By Harris Franklin Rall
The Gospels for the most part are the simple record of the words and deeds of Jesus, set down by the writers without notes or comment. Here and there, however, the curtain is lifted a little and we are shown, back of the words and deeds, the deeps of Jesus' own life, his feelings, his inner purposes, his conflicts. These may be called the autobiographical passages, for it is Jesus himself who thus lifts the curtain. At such places we stand reverently and seek to grasp in some slight measure the inner meaning of that great life, in particular to gain what light we can upon the question as to how Jesus thought of himself and his mission.
Here belongs Matthew 11. 25-30, that wonderful passage, half prayer and half invitation, where Jesus opens to the Father his heart of reverent joy and to men the depths of his tender mercy. But there are four other scenes of self-disclosure that are to be noted in particular, each marking a supreme experience in the life of the Master. Two we have already studied: the call and baptism of the Spirit, and the forty days in the wilderness. The transfiguration, which we are now to consider, is the third, and the scene in Gethsemane the last. The first two incidents were told by Jesus to his disciples; the report of the last two we owe to that inner circle of his friends, Peter, James, and John, who were with him on these last occasions. In all four scenes Jesus is concerned with the same great question, what his work was and how he should carry it out. All of them involve conflict and decision. They are the inner explanation of his outer life. He moves before men calm, strong, victorious, but back of that kingly life lay the temptations and fierce conflicts through which the Son of man passed for the sake of the sons of men.
The Problem of the Suffering Messiah
The Meaning of the Transfiguration. —The transfiguration has commonly been conceived as a heavenly glorification of the Master intended to impress his disciples. It was, indeed, a part of their training, but that does not mark its deepest meaning. As already noted, this period in Jesus' life between the Galilean ministry and the last Jerusalem days is marked by four facts: the wanderings, the special training of the disciples, the declaration of the messiahship, and the Master's recognition of his coming death. With the last the transfiguration experience is concerned. It was the culmination of a momentous experience in which the final battle was fought and the strength was gained for Jerusalem and death.
The Decision to Go to Jerusalem. —The first fact that meets us here is Jesus' decision to go to Jerusalem. To his disciples it was utterly astonishing. They knew the situation and had no doubt talked it all over among themselves. They had had to flee Galilee because of peril to Jesus' life, when the Pharisees had united with the Herodians in their plottings. Apparently they had returned to their old quarters in Capernaum but once since that time, and then only for the briefest stay (Mark 9. 30; Matt. 17. 24). But if Galilee was dangerous, Jerusalem was far more so. The Pharisees were far stronger there than in Galilee, while the powerful priestly party would have even more reason for opposition. If Galilee spelled danger, Jerusalem meant certain death.
God's Will for His Life. —Why did Jesus determine to go? The first and principal reason was that he saw that it was the will of his Father. Through all these days he had been following the guidance of that Spirit that had been with him in boyhood and had filled him with a fuller baptism there at the Jordan. His one passion had been to do his Father's will, his one confidence had been his Father's care. He had entered the doors of service which his Father had opened. Now these were closed. In Galilee the multitudes who had once listened and rejoiced were turning away, while his enemies conspired. To go to Gentile lands would be in effect to give up his mission; it was one thing to help individual Gentiles here and there as he met them, but the Kingdom could not be built upon such foundations. The message must go to his own people first. But that meant not merely Galilee; one could more easily think of France apart from Paris than of the Jewish people of that day apart from Jerusalem. Here was the work for which he had come. As to what lay at the end of that road, that belonged to his Father. If Jerusalem meant suffering and death, then death was a part of his Father's will and purpose.
Facing the Question of Death. —Thus Jesus was brought face to face with the question of his death. We do not know how early he had begun to consider this issue of his work as possible or necessary. It would seem that he had considered it from the beginning. It was present in the wilderness days. There he had seen that his way was not to be that of outer rule and triumph, but of humble obedience and service. As he himself put it later on, "The Son of man is come not to be ministered unto, but to minister." There too in the temptation of hunger he faced the question as to what he should do if his life were in danger, and the clear answer was that he was to do his Father's will and trust him. That way of service and obedience and trust he had been following ever since. The farther he went, the more clear the end appeared. He spoke to his disciples of the day when the bridegroom should be taken away. The close of John the Baptist's life stirred him deeply, and he saw in its tragic end the suggestion of what was coming to him (Matt. 17. 10-13). His mind reverted to the great figures of the past, the prophets who had brought Jehovah's word to his people. And the people, he knew, had not changed. Would not the sons of those that slew the prophets do the same with him (Matt. 23. 29-36)? These scattered utterances of Jesus are indications of how his mind had long been occupied with this question.
The Insight of the Master. —Nowhere do the spiritual insight and the independence of Jesus seem more wonderful than here. For Jewish thought, the idea of a suffering Messiah, defeated and dying, if it had ever been suggested, would have been the height of absurdity or even blasphemy. So, indeed, it seemed to them later in the Christian preaching—''unto Jews a stumblingblock." The passage in Isaiah 62. 13 to 53. 12 about the suffering servant had not been connected by them with the Messiah. With all the instruction of Jesus, the disciples had no thought of anything like this. But Jesus, from the moment that he confessed himself as Messiah, began to teach them "that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed" (Mark 8. 31, 32). His death was to accomplish what his life could not do. It was not simply something strange and terrible which obedience to his Father demanded; it was to be for the saving of the people. He was to "give his life a ransom for many."
Jesus' Use of Messianic Scriptures. —This same insight of Jesus is seen in his use of Scripture at this time. It was natural that he should seek light upon his path in the sacred writings, just as he did at his temptation. There were many passages in the Old Testament which the rabbis had fixed upon as Messianic. Some of these spoke of the Messiah's power and glory and his vengeance upon the nations. Such, for example, was the second psalm, held by all as Messianic, where it is written:
And again, to the nations:
Nowhere does Jesus betray the influence of such passages. He passed them by and turned to the one from Isaiah (52.13 to 53. 12) noted above, which the rabbis had not thought of as Messianic. In this great passage Jesus read the meaning of his life and the presage of its end. Its influence appears in two ideas that come out again and again in his teaching at this time. The first is the idea of service: "The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister" (Mark 10. 45). "I am in the midst of you as he that serveth" (Luke 22. 27). The second is the idea of sacrifice and suffering, even unto death. "If any man would come after me," he says solemnly after the rebuke of Peter, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." These two thoughts he applies to others also. There is a third, taken also from Isaiah 52 and 53, which he applies only to himself, and which occurs in but one saying in this period. But though it could mean little to the disciples at this time, and so have little place in his teaching, we can see how much it meant to Jesus when he declared that he was to "give his life a ransom for many" (Mark 10. 45). That thought changed his death from a tragedy to his last and greatest deed of service.
Upon the Mount
The Struggle. —The transfiguration experience comes in the midst of this struggle. Here and there the Gospels give us a glimpse of how intense the conflict was, though nowhere else is it seen so vividly as in Gethsemane. It was more than the shrinking from an awful death. It was the question of his work and, in the end, the question of his trust in the Father. He had been sent to establish the Kingdom; how should the work be done if his enemies thus triumphed ? What would become of the little company that he had gathered, his beloved friends who were the first-fruits of the fellowship of the Kingdom? When they smote the shepherd, would not the sheep be scattered (Mark 14. 27)? Could this strange and terrible way indeed be the will of his Father?
The Victory. —Thus it comes that Jesus goes up into the mountain. He goes up to pray and he takes the three, not that they may be impressed with some scene of glory, but that he may have their sympathy and fellowship in his hour of need, just as he craved it in that later hour in Gethsemane (Luke 9. 28). The prayer, as in Gethsemane, was not for a brief period, but was a long struggle. Even these three were little fitted to understand it, and soon they slept (Luke 9. 32). But the conflict issued in victory. Here too, as at the baptism, the Father spoke to him in clearest assurance. Even the disciples, when they awoke at length, could not but see the glory of heaven in their Master's face, and knew that this mountaintop was a Bethel. What was the assurance that Jesus received? We can judge of that by what followed. He begins again to instruct the disciples as to his end of suffering and death; he had received the assurance that the way to the cross was the way of his Father's will. But not only this: there was the further assurance that he should live again. These three things henceforth are joined together in his thought: Messiah-ship, suffering, and resurrection (Mark 9. 9; Luke 9. 22).
Preparing the Twelve
"The Son of Man Must Suffer." — There remained, then, the task of preparing the disciples for such an end. It was not an easy one. Jesus' acknowledgment that he was the Messiah had filled their minds with a tumult of exultation and high hopes. While Jesus was thinking of the hard road that lay before him they were dreaming of future glory and power. Now he must show them what Messiah-ship really meant. Mark tells us, in words that follow immediately upon Peter's confession, that "He began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again." "Be it far from thee, Lord," said impulsive Peter; "this shall never be unto thee." Deeply stirred, Jesus answers. There is a passion and a severity in his words that can be understood only when we realize the struggle through which he has been passing. Here is the same temptation to save himself. The same tempter is speaking whom he met in the wilderness, and who sought then, as now, to turn his way aside from God's will. "Get thee behind me, Satan,'' he cries out to Peter, the rock apostle whom he has just praised; ''for thou mindest not the things of God, but the things of men" (Mark 8. 33). He himself was deeply conscious at the moment how widely God's ways differed from the thoughts of man.
"They Understood Not This Saying." — Luke tells us that the transfiguration occurred a week after the confession at Caesarea Philippi (9. 28). After the transfiguration Jesus begins again to speak of his suffering and death and resurrection and continues the instruction as they go upon their way (Mark 9. 9-13, 30-37). It was still beyond their comprehension. What was this resurrection? Was not Elijah to come first; how, then, could the Messiah appear when Eli jail had not come? This last question they brought to Jesus. If men only knew it, Jesus answered, Elijah is come already. And if you could but understand, you would see that as they treated John (this Elijah) so would they also treat the Son of man. There is a pathos in this gulf that separates the disciples just at this time from the mind of the Master. These were the days when he most needed their sympathy and comprehension. At the same time, realizing how short a time he would be with them, he felt just at this time most urgently the need of making them see this meaning of the sacrificial life and of his death. But their minds were obsessed with the old ideas of kingdom and rule. Their Master was the Messiah, what should they be when he came into his kingdom ? By themselves on the way they argued the question as to who was entitled to first place (Mark 9. 34). Luke piles up his phrases to indicate how little they comprehended of what Jesus was telling them about himself: "But they understood not this saying, and it was concealed from them, that they should not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask him about this saying" (Luke 9.45).
Later Movements. —These last events occurred after they had left the north. The Gospels do not tell us where the mount of transfiguration was. The traditional site is Tabor, but it was probably some height near Caesarea Philippi instead. It would seem that after leaving this region in the north, Jesus made his last visit to Galilee, coming at length to the old quarters in Capernaum (Mark 9. 30). It was no time for him to take up his public work in Galilee again, and so he kept hid from the people. The multitudes had apparently lost their first eager interest and it was not hard to do.
Directions For Study
Read Mark 8. 31-38; 9. 1-13, 30-32. Compare with this Luke 9. 21-36, 43-45.
Recall briefly the incidents of the last two lessons: the departure from Galilee, the wanderings, the simple life that Jesus and his company lived together, and finally the confession.
Keeping the Scripture passages before you, read the narrative above and study the three main questions which it presents.
1. Consider the problem in Jesus' life: the way that pointed to Jerusalem, the prospect of suffering and death inseparable from that way, and the problem beneath all this of how the Messiah could suffer and die.
2. Consider in the light of all this why Jesus went up on the mount, and what happened there. It might as truly be called the mount of prayer as the mount of transfiguration. It would not have been the latter if it had not first been the former.
3. Consider the Master's task in preparing his disciples for the end and the wonderful patience that he showed. What are some great truths that mankind has been slow in learning?
How far is the spirit of sacrifice still the condition of leadership and of human progress? Why has Christianity made the cross its symbol?
In addition to Isaiah 52. 13 to 53. 12, read Isaiah 41. 8-11, 42. 1-7. These passages all deal with the "Servant of Jehovah." Jesus was specially attracted to this book. Recall his use of Isaiah 61. 1, 2.