The Mount of Transfiguration
John Heading, Aberystwyth
The knowledge of the coming kingdom and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ is not something known by the natural senses, for when these are operative the rational mind would conclude that ‘all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation’, 2 Pet. 3. 4, and that there could be no possibility of a divine intervention to draw to a close the history of this scene. The only knowledge that we have of the certainty of the coining kingdom is from Holy Scripture; holy men of God, being moved by the Holy Spirit, 2 Pet. 1. 21, had oft-times spoken concerning it, and although believers do well to take heed to the ‘more sure word of prophecy’, yet mere academic study today treats prophecy very much on the grounds of ‘private interpretation’.
In the teaching of the Lord in the Gospels, He distinguished between (i) the people at large who would not be able to appreciate the prospect of the coming kingdom, since they were only waiting for national redemption in Israel, Luke 2. 38, (ii) His disciples who could go a certain way in understanding but could not bear a fuller exposition, John 16. 12, (iii) the chosen three, Peter, James and John, to whom could be granted a fuller vision of the Son of man coming in His kingdom. Finally we note the fact that the complete vision could only be granted many years later to the apostle John in his ageing years on the isle of Patmos. It is noteworthy that the more complete the revelation, the fewer there were who received it, for ‘whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance’, Matt. 13.12.
Restriction to Revelation
Matthew chapter 13 introduces the detailed parabolic method adopted in this Gospel by the Lord after the open expression of the evil thoughts of the religious leaders of the people, 12. 24. Here, the parabolic method was not to simplify deeper truth in order to make it more acceptable to the mind; rather the Lord adopted this method in order to hide the truth from the wise and prudent and to reveal it unto babes, 11. 25. The Lord’s own explanation as to why He taught in parables should be carefully studied in chapter 13, verses 11-17, particularly in verse 11: ‘It is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given’. Hence the parable of the sower, vv. 3-8, and the parable of the wheat and tares, vv. 24-30, were spoken to all the people, vv. 2, 34, but the explanation of these parables, vv. 18-23, 37-43, was given to the disciples alone (see verses 10, 36), who only then were able to understand in their measure, v. 51.
Matthew 16. 13 to 17. 13 is likewise a scene of restriction, revelation being granted only to those who would profit thereby. The revelation of Christ as the Son of the living God was granted to Peter by the Father, 16. 17, this confession referring to His very Person and thus distinct from the previous confession, 14. 33, which had reference to His works. In Matthew 16. 21, we have the beginning of a series of revealing pronouncements by the Lord concerning His death and rising again (see also Matt. 17. 22; Luke 18. 31-34). These open statements, made only to His disciples and not to the people around, were received in various degrees of ignorance and faithlessness. Finally, the open vision of Christ coming in the glory of His kingdom was granted only to three selected disciples, these being far fewer in number than those to whom He expounded the meaning of the parables in chapter 13 and those to whom He expounded the signs of His coming and of the end of the world, Matt. 24. 3. Saints today may well question themselves concerning the position to which they have attained in the understanding of these great prophetic events.
But this vision of Christ transfigured had its present application even then. Peter recalled it in his second Epistle, In just the same way as he was an eyewitness of His majesty, so the saints also had a light shining in a dark place, to which they had to take heed. Its present application in Matthew 16-17 appears to be one of confirming to Peter’s heart the revelation of the Person of Christ by the Father, 16. 16-17, contrasting this revelation with the useless ideas of men concerning His Person.
John the Baptist
Some men thought that the One in their midst was John the Baptist, Matt. 16. 14. This is strange confusion; previously men had thought that John was Christ, Luke 3. 15, a theory that John had not been slow in refuting, John 1. 20. King Herod was the chief offender, for having heard of the fame of Jesus the voice of conscience within had suggested that this was ‘John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead’. Matt. 14. 2. Later, Herod satisfied his conscience by persecuting Christ when taken captive, Luke 23. 11. But Peter rose above this confusion; in the first place he had received the testimony of his brother Andrew, who had heard directly the record of John concerning Christ, John 1. 36, 41. Secondly, the Father’s voice had made it clear to Peter that the One whom he followed was the Christ.
This knowledge was confirmed afterwards, Matt. 17. 10-13. Elias had appeared on the mount with the Lord, but Christ was supreme. The conversation was of His decease, Luke 9. 31, and not of the passing of Elijah from earth to heaven, 2 Kings 2. 11. The testimony of the Father’s voice concerned His Son with no reference at all to Elias. And when the vision faded, Jesus remained alone; Elias had disappeared. Then the Lord showed that the prophecy of Malachi 4. 5 (that Elijah would be sent before the great and dreadful day of the Lord) was already partially fulfilled in John the Baptist. This must, of course, be understood in the sense that John represented Elijah in character but not in person, Luke 1. 17. Hence John, like Elijah, was eclipsed on the mount by Christ, and thus the revelation from the Father to Peter’s heart was confirmed and the ideas of men discarded.
But how lowly was the Lord in the hour of triumph! He likened Himself to John: ‘likewise shall the Son of man suffer of them’, Matt. 17. 12. They had killed John, so too would they kill Him. In this identification, He referred merely to what men would do, in no way referring to the counsels of God in which He was infinitely above John, a fact to which John had readily testified, John 3. 30.
Some men thought that the One in their midst was Elias, Matt. 16. 14. The miraculous power of Christ was misassociated in their minds with the power of Elijah on Carmel, 1 Kings 18. 38, with the miracle of the barrel of meal and cruse of oil, 1 Kings 17. 16, and with the raising of the son of the woman of Zarephath. But, contrasted to this, in 1 Kings 19. 4, Elijah wanted to die because of the smallness of things, and in James 5. 17 he is described as a man ‘subject to like passions as we’. This could never be forced into similitude with the Lord’s character, even if Elijah’s miracles were wrongly applied. Such false reasoning shows that the people, acquainted with the Old Testament, were nevertheless in ignorance regarding its true import.
Peter rose above these false concepts by means of the Father’s revelation, but again this was confirmed on the mount. The Lord in glory was contrasted with Elijah, both in His person (shown by the Father’s voice) and in His work (shown by the subject of the conversation on the mount).
One of the Prophets
Men suggested that He was merely one of the prophets, a deliberately vague outlook concerning which they would not commit themselves more openly. Such an outlook characterises many today; they desire to remain vague about Christ and His salvation in order to cover up their intention of remaining on their own pathways and being their own masters. But faith is not vague; Peter’s confession was sweet certainty as to His person, but again this was confirmed on the mount. Certainly Peter’s weakness in Matthew 16. 22 showed that his faith needed strengthening.
It was not ‘one of the prophets’ that appeared in glory, but Moses, the greatest of the prophets, for we read in Deuteronomy 34. 10 ‘there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face’. But as the greatest of the prophets, Moses stood in contrast to Christ. The disobedience of Moses is recalled even in Deuteronomy 34. 4, ‘Thou shalt not go over thither’. Moses only foretold Christ, ‘The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet . . . like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken’, Deut. 18. 15.
On the mount Moses, like Elias, spoke of His death, but was displaced by the Son. Peter’s faith was thus confirmed, showing at the same time the uselessness of the opinions of men. We, too, do well to take heed to similar progress in the knowledge and confirmation of divine things, listening to His voice and perceiving Him by faith, rather than being influenced by the clamour of the ideas of men.