Gospel of Matthew Chapter Seventeen Commentary by
Pastor Ron Beckham
Verses 1-3: "Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him." You might call it a thin "membrane" that separates us from eternity. Another, higher universe surrounds us, as presented here in these verses. The world we live in is reality, but there is a much higher, more substantial reality we shall all see. As Asaph put it in Psalm 73:20, when we are suddenly in that new, greater place, this whole life we are in now will be "as a dream when one awakes." And there is always purpose in what we are allowed to see and what we are—for now—not to see. This Transfiguration event is actually a continuation of Matthew 16:28—the disciples, as represented by Peter in 16:23, didn't want to believe that the Lord would be "killed and raised again" (16:21). Peter, and through him the others, were rebuked by the Lord, but here they are, alive and seeing the Son of Man in His kingdom (16:28). Do you sometimes feel rebuked by the Lord? This Peter, called "Satan" by the Lord in 16:23, is one of the three allowed by the Lord to enter through the "membrane" of eternity and be a part of Jesus' conversation with Moses and Elijah. Notice that Moses and Elijah are alive, animated, aware and able to function—then and now. And do you wonder how Peter, James and John knew who these men were? It's very likely that the Lord's spoken words at that moment included: "Shalom, Moses" and "Ma chadash, Elijah." They heard, they saw, and they knew.
Verses 4-5: "Peter said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.' 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, 'This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!'" We all differ in our responses to stress. Peter was a person who talked a lot as a means of dealing with fear, and he also tried to find emotional stability by attempting to "fix" what he saw as a problem. He needed to SAY something and DO anything—like making unnecessary tents! And then God the Father spoke, with words Peter later recalled in 2 Peter 1:16-18—"This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," a letter in which Peter correctly described himself and the other disciples as "eyewitnesses of His majesty."
Verses 6-8: "When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. 7 And Jesus came to them and touched them and said,'Get up, and do not be afraid.' 8 And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone." Often in life we find that words aren't enough, actions won't fix the problem, and like the other two disciples, being quiet doesn't help, either. There's nothing to do or not do. God is bigger and more omnipresent than we thought, He is right HERE, not merely out there somewhere, and as it often happened to God's prophets in Scripture, the three disciples passed out cold and fell to the ground. John later "fell at His feet as dead" when he saw the Risen Christ (Revelation 1:17), and Ezekiel "fell on his face" (Ezekiel 1:28). God is glorious to the extent that to lose consciousness because of Him is actually quite reasonable. Peter, James and John were beginning to believe, they actually SAW, and they were "terrified" by this event. As David said, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10). In the midst of YOUR fear, the Lord Jesus is with you, whispering the words, "Do not be afraid," in your heart and mind. You and your life are being transfigured as well—you are loved.
Verse 9: "As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying,'Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.'" Can you imagine seeing Jesus in His glory, meeting Moses and Elijah in person, hearing the voice of the Father, being reminded that Jesus would die and then be raised from the dead, and then being told: "Don't tell anybody?" As Peter, James and John descended that mountain with Jesus, did they wonder, "Can we tell the others?" There are things to be revealed to you in a unique way that only you will fully believe and understand. If you are to keep it to yourself for now, can you do it?
Verses 10-13: "And His disciples asked Him, 'Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?' 11 And He answered and said,'Elijah is coming and will restore all things; 12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.' 13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist." The Hebrews of that time were in the habit of receiving instruction about Old Testament Scriptures from religious leaders such as the "scribes." Actually, the information about the appearance of Elijah is found in Malachi 4:5—"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord." Here He says "Elijah is coming," and also, "Elijah already came." The disciples grasped that He was speaking about John the Baptist and asked no more questions for the moment. We should also note Luke 1:17, stating that John the Baptist would appear "in the spirit and power of Elijah."
Verses 14-18: "When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying, 15 'Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.' 17 And Jesus answered and said,'You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.' 18 And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once." Our Lord Jesus Christ has perfect, infinite faith. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are God, completely trust and love one another. God is not like us, for we are somewhat like automobile engines that aren't firing on all cylinders. Jesus was not annoyed with the man who sought a healing for his son. He was instead concerned for His disciples. You may recall Matthew 10:1, when He gave them "power over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease." They had the power to heal the man's son, but they also had unbelief and that is why Jesus was upset. What power has been given to us? And why don't we use it?
Verses 19-21: "Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, 'Why could we not drive it out?' 20 And He said to them,'Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. 21 (But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.)'" The disease called "unbelief" is opposed to faith, and faith is the cure for unbelief. The disciples had been given the gift (Matthew 10:1), but as it is true for so many today, their unbelief was greater than any willingness to trust in the Lord. A little faith moves a lot of mountains because faith sees that it is not you or I who do it, but the Lord can and will do what we think is impossible. We are to pray to the Lord, who CAN do it. And to fast is more than just going without food. In Isaiah 58:6, God spoke through the prophet: "Is this not the fast that I have chosen, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke?... share your bread with the hungry... bring to your house the poor... the naked that you cover him, and not hide yourself from your own flesh?" That's what real fasting is all about in the sight of God.
Verses 22-23: "And while they were gathering together in Galilee, Jesus said to them,'The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; 23 and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.'And they were deeply grieved." Here it was again—one shock after another for the disciples of Jesus. You might think, "If only I understood more about God... If only I could see Him..." Maybe that would be good for you, or it might be that He is protecting you from information you not ready to receive. The disciples were ready, just barely. They all gave up their lives to follow Jesus, and now they heard again that their Leader was leaving them. They were horrified that some "men," whoever they were, would take Him and kill Him, but they didn't catch the part where He would be raised from the dead. And they didn't get it that all this was necessary in order to save us and them from sin and death. Not yet.
Verses 24-27: "When they came to Capernaum, those who collected the two-drachma tax came to Peter and said, 'Does your teacher not pay the two-drachma tax?' 25 He said, 'Yes.' And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying,'What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect customs or poll-tax, from their sons or from strangers?' 26 When Peter said, 'From strangers,' Jesus said to him,'Then the sons are exempt. 27 However, so that we do not offend them, go to the sea and throw in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for you and Me.'" Decades ago, when I worked for the Court system, a criminal case came before the Court in which the defendant, who was accused of robbery, stated that he was innocent on the ground that property ownership was a fiction—he felt the items he took after the store closed were reasonably his... The judge did not agree with him and the man went to jail. Here Jesus makes three excellent points: 1) "The sons are exempt," for as God's children, we are not bound by earthly rules and regulations. 2) We pay taxes and other human obligations anyway—and Romans 13:1-2 expresses it this way—"Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities..." And 3) We don't need to worry because the Lord amply provides for those who trust in Him. I live in an inherited house I did not pay for because of God's provision, and I pay the taxes on that house and other expenses as God provides for me. My income is not large, but God makes it enough. Our lives are being transfigured—because He loves you and me.
Lord, I thank You for the work you are doing in my life. I'm being changed, and yes it's unsettling, but it's also good. I like what You are doing and I thank You. I am Yours, Lord—I trust in You. In Jesus Name. Amen.