The last chapter ended with the visible manifestation of the reign of the Messiah in the fall of Jerusalem and the sending out of his messengers throughout the world. But that would be forty years later. Within six days of this announcement three of Jesus' apostles are given for their immediate encouragement a brief vision of the Messiah as Son of God. It is also possible that Jesus himself needed encouragement and empowering as he faced the way to the cross.
17:1 In another Gospel the interval is given as "about eight days" (Luke 9:28). We would say "about a week later." As we will see in the account of the resurrection, the period from the crucifixion on Friday to Easter Sunday was counted as three days (see notes on 28:1).
Jesus asked the same three apostles to support him in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (26:37). Here Jesus chooses the three to accompany him for the special vision they needed. The event obviously made a lasting impression on Peter (see 2 Peter 1:16-18).
Tourists are shown Mount Tabor as the site of the transfiguration, but there was a fortified town on that summit in New Testament times, and Mount Hermon (9,000 feet) is a more likely possibility.
17:2 Luke adds the fact that the transfiguration occurred as Jesus was praying (Luke 9:29). We might compare the radiance on the face of Moses (Exodus 34:29), and of Stephen (Acts 6:15).
17:3 Jesus had spoken of the "the prophets and the law" ending with the ministry of John the Baptist (11:13). Elijah was viewed as the greatest of the prophets, and Moses was the originator of the Jewish system of moral, ceremonial, and civil law. Luke adds that "They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). This suggests that in addition to being an encouragement for the disciples the vision was also to strengthen Jesus as he faced the hard road of the cross ahead.
17:4 Peter may have had the idea of making the tents from the fact that "Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp" and there "the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend" (Exodus 33:7, 11). In the parallel account we are told that Peter "did not know what to say, for they were terrified" (Mark 9:6).
It is perhaps significant that Moses' burial place was never found (Deuteronomy 34:6), and Elijah was taken up live into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). Some have suggested that Moses and Elijah went straight to heaven without going down into sheol or hades (the abode of the dead) to await the resurrection.
17:5 This is the second time that God the Father himself identifies Jesus as the eternal Son of God, and in both cases he adds the words "with him I am well pleased" which pick up the words from the Messianic Servant text from Isaiah (Matthew 3:17; 12:18; Isaiah 42:1).
17:6 The very idea of hearing the voice of God was a terrifying experience for a Jew, as it would be for us if we knew who was speaking to us. Paul fell to the ground (Acts 9:4), as did the apostle John when he was in the Spirit on the island of Patmos (Revelation 1:17). We can compare this with the experience of some who are slain in the Spirit, but we should add that the falling should be the result of meeting with God, not a result of psychological manipulation.
17:7 The account of the transfiguration also occurs in two other Gospels (Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36) but only Matthew remembers hearing that Jesus came over to the three fallen disciples, touched them, and said "do not be afraid" (for similar words of comfort after a disturbing vision see Luke 1:30; 2:10).
17:9 Jesus had told the disciples not to broadcast the fact that he was the Messiah (see 16:20). Now Peter, James and John are told not to communicate the vision they had seen of Jesus as the Son of God. And this is not be announced to the world till after the resurrection (see 16:21; 17:23).
17:10 The last two verses of Old Testament prophecy refers to the coming of Elijah (Malachi 4:5,6). This had been fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist (11:14) who had come "with the spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17).
17:11-13 "The time of universal restoration" for the whole world (Acts 3:21) is still in the future (see Romans 8:21; 1 Corinthians 15:28) and it will involve the crucifixion of the Messiah. But the forerunner who began the process of restoration has already been beheaded by Herod (14:10-12).
In this section Matthew wants us to see that the Messiah had total authority over demonic powers. But he did not choose to use the faith to move mountains (17:20) is power to avoid the cross. The Messiah also has authority over the nations, but his disciples are still willing to submit to taxation.
17:14-16 Jesus' authority over demonic powers has already been demonstrated (8:16, 28-33; 9:32-34; 10:1, 8; 12:22; 15:22-28). In each incident the lessons Matthew wants to draw have a different slant. Here, especially in prayer for deliverance from demonic power, a special kind of faith and prayer was needed. We should not conclude that epilepsy always has a demonic cause.
17:17 Jesus is clearly exasperated because the disciples are still unable to grasp the nature of faith. The word 'perverse' literally means "turned in a wrong direction" so as to become crooked or misshapen. Instead of faith being in the right direction (see 8:26; 14:31) it can easily focus on our own or someone else's power.
17:18-19 When the disciples see the boy freed from demonic possession, they wonder why they had failed to heal him. They had certainly been trained to do this (10:8).
17:20 In other versions 'little faith' appears as 'unfaith,' which reminds us that faith is not a matter of quantity but of direction (17:17). If an arrow is aimed in the wrong direction, no amount of pious hope will make it hit the target. When our prayer is not answered, we tend to ask "Did I say the right thing, or in the right way, or with sufficient conviction, or earnestly enough?" But if our faith is focused on the God who obviously can move mountains, nothing good will be impossible. And that is true even if our faith is minimal "the size of a mustard seed" (17:20).
17:22-23 This is the second (16:21) warning that the resurrection will be preceded by crucifixion. It occurs at a gathering of disciples somewhere in Galilee. Matthew puts this reference to the cross here to remind us that Jesus clearly had the faith and the power (17:20) to avoid the cross, but he went forward to his death voluntarily.
17:24 Capernaum was the city where Jesus had moved with his mother (see notes on 4:13, 13:54). In addition to the taxes for the Roman government exacted by hated tax collectors like Matthew (9:9), taxes were also collected for the temple in Jerusalem.
17:25-26 Jesus reminds Peter that royal children do not pay taxes to finance the kings' treasury. And in that sense the children of God (see 12:50) cannot be taxed for the work of the Messianic kingdom.
17:27 Our payment of taxes to the government and contributions for our denomination are therefore voluntary (Romans 13:6-7). Some believe that Jesus knew that the first fish Peter caught would have in its mouth the exact coin needed to pay the temple tax both for Peter and himself. The alternative is that "open its mouth" is a metaphor for taking the hook out of a fish's mouth. Peter would catch a fish and sell it, and that would be sufficient to pay the temple tax.
It is hard to see how the first alternative could apply to us in our day. But it is certainly a good idea to set aside from what we earn an appropriate amount for government taxation, contributions to our denomination, and giving for missions and other good causes.