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"And it came to pass about eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James and went up into the mountain to pray."--LUKE ix. 28-36.
The public life of our Lord falls into two parts; and the incident here recorded is the turning point between them. In order that He might leave behind Him when He died a sure foundation for His Church, it was necessary that His intimate companions should at all events know that He was the Christ, and that the Christ must enter into glory by suffering death. Only then, when they understood this, could He die and leave them on earth behind. Now it is just at this point in His life that it has become quite clear that the first article of the Christian creed--that Jesus is the Christ--had been at last definitely accepted by the disciples. Very solemnly our Lord has put it to them: "Who say ye that I am ?" No doubt it was a trying moment for Him as for them. What was He to do if it had not now become plain at least to a few steadfast souls that He was the Christ--the Messenger of God to men?
Happily the impulsiveness of Peter gives Him little space for anxiety; for he, with that generous outburst of affectionate trust which should ring through every creed, said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." You see the intensified relief which this brought to our Lord, the keen satisfaction He felt as He heard it distinctly and solemnly uttered as the creed of the Twelve; as He heard what hitherto He could only have gathered from casual expressions, from wistful awe-struck looks, from overheard questionings and debatings with one another. You see how at once, He steps on to a new footing with them, as He cordially, and with intense gratitude, says to Peter, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona." In this Divinely-wrought confession of Peter's, He finds at last the foundation stone of the earthly building the beginning of that intelligent and hearty reception of Himself which was to make earth the recipient of all heaven's fullness. But as yet only half the work is done. Men believe that He is the King, but as yet they have very little idea of what the kingdom is to consist. They think Him worthy of all glory, but the kind of glory, and the way to it they are ignorant of. From, that time forth, therefore, began Jesus to show unto them how He must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things, even of the men who ought chiefly to have recognized Him, and to be raised again the third day.
Once before our Lord had been tempted in another way to the throne of the universal dominion of men; again this temptation is pressed upon Him by the very men who should have helped Him to resist it; His closest, His warmest, His most enlightened friends, those who stand on quite a different plane from the world at large, are His tempters. Satan found in them an adequate mouthpiece. They, who should have cheered and heartened Him to face the terrible prospect, were hindrances, were an additional burden and anxiety to Him.
Now, it is to this conversation that the incident known as the transfiguration is linked by all the evangelists who relate it--the first three. It was six days after (or, as Luke says, eight days after) this conversation that Jesus went up Mount Hermon for the sake of retirement and prayer. Plainly He was aware that the great crisis of His life had come. The time had come when He must cease teaching, and face His destiny. He had made upon His disciples an impression which would be indelible. With deliberation they had accepted Him as the Messiah; the Church was founded; His work, so far as His teaching went, was accomplished. It remained that He should die. To consecrate Himself to this hard necessity, He retired to the solitude of Mount Hermon.
We start, then, from the wrong point of view, if we suppose that Jesus climbed Hermon in order to enjoy spiritual ecstasy, or exhibit His glory to those three men. Ecstasy of this kind must come unsought; and the way to it lies through conflict, humiliation, self-mastery. It was not simply to pray that Jesus retired; it was to engage in the great conflict of His life. And because He felt, Himself so much in need of kindness and support, He took with Him the three companions He could most depend upon. They were loyal friends; and their very presence was a strength to Him. So human was Jesus, and now so heavily burdened, that the devotedness of these three plain men--the sound of their voices, the touch of their hands as they clambered the hill together, gave Him strength and courage. Let no one be ashamed to lean upon the affection of his fellow-men. Let us, also, reverently, and with sympathy, accompany our Lord and witness, and endeavour to understand, the conflict in which He now engaged. It has been suggested that the transfiguration may best be understood as a temptation. Undoubtedly there must have been temptation in the experience of Jesus at this crisis. It was for the purpose of finally consecrating Himself to death, with all its painful accompaniments, that He now retired. But the very difficulty of this act of consecration consisted just in this: that He might, if He pleased, avoid death. It was because Peter's words, "This be far from Thee," touched a deep chord in His own spirit, and strengthened that within Himself which made Him tremble and wish that God's will could in any other wise be accomplished--it was this which caused Himso sharply and suddenly to rebuke Peter. Peter's words penetrated to what was lurking near at hand as His normal temptation.
We may very readily underrate the trial and temptation of Christ, and thus have only a formal, not a real, esteem for His manhood. We always underrate it when we do not fully apprehend His human nature, and believe that He was tempted in all points as we are. But, on the other hand, we underrate it if we forget that His position was wholly different from ours. That Jesus had abundant nerve and courage no reader of the Gospels can, of course, doubt. He was calm in the midst of a storm which terrified experienced boat-men; in riots that threatened His life, in the hands of soldiers striving to torment Him and break Him down, in the presence of judges and enemies, He maintained a dignity which only the highest courage could maintain. That such a Person should have quailed at the prospect of physical suffering, which thousands of men and women have voluntarily and calmly faced, is simply impossible to believe. Neither was it entirely His perception of the spiritual significance of death which made it to Him a far more painful prospect than to any other. Certainly this clear perception of the meaning of death did add immensely to its terrors; but if we are even to begin to understand His trial, and begin is all we can do--we must bear in mind what Peter had just confessed, and what Jesus Himself knew--that He was the Christ. It was this which made the difference. Socrates could toss off the poison as unmoved as if it had been a sleeping-draught, because he was dying for himself alone. Jesus could only with trembling take into His hand the fatal cup, because He knew that He was standing for all men. If He failed, all failed. Everything hung upon Him. The general who spends the whole night pacing his tent, debating the chances of battle on the morrow, is not tormented with the thought of his own private fate, but with the possibilities of disaster to his men and to his country, if his design or his skill should at any moment of the battle fail. Jesus was human; and we deny His humanity, and fail to give Him the honour due to it, if we do not recognize the difficulty which He must always have felt in believing that His single act could save the world, and the burden of responsibility which must have weighed upon Him when He realized that it was by the Spirit He maintained in life and in death, that God meant to bless all men. It was because He knew Himself to be the Christ, and because every man depended upon Him as the Christ, and because, therefore, the whole blessing God meant for the world depended upon His maintaining faith in God through the most trying circumstances--it was because of this that He trembled lest all should end in failure. It was this which drove Him, again, and again, and again to the hills to spend all night in prayer, in laying His burden upon the only Strength that could bear it.
But in retiring in order, with deliberation, finally to dedicate Himself to death, this temptation must of necessity appear in all its strength. It is only in presence of all that can induce Him to another course that He can resolve upon the God-appointed way. As He prays two figures necessarily rise before Him, and intensify the temptation. Moses and Elias were God's greatest servants in the past, and neither of them had passed to glory through so severe an ordeal. Moses, with eye undimmed and strength unabated, was taken from earth by a departure so easy that it was said to be "by the kiss of God." Elijah, instead of removal by death, ascended to his rest in a chariot of fire. Was it not possible that as easy an exodus might befit Him? Might not this ignominious death He looked forward to make it impossible for the people to believe in Him? How could they rank Him with those old prophets whom God had dealt with so differently and so plainly honoured? Would people not almost necessarily accept the death of the cross as proof that He was abandoned? Nay, did not their sacred books justify them in considering Him accursed of God? Was He correct in His interpretation of the Scriptures--an interpretation which led Him to believe that the Messiah must suffer and die, but which none of His friends admitted, and none of the authorities and skilled interpreters in His country admitted? Was it not, after all, possible that His kingdom might be established by other means? We can see but a small part of the force of these temptations, but If the presence of those august figures intensified the normal temptation of this period, their presence was also a very effectual aid against this temptation. In their presence His anticipated end could no longer be called death; rather the departure, or, as the narrative says, the Exodus. The eternal will and mighty hand which had guided and upheld Moses when he bore the responsibility and toil of emancipating a host of slaves from the most powerful of rulers would uphold Jesus in the infinitely weightier responsibilities which now lay upon Him. Elijah, also, at a crisis of his people's history, had stood alone against all the might and malignity of Jezebel and the priests of Baal; alone, and with death staring him in the face, he confessed God, and, by his single-handed victory, wrought deliverance for the whole people. Their combined voice, therefore, says to Jesus, "Banish all fear; look forward to your decease at Jerusalem as about to effect an immeasurably grander deliverance than that which gave freedom to your people. Do not shrink from trusting that the sacrifice of One can open up a source of blessing to all. Steadfast submission to God's will is ever the path to glory."
But not only must our Lord have been encouraged and heartened by recalling the individual experiences of these men, but their presence reminds Him of His relation to them in God's purposes; for Moses and Elijah represent the whole Old Testament Church. By the Law and the Prophets had God up to this time dealt with men; through these He had revealed Himself. But Jesus had long since recognized that neither Moses nor Elias, neither Law nor Prophets, were sufficient. The Christ must come to effect a real mediation between God and man; and Jesus knew that He Himself was the Christ. On Him lay the task of making the salvation of the Jews the salvation of the whole world; of bringing all men to Jehovah. It was under pressure of this responsibility that He had searched the Scriptures, and found in the Scriptures what those had not found--that it was necessary that Christ should suffer and so enter into glory.
Probably it was not so much any one passage of Scripture which had carried home to the mind of Jesus that the Christ must die. We may seek for that in vain; it was His perception of the real needs of men, and of what the Law and the Prophets had done to satisfy these needs, that showed Him what remained for the final Revealer and Mediator to accomplish. The Law and the Prophets had told men that God is holy, and men's blessedness, even as God's blessedness, lies in holiness. But this very teaching seemed to widen the breach between men and God, and to make union between them truly hopeless. By the law came not union with God, but the knowledge of sin. To put it shortly, fellowship or union with God, which is the beginning and end of all religion, is but another name for holiness. Holiness isunion with God, and holiness can better be secured by revealing the holy God as a God of love than by law or by prophets. It is this holy love and lovingness that the cross of Christ brings home to every heart. This revelation of the Father, no document and no officials could possibly make; only the Beloved Son, only one who stood in a personal relation to the Father, and was of the same nature, as truly divine as human. Therefore the voice goes forth annulling all previous utterances, and turning all eyes to Jesus--"Hear Him!"
Therefore, as often as the mind of Christ was employed on this subject, so often did He see the necessity of death. It was only by dying that men's sins could be expiated, and only by dying the fullness of God's love could be exhibited. The Law and the Prophets spoke to Him always, and now once more of the decease He must accomplish at Jerusalem. They spoke of His death, because it was His death that was presupposed by every sacrifice of the Law; by every prophecy that foretold good to man. The Law found its highest fulfillment in the most lawless of transgressions; prophecy found its richest in that which seemed to crush out hope itself.
Nothing, then, could have been more opportune than this for the encouragement of our Lord. On earth He had found incredulity among His best friends; incapacity to see why He should die; indifference to His object here. He now meets with those who, with breathless interest, await His death as if it were the one only future event. In their persons He sees, at one view, all who had put their trust in God from the foundation of the world; all who had put faith in a sacrifice for sin, knowing it was God's appointment, and that He would vindicate His own wisdom and truth by finding a real propitiation; all who, through dark and troublous times, had strained to see the consolation of Israel; all who, in the misery of their own thought, had still believed that there was a true glory for men somewhere to be attained; all who through the darkness and storm and fear of earth had trusted in God, scarcely daring to think what would become of their trust, but assured that God had spoken, nay, had covenanted with His people, and finding true rest in Him. When all these now stand before our Lord in the persons of Moses and Elias, the hitherto mediators between God and man, must not their waiting eyes, their longing, trustful expectation, have confirmed His resolve that their hope should not be put to shame? The whole anxiety of guilty consciences, the whole hope of men awakened, the whole longing sigh for a God revealed, that had breathed from the ancient Church, at once became audible to His ear. At once He felt the dependence of all who had died in faith in the promise. He meets the eager, questioning gaze of all who had hoped for salvation concentrated on Himself. Is this He who can save the lost, He who can bear the weight of a world's dependence? What an appeal there is here to His compassion! How steadfastly now does He set His face towards Jerusalem, feeling straitened till the world's salvation is secured, and all possibility of failure for ever at an end.
This, then, was for Jesus an appeal that was irresistible. As the full meaning of all that God had done for His people through Law and Prophets was borne in upon Him, He saw that He must die. Now, for the last time, He put aside all His hesitations, and as He prays, He yields Himself to the will of the Father. Those are the supreme moments in human life when man, through sore conflict and at great cost, gives himself up to the will of God. Never was there so sore a conflict, and never so much joy as here. His face was transfigured; it beamed with the light and peace of heaven that shone from within. The eyes of the disciples closed on a face, every line of which they knew and loved--a face full of wisdom and resolve and deep-founded peace, showing marks of trouble, of trial, of endurance, of premature age; their eyes opened upon a face that shines with a preternatural radiance--a face expressing, more than ever face had done, the dignity and glory and joy of perfect harmony with God. He was God-possessed, and the Divine glory shone from His face. It was at the moment of his yielding all to God that Jesus attained His highest glory. Man's life is transformed when he allows God's will to fill it and shine through it; his person is transformed when he divests himself of self-will, and allows God wholly to possess it.
How easy was it for the disciples at that hour to hear Him; to listen now when He spoke of the cross, which, for Him and for all His disciples, is the path leading from earth to heaven, from what is selfishly human to true human glory! It is on the cross that Jesus is truly enthroned. It is because He became the Servant of all that He is greatest of all. If anyone could rival Him in the service he would rival Him in the glory. It is because He gave Himself for us, willing to do all to save us in our direst need, that He takes a place in our confidence and in our heart that belongs to no other. He becomes the one absolute need of every man, because He is that which brings us to God, and gives God to us.
Hear Him, therefore, when, through His Providence, He preaches to you this difficult lesson. If your difficulties and distresses are real; if you cannot labour without thinking of them; if you cannot rest from labour through fear of their possessing you; if your troubles have assumed so hard a form, so real a place in your life, that all else has come to seem unreal and empty, then remember that He whose end was to be eternal glory chose sorrow, that He might break a way to glory through human suffering. If there is nothing in your lot in life which crosses and humbles you; if there is nothing in your circumstances which compels you to see that this life is not for self-indulgence and self-gratification, then still you must win participation in your Lord's glory by accepting His lowliness and heavenliness of mind. It is not to outward success that you are called in His kingdom, it is to inward victory. You are called to meekness, and lowliness, and mercy; to the losing of your life in this world, that you may have life everlasting.
Notice, in conclusion, the impression made on the disciples, as disclosed in Peter's words, "It is good to be here." Peter knew when he was in good company. He was not very wise himself, but he had sense enough to recognize wisdom in others. He was not himself a finished saint, but he had a hearty appreciation of those who had attained saintliness. He had reverence, power to recognize, and ungrudgingly to worship, what was good. He had an honest delight in seeing his Master honoured, a delight which, perhaps, some of us envy. It was not a forced expression, it was not a feigned delight. He was a man who always felt that something should be said, and so here what was uppermost came out. Why did Peter feel it was good for him to be there? Possibly it was in part because here was glory without shame; recognition and homage without suffering; but no doubt partly because he felt that in such company he was a better man than elsewhere. Christ kept him right; seemed to understand him better than others; to consider him more. There was no resentment on Peter's part on account of the severe answers he received from Christ. He knew these were just, and he had learned to trust his Lord; and it suddenly flashes upon him that, if only he could live quietly with Jesus in such retirement as they then enjoyed, he would be a better man. We have the same consciousness as Peter, that if ever we are right-minded and disposed for good, and able to make sacrifices and become a little heavenly; if ever we hate sin cordially--it is when we are in the presence of Christ. If we find it as impossible as Peter did to live retired from all conflict and intercourse with all kinds of men; if, like Peter, we have to descend into a valley ringing with demoniacs cries; if we are called upon to deal with the world as it actually is--deformed, dehumanised by sin; is it nothing that we can assure ourselves of the society and friendship of One who means to remove all suffering and all sin, and who does so, not by a violent act of authority, but by sympathy and patient love, so that we can be His proper instruments, and in healing and helping others, help and heal ourselves!