Confraternity Bible: New Testament and Supplemental Commentary

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MATTHEW - Chapter 17

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Matthew 17

Supplemental Commentary:

I.  PUBLIC MINISTRY OF JESUS   3-25 (continued)

4.  Ministry Mostly in the Regions Bordering on Galilee  15, 21 -- 18, 35 (continued)

17, 1-8:  Jesus Transfigured.  Parallels in Mark 9, 1-7 and Luke 9, 28-36.    1.  After six days: so also in Mark; this is most probably according to the Hebrew way of reckoning and means "on the sixth day after the preceding."  See Commentary on 12, 40.  Therefore Luke's "About eight days after these words" is only a rough calculation meaning "about a week later."  All three Evangelists indicate the interval of time in order to show that this event was intimately connected with the events at Caesarea Philippi: Peter's Confession, the Passion Foretold and the Doctrine of the Cross.  "The principal purpose of the Transfiguration was to remove from the hearts of the disciples the scandal of the Cross" (St. Leo the Great).  Therefore the same three Apostles who were to witness Christ's hour of humiliation in the garden of Gethsemani, were now chosen to be the special witnesses of His divine glory.  Cf. also Mark 5, 37.

A high mountain: St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 386) was the first to identify this mountain with Mount Thabor.  Since that time tradition has known no other site for the Transfiguration.  However, certain objections, not all of equal value, are raised against this traditional identification which render it somewhat doubtful.  The main objections are: (a) Thabor was considered a part of Galilee; but according to Matt. 17, 21; Mark 9, 26 it would seem that Jesus and the disciples did not return to Galilee until after the Transfiguration.  (b) None of the Evangelists give a name to the mountain.  This would seem to exclude both Thabor and Hermon, for Matthew especially would have pointed out the connection with the well known words of Ps. 88, 13, "Thabor and Hermon will rejoice in thy name," if the event had taken place on either of such famous mountains.  It is possible, moreover, that these words might have given rise to the fourth century tradition.  (c) The place was a high mountain.  Thabor is an isolated peak rising some one thousand six hundred and fifty feet above the surrounding plain of Esdraelon and somewhat less then two thousand feet above sea-level.  But among the mountains of Palestine this would not be considered as extraordinarily high.  Hermon is some nine thousand feet in height.  (d) Both at the time of Antiochus the Great (218 B.C.) and during the Jewish rebellion against Rome (64 A.D.) the top of Thabor was occupied by a town and a fortress.  The top of Hermon on the other hand is snow-clad almost all the year.  But none of the Evangelists speak of the Transfiguration as taking place on the "top" of the mountain.    2.  He was transfigured: more than a mere external change in appearance is indicated; the Greek word used here (from which we get our word "metamorphosis") means "His form was changed."  This is to be compared with Phil. 2, 6 f (literally according to the Greek): "Being in the form of God . . . he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave."  That is, at the Incarnation Christ hid His divine glory; at the Transfiguration He allowed this divine glory to shine forth for a brief moment.  St. Peter considered the Transfiguration of Jesus one of the strongest proofs of His divinity (cf. 2 Pet. 1, 16-18).  Possibly St. John, another witness of the event, is also referring to the Transfiguration when he writes, "We saw his glory---glory as of the only-begotten of the Father" (1, 14b).  White as snow: the Greek has, "White as light"; some early Latin copyist confused the two Latin words "lux, light" and "nix, snow."  All the Evangelists stress the dazzling brightness of the transfigured Christ.    3.  Moses and Elias represent the Law and the Prophets, i.e., the Old Testament.  Luke adds that they "spoke of his death."  This was to teach the Apostles that Christ's sufferings and death were foretold in the Old Testament.  For the other interesting items given only by St. Luke, see Commentary there.    4.  It is good for us to be here: this is most probably the sense of the Greek which is literally, "It is good that we are here"; the sense is hardly, "It is a good thing we are here for now we can quickly put up three huts of boughs," etc. (Lagrange).  It is rather futile to inquire what purpose Peter had in mind in making this proposal, "for he did not know what he said" (Mark and Luke).    5.  The bright cloud symbolizes the special presence of God, known technically as the "Shekinah"; cf. the cloud which covered Mount Sinai (Ex. 24, 15 ff), the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 40, 32 ff), and Solomon's temple (3 Kgs. 8, 10-12).  Compare the voice from heaven at the Baptism of Jesus (3, 17 and parallels).  Both in classical literature and in the Septuagint the Greek word that is here translated as beloved means "only"; the Greek Fathers rightly used this text against the Arians, arguing that if Jesus was the "only Son" of God He was not merely "a son of God" in the sense of "a man especially chosen by God" but was truly divine, having the same nature as the Father.  In whom I am well pleased: only in Matthew here, but all three Evangelists have the expression at the Baptism of Christ.  Hear him, with the emphasis on him: Christ now supplants Moses and Elias, i.e., the Law and the Prophets, as the teacher of God's will.    8.  Jesus only: Moses and Elias disappear to signify the passing of the Old Covenant.

17, 9-13:  On the Coming of Elias.  Parallel in Mark 9, 8-12.    9.  Probably one of the reasons why Jesus wished the Transfiguration to remain a secret for the time being, was the same as the reason why He wished most of His miracles to remain secret.  See Commentary on 8, 4.  But it is to be noted that not even the other Apostles are to be told about the Transfiguration till the Son of man has risen from the dead, i.e., until Jesus has permanently assumed the glory of His divinity which He manifested briefly on the mountain.  Luke, who has nothing else of this paragraph, mentions the fact that these three Apostles carried out this command of the Lord (cf. Luke 9, 36b).  Cf. also Mark 9, 9a.  The vision: literally "the thing seen"; cf. Mark, "what they had seen."  The word vision in no way implies a denial of the objective reality of the Transfiguration.    10.  What induced the disciples to ask this question?  Evidently the sight of Elias at the Transfiguration started the train of thought, but the exact purpose of the question is uncertain.

11.  The common belief that Elias will come in person before the Second Coming of Christ at the end of the world is based on this verse; it receives no other support in the New Testament.  But the sense of this verse is probably, "The Scribes say truly that Elias is to come and restore all things before the (first) coming of the Messias, but I say to you, i.e., I (as contrasted with the Scribes) explain the true meaning of this prophecy to you, that Elias has come already."  Our Lord clearly means that the prophecy of the coming of Elias was already completely fulfilled in the ministry of the Baptist.  See Commentary on 11, 14.    12.  They did to him whatever they wished: i.e., they killed him.  On the expression itself, cf. Luke 23, 25b.  The they need not refer solely to the Scribes; it is the indefinite "they," i.e., people in general, here meaning Herod in particular.  The reason why Jesus then refers to His own coming sufferings is clear from Mark who mentions the fact that the disciples had also asked Christ what He meant by saying, "Till the Son of Man has risen from the dead."  See Commentary on Mark 9, 9-12.    13.  This correct explanatory note is added only by Matthew, not by Mark.

17, 14-20:  A Possessed Boy.  Parallels in Mark 9, 13-28 (where a much more complete account of this event is given) and Luke 9, 37-44a.    14.  The scene need not have been at the very foot of the mountain of the Transfiguration.  Lunatic is a literal translation of the original Greek and Latin word used here, but at that time lunacy was the name given to any mental or nervous disorders which occurred at more or less regular intervals and were therefore attributed to the changes of the moon (luna).  From the description of the boy's symptoms, especially in the detailed account of Mark, it seems certain that he was suffering from epilepsy.  In this case the nervous disease was accompanied or even caused by diabolical possession.    15.  Although Christ had given His disciples the power to cast out devils (cf. 10, 1.8), still their faith was not strong enough to effect a cure in this case (cf. 19).    16.  Christ's cry of impatience was addressed to all present, the crowd, the Scribes, the father of the epileptic and the disciples.  Unbelieving, at least in regard to the disciples, means "of little faith" (19).    18.  Privately: according to Mark, Christ and the disciples had entered a house in the neighborhood.    19.  Cf. 21, 21; Mark 11, 23; Luke 17, 6.  On the mustard seed as the symbol of something very small, cf. 13, 31.    20.  This verse is missing from some of the best Greek manuscripts; perhaps it was taken over into the First Gospel from the Second, where, however, these same manuscripts omit the words and fasting.

17, 21-22: The Second Prediction of the Passion.  Parallels in Mark 9, 29-31 and Luke 9, 44b-45.  The little band assembles in Galilee for the last time prior to the final journey to Jerusalem.  For the first and the third predictions of the Passion, cf. 16, 21-23; 20, 17-19; and parallels.  The new element in this prediction is that the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of men.  The disciples grasped the general sense that great afflictions were awaiting their Master, so that they were exceedingly sorry; but the exact meaning of Christ's words about the betrayal "was hidden from them" and "they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him" (cf. Mark and Luke).

17, 23-26:  Paying the Temple Tax.  Only in Matthew.    23.  This is the last visit of Jesus to Capharnaum; apparently all the events up to 19, 1 take place in that town (cf. Mark 9, 32; 10, 1).  The didrachma, i.e., the coin worth two drachmas (two denarii), was considered equivalent to the Old Testament half-shekel.  The half-shekel was the annual poll-tax imposed on every Jewish man who was twenty years old or older, the money being used for the maintenance of the temple.  To pay the didrachma was therefore a popular expression meaning "to pay the temple tax."  The earliest mention of half-shekel tax for the sanctuary is in Ex. 30, 11-16.  But apparently it was not a regular feature of Jewish life until the time of Nehemias (cf. 2 Esdr. 10, 32 f), when, however, the impoverished Jews could pay only a third of a shekel each year.  This tax fell due shortly after the Passover.  But since Christ had left Galilee at about the Passover, i.e., shortly after the first multiplication of the loaves (cp. 14, 13 ff; 15, 21 with John 6, 4), He and His disciples had not yet paid the tax and now it was long overdue.  When the tax-collector at Capharnaum reminds Peter of the obligation, Peter answers without hesitation that his Master certainly keeps this law and pays the tax.    24.  Jesus was apparently in the house while this conversation between the tax-collector and Peter was taking place outside, but He knew of it by His supernatural knowledge.  Tribute or customs: in Greek the first of these words signifies the excise tax or custom-duty paid on merchandise; the second word, the direct tax on persons (poll-tax) and on property.    25 f.  Since a king's son does not pay taxes to his father, so also Jesus, the Son of God, is under no obligation to pay taxes for the upkeep of His Father's house.    26.  This is the only reference in the New Testament to angling with a hook and line.  Fish have been found with almost every conceivable small object in their stomachs.  Therefore there need not be anything miraculous in the fact that a fish has a stater in its mouth.  But the fact that this extraordinary thing should have occurred just when Jesus predicted it, is certainly supernatural, and shows a special disposition of divine Providence.  A stater was a coin worth two didrachma; therefore just enough to pay the tax both for Jesus and for Peter.  The actual carrying out of Christ's command is not mentioned, but of course there would be no point to telling this story unless Peter really caught the fish with the stater.

Confraternity Bible:

Jesus Transfigured  1 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James and his brother John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves, 2 and was transfigured before them.  And his face shone as the sun, and his garments became white as snow.  3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elias talking together with him.  4 Then Peter addressed Jesus, saying, "Lord, it is good for us to be here.  If thou wilt, let us set up three tents here, one for thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias."  5 As he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear him."  6 And on hearing it the disciples fell on their faces and were exceedingly afraid.  7 And Jesus came near and touched them, and said to them, "Arise, and do not be afraid."  8 But lifting up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.

On the Coming of Elias  9 And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus cautioned them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one, till the Son of Man has risen from the dead."  10 And the disciples asked him, saying, "Why then do the Scribes say that Elias must come first?"  11 But he answered and said, "Elias indeed is to come and will restore all things.  12 But I say to you that Elias has come already, and they did not know him, but did to him whatever they wished.  So also shall the Son of Man suffer at their hands."  13 Then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them of John the Baptist.

A Boy Possessed by a Devil  14 And when he had come to the crowd, a man approached him and threw himself on his knees before him, saying, "Lord, have pity on my son, for he is a lunatic, and suffers severely; for often he falls into the fire, and often into the water.  15 And I brought him to thy disciples, but they could not cure him."

16 Jesus answered and said, "O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you?  How long shall I put up with you?  Bring him here to me."  17 And Jesus rebuked him, and the devil went out of him; and from that moment the boy was cured.

18 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could not we cast it out?"  19* He said to them, "Because of your little faith; for amen I say to you, if you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Remove from here'; and it will remove.  And nothing will be impossible to you.  20 But this kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting."

21 Now while they were together in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of men, 22 and they will kill him; and on the third day he will rise again."  And they were exceedingly sorry.

Paying the Temple Tax  23 And when they had come to Capharnaum, those who were collecting the didrachma came to Peter, and said, "Does your Master not pay the didrachma?"  24* He said, "Yes."  But when he had entered the house, Jesus spoke first, saying, "What dost thou think, Simon?  From whom do the kings of the earth receive tribute or customs; from their own sons, or from others?"  25* And he said, "From others."  Jesus said to him, "The sons then are exempt.  26* But that we may not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up.  And opening its mouth thou wilt find a stater; take that and give it to them for me and for thee."


19: The hyperbole seems to be traditional.  Job says that God "has removed mountains" (9, 5); and in the Psalms we read that "the mountains shall be removed" (45, 3).

24-26: Ex. 30, 13 required the paying of this tax for the temple.  Our Lord as Son of God might claim exemption; He submits to the Law only to avoid scandal.