Sons or Strangers
Updated: May 2, 2022
And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:16-17
We've now reached a turning point in Jesus' ministry. In the last chapter, we saw that at least Peter has acknowledged an understanding among the disciples that Jesus is the Messiah. We also read about Jesus' first prediction of His death and resurrection. Now a week has passed and Jesus takes three of His closest disciples with Him up on a high mountain.
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Matthew 17:1-8
I included the verses from Jesus' baptism from several chapters ago now, because of that echo at the end of God proclaiming Jesus as His Son,
Matthew 3:17 - "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
Matthew 17:5 - "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."
Now we could speculate all day what the disciples saw when Jesus was transfigured, but I think focusing on that misses the point just as much as Peter did when he wanted to set up tents for the three heavenly beings they saw before them. What I have read from other scholars, that I think has some validity to it is the symbolism of Moses and Elijah being the ones speaking with Jesus on the mountain. Moses throughout the Old and New Testaments is a representative of the Law of God, we already know that Jesus has come to fulfill that Law. We've heard of Elijah before in Matthew when Jesus explains that John the Baptist is the "Elijah" that the Old Testament prophecy was speaking of when it foretold the one who would prepare the way for the coming Messiah (Matthew 3:3; Matthew 11:7-10,13-14). He seems to have twofold symbolism then: first as a representative of the Prophets and then as one who has not died. We don't have time to get into it right now, but you can go read how Elijah was taken up into heaven in 2 Kings 2:1-14. Just as the Jews had been anticipating the coming Messiah, they had also been anticipating the return of Elijah. To this day, they will lay a place for Elijah at their Passover tables.
After this incredible experience, Jesus' disciples also express confusion over this prophecy.
And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” And the disciples asked him, “Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” He answered, “Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist. Matthew 17:9-13
There are three takeaways I want us to see in Jesus' explanation:
Elijah does come (future tense)
Elijah has already come (past tense)
The Son of Man must also suffer at their hands (future tense)
Matthew makes it clear that the disciples understood Jesus to be referring to John the Baptist as the Elijah who had already come. What then does Jesus mean that "Elijah does come, and he will restore all things?" I have seen this read two ways: the first is that Jesus is affirming that "Elijah" in the form of John the Baptist does come and prepare the way for the Messiah (the prophecy is fulfilled). The second is that Jesus is pointing the disciples to His second coming after His resurrection, which we can infer from His command to them that they are to tell no one about what they just saw until after that happens. In this case, the reader is to believe that the literal fulfillment of the Malachi 4:5 prophecy is still going to happen. Many believe that Elijah will be one of the two witnesses referred to by John in Revelation 11, but there really is no concrete identity for these two persons. Whether you understand Jesus to mean that the prophecy has been fulfilled or is yet to be fulfilled, what I think we can agree on is the people's response to the Prophets and to the Messiah. They are hostile to the truth of God's Word, those who deliver it, and to God Himself.
At this time, Jesus has not come as a conquering King or as a Judge to lay to rest all the evils of the world. He has made it clear that instead, He has come to suffer, die, and rise from death. The natural question that brings us to in the story of the Gospel is why?
We can understand God coming to bring in the glory of His Kingdom and we can understand Him using His infinite power to heal, set free, and put pompous leaders in their place. What seems absolutely foreign to us, as it did to Peter, was why God would come to suffer and die at the hands of evil men! We're so busy sorting through the "why" of those events that before it happens, it would be very easy to forget that Jesus declared that death would not hold Him and that He would rise again!
Coming down from the mountain to the remaining disciples and the crowds gathered below, Jesus is approached by a father whose son is suffering greatly from being possessed by a demon.
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he has seizures and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:14-20
The thing that immediately strikes me in reading this account is the tone that which the man addresses Jesus in. He is asking Jesus to heal his son, but he also sounds almost accusing... I already brought him to your disciples and they couldn't heal him. Remember in context, that Jesus had given His disciples authority to heal and to cast out demons, this man had probably heard that bringing someone who was afflicted by such things to the disciples was as good as bringing them to Jesus Himself.
Jesus' response is perhaps the first time that we see Him be truly exasperated by the unbelief of not only the crowds around Him but also of His own disciples. Still, He heals the boy!
He clearly does not heal him because of his faith or his father's faith, nor does Jesus ask for anything in return for this miracle. I want to continue making these facts clear because of the wicked "faith-healers" of our present generation who have brought false teachings into the Church and caused many to turn from God. That being said, there is another party specifically in the western church which does not believe miracles of this kind happen anymore. Just as the "healers" have no authority or basis in truth for their actions and teachings, the ones who deny the authority Jesus has given us to continue His work on Earth until He returns also have no foundation in Scripture for these beliefs. In the interest of full transparency, even I wrestle with this because I have neither witnessed nor performed any miracles. I'm not even sure I have the faith to try, which is rather pathetic because that seems to be less faith than even these disciples had (they did try to heal the boy). Therefore, I take Jesus' rebuke of their lack of faith here very personally and I think it is something for all of us to ponder. In Mark's account of this healing, Jesus tells the father specifically that all things are possible for the one who believes. The father cries out in response, "I believe; help my unbelief!" In these matters, I echo that cry, I believe Jesus has the power and authority to heal and to cast out demons even today... in my weakness, I also know that I need Him to help me in my doubt and unbelief.
*I want to put another note in right here because the translation I'm using for this study, ESV, does not include Matthew 17:21. In fact, most modern translations have excluded this verse because it does not appear in most reliable manuscripts. However, if you're reading in the KJV translation you will see this verse. If you would like more explanation for its exclusion, here is a quick article that might help bring you clarity.
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” And they were greatly distressed. Matthew 17:22-23
An unknown amount of time seems to pass between the healing of the boy and Jesus' reminder to His disciples here of what is about to occur. The question remains, I think, of why these things must take place. Imagine if someone you loved and respected kept making statements of this nature regarding coming suffering and death. This would be cause for great alarm and distress, however, you definitely get the sense that they continue to miss that He is also saying He will rise... or perhaps it is that they know suffering and death can happen, but believing in the resurrection is asking for another leap of faith that they do not have.
I've sort of brushed over this point until now, but I think it's interesting that starting in the last chapter when Jesus asks His disciples who the people say that He is, He begins to refer to Himself as the Son of Man. We've clearly established that He is the Son of God, so what does it mean that Jesus continues to refer to Himself as the Son of Man? Historically Christians affirm that Jesus was both fully God and fully human, this name for Jesus is an amazing characterization of that truth. Being fully human, Jesus is of course a son of man but no one really refers to themselves that way. If discussing it at all we would simply say that we are human or if we are the male variety of human then we would be called a boy or a man. However, the term "Son of Man" was known from a prophecy in the Book of Daniel to be referring to the Messiah.
“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14
This name that Jesus gives Himself is subtle, only those familiar with the prophecies regarding the Messiah would recognize this reference. We will see at the end of His life how the religious leaders respond when He once again makes this claim at His trial.
Another, unknown amount of time passes as they're traveling through Galilee when they come once more to the city of Capernaum. Remember that Peter has declared rightly that Jesus is the Son of God and he has witnessed Jesus' transfiguration. Now, some temple tax collectors come to Peter with a question.
When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax went up to Peter and said, “Does your teacher not pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came into the house, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tax? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” Matthew 17:24-27
This account is NOT about whether or not Christians should pay taxes or tithe. This account is about the identity of Jesus. It's important first to recognize that this is the Temple tax and who is the King to whom this tax would belong? God! Jesus is the Son of God. This is the comparison: do earthly kings tax their own sons or do they tax others? In some translations it says: do they tax strangers? Of course, Peter answers that they tax others! Therefore, God does not require that Jesus as His Son would need to pay the Temple Tax. However, Peter has already answered the tax collectors outside so Jesus provides a way for the tax to be paid for both Himself and Peter.
We are now over half way through the book of Matthew. From chapters 1 - 16 it has been thoroughly established that Jesus is the Messiah that the Jews have been waiting for. From chapter 16 - 17, Jesus has announced the suffering, death, and resurrection that He must face. We are beginning to get a picture of Jesus' relationship to His Fathers and what that means for those who follow Him. Now we're asking, why must Jesus suffer and die?