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THE TRANSFIGURED JESUS
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: and this voice we ourselves heard come out of heaven, when we were with Him in the holy mount.
“We were eyewitnesses of His majesty” [Verse 16] —eyewitnesses of the mystic glory in which the Lord was arrayed, and by which He was possessed upon the Mount of Transfiguration. The passage has reference to the superlative splendour which shone about the Lord upon what we call the “Mount of Transfiguration.” “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” When I had written that phrase upon my paper I looked up at my study walls, and I caught sight of Munkacsy’s great picture of “Christ before Pilate,” and the contrast between the mount of glory, when the majesty of the Lord was witnessed by the apostles, and the shame and the ignominy of 250the judgment hall, was to me positively startling. “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” I looked at the picture, and there was Pilate, bullet-headed, with short-cropped hair, with lustreless eyes, with effeminate mouth, and a most irresolute chin—Pilate, clothed in the garment of a little brief authority, disposing of the Maker of the world. And then the crowd! Fierce men with clenched fists in an attitude of threatening; faces made repulsive by passion; Pharisees in long, tasselled garments, yelling “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” other Pharisees bowing before the Lord in profound but mock obeisance; other Pharisees, with curling lips of scorn and contempt, looking on with sheer disdain; two or three women, with babes in their arms, gazing with the fascination of terror; one woman fainting, supported by a man who has the only gentle face in the crowd; and there, hiding in the very thick of the fierce mob, Judas Iscariot, with a face all alert with fear, and eyes in which there is already visible the flame of remorse; and added to all this a ring of impassive Roman soldiers, and one or two wondering little children, and a stray, terrified dog! And before all this mass of yelling and blood-seeking fanatics there stands the Lord! Upon His exposed breast there are the weals of the scourge. The plait of thorns 251is crushed down upon His brow; His hands are manacled; they bear the reed, the mock symbol of sovereignty; His face is perfectly white, wearied, sorrow-stricken, and yet there is an upward look, as though His eyes were piercing the gloom. Yes, I say, I looked at that when I read Peter’s words, “We were eyewitnesses of His majesty”; and I say the contrast was perfectly startling, for there seemed to be little radiance or glory as He stood there, bound and helpless, the victim of the tyrannous crowd. But, in reality, is the radiance of the transfiguration in any way dimmed by the ignominy and the tragedy of the later days? Has the glory which shone upon the mount been in any way eclipsed by what is now taking place before Pilate? By no means. In Pilate’s judgment-hall the glory and majesty of the Lord had not departed; and it came to me, and I knew it as I gazed upon the picture in my study, that somehow that picture of the tragedy had to help me to explain the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration upon the Mount finds its explanation in the Passion.
What preceded the journey up the mount? What had taken place before the disciples and the Lord took their journey away to the mount? Can we get at their mind? If I may use a somewhat common phrase to-day, what was 252their “psychological mood”? What was their mental content when they began to climb the hill? What had been the last emphasis of the Master’s teaching? Had they any fear? Had they any special hope? How had they begun to climb the mount with Jesus? What were the last things in His private expositions which probably filled their minds? Happily for you and for me the matter is made perfectly clear. The very last thing we are told about our Lord’s converse with His disciples is this: a , little while before, and for the first time, the shadow of the Lord’s death was flung upon their sunlit and prosperous way. “From that time”—this was only just before the climb began—“From that time began Jesus to shew unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” I want you to think of that as suddenly entering into the programme. It had never been whispered before, and now, when the way was becoming more and more sunny, and the crowds becoming more and more loyal and multiplied, when the day was just dawning, and the Lord’s kingdom just appearing, He begins to talk about His own suffering and death. I do not wonder that the announcement from the Master’s lips startled and staggered and paralysed them. Why, the teaching 253darkened the whole prospect!” That shall never be unto Thee, Lord,” cried the ardent and impulsive Peter. “Get thee behind Me!” I think there is no preacher who can say that word in the Master’s tones, “Get thee behind Me!” It was not said in savage severity, but in the pleadings of love. He felt the allurement of the disciple’s words, “That shall never be unto Thee, Lord!” “Don’t, don’t, My beloved friend! Tempt Me not away from the gloom; thy friendship is seeking the victory of the evil one.” And then He gathered them round about Him and began to expound unto them the law of life. “Whosoever will take thy way, Peter, whosoever will save his life shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life shall find it.” He began to expound unto them the law of life through death, fulness through sacrifice. If we would live we must die; if we would find ourselves we must give ourselves away. He began to say unto them that He would suffer and be killed! And then He laid down for them the great condition of fellowship: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
Well now, that is the mental furniture, that is the psychological mood which possessed the disciples as they turned to climb the slopes of 254the mount. They were under the shadow! To them had just been made a suggestion of the coming death of their King. They had had teaching about crosses, and losses, and sacrifice; and yet, through it all, a wonderful promise woven of ultimate victory. We must go back to that word about the cross, and self-denial, and the law of life; and when we climb the mount of transfiguration we must take it as a key to the glory, and to all that awaits us there.
“And then,” we are told, “Jesus taketh with him Peter,” with his mind filled with these things, “and James,” and his mind filled with these things, “and John.” “Jesus taketh!” That word “taketh” is an exceedingly feeble and unsuggestive English word. The word that lies behind it is full of pregnant significance. It is precisely the same word which, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, is translated “offered.” “He taketh with him.” It is not an ordinary journey. It is the solemn beginning of a walk which is to end at an altar, and that an altar of sacrifice. “He taketh with Him Peter, and James and John,” and they begin the solemn walk leading them up to the great surrender, the place of glorious sacrifice. “He taketh them into a high mountain, apart,” and this too, in the evening time. Let us pause there for a moment. There 255is always something so solemnising about the evening.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds.
Somehow in the gathering twilight God seems to come very near. And this experience receives emphasis when it is evening time upon the heights, when the clouds are coming back like tired vagrants to rest awhile upon the summits; when there is nobody near, and nobody can be heard, except, perhaps, some belated shepherd, gathering his flock together for the night. He led them unto a mountain apart, “and He prayed.” Let us get the scene well fixed in our imaginations. The Master is away up in the mountain; the heavy dews are lying upon the grass: that breeze is softly blowing, the breeze which seems to be always moving upon the lower slopes of Hermon, perhaps cooled by the snows beyond. And there He kneels, the Master, the Lord, and He prays! I want us to realise that all prayer is more than speech with God. Prayer is infinitely more than pleading. I sometimes wish I say it with the utmost deliberateness—I sometimes wish we could drop the word “plead” quite out of our religious vocabulary. We so frequently pray as though we had got an indifferent and unwilling God with whom we have to plead. 256The cardinal necessity in prayer is not pleading, but receiving. I do not believe—I say it with, a full sense of responsibility—I do not believe we have any more need to plead with God to bless than to plead with the air outside to come into a building. It is not so much pleading that is required as the making of an inlet. God is willing. Prayer is simply communion; the opening up of channels of companionship; the opening out of mind, the opening out of will, in order that into the open mind and will and conscience there may flow the Divine energy and the Divine grace. “Jesus prayed,” and I know that when it is said “Jesus prayed,” it means that He was absolutely open to the infinite. Surely that is the meaning of prayer. When a man prays, if he prays aright, he is simply opening himself out to the incoming of God. God says: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock; I enshrine and surround you like the atmosphere.” Prayer is conscious receptiveness in the presence of the Divine. Jesus, upon the mountain height, in the evening time prayed, He opened Himself to God, the Infinite, and the Infinite began to possess Him.
“And as He prayed He was transfigured.” I am not surprised at that. Even among men we have seen the ministry of transfiguration, even though it be in infinitely smaller degree. You 257remember that Moses had been so opened out to God, and so possessed by the Divine light, that when he came down from the mount his face shone with mystic radiance. “We are told concerning Stephen that he was so opened out to the Infinite that they saw his face as it had been the face of an angel. He was simply possessed and pervaded by the Divine power. And surely one may say, as I can say, that in far humbler life than that of Moses, in life in which there has been little of what the world calls “culture,” little of mental furniture, little of dialectical power, but in which there has been great spiritual receptiveness, in the lives of the illiterate there has shone “a light that never was on sea or land.” But here with the Master, whose life was absolutely and uninterruptedly opened out to the glory of the God-head, the inflow of glory transfigured and transformed Him, and in superlative and supreme degree “His face did shine as the sun.” The very expression of His countenance was altered. And then the historians go even further, for we are told that the glory, the energy, I scarcely know how to describe it—one uses an almost violent phrase in seeking to give expression to it—the Divine effluence which flowed into the Lord not only transfigured His flesh, but in some mystic way transfigured even His outer vesture. “His 258garments became white as snow.” All of which just means this: that this man of Nazareth became so absolutely filled with God that His very material vesture was transfigured and transformed. “We were eyewitnesses of it.”
Now, I would like to pause there a moment, to offer an opinion for which I cannot quote Scriptural authority. “This say I, not the Lord.” I would venture to ask: What would have happened if man had never sinned? I think, just what happened on the mount. I have a conviction that this experience on the mount was just the purposed consummation for every life. I have a conviction that if there had been no sin you and I would never have known an open grave. We should have known a transformation, a transfiguration; there would have been a consummation in which the material would have been transfigured and transformed through the importation of the Divine glory. The corruptible would have put on incorruption, but not through the ministry of decay and death; just by the ministry of an inflow of Divine glory. I think that was our purposed end, and our purposed glory. I think that from the very day of our birth our road would have led ever forward and ever forward into light. There would have come a certain moment in the temporal life of 259everybody when the glory of the Lord would have absolutely possessed us, when the material shrine would have been transfigured, and we should have reached the higher plane of the immortal life. But sin came, and that consummation could never be. Instead of on some quiet evening just being transfigured into the immortal, we have now to take the way to the shades, the way of the grave. But Jesus never sinned, and therefore I think that upon the mount His life was naturally consummated, and He could have entered into the permanent glory which then possessed Him.
But now, mark you, I say that our Master, with a perfectly holy life, came there to a natural consummation, in which His life was transfigured, and He might, I think, then have passed into the state of enduring glory. But He divests Himself of the glory, lays it aside, turns His back, as it were, upon the natural consummation, and takes the way to the grave. He turns from the appointed way of glory, the glory of sinlessness, and He takes the way appointed of sin. That is what I call the great renunciation; and I sometimes think that instead of calling it the Mount of Transfiguration we might call it the Mount of Renunciation. He would not claim the natural consummation. He would not claim 260the transfiguration. He takes up the cross even upon the mount; He takes the way of His brethren in sin; He came to do it; He leaves the glory, and He comes down the mount that by coming down the mount He might make for you and for me a new and living way by which we, too, can reach the consummation. “See, He lays His glory by!” He turns His face towards the grave.
Do you think there were no fears in His renunciation? I very frequently wish that we did not so divest our Lord of all attributes common to the flesh. Do you think our Master was altogether delivered from the common fears of man in the prospect of death? No fear of death, and that a death of such absolute abandonment, and of so unspeakable and un thinkable isolation? I think when He turned His back upon that glory, glory to which He had a right, and faced towards the grave, He felt a chill, the chill of a nameless fear. I know that on another mountain, when the devil came and tempted Him, and He then turned His back upon the offered sovereignty, “angels came and ministered unto Him.” And I do not wonder that now, when, upon the mount of another renunciation, He turns His back upon the glory and contemplates death, there appeared unto Him two other ministers—Moses 261and Elijah: Moses who died no one knew how, and was buried no one knew where; and Elijah, who was transfigured that he should not see death. And then we are told in just one phrase, which although it does not satisfy, yet relieves our wonder, that they spoke together of the decease that He should accomplish at Jerusalem. Perhaps it is permitted us to indulge in a little reverent imagination? Here is the Lord turning His back upon glory and facing the chills of death, and there appears to Him from the other side of death Moses and Elijah, and surely their conversation about His decease would be heartening! It would be feeding speech, and sustaining speech, by which He would be able all the more boldly and all the more fearlessly to take His journey into twilight and night. And so, I say, our Saviour began His descent from glory to grave. It is not the going up the mount that cheers me, it is the coming down! Every step He took in that descent gives confirmation to your hope and to mine. Our ascent becomes possible in His descent.
And as He turned to go, and laid His shining glory by, behold! a voice, “This is My beloved Son.” [Verse 17] It was a great renunciation on Christ’s part, but it was a great gift on God’s part, and I think that on the mount of renunciation, when our Lord begins His descent, and the Father 262says, “My beloved Son,” we can in all reverence and truth add the other great word: “God so loved the world that He let Him lay His glory by”; “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Down the mount He comes, on to Golgotha and the grave! Did not I say that the Transfiguration finds i^s explanation at the Passion? When I see Him coming down the mount, I can say with Paul, “He loved me and gave Himself for me.” It is through our Lord’s renunciation of glory that we become glorified. When I turn my face to the mountain-height, where the Apostle Peter was an eyewitness of the majesty of God, and when I think that that glory was the purposed consummation for every life, that I, if I had never sinned, might have been similarly trans figured into the immortal state, I wonder how the blest estate can be regained. And here is the answer:
There is a way for man to rise
To that sublime abode:
An offering and a sacrifice,
A Holy Spirit’s energies,
An advocate with God.
These, these prepare us for the sight
Of holiness above;
The sons of ignorance and night
May dwell in the eternal Light
Through the eternal Love!
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