Matthew 17


‘After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.’ Matthew 17:1

Although Mark and Luke say after six days, Luke says eight days, Luke 9:28. The Jews counted any part of a day to represent a whole day and so, by counting the partial beginning and end of two days, with six full days, we would have the eight days of Luke.

Jesus’ ‘inner circle’, that is, Jesus took Peter, James and John, Matthew 26:37 / Mark 5:37 / Luke 8:51, were privileged to be taken by Jesus to a high mountainside.

Peter, James and John were with Him in Jairus house, the synagogue ruler, when Jesus healed his daughter, Luke 8:49-56. Peter, James and John went with Him when He went to pray at Gethsemane, Mark 14:33.

The mountain in question is either Mount Tabor, Mark 9:2-13 / Luke 9:28-36, in modern-day Syria or Mount Hermon in Israel which is the highest mountain in Israel, 2 Peter 1:17-18.

Robertson, in his commentary, says the following.

‘The tradition that places the transfiguration on Mount Tabor is beyond question false.’

Coffman, in his commentary, says the following.

‘Robertson would appear to be correct for these reasons.

1. Tabor does not qualify as a ‘high’ mountain, being only 1,800 feet in elevation, compared with Hermon’s 9,000 feet.

2. Tradition favouring Tabor, first advocated by St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the fourth century, is much too late to have much weight.

3. Mount Tabor was populated, having a fortress on top, during the time of Christ, and was not suitable for such an event as the transfiguration. To have ascended Tabor would not have taken them ‘apart’, as Matthew expressed it.

4. Mount Tabor was three days journey removed from the last-named geographical placement of Christ and his disciples and, although a sufficient time interval of six or eight days had elapsed, none of the gospel narratives mentions a journey of any kind. Hermon, on the other hand, was nearby and is the most likely site.

5. Furthermore, when the gospels again take up the narrative, they were still in the vicinity of Hermon. Peter, in after years, called it the Holy Mount, 2 Peter 1:18, and in the words of A. L. Williams, ‘We may conclude that we are not intended to know more about it, lest we should be tempted to make more of the material circumstances than of the great reality.’

Why did they go up the mountain? Luke 9:28 tells us they went up the mountain to pray. Why didn’t He take the other disciples with Him? Why did Jesus take only Peter, James and John up the mountain?

He simply was preparing them for leadership, remember that Peter had just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, Mark 8:28-38. The transfiguration was the conformation of Peter’s confession, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. It also points to a change from the law and the prophets to the One to whom the law and prophets pointed, Luke 24:44.

Peter was given the keys to the kingdom and Jesus says to him, ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ Matthew 16:19. Which means he was given the right to teach the new law of forgiveness with its terms and conditions.

James was executed by Herod, Acts 12:1-2 tells us that James must have been a man of influence or Herod wouldn’t have bothered to kill him. John seems to be the quiet one but at the cross of Jesus, he was given the responsibility of looking after Jesus’ mother, which also tells us that by this time Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather was dead. John 19:26-27.

How do you think the other disciples felt when Jesus only took Peter, James and John to certain places? They possibly felt a little jealous, that’s possibly why they started arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. Luke 9:46 / Luke 22:24. This could be possible because Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what happened up on the mountain. Matthew 17:9.

The Transfiguration

‘There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Matthew 17:3-4

Jesus had taken three of His closest friends with Him to a high mountain, there, whilst Jesus was praying, Luke 9:29, He began to glow with breath-taking brilliance.

The word transfigured, ‘metamorphoo’ means to be changed or transformed and so, in some way Jesus’ appearance was changed into a state of heavenly glory in order to manifest His deity, John 1:14.

‘His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.’ This light was an outward appearance from within, the light came from within Jesus, John 18:6 / Exodus 34:35 / 2 Corinthians 3:13.

Imagine Being There!

I can imagine James and John tugging one another’s cloaks and saying to Peter, ‘Peter, Peter is it just me or is Jesus’ head glowing a little?’ And the more he glows, the more they say, ‘He’s definitely glowing’.

We read these passages like they went and got a drink and they went and got a burger and chips. Just as though it was the most normal thing in the world for Jesus’ head to begin to glow.

I can imagine the jaws of those men would have dropped, I can imagine them backing away, even from the Lord that they knew and here is glowing as though God is ripping open the flesh of Christ and letting divinity itself peak out.

And as that bright light is shining and as Jesus is glowing and what an amazing scene, it just gets better. All of a sudden appearing with them are Moses and Elijah and it seems the disciples knew and recognised Moses and Elijah.

Moses And Elijah

Just then, Elijah and Moses appeared, talking with Jesus, and the disciples were awestruck. We don’t know how the disciples recognised Moses and Elijah, the only possible explanation is that God opened their eyes.

Moses was the great Lawgiver, John 1:17, the one who had led Israel out of Egyptian bondage and through the wilderness. Elijah was a great prophet, one of two men in the Old Testament who went directly to heaven without dying.

Notice they were talking to Jesus, but what were they talking about? Luke 9:31 tells us that ‘they spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem.’

Luke tells us they were discussing the fulfilment of the purpose for which both Moses and Elijah came to do their work and talking about the fulfilment of the promised ‘head crusher’ that started with the seed of the woman in Eve, Genesis 3:15 and had continued to Jesus, Luke 9:31.

After feeling sleepy, Luke 9:32, the disciples were now fully awake, Luke 9:32-33, and Peter was profoundly moved by the occasion and suggested that they build three shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Luke tells us that Peter didn’t know what to say, they were so frightened, Mark 9:3-6.

There are times when we simply need to listen, rather than do. Peter’s problem was that he needed to connect everything with something he needed to do.

Peter always jumped up and said, ‘Well Lord I guess I need to say something’. Peter was always the one who would jump up and say, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to you Lord, well, I’ll be the last one to leave you, Lord’. And the Lord finally had to say, ‘Peter, will you just hush up, put that sword down, before the rooster crows three times you’ll deny me’.

And Peter is still doing it, he’s here on the mountain and James and John are saying, ‘look at this’ and Peter jumps up and what does he say? ‘We’re very glad to be here.’

That’s literally what he says, he jumps up and says, ‘Well, I’m glad I came here today.’ ‘It’s good for us to be here Lord’. ‘In fact, we need to do something about this, we need to build a shelter for Moses and a shelter for Elijah.’

No doubt he felt that it would honour Jesus to receive a shelter alongside Moses and Elijah, but it seems as though Peter wanted to stay on the mountain for a while and enjoy the company but there was work to be done in the valleys.

According to Jewish tradition, these shelters would have been temporary places of prayer and meditation, Leviticus 23:34 / Exodus 25:8-9. Peter may have been suggesting that places of honour be placed at the location for the honour of Jesus, Moses and Elijah.

God’s Voice

‘While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.’ Matthew 17:5-8

God’s voice boomed from heaven, ‘this is My Beloved Son, listen to Him’. The voice of God is very seldom heard in the New Testament, in fact only three times. Mark 9:7 / Matthew 3:17 / John 12:29.

Matthew tells us that when the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. Falling facedown suggests that they worship God, Daniel 8:17 / Revelation 1:17 / 2 Peter 1:18. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’

Notice that when the disciples heard the voice of God, the natural reaction was worship, 2 Peter 1:18 / Revelation 1:17, remember that prophets weren’t worshipped. And so, because Jesus was God, all three disciples worshipped as a natural response to their realisation of the presence of God.

They had obviously fallen to the ground in reverence and so Jesus reassuringly touches them and tells them to get up. I can imagine the disciples being very afraid after hearing God’s voice, no wonder Jesus reassures them that they have nothing to be afraid of.

Moses and Elijah vanished and only Jesus remained. They used to listen to Moses and Elijah but now they must listen to Jesus. Acts 4:12 / Hebrews 1:1-3. No other prophet was assumed to be the Son of God.

The Descent

‘As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” Matthew 17:9

As they descended, Jesus told the disciples not to tell anyone about what had happened until after He was raised from the dead. Peter, James and John didn’t believe in the death of Jesus, at this time, never mind believing that He would rise from the dead, Mark 9:10.

Remember the disciples and the Jews as a whole had no concept of the resurrection, every blessing in the Old Testament was all about the land and long life.

This is why the disciples never really understood anything Jesus taught about the afterlife or they were afraid to ask Him about it. The resurrection from the dead was a whole new concept because it was Jesus who brought immortality to light, 2 Timothy 1:10.

Why Were they told not to say anything to anyone? Peter, James and John didn’t believe in the death of Jesus, let alone His resurrection from the dead, Mark 9:10.

One plausible reason could be if the disciples spoke about what had just happened publicly, especially during this crucial point in Jesus’ ministry, it may have caused a lot of unnecessary confusion among the people.

There’s also the possibility which we alluded to earlier that the other disciples may possibly have become jealous of Peter, James and John for having the special treatment, Mark 9:34 / Luke 22:24.

‘The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” Matthew 17:11-13

By the appearance of Elijah on the mountain, their thinking was focused on the prophecies of the coming of Elijah, Mark 4:5 but Elijah had already come in the sense that John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, Luke 1:17.

The teachers of the Law had correctly understood and interpreted the Old Testament law concerning the prophecies that a messenger must first come before the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah 40:3 / Malachi 3:1 / Malachi 4:5 / Matthew 11:14.

These prophecies were of John the Baptist who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, Luke 1:16-17. He came preaching repentance and baptism for the remission of sins, Mark 1:1-4, but the teachers of the Law failed to understand and accept that these prophecies were fulfilled in John Himself.

As it is with most people who don’t understand one thing, this leads to another misunderstanding about something else. The Jews didn’t recognise John as the fulfilment of prophecy in preparation for the Messiah, so they wouldn’t recognize Jesus, John 1:11.

This is clearly seen later because they will eventually want to crucify Christ because they refuse to believe who He was, the Son of God, the Messiah, Mark 9:12.

The Greatness Of Jesus

God’s refusal of Peter’s suggestion to construct three shelters teaches us a lot of things. The problem with Peter’s plan was that it put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah, He isn’t. Jesus is above everyone in this case, above the greatest figures of the Old Testament era.

Our problem is like Peter’s, we often tend to build multiple shelters, one for Jesus and one for our parents or one for Jesus and another for our preacher, or a favourite activity. Jesus must have the only shelter, He must be the supreme authority in our life, nothing else can be on a par with Him.

Through the years people have built cathedrals to honour Jesus, people have fought wars to honour Jesus, people have gone on fasts to honour Jesus and people have thrown banquets to honour Jesus, people have married multiple wives and people have remained celibate to honour Jesus.

But God calls out to us all and says, ‘before you go building your booths, or making your plans before you do what you think will honour Me, will you please stop and ‘Listen to Him’.

The world would be a better place if it stopped to actually listen to Jesus’ words and obey them, our churches would be in better health if they stopped to listen to what Jesus actually teaches on any given subject. Our own Christian walk would be totally transformed if we stopped long enough to listen and apply Jesus’ words to our very lives.

Jesus Heals A Demon-Possessed Boy

‘When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.” “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:14-20

Jesus, Peter, James and John had remained part of a day and night on the mountain of transfiguration, Luke 9:37. While He was on the mountain, the scribes were entering into an argument with the other disciples, Mark 9:14.

Since the apostles had normally been able to cast out demons, Mark 6:13, probably because of a lack of faith, Matthew 17:19-20. This failure puzzled them and surprised the bystanders. Jesus’ enemies were taking advantage of this lapse to discredit Him, we can imagine how embarrassed the disciples must have felt as they were being ridiculed.

The father of the tormented boy asked Jesus to do something, if He could, the man obviously feels hopeless and helpless. Mark also says that the demon caused epileptic fits that would cause the boy to be cast into fires, Mark 9:20.

The Lord turned his statement back on him, ‘If you can! All things are possible to him who believes,’ Mark 9:23. The father said that he believed, but recognising the possibility that his faith wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, he begged Jesus to help his unbelief.

Jesus says to all who were present that they were an unbelieving and a perverse generation. Everyone thought the boy was dead, Mark 9:26, and so, with that, Christ commanded the unclean spirit to leave the boy, the demon cried out and threw the boy into convulsions, but left.

The Jews believed that no one could cast out a mute spirit unless you knew its name. Mark gives an extended account of the events surrounding the exorcism, Mark 9:25-26.

Jesus rebuked the demon, Luke 4:41, which shows His power over the devil, Matthew 4:24. The demon did what all demons have to do, the demon left the boy immediately, Mark 9:26. Jesus said on this occasion that all things are possible to those who believe, Mark 9:23.

Later, the disciples asked why they had been unable to cast out the demon, Jesus explained that they weren’t relying on God enough, but on their own power, ‘this kind cannot come out by anything but prayer,’ Mark 9:29.

Perhaps their prior success in expelling demons had caused them to be self-reliant, and they had neglected to pray in faith to God so that He would cast out the demon.

They had demonstrated a lack of faith, Matthew 19:26 / Matthew 21:21-22 / Luke 10:1 / Luke 10:17, but if they had the faith as small as a mustard seed, Matthew 21:21-22 / Mark 11:23-24 / Luke 17:6 / 1 Corinthians 12:9 / 1 Corinthians 13:2, they could achieve much more.

Nothing would be impossible to them for nothing is impossible for the One who actually does the miraculous work, Mark 9:23 / John 11:40.

Time and again the disciples demonstrated a lack of clear spiritual understanding, they saw Jesus multiply loaves and fishes but failed to see that He could handle another food emergency. Peter affirmed that Jesus was the Christ, but thought it best to give Him some needed ‘advice.’

He believed Jesus was great, but on the same level as Moses and Elijah. The nine disciples in the valley boldly attempted to expel a demon, but without relying on the Lord. They were like those formerly blind who even now saw men like trees walking.

Jesus Predicts His Death A Second Time

‘When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief.’ Matthew 17:22-23

Jesus wanted to prepare His disciples for the tragedy that was nearing. He warned them that He would be betrayed into men’s hands and be killed, but encouraged them by announcing that three days later He would rise again.

The disciples didn’t understand, why? As we saw above the concept of an afterlife was foreign to them, 2 Timothy 1:10.

Mark tells us they were afraid to ask Him about it, Mark 9:32. Why were they afraid to ask Him about it? They didn’t understand the purpose of Christ’s death and when Jesus spoke of His death, the subject didn’t bring them any comfort, John 16:6 / John 19:30.

The Temple Tax

‘After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?” “Yes, he does,” he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. “What do you think, Simon?” he asked. “From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” “From others,” Peter answered. “Then the children are exempt,” Jesus said to him. “But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.” Matthew 17:24-27

It’s been well documented that all Jews throughout the Roman Empire were required to pay the Jewish temple tax in order to fund the maintenance of the temple in Jerusalem.

Although this was ordered by Julius Caesar, the amount commanded by God for the temple tax was originally instituted to ‘pay’ for the individual’s sins and was half a shekel of silver, Exodus 30:11-16.

By the time Jesus came on the scene, half a shekel was equivalent to two silver Roman denarii or two silver Greek drachmas, which was about two days’ wages.

The money was needed because it was the duty of every male Jew who came to the temple to worship, to pay half a shekel for the upkeep of the temple, this was called ‘Temple Tax.’ A half-shekel was equal to a third, or a fourth of a Denarius, or a penny and could only be paid in the temple.

But many coinages were in use in the Roman Empire at that time, and pilgrims from abroad usually only had Greek, Roman or Syrian money, which couldn’t be used.

Obviously, Jewish money wasn’t likely to be used in the wider Roman Empire, so, their foreign money had to be exchanged into coins that the temple treasury would accept.

Tax Collectors

Most people know that a tax collector wasn’t highly esteemed in Biblical times, in fact, most were hated because they were considered either a traitor or a thief. This is because Israel was occupied by Rome and all the taxes collected went to Rome.

The Romans demanded a certain amount of tax, but the tax collector could add more to bump up his wages, Luke 3:13. The tax collectors were called ‘publicans’, which is the equivalent of what we would call the Inland Revenue.

The temple tax was paid yearly, about a month before Passover, in order to support those who worked with the religious services of the temple, Exodus 30:13-14, and on this occasion, the tax collector asked Peter if Jesus pays the tax or not. Peter says that Jesus paid the tax, though he evidently hadn’t seen Jesus do so.

The Exemption

Jesus asks Peter a question and the answer is simple; the sons of the king are free from paying the taxes, but the subjects of the king must pay.

Jesus is making the point that since He is greater than the temple, He was the Son of God, then He wouldn’t be subject to pay the tax to the temple. It’s clear here that Jesus is claiming His sonship of God.

Why Did Jesus Pay?

Jesus paid the tax because He didn’t want to cause any offence, in other words, He wanted to avoid any unnecessary controversy concerning the payment of the tax. 1 Corinthians 8:12 / 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.

Later Jesus will miraculously provide the money to pay the tax, but Peter would still have to pay the tax. He, as well as all Jews, were subject to paying the tax.

The Miracle

When Jesus was approached about paying His temple tax, he told Peter to catch a fish on a line and open its mouth.

Some suggest that the fish was probably a ‘Tilapia’ which has a marked pouch beneath its mouth where tiny young fish hide from danger, but we simply don’t know.

Think about this for a moment, what are the chances of this actually happening? Please don’t miss the miracle, this wasn’t just some random chance of Peter catching a fish, even though he was a fisherman, and the fish just happens to have a coin in its mouth. No!

This was all God’s doing, just like Jonah, when God provided a great fish to swallow him, Jonah 1:17, here we see Jesus not only providing the fish and directing the fish straight onto Peter’s hook at the exact right moment, we also see that when Peter did as Jesus said and when he opened its mouth, he found a ‘stater’, a four-drachma coin, the equivalent of a silver shekel, which was the exact amount needed to pay the temple tax for both of them.

Just as a side note, some suggest that Jesus never ever touched money, the text doesn’t suggest that He did here, even in Matthew 22:18-22, the text suggests that He didn’t touch the money which was brought to Him, He simply just asked to see it.

Jesus could have chosen not to pay the temple tax as He had no legal obligation to do so, however, He did pay for the sake of peace and I think we can learn a simple lesson of humility from Him. There are times we too can avoid some unnecessary conflict with people if we’re wise enough to choose to do so.

Sometimes we’re so eager to stand up for what’s right and our rights, we actually end up causing more harm than good and so, in other words, winning the battle doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve won the war, Romans 12:18.

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