Matthew 17:14-27, Down from the Mountain


[September 2, 2012] I missed the opportunities to expound on the text of Matthew 15:39—17:13, once last Sunday and once on Transfiguration Sunday, though notes are available in this blog from when I worked on the text four years ago (The Revelation of Christ and the Church and To See Christ in His Kingdom). The lengthy section we are in began in 13:54, and as it progressed we saw typologically demonstrated the reality of the church—the miracles of the loaves and fishes—and an emphasis on its inclusion of believing gentiles (the sign of Jonah). These narratives concluded with Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and Jesus’ revelation that upon this rock He would build His church, and His disclosure that to Peter—the “son of Jonah”—He would give the keys of the kingdom to open the church to the gentiles (which we see in the Acts of the Apostles).

Then, for the first time, Jesus reveals to the disciples the cross and resurrection (16:21). Certainly the “way of the cross” is impressed on the gospel from the beginning, but here for the first time it becomes explicit. Moreover, this foretelling of His death and resurrection takes place again and again (17:22-23 and 20:17-19; we might also consider as a pair 26:2 where Jesus again foretold His death and 28:63 where His enemies reported that He had foretold His resurrection), and accenting the narratives and teachings that follow. The subsection, then, from the first prediction in 16:21 until His entry into Jerusalem in 21:1, is overshadowed by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Three or four points are being made here: (1) Flesh and blood could not, but the transcendent Father (who is in the heavens) does—reveal to Jesus’ disciples who He really is: He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. (2) This divine revelation is the foundation upon which Jesus is building His qahal (His convocation, that is, His called gathering, or “church”). (3a) Just as His way in the world is the way of death and resurrection, (3b) so the way of this gathering-to-Himself (of Jews and of the estranged gentiles) is also the way of death and resurrection. Like the Messiah Himself, His qahal (the church) is set apart from the world in this way, a theme that has been running through Matthew’s gospel from the beginning.

The first part of this subsection, 16:21—17:21, spells this out and therefore is to be understood as introducing what follows. “If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul for My sake shall find it. For what shall a human being be profited if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul? Or what shall a human being give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will repay each one according to his doings” (16:24-27). Jesus speaks here of the salvation of the soul being dependent on losing one’s soul by denying oneself and taking up one’s own cross and following Jesus in the way that He was going. The way that Jesus is telling His disciples that they must take is this way: the way of the cross—losing the soul by denying the self and following Jesus in the way that He was taking (to the cross).

It is, however, about the salvation of the soul: “whoever loses his soul for My sake shall find it.” The Father “will repay each one according to his doings.” There is a payment or reward given to the disciple who is faithful; and a corresponding compensation given to those disciples who are not faithful (who lose or forfeit their soul). Though Jesus will suffer many things and be killed, He will be raised and will come in His kingdom as the Son of Man in glory. Likewise, though we may lose our soul, we will find it on the other side of the judgment in the kingdom. In what follows, Jesus shows to Peter, James and John the glory of the kingdom to which they will be entitled if they are faithful. In the scene of the transfiguration, the divinity of Jesus shines through the veil of His humanity. He is glorified, if only in a vision (verse 9). If we suffer with Him we will be glorified with Him (Romans 8:17). Implied in the text is the shekhinah—that the glory that rests or settles on Jesus is the presence of God that was on Sinai and dwelt in the Temple. When the voice says, “Hear Him!” it echoes the Shema (sh’ma Yisrael of Deuteronomy 6:4—“Hear, O Israel, YHWH is our God, YHWH is One”), implying that the glory of Jesus is not separate from but rather is none other than God’s own glory. Thus, our own glorification will be the same. We will be “divinized,” that is, participants in the divine nature. Our glory will not be the glory of our ego, but our souls will become transparent for the glory of God. By losing our soul (the worldly construct of our self-identity by the soul’s insularity from the reality of spirit and nature and its attachment to ideations) we recover it so that its original creativity and freedom and child-like character and love is brought forth and it becomes a joyful expression of heaven and earth as God’s own image and reflection: this is the salvation of the soul, our “finding” or gaining” it.

The qahal or church, the gathering to which Jesus calls us by calling us to Himself through the revelation of Himself, is a matter of God’s grace. There are no conditions or prerequisites other than that we hear His call and come to Him. By God’s grace we give Jesus our allegiance and loyalty, our fealty and fidelity: He is our Lord. It does not mean that we “measure up.” Only that we stick to Him. If we look at the disciples, we see them failing often and hardly ever understanding. They have “little faith.” Yet they remain His disciples, for He sustains and keeps them (it is not because of any entitlement or right that they have). This is the reality of the church—it is all of grace.

When Jesus calls us and we enter His sphere as His disciples, however, we also come under the rule or government of the kingdom of the heavens. The Father requires of us. Now that we belong to Christ, we are called upon to be faithful, to follow Him, to be different than the world. From the perspective of the kingdom, we are each rewarded according to our doings. How we live matters with respect to the recompense. It is really about our spiritual growth and progress. We will appear before the judgment seat of Christ and He will determine whether we have been good and faithful slaves and may enter the joy of our Master. This joy or inheritance refers to the time of the kingdom of the heavens, when Christ overcomes all His enemies and “abolishes all rule and all authority and power” (1 Corinthians 15:24-25) and all things are brought under the headship of Christ (Ephesians 1:10). This is temporal; not eternal. The decision made with respect to us does not refer to the gift of eternal life and our status as born-again children of God, which is a matter of grace.

Not all disciples will enjoy the glory of the kingdom, because the majority will try to save their souls instead of taking the way of the cross. Only a minority will enter the joy of their Master, and this is represented by the fact that Jesus only brought three of the twelve disciples “up to a high mountain” to see the glory of the Son of Man (which He will have when He comes in His kingdom) in His transfiguration. This vision of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6) is worth contemplating, for it is the light of the Gospel that shines through our proclamation of the cross. “We all with unveiled face, beholding and reflecting like a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, even as from the Lord Spirit” (2 Corinthians 4:18). This beholding of the Lord is what enables us to transform inwardly, to overcome being soulish and to become spiritual and to bear the fruit of the spirit instead of the works of the flesh.

But while inwardly we may (and should) hold on to this heavenly vision in our spirits, we also need to outwardly come down from the mountain (17:9) and be with the world in our bodies.

The Faith that We Need (Matthew 17:14-21)

When Jesus comes down from the mountain with His three disciples, they rejoin the other disciples who are with a crowd. A man steps out from the crowd and falls on his knees before Jesus and begs for help on behalf of another who is helpless. “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has epilepsy and suffers terribly; for often he falls into the fire and often into the water.” A father pleads for mercy for his son, who is a “lunatic” (moon-struck). His next words are: “And I brought him to Your disciples, and they were not able to heal him.” This is the issue here. Jesus gave His disciples the power to heal the sick and to cast out demons (10:8); yet in this case they are powerless. What is going on? Of course, in our experience the sick are often not miraculously healed; so we ought to be able to relate.

Jesus however expresses His frustration. “O unbelieving and perverted generation! How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” The words, “how long” (literally, “until when”), show that Jesus is thinking of His departure from this world (see 9:15) in death and resurrection. As readers we are still in that shadow. In other words, this scene shows us the way things will be after the bridegroom is taken from us. When Jesus speaks of the unbelieving and perverted generation, of course He means the crowds, but His words cannot fail to include His incapable disciples as well. After announcing His death, He departed from them and when up on a mountain (see 28:16), a picture of His depart after His death and resurrection, and the disciples who are left behind are unable to heal the sick one and cast out the demon.

In the days to come—our day—unbelievers would appeal to the church and get nowhere. So they appeal directly to Jesus. “Bring him here to Me,” Jesus says. He heals the boy without more ado.

The disciples—and we ourselves—want to know, “Why were we not able to cast it out?” Jesus says, “Because of your little faith.” He has often spoken of their little faith (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). This does not refer to the power of positive thinking or of mental assertion. That is just magical thinking and has nothing to do with this. The faith of which Jesus speaks always has to do with His own Person, with who He is. They do not have enough trust in Him. If He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, then faith in this revelation of Him is what would enable the church to charge the gates of Hades (16:17-18). It IS what has always enabled the church to accomplish great things.

“If you have faith like a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you.” Literally, faith has never moved any mountains. The mountain of which Jesus speak is a hyperbole and refers to that which is insurmountable and impossible. Faith being like a mustard seed refers to the littleness of its size. Yet Jesus just finished saying that the reason they were not able to cast out the demon is because of the littleness of their faith. If faith as little as a mustard seed can move mountains, what then is the problem?

If we recall the parable of the mustard seed, we may recall that in order for the mustard seed to become a tree a man had to take it and sow it in his field. It needed to fall into the soil and “die.” Perhaps this is reading too much into the Lord’s words, but maybe the mustard seed faith must be held in the life of a disciple who is willing to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (16:24). It is not enough to have a kind of faith that does not recognize who Jesus is (faith such as the crowd had); nor is it enough to have the faith of Peter but not accept the cross with which that faith must be borne (16:22). We must hold the faith of Peter within the life of true discipleship, discipleship that is willing to lose the soul and take up the cross as its way.

Some manuscripts have the words: “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” After the bridegroom leaves us, then we shall fast; in fact, our life along the pathway of the cross must be sustained by prayer and fasting. We saw in fact that the church went forward in the Acts of the Apostles when people prayed and fasted (see, for example, 1:14; 2:42; 6:4; 13:2-3; 14:23; etc.).

This miracle story relates a single incident but typologically it is placed when Jesus comes down from the mountain with the three disciples at the end of a subsection that began with the first prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection (16:21). Might the “mountain” being moved (we will hear this again in 21:21) refer to the movement of the church? (In which case, there would be an association with the mount of transfiguration as well as the Temple mount, as in 21:21, as well as to all that is associated with mountains in the gospel.) This section, 16:21-17:21, after all, follows the introduction of the church in 16:18 and introduces the next section, 17:21—20:16, which is about the living of the church. The movement of the church forward, in bringing salvation to the world, depends upon the faith of the mustard seed (a cross-carrying faith), and it depends on prayer and fasting.

The Second Prediction (17:22-23)

The second prediction introduces the second subsection concerning the church in the light of the cross (or in the light of the kingdom of the heavens, basically coming down to the same thing). In the first subsection Jesus revealed the way of the cross and the glory that follows it, both for Himself and for the disciple who would follow Him. The way of the church is along this path. That is the gist of 16:21—17:21. Now we come to the second subsection. It is about the living of the church in the light of cross. Though the cross is not explicitly mentioned as it is in 16:24, the path of self-denial is clearly laid out. It ends with the words: “Thus shall the last be first and the first last” (20:16).

Like the first subsection, it is introduced by a prediction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. While the first prediction speaks of Jesus “suffering many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes,” this one speaks of being “delivered into the hands of men,” probably referring to the gentiles (Pontius Pilate and his soldiers). The church begins with Israel but expands to include the gentiles. Whereas in the first prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus, here it just says that the disciples were greatly grieved. The third prediction will introduce a subsection that speaks particularly about the coming of the kingdom, so it is inclusive of both Jews and gentiles, but it is followed by the disciples vying for first place. What distinguishes each prediction is the direction it is tending and its “flavoring.”

The Freedom of the Sons (17:24-27)

The first incident in this subsection introduces a large collection of material, chapters 18:1—20:16. Yet it is peculiar and enigmatic. Jesus is on His way to the cross (Jerusalem), leaving the Hermon mountains in the north and heading for Judea (19:1). On the way, He stops at Capernaum where He had been living and where Peter had a house. Those who collect the Temple tax came to Peter and asked, “Does not your Teacher pay the Temple tax?” This was a yearly tax that all Jewish men were expected to pay to support the Temple in Jerusalem. Peter, who was a faithful Jew (Acts 10:14) and would continue to be, of course assumes that the answer is yes.

Then he comes into the house and Jesus anticipated him. Here we have a private teaching moment, not shared with the crowds. What follows is an interesting exchange.

Jesus explains to Peter that He is not obligated to pay the Temple tax because He is the Son. Yet He tells Peter to pay it for Him so that “we” do not cause them to stumble. Jesus then provides Peter with the coin (miraculously), though Peter has to work to get it. “Take that and give it to them for Me and you.” That Jesus is providing the payment for both Peter and Himself makes me suspect that the “sons” who are exempt from the Temple tax include Peter.

Two things are going on here. One has to do with the freedom of the sons (and who Jesus intends by the sons), the other has to do with not causing offense.

What has this to do with the context? The first point is that to which the sons are not obligated. The second point introduces us to the freedom of the sons. This is the basis for the instructions that follow. The third point has to do with offense. In chapter 18 Jesus warns against offending one another.

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