And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.…
This singular and beautiful incident in the life of our blessed Redeemer I propose to set before you in detail, as befitting the occasion of this sermon, and because it is an incident not only most interesting in itself, but also one which presents to us an idea of that transfiguration into glory which we shall ourselves sometime experience, if by perseverance in the faith we attain to the resurrection of the just. It was into a high mountain, St. Mark informs us, that Jesus led the chosen three, Peter and James and John, by themselves apart from the rest. This is the true sense of the passage in St. Matthew: not that the mountain stood apart from other mountains, but that our Lord took with Him three of His disciples apart from the rest. Nevertheless tradition has long asserted this high mountain to be Tabor, a solitary hill indeed, and apart from others — a hill studded with trees, rising like a rounded mass of verdure out of the plain of Galilee to the height only of 1,700 feet. But there stands another hill in Palestine that rises high above all the hills of Palestine, with snow-clad summits towering to an altitude of 10,000 feet above the level of the Mediterranean. It is the hill of Hermon: nay, rather it is a mountain, the only mountain that deserves the name in the Holy Land. The northern barrier it is of the Holy Land; that lofty barrier which " set the last limit to His wanderings who was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." To some one or other of the southern peaks of Hermon modern research has assigned the scene of the Transfiguration. But leaving the question of place undetermined, we may briefly remark in passing that hills and mountains and high places were often the exalted platforms of exalted events. On Mount Sinai was the law delivered. Up the slopes of Moriah was Isaac led to the sacrifice. On the hill of Rephldim Moses built an altar, and stood with the rod of God in his outstretched hand. From the summits of Ebal and Gerizim sounded the blessings and the curses. Elijah sacrificed on Carmel. On the hill of Zion stood the Temple. "I have looked up to the hills," we read in the Psalms; and from the Mount of Olives our blessed Lord was wont to look up to heaven, which is God's hill — from those hallowed heights prayers ascended from Christ, and Christ Himself ascended bodily. But to return to the text — into this high mountain — whether it was Tabor or Hermon, or neither, but some hill country on the shores of lake Tiberias, our Saviour went up. For what purpose? For the purpose of devotion and prayer. St. Luke expressly asserts that "He went up to pray," and moreover, that "as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment became white and glistering." "The fashion of His countenance was altered." For this was a transfiguration, not a transformation: there was no change of form; the shape of the head and the outline of the features, and the symmetry of the body all remained the same; only the figure or fashion of His countenance was altered: and His face did shine, did shine "as the sun": and His raiment became dazzling white, as the light, white as snow, white as no fuller on earth can whiten. His form, I say, was unaltered, but the fashion of that form underwent a change, His whole sacred person seemed to be living with light, living with the light of the glory which is above the brightness of the sun; this intense unearthly light struggling through the veil of the flesh, streaming through the threads of His raiment, flashing from the inner man to the outer — why so? Why from the inner man to the outer? Because the spirit of Jesus was then rapt in prayer to His Father when His body began to be transfigured. For prayer — fervent prayer — is a great power; it is the silent engine that bends heaven to earth; it is the power which moves the hand which moves the world. The countenance of a holy man rapt in prayer seems to be illumined from within, and is, as it were, a transfiguration begun. It was this surpassing splendour of the heavenly glory which long afterwards again riveted the gaze and dazzled the eye of one of the spectators of this wonderful scene. What St. John afterwards saw, in a trance, in a vision on the Lord's day, that he was commanded to write. And he wrote, "I saw one, like unto the Son of Man" (the beloved disciple recognized his risen and ascended Master) — "I saw one, like unto the Son of Man, clothed with a shining garment down to the foot and girt about the breasts with a golden girdle. His head and His hairs were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were as a flame of fire, and His feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace, and His voice as the voice of many waters, and His countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength." But, brethren, this vision of glory on the heights of the mystic mountain, this brief heaven upon earth in the life of our Lord, this beautiful insertion of a golden link in the iron chain that bound His career, this brilliant intrusion of the Transfiguration into the dreary uniformity of His humiliation, was not without human witnesses. Peter and James and John — the legal number of three — were witnesses of the Transfiguration on the mount, even as they were afterwards witnesses of the Agony in the garden. On both occasions they slumbered and slept. On the present occasion something there was in the majesty of heaven descending to earth which seems to have overpowered the senses of the chosen three. And yet, while their Master was standing and praying near them in the mount, to watch the light of love looking out of His earnest eyes, to see His soul outpoured in those palms outspread, was enough, one would think, to bring His followers, the chosen three, to their senses and to their knees. Yet it was not so, for they saw but heard not; or if they heard they heeded not; or if they heard and heeded, it was but for a little while. Soon somehow their ears became dull, their spirits drowsy, their eyes heavy; they felt a film of stupor rising and spreading between themselves reclining and their Saviour standing. He in the attitude of' one praying, they in the posture of men drooping, listless, lethargic, unconcerned, indifferent, with dreamy eyes and heads nodding in a bewilderment. So the disciples slumbered and slept, but their Master watched and prayed. And as they slept and as He prayed, as they slept the sleep that is cousin to death, and He prayed the prayer that is akin to life, then in the dull stupor of their prostration, and in the holy rapture of His supplication, was ushered in the first act in the Divine drama of the Transfiguration. How it was ushered in, what it was, is not recorded. For when the chosen three awoke out of their sleep, the glory had already set in; and they, lifting up their eyes, "beheld the glory, the glory as of the Only Begotten of the Father." And they saw also standing in that glory together with Jesus two human forms. The three attendants, Peter and James and John, themselves outside the glory, beheld the two companions of Jesus standing with Him inside the glory. These two human forms, "whether in the body or out of the body," I know not, were Moses and Elias: Moses the publisher of the law, Elias the chief of the prophets, both of them seen shining in the same light with Christ Himself, who gave the law and sent the prophets. Moses and Elias, admirable to the Jews for their miracles, beautiful to God for their holiness. Moses and Elias, each admitted to conference with God in Horeb; both of them types of Christ; both of them fasters of forty days; both of them dividers of the waters, messengers of God to kings; both of them marvellous in their life, mysterious in their end. A chariot of angels came and took away Elias; he was sought by the prophets and not found. Michael, the archangel, strove with the devil for the body of Moses; and he was sought by his people and not found. But strange to say, both Moses and Elias were destined to be found at last without seeking. Many centuries after their disappearance three fishermen of Galilee found the two prophets of God both together, standing with the Messiah, shining in fellowship with the brightness of His glory on some mountain or other in Galilee. Doubtless, other than human spectators were gazing upon this marvellous scene of the transitory glory. We may well believe that myriads of angels, ever moving on the wings of ministration, on this occasion also clustering around the peaks of Tabor, did in amazement behold Him between two saints transfigured, whom afterwards they beheld in horror between two thieves disfigured. Meanwhile Peter and James and John, from the outer twilight of the sunshine of this world, were looking with an astonished curiosity into that heavenly circle of sevenfold brightness, which ensphered in one glory the shining three, Jesus and with Him Moses and Elias. And as they gazed they heard Moses and Elias speaking — speaking still as of old prophetically and of Christ, for they spake of His decease, or, as St. Luke writes, they "foretold His departure." This they did, not to inform Him that He was to die, for this He knew long before; nay, He Himself communicated it to them, for He was the Word of the Father, and they were but two voices or echoes of that Word — the two prophets inside thus spake in order that the three disciples outside might hear, and that, hearing from two heavenly witnesses what they had before heard from their Divine Master, they might by the threefold testimony be settled, strengthened, established in the belief of the coming passion. And now behold a bright cloud overshadowed them! The outer skirts of the central glory began to advance — to enlarge their borders and to encompass the chosen three. Peter and James and John stand for a while in the golden suburbs of the heavenly Jerusalem. "A bright cloud overshadowed them." He who "tempers the wind to the shorn lamb" softened the dazzling brightness with a luminous curtain. Nevertheless, even in the haze of the cloud that relieved the blaze, they were affrighted. The majesty was veiled to them, yet they were afraid. The glory was tempered to them, yet they trembled. But if the subdued flashing of the clouded splendour alarmed them, the thunder of the voice that came out of the cloud appalled them. It was the voice of God! "This is My Son, My Beloved, in whom I am well pleased: hear ye Him." At the sound of that Divine voice the three disciples fell upon their face and were exceedingly afraid. And Jesus approaching them, as was His wont, did not rebuke them either for their past drowsiness or for their present terror, but gently said, "Arise, and be not afraid." And lifting up their eyes they saw no one save Jesus only. This was the last scene of this Divine drama. All had now vanished — Moses, Elias, the cloud, the voice, the glory. The mountain remained standing, as it stood before, but not more solid and real than the glimpse of heaven of which it had been the brief stage. Peter and James and John, who had drooped and slumbered, who had gazed upon the scene and wondered, who had heard the voice and had fallen and been raised and comforted, they also remained near the spot. And last, but net least, Jesus, too, remained on the scene; but the beauty of comeliness, the brightness of majesty, the glory of His countenance had departed from Him. This was the second time that He relinquished His glory for us and for our salvation. He was now to outward view just what He was before the change, a man to common eyes of no mark, of no desire. Now, as before, He was in the form of a servant, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He knew what was in store for Him: that from the summits of the glory He must descend into the garden of the agony; from the garden of the agony bearing the cross of shame He must be lifted up on the tree of the curse. That Divine face which had so lately shone with the light of God must be smitten and buffeted and spit upon; that sacred brow and those stainless hands that had just now glistened with a heavenly brightness must be bruised with thorns and pierced with nails; that raiment which had been woven anew with threads of light must be stript from His body and divided as a spoil. As He came down from the mount of the Transfiguration He knew that He must die. He knew as He descended from that happiness that He must descend still further, that henceforth His path lay terribly downward. He knew that He, bearing the nature of all men, must step by step pass down the sleep stair of the humiliation, from the glory to the agony, from the bitter sharp agony to the awful tragedy. He knew that He, the Messiah, the Redeemer of men, the Creator and the Restorer of the world, the Holy One of Israel, the Son of God, must for some hours hang upon the tree, in the daylight a mark of mocking men, in the darkness a butt of scoffing fiends. In this storm of hate, in this wild rage of popular fury, the sea and the waves roaring, cries of blasphemy, shouts of derision shocking His pure ears, from all sides looks of malignant glee, glances of triumphant scorn meeting His meek eyes — He knew that thus and thus He must depart, alone in His passion, abandoned of His fellow-men, deserted by the chosen three, forsaken of the twelve elect, forsaken even in His inmost consciousness of His God. He knew, I say, as He descended from the mount of the Transfiguration that He must die — must die the death of a common malefactor, in order that He might become the common Benefactor of mankind and the propitiation, not only for the sins of His Church, but for the sins also of the whole world.
(T. S. Evans, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And it came to pass about an eight days after these sayings, he took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray.