation to pay this particular tax; so He declared, “Then are the children free.” But in His concern for others, that none might be stumbled who did not understand who He really was, He commanded Peter to go to the sea of Galilee and cast a hook and take up the first fish that he caught, and He added, “When thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.” It is not necessary to suppose that the coin was miraculously created at the moment, but rather that it had fallen into the water, and the fish attracted by the glittering object had attempted to swallow it, but the shekel had stuck in its gullet. When Peter drew the fish to land, the money was there as Jesus had said, and could be used to silence all criticism. Was Jesus at this time so poor that He had no other money to pay this tax? Possibly so, or perhaps He chose this method to impress upon Peter the fact that He was Lord of all creation.