Matthew 17 –The Transfiguration & Slavery in the Roman Empire

We’ll end this section of the Roman Empire tomorrow with…

Matthew 17
The Transfiguration

Portable icon with the Transfiguration of Christ, Byzantine artwork, circa 1200, depicting Elijah, Jesus, and Moses with the three apostles.
The Transfiguration is one of the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels. This miracle is unique among others that appear in the Canonical gospels, in that the miracle happens to Jesus himself.

Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration “the greatest miracle” in that it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven. The Transfiguration is one of the five major milestones in the gospel narrative of the life of Jesus, the others being Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension.

1 And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart,

1:1-9 – the transfiguration was: (1) a revelation of the glory of the Son of God, a glory hidden now but to be fully revealed when He returns; (2) a confirmation of the difficult teaching given to the disciples at Caesarea Philippi (16:13-20); and (3) a beneficial experience for the disciples, who were discouraged after having been reminded so recently of Jesus’ impending suffering and death (16:21).

“High mountain” – its identity is unknown.  However, the reference to Caesarea Philippi may suggest that it was mount Hermon, which was just northeast of Caesarea Philippi.

2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light.

“Was transfigured” – the three disciples saw Jesus in His glorified state.

3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

“Moses and Elias” – Moses appears as the representative of the old covenant and the promise of salvation, which was soon to be fulfilled in the death of Jesus.  Elijah appears as the appointed restorer of all things (Mal 4:5-6; Mk 9:11-13).  Lk 9:31 says that the three talked about Christ’s death.

When God killed Moses He hid his grave and Elijah never died (2 Kgs 2:11) and God said that He would send Elijah back into the world before “the dreadful day of the Lord” (Mal 4:5).  Many believe he was John the Baptist and it is possible because they their life styles and eating habits were identical.

Yet, “the dreadful day of the Lord” is Jesus’ Second Coming and it is believed that Elijah will be one of the two witnesses at that time (Rev 11:3-4).

4 Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias.

The sacred precinct today. All that remains of the temples of Jesus’ time are the foundations.

5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.

6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.

7 And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid.

8 And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only.

9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead.

10 And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?

The traditional eschatology of the teachers of the law, based on the coming of Messaih.  The disciples reasoned that if Jesus really was the Messiah, as the transfiguration proved Him to be, why had not Elijah appeared on earth prior to the birth of Jesus?

11 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things.

Sacred precinct of Panias/Caesarea Philippi with the Banias Cave, from which the source of the Jordan River (foreground) once emerged.

12 But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.

“Likewise” – as John the Baptist wasn’t recognized, but was killed, so Jesus would be rejected and killed.

13 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.

14 And when they were come to the multitude, there came to him a certain man, kneeling down to him, and saying,

15 Lord, have mercy on my son: for he is lunatic, and sore vexed: for ofttimes he falleth into the fire, and oft into the water.

16 And I brought him to thy disciples, and they could not cure him.

Reconstruction of the sacred precinct at Caesarea Philippi (far left: Temple of Augustus, opposite the entrance to the sacred grotto.
It had no back wall but opened onto the grotto. The temple thus functioned as a forecourt while the great cave became the inner sanctuary.

Left to right from the Augustus temple: Court of Pan and the Nymphs, an open-air shrine constructed by Philip in the 1st century A.D. after he founded Caesarea Philippi.
The back wall of the shrine was a small rock-cut cave surrounded by five cult niches that once held statues of the god Pan.

Next is another temple dedicated to Zeus and Pan.

Excavators believe it was erected on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city by Philip.
At the end of the terrace we also note was a primitive building dubbed the “Temple of Pan and the Goats” by its excavators from the animal bones, mainly sheep and goats, discovered there in rectangular niches.

It is a vivid reminder of the cult of Pan, half man, half goat, and its sacrificial practices celebrating the power and fertility of nature.

17 Then Jesus answered and said, O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him hither to me.

18 And Jesus rebuked the devil; and he departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour.

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

20 And Jesus said unto them, Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you.

21 Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.

22 And while they abode in Galilee, Jesus said unto them, The Son of man shall be betrayed into the hands of men:

23 And they shall kill him, and the third day he shall be raised again. And they were exceeding sorry.

24 And when they were come to Capernaum, they that received tribute money came to Peter, and said, Doth not your master pay tribute?

“Tribute money” – the annual temple tax required of every male 20 years of age and older.  It was literally a double drachma, worth approximately two days wages and was used for the upkeep of the temple.

25 He saith, Yes. And when he was come into the house, Jesus prevented him, saying, What thinkest thou, Simon? of whom do the kings of the earth take custom or tribute? of their own children, or of strangers?

26 Peter saith unto him, Of strangers. Jesus saith unto him, Then are the children free.

“Then are the children free” – the implication is that Peter and the rest of the disciples belonged to God’s royal household, but unbelieving Jews didn’t.

27 Notwithstanding, lest we should offend them, go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, 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.

Slavery in the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire relied heavily on slave labor.  By one estimate, slaves made up a quarter of the population in Rome. Some slaves were brutally exploited, including those who toiled in mines or on galleys, pulling oars.

Domestic slaves, like one shown here at right combing a girl’s hair, often fared better than those who performed menial labor. Some slaves wore a collar (inset) promising a reward to anyone who returned them to their master if they fled.

Slave who fought as gladiators faced such a high risk of death or mutilation that they rebelled under the leadership of Spartacus in the 1st century B.C. and were crucified by the thousands when their revolt was crushed.

Other slaves were better treated, particularly those who worked as domestic servants.  Educated Greeks served as tutors and scribes for wealthy Romans and were sometimes rewarded with freedom.

All slaves were at the mercy of their masters, however, and were subjects to severe penalties, including a law calling for every slave in a household to be put to death if one of them murdered the master,

In one notorious case, 400 slaves were executed after one of them killed his master in a fit of rage.

…Constantine.