Matthew 17


We’ve been working our way through the gospel of Matthew since this time last year. And we come today to chapter 17 and to the account of the Lord’s transfiguration.

Many of the commentators take it for granted that when the Lord was transfigured like this he was briefly displaying his true nature as the Eternal Son of God. That is to say: the glory of God was revealed when the Lord Jesus was transfigured. However, there are others who say that the transfiguration was a foretaste or a preview of the glory which Christ would possess as the Son of Man after his resurrection from the dead and his ascension to heaven. So, the transfiguration was not a revelation of Christ’s deity, but it was a revelation of the glory he would possess as the resurrected Saviour of the world, who now appears in heaven as one of us. And since it’s a revelation of Christ’s resurrected glory, then the transfiguration is a foretaste or a preview of the glory that will be ours when we are raised from the dead and brought into the presence of God.

And that’s the view I take, because the account of the transfiguration is preceded and succeeded by announcements concerning his resurrection. In verse 21 of chapter 16, he announced to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things; and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. And in verse 23 of chapter 17, he announced to his disciples that he would be killed and then, on the third day, he will be raised to life. And so, before he was transfigured, he spoke of his resurrection. And after he was transfigured, he spoke of his resurrection. That suggests that the transfiguration is connected to his resurrection from the dead.

Furthermore, the account of the transfiguration and the way the Lord’s appearance changed recalls what we read in Daniel 7 where Daniel tells us about a vision he received. And in his vision Daniel saw ‘one like a son of man’ who approached the Ancient of Days in heaven; and he was given authority and glory and sovereign power; and all peoples and nations and men of every language worshipped him. Daniel was seeing into the future and he was seeing the Lord Jesus after his death and resurrection and his ascension to heaven as one of us where he received authority and glory and power from the Father. Daniel saw one like a son of man, receiving glory from God.

And then what we read in Matthew’s gospel about the Lord’s transfigured appearance matches what we read about the Lord Jesus in Revelation 1 where John had a vision of heaven and he saw ‘someone like a son of man’ whose head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were like blazing fire; and his feet with like bronze glowing in a furnace; and his face was like the sun, shining in all its brillance. John was seeing the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, who was standing in heaven as one of us, but he was glorified in the presence of God.

As we were thinking about over Christmas, the Lord Jesus Christ is God’s Only Begotten Son, who possesses the same divine essence as the Father and the Spirit so that they are one God and the same in glory and honour and power. As God, Jesus Christ is infinitely and eternally and unchangeably glorious. But God the Son became one of us when he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and was born of the virgin Mary. And so, he became flesh and lived among us as a man. And it was a life of sorrow and suffering and weakness and humility, because he hungered and thirsted as we do; and he became tired and weary as we do; and he suffered as we do. Yes, he was able to perform great and mighty miracles, but he performed those great and mighty miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit whom he had received without measure from the Father. So, he performed those miracles by the Spirit of God. But he himself was weak, because he was like us in every way apart from sin.

And so, his life among us was a life of sorrow and suffering and weakness. But after his resurrection from the dead, he received authority and glory and power from God. That’s how Daniel put it. Or, as the Lord Jesus put it himself at the end of Matthew’s gospel: all authority in heaven and on earth was given to him. So, he is now enthroned in heaven as one of us.

When God made us in the beginning, he made us to rule over the earth on God’s behalf. But because of Adam’s sin, we are no longer rulers, but we are ruled over by sin and Satan and death. But because of his perfect obedience, even to the point of death on the cross, the Lord Jesus now rules over all on God’s behalf. And all who belong to Christ by faith will rule with him over the new and better world to come.

And the Lord’s transfiguration was a foretaste or a preview of the glory which he now possesses in heaven and which we will also possess when we are raised from the dead to rule with him over all. Paul speaks of this at the end of Philippians 3, where he says that the Lord Jesus will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Verses 1 to 8

Having said that, let’s turn to the passage and to verse 1 where Matthew tells us that six days later Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves. Some of the commentators say this recalls what happened in the days of Moses when Moses ascended Mount Sinai where God spoke to him. And so, just as God once spoke to Moses on a high mountain, so now he speaks to the Lord Jesus on a high mountain. The Lord Jesus is a new and better Moses.

And we’re told in verse 2 that there, on the high mountain, he was transfigured before them. And Matthew goes on to explain what that means. It means his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light. And so, his human appearance was radically changed. Mark tells us that his clothes became whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And as one writer puts it (Weinandy), the sun is the most brilliant, dazzling and luminous light that we experience. And that’s how the Lord’s face appeared to his disciples when he was transfigured. And, as I’ve already said, it matches John’s description of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus in Revelation 1.

And then, there also appeared before the disciples Moses and Elijah. And they were talking with Jesus. Moses was the great leader of God’s people who led them out of Egypt and across the wilderness. And he was the one who spoke to the Lord face to face. Elijah was the great prophet of the Lord in Old Testament times. And both men appeared before the Lord on a high mountain, because Moses spoke to the Lord on Mount Sinai and the Lord appeared to Elijah on Mount Horeb which was another name for Sinai. And here they are now, on another high mountain, with the Lord Jesus.

And before we go any further, we should note how remarkable this is that they should appear alive and talking to the Lord Jesus, because didn’t Moses die hundreds of years previously? And while Elijah did not die, but he was taken up alive into heaven, nevertheless that too happened hundreds of years previously. And so, while one had died and the other had been taken from the earth, here they are now, alive, and talking with the Lord Jesus. This makes clear to us that our life does not end when we die, because while our bodies may be buried in the ground, as Moses’s body was buried in the ground, our souls go to be with the Lord. So, there’s this life and there’s the life to come. And we believe that after the Lord’s return, those who died will be reunited with their bodies; and all who trusted in Christ in this life will live with him in body and in soul in the life to come. And we have this great hope because of Christ who died but who was raised and who gives eternal life to all who believe in him.

Matthew tells us in verse 4 that Peter offered to make three shelters for the Lord and Moses and Elijah. It seems an odd thing for him to suggest; and Mark and Luke seem to acknowledge this, because they explain in their gospels that Peter didn’t know what to say. But before he had a chance to say anything else, a bright cloud enveloped them. This was God’s glory-cloud which signified the presence of God in Old Testament times. And it signified the same thing here, because the voice of God came from the cloud and God the Father spoke and said about the Lord Jesus:

This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!

I’ve explained before that, in Matthew’s gospel, the Lord Jesus is the Son of God in two senses. He’s the Eternal Son of God, God’s Only Begotten Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. But he’s also the Son of God in another sense, because in Old Testament times, God regarded the people of Israel collectively as his son. But they were a disobedient son. For instance, when they were in the wilderness in the days of Moses, they disobeyed God repeatedly. And so, Israel was God’s Son, but they were disobedient. However, the Lord Jesus is God’s obedient Son. Unlike the Israelites who disobeyed God in the wilderness, the Lord Jesus remained obedient to God when he was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness. Israel was God’s disobedient son, whereas the Lord Jesus is God’s obedient Son.

And so, the Lord Jesus is God’s Son in those two ways. And it’s possible that both senses of the word Son are intended here. Since he’s God’s obedient Son, then God is well-pleased with him. But since he’s also God’s Eternal Son, they should listen to him. In the past, God spoke to his people in many and various ways through the prophets like Moses and Elijah. But now he speaks to us by his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the image of the invisible God and the exact imprint of his being.

And since Jesus is God the Son, then we ought to listen to him, because he’s able to reveal God to us and to make known to us God’s willingness to pardon our sins and to give eternal life to all who believe. So, just as God’s people had to listen to Moses, and just as they had to listen to Elijah, now we must listen to the Lord Jesus, who is the Word of God who tells us about God.

And when the disciples heard God the Father speaking, they fell face down to the ground, because they were terrified. And who would not be terrified to hear the voice of God speaking from his glory-cloud? But notice now the gentleness of the Saviour, because he came and touched them and told them to get up and not to be afraid. Again, this recalls what we read in Revelation 1, because when John saw the glory of the Risen and Exalted Lord Jesus, he fell down as though dead. And the Lord Jesus touched John and said to him, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The Lord Jesus is gentle and kind towards his people. And when the disciples looked up, they saw no-one except Jesus. Moses had gone. Elijah had gone. God’s glory-cloud had gone. And presumably the Lord’s appearance had gone back to normal. The transfiguration was over.

Verses 9 to 13

And on the way down the mountain, the Lord instructed the disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after his resurrection from the dead. And since he mentions the resurrection, the disciples ask him about Elijah. They want to know why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first? In other words, why must Elijah come before the resurrection of the dead on the last day?

The teachers of the law said this because this is what God’s word says. In Malachi 4, God promised that Elijah will come before the great day of the Lord. So, right before the last day at the end of the age, and right before the resurrection, Elijah will appear. That’s what the disciples are asking the Lord about.

And the Lord explained that Elijah has already come. He has come in the form of John the Baptist, because didn’t the angel explain to John’s father that John would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah? And so, the coming of John the Baptist was the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy. And the Lord Jesus went on to say that when John came, they did not recognise him and they did to him everything they wished. He means that the people rejected him and King Herod had him killed. And in the same way, he — the Son of Man — will also suffer at their hands. So, just as John was rejected and killed, so the Lord will be rejected and killed.

And this little conversation is important for two reasons. It’s important because the Lord once again makes clear that though he is the Christ — God’s Anointed King sent to save God’s people — he cannot save us without suffering. It is God’s will for him to suffer, because the only way to save us from the punishment we deserve is for him to suffer and to die on our behalf.

But it’s also important because what the Lord says about Elijah means that we’re living in the last days. God said Elijah would come before the last day at the end of the age. And since Elijah has come in the form of John the Baptist, then that means the end is near. We’re living in the last days. We’re living in the last days because God has already sent Elijah to prepare the way of the Lord.

And not only has Elijah come, but God has come in the person of his Son to give up his life on the cross for our salvation. And God will come again in the person of his Son to punish the wicked and to gather his people for eternal life. And so, the coming of John the Baptist in the spirit and power of Elijah means that the last days have begun and the end is in sight.

Verses 14 to 23

And when the Lord comes again, he will destroy the Devil and all his demons. And as a preview of that, we have the little story in verses 14 to 23. When the Lord and James and John and Peter came down the mountain, they came across a crowd. And a man approached the Lord and knelt before him to ask the Lord for mercy for his son. And the boy’s father described what was wrong with his son and the seizures he suffered and how he suffered greatly. He often fell into the fire and into the water, presumably when a seizure took hold of him.

Many of the commentators suggest that the boy was suffering from epilepsy. However, the Lord makes clear that this was not only a physical problem, but it was also a spiritual problem. His suffering was physical, but it was caused by a demon. The boy was demon-possessed and it was the demon who caused him to suffer these seizures.

And the boy’s father went on to say that he brought his boy to the Lord’s disciples, but they could not heal him. And the Lord responded by referring to this unbelieving and perverse generation. No doubt he’s referring to the people generally, but he’s perhaps referring especially to his disciples, because in verse 20 he explained that their failure to drive out the demon was because of their little faith. One of the commentators (Carson) suggests that the word translated ‘little faith’ should perhaps be translated ‘poverty of faith’. Little faith, or faith like a mustard seed, is effective and can move mountains, because the person with little faith is still trusting in Almighty God who can do all things. But poor faith is ineffective, because the person with poor faith is trusting in the wrong thing. So, perhaps the disciples were not trusting in God when they tried to help the boy. Perhaps they were trusting in themselves and in their own ability. Their attitude may have been: we’ve done it before and we can do it again. But instead of relying on themselves, they needed to rely on God and in his mighty power.

And what was impossible for the disciples because of the poverty of their faith, was easy for the Lord. All he had to do in verse 18 was rebuke the demon and the demon left the boy. And by rebuking the demon and by healing the boy, the Lord gave a foretaste of what he will do when he comes again on the last day at the end of the age. He will come in glory and with power and with all his angels to defeat the Devil and all who sided with him against God. And the Devil and his people will be cast into the lake of fire to be punished night and day forever and forever. And so, they will be punished for their rebellion when Christ comes again.

And just as the boy was healed, so all of God’s people will be healed when Christ comes again. On that day, he will set us free from everything that hurts us and harms us and makes us weep. And so, the Devil and his demons will no longer hurt us; and there will be no more sickness or disease or death when Christ comes again, but we will live with him in perfect peace and rest and in that fullness of joy which he has prepared for us.

And the reason we can look forward to these things is because of Christ our Saviour who is the Son of Man who, according to verse 22, was betrayed into the hands of men who killed him when they nailed him to the cross. And yet his suffering and death means peace and life for all who believe, because he was pierced for our transgressions; and he was wounded for our iniquities; and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him; and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray and we all deserve to be condemned and punished. And yet, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all, so that all who believe have peace with God.

And then, after the Son of Man was killed, he was raised on the third day and he promises everlasting life to his people.

Verses 24 to 27

And so we turn to the final part of today’s passage. Some people who collected the temple tax came to Peter to ask whether the Lord Jesus paid the tax. This was a tax to help with the upkeep of the temple.

Peter replied that he did. But the Lord later asked him whether or not he was required to pay the temple tax. And he used an analogy to make the point that he was not required to pay it. So, do the sons of kings have to pay tax? No, they don’t. At least, they didn’t have to in those days, because the tax went to the king and their sons were exempt. And if the sons of kings were exempt from paying tax to the king, then he — the Son of God — was exempt from paying the temple tax which was for the upkeep of God’s temple.

So, since he’s God’s Son, then he is exempt. And when the Lord said that ‘the sons are exempt’, he referring not only to himself, but to his disciples. They too are sons of God and are therefore exempt from paying the tax. However, instead of insisting on their rights, the Lord told Peter to catch a fish and in its mouth there will be a coin for Peter to use to pay his and the Lord’s tax.

And we too are sons and daughters of God, because we have been adopted into God’s family by faith. God therefore regards us as his children and we are able to call him ‘Father’. And what a privilege it is for us to call God ‘Father’, because it means we can look to him for all that we need. In fact, instead of taking from us, as earthly rulers do when they ask us for tax, God our Father fills our lives with one good thing after another.

And another thing to say is that God’s children don’t need to pay the temple tax (though we are required to pay other forms of tax), because we no longer need a temple in Jerusalem and we no longer need to offer up animal sacrifices for our sins in the temple. We don’t need to a temple for sacrifices, because the Lord Jesus offered up himself as the once-for-all, perfect sacrifice for our sins. He paid for our sins with his life and he shed his blood to cleanse us. And as we gather around the Lord’s Table on Sunday, we do so to remember how he sacrificed himself for us and for our salvation. And we should give thanks to God for him, because he suffered for us before being raised from the dead. And because of him, and his suffering, we know that the day is coming when we too will be raised from the dead; and all our suffering will then be over and the Devil and his demons will never hurt us again; and we’ll share Christ’s glory forever, because he will transform our lowly and weak bodies and he will make us like his glorious body and we will rule with him forever, which was always God’s plan for us.