Matthew 17
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

(1) After six days.—St. Luke’s “about eight days” (Luke 9:28) may be noted as an example of the mode of reckoning which spoke of the interval between our Lord’s death and resurrection, about six-and-thirty hours, as three days.

Peter, James, and John.—The three retain their position, as in the raising of Jairus’s daughter, as the elect among the elect. (Comp. also Matthew 26:37; Mark 13:3.) Looking to the grouping of the Apostles it might have seemed natural that Andrew also should have been there, but his character seems to have been always retiring, and, it may be, was wanting in the intensity of faith which belonged to his brother, the Rock-Apostle, and to the two Sons of Thunder.

Into an high mountain.—A tradition of uncertain date fixes on Tabor as the scene of the Transfiguration, but this was probably due to the conspicuous position of that mountain, as it rises abruptly from the plain of Esdraelon. The Gospel narratives leave the locality altogether uncertain, but as Cæsarea Philippi was the last place mentioned, and a journey through Galilee follows (Mark 9:30), it is more probable that the scene is to be found on one of the heights of Hermon. Tabor, it may be added, was crowned with a fortress, which at this time was likely to be occupied, and this is obviously inconsistent with the solitude which the narrative implies.

And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.
(2) And was transfigured before them.—Elsewhere in the New Testament (with the exception of the parallel, Mark 9:2) the word is used only in its spiritual sense, and is there rendered “transformed.” St. Luke does not use the word, but describes the change which it implies, “the fashion of His countenance became other than it had been” (Luke 9:29). He adds the profoundly significant fact that this was while He was in the act of prayer. It was in that act of communion with His Father that the divine glory flowed out into visible brightness. Transcendent as the manifestation was, it has its lower analogies in the radiance which made the face of Stephen “as the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15); yet more in the glory which shone on the face of Moses when he came down from the mount (Exodus 34:29); in some faint measure, in what may be called the metamorphic power of prayer which invests features that have no form or comeliness with the rapture of devout ecstacy. And it is no over-bold speculation to see in the fact thus noted that which gives its meaning to the Transfiguration as a stage in the training of the disciples. Prayers like those which were offered for Peter that his “faith might not fail” (Luke 22:31-32) at least suggest something as to the intercession of the Master for His disciples, and this, we must remember, was a crisis in their spiritual history. They had risen to the highest faith; they had been offended by the announcement of His rejection, His sufferings, His death. Something was needed which might sustain their faith, on which they might look back in after years as the earnest of a future glory. It was well for them that they should, at least once in His life of lowliness, gaze on the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father (John 1:14), and feel that they were not “following cunningly-devised fables,” but had been “eye-witnesses of His majesty” (2Peter 1:16). To those who believe that our Lord’s human nature was in very deed, sin only excepted, like unto ours, it will not seem over-bold to suggest that for Him too this might have been a time of conflict and of trial, a renewal of the Temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 16:23), an anticipation of that of the agony of Gethsemane, and that even for Him, in his humanity, there might be in the excellent glory and in the voice from heaven the help and comfort which strengthened Him for the cross and passion. Following the narrative in its details, we may trace its several stages in some such sequence as follows:—After six days, spent apparently with their Lord in the mountain district near Cæsarea Philippi, but not in the work of preaching or working miracles, the rest of the disciples are left at the foot of the mountain, and the three follow Him, as the evening closes, to its summit. There, as afterwards in Gethsemane, He withdraws from them “about a stone’s throw” (Luke 22:41), and they “watch with Him.” and gaze on Him, as He, standing or kneeling (the first was, we must remember, the more common attitude of prayer, Luke 18:11), intercedes for them and for Israel, and, we may add, for mankind. And then, as they gaze, form and features shine with a new glory, bright as the sun, as though the Shechinah cloud had wrapt Him round. Even His garments are “white as the light,” “white as snow” (the reading in St. Mark is doubtful, but if genuine the snows of Hermon may have suggested the comparison), as St. Mark adds with his usual descriptive vividness, “so as no fuller on earth can whiten them.” Nothing, however, it may be added, suggests the vision of three forms floating in the air with which Raffaelle’s glorious picture has made us familiar.

And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.
(3) Moses and Elias.—The identification of the forms which the disciples saw was, we may well believe, intuitive. If we accept the narrative as a whole, it is legitimate to assume that, in the state of consciousness to which they had been raised, they were capable of a spiritual illumination which would reveal to them who they were who were thus recognising their Master’s work and doing homage to His majesty. There was, it is obvious, a singular fitness in each case. One was the great representative of the Law, which was a “school master” or “servant-tutor” (see Note on Galatians 3:24) leading men to Christ, the other of the whole goodly fellowship of the prophets. Of one it had been said that a “Prophet like unto him” should come in the latter days (Deuteronomy 18:18), to whom men should hearken; of the other, that he should come again to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children” (Malachi 4:5). The close of the ministry of each was not after the “common death of all men.” No man knew of the sepulchre of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:6), and Elijah had passed away in the chariots and horses of fire (2Kings 2:11). Both were associated in men’s minds with the glory of the kingdom of the Christ. The Jerusalem Targum on Exodus 12 connects the coming of Moses with that of the Messiah. Another Jewish tradition predicts his appearance with that of Elijah. Their presence now was an attestation that their work was over, and that the Christ had come.

Talking with him.—St. Luke (Luke 9:31) adds the subject of their communing: “They spake of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem.” So far as the disciples then entered into the meaning of what they heard, or afterwards recalled it, it was a witness that the spirits of the lawgiver and the prophet accepted the sufferings and the death which had shaken the faith of the disciples as the necessary conditions of the Messianic kingdom. It is significant that the word for “decease” (exodos) reappears in this sense once only in the New Testament, and then in close connection with a reference to the Transfiguration (2Peter 1:15).

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.
(4) Lord, it is good for us to be here.—For “Lord” St. Luke has “Master;” St. Mark (giving. probably, as elsewhere, the very word uttered) “Rabbi.” It is not easy to trace the thoughts that passed rapidly through the soul of the disciple in that moment of amazement. Afterwards—if we may judge from St. Mark’s account (Mark 9:6), “he knew not what to answer, for they were sore afraid,” or St. Luke’s (Luke 9:33) “not knowing what he said”—he could hardly explain them himself. We may venture to see in the very naïveté of the words a touch of originality and unexpectedness which, as far as it goes, attests the truthfulness of the narrative. What the words seem to imply is:—(1) An abounding joy at being thus brought into a glory which fulfilled the Apostle’s brightest hopes. It was, indeed, good to be thus carried, as it were, into Paradise, or the third heaven, and to hear there words which human lips might not reproduce. (2) His thoughts travelled back to the records of the Exodus, when the Lord talked with Moses in the tabernacle (Exodus 33:7-10). What if like tabernacles could now be made for those three glorious forms, that all Israel might come and gaze, and hear and worship? Would not this be a better consummation than the shame and death at Jerusalem? Would it not meet the belief of the scribes and of the people that “Elias must first come”?

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.
(5) A bright cloud overshadowed themi.e., our Lord, Moses, and Elias. To the disciples this would, we cannot doubt, recall the “cloudy pillar” which had descended on the first tabernacle (Exodus 33:9), the “cloud that filled the house of the Lord on the dedication of the Temple” (1Kings 8:10). It was, in later Jewish language, the Shechinah, or abiding presence of Jehovah—the very form of the word connects it with both the Hebrew (mishkan) and the Greek (skené) words for tabernacle—which was the symbol that He was with His people. The Targums, or Paraphrases, of the Law and Prophets which were then current, had used the word as a synonym for the divine name. Where the Hebrew text had had “I will dwell in thee,” the Targum of Jonathan had “I will make my Shechinah to dwell” (Zechariah 2:10; Zechariah 8:3). Its appearance at this moment, followed by the voice out or the cloud, was a witness that no tabernacle made with hands was now needed, that the humanity of Christ was the true tabernacle of God (comp. Note on John 1:14), and that it was in this sense true that “the tabernacle of God was with men” (Revelation 21:3), and that He would dwell with them.

This is my beloved Son.—The words were in substance the same as those heard at the baptism of our Lord (see Note on Matthew 3:17), but the difference in their form is suggestive. Then they were addressed to the human consciousness of the Son of Man, as declaring to Him the greatness of His being. Now they come addressed as to the disciples, and in close connection with the “decease” which was to be accomplished at Jerusalem. It was, if we may so speak, because the Son of Man became obedient unto death that He was showing Himself worthy of the Father’s love. In the hour of darkness and seeming failure, and agony and death, He was “satisfying” His Father’s “good pleasure,” and accepted by Him as the one perfect sacrifice. And so the command, “Hear ye Him,” gained a new significance. Not the traditions of the elders, or the doctrines of the scribes and Pharisees, not even the teaching of Moses and Elias, of the Law and of the Prophets, but the words of the Son of Man, were henceforth to command their allegiance, and to be the guide of their faith and of their lives, for of them only it was true that the Father was revealed fully in them (Hebrews 1:1-2), and that they should never pass away (Matthew 24:35).

And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
(6) When the disciples heard it.—At this point St. Matthew’s narrative is the fullest. The three disciples shrink in fear, like that of the Israelites at the brightness of Moses’ face (Exodus 34:30), like that of the priests in the Temple who could not stand to minister because of the cloud (1Kings 8:11), and lie prostrate on the ground in speechless terror. They have seen the glory of the Lord: can they hear His voice and live?

And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.
(7) Jesus came and touched them.—Act and words were both expressive of an almost brotherly tenderness. The touch of the hand they had so often grasped—as, e.g., in Matthew 14:31—the familiar words that had brought courage to their fainting hearts in. the hour of danger (Matthew 14:27), these recall them again to the realities of life. They need not fear the glory of the divine Presence, for He is with them still as its most perfect manifestation.

And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.
(8) They saw no man, save Jesus only.—The words, following as they do upon the “Be not afraid,” imply a marked contrast to Peter’s rash utterance. It was not “good” for frail men such as they were to tarry long in the immediate glory of the Presence. It was a relief to see “Jesus only” with them, as they had been wont to see Him. So in our own lives, moments of spiritual ecstasy are few and far between, and it is good for us that it should be so, and that we should be left to carry the fragrance and power of their memory into the work of our common life, and the light of our common day.

It may not be amiss to say a few words as to the credibility of a narrative which is in itself so wonderful, and has been exposed so often to the attacks of a hostile criticism. And (1) it is obvious that what is commonly known as the rationalistic method of interpretation is altogether inapplicable here. The narrative of the Evangelists cannot by any artifice be reduced to a highly-coloured version of some natural phenomenon falling under known laws. If accepted at all, it must be accepted as belonging to the region of the super natural. (2) The so-called mythical theory, which sees in such narratives the purely legendary after-growth of the dreaming fancies of a later age, is of course possible here, as it is possible wherever the arbitrary criticism which postulates the incredibility of the supernatural chooses to apply it; but it may, at least, be urged against its application in this instance that there was nothing in the Jewish expectations of the Messiah likely to suggest such a legend, and that the circumstances connected with it are such (e.g., its association with our Lord’s sufferings, and the strange, abrupt utterance of Peter) as were hardly likely to suggest themselves either to the popular imagination or to that of an individual mind. (3) The position which it occupies both in our Lord’s ministry and the spiritual training of the disciples, while, on the one hand, it raises the Transfiguration above the region of a mere marvel, is, it may be urged again, such as was not likely to occur to a simple lover of the marvellous. (4) Lastly, the language of John 1:14 and (though with less certainty, owing to the doubt which hangs over the genuineness of that Epistle) of 2Peter 1:16, may surely be allowed some evidential weight, as being of the nature of allusive reference to a fact which the writers take for granted as generally known. Over and above St. Peter’s direct reference, we note the recurrence of the words “decease,” “tabernacle,” as suggested by it (2Peter 1:13; 2Peter 1:15).

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.
(9) Tell the vision to no man.—The command obviously included even the rest of the Apostles within the range of its prohibition. For them in their lower stage of spiritual growth, the report of the vision at second hand would either have led them to distrust it or to pervert its meaning. Whatever reasons excluded them from being spectators were of still greater weight for the time against their hearing of what had been seen from others. The Greek word for “vision,” it may be noted, means simply “what they had seen,” and does not suggest, as the English word does, the thought of a dream-state in the beholders.

And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?
(10) His disciples asked him.—The context clearly implies that the question came not from the disciples at large, but from the three who had seen the vision, and were brooding over the appearance, and yet more, perhaps, the disappearance, of Elijah, as connected with the tradition of the scribes. If Elijah was to come and prepare the way, why had he thus come from the unseen world for a moment only?

And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.
(11) Elias truly shall first come.—Better, cometh Our Lord’s words are obviously enigmatic in their form, and, as such, admit of two very different interpretations. Taken literally, as they have been by very many both in earlier and later times, they seem to say that Elijah shall come in person before the yet future day of the Lord, the great second Advent of the Christ. So it has been argued the prophecy of Malachi 4:5 shall yet have a literal fulfilment, and John the Baptist when he confessed that he was not Elijah (John 1:21) was rightly expecting his appearance. It would hardly be right to reject this interpretation merely on the ground of its literalism, or its improbability, or the resemblance which it has to the fantastic belief and practices, which have kept their ground even in modern Judaism, in connection with the expected appearance of the Tishbite, though these, so far as they go, must be thrown into the adverse scale. The words that follow in the next verse are, however, more decisive.

And restore all things.—Better, and shall restore. Leaving for the present the question who was to do the work, we turn to the nature of the work itself. Our Lord’s language generalises the description given by Malachi. That work of “turning the hearts of the children to the fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children,” was but part of a wider restoration of things and persons. Old truths were to be reproclaimed, and cleared from the after-growths of traditions. Men, as a race, were to be brought into their right relation to their God and Father. The words seem—at least as interpreted by Acts 3:21 (where see Note); Romans 8:21; Ephesians 1:22-23; 1Corinthians 15:28, and other like passages—to point forward to a “restitution of all things,” the bringing in of order where now there is disorder and confusion, which shall embrace not Israel only, or even mankind, but the whole universe of God, visible and invisible.

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.
(12) Elias is come already.—These words, the emphatic repetition of what had been said before in Matthew 11:14 (see Note there), ought, it is believed, to be decisive as to the issue raised in the preceding verse. So far as the prophecy of Malachi required the coming of Elijah, that prophecy had been fulfilled in the Baptist, all unconscious of it as he was, as coming in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:17). The disciples need not look for any other personal appearance. The use of the present and future tenses in Matthew 17:11 point to a deeper truth, which they were to learn afterwards. The Elijah ministry, the work of the preacher of repentance, is not a transient phenomenon belonging to one stage only of the Church’s history, but was to be, throughout the ages, on to the end of all things, the indispensable preparation for the coming of the Lord. Only through it could all things be restored, and the path made ready for the heralds of forgiveness and of peace.

They knew him not.—The Greek word implies full and accurate knowledge. Better, perhaps, they recognised him not. Must we not say that those who, after these words, still look forward to the personal advent of Elijah are unconsciously placing themselves on a level with those whose dimness of perception our Lord thus condemns?

But have done unto him whatsoever they listed.—Literally, they did in him (in him, i.e., as the region in which their will wrought) whatsoever they would. To “list,” now practically archaic, was the same as “lust,” without the special evil sense which has attached to the latter word. It is significant that our Lord charges the guilt of the rejection and death of John upon the scribes and the people at large, with no special reference to the Tetrarch Antipas. The passions and intrigues of the palace were but instruments working out the intent of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.—Another instance of what may be called the new colour which from the time of the Transfiguration spreads over our Lord’s teaching. All is, in one aspect, darker, sadder, more sombre. He is drawing nearer to the cross, and He brings the thought of the cross closer to the minds of the disciples.

Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
(13) Then the disciples understood.—The words are suggestive both as indicating the conclusion in which they ultimately rested, and the frankness with which they owned how slowly they had passed from the literalism of the scribes to a true apprehension of the spiritual meaning of the prophecy in question.

And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,
(14) And when they were come to the multitude.—St. Luke states that it was on the next day, the night having apparently been spent on the Mount of Transfiguration. The magic power of the art of Raffaelle has brought into vivid juxtaposition the contrast between the scene of glory above and that of trouble and unrest below, but we must not allow the impression made by the picture to distort our thoughts of the history. The two scenes did not synchronise. The vision was at night, and the descent from the mountain would have carried those who made the journey some way at least into the day that followed.

There came to him a certain man.—St. Mark (Mark 9:14-16) narrates more fully that as our Lord and the three were coming to the disciples, they saw a crowd, and scribes disputing with them; that when the multitude saw this they were astonished, and running to Him, saluted Him; that He then asked, “Why dispute ye with them?” and that this drew forth the answer and the prayer which in St. Matthew’s record stands without any prelude.

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.
(15) Lunatick.—See Note on Matthew 4:24. The other Gospels add some further touches. The boy had a “dumb spirit.” When the spirit seized him it “tore him,” and he foamed at the mouth, and gnashed with his teeth. Slowly, and as with difficulty, the paroxysm passed off, and the sufferer was wasting away under the violence of the attacks. The phenomena described are, it need hardly be said, those of epilepsy complicated with insanity, a combination common in all countries, and likely to be aggravated where the “seizure,” which the very word epilepsy implies, was the work of a supernatural power. A prolonged melancholy, an indescribable look of sadness, a sudden falling, and loss of consciousness, with or without convulsions, or passing into a tetanic stiffness, a periodical recurrence coinciding often with the new or full moon (hence probably the description of the boy as “lunatick”), grinding the teeth, foaming at the mouth, are all noted by medical writers as symptoms of the disease. The names by which it was known in the earlier stages of medical science were all indicative of the awe with which men looked on it. It was the “divine,” the “sacred” disease, as being a direct supernatural infliction. The Latin synonym, morbus comitialis, came from the fact that if a seizure of this kind occurred during the comitia, or assemblies of the Roman Republic, it was looked upon as of such evil omen that the meeting was at once broken up, and all business adjourned. Whether there was in this case something more than disease, viz., a distinct possession by a supernatural force, is a question which belongs to the general subject of the “demoniacs” of the Gospel records. (See Note on 8:28.) Here, at any rate, our Lord’s words (Matthew 17:21) assume, even more emphatically than elsewhere, the reality of the possession. (See Mark 9:25.)

And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.
(16) They could not cure him.—This, then, would seem to have been the subject-matter of debate. The scribes were taunting the disciples, who had probably trusted to their use of the wonted formula of their Master’s name, and were now wrangling in their own defence. Neither scribes nor disciples had thought of gaining the spiritual power which might avail by the means which they both recognised as effective.

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.
(17) O faithless and perverse generation.—The words were obviously addressed both to the scribes and the disciples. Both had shown their want of the faith which utters itself in prayer to the Father; both were alike “perverse,” in finding in the misery brought before them only an occasion of wrangling and debate. This was not the way to obtain the power to heal, and the formulae of exorcism were but as an idle charm, without the faith of which they were meant to be the expression.

How long shall I suffer you?—The words are significant as suggesting the thought that our Lord’s whole life was one long tolerance of the waywardness and perversity of men.

Bring him hither to me.—St. Mark, whose record is here by far the fullest, relates that at this moment “the spirit tare him,” and that he “wallowed foaming,” in the paroxysm of a fresh convulsion; that our Lord then asked, “How long is it ago since this came unto him?” and was told that he had suffered from his childhood; that the father appealed, half-despairing, to our Lord’s pity, “If thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us;” and was told that it depended on his own faith, “If thou canst believe; all things are possible to him that believeth;” and then burst out into the cry of a faith struggling with his despair, “Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief;” and that that faith, weak as it was, was accepted as sufficient.

And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.
(18) Jesus rebuked the devil.—Better, demon, as elsewhere in these cases of possession.

The child was cured.—Better, the boy. Mark 9:21 implies, as indeed the Greek does here, that the sufferer had passed beyond the age of childhood. St. Mark gives the words of the rebuke, “Thou dumb and deaf spirit, I command thee, come out from him, and enter no more into him.” This was followed by a great cry and another convulsion; then he fell down, “as it were, dead,” and many cried out, “He is dead.” Then Jesus took him by the hand, and raised him up, and the work of healing was accomplished. Calmness, and peace, and self-possession were seen instead of the convulsive agony. The spiritual power of the Healer had overcome the force, whether morbid or demoniac, which was the cause of his sufferings. Our Lord’s words, it need hardly be said, assume it to have been the latter; and those who deny the reality of the possession must, in their turn, assume either that He shared the belief of the people, or accepted it because they were not able to receive any other explanation of the mysterious sufferings which they had witnessed. Each hypothesis presents difficulties of its own, and we may well be content to confess our inability to solve them. (See Note on Matthew 8:28.) Speaking generally, the language of the New Testament seems to recognise, if not in all diseases, yet at least in all that disturb the moral equilibrium of man’s nature, an infraction of the divine order, and therefore rightly sees in them the work, directly or indirectly, of the great antagonist of that order. All our Lord’s works of mercy are summed up by St. Peter in the words that “He went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil” (Acts 10:38), and on this supposition the particular phenomena of each case were logically ascribed to demoniac forces.

Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?
(19) Why could not we cast him out?—The question came obviously from the disciples who had been left below when our Lord went apart with Peter, James, and John, to the Mount of the Transfiguration. They did not even now see the reason of their failure. They had dealt with this case as they had dealt with others. Why had they not met with a like issue? They did not as yet perceive that they came under our Lord’s language of rebuke, and did not look on themselves as belonging to the “faithless generation.”

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.
(20) Because of your unbelief.—The various reading, “Because of your little faith,” found in many, but not the most authoritative MSS., is interesting as an example of a tendency to tone down the apparent severity of our Lord’s words. They show conclusively that the disciples themselves came under the range of His rebuke to the “faithless and perverse generation.”

If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed.—The hyperbolical form of our Lord’s words, repeated afterwards in Matthew 21:21, excluded from the thoughts of the disciples, as from our own, the possibility of a literal interpretation. The “grain of mustard seed” was, as in Matthew 13:31, the proverbial type of the infinitely little. To “remove mountains” was, as we see in 1Corinthians 13:2 (this may, however, have been an echo of our Lord’s teaching), the proverbial type of overcoming difficulties that seemed insurmountable. The words were, we may believe, dramatised by a gesture pointing to the mountain from which our Lord and the three disciples had descended, as afterwards by a like act in reference to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 21:21).

Nothing shall be impossible unto you.—The words, absolute as they sound, are yet, ipso facto, conditional. Nothing that comes within the range of faith in the wisdom and love of God, and therefore of submission to His will, is beyond the range of prayer.

Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.
(21) This kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.—The words imply degrees in the intensity of the forms of evil ascribed to demons amounting to a generic difference. Some might yield before the energy of a human will, and the power of the divine Name, and the prayers even of a weak faith. Some, like that which comes before us here, required a greater intensity of the spiritual life, to be gained by the “prayer and fasting” of which our Lord speaks. The circumstances of the case render it probable that our Lord himself had vouchsafed to fulfil both the conditions. The disciples, we know, did not as yet fast (Matthew 9:14-15), and the facts imply that they had been weak and remiss in prayer. The words are noticeable as testifying to the real ground and motive for “fasting,” and to the gain for the higher life to be obtained, when it was accompanied by true prayer, by this act of conquest over the lower nature. So St. Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-10), and the appointment of Paul and Barnabas by the direct guidance of the Spirit (Acts 13:2), are both connected with fasting. And St. Paul, besides the “hunger and thirst” that came upon him as the incidents of his mission-work, speaks of himself as “in fastings often” (2Corinthians 11:27).

And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:
(22) While they abode in Galilee.—Better, as they went to and fro. The journeyings were apparently, like that to the coasts of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21), unconnected with the work of His ministry. Our Lord was still, as before, taking His disciples apart by themselves, and training them by fuller disclosures of His coming passion. “He would not that any man should know” of their presence (Mark 9:30), for at that crisis, as was shown only too plainly by what followed, their minds were in a state of feverish excitement, which needed to be controlled and calmed. St. Luke adds (Luke 9:44) the solemn words with which this second announcement of His death was impressed on their thoughts, “Let these sayings sink down into your ears” (literally, place these things). The substance of what they heard was the same as before, but its repetition gave it a new force, as showing that it was not a mere foreboding of disaster, passing away with the mood of sadness in which it might have seemed to originate.

And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.
(23) They were exceeding sorry.—St. Mark (Mark 9:32) and St. Luke (Luke 9:45) add that “they understood not the saying; it was hid from them, that they should not perceive it;” and that “they were afraid to ask Him.” Their sorrow was vague and dim, and they shrank from that which might make it more definite.

And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?
(24) They that received tribute money.—The word for tribute here is didrachma, and differs from that of Matthew 17:25; Matthew 22:17. The latter is the census, or Roman poll-tax; the former was the Temple-rate, paid by every male Israelite above the age of twenty (Exodus 30:13-16; 2Chronicles 24:9). It was fixed at a half-shekel a head, and the shekel being reckoned as equal to four Attic drachmæ, was known technically as the didrachma (Jos. Ant. iii. 8, § 2). It was collected even from the Jews in foreign countries, was paid into the Corban, or treasury of the Temple, and was used to defray the expenses of its services. After the destruction of Jerusalem, Vespasian ordered that it should still be collected as before, and, as if adding insult to injury, be paid to the fund for rebuilding the Temple of the Capitoline Jupiter (Jos. Wars, vii. 6, § 6). The three great festivals of the Jewish year were recognised as proper times for payment; and the relation of this narrative to John 7 makes it probable that the collectors were now calling in for the Feast of Tabernacles the payments that had not been made at the Passover or Pentecost previous. Their question implies that they half-thought that the Prophet of Nazareth had evaded or would disclaim payment. They were looking out for another transgression of the law, and as soon as He entered Capernaum (though He still held aloof from any public ministry), they tracked Him, probably to Peter’s house, and put the question to His disciple. The narrative is remarkable both in itself and as found only in St. Matthew.

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?
(25) He saith, Yes.—Peter’s answer was ready enough. There was no need for him to inquire further. His Master would pay it now as He had paid it before (this is clearly implied), as every devout Israelite would pay. Both the application and the answer suggest the thought that our Lord was looked upon as domiciled in the house of Peter. The answer, however, was given without thought of the altered conditions of the case. He had not yet learnt to grasp the full meaning of the truth which he had himself so recently confessed.

Jesus prevented him.—Literally, anticipated, The word is nowhere else used of our Lord’s teaching. Its significance is explained by what follows. Peter and the other disciples were about to come to Him with a question of a very different kind (Matthew 18:1), rising out of their mutual rivalries, and therefore, before that question could be asked, He anticipated the eager disciple that He might lead him on one step further into the mysteries of the kingdom.

Take custom or tribute.—The first word points to the duties on the export or import of goods, the octroi, in modern language, levied on provisions as they were brought in or out of towns; the second, as stated above, to the poll-tax paid into the Roman treasury, which followed on the taxing or registration of Luke 2:2; Acts 5:37. Both were probably farmed by the capitalist publicani, and collected by the “publicans” of the Gospels, or other inferior officers.

Of their own children, or of strangers?—The first word can hardly be taken of merely natural relationship. The “children of the kingdom” (Matthew 13:38) are not the king’s sons, but his home-born, free subjects. The “strangers” were the aliens, the men of another race, who owned his sovereignty.

Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.
(26) Of strangers.—The answer must be looked at from the Eastern rather than the European theory of taxation. To the Jews, as to other Eastern nations, direct taxation was hateful as a sign of subjugation. It had roused them to revolt under Rehoboam (1Kings 12:4), and they had stoned the officer who was over the tribute. They had groaned under it when imposed by the Syrian kings (1 Maccabees 10:29-30; 1 Maccabees 11:35). It was one of their grievances under Herod and his sons (Jos. Ant. xvii. 8, § 4). Judas of Galilee and his followers had headed an insurrection against it as imposed by the Romans (Acts 5:37). It was still (as we see in Matthew 22:17) a moot point between the Pharisees and Herodians whether any Jew might lawfully pay it. Peter naturally answered our Lord’s question at once from the popular Galilean view.

Then are the children free.—The words are commonly interpreted as simply reminding Peter of his confession, and pressing home its logical consequence that He, the Christ, as the Son of God. was not liable to the “tribute” which was the acknowledgment of His Father’s sovereignty. This was doubtless prominent in the answer, but its range is, it is believed, wider. (1.) If this is the only meaning, then the Israelites who paid the rate are spoken of as “aliens,” or “foreigners,” in direct opposition to the uniform language of Scripture as to their filial relation to Jehovah. (2.) The plural used not only in this verse but in that which follows, the “lest we should offend them,” the payment for Peter as well as for Himself, all indicate that we are dealing with a general truth of wide application. Some light is thrown upon the matter by a fact of contemporary history. The very point which our Lord decides had been debated between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Temple-rate question was to them what the Church-rate question has been in modern politics. After a struggle of seven days in the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees carried their point, made it (what it had not been before) a compulsory payment, and kept an annual festival in commemoration of their victory. Our Lord, placing the question on its true ground, pronounces judgment against the Pharisees on this as on other points. They were placing the Israelite on the level of a “stranger,” not of a “son.” The true law for “the children of the kingdom” was that which St. Paul afterwards proclaimed: “not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2Corinthians 9:7).

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.
(27) Lest we should offend them.—Those who note the finer shades of language, can scarcely fail to trace in these words the tone of what we should describe in a human teacher as a half-playful, half-serious irony. When they were last at Capernaum, the disciples, Peter probably their spokesman (Matthew 15:12; Matthew 15:15), had remonstrated with their Master for proclaiming a bold, broad principle of spiritual morality against the traditions of the Schools: “Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended when they heard that saying?” Now He proclaims another principle, equally bold and far-reaching, and as certain to offend. He reminds the disciple of his former fear, sees that some such feeling is already rising up in his mind, and recognises that within certain limits it is legitimate. To have refused to pay the didrachma on purely personal grounds would have been to claim prematurely that title of the Christ, the “Son of God,” which He had told His disciples at this crisis not to claim for Him (Matthew 16:20). To have done so on general grounds, common to Himself and others, would have been to utter a truth for which men were not prepared, and which they were certain to pervert. Those who had not learnt the higher law of the free gift of love would be tempted to make their freedom an excuse for giving nothing. Devout and generous minds would be shocked at what would seem to them to cut off the chief support of the outward glory of the House of God. The spirit in which our Lord spoke and acted was one with that which was the guide of St. Paul’s life: “It is good” to surrender even the freedom which we might well claim, if by it “thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak” (Romans 14:21).

A piece of money.—The Greek gives the name of the coin, the stater. It was reckoned as equal to four drachmæ, and would therefore pay the didrachma both for Peter and his Master. Incidentally, we may note the light which this throws on the poverty of our Lord and His disciples. They had returned from their wanderings in the north of Palestine, occupying some three or four weeks, and they were now absolutely penniless, not so much as a stater between them. The money was to be given for both, and so far, as has been said, our Lord includes Peter in the list of those who, as “children of the kingdom,” might have claimed exemption. No payment is made for the other disciples: most probably they had homes of their own, where the didrachma would be applied for, and were not living with Peter.

We cannot ignore the many points of contrast which difference this narrative from that of our Lord’s miracles in general. (1.) There is no actual record that a miracle was wrought at all. We expect the narrative to end with the words, “and he went and found as it had been said unto him,” but we do not find them. The story is told for the sake of the teaching, not of the wonder. Men have inferred that a miracle must have been wrought from a literal interpretation of the promise. (2.) On this assumption the wonder stands alone by itself in its nature and surroundings. It does not originate in our Lord’s compassion, nor depend upon faith in the receiver, as in the miracles of healing, nor set forth a spiritual truth, like that of the withered fig-tree. It is so far distinct and peculiar. This would not in itself, perhaps, be of much, if any, weight against a direct statement of a fact, but it may be allowed to be of some significance in the exceptional and therefore conspicuous absence of such a statement. On these grounds some have been led to explain our Lord’s words as meaning, in figurative language which the disciple would understand, that Peter was to catch the fish, and sell it for a stater. Most interpreters, however, have been content to take our Lord’s words in their literal sense, and to believe that they were literally fulfilled. If we accept this view the narrative has its parallel in the well-known story of the ring of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos (Herod. iii. 39-41).

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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