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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

Matthew 17

 

 

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Verse 1-2

THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION

‘And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, and was transfigures before them.’

Matthew 17:1-2

We have to do with the Transfiguration as it stands before us a fact in history.

I. Transfigured only once.—This manifestation was only once in Christ’s life on this earth, and that once was only given to a chosen few. Some Christians seem to think that they must be always going up to mounts of extraordinary joy and revelation; and they almost murmur in their hearts if they are called every day to walk on in the lower level of common duties and common privileges. This is not after God’s method.

II. Transfigured in the night.—It must have greatly enhanced the wonder and beauty of the scene that the Transfiguration took place, as we gather from St. Luke’s narrative, in the night—God using it, as He is most wont, to be an emblem and a picture of spiritual truth, always shrouded in the night of ignorance and of sin; but the darkness of sin and sorrow only makes to stand out more markedly and more brightly the beauty and the blessedness of the Redeemer and the redeemed. The one topic of the conversation was the Cross. Will it not be so in the great gathering of the saints? Shall we ever tire of it? It was a glorious hour—too pure, too heavenly, for such a world as this! When in a moment ‘they lifted up their eyes,’ and lo! it was all gone.

III. The glory passed, but Jesus remained.—That night the glory all went and ‘they saw Jesus only.’ And so it is with the pageant of this world—however beautiful it may be. It has its little while; it shines; it sparkles; it is gone! Nothing really lasts, but He who is ‘the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever,’—who alone can satisfy a human soul, and who never goes away,—‘Jesus only!

—The Rev. James Vaughan.

Illustration

‘It is impossible to look up from the plain to the towering peaks of Hermon, almost the only mountain which deserves the name in Palestine, … and not be struck with its appropriateness to the scene. The fact of its rising high above all the other hills of Palestine, and of its setting the last limit to the wanderings of Him who was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, falls in with the supposition which the words mentally force upon us. High up on its southern slopes there must be many a point where the disciples could be “taken apart by themselves.”’


Verse 8

THE CATHOLIC FAITH

‘Jesus only.’

Matthew 17:8

I. The message of the Church.—In the midst of all our labour, in the midst of all our wonderful achievements, in the midst of all our fancy religions, in the midst of all our critical dissertations, in the midst of all our talking about religious things instead of being religious, in the midst of all our arguing and our restlessness, and our noise, the Church comes with her cry, with her warning, with her teaching, with her invitation, with her word, with her sacraments. And what is it? ‘Jesus only.’ Listen to no one else but Him.

II. Our responsibility for belief.—Our blessed Master reminded us of our great reponsibility for our belief. You live in an age when men are always trying to persuade you that it really hardly matters what you believe and what you do not. Do not believe them. Our blessed Lord has taught us the seriousness of belief.

III. Creed and life.—If you have wakened up at all to see how practical to each of you in all the changes and chances of your mortal life is ‘Jesus only,’ then remember that you have not only to hold your creed, but you have to live it. Our blessed Master has placed His cause in our hands. We may not be able to argue, we may not be able to write learned treatises, we may not be able to accommodate the faith to the last desire of the gallery, or the last wish of the man in the street, or the last convenience of the worldling, but we can live the lives of true Christians. ‘Jesus only!’ He will stand by you, for He will bring to you a passion for goodness, a hunger and thirst after righteousness. He will give you joy in forgetting self and living for others. ‘Jesus only!’ with all that He has said and done in His Church, is everything to you.

—Canon W. J. Knox Little.

Illustration

‘When Bishop Beveridge was on his death-bed his memory so failed that he did not know even his nearest relative. His chaplain said, “Do you know me?” “Who are you?” was the answer. His own wife asked him, “Do you know me?” “Who are you?” was the only answer. On being told that it was his wife he said that he did not know her. Then one standing by said, “Do you know Jesus Christ?” “Jesus Christ?” he replied, reviving as if the name acted on him like a cordial; “yes, I have known Him these forty years; He is my only hope.”’

(SECOND OUTLINE)

NONE BUT CHRIST

‘Jesus only’ will be unreservedly the heart-utterance of all in glory, as their unwavering, enraptured gaze for ever rests on Him.

I. For salvation.—‘None but Jesus,’ as regards the foundation upon which we are resting for salvation, as regards a shelter from the wrath to come.

II. For refuge in trouble.—‘None but Jesus,’ as regards a refuge in trouble.

III. For personal enjoyment.—‘None but Jesus,’ as regards our springs of enjoyment. Very many go into the world for enjoyment, for pleasure, for recreation. What a tale this tells! It tells how little the attractiveness of Jesus is perceived by His people.

IV. A life’s aim.—Let your life’s aim be His glory. Whatever you do, wherever you go, let your whole interest be centred in Him and in advancing His kingdom. Set your mind to live as a risen one, a blood-bought one. Let those around you see that yours are not cold principles, but that you, your tastes, your affections, and all things, are changed; that you can no longer enjoy anything that does not please Him.

—The Rev. F. Whitfield.

(THIRD OUTLINE)

ALL OF THEE

Every one will at least in theory admit that if all we read and profess to believe of Jesus is true, He must be all or He is nothing.

I. In salvation.—So long as you go on to combine anything with Jesus, in the way of your salvation, it may be Jesus, but it is a Jesus inoperative and unreal. So long as you allot a fraction of a fraction of the work to yourself, you will never have peace. It is all and only Jesus.

II. In sanctification.—What is to make us holy enough to stand before God’s greatness? The righteousness of Christ accounted to us; laid on us, like a robe. All that is of us, as regards our title and meetness for glory, is as though it were not. It passes away like the beauties of Tabor. We find it not. No believer sees it. He saw it once, and it is gone. He does not see it. He needs merit. He looks out for merit: and, Lo! ‘Jesus only.’ ‘He perfects them that are sanctified.’ And, ‘He is made of God unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.’

III. In the Church.—Or, if you look at the rich and hallowed things, with which God has provided and decked and endowed His Church, can we keep those externals? Can we set up our tabernacles in them, and say, ‘It is good to be here’? Will they last? Is not there a time coming to each one of us, when, in sickness, and lying on a dying bed, we must be separated from all? What then? What in that hour if we cannot turn—feeble and dissatisfied, to feel and know and rest on ‘Jesus only’!

IV. In times of trial.—Some are passing through trial. What shall they do? Tell it to Jesus, and they will prove the sufficiency of ‘Jesus only.’

V. An all-inclusive religion.—Are we to trust in nothing, think of nothing, love nothing, enjoy nothing, but Christ? Is religion such an exclusive thing as that? It is because religion is all-inclusive that I say it. I say that there may be, there is, a Jesus in everything, and that the Jesus Who is in everything, is its power and its deep joy; and that in proportion as you find Him in life, life will be true, happy, and satisfying.

The Rev. James Vaughan.


Verse 19

FAITH AND SERVICE

‘Then came the disciples to Jesus apart, and said, Why could not we cast him out?’

Matthew 17:19

I. The secret of faith.—Still, as in olden time, it is the contemplation of the Lord’s transfigured person which is the secret of the best and purest faith. We cannot follow Him, unless in spirit, up the holy mount. We cannot handle, hear, or see the Lord of life. Between Him and us the cloud of centuries spreads. But it may be ours to meditate upon His person. We can withdraw ourselves a little from the world. We can concentrate our thoughts on Him. To lose the blessing of meditation, of being consciously alone with Christ, is to lose the potency of Christian action.

II. The potency of Christian action.—Action is greater than meditation. St. Peter said, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here.’ But it was not good for him to be there. There was work to be done in the world. Christ’s miracles are wrought, not upon the mountain, but in the plain. We may catch our inspiration from some mountain of Divine glory. But our work, which God has given us, lies at its foot. It is a mistake to think that we could serve better by ascending to some vantage ground of opportnnity. We are always looking for something out of the common, and forgetting the Divinity of common things. And yet it is easiest to serve Christ in the plain.

III. Evil spirits to be cast out.—There are still evil spirits in the world, which it is a vital matter to cast out. There is the spirit of lying; the spirit of envy; the spirit of intemperance; the spirit of impurity. Such are the spirits against which the Church, as a pillar of fire, stands in array. If we ask, ‘Why could not we cast him out?’ Jesus Christ Himself shall supply the answer, ‘This kind goeth not out but by prayer.’ Prayer is the secret of holiness; it is the witness of our spirituality; it is the promise of victory. When the faith of men and of the Churches has proved impotent, then the Divine voice is heard, ‘Bring him hither to Me.’

—Bishop J. E. C. Welldon.


Verse 20

THE REASON OF FAILURE

‘Because of your unbelief.’

Matthew 17:20

Remember those words of Jesus, which, were they only obeyed, would put an end to our misery and discord, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.’

I. Why we fail.—We do not seek that first, and therefore we fail. The explanation is as simple as it is sad. We cannot be happier and better ourselves, much less can we make others so, unless the heart is influenced, for with the heart men believe unto righteousness.

II.‘Because of your unbelief.’—Had these disciples been not faithless but believing, so oft evoking their Lord’s sorrowful rebuke, ‘O ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’—had they prayed more frequently and earnestly; had they shown more of that self-denial which He taught and set before them, distrusted themselves and humbled themselves instead of disputing which should be the greatest, they would have cast out that evil spirit. But he perceived, and prevailed over their want of faith. He said, ‘Jesus I know, but who are ye that utter His name, but do not believe in its power?’ We, too, are tempted to forget the Omnipresent God, to be of the world, worldly, and to set our affections upon the things of the earth, so to lose the power, the only true power over ourselves and others, which we have in exact proportion to our faith, our prayers, our self-denial; for they are inseparable, these three, trinity in unity.

III. The remedy.—It is impossible to believe in our heavenly Father and not to go to Him always as children, to rejoice in His love, to thank Him for His gifts, to be protected in danger, taught in ignorance, be relieved in pain, and to be forgiven when we have done wrong.

(a) True prayer. God has not only given us a voice to pray with, but a mind with which to think about our prayers, and capacities and means and time and money with which we may fulfil them. True prayer is prayer in action. Duty is prayer, and work is worship.

(b) Fasting. What is meant by ‘fasting’? God tells us what true fasting means. ‘Is not this the fast that I have chosen to loose the bands of wickedness?’

—Dean Hole.

Illustration

‘The Church of England, while she commends and commands the scriptural discipline of fasting, makes no severe definitions and lays down no rigid rule, for many and righteous reasons: because no rules could be applicable to all, the young, the old, the weak, the poor; because if it were compulsory, it would become a mere form or evasion, as, for example, a fast from flesh meat might be only a feast on other dainties; because a fast kept ostentatiously, in direct disobedience to the Lord’s warning that we appear not unto men to fast, would only be a feast of pride, the pride which “apes humility”; because under the Gospel in the liberty where-with Christ has made us free we fast by the love of virtue and the choice of our own rather than by the coercion of any law; because the best form of abstinence is to be temperate in all things; and because bodily fasting is but a part of that self-denial which Christianity teaches, and which has a far more definite and comprehensive scope.’


Verse 27

THE CHRISTIAN LAW OF LOVE

‘Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an book, 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.’

Matthew 17:27

This text presents an impressive illustration of the Christian law of love—the rule of using our liberty in things not intrinsically wrong, allowable in themselves, under the control of love, so as to keep our lives and actions from misleading or injuring others; forgoing, if need be, the assertion of our rights for the sake of the welfare and safety of those about us.

I. Three instances.—Three instances, in the way of examples, will explain, in general, what the law of love is.

(a) The example of Christ. It was a question of the payment of the temple-tax—an annual contribution of two drachms required of each Jew for the support of the temple service. To the question, ‘Doth not your Master pay the double drachm?’ Peter answered, ‘Yes,’ but probably without taking in all the bearings of the question. So, in the house, Christ recalled the subject; and directing attention to the deeper principles involved, showed that strictly He was under no legal obligation whatever to pay this tax. The temple was His own Father’s house, the palace of the ‘great King,’ and as the Son, He was free. Whether He should assert His liberty, or pay, He would decide on another principle—the principle of looking away from Himself, and doing what would be best for others: ‘Notwithstanding, lest we should offend,’ etc. And there He seals and consecrates this law of love, this avoiding of offence, by a holy miracle.

(b) St. Paul’s rule of action as to the use of meats.

(c) Another relation of the same apostle. According to the Divine order, he was entitled to be supported while ministering in Holy things. But what do we find the great Apostle doing? Day and night labouring with His hands, to support himself, so as not to be chargeable on any of the struggling churches. ‘Not that I have not power,’ etc. (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9; 1 Corinthians 9:2-23).

II. Its characteristics.—From these examples we can trace the chief elements or characteristics of this law.

(a) Action under it really is from love, out of loving desire to promote the well-being and happiness of others, and do the most good.

(b) It belongs to the sphere of liberty. The Christian through knowledge is free from all men, but through love he becomes the servant of all. Love must be free. It cannot be exacted by legal penalties or discipline.

(c) It is developed and followed through knowledge and strength. ‘We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak.’ Suppose those for whom you are asked to give up so much are ignorant, narrow-minded, superstitious, weak people. This is your chance to let them, in the brotherhood of believers, have some help and safety from your knowledge and strength.

(d) This law of love becomes a law of duty. While in liberty, it is something to which we are under Christian obligation. Simply because love is duty.

III. Of reasons which specially enforce the law.

(a) It expresses a higher principle of action than its contrary. Selfishness is one of the lowest, worst, and meanest things in human depravity.

(b) It is the way of usefulness. The Apostle adopted it as such. It gives blessed power for good.

(c) It is the way of true happiness.

Illustration

A piece of money.’ A stater, probably the Greek stater of Antiooh, with the head of Augustus on one side, and a crowned figure representing the city of Antioch on the other. Its value was about that of a shekel, and would pay both for our Lord and Peter.’

 


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 17:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/cpc/matthew-17.html. 1876.

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