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Expository Sermons, Preaching Outlines,  Bible Studies, Illustrations by Various Authors

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Matthew 17:11-13
Transfiguration of Jesus

by Alexander Maclaren
    'And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John
    his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain
    apart, 2. And was transfigured before them: and His
    face did shine as the sun, and His raiment was white as
    the light. 3. And, behold, there appeared unto them
    Moses and Elias talking with Him. 4. Then answered
    Peter, and said unto Jesus. Lord, it is good for us
    to be here: if Thou wilt, let us make here three
    tabernacles; one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one
    for Elias. 5. While he yet spake, behold, a bright
    cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the
    cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am
    well pleased; hear ye Him. 6. And when the disciples
    heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
    7. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise,
    and be not afraid. 8. And when they had lifted up their
    eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. 9. And as they
    came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying,
    Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of Man be risen
    again from the dead. 10. And His disciples asked Him,
    saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first
    come? 11. And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias
    truly shall first come, and restore all things. 12. But
    I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they
    knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they
    listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of
    them. 13. Then the disciples understood that He spake
    unto them of John the Baptist.'--MATT. xvii. 1-13.

The early guess at Tabor as the scene of the Transfiguration must be
given up as untenable. Some one of the many peaks of Hermon rising
right over Caesarea is a far more likely place. But the silence of
all the accounts as to the locality surely teaches us the
unimportance of knowledge on the point. The dangers of knowing would
more than outweigh the advantages. A similar indefiniteness attaches
to the _when_. Are we to think of it as occurring by night, or
by day? Perhaps the former is slightly the more probable, from the
fact of the descent being made 'the next day' (Luke). Our conception
of the scene will be very different, as we think of that lustre from
His face, and that bright cloud, as outshining the blaze of a Syrian
sun, or as filling the night with glory. But we cannot settle which
view is correct.

There are three distinct parts in the whole incident: the
Transfiguration proper; the appearance of Moses and Elijah; and the
cloud with the voice from it.

I. The Transfiguration proper.

The general statement that Jesus 'was transfigured before them' is
immediately followed out into explanatory details. These are
twofold--the radiance of His face, and the gleaming whiteness of His
raiment, which shone like the snow on Hermon when it is smitten by
the sunshine. Probably we are to think of the whole body as giving
forth the same mysterious light, which made itself visible even
through the white robe He wore. This would give beautiful accuracy and
appropriateness to the distinction drawn in the two metaphors,--that
His face was 'as the sun,' in which the undiluted glory was seen; and
His garments 'as the light,' which is sunshine diffused and weakened.
There is no hint of any external source of the brightness. It does not
seem to have been a reflection from the visible symbol of the divine
presence, as was the fading radiance on the face of Moses. That symbol
does not come into view till the last stage of the incident. We are
then to think of the brightness as rising from within, not cast from
without. We cannot tell whether it was voluntary or involuntary. Luke
gives a pregnant hint, in connecting it with Christ's praying, as if
the calm ecstasy of communion with the Father brought to the surface
the hidden glory of the Son. Can it be that such glory always
accompanied His prayers, and that its presence may have been one
reason for the sedulous privacy of these, except on this one occasion,
when He desired that His faithful three should be 'eye-witnesses of
His majesty'? However that may be, we have probably to regard the
Transfiguration as the transient making visible, in the natural,
symbolic form of light, of the indwelling divine glory, which dwelt
in Him as in a shrine, and then shone through the veil of His flesh.
John explains the event, though His words go far beyond it, when he
says, 'We beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the

What was the purpose of the Transfiguration? Matthew seems to tell
us in that 'before them.' It was for their sakes, not for His, as
indeed follows from the belief that it was the irradiation from
within of the indwelling light. The new epoch of His life, in which
they were to have a share of trial and cross-bearing, needed some
great encouragement poured into their tremulous hearts; and so, for
once, He deigned to let them look on His face shining as the sun,
for a remembrance when they saw it covered with 'shame and spitting'
and His brow bleeding from the thorns. But perhaps we may venture a
step farther, and see here some prophecy of that body of His glory
in which He now reigns. Speculations as to the difference between
the earthly body of our Lord and ours are fascinating but
unsubstantial. It was a true human body, susceptible of hunger,
pain, weariness; but we are not taught that it carried in it the
necessity of death. It may have been more pliable to the spirit's
behests, and more transparent to its light, than ours. There may
have been in that hour of radiance some approximation to the perfect
harmony between the perfect spirit and the body, which is its fit
organ, which we know is His now, and to which we also know that He
will conform the body of our humiliation. Then His face 'shone as
the sun'; when one of these three saw Him in His glory, 'His
countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength'; and His own
promise to us is that we too 'shall shine forth as the sun.' Then
His garments were white as the light; His promise is that they who
are worthy shall 'walk with Him in white.' The Transfiguration was a
revelation and a prophecy.

II. The appearance of Moses and Elijah.

While the three are gazing with dazzled eyes, suddenly, as if shaped
out of air, there stand by Jesus two mighty forms, evidently men,
and yet, according to Luke, encompassed in the white radiance,
walking with the Son of Man in a better furnace. What a stound of
awe and wonder must have touched the gazers as the conviction who
these were filled their minds, and they recognised, we know not how,
the mighty lineaments of the lawgiver and the prophet! Did the three
mortals understand the meaning of the words of the heavenly three?
We cannot tell. Nor does Matthew tell us what was the theme of that
wondrous colloquy. These two might have asked, 'Why hast Thou
disquieted us to bring us up?' What is the answer? Wherefore were
they there? To tell Jesus that He was to die? No, for that lay plain
before Him. To learn from Him the mystery of His passion, that they
might be His heralds, the one in Paradise, the other in the pale
kingdoms of Hades? Perhaps, but, more probably, they came to
minister to Him strength for His conflict, even as women did of
their substance, and an angel did in Gethsemane. Perhaps the
strength came to Jesus from seeing how they yearned for the
fulfilment of the typified redemption; perhaps it came from His
being able to speak to them as He could not to any on earth. At all
events, surely Moses and Elijah were not brought there for their own
sakes alone, nor for the sake of the witnesses, but also for His
sake who was prepared by that converse for His cross.

Further, their appearance set forth Christ's death, which was their
theme, as the climax of revelation. The Law with its requirement and
its sacrifices, and Prophecy with its forward-looking gaze, stand
there, in their representatives, and bear witness that their
converging lines meet in Jesus. The finger that wrote the law, and
the finger that smote and parted Jordan, are each lifted to point to
Him. The stern voices that spoke the commandments and that hurled
threatenings at the unworthy occupants of David's throne, both
proclaim, 'Behold the Lamb of God, the perfect Fulfiller of law, the
true King of Israel.' Their presence and their speech were the
acknowledgment that this was He whom they had seen from afar; their
disappearance proclaims that their work is done when they have
pointed to Him.

Their presence also teaches us that Jesus is the life of all the
living dead. Of course, care must be exercised in drawing dogmatic
conclusions from a manifestly abnormal incident, but some plain
truths do result from it. Of these two, one had died, though mystery
hung round his death and burial; the other had passed into the
heavens by another gate than that of death; and here they both stand
with lives undiminished by their mysterious changes, in fulness of
power and of consciousness, bathed in glory, which was as their
native air now. They are witnesses of an immortal life, and proofs
that His yet unpierced hands held the keys of life and death. He
opened the gate which moves backwards to no hand but His, and
summoned them; and they come, with no napkins about their heads, and
no trailing grave-clothes entangling their feet, and own Him as the
King of life.

They speak too of the eager onward gaze which the Old Testament
believers turned to the coming Deliverer. In silent anticipation,
through all these centuries, good men had lain down to die, saying,
'I wait for Thy salvation,' and after death their spirits had lived
expectant and crying, like the souls under the altar, 'How long, O
Lord, how long?' Now these two are brought from their hopeful
repose, perchance to learn how near their deliverance was; and
behind them we seem to discern a dim crowd of holy men and women,
who had died in faith, not having received the promises, and who
throng the portals of the unseen world, waiting for the near advent
of the better Samson to bear away the gates to the city on the hill,
and lead thither their ransomed train.

Peter's bewildered words need not long detain us. He is half dazed,
but, true to his rash nature, thinks that he must say something, and
that to do something will relieve the tension of his spirit. His
proposal, so ridiculous as it is, shows that he had not really
understood what he saw. It also expresses his feeling that it is
much better to be there than to be travelling to a cross--and so may
stand as an instance of a very real temptation for us all, that of
avoiding unwelcome duties and shrinking from rough work, on the plea
of holding sweet communion with Jesus on the mountain. It was
_not_ 'good' to stay there, and leave demoniacs uncured in the

III. The cloud and the witnessing voice.

Peter's words receive no answer, for, while he is speaking, another
solemn and silencing wonder has place. Suddenly a strange cloud
forms in the cloudless sky. It is 'bright' with no reflection caught
from the sun; it is borne along by no wind; slowly it settles down
upon them, like a roof, and, bright though it is, casts a strange
shadow. According to one reading of Luke's account, Christ and the
two heavenly witnesses pass within its folds, leaving the disciples
without, and that separation seems confirmed by Matthew's saying
that the voice 'came out of the cloud.' Our evangelist points to its
brightness as singular. It was not merely bright, as if smitten by
the sunlight, but its whole substance was luminous. It is almost a
contradiction to speak of a cloud of light, and the anomalous
expression points to something beyond nature. We cannot but remember
the pillar which had a heart of fire, and glowed in the darkness
over the sleeping camp, and the cloud which filled the house, and
drove the priests from the sanctuary by its brightness. Nor should
we forget that at His Ascension Jesus was not lost to sight in the
blue; but while He was yet visible in the act of blessing, 'a cloud
received Him out of their sight.' It is, in fact, the familiar
symbol of the divine presence, which had long been absent from the
temple, and now reappears. We may note the beauty and felicity of
the emblem. It blends light and darkness, so suggesting how the very
same 'attributes' of God are both; and how His revelation of Himself
reveals Him as unrevealable. The manifestation of His power is also
the 'hiding of His power.' The inaccessible light is also thick
darkness. The same characteristics of His nature are light and joy
to some, and blackness and woe to others.

We may note, too, Christ's passage into the cloud. Moses and Elijah,
being purged from mortal weakness, could pass thither. But Jesus,
alone of men, could pass in the flesh into that brightness, and be
hid in its fiery heart, unshrinking and unconsumed. 'Who among us
shall dwell with everlasting burnings? His entrance into it is but
the witness to the purity of His nature, and the absence in Him of
all fuel for fire. That bright cloud was 'His own calm home, His
habitation from eternity,' and where no man, compassed with flesh
and sin, could live, He enters as the Son into the bosom of the

Then comes the articulate witness to the Son. The solemnity and
force of the attestation are increased, if we conceive of the
disciples as outside the cloud, and parted from Jesus. This word is
meant for them only, and so is distinguished from the similar voice
at the baptism, and has added the imperative 'Hear him.' The voice
bears witness to the mystery of our Lord's person. It points to the
contrast between His two attendants and Him. They are servants,
'this is the Son.' It sets forth His supernaturally born humanity,
and, deeper still, His true and proper divinity, which John unfolds,
in his Gospel, as the deepest meaning of the name. It testifies to
the unbroken union of love between the Father and Him, and therein
to the absolute perfection of our Lord's character. He is the
adequate object of the eternal, divine love. As He has been from the
timeless depths of old, He is, in His human life, the object of the
ever-unruffled divine complacency, in whom the Father can glass
Himself as in a pure mirror. It enjoins obedient listening. God's
voice bids us hear Christ's voice. If He is the beloved Son,
listening to Him is listening to God. This is the purpose of the
whole, so far as we are concerned. We are to hear Him, when He
declares God; when He witnesses of Himself, of His love, His work,
His death, His judgeship; when He invites us to come to Him, and
find rest; when He commands and when He promises. Amid the Babel of
this day, let us listen to that voice, low and gentle, pleading and
soft, authoritative, majestic, and sovereign. It will one day shake
'not the earth only, but also the heaven.' But, as yet, it calls us
with strange sweetness, and the music of love in every tone. Well
for us if our hearts answer, 'Speak, Lord; for Thy servant heareth.'

Matthew tells us that this voice from the cloud completely unmanned
the disciples, who fell on their faces, and lay there, we know not
how long, till Jesus came and laid a loving hand on them, bidding
them arise, and not fear. So when they staggered to their feet, and
looked around, they saw nothing but the grey stones of the hillside
and the blue sky. 'That dread voice was past,' and the silence was
broken only by the hum of insects or the twitter of a far-off bird.
The strange guests have gone; the radiance has faded from the
Master's face, and all is as it used to be. 'They saw no one, save
Jesus only.' It is the summing up of revelation; all others vanish,
He abides. It is the summing up of the world's history. Thickening
folds of oblivion wrap the past, and all its mighty names become
forgotten; but His figure stands out, solitary against the
background of the past, as some great mountain, which travellers see
long after the lower summits are sunk beneath the horizon. Let us
make this the summing up of our lives. We can venture to take Him
for our sole helper, pattern, love, and aim, because He, in His
singleness, is enough for our hearts. There are many fragmentary
precious things, but there is only one pearl of great price. And
then this will be a prophecy of our deaths--a brief darkness, a
passing dread, and then His touch and His voice saying, 'Arise, be
not afraid.' So we shall lift up our eyes, and find earth faded, and
its voices fallen dim, and see 'no one any more, save Jesus only.'


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