|And after six days Jesus taketh with Him Peter, and James, and John, and bringeth them up into a high mountain apart by themselves: and He was transfigured before them: and His garments became glistening, exceeding white: so as no fuller on earth can whiten them. And there appeared unto them Elijah with Moses: and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter answered and saith to Jesus, Rabbi, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah. For he wist not what to answer; for they became sore afraid. And there came a cloud overshadowing them: and there came a voice out of the cloud, This is My beloved Son: hear ye Him. And suddenly looking round about, they saw no one any more, save Jesus only with themselves.| MARK 9:2-8 (R.V.)
THE Transfiguration is an event without a parallel in all the story of our Lord. This breaking forth of unearthly splendor in a life of self-negation, this miracle wrought without suffering to be relieved or want supplied, and in which He seems to be not the Giver of Help but the Receiver of Glory, arrests our attention less by the greatness of the marvel than by its loneliness.
But if myth or legend had to do with the making of our Gospels, we should have had wonders enough which bless no suppliant, but only crown the sacred head with laurels. They are as plentiful in the false Gospels as in the later stories of Mahomed or Gautama. Can we find a sufficient difference between these romantic tales and this memorable event -- causes enough to lead up to it, and ends enough for it to serve?
An answer is hinted by the stress laid in all three narratives upon the date of the Transfiguration. It was |after six days| according to the first two. St. Luke reckons the broken portions of the first day and the last, and makes it |about eight days after these sayings.| A week has passed since the solemn announcement that their Lord was journeying to a cruel death, that self pity was discordant with the things of God, that all His followers must in spirit endure the cross, that life was to be won by losing it. Of that week no action is recorded, and we may well believe that it was spent in profound searchings of heart. The thief Iscariot would more than ever be estranged. The rest would aspire and struggle and recoil, and explain away His words in such strange ways, as when they presently failed to understand what the rising again from the dead should mean (ver.10). But in the deep heart of Jesus there was peace, the same which He bequeathed to all His followers, the perfect calm of an absolutely surrendered will. He had made the dread announcement and rejected the insidious appeal; the sacrifice was already accomplished in His inner self, and the word spoken, Lo, I come to do Thy will, O God. We must steadily resist the notion that the Transfiguration was required to confirm His consecration; or, after six days had passed since He bade Satan get behind Him, to complete and perfect His decision. Yet doubtless it had its meaning for Him also. Such times of more than heroic self-devotion make large demands upon the vital energies. And He whom the angels more than once sustained, now sought refreshment in the pure air and solemn silence of the hills, and above all in communion with His Father, since we read in St. Luke that He went up to pray.
Who shall say how far-reaching, how all-embracing such a prayer would be? What age, what race may not hope to have shared its intercessions, remembering how He once expressly prayed not for His immediate followers alone. But we need not doubt that now, as in the Garden, He prayed also for Himself, and for support in the approaching death-struggle. And the Twelve, so keenly tried, would be especially remembered in this season. And even among these there would be distinctions; for we know His manner, we remember that when Satan claimed to have them all, Jesus prayed especially for Peter, because his conversion would strengthen his brethren. Now this principle of benefit to all through the selection of the fittest, explains why three were chosen to be the eye-witnesses of His glory. If the others had been there, perhaps they would have been led away into millennarian day-dreams. Perhaps the worldly aspirations of Judas, thus inflamed, would have spread far. Perhaps they would have murmured against that return to common life, which St. Peter was so anxious to postpone. Perhaps even the chosen three were only saved from intoxication and delusive hopes by the sobering knowledge that what they had seen was to remain a secret until some intervening and mysterious event. The unripeness of the others for special revelations was abundantly shown, on the morrow, by their failure to cast out a devil. It was enough that their leaders should have this grand confirmation of their faith. There was among them, henceforth, a secret fountain of encouragement and trust, amid the darkest circumstances. The panic in which all forsook Him might have been final, but for this vision of His glory. For it is noteworthy that these three are the foremost afterwards in sincere though frail devotion: one offering to die with Him, and the others desiring to drink of His cup and to be baptized with His baptism.
While Jesus prays for them, He is Himself made the source of their revival. He had lately promised that they who willed to lose their life should find it unto life eternal. And now, in Him who had perfectly so willed, they beheld the eternal glory beaming forth, until His very garments were steeped in light. There is no need of proof that the spirit has power over the body; the question is only of degree. Vile passions can permanently degrade human comeliness. And there is a beauty beyond that of line or color, seen in vivid hours of emotion, on the features of a mother beside her sleeping babe, of an orator when his soul burns within him, of a martyr when his face is as the face of an angel, and often making fairer than youthful bloom the old age that has suffered long and been kind. These help us, however faintly, to believe that there is a spiritual body, and that we may yet bear the image of the heavenly. And so once, if only once, it is given to sinful men to see how a perfect spirit can illuminate its fleshly tabernacle, as a flame illuminates a lamp, and what the life is like in which self-crucifixion issues. In this hour of rapt devotion His body was steeped in the splendor which was natural to holiness, and which would never have grown dim but that the great sacrifice had still to be carried out in action. We shall best think of the glories of transfiguration not as poured over Jesus, but as a revelation from within.
Moreover, while they gaze, the conquering chiefs of the Old Testament approach the Man of Sorrows. Because the spirit of the hour is that of self-devotion, they see not Abraham, the prosperous friend of God, nor Isaiah whose burning words befit the lips that were touched by fire from an unearthly altar, but the heroic law-giver and the lion-hearted prophet, the typical champions of the ancient dispensation. Elijah had not seen death; a majestic obscurity veiled the ashes of Moses from excess of honor; yet these were not offended by the cross which tried so cruelly the faith of the apostles. They spoke of His decease, and their word seems to have lingered in the narrative as strangely appropriate to one of the speakers; it is Christ's |exodus.|
But St. Mark does not linger over this detail, nor mention the drowsiness with which they struggled; he leans all the weight of his vivid narrative upon one great fact, the evidence now given of our Lord's absolute supremacy.
For, at this juncture Peter interposed. He |answered,| a phrase which points to his consciousness that he was no unconcerned bystander, that the vision was in some degree addressed to him and his companions. But he answers at random, and like a man distraught. |Lord, it is good for us to be here,| as if it were not always good to be where Jesus led, even though men should bear a cross to follow Him. Intoxicated by the joy of seeing the King in His beauty, and doubtless by the revulsion of new hope in the stead of his dolorous forebodings, he proposes to linger there. He will have more than is granted, just as, when Jesus washed his feet, he said |not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.| And if this might be, it was fitting that these superhuman personages should have tabernacles made for them. No doubt the assertion that he wist not what to say, bears specially upon this strange offer to shelter glorified bodies from the night air, and to provide for each a place of separate repose. The words are incoherent, but they are quite natural from one who has so impulsively begun to speak that now he must talk on, because he knows not how to stop. They are the words of the very Peter whose actions we know so well. As he formerly walked upon the sea, before considering how boisterous were the waves, and would soon afterwards smite with the sword, and risk himself in the High Priest's palace, without seeing his way through either adventure, exactly so in this bewildering presence he ventures into a sentence without knowing how to close it.
Now this perfect accuracy of character, so dramatic and yet so unaffected, is evidence of the truth of this great miracle. To a frank student who knows human nature, it is a very admirable evidence. To one who knows how clumsily such effects are produced by all but the greatest masters of creative literature, it is almost decisive.
In speaking thus, he has lowered his Master to the level of the others, unconscious that Moses and Elijah were only attendants upon Jesus, who have come from heaven because He is upon earth, and who speak not of their achievements but of His sufferings. If Peter knew it, the hour had struck when their work, the law of Moses and the utterances of the prophets whom Elijah represented, should cease to be the chief impulse in religion, and without being destroyed, should be |fulfilled,| and absorbed in a new system. He was there to whom Moses in the law, and the prophets bore witness, and in His presence they had no glory by reason of the glory that excelleth. Yet Peter would fain build equal tabernacles for all alike.
Now St. Luke tells us that he interposed just when they were departing, and apparently in the hope of staying them. But all the narratives convey a strong impression that his words hastened their disappearance, and decided the manner of it. For while he yet spake, as if all the vision were eclipsed on being thus misunderstood, a cloud swept over the three -- bright, yet overshadowing them -- and the voice of God proclaimed their Lord to be His beloved Son (not faithful only, like Moses, as a steward over the house), and bade them, instead of desiring to arrest the flight of rival teachers, hear Him.
Too often Christian souls err after the same fashion. We cling to authoritative teachers, familiar ordinances, and traditional views, good it may be, and even divinely given, as if they were not intended wholly to lead us up to Christ. And in many a spiritual eclipse, from many a cloud which the heart fears to enter, the great lesson resounds through the conscience of the believer, Hear Him!
Did the words remind Peter how he had lately begun to rebuke his Lord? Did the visible glory, the ministration of blessed spirits and the voice of God, teach him henceforth to hear and to submit? Alas, he could again contradict Jesus, and say Thou shalt never wash my feet. I never will deny Thee. And we, who wonder and blame him, as easily forget what we are taught.
Let it be observed that the miraculous and Divine Voice reveals nothing new to them. For the words, This is My beloved Son, and also their drift in raising Him above all rivalry, were involved in the recent confession of this very Peter that He was neither Elijah nor one of the prophets, but the Son of the Living God. So true is it that we may receive a truth into our creed and even apprehend it with such vital faith as makes us |blessed,| long before it grasps and subdues our nature, and saturates the obscure regions where impulse and excitement are controlled. What we all need most is not clearer and sounder views, but the bringing of our thoughts into subjection to the mind of Jesus.