What does Matthew 17:13 mean?
ESV: Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist.
NIV: Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
NASB: Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
CSB: Then the disciples understood that he had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
NLT: Then the disciples realized he was talking about John the Baptist.
KJV: Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
Verse Commentary:
Will Elijah the prophet return before the coming of the Messiah? Malachi 4:5–6 says He will. Peter, James, and John have just seen Elijah on the mountain talking to Jesus, apparently from heaven. If Elijah has not yet returned to earth to lead the people to repentance, how can Jesus be the Messiah?

Jesus has told them that the "Elijah" prophesied in the Old Testament has returned but was not recognized by Israel's religious leaders. He had said this before in Matthew 11:14. Now the disciples realize that Jesus is saying John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy of Elijah's return.

This is not simply a convenient way for Jesus to explain away an inconvenient prophecy. God's intention was always for John the Baptist to fulfill that prophecy. Before John was born, an angel told Zechariah, John's father, that John would "turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared" (Luke 1:16-17).

Somehow, John the Baptist operated in the spirit and power of Elijah. It's likely some expected Elijah himself to be resurrected and once again minister in Israel—this an idea John himself rejected (John 1:20–21). God's plan was for John the Baptist to do the work of Elijah, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to accomplish God's plan to make the people ready for Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 11:14).
Verse Context:
Matthew 17:1–13 follows Jesus' prediction that some of the disciples won't die before seeing Him coming in His kingdom (Matthew 16:28). Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured—radiating the glory of God––while talking with Moses and Elijah. Peter blunders in his attempt to contribute to the moment. The voice of God the Father identifies Jesus as His Son and commands the disciples to listen to Him. Jesus tells the three not to tell anyone else what they've seen until after He is raised from the dead. He answers their question about a prophecy involving Elijah.
Chapter Summary:
Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain. There, they see Him "transfigured" into a shining, divine form. They also see Christ speaking with Moses and Elijah but are commanded not to speak of this event until later. Jesus heals a demon-afflicted boy after the disciples cannot cast the demon out. Jesus very clearly tells the disciples He will be delivered into the hands of men, killed, and raised on the third day. After explaining why He is exempt from a temple tax, Jesus agrees to pay it and tells Peter to find the money in the mouth of a fish.
Chapter Context:
Matthew 17 begins with the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction at the end of the previous chapter: that some of those present would not die before seeing Him coming in His kingdom. Jesus casts out a demon, predicts His death, and commands Peter to pay a temple tax with a coin from the mouth of a fish. This leads Matthew back to extensive records of Jesus' teachings, continuing through chapter 20.
Book Summary:
The Gospel of Matthew clearly shows the influence of its writer's background, and his effort to reach a specific audience. Matthew was one of Jesus' twelve disciples, a Jewish man, and a former tax collector. This profession would have required literacy, and Matthew may have transcribed some of Jesus' words as they were spoken. This book is filled with references to the Old Testament, demonstrating to Israel that Jesus is the Promised One. Matthew also includes many references to coins, likely due to his former profession. Matthew records extensive accounts of Jesus' teaching, more than the other three Gospels.
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