William Kelly Major Works Commentary
And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,Matthew Chapter 17
Our previous chapter has shown us Jesus rejected as Christ or Messiah, confessed as the Son of the living God, and about to return in glory as the Son of Man. But along with the glory in which He is to come and reward each according to his works, we have His suffering: not merely rejection, but His being put to death - raised the third day indeed, but still the suffering Son of Man, and to return in glory. Following up the subject of His Father's glory, in which He declares He is to come with His angels and judge in His kingdom, we have now a picture given on the holy mount - a striking picture in a twofold point of view. The glory, as we saw, of the kingdom depends upon His being the Son of Man, the exalted Man who had erst suffered, and in whose hands all glory is committed - who had at every cost retrieved the honour of God, and is to make effectual the blessing of man; who, by virtue of His suffering, has already brought to naught the power of Satan for those who believe, and who eventually, when the kingdom comes, is to expel Satan altogether, and bring in that for which God has been waiting - a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world. Accordingly, "After six days" (type of the ordinary term of work here below), "Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart" (ver. 1). That is, He takes chosen witnesses; for it was merely a testimony to the kingdom - the sample of what He had referred to when He said, "There be some standing here which shall not taste of death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom."
The point there is the Son of Man coming, rather than the kingdom itself; and what follows in our chapter is only a partial illustration of the glory of the rejected Son of Man. Partial though it be, nothing could be more blessed, save the kingdom itself; and faith brings us into a very real present realizing of that which is to be. It is "the substantiating of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." The kingdom, of which our Lord spoke, is not yet arrived, of course. When it is said, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," He speaks of a kingdom which we do enter now. For John does not present it as a thing of mere outward manifestation, but gives a deeper revelation of the kingdom, true now, into which every one that is born of God comes, and which shall yet be displayed in its heavenly and its earthly power. But Matthew, who takes up the Jewish part, or Old Testament predictions of the kingdom, sketches us the presentation of the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.
The Lord, accordingly, takes these disciples "up into a high mountain apart, and was transfigured before them. And His face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as the light." The sun is the image of supreme glory, as that which rules the day. "And behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with Him" - Moses, by whom the law was given, and Elias, the grand sample of the prophets, who recalled the people to the law of Jehovah. They were thus the pillars of the Jewish system, to whom every true Israelite looked back with the deepest feelings of reverence: one of them singled out as the only Jew taken to heaven, without passing through death; the other, lest he should become an object of worship after his death, having the singular honour of being buried by Jehovah. These two appear in the presence of our Lord. They were known to be Moses and Elias: there seems to have been no difficulty in recognizing them. So, in the resurrection-state, the distinction of persons will be kept up thoroughly. There will be no such thing as that kind of sameness which blots out the peculiarities of each. Though earthly relationships shall have passed away, and no peculiar earthly links which connected one with another on earth will survive, in heaven, yet each will retain his own individuality - with this mighty difference, of course, that all saints will bear the image of the heavenly; for while in the body we all resemble fallen Adam now, yet we are not all lost in one common indistinguishable throng. We each have our own proper character and our peculiar conformation of body. So in glory each will be known for what he is. Moses and Elias are seen as glorified, but as Moses and Elias still; and the Lord is transfigured in their midst. "Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If Thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles, one for Thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias" - showing that he perfectly well knew which was which. "While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and, behold, a voice out of the cloud which said, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye Him" (vers. 4, 5).
Herein, I conceive, lies the depth of the whole passage. Peter, meaning to do honour to his Master, but in a human way - still savouring in a measure the things of men and not of God - proposes to put his Master on common ground with the heads of the law and of the prophets. But it must not be. Whatever might be the honour of Moses, whatever the special charge of Elias, who were they, and what, in the presence of the Son of God? The Son may make nothing of Himself; but the Father loves the Son. Peter would put Him on a level with the most honoured of mankind; but the Father's purpose is that every knee shall bow to Him - that all men shall honour the Son, even as they honour the Father. Man never does this, seeing simply man in the Son, in no adequate way honouring Him with divine homage. Faith does, for it sees God in the Son, hears God in Him, and also finds Him in the peculiarly blessed relationship with the Father. For if Jesus were conceived to be simply God, and not the Son, it would be an incomparably less blessed revelation than that which we actually have. As to ourselves, if we had a divine nature without the blessed relationship of sonship before the Father, we should lose the very sweetest part of our blessing. And it is not barely the deity of Jesus that has to be owned (though this lies at the bottom of all truth), but the eternal relationship of the Son with the Father. Not merely was He Son in this world: it is most dangerous to limit the Sonship of Christ thus, for it is from all eternity. People reason, that because He is called Son, He must have a beginning in time, subsequently to the Father. All such argumentation ought to be banished from the soul of a Christian. The Scripture doctrine has no reference to priority of time. He is called Son in respect of affection and intimate nearness of relationship. It is the pattern of the blessed place into which grace brings us through union with the Lord Jesus Christ. Though in Him, of course, there are ineffable heights and depths beyond. But if we are simple about it, we gather from it the deepest joy that is to be found in the knowledge of the true God - and that in His Son.
The Father, then, interrupts the word of Peter, and answers Himself. The bright cloud that overshadowed them, Peter knew to be the cloud of Jehovah's presence: and the Father adds, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." It is not, This is your Messiah - He was that, of course, but He brings out the grand New Testament revelation of Jesus. He reveals Him as His own beloved Son, and His unqualified delight in Him. "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear ye Him" - this last also a statement of all importance. What was Moses, and what Elias now? They are entirely left out here by the Father. I need not say that every one who knows Jesus as the Son of God would be very far from despising Moses and Elias. They who understand grace have a far deeper respect for the law than the man who muddles grace and law together. The only full way to value anything that is of God is in the intelligence of His grace. I do not understand myself nor God till I know His grace; and I cannot know His grace, except as I see it revealed in His Son. "The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ." He was full of grace and truth.
"Hear ye Him," is the Father's demand. It is no longer, Hear Moses, or Hear Elias, but "Hear ye HIM." Could anything be more startling to a Jew? All must give place to the Son. The dignity of the others is not denied, nor their due position slighted. To assert the glory of the sun in the heavens is in no way to despise the stars. God set Moses in his place, and Elias in another, as He saw fit; but what were they compared with His Son? How plain and sad that men should still be making two tabernacles - one for Moses (if not for Elias), and one for the Lord Jesus! They talk about God being the unchangeable God: but He who ordained the night made the day; and as surely as He once spake the law, He has now sent the gospel. I see here the display of the glory of God, showing out now one part of His character and now another.
This is not changing. God gives us to see His different attributes, and His various wisdom, and His infinite glory; but I must see each in its own sphere, and understand the intent for which God has given each. Moses and Elias were the two great cardinal points of the Jewish system; but now there is One who eclipses all that system - Jesus, the Son of God; and in presence of Him not even the representatives of the law or the prophets are to be heard. There is a fulness of truth that comes out in the Son of God; and if I want to understand the mind of God, as it concerns me now, I must hear Him. This was most difficult for a Jew to enter into, because His religion was based upon the law. Now, the beloved Son of God in whom the Father Himself expresses His perfect satisfaction is set before all - "Hear ye Him."
As Jesus is the object of the Father's infinite love, so He is the means of that same love reaching even to us. If I see Him to be the beloved Son of the Father, my soul rests upon Him and enters into communion with the Father. "Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ." What is fellowship? It is our having common joy in a common object which we share with one another. We share in the joy of the Father and of the Son. The Father bids me hear the Son, and the Son declares the Father. We have fellowship with the Father, who points out to our hearts Him in whom He Himself delighted; we have fellowship with the Son, inasmuch as He makes known to us the Father. How shall I know the Father? - how know His feelings? In one way: I look at His Son, and I see the Father. The Son speaks, and I hear His voice. I know how He acts; I know His love - a love that can come down to the very vilest. Such was Christ; and now I am sure such is the Father also. I know what God the Father is when I follow the Son and listen to the Son. It is the Father He is revealing, not Himself: the Son came to make known what the Father is in a world that knew Him not. Even those who had faith, what thoughts had they about the Father? We have only to look at the disciples to see what scant answer to the Father's heart. Although they were born of God, up to this time they knew not the Father was revealing Himself in Jesus. Philip said, "Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us." Not that he did not divinely know Jesus as the Messiah; but he had not entered into the blessedness of what He was as the Son revealing the Father. It was only after the Holy Ghost came down, after the Son's departure to heaven, that they acquired the consciousness of the grace wherein they stood. So, yet more, the apostle Paul says, "Though we have known Christ after the flesh, yet now henceforth know we Him no more." To know Christ at the right hand of God - to appreciate what He is there, is to know Him far better than if we had heard every discourse, and seen every miracle of His upon earth. The Holy Ghost brings it out more fully through His word. I am not saying now how far we enter practically into what the Holy Ghost is teaching, because this must after all, and rightly, depend on the measure of our spirituality. But the Holy Ghost is here to take of the things of Christ and show them to us - to make His glory known, and His sufferings, as it is the Father's delight that He should be known. But there were many things that they could not then bear. When the Holy Ghost was come, He should lead them into all truth.
Such is the object of the Father. He takes occasion of the glory of Jesus, manifested as Son of Man, to show that a still deeper glory attaches to Him. The kingdom of Christ by no means exhausts the glory of His person: and it is as connected with His deeper glory that the existence of the Church is brought out. It was the confession of His Sonship that elicited the word, "Upon this rock I will build My Church." This is the pith of the New Testament revelation - it is the Father revealing His Son, and the Spirit enabling us to receive what the Son is, both as the image of the in ' visible God, and as introducing us into fellowship with the Father. It is not God merely known as such, but the Father in the Son made known by the Holy Ghost. Hence it is that here in a Gospel especially written for Jewish believers, the Holy Ghost particularly marks this. (Compare the close of Matt. 11).
The disciples, confounded by what they heard, fall on their faces and are sore afraid. There was no communion with it yet. For the present they enter into it but slightly, though it was afterwards recalled to them by the Spirit of God. "And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only" (vers. 7, 8). The heavenly vision had passed away for a time: they were on the mount alone with Jesus. What a joy! - if it vanish, He abides!
Let us just refer, briefly, to the account of this scene as given in the other Gospels. In Mark, the words, "In whom I am well pleased" are left out. The emphatic point, forgotten nowhere, is that He was the Son - in Mark, as in Matthew (not a Servant only, though truly such) - who is to be heard. But Matthew adds, "In whom I am well pleased." The satisfaction of the Father in the Son is given as the ground why He should be heard, as the full expression of His mind. In Luke we have another thing: "Behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elias" (Luke 9:30). They are called "men" here in a distinct manner - this Gospel having been written more particularly in view of men at large. These men "appeared in glory, and spake of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem." It is the subject of their conversation - of the deepest interest for us all. The death and sufferings of Jesus are the great theme on which men in glory converse with Jesus, the Son of God. And Jerusalem - Jerusalem! - would be the place of His death, instead of welcoming Him to reign! But we find here the sad traits of human weakness: Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep. Here again we find the Father's affection for His Son. The highest glories of Judaism wane - the Son is to be heard. The moral features are prominent throughout.
But, let us observe, John leaves out the transfiguration altogether; because his proper work was to dwell, not upon Christ's outward manifestation to the world as Son of Man in His kingdom, but on His eternal glory as the only-begotten Son of God; or, as he says himself, "We beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father."
In 2 Peter 1:16-18, we have an allusion to this scene. It is said there, "He received from God the Father honour and glory" (confirming the remark, that this scene does not show us so much His essential glory as that which He received from God the Father) - "when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory" (or the cloud, which was the known external symbol of Jehovah's majesty), "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Peter leaves out "Hear ye Him," because, the revelation of Jesus having come out, the point that remains is the Father's delight in Jesus. I do not pretend to say how far the inspired writers knew all the mind of God in such a thing: they wrote as moved by the Holy Ghost.
As the disciples came down from the mount, the Lord charges them, saying, "Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of Man be risen again from the dead" (ver. g). It was no longer a question of testifying to the kingdom of Christ. This was rejected. The vision was for the disciples, for strengthening their faith in Jesus. The Lord was occupying Himself with the souls of believers, not with the world. There is always a period when testimony of an outward kind may close. You may remember the time when Paul separates the disciples that were at Ephesus from the multitude, and leads them into what more particularly concerned them. For the time, till the Holy Ghost was given, till the Lord was risen from the dead, and power came from on high to make these things a fresh starting-point, it was of no use to speak of them any further.
Then we have, "His disciples asked Him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come and restore all things; but I say unto you that Elias has come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed" (vers. 10-12). He shows that, to faith, Elias was come. If the nation had received the word preached by John, Elias' mission would have been fulfilled, according to the prophecy in Malachi; but the nation refusing Jesus as well as His forerunner, faith alone could recognize the testimony of John the Baptist as being virtually that of Elias. This accords with the statement we had in Matthew 11, "If ye will receive it, this is Elias which was to come;" showing that it was not Elias actually and literally, but the spirit and power of Elias in the person of John the Baptist. The Messiah is coming in glory by and by, and Elias is coming too. But the Messiah was come in weakness now, and humiliation, and His forerunner had been put to death. It was Elias who was come in the person of the suffering John the Baptist, and his testimony was despised. The disciples are led into the secret of this: "Elias is come already, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them. Then the disciples understood that He spake unto them of John the Baptist" (vers. 12, 13).
But at the foot of that same mountain where the Lord displayed the glory of the kingdom, Satan also displayed his power. It was not broken yet. The kingdom was only a matter of testimony. The disciples failed to draw on the resources of Christ to put down the power of the enemy. A man comes to the Lord, kneeling down to Him and saying, "Lord, have mercy on my son; for he is lunatic and sore vexed; for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water" - the most opposite trials were thus brought together. "And I brought him to Thy disciples, and they could not cure him. Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? Bring him hither to Me. And Jesus rebuked the devil, and he departed out of him. And the child was cured from that very hour" (vers. 15-18). The disciples wanted to know how it was that they could not cast him out, and He tells them, "Because of your unbelief." It is as sad as wonderful that unbelief is at the root of the difficulties Satan foists in; for he has lost his power over those that have faith. This child is a lunatic and sore vexed; but unbelief is unable to use the power of God, which ought to have been at the command of the disciples. "If ye have faith as a grain of mustard-seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place." The least working of faith in the soul is so far available for present difficulties. The power of the world, the settled power of anything here, which is what the mountain sets forth, would completely disappear before faith. "Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting" (vers. 20, 21). There must be dependence upon God in the conflict with the power of evil. It was Christ's moral glory and the secret of strength. The assumption of power, because of association with Jesus, simply fails and turns to shame. There must also be self-emptiness and self-denial, that God may act. When Jesus descends all Satan's power is broken and vanishes.
Then comes another declaration of His sufferings, but I will not dwell upon this now, beyond remarking that, as in Matthew 16:21 we had His sufferings through the Jews (elders, chief priests and scribes), so here it is rather Gentile rejection: "The Son of Man shall be betrayed into the hands of men." This follows the manifestation of His glory as Son of Man, while the other followed the confession of His still deeper glory as Son of God.
In conclusion, let us look at the beautiful lesson in the piece of money demanded for the temple. Peter there answers quickly according to his usual warmth of character. When the tax-gatherer came, who was connected with the temple, and the usual fee was demanded, Peter answered, very hastily, that of course his Master would pay the tribute. His mind went not beyond their Jewish position. It was not that any king of the earth was demanding tribute now of them; this was for Jehovah's temple. And our Lord anticipates Peter when they come to the house, and says to him, "What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? - of their children or of strangers?" Peter answers truly enough, "Of strangers." Then Jesus says to him, "Then are the children free." Nothing can be more beautiful than the truth taught us here: whatever be the glory of the coming kingdom, whatever the power of Satan, which disappears before the word of Jesus, whatever the faith which can remove mountains, nothing can take the Son of God out of the place of grace. He is the King, and Peter one of the "children" who are free, and yet to whom this demand was made. "Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them," says the Lord, "go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money, that take, and give unto them for Me and thee" (ver. 27).
This is the great wonder of Christ, and the practical wonder of Christianity, that while we have the consciousness of glory, and ought to pass through the world as sons of glory as well as sons of God, for this very reason the Lord calls us to be the humblest and meekest, taking no place upon the earth - I do not mean claiming no place for Christ, of course. It is our business to live for Christ and the truth: but where it is a question of ourselves, to be willing to be trampled on and counted as the off-scouring of the world. Flesh and blood are against it; but it is the power of the Spirit of God raising us above nature.
The Lord provides for all demands. He directs Peter how to find the piece of money, and says, "That take, and give unto them for Me and thee." What a joy that Jesus associates us with Himself, and provides for everything! - that Jesus, who proves Himself in this very thing to be God the Creator, with divine knowledge, having the command of the restless deep, making a fish to provide the money needed to pay the tax of the temple, should thus give us a place with Himself, and undertake for all our need! Nothing can more beautifully show us how, with the consciousness of glory, our place should ever be that of the bending and lowliness of Christ. How blessedly the Son stooped to be the servant, and leads the children into the same path of grace!
The Lord grant us to know how to reconcile these two things. We can only do it so far as our eye is upon Christ.
And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.
And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.
Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.
While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.
And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.
And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.
And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?
And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.
But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.
Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatick, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.
And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.
And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.
Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:
And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.
And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?
He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?
Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.
Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money: that take, and give unto them for me and thee.