This mysterious event was intended primarily to confirm the faith of the three apostles who were to have the chief hand in founding the Church. The Lord had just announced his future sufferings and death. This prediction had been a grievous blow to Peter, and doubtless to the others also. He had stumbled at the cross, and had brought on himself a stern rebuke for his slowness and worldliness. So to comfort the chosen three under the thought of what awaited their Master, they were shown a glimpse of the glory which he has in heaven; they saw the Law and the prophets yielding subjection to him; they heard the voice of the Father announcing his Sonship. Henceforward they might take courage under all circumstances; the cross would be no infamy or disgrace—would open the way to victory and glory. Here was a foretaste of the blessedness of heaven—to be with Christ and his saints in his kingdom. Such was the Transfiguration to the three witnesses. To the world, when in due time it was made known, it taught lessons of the Incarnation, the resurrection of the body, the glory that shall be the portion of the righteous. For Christ himself it was the culminating point of his earthly life, "the solemn installation of our Lord to his sufferings and their result" (Alford).
Was transfigured ( μετεμορφω ì θη ); Vulgate, transfiguratus est . The verb is used in classical Greek of transformation, as of a man into an animal. Here it refers to a change of countenance, which is the chief index of any change exterior or interior. St. Luke explains the matter with the words, "The fashion of his countenance was altered." The Word of God allows for a brief space his essential glory to irradiate and shine through the form of a servant which he wore. Not that he showed his Divine nature, or laid aside his human body; his bodily nature remained in its entirety, but permeating it was an effulgence which indicated the Godhead. Perhaps it might be said, as an old writer puts it, that the Transfiguration was less a new miracle than the temporary cessation of an habitual miracle; for the veiling of his glory was the real marvel, the Divine restraint which prohibited the illumination of his sacred humanity. Before them. In their presence. Jesus probably had withdrawn in order to pray in secret, but returned to the waiting three, that they might behold his glory—be "eyewitnesses of his majesty," as St. Peter says ( 2 Peter 1:16 ). These, indeed, had been heavy with sleep (Luke), but had awoke at his appearance, and beheld the vision in full possession of their senses. St. Matthew mentions specially two points in this transfiguration. His face did shine as the sun. This recalls the appearance of the Son of man in Revelation 1:16 , "His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength." And his raiment was white as the light. The light which emanated from his body shone through and glorified his very garments. The Vulgate has sicut nix, and χιω Ì ν is read in some few manuscripts in place of φῶς : but the word is doubtless introduced here from St. Mark (where, however, it is of doubtful genuineness). If this second evangelist received his account from St. Peter, we recognize the simile in the apostle's remembrance of the snow clad peak of Hermon, in whose vicinity the event transpired. No candid reader can fail to acknowledge that it is no subjective vision that is here narrated, no merely inward impression on brain or nerve with nothing external to correspond, but a real, objective occurrence, which was beheld by mortal eyes endued with no supernatural or abnormal powers, except in so far as they were enabled to look on this partial emanation of the Divine effulgence.
I. THE GLORY .
1 . The attendant circumstances . Six days had elapsed since the memorable conversation in the parts of Casarea Philippi. That conversation must have filled the hearts of the apostles with strange, awful thoughts. He with whom they had lived so long in the intercourse of familiar friendship was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God. They had marked the dignity of his Person, the authority of his words, the power of his miracles; and they had felt that there was something in their Master that was more than human, very holy and majestic. Now he had accepted the homage of Peter, and had asserted the truth of that great confession—he was the Son of God. Very solemn it must have been to be with him those six days, looking into his face, hearing Ms words, and to know, as the disciples were beginning to know, who he really was. It must have been like the first moments of a true conversion, when the soul first realizes in its depth and blessedness the presence and the love of God. But other also and very different thoughts must have agitated the apostles' minds during those six days. Doubtless they all shared the feelings of Peter; their soul recoiled in unspeakable horror from the prospect which the Lord had set before them; they could not associate the thought of failure and shame and death with the Messiahship; they could scarcely believe that the Christ, the Son of the living God, could suffer such things at the hand of mortal men; they could not bear to think that the Master whom they loved so very dearly was destined to drink the bitter cup of suffering. He had told them so very plainly; but they could not take into their hearts the full meaning of his words. They only half believed them; probably they did not wholly believe till the event proved their truth. But yet those solemn words, even if only half believed, must have caused them exceeding great distress, and must have filled them with restless, torturing anxiety. The Lord, in his thoughtful love, would comfort them, would confirm their faith, would prepare them to face the tremendous shock which awaited them.
2 . The retirement . The six days were over. We long to know the secrets of those days; they must have been days of deep thought, of intense prayer, of close communion with the Lord. Now they were over; and the Lord took with him Peter, James, and John, the chosen three, who alone had seen the raising of the daughter of Jairus, who alone were to witness the mysterious agony. He carried them up—it is a remarkable word, the same word which is used ( Luke 24:51 ) in describing the Ascension—into a high mountain apart. The locality, the height, the snow alluded to in Mark 9:3 , the simple title used by St. Luke, "the mountain," all seem to suggest Hermon, the most conspicuous mountain in Palestine, the snow-clad mountain which, with its towering heights, closed the prospect to the north of Caesarea Philippi. Thither the Lord carried up the highly favoured three; he took them apart. The holiest manifestations of God's grace and presence are made in secret to those chosen ones who live nearest to God; they are very sweet and precious, but very, very sacred—too sacred to be talked about save in Christian communion with like minded servants of the Lord. Christian men do well to retire from time to time to the high mountain apart from the world, there to hold close communion with the Lord in companionship with a few proved and humble hearted disciples.
3 . The glorious change . The Lord was praying, St. Luke tells us; it was for prayer that he had sought retirement; and "as he prayed" he was transfigured. The effulgent splendour of the Godhead poured itself through the earthly tabernacle in which it dwelt, as in ancient times the glory of the Lord had filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand there to minister ( 1 Kings 8:11 ). The sacred body of the Lord Jesus Christ was the truest temple; "for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" ( Colossians 2:9 ). That splendour had hitherto been concealed; he had laid his glory by in the tender condescension of his ineffable love; but now, for the more confirmation of the faith of the apostles and, through them, of the Christian Church, he allowed it to appear for a brief space in such measure as the human eye could bear. "None can see my face and live," God had said to Moses when he prayed, "I beseech thee, show me thy glory;" but, hidden in a cleft of the rock, he saw the goodness of the Lord as his glory passed by ( Exodus 33:18-23 ). Such a glorious vision was now vouchsafed to the three chosen witnesses. Their Master's face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light, glistering, exceeding white as snow. He is the Light of the world, he is the Sun of Righteousness; night is not night to the Christian when that Sun shineth upon him. The darkness of that night was dispelled by the radiant glory that issued from the Person of the Saviour. The vivid recollection of that glory never passed away; the two apostles who remained (St. James went early to his reward) mention it in their writings ( John 1:14 ; 2 Peter 1:18 ). It was "as he prayed" that this glorious change took place. The humble, faithful Christian is made by the grace of Christ like unto his Lord. "Beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, we are changed ['transfigured;' the Greek verb is the same as that used here] into the same image from glory to glory" ( 2 Corinthians 3:18 ). And surely it is as they pray that that blessed change comes upon the servants of the Lord. Faithful prayer lifts them into his presence, to the holy mount, as it were; they behold by faith his glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father; and that glory of holiness exerts a transforming energy over those who in the power of prayer by faith behold the Lord. It is when Christian people present their bodies "a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God," that, as St. Paul ( Romans 12:2 ) says, using again the same word, they are "transformed by the renewing of their mind." The transfiguration of the Lord was an anticipation of the glory of his ascension; it was to the apostles a foretaste of the beatific vision; it is to us a parable of the great change which must pass over the soul of every one of God's elect. We too must shine, if by his grace we attain to any measure of real holiness, as lights in the world by his reflected glory; we too must wash our robes, and make them white in the blood of the Lamb.
"Lord, thy Spirit's power transforming
Through our inmost being pour,
Heart and thought and wish conforming
To thine image more and more."
4. Moses and Elijah . They were the central figures of the Old Testament, the representatives of the Law and the prophets. They had both been admitted into a very close communion with God, and had both, in the ecstasy of Divine contemplation, been sustained through the miraculous fast of forty days. Now they appeared in glory. Peter recognized them by some power of spiritual intuition. Then surely we may believe that there will be some means of mutual recognition among departed saints. They came from the realms of the blessed to hold intercourse with the Son of God. The angels desire to look into the mysteries of redemption; and if the angels, how much more those glorified spirits who were once compassed with infirmities, and knew by their own experience the power of temptation, and the deep need of atonement and sanctification! They came to commune with him in whom all the ritual of the Law found its fulfilment, of whom all the prophets spake; and they talked with him (St. Luke tells us) "of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." The precious death of Christ, the death prefigured by the serpent which Moses long ago had lifted up in the wilderness, was the theme of their high discourse. What they said, what they heard from Christ, we cannot tell. The apostles seem in some way to have heard or apprehended in their spirits the sacred words. Thus much we learn, that there can be no higher, holier subject of thought; no higher, holier subject of solemn conversation among Christian men than the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. Moses and Elijah longed to know the awful, blessed meaning of the cross. The Lord unfolded to them the mysteries of his love. May we be filled with the same holy desire; may the same heavenly Teacher teach us the deep things of his salvation!
5 . Peter . He is eager and impulsive as usual He and his companions had been heavy with sleep. The dazzling glory of the transfigured Lord aroused them. They kept awake, St. Luke says; they saw in full waking consciousness the celestial sight. They heard, it seems, something of the wondrous conversation; they found that his decease, the mention of which had given them such extreme anguish, was a theme of deep interest and hallowed thought in the mysterious world of spirits. The marvellous interview was drawing to an end, the glorious visitors were departing, when Peter, in his intense excitement, not knowing what he said, addressed the Lord, "Lord," he said, "it is good for us to be here"—beautiful and elevating. It was beautiful indeed to contemplate the glorious form of Christ; it was beautiful to see how those whom the Jews most highly honoured came from their homes of bliss to commune with him. Peter would gladly have shared in that holy intercourse; he longed to hear more, to see more; they were departing too soon, he thought. "It is good for us to be here," he said: "let us make [or, perhaps, according to the reading of three very ancient manuscripts, 'I wilt make'] three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias." He knew not what he said. He would have remained on the holy mount in the enjoyment of the heavenly vision; but it might not be. These glimpses of heavenly sweetness are not for long. God has work for his servants upon earth. Sometimes he "bringeth them up into a high mountain apart" for a while. It seems good for them to be there; but they must soon descend, and work for his Name's sake among the poor, the ignorant, and the sinful
6 . The voice from heaven . There was no answer given to Peter's words. But there came a bright cloud, a cloud full of light, the Shechinah surely, the tabernacle of light which revealed the presence of God. It overshadowed the Lord and his adoring visitors; the disciples I cared as they saw them enter into the cloud. And forth from the cloud there came an awful voice, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him." It was not enough that Moses and Elijah should come to do the Saviour honour. The Father himself bore witness to the dignity, the holiness, of the only begotten Son. The like words had been heard before by John the Baptist, the representative of the ancient Jewish Church. Now the same attestation is vouchsafed to the three apostles, the representatives of the Christian Church. That voice made a deep impression upon them, an impression which was never forgotten. St. Peter alludes to it in a remarkable passage in his Second Epistle ( 2 Peter 1:16-18 ), in which several words are repeated which occur in the description of the Transfiguration. It confirmed.their faith; they could doubt no longer. He was indeed the Son of the living God, though he was to be rejected and to suffer and to die. All this had seemed strange and incredible to men brought up among Jewish surroundings, with Jewish hopes and expectations. But it was true. The Father was well pleased in the Son of his love, well pleased in his voluntary humiliation, in his self-sacrifice. The salvation of mankind through the cross and Passion of the Son of God was to the Jews a stumbling block, and to the Greeks foolishness; but it was the purpose of the all-wise, all-holy God. God was well pleased in the Lord Christ. He is well pleased in those who follow Christ's example. He bids us hear him. The cross is the only way to everlasting life. The cross of the Lord Jesus is the life of the world. We can enter into life only by following him, bearing each of us his cross, denying ourselves, as the Lord bore the cross, and died upon the cross for us, and is exalted to God's right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour.
7 . The end of the vision . The voice of God is sweet to hear, but it must be very awful to sinful flesh and blood. The disciples fell on their faces and were sore afraid. But the Lord came and touched them. It was a human touch—the touch of human, loving sympathy. It told the apostles that the high Son of God, whom they had just seen awful in the majesty of the Godhead, was their own tender human Friend. Still the touch of Jesus felt by faith comforts his people when the terror of the Lord fills their souls with dread. "Arise," he said, "be not afraid." So he had said before, "It is I be not afraid." So, thank God, he speaks even now to the Christian soul, "Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." His touch, his gentle words, bring peace and holy calm. It was so with the apostles. They lifted up their eyes, and saw Jesus only. The vision had gone, with all its awful splendour; only the Lord was left, looking on them, as he was wont to look, in love and tenderness, clad in the well known raiment, speaking in the well known tones. The vision was gone. Again they were on the lonely mountain side, the snowy heights of Hermon towering above them, the stars looking down on them from heaven; only Jesus was with them. The Law and the prophets pass away, but Christ abideth a King forever. Earthly hopes, earthly ambitions, fade away and die. Jesus is still with the soul that trusteth in him. Seasons of high spiritual delight, when the Sun of Righteousness beams upon the heart, fade into twilight. But Jesus is still with his chosen; with them as certainly when they go down into the work and the trials and the temptations of the commonplace routine of daily life, as he was when they were with him on the mount entranced in sacred rapture.
II. THE LORD 'S LESSONS .
1 . They were to tell no man . To tell their fellow apostles might excite feelings of self-exaltation in themselves, of envy in the rest. Perhaps also the nine were not yet able to receive such a report. They did not yet understand the spiritual nature of the Messiah's kingdom. We must remember, too, that Judas was among them. Still less was the outer circle of the disciples capable of receiving the wondrous story. The experiences of the Christian soul in close communion with God are very precious, but very, very sacred. They are not to be thoughtlessly divulged; not to be talked about commonly; they are too deep and holy. Free talk on such subjects tends to produce spiritual pride in some, irreverence in others. The true Christian wilt speak of these blessed tastes of God's graciousness only to the like minded, and that with deep humility and godly fear, mingled with devout thankfulness.
2 . Elias . The apostles had much to learn and much to unlearn. They could not understand "what the rising from the dead should mean" ( Mark 9:10 ), though Christ had twice before spoken of his resurrection on the third day. They were much perplexed also about the appearing of Elijah. Could this transient manifestation which they had just seen be the coming of which they had so often heard from the rabbis? The name of Elijah was often on the lips of the Jews, as indeed it is still. When he comes (they said) he shall restore all things. He shall bring back the pot of manna and the rod of Aaron, and restore Israel to its ancient glory. It was true, the Lord said, that Elijah was to come. But he had come; and they who had so long expected him knew him not when he came, but treated him according to their own evil will. Then the apostles felt that the Lord had spoken of him who had gone "before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." The forerunner of the Christ had met the martyr's death; Christ himself would soon be called to suffer. The Lord sought to draw the thoughts of the apostles from difficult and perplexing questions to what now lay in the near future—his sufferings and death. We cannot think too much on the cross. Difficult matters of controversy may be of great interest, but they do not bear very closely upon the salvation of our souls. Let us keep the cross before our thoughts; let us try to realize its awful and blessed meaning by constant and earnest meditation.
1 . It is good for us to be sometimes alone with God; use such seasons of solitude for prayer and meditation.
2 . We need a transfiguration, a transformation of the heart and will; pray earnestly for it.
3 . Moses and Elijah talked with Christ of his decease; we should commune with him on that same blessed and awful subject.
4 . Flee from spiritual pride; humble silence is better than presumptuous talk.
Raphael's famous picture at the Vatican gives us an external representation of this wonderful event. But we want to get behind the canvas and discover the meaning of it, if it is to be something more to us than a theatrical transformation scene, something better than a spectacular display.
I. THE GLORY OF CHRIST . The external splendour had a meaning. If it was not a purely artificial radiance created in order to dazzle the eyes of the disciples, it must have corresponded to a wonderful illumination and glory in the soul of Jesus. Moses' face shone after he had been communing with God on Sinai ( Exodus 34:29 ). The face of Stephen took on an angelic lustre in view of martyrdom ( Acts 6:15 ). Jesus had been speaking of his approaching death quite recently ( Matthew 16:21 ), and of the victory of self-sacrifice ( Matthew 16:25 ). During the Transfiguration his death was the topic of his conversation ( Luke 9:31 ). Then we may justly infer that the splendour that shone out from him corresponded to his exaltation of spirit in devoting himself to death. It was the glory of sacrifice. Jesus is most glorious in freely giving himself up for the salvation of the world.
II. THE HEAVENLY VISITORS . It is commonly assumed that Moses and Elijah had come to complete the picture that was displayed before the wondering eyes of the chosen three. But would they have been sent for so slight an object? It is more probable that, like the angels who ministered to him on other occasions, they were sent to cheer Jesus himself. He had looked for sympathy from his disciples when he had confided in them the dark secret of his doom, but he had failed to receive it, and instead he had heard the voice of the tempter in the impatient reply of one of his most intimate friends ( Matthew 16:22 , Matthew 16:23 ). Thus he was left alone in his meditations of death. But the sympathy which failed him on earth was afforded by the founder of Judaism and the leader of the prophets—both men whose end on earth was mysterious—returning from the heavenly world.
III. THE PERPLEXED DISCIPLES . The splendour overwhelmed the three. Two were speechless. The third had not the gift of silence; and wishing to say something when he had nothing to say, he made a foolish remark. This showed, again, how far the Master was above his disciples, how little they could enter into his life. But it also showed a measure of right feeling in St. Peter. It was good to be on the mount with Christ. We cannot retain the ravishing moments of heavenly rapture. But we can cherish them if ever we are visited with them. At least we can learn that it is good to be anywhere with Jesus, good to meditate on his Passion, good to behold his glory.
IV. THE DIVINE VOICE . The voice which had been heard before at the baptism ( Matthew 3:17 ) is heard again on the mount, but with an addition to its message.
1 . God owns his Son with delight . Was this voice for the cheering of Jesus as well as for the guidance of the disciples? Under the circumstances this seems probable. God was not only pleased with Jesus because he was his Son, but also because his Son pleased him. At first this was on account of the innocent character of Jesus, and his resolve to dedicate himself to his work in baptism; now it is because of the courage and devotion with which he will face death.
2 . God commends his Son to men . "Hear ye him." This is the addition. Christ has disciples now; and Christ has proved his right to be heard. It is not enough to adore him in his glory; we must listen to his voice of teaching and obey his word of command.—W.F.A.
The intention of this scene seems to have been to inaugurate the sufferings of Christ, and to set him apart as the Lamb of God who was to take away the sin of the world. Being a public event, it behoved that it should be witnessed, and the same three men are chosen as witnesses of the rehearsal of his sufferings who are afterwards witnesses of the sufferings themselves in Gethsemane—the three most closely bound to him in affection. On both occasions their conduct proved how utterly helpless we are in the matter of our own salvation. One would have expected they would have been forward to aid their Master, or, if not to aid, at least to sympathize with him. But on both occasions they fell asleep. The world's redemption had really to be transacted in spite of the world; the best men of the world were indifferent, were asleep, when the crisis of the battle was passing, when its Redeemer was agonizing on its behalf. To our Lord the strength received from the Father by prayer was more needful than the restoring sweetness of sleep. In it was to be found more real detachment from care, more vital renewal of energy. It was probably for his encouragement and that of the disciples that this earnest was given of his triumph over death, and of his glorified condition. The significance of the reappearance of Moses and Elias is not hard to discern. They came as representatives of the two great economies through which God had dealt with men, and guided them to himself, to lay down their office, and recognize Christ as the One in whom the Law and the prophets were fulfilled. Every acceptable sacrifice of the Mosaic economy was acceptable through the sacrifice of Christ. Every hope kindled by the prophets rested for its fulfilment on him. And how do they testify their homage? "They spake," says Luke, "of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." The Law was to find its highest fulfilment in the most lawless of transgressions; prophecy found its richest in that which seemed to destroy hope itself. In the persons of these two our Lord would see as at one view all who had put their trust in God from the foundation of the world; all who had put their faith in sacrifice, believing that God would find a true Propitiation; all who had hoped in his tender mercy, and through dark and troublous times had strained to see the Consolation of Israel. The whole anxiety of guilty consciences, the whole longing sigh for the promised Messiah that had breathed through the ancient Church, at once becomes audible to his ear, and confirms his resolution that their trust shall not be put to shame. Steadfastly does he set his face to go to Jerusalem, more than ever determined that the glorified state which Moses and Elias have attained shall, by his shame and death, be secured to them, and to all those of whom they are the firstfruits. To complete the act of installation it was requisite, not only that the former mediators should resign their office, but that the real Mediator should be definitely nominated; and therefore a voice is heard from the cloud saying, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him." And so, with no witnesses but these disciples, the world's history is transacted. It is summed up in these three, God commanding, God encouraging, God fulfilling; and these three are summed up in one—God saving. "When the disciples lifted up their eyes, they saw no mall, save Jesus only."
I. First, we learn that CHRIST IS NOW THE ONE MEDIATOR BETWEEN GOD AND MAN . The one command now is, " Hear ye him ." When Moses and Elias retired, and the disciples saw no man, save Jesus only, the whole burden of legal ceremonial fell from their shoulders. With the one temple of the Lord's body left to view, how simple must all religion and service have seemed, consisting simply in their loving and cleaving to their Lord and Master—the compassionate, considerate, righteous Lord Jesus Christ! We are often satisfied with the means of grace, the things that lead to Christ. But God calls you to come to Christ's self. "Hear ye him ." You have a life-and-death question to settle, and for the settling of it there is for you, in the world, "no man, save Jesus only."
II. CHRIST IS OUR SUFFICIENT SAVIOUR . If your troubles and difficulties seem the most real things in the world to you, remember him who chose suffering for his portion, that you might be partakers of his glory. If you are despondent on account of your spiritual condition, remember this sure foundation of all preaching, this proclamation of Christ by God himself. The one utterance of God in New Testament times is this intimation, three times heard by Christ, that by laying down his life for sinners God was well pleased with him. Only by coming can you please him. Indifference to the voice would have been guilt in the apostles; it is equal guilt in you.
III. THE CONDUCT OF PETER WARNS US AGAINST TOO MUCH DREAD OF SUFFERING , OR OF BEING CALLED TO ENTER A CLOUD ; and against too much desire to rest in any one experience or state. The darkest cloud your Lord calls you to enter will be irradiated by his presence. And if by any experience you have obtained stronger faith or a more lively sense of Christ's worth, be not anxious to build a tabernacle for sweet experiences, while there are countless works of charity, patience, energy, awaiting you. Believe that the whole line of earthly experiences can be lit up with God's present favour.—D.
"And six days after." This note refers to the conversation Jesus had with his disciples, in which he said, "The Son of man shall come," etc. (quote Matthew 16:27 , Matthew 16:28 ). But the apostles are all dead, and the kingdom is still future. The Transfiguration, then, must be viewed as a symbolic anticipation and pledge of the kingdom, and Peter and James and John were those referred to who should not taste death until they had seen the Son of man coming in his kingdom; and they saw this when they were "eyewitnesses of his majesty on the holy mount." We propose to show—
I. THAT THE SPIRITUAL GLORY OF THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST IS SET FORTH IN THE TRANSFIGURATION .
1 . It exhibits the signs of a new dispensation .
2 . It exhibits the signs of a spiritual dispensation .
3 . It exhibits the tokens of gospel grace .
II. THAT THE PHYSICAL GLORY OF THE KINGDOM OF CHRIST IS SET FORTH IN THE TRANSFIGURATION .
1 . Jesus will yet appear in royal state .
2 . The bright cloud manifested the presence of angels .
3 . Moses represented the sainted dead .
4 . Elijah represented the living who shall be changed .