Matthew 17 Bible Commentary

John Lightfoot’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Matthew 17)
2. And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

[And was transfigured.] When Christ was baptized, being now ready to enter upon his evangelical priesthood, he is sealed by a heavenly voice for the High Priest, and is anointed with the Holy Spirit, as the high priests were wont to be with holy oil.

In this transfiguration, he is sealed for the high priest: for mark, 1. How two of the greatest prophets, Moses and Elias, resort to him. 2. How to those words, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased," which also were heard from heaven at his baptism, is added that clause, "hear ye him": which compare with the words of Moses, concerning a prophet to be raised up by God, Deuteronomy 18:19, "Whosoever shall not hearken to my words, which I shall put into his mouth," &c. 3. How the heavenly voice went out of the cloud that overshadowed them, when at his baptism no such cloud appeared. Here that is worthy observing, which some Jews note, and reason dictates, namely, That the cloud of glory, the conductor of Israel, departed at the death of Moses; for while he lived, that cloud was the people's guide in the wilderness; but when he was dead, the ark of the covenant led them. Therefore, as that cloud departed at the death of Moses, that great prophet, so such a cloud was now present at the sealing of the greatest Prophet. 4. Christ here shines with such a brightness, nay, with a greater than Moses and Elias now glorified; and this both for the honour of his person and for the honour of his doctrine; both which surpassed by infinite degrees the persons and the doctrines of both of them. When you recollect the face of Christ transfigured, shining with so great lustre when he talked with Moses and Elias, acknowledge the brightness of the gospel above the cloudy obscurity of the law and of the prophets.

4. 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.

[Let us make here three tabernacles, &c.] The transfiguration of Christ was by night. Compare Luke 9:37. The form of his face and garments is changed while he prays; and Moses and Elias come and discourse with him concerning his death (it is uncertain how long), while as yet the disciples that were present were overcharged with sleep. When they awaked, O what a spectacle had they! being afraid, they observe and contemplate, they discover the prophets: whom, now departing, Peter would detain; and being loath that so noble a scene should be dispersed, made this proposition, "Let us make here three tabernacles," &c. Whence he should know them to be prophets, it is in vain to seek, because it is nowhere to be found; but being known, he was loath they should depart thence, being ravished with the sweetness of such society, however astonished at the terror of the glory; and hence those words, which when he spake he is said by Luke "not to know what he said"; and by Mark, "not to know what he should say"; which are rather to be understood of the misapplication of his words, than of the sense of the words. He knew well enough that he said these words, and he knew as well for what reason he said them; but yet "he knew not what he said"; that is, he was much mistaken when he spake these words, while he believed that Christ, Moses, and Elias, would abide and dwell there together in earthly tabernacles.

5. 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.

[While he yet spake, behold, a cloud, &c.] Moses and Elias now turning their backs, and going out of the scene, Peter speaks his words; and as he speaks them when the prophets were now gone, "Behold, a cloud," &c. They had foretold Christ of his death (such is the cry of the Law and of the Prophets, that "Christ should suffer," Luke 24:44); he preaches his deity to his disciples, and the heavenly voice seals him for the true Messias. See 2 Peter 1:16,17.

10. And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?

[Why therefore say the scribes that Elias must first come?] I. It would be an infinite task to produce all the passages out of the Jewish writings which one might concerning the expected coming of Elias: we will mention a few things in passing which sufficiently speak out that expectation, and the ends also of his expected coming.

I. Let David Kimchi first be heard upon those words of Malachi, "Behold, I send you Elias the prophet": "God (saith he) shall restore the soul of Elias, which ascended of old into heaven, into a created body, like to his former body: for his first body returned to earth when he went up to heaven, each element to its own element. But when God shall bring him to life in the body, he shall send him to Israel before the day of judgment, which is 'the great and terrible day of the Lord': and he shall admonish both the fathers and the children together to turn to God; and they that turn shall be delivered from the day of judgment," &c. Consider whither the eye of the disciples looks, in the question under our hands. Christ had commanded in the verse before, "Tell the vision" of the transfiguration "to no man, until the Son of man be risen from the dead." But now, although they understood not what the resurrection from the dead meant, (which Mark intimates,) yet they roundly retort, "Why therefore say the scribes that Elias shall first come?" that is, before there be a resurrection and a day of judgment: for as yet they were altogether ignorant that Christ should rise. They believed, with the whole nation, that there should be a resurrection at the coming of the Messias.

2. Let Aben Ezra be heard in the second place: "We find (saith he) that Elias lived in the days of Ahaziah the son of Ahab: we find also, that Joram the son of Ahab and Jehoshaphat, inquired of Elisha the prophet; and there it is written [2 Kings 3:11], 'This is Elisha the son of Shaphat, who poured water upon the hands of Elijah.' And this is a sign that Elias was first gone up into heaven in a whirlwind: because it is not said 'who poureth water,' but 'who poured.' Moreover, Elisha departed not from Elijah from the time that he first waited upon him until Elias went up. And yet we find that, after the death of Jehoshaphat, in the days of Ahaziah his son it was written, 'And a letter came to him from Elijah the prophet.' And this proves that he then writ and sent it: for if it had been written before his ascension, it would be said, a letter was found or brought to him, which Elias had left behind him. And it is without controversy, that he was seen in the days of our holy wise men. God of his mercy hasten his prophecy, and the times of his coming." So he upon Malachi 4.

3. The Talmudists do suppose Elias keeping the sabbath in mount Carmel: "Let not the Trumah (saith one), of which it is doubted whether it be clean or unclean, be burnt; lest Elias, keeping the sabbath in mount Carmel, come and testify of it on the sabbath that it is clean."

4. The Talmudical books abound with these and the like trifles: "If a man finds any thing that is lost, he is bound to declare it by a public outcry; but if the owners come not to ask for it, let him lay it up by him until Elias shall come." And, "If any find a bill of contract between his countrymen, and knows not what it means, let him lay it up until Elias shall come."

5. That we be not tedious, it shall be enough to produce a few passages out of Babylonian Erubhin: where, upon this subject, "If any say, Behold, I am a Nazarite, on the day wherein the Son of David comes, it is permitted to drink wine on the sabbaths and feast-days," it is disputed what day of the week Messias shall come, and on what day, Elias: where, among other things, these words occur, Elias came not yesterday: that is, the same day wherein he comes he shall appear in public; and shall not lie hid to day, coming yesterday. The Gloss thus: "If thou sayest, perhaps he shall come on the eve of the sabbath, and shall preach the gospel on the sabbath; you may answer with that text, 'Behold, I send you Elias the prophet, before the day of the Lord come': you may argue, that he shall preach on that very day in which he shall come."

"The Israelites are certain that Elias shall come, neither on the sabbath eves, nor on the eves of the feast days, by reason of labour." And again, Elias cometh not on the sabbath day. Thus speak the scholars of Hillel: "We are sure Elias will not come on the sabbath, nor on a feast day." The Glossers give the reason, "Not on the sabbath eves, or the eves of the feast days, by reason of labour"; that is, by reason of the preparation for the sabbath; namely, lest they should leave the necessaries for the sabbath unfinished, to go to meet him: "Nor on the sabbaths, by reason of labour" in the banquets; that they omit not those feastings and eatings which were esteemed so necessary to the sabbath, whiles they went out to meet Elias.

Let these three observations out of the Glossers upon the page cited serve for a conclusion:--

1. Before the coming of the Son of David, Elias shall come to preach of him.

2. "Messias cometh not on the first day of the sabbath, because Elias shall not come on the sabbath." Whence it appears that Elias is expected the day before the Messias' appearing.

3. Is not Messias Ben Joseph to come first?

II. We meet with numberless stories in the Talmudists concerning the apparitions of Elias: according to that which was said before by Aben Ezra, "It is without controversy that Elias was seen in the days of our wise men." There is no need of examples, when it may not be so much doubted who of these wise men saw Elias, as who saw him not. For my part I cannot esteem all those stories for mere fables; but in very many of them I cannot but suspect witchcrafts, and the appearances of ghosts, which we also said before concerning the Bath Kol. For thus the devil craftily deluded this nation, willing to be deceived; and even the capacity of observing that the coming of the Messias was now past was obliterated, when here and there, in this age and in the other, his forerunner Elias appeared, as if he intended hence to let them know that he was yet to come.

11. And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.

[And he shall restore all things.] The Jews feign many things which Elias shall restore: "He shall purify the bastards, and restore them to the congregation. He shall render to Israel the pot of manna, the vial of holy oil, the vial of water; and there are some who say, the rod of Aaron."

He shall restore, or make up, not into the former state, but into a better. There were times of restitution of all things determined by God, Acts 3:21; wherein all things were to be framed into a gospel-state, and a state worthy of the Messias: a church was to be founded, and the doctrine of the gospel dispersed, the hearts of the fathers, the Jews, to be united to the sons, the Gentiles; and the hearts of the sons, the Gentiles, to the fathers the Jews: which work was begun by the Baptist, and finished by Christ and the apostles. Which term of the restitution of all these expiring, the commonwealth of the Jews expired also; and the gifts of revelation and miracles granted for this purpose, and so necessary to it, failed. "However, therefore, ye have crucified Christ," saith Peter in that place of the Acts now cited, "yet God shall still send you Jesus Christ in the preaching of the gospel to fulfil these things. Him, indeed, as to his person the heavens do contain, and shall contain, until all these things be perfected; expect not, therefore, with the erring nation, his personal presence always on earth: but he shall make up and constitute all things by us his ministers, until the times determined and prefixed for the perfecting of this restitution shall come."

15. Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is a lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.

[He is lunatic.] Luke 9:39, a spirit taketh him; Mark 9:17, hath a dumb spirit.

I. He that is skilled in the Talmudic writings will here remember what things are said concerning a deaf and mad man, concerning whom there is so much mention in their writings.

"There are five who do not pay the Trumah; but if they do, their Trumah is no Trumah: the deaf and dumb, the lunatic," &c. "Any one is fit to sacrifice a beast, except a dumb and deaf, a lunatic, and a child": and very many passages of this nature, &c. I have rendered deaf and dumb, according to the sense of the masters, who, in the first place cited, do thus interpret the word; "concerning which the wise men speak, is he who neither heareth nor speaketh." See there the Jerusalem Gemara, where, among other things, this occurs not unworthy our noting; "That all the sons of R. Jochanan Ben Gudgoda were deaf and dumb."

II. It was very usual to the Jews to attribute some of the more grievous diseases to evil spirits, specially those wherein either the body was distorted, or the mind disturbed and tossed with a phrensy.

"If any one, vexed with an evil spirit, shall say, when the disease did first invade him, Write a bill of divorce for my wife," &c.

"If any, whom Kordicus vexeth, say, Write a bill of divorce for my wife," &c. "Kordicus, say the Glossers, is a demon, which rules over those that drink too much new wine. What is 'Kordicus?' Samuel saith, When new wine out of the press hath caught any one." Rambam, upon the place, hath these words; "Kordicus is a disease, generated from the repletion of the vessels of the brain, whereby the understanding is confounded; and it is a kind of falling-sickness." Behold the same a demon and a disease! to which the Gemarists applied exorcisms and a diet.

"Shibta is an evil spirit, who, taking hold on the necks of infants, dries up and contracts their nerves."

"He that drinks up double cups, is punished by the devils."

From this vulgar opinion of the nation, namely, that devils are the authors of such kind of diseases, one evangelist brings in the father of this child, saying of him he is lunatic, another, he hath a spirit. He had been dumb and deaf from his birth; to that misery was added a phrensy, or a lycanthropy, which kind of disease it was not unusual with the nation to attribute to the devil; and here, in truth, a devil was present.

17. 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.

[O faithless and perverse generation, &c.] The edge of these words is levelled especially against the scribes (see Mark 9:14); and yet the disciples escaped not altogether untouched.

Christ and his three prime disciples being absent, this child is brought to the rest to be healed: they cannot heal him, partly, because the devil was really in him; partly, because this evil had adhered to him from his very birth. Upon this the scribes insult and scoff at them and their master. A faithless and perverse generation, which is neither overcome by miracles, when they are done, and vilify, when they are not done! The faith of the disciples (v 20) wavered by the plain difficulty of the thing, which seemed impossible to be overcome, when so many evils were digested into one, deafness, dumbness, phrensy, and possession of the devil: and all these from the cradle.

20. 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.

[Faith as a grain of mustard seed, &c.] As a seed of mustard, or as a drop of mustard, in Talmudic language. See chapter 13:23.

[Ye shall say to this mountain, &c.] See what we note at chapter 21:21.

21. Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

[This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.] It is not much unlike this, which is said, By reason of an evil spirit a singular or religious man may afflict himself with fastings.

24. And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?

[They that receive the (didrachma) tribute-money.] Two things persuade me that this is to be understood of the half-shekel, to be yearly paid into the treasury of the Temple:

1. The word itself whereby this tribute is called, Concerning this, thus Josephus writes: "He laid a tax upon all the Jews wheresoever they were, namely, two drachms: commanding every one, of whatever age, to bring it into the Capitol, as before they had paid it into the Temple at Jerusalem." And Dion Cassius of the same thus, "He commanded all to bring the didrachm yearly to Jupiter Capitolinus."

The Seventy Interpreters, indeed, upon Exodus 30:13, render it half a didrachm; but adding this moreover, which is according to the holy didrachm. Be it so; the whole shekel was the holy didrachm: then let the half shekel be, the common didrachm. However, the thing is, he that paid the half-shekel, in the vulgar dialect, was called, he that paid the shekels; and that which is here said by Matthew, they that receive the didrachm, the Talmudists express they that demand or collect the shekels. The Targumists render that place, Exodus 3 [13], the half of the shekel; the reason of which see, if you please, in Maimonides. "The shekel (saith he) concerning which the Law speaks, did weigh three hundred and twenty grains of barley; but the wise men sometime added to that weight, and made it to be of the same value with the money Sela, under the second Temple, that is, three hundred eighty-four middling grains of barley." See the place and the Gloss.

2. The answer of Christ sufficiently argues that the discourse is concerning this tax, when he saith, He is son of that king for whose use that tribute was demanded: for, "from thence were bought the daily and additional sacrifices, and their drink offerings, the sheaf, the two loaves (Lev 23:17), the shewbread, all the sacrifices of the congregation, the red cow, the scapegoat, and the crimson tongue, which was between his horns," &c.

But here this objection occurs, which is not so easy to answer. The time of the payment of the half shekel was about the feast of the Passover; but now that time was far gone, and the feast of Tabernacles at hand. It may be answered, 1. That Matthew, who recites this story, observed not the course and order of time, which was not unusual with him, as being he among all the evangelists that most disjoints the times of the stories. But let it be granted that the order of the history in him is right and proper here, it is answered, 2. Either Christ was scarcely present at the Passover last past; or if he were present, by reason of the danger he was in by the snares of the Jews, he could not perform this payment in that manner as it ought to have been. Consider those words which John speaks of the Passover last past, chapter 6:4, "The Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near"; and chapter 7:1, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee; for he would not walk any more in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him." 3. It was not unusual to defer the payment of the half shekels of this year to the year following, by reason of some urgent necessity. Hence it was, when they sat to collect and receive this tribute, the collectors had before them two chests placed; in one of which they put the tax of the present year, in the other of the year past.

But it may be objected, Why did the collectors of Capernaum require the payment at that time, when, according to custom, they began not to demand it before the fifteenth day of the month Adar? I answer, 1. It is certain there were, in every city, moneychangers to collect it, and, being collected, to carry it to Jerusalem. Hence is that in the tract cited, "The fifteenth day of the month Adar, the collectors sit in the cities," to demand the half shekel; "and the five-and-twentieth they sit in the Temple." 2. The uncertain abode of Christ at Capernaum gave these collectors no unjust cause of demanding this due, whensoever they had him there present; at this time especially, when the feast of Tabernacles was near, and they about to go to Jerusalem, to render an account, perhaps, of their collection.

But if any list to understand this of the tax paid the Romans, we do not contend. And then the words of those that collected the tribute, "Does not your master pay the didrachm?" seem to sound to this effect, "Is your master of the sect of Judas of Galilee?"