Matthew 17 provides an interesting string of events in Jesus’s life on earth. The first event Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with Him and transfigures into His glorified state. Witnessing this was memorizing. Peter offers to commemorate this event with three shrines, one for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus. Afterwards, Jesus comes down from the mountain and encounters a man whose wants mercy and help for his demon possessed child. The stories should be familiar among all of us. But I fear, the message conveyed by this chapter often loses Matthew’s message. These events communicate an important truth. Keeping with Dr. Barrick’s article on Monday, Matthew 17 has an important message.
Unfortunately I’ve heard the first two events in this chapter interpreted together to communicate, “You need to first fill yourself with the Lord’s glory before you can serve others.” The idea that we need to fill our cup first before we can serve others. This line certainly has the appearance of godliness without any real biblical support. Yet, this interpretation has some merit too because a person cannot do ministry if he or she is not a believer. But this isn’t the point the Lord is trying to make.
Jesus Came to Serve:
What point is our Lord teaching us? The first coming is not about His glory, like the second coming will be. Instead, his first advent is to serve the people ultimately by dying on the cross for us.
Matthew is filled with questions and answers, all of them to teach us about our Lord so that we can be properly equipped disciples. One key question, “Who is Jesus?” In fact, I’d argue Matthew 16:15 the key question and the following stories provide an in depth answer (16:16-18:1). Jesus is the Messiah. A good theologian knows the Messiah is the glorified Lord in the flesh. To see Jesus and witness His works confirms He is none other than the Christ. But Jesus chooses to show three of His disciples His glorified form. This is what they (and all of Israel) were expecting to see from Him in the beginning.
What Jesus communicates to them however, is the first advent is not about His kingship. This advent is about serving people. Let’s put the stories together. The first paragraph conveys Jesus transfiguration.
Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. 2 And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. 3 And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. 4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and behold, a voice out of the cloud said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground and were terrified. 7 And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” 8 And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one except Jesus Himself alone. (17:1-8).
Jesus does some miraculous works. Often the disciples are amazed, driven to fear the Lord, and worship Him. But this is one of the few times where the disciples want to commemorate the event, fall, and fear Him. To say this event would’ve been memorizing is probably an understatement. In fact, Peter uses this event to exemplify a grand “spiritual” experience in 2 Peter 1:17-18 where the disciples see Him in His majesty.
Matthew wants us to see this as a majestic event. The disciples response indicates this. Many prophetic expectations in the OT had set the people up to see Christ this way too. Seeing Christ in His majesty is not only spectacular, but memorable. This isn’t the way He’s normally seen in Matthew. He came as a lowly servant (Isaiah 52:12-54). Seeing Jesus this way, in His majesty. What do we think the disciples expected? They probably thought, “This is the time. Jesus is now going to take His kingdom, set up His reign, and establish eternity.” But this is not what they got. Their expectations would be dashed.
What Does This Mean?
As they are coming down from the mountain, “Jesus commanded them, saying, ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.'” Can you imagine? You just witnessed Jesus transfigured, in all his majesty, and you have to now tell no one?!? Crazy. To top it off, Jesus basically dashes their hopes of the kingdom being set up now too. “Sorry guys, not yet.” Talk about let down.
Yet what does this story confirm? It confirms He is indeed, the Christ, the Son of the living God, in the flesh, the Messiah promised from Genesis 3:15 going forward. And the disciples witnessed it. Peter’s answer to Jesus question “Who am I?” has now seen the visual movie version to the written answer.
The Demon Possessed Child
So why the next story about the man’s demon possessed son? How does it relate to the transfiguration story? Is this, like some think, “You have to have your peek moment with the Lord in order to serve others?” No. This story has a much simpler answer. This advent is not about coming in His glory and setting up the kingdom. It’s about serving the people. While the disciples are probably flying on cloud nine, like giddy children, the Lord goes back to work serving people in need. Reading Matthew from the beginning, we’ve encountered demon possession, healing, and miracle stories all ready. There is nothing special about this one. Why? Because by now, this is “normal Jesus” and what He came to do. He came to serve. “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
The Lord communicates to us and drives the point home. The first advent is about serving. Consider the other truths Jesus teaches His people in this chapter He tells the disciples to emulate His ministry. If they will faithfully believe the Lord, they will be able to serve Him (17:17-20). And He emphasizes that He is going to die for the people (17:12; 22-23).
Why Take Tax from a Fish?
This chapter ends with an interesting account of Jesus sending Peter to get His taxes owed the government from a fish’s mouth (17:24-27). Did Matthew decide to randomly throw in a little lesson on our role to serve the government? No. It’s simpler than this. You pay taxes to those in charge. Had Jesus set up His kingdom and taken the thrown, who would be paying taxes to whom? Right. Jesus would be asking Capernaum for the tax. But since now isn’t the time to reign, Jesus pays the government their tax. In other words, what is Matthew saying, “Don’t be confused reader, Jesus is not reigning yet.”
Why? Because Jesus is here to serve.
Matthew 18 follows this pericope. What is the basic content of Matthew 18? It’s a didactic chapter teaching His disciples how to serve others. We need to consider other’s needs more important (18:1-4), their holiness (5-10), and their reconciliation (12-35). Matthew 18, in many ways defines Jesus primary focus during the first advent. By the time you’ve finished reading Matthew 17 and 18, you’ve seen both the movie and sat in the classroom to learn that Jesus came to serve, not be served.