According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew
Part 18: Transfiguration, Testing and Taxes
We continue to explore the central section of the gospel 'According to Matthew.' We are seeing many turning points in the story. Jesus talks less about the Kingdom and more about the Cross. There are clearer statements about His person and His mission. There is a developing understanding on the part of His disciples. There is more of a focus on those who accept His message and less said about those who oppose Him.
We begin this chapter by traveling to the heights of a mountain and witnessing a burst of glory. We celebrate this event in the church calendar as Transfiguration Sunday. Let us read though Matthew's account of the events, beginning with verses 1 thru 3 of chapter 17.
Matthew 17:1 After six days Jesus took with Him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
The passage begins by telling us that six days have passed. One presumes that as nothing of note is recorded that things have been quiet. Certainly the disciples have had a lot to think about with both Peter's confession that Jesus was the Son of the Living God and Jesus teaching them that He was traveling towards His betrayal in Jerusalem. What they don't know is that they are about to receive a wondrous revelation of the significance of Jesus.
Such is almost a picture of our own spiritual journey. Sometimes we feel like we are getting nowhere. Our minds are full of questions. What seems plain to some of those around us, is still like a fog in our own minds. We think and we ponder and wonder if we'll ever be able to get our head around it. But who knows? Just around the corner God may well have things in store that help us see more clearly.
This event was also important for Jesus Himself. We don't know exactly how His mind worked, but we are given indications that He was constantly faced with choices. We see Him rebuking Satan in the wilderness temptations and pleading in the Garden of Gethsemane that there could be some other way to fulfill His ministry than drinking such a deep cup of suffering as the Cross. Doing 'His father's will' was never so clearly defined that He didn't need to spend time seeking His Father's way in prayer. During such times He often received the assurance that He was on the right track and that He was pursuing the right goals.
William Barclay suggests the mountain they travel up was Mount Hermon, about fourteen miles from Ceasera Phillipi, (where Peter's confession of Jesus bring the Messiah had taken place.) He writes: “A strange peculiarity has been noticed about Mount Hermon, in the extreme rapidity of the formation of cloud upon the summit. In a few minutes a thick cap forms over the top of the mountain, and as quickly disperses and entirely disappears”.
A friend in a previous church, who was a regular mountain walker, recounted an experience he once had in Wales, of reaching a mountain top as the clouds descended and how the sun lit up the clouds bathing everything in an eerie light. Apparently to seasoned climbers the experience is known as a 'transfiguration.'
As often appears when we look at these Biblical stories there is a rational explanation of events as well as a miraculous understanding. Often the miracle is found not so much in the outward events, but in the timing of the action and in the words that are spoken. Over the years of my ministry I have often observed that miracles are not always about what has happened, but about the synchronicity of when things have happened. God has a way of putting things together that defies explanation.
Getting back to the mountain; what happens there? Firstly, we see that it is not the mountain that is transfigured, nor even the disciples that are transfigured, but that this is an event centered upon Jesus. In verse 2 we read 'He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light.' In Greek the word 'transfigure' literally means 'to undergo a metamorphosis' (like what happens to a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly.)
In Jewish tradition such transcendental signs of glory were usually reserved for angels, but occasionally manifested themselves in the lives of earthly beings such as Adam, Abraham and Moses. Moses, when he came down from the mountain, had a face glowing with such an intensity that he had to cover himself with a veil. (Exodus 34:29-33).
We read in Exodus 34:34-35; But whenever he (Moses) entered the LORD's presence to speak with Him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the LORD. So we see on the mountain something of divine significance happening to the person of Jesus.
Secondly, we see Jesus joined by two Old Testament characters of great significance, one of them Moses, the other Elijah. Both Moses and Elijah were prophets who were initially rejected by the people but were eventually vindicated by God, both worked miracles, and both were considered in First Century Judaism to be figures who after death were taken up to heaven. Moses burial place was never known and Elisha witnessed Elijah's body being carried away by chariot's of angels. Both were symbols of death and Resurrection. Barclay points out that Moses was associated with the law, whilst Elijah was associated with the prophets.
“Moses was the greatest of all law-givers; he was supremely and uniquely the man who brought God's law to men. Elijah was the greatest of all the prophets; in him the voice of God spoke to men with unique directness. These two men were the twin peaks of Israel's religious history and achievement. It is as if the greatest figures in Israel's history came to Jesus, as He was setting out on the greatest adventure into the unknown, and told Him to go on. In them all history rose up and pointed Jesus in His way... they witnessed to Jesus that He was on the right way and bade him go out on His adventurous exodus to Jerusalem and to Calvary.”
In the midst of all this Peter, the disciple, is about to make a second error in his interpretation of events. In the last chapter we had Jesus telling him “Get thee behind me Satan,” when Peter sought to persuade Jesus that His journey to the Cross could not be the will of God. We continue with the events of the Transfiguration, verses 4-9 ;
Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," He said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."
Peter recognizes that something awesome is taking place. "Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (verse 4). It didn't get much better than this. Indeed, could anything top this? Moses, Elijah and Jesus! On a mountaintop! If only they could get people to come up the mountain top and see this, how could they not believe? So Peter has the good idea of putting up tents (or booths or tabernacles or shelters) so that the experience can be captured for everybody, for all time.
Whenever you have a mountain-top experience the temptation is always to want to set it in stone. I have come across people in my ministry whom I describe as 'Convention Groupies.” They go off to a conference somewhere and have a truly amazing experience, but then can't let the experience go. They are sometimes so focused on the experience that it hinders their service in their local church, because they are always looking back, always making negative comparisons and somehow, life down in the valley is just not good enough.
We do something similar with our church history. We want to go back to the golden age. We want the church to be the church 'that was' when it was full and the crowds came and every pew was filled and the preaching was awesome and the choirs were stupendous and we could barely house the Sunday School. The attraction of 'Old Time Religion' and the pull of nostalgia can truly be a powerful force.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying there is anything wrong with the church being full or the Sunday School overflowing. The good days truly were good days. Days when people said along with Peter "Lord, it is good for us to be here.” But like the vision on the mountain, the view faded. Those times can not be contained or bottled or recycled. We have to come down from the mountain and deal with the valley. The temptation is to always go back.
But before Peter has time to truly reflect on the impossibility of what he is asking, the text tells us; 'While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. '
Often in the Old Testament the cloud is a visible sign of God's presence. God communicated with Moses in a cloud. The Tabernacle and the Temple were possessed by a cloud. This particular cloud overshadowed them with brightness... and it terrified them. They hit the deck, hiding their faces.
From within the cloud comes an assurance of the glory of Jesus. "This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" The last time we heard such words was at the baptism of Jesus as He began His ministry. Now, as He is about to descend from the mountain and walk towards Jerusalem and the Cross, we have a further assurance that this is God's work. Moses and Elijah were great servants of God, but Jesus alone is described as being the Son of God.
Moses was a great intercessor, always carrying the people in his heart. Elijah was the great reformer who changed the face of Israelite religion. But, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself. The love of Jesus for the people was greater than the love of Moses, the reforms that Jesus would bring were beyond anything Elijah could achieve. Disciples are told 'Listen to Him!"
As I reflect upon this passage I feel the phrase 'Listen to Him!' is the most challenging in the whole chapter. We have our agendas, we have our plans, we have our baggage and our history. We often are proud of the fact that we allow our past to inform our present, our heritage to inform our future. We like our mountain-tops! We'd like to put up a few tents and stay there.
Then along comes this blinding, scary, revelation. The old has gone the new has come. It's a new day. There are fresh challenges. The way things have always been done is not the way things always have to be done. And the only way we can navigate these challenges is by listening to Jesus. 'Listen to Him!' is our challenge. The old textbooks don't apply to the our situation. We are not walking through the cities ministering to a willing people, we are headed towards the Cross and facing strong opposition.
Things for churches belonging to traditional denominations in demographically shifting communities like ours are likely to get worse before they get better. As I think about that, it is scary. The blinding revelation that the glory days have gone and may not ever return can cause us to fear for our future and feel like hitting the deck and burying our faces in the dust.
See what happens to the disciples when that happens? As Matthew Henry writes in his commentary... 'Christ graciously raised them up with abundance of tenderness' Verse 7 ' Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," He said. "Don't be afraid." 'His approaches banished their fears; and when they apprehended that they were apprehended of Christ, they needed no more to make them easy.... Note. It is Christ by His word and the power of His grace going along with it, that raises up good men from their dejections, and silences their fears; and none but Christ can do it”
As though to underscore the idea that 'none but Christ can do it' when the disciples do get up off the floor 'they saw no one except Jesus.' If all that we've got is Jesus, then we've actually got all we need. If the only thing we can see is Jesus, then it reminds us what the true focus of the church was always meant to be. Sometimes only when everything else is stripped away do we come back to what really matters. God commands regarding Jesus, whom God loves and with whom God is well pleased, “Listen to Him.”
How do we listen? Through prayer. Through Word. Through worship. Through service. Nothing new there. Except for the fact that in order to live serve and follow we have to get up off our faces and come down from the mountain. Which is what the disciples do.
And as they are coming down, again Jesus insists that they keep these things to themselves. Spreading the word that they'd just seen Moses and Elijah up a mountain, would not help their cause in any way whatsoever. What happened on the mountain, stayed on the mountain, and I would suggest also stayed in their hearts as an encouragement for the difficult days that lay ahead of them. But we have a way to go yet. And as always, the disciples have questions. Verses 10 thru 13.
The disciples asked him, "Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?" Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
We saw from the very beginning of the gospel 'According to Matthew' that one of his big themes is the Kingdom of God (and the way the Kingdom of God is different from the kingdoms of the earth). In chapter 13 we heard, through parables such as the 'wheat and weeds' that grew up together, that the way the Kingdom was coming, was not as a flash of light but through gradual growth that was mostly unseen and barely recognizable.
The opponents of Jesus insisted that when the Kingdom arrived it would be sudden and unmistakable. Elijah would appear and everybody would see it! That's what lies behind Jesus's words that Elijah would 'restore all things'; verse 11; Jesus replied, "To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.'
But, in contradiction to the thinking of the day, Jesus claims that that the 'Restoration of all things' had already begun. It had begun when John the Baptist began his ministry. Back in Matthew 11:13-14, at the time of John's execution by Herod, Jesus taught the disciples “ For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. 14 And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. (Interestingly enough, who did we just meet on the mountain? Elijah representing the prophets and Moses representing the law.)
This is an affirmation that the Kingdom of God had appeared in their midst but it was only visible to eyes of faith. To quote the NIBC 'The Kingdom expectation, the Elijah expectation, the son of Man expectation, the expectation of the Messiah – all are variations of the redemptive hope that God has not abandoned creation... but is acting to redeem it” (though that final redemption will only come at the end of all ages).
Both John and Jesus offer the Kingdom of God to us, not as a sudden and blinding once and for all cleansing explosion, but offer a Kingdom that can only be discovered through devotion, intimacy with God, service and sacrifice. Jesus has laid it down that the way of God's service is never the way which blasts people out of existence, but always one which woos them with love.
Having descended form the mountain... it is back once more into service. You may remember that at this point the disciples are in training. They, along with Jesus, are seeking to exercise a ministry of healing and deliverance. But sometimes it just didn't go according to plan, as our next encounter shows us; verses 14 thru 21.
When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. "Lord, have mercy on my son," he said. "He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him." "You unbelieving and perverse generation," Jesus replied, "how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me." Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, "Why couldn't we drive it out?" He replied, "Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you."
It appears from the way the story is worded that whilst three of the disciples were up on the mountain, the rest have been trying to carry on the ministry without them. There is a boy suffering from seizures, in Greek the word is translated as being 'moonstruck', and the disciples seem powerless to help. The father, though disappointed in the disciples, still has faith in Jesus to be able to help him.
Could be there's a little picture here of the church. Churches sometimes (often times) fail to live up to the expectations people place upon them. Churches are communities of everyday people and every one of us is a work in progress, so it is hardly surprising that there are times when we simply fail to be the communities God calls us to be. I've heard people expressing that 'Jesus they like, but the church, not so much!'
In response, and it's not exactly clear if Jesus is addressing the disciples, the father or the crowd in general, Jesus (in the words of the Message Bible) declares: “What a generation! You have no sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this?” The boy is bought to Him and the boy is healed.
Maybe we should give thanks that God works in spite of our epic failures! That despite our lack of sensitivity to the moving of God's Spirit, despite our blindness to God's ways, despite our inability to focus and discern God's direction, despite everything, God still works in our world through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe we do sometimes get mountain-top experiences, maybe we at times gain a sense of clarity, but, boy, when we get back down in the valley we soon realize that we have a lot to learn, particularly about mountain moving faith!
When Jesus speaks about moving mountains He is drawing upon rabbinical teaching of the day. A great teacher was known as an 'uprooter' or even a 'pulverizer' of mountains. The phrase refereed to having the ability to remove difficulties or obstacles that blocked understanding.
Whilst with God nothing is impossible, the challenge in trying to achieve anything for the Kingdom is whether or not we are truly with God or acting, sometimes with the best of misguided intentions, on God's behalf. This was the lesson Peter had learned on the mountain-top. Yes... building booths and capturing the moment was a nice idea. But it was not God's plan. God's plan for redemption is given in our next few verses; 22 thru 23.
When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life." And the disciples were filled with grief.
As we close this section on the Transfiguration, with all it's highs and lows, Matthew draws us back to the central message of Christian faith :- the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From their pre-resurrection perspective, they don't really hear the part about Jesus being raised to life on the third day. Presumably they think that He is talking about the way everybody was raised to life in the next world after they had died. Their focus is entirely upon the insistence He makes that He will be killed.
This time Peter does not try and put him right! Good news here? The disciples are making progress. Slow progress as it may seem, they are starting to get it. I'm sure we can identify with that! I cannot speak for anybody else but my spiritual understanding has never been a journey of great leaps and bounds. It comes slowly. It's going to take a lifetime and I'm going to make a lot of mistakes on the way... but, Praise God, I'm learning!
And one of the things that I need to keep being reminded of is the centrality of the Cross and the Resurrection. Lose sight of those two, or over-emphasize one at the expense of the other and you lose your focus. Too much focus on the Cross leads (as it did to the disciples) to grief. Too much emphasis on the Resurrection and we are left on the mountain-top being so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.
And if you think we've reached the lowest point of the valley or are still not quite ready to see how the Kingdom of God may interact with any earthly kingdoms, then we are about to finish this chapter with a question about taxes. You can't get much more down to earth than dealing with taxes! Verses 24 thru 27.
After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?" "Yes, he does," he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes--from their own children or from others?" "From others," Peter answered. "Then the children are exempt," Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours." (Mat 17:1-27 NIV)
The two-drachma temple tax was equivalent to two days pay of an average working persons income, that was payed to maintain the workings of the Temple. In Exodus 30:13 it is laid down that every male Jew over twenty years of age had to pay this tax. The temple was an expensive business. There were morning and evening sacrifices, there was the incense, there were the hangings and the priests robes (some like the High Priests robe were as opulent as those of royalty) not to mention all the usual expenses a large public building would face.
At the time of Jesus though, who paid the tax, how regularly and whether or not there were exemptions had become an issue. Some suggested only the wealthy were subject to temple tax. Others that it should be a voluntary contribution. Some suggested anybody belonging to a priestly family should be exempt. Others suggested it was a once only contribution.
Jesus, as one who was known as a teacher and having a recognizable ministry, came under one of those disputed categories. Some would say it was His duty to pay, others would suggest He was exempt.
Peter is asked a question. “Your rabbi? He pays his taxes; doesn't he?” Peter reply's 'Yes. Sure He does.” But when he goes into the house Jesus challenges him, calling him by his former name, Simon. 'Simon, what do you think? When a King levies taxes, who pays? - His children or his subjects?” The correct answer is of course; his subjects.
So here was King Jesus being asked to pay a tax on His Father's temple! Hadn't they just been up the mountain and heard that voice... 'This is my beloved Son'. Jesus was the child of the King, not a subject. He should be exempt. But, of course, only the disciples recognized Him as King. And the master plan was not that His mission culminated in his arrest for tax evasion. There were bigger fish to fry! So Jesus tells Simon to go fishing and in that way they would find the money to pay the temple tax (even though they didn't really need to pay it).
The fact that the coin is found in a fishes mouth only adds to the confusion. So He shouldn't pay the tax, but He did anyway, but He didn't really because the money was found in a fishes mouth? We won't go there, but rather observe that the teaching here is very similar to that of Paul when he writes about freedom.
In 1 Corinthians 6-9 Paul talks about Christian freedom and relates it to the eating of food that had been dedicated to idols. Paul writes of how, as Christians, we were free to eat whatever we liked, but suggested that if we did so, it may lead others to think that idols had some reality to them. Therefore it would be in the best interests of our 'weaker in the faith brothers and sisters' not to express that freedom and be careful about our eating.
In this passage Jesus suggests that disciples are to go the 'second mile' in their efforts to avoid placing stumbling-blocks before others. The language recalls the previous chapter where the Greek word for 'scandal' (translated also as 'stumbling stone' or 'offense') was used in His rebuke to Simon-Peter. The whole section touches upon the proper use of freedom. Do we interpret our freedom as meaning we can do whatever we wish or do we see our commitment to Jesus Christ as meaning we are set free to serve?
Transfiguration, Testing and Taxes. Quite a combination for a single chapter. But certainly some things to consider. How do we live in the valley? What does it mean to have faith? How should we live as citizens of the kingdom?
In chapters 18 through 20 we will find further teaching about the Kingdom, about child-like faith, about forgiveness and about grace. We have come down from the mountain. We are headed towards Jerusalem. But all that... next time.