We have here thee story o Christ’s transfiguration; he ha said that the Son of man should shortly come in his kingdom, with which promise all the three evangelists industriously connect this story; as if Christ’s transfiguration were intended for a specimen and an earnest of the kingdom of Christ, and of that light and love of his, which therein appears to his select and sanctified ones. Peter speaks of this as the power and coming of our Lord Jesus (2 Pet. 1:16); because it was an emanation of his power, and a previous notice of his coming, which was fitly introduced by such prefaces.
When Christ was here in his humiliation, though his state, in the main, was a state of abasement and afflictions, there were some glimpses of his glory intermixed, that he himself might be the more encouraged in his sufferings, and others the less offended. His birth, his baptism, his temptation, and his death, were the most remarkable instances of his humiliation; and these were each of them attended with some signal points of glory, and the smiles of heaven. But the series of his public ministry being a continued humiliation, here, just in the midst of that, comes in this discovery of his glory. As, now that he is in heaven, he has his condescensions, so, when he was on earth, he had his advancements.
Now concerning Christ’s transfiguration, observe,
I. The circumstances of it, which are here noted, Matt. 17:1.
1. The time; six days after he had the solemn conference with his disciples, Matt. 16:21. St. Luke saith, It was about eight days after, six whole days intervening, and this the eighth day, that day seven-night. Nothing is recorded to be said or done by our Lord Jesus for six days before his transfiguration; thus, before some great appearances, there was silence in heaven for the space of half an hour, Rev. 8:1. Then when Christ seems to be doing nothing for his church, expect, ere long, something more than ordinary.
2. The place; it was on top of a high mountain apart. Christ chose a mountain, (1.) As a secret place. He went apart; for though a city upon a hill can hardly be hid, two or three persons upon a hill can hardly be found; therefore their private oratories were commonly on mountains. Christ chose a retired place to be transfigured in, because his appearing publicly in his glory was not agreeable to his present state; and thus he would show his humility, and teach us that privacy much befriends our communion with God. Those that would maintain intercourse with Heaven, must frequently withdraw from the converse and business of this world; and they will find themselves never less alone than when alone, for the Father is with them. (2.) Though a sublime place, elevated above things below. Note, Those that would have a transforming fellowship with God, must not only retire, but ascend; lift up their hearts, and seek things above. The call is, Come up hither, Rev. 4:1.
3. The witnesses of it. He took with him Peter and James and John. (1.) He took three, a competent number to testify what they should see; for out of the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. Christ makes his appearances certain enough, but not too common; not to all the people, but to witnesses (Acts 10:41), that they might be blessed, who have not seen, and yet have believed. (2.) He took these three because they were the chief of his disciples, the first three of the worthies of the Son of David; probably they excelled in gifts and graces; they were Christ’s favourites, singled out to be the witnesses of his retirements. They were present when he raised the damsel to life, Mark 5:37. They were afterward to be the witnesses of his agony, and this was to prepare them for that. Note, A sight of Christ’s glory, while we are here in this world, is a good preparative for our sufferings with him, as these are preparatives for the sight of his glory in the other world. Paul, who had abundance of trouble, had abundance of revelations.
II. The manner of it (Matt. 17:2); He was transfigured before them. The substance of his body remained the same, but the accidents and appearances of it were greatly altered; he was not turned into a spirit, but his body, which had appeared in weakness and dishonour, now appeared in power and glory. He was transfigured, metamorphothe—he was metamorphosed. The profane poets amused and abused the world with idle extravagant stories of metamorphoses, especially the metamorphoses of their gods, such as were disparaging and diminishing to them, equally false and ridiculous; to these some think Peter has an eye, when, being about to mention this transfiguration of Christ, he saith, We have not followed cunningly devised fables when we made it known unto you, 2 Pet. 1:16. Christ was both God and man; but, in the days of his flesh, he took on him the form of a servant—morphen doulou, Phil. 2:7. He drew a veil over the glory of his godhead; but now, in his transfiguration, he put by that veil, appeared en morphe theou—in the form of God (Phil. 2:6), and gave his disciples a glimpse of his glory, which could not but change his form.
The great truth which we declare, is, that God is light (1 John 1:5), dwells in the light (1 Tim. 6:16), covers himself with light, Ps. 104:2. And therefore when Christ would appear in the form of God, he appeared in light, the most glorious of all visible beings, the first-born of the creation, and most nearly resembling the eternal Parent. Christ is the Light; while he was in the world, he shined in darkness, and therefore the world knew him not (John 1:5, 10); but, at this time, that Light shined out of the darkness.
Now his transfiguration appeared in two things:
1. His face did shine as the sun. The face is the principal part of the body, by which we are known; therefore such a brightness was put on Christ’s face, that face which afterward he hid not from shame and spitting. It shone as the sun when he goes forth in his strength, so clear, so bright; for he is the Sun of righteousness, the Light of the world. The face of Moses shone but as the moon, with a borrowed reflected light, but Christ’s shone as the sun, with an innate inherent light, which was the more sensibly glorious, because it suddenly broke out, as it were, from behind a black cloud.
2. His raiment was white as the light. All his body was altered, as his face was; so that beams of light, darting from every part through his clothes, made them white and glittering. The shining of the face of Moses was so weak, that it could easily be concealed by a thin veil; but such was the glory of Christ’s body, that his clothes were enlightened by it.
III. The companions of it. He will come, at last, with ten thousands of his saints; and, as a specimen of that, there now appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him, Matt. 17:3. Observe, 1. There were glorified saints attending him, that, when there were three to bear record on earth, Peter, James, and John, there might be some to bear record from heaven too. Thus here was a lively resemblance of Christ’s kingdom, which is made up of saints in heaven and saints on earth, and to which belong the spirits of just men made perfect. We see here, that they who are fallen asleep in Christ are not perished, but exist in a separate state, and shall be forthcoming when there is occasion. 2. These two were Moses and Elias, men very eminent in their day. They had both fasted forty days and forty nights, as Christ did, and wrought other miracles, and were both remarkable at their going out of the world as well as in their living in the world. Elias was carried to heaven in a fiery chariot, and died not. The body of Moses was never found, possibly it was preserved from corruption, and reserved for this appearance. The Jews had great respect for the memory of Moses and Elias, and therefore they came to witness of him, they came to carry tidings concerning him to the upper world. In them the law and the prophets honoured Christ, and bore testimony to him. Moses and Elias appeared to the disciples; they saw them, and heard them talk, and, either by their discourse or by information from Christ, they knew them to be Moses and Elias; glorified saints shall know one another in heaven. They talked with Christ. Note, Christ has communion with the blessed, and will be no stranger to any of the members of that glorified corporation. Christ was now to be sealed in his prophetic office, and therefore these two great prophets were fittest to attend him, as transferring all their honour and interest to him; for in these last days God speaks to us by his Son, Heb. 1:1.
IV. The great pleasure and satisfaction that the disciples took in the sight of Christ’s glory. Peter, as usual, spoke or the rest; Lord, it is good for us to be here. Peter here expresses,
1. The delight they had in this converse; Lord, it is good to be here. Though upon a high mountain, which we may suppose rough and unpleasant, bleak and cold, yet it is good to be here. He speaks the sense of his fellow-disciples; It is good not only for me, but for us. He did not covet to monopolize this favour, but gladly takes them in. He saith this to Christ. Pious and devout affections love to pour out themselves before the Lord Jesus. The soul that loves Christ, and loves to be with him, loves to go and tell him so; Lord, it is good for us to be here. This intimates a thankful acknowledgment of his kindness in admitting them to this favour. Note, Communion with Christ is the delight of Christians. All the disciples of the Lord Jesus reckon it is good for them to be with him in the holy mount. It is good to be here where Christ is, and whither he brings us along with him by his appointment; it is good to be here, retired and alone with Christ; to be here, where we may behold the beauty of the Lord Jesus, Ps. 27:4. It is pleasant to hear Christ compare notes with Moses and the prophets, to see how all the institutions of the law, and all the predictions of the prophets, pointed at Christ, and were fulfilled in him.
2. The desire they had of the continuance of it; Let us make here three tabernacles. There was in this, as in many other of Peter’s sayings, a mixture of weakness and of goodwill, more zeal than discretion.
(1.) Here was a zeal for this converse with heavenly things, a laudable complacency in the sight they had of Christ’s glory. Note, Those that by faith behold the beauty of the Lord in his house, cannot but desire to dwell there all the days of their life. It is good having a nail in God’s holy place (Ezra 9:8), a constant abode; to be in holy ordinances as a man at home, not as a wayfaring man. Peter thought this mountain was a fine spot of ground to build upon, and he was for making tabernacles there; as Moses in the wilderness made a tabernacle for the Shechinah, or divine glory.
It argued great respect for his Master and the heavenly guests, with some commendable forgetfulness of himself and his fellow-disciples, that he would have tabernacles for Christ, and Moses, and Elias, but none for himself. He would be content to lie in the open air, on the cold ground, in such good company; if his Master have but where to lay his head, no matter whether he himself has or no.
(2.) Yet in this zeal he betrayed a great deal of weakness and ignorance. What need had Moses and Elias of tabernacles? They belonged to that blessed world, where they hunger no more, nor doth the sun light upon them. Christ had lately foretold his sufferings, and bidden his disciples expect the like; Peter forgets this, or, to prevent it, will needs be building tabernacles in the mount of glory, out of the way of trouble. Still he harps upon, Master, spare thyself, though he had been so lately checked for it. Note, There is a proneness in good men to expect the crown without the cross. Peter was for laying hold of this as the prize, though he had not yet fought his fight, nor finished his course, as those other disciples, Matt. 20:21. We are out in our aim, if we look for a heaven here upon earth. It is not for strangers and pilgrims (such as we are in our best circumstances in this world), to talk of building, or to expect a continuing city.
Yet it is some excuse for the incongruity of Peter’s proposal, not only that he knew not what he said (Luke 9:33), but also that he submitted the proposal to the wisdom of Christ; If thou wilt, let us make tabernacles. Note, Whatever tabernacles we propose to make to ourselves in this world, we must always remember to ask Christ’s leave.
Now to this which Peter said, there was no reply made; the disappearing of the glory would soon answer it. They that promise themselves great things on earth will soon be undeceived by their own experience.
V. The glorious testimony which God the Father gave to our Lord Jesus, in which he received from him honour and glory (2 Pet. 1:17), when there came this voice from the excellent glory. This was like proclaiming the titles of honour or the royal style of a prince, when, at his coronation, he appears in his robes of state; and be it known, to the comfort of mankind, the royal style of Christ is taken from his mediation. Thus, in vision, he appeared with a rainbow, the seal of the covenant, about his throne (Rev. 4:3); for it is his glory to be our Redeemer.
Now concerning this testimony from heaven to Christ, observe.
1. How it came, and in what manner it was introduced.
(1.) There was a cloud. We find often in the Old Testament, that a cloud was the visible token of God’s presence; he came down upon mount Sinai in a cloud (Exod. 19:9), and so to Moses, Exod. 34:5; Num. 11:25. He took possession of the tabernacle in a cloud, and afterwards of the temple; where Christ was in his glory, the temple was, and there God showed himself present. We know not the balancing of the clouds, but we know that much of the intercourse and communication between heaven and earth is maintained by them. By the clouds vapours ascend, and rains descend; therefore God is said to make the clouds his chariots; so he did here when he descended upon this mount.
(2.) It was a bright cloud. Under the law it was commonly a thick and dark cloud that God made the token of his presence; he came down upon mount Sinai in a thick cloud (Exod. 19:16), and said he would dwell in thick darkness; see 1 Kgs. 8:12. But we are now come, not to the mount that was covered with thick blackness and darkness (Heb. 12:18), but to the mount that is crowned with a bright cloud. Both the Old-Testament and the New-Testament dispensation had tokens of God’s presence; but that was a dispensation of darkness, and terror, and bondage, this of light, love, and liberty.
(3.) It overshadowed them. This cloud was intended to break the force of that great light which otherwise would have overcome the disciples, and have been intolerable; it was like the veil which Moses put upon his face when it shone. God, in manifesting himself to his people, considers their frame. This cloud was to their eyes as parables to their understandings, to convey spiritual things by things sensible, as they were able to bear them.
(4.) There came a voice out of the cloud, and it was the voice of God, who now, as of old, spake in the cloudy pillar, Ps. 99:7. Here was no thunder, or lightning, or voice of a trumpet, as there was when the law was given by Moses, but only a voice, a still small voice, and that not ushered in with a strong wind, or an earthquake, or fire, as when God spake to Elias, 1 Kgs. 19:11, 12. Moses then and Elias were witnesses, that in these last days God hath spoken to us by his Son, in another way than he spoke formerly to them. This voice came from the excellent glory (2 Pet. 1:17), the glory which excelleth, in comparison of which the former had no glory; though the excellent glory was clouded, yet thence came a voice, for faith comes by hearing.
2. What this testimony from heaven was; This is my beloved Son, hear ye him. Here we have,
(1.) The great gospel mystery revealed; This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. This was the very same that was spoken from heaven at his baptism (Matt. 3:17); and it was the best news that ever came from heaven to earth since man sinned. It is to the same purport with that great doctrine (2 Cor. 5:19), That God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself. Moses and Elias were great men, and favourites of Heaven, yet they were but servants, and servants that God was not always well pleased in; for Moses spoke unadvisedly, and Elias was a man subject to passions; but Christ is a Son, and in him God was always well pleased. Moses and Elias were sometimes instruments of reconciliation between God and Israel; Moses was a great intercessor, and Elias a great reformer; but in Christ God is reconciling the world; his intercession is more prevalent than that of Moses, and his reformation more effectual than that of Elias.
This repetition of the same voice that came from heaven at his baptism was no vain repetition; but, like the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream, was to show the thing was established. What God hath thus spoken once, yea twice, no doubt he will stand to, and he expects we should take notice of it. It was spoken at his baptism, because then he was entering upon his temptation, and his public ministry; and now it was repeated, because he was entering upon his sufferings, which are to be dated from hence; for now, and not before, he began to foretel them, and immediately after his transfiguration it is said (Luke 9:51), that the time was come that he should be received up; this therefore was then repeated, to arm him against the terror, and his disciples against the offence, of the cross. When sufferings begin to abound, consolations are given in more abundantly, 2 Cor. 1:5.
(2.) The great gospel duty required, and it is the condition of our benefit by Christ; Hear ye him. God is well pleased with none in Christ but those that hear him. It is not enough to give him the hearing (what will that avail us?) but we must hear him and believe him, as the great Prophet and Teacher; hear him, and be ruled by him, as the great Prince and Lawgiver; hear him, and heed him. Whoever would know the mind of God, must hearken to Jesus Christ; for by him God has in these last days spoken to us. This voice from heaven has made all the sayings of Christ as authentic as if they had been thus spoken out of a cloud. God does here, as it were, turn us over to Christ for all the revelations of his mind; and it refers to that prediction concerning the Prophet God would raise up like unto Moses (Deut. 18:18); him shall ye hear.
Christ now appeared in glory; and the more we see of Christ’s glory, the more cause we shall see to hearken to him: but the disciples were gazing on that glory of his which they saw; they are therefore bid not to look at him, but to hear him. Their sight of his glory was soon intercepted by the cloud, but their business was to hear him. We walk by faith, which comes by hearing, not by sight, 2 Cor. 5:7.
Moses and Elias were now with him; the law and the prophets; hitherto it was said, Hear them, Luke 16:29. The disciples were ready to equal them with Christ, when they must have tabernacles for them as well as for him. They had been talking with Christ, and probably the disciples were very desirous to know what they said, and to hear something more from them; No, saith God, hear him, and that is enough; him, and not Moses and Elias, who were present, and whose silence gave consent to this voice; they had nothing to say to the contrary; whatever interest they had in the world as prophets, they were willing to see it all transferred to Christ, that in all things he might have the pre-eminence. Be not troubled that Moses and Elias make so short a stay with you; hear Christ, and you will not want them.
IV. The fright which the disciples were put into by this voice, and the encouragement Christ gave them.
1. The disciples fell on their faces, and were sore afraid. The greatness of the light, and the surprise of it, might have a natural influence upon them, to dispirit them. But that was not all, ever since man sinned, and heard God’s voice in the garden, extraordinary appearances of God have ever been terrible to man, who, knowing he has no reason to expect any good, has been afraid to hear any thing immediately from God. Note, even then when fair weather comes out of the secret place, yet with God is terrible majesty, Job 37:22. See what dreadful work the voice of the Lord makes, Ps. 29:4. It is well for us that God speaks to us by men like ourselves, whose terror shall not make us afraid.
2. Christ graciously raised them up with abundance of tenderness. Note, The glories and advancements of our Lord Jesus do not at all lessen his regard to, and concern for, his people that are compassed about with infirmity. It is comfortable to think, that now, in his exalted state, he has a compassion for, and condescends to, the meanest true believer. Observe here, (1.). What he did; he came, and touched them. His approaches banished their fears; and when they apprehended that they were apprehended of Christ, there needed no more to make them easy. Christ laid his right hand upon John is a like case, and upon Daniel, Rev. 1:17; Dan. 8:18; 10:18. Christ’s touches were often healing, and here they were strengthening and comforting. (2.) What he said; Arise, and be not afraid. Note, Though a fear of reverence in our converse with Heaven is pleasing to Christ, yet a fear of amazement is not so, but must be striven against. Christ said, Arise. Note, It is Christ by his word, and the power of his grace going along with it, that raises up good men from their dejections, and silences their fears; and none but Christ can do it; Arise, be not afraid. Note, causeless fears would soon vanish, if we would not yield to them, and lie down under them, but get up, and do what we can against them. Considering what they had seen and heard, they had more reason to rejoice than to fear, and yet, it seems, they needed this caution. Note, Through the infirmity of the flesh, we often frighten ourselves with that wherewith we should encourage ourselves. Observe, After they had an express command from heaven to hear Christ, the first word they had from him was, Be not afraid, hear that. Note, Christ’s errand into the world was to give comfort to good people, that, being delivered out of the hands of their enemies, they might serve God without fear, Luke 1:74, 75.
VII. The disappearing of the vision (Matt. 17:8); They lift up themselves, and then lift up their eyes, and saw no man, save Jesus only. Moses and Elias were gone, the rays of Christ’s glory were laid aside, or veiled again. They hoped this had been the day of Christ’s entrance into his kingdom, and his public appearance in that external splendour which they dreamed of; but see how they are disappointed. Note, It is not wisdom to raise our expectations high in this world, for the most valuable of our glories and joys here are vanishing, even those of near communion with God are so, not a continual feast, but a running banquet. If sometimes we are favoured with special manifestations of divine grace, glimpses and pledges of future glory, yet they are withdrawn presently; two heavens are too much for those to expect that never deserve one. Now they saw no man, save Jesus only. Note, Christ will tarry with us when Moses and Elias are gone. The prophets do not live for ever (Zech. 1:5), and we see the period of our ministers’ conversation; but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, Heb. 13:7, 8.
VIII. The discourse between Christ and his disciples as they came down from the mountain, Matt. 17:9-13.
Observe, 1. They came down from the mountain. Note, We must come down from the holy mountains, where we have communion with God, and complacency in that communion, and of which we are saying. It is good to be here; even there we have no continuing city. Blessed be God, there is a mountain of glory and joy before us, whence we shall never come down. But observe, When the disciples came down, Jesus came with them. Note, When we return to the world again after an ordinance, it must be our care to take Christ with us, and then it may be our comfort that he is with us.
2. As they came down, they talked of Christ. Note, When we are returning from holy ordinance, it is good to entertain ourselves and one another with discourse suitable to the work we have been about. That communication which is good to the use of edifying is then in a special manner seasonable; as, on the contrary, that which is corrupt, is worse then than at another time.
Here is, (1.) The charge that Christ gave the disciples to keep the vision very private for the present (Matt. 17:9); Tell it to no man till the Son of man is risen. If they had proclaimed it, the credibility of it would have been shocked by his sufferings, which were now hastening on. But let the publication of it be adjourned till after his resurrection, and then that and his subsequent glory will be a great confirmation of it. Note, Christ observed a method in the manifestation of himself; he would have his works put together, mutually to explain and illustrate each other, that they might appear in their full strength and convincing evidence. Every thing is beautiful in its season. Christ’s resurrection was properly the beginning of the gospel state and kingdom, to which all before was but preparatory and by way of preface; and therefore, though this was transacted before, it must not be produced as evidence till then (and then it appears to have been much insisted on by 2 Pet. 1:16-18), when the religion it was designed for the confirmation of was brought to its full consistence and maturity. Christ’s time is the best and fittest for the manifesting of himself and must be attended to by us.
(2.) An objection which the disciples made against something Christ had said (Matt. 17:10); “Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? If Elias make so short a stay, and is gone so suddenly, and we must say nothing of him; why have we been taught out of the law to expect his public appearance in the world immediately before the setting up of the Messiah’s kingdom? Must the coming of Elias be a secret, which every body looks for?” or thus; “If the resurrection of the Messiah, and with it the beginning of his kingdom, be at hand, what becomes of that glorious preface and introduction to it, which we expect in the coming of Elias?” The scribes, who were the public expositors of the law, said this according to the scripture (Mal. 4:5); Behold I send you Elijah the prophet. The disciples spoke the common language of the Jews, who made that the saying of the scribes which was the saying of the scripture, whereas of that which ministers speak to us according to the word of God, we should say, “God speaks to us, not the ministers;” for we must not receive it as the word of men, 1 Thess. 2:13. Observe, When the disciples could not reconcile what Christ said with what they had heard out of the Old Testament, they desired him to explain it to them. Note, When we are puzzled with scripture difficulties, we must apply ourselves to Christ by prayer for his Spirit to open our understandings and to lead us into all truth.
(3.) The solving of this objection. Ask, and it shall be given, ask instruction, and it shall be given.
[1.] Christ allows the prediction (Matt. 17:11); “Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things; so far you are in the right.” Christ did not come to alter or invalidate any thing foretold in the Old Testament. Note, Corrupt and mistaken glosses may be sufficiently rejected and exploded, without diminishing or derogating from the authority or dignity of the sacred text. New-Testament prophecies are true and good, and are to be received and improved, though some hot foolish men may have misinterpreted them and drawn wrong inferences from them. He shall come, and restore all things; not restore them to their former state (John Baptist went not about to do that), but he shall accomplish all things (so it may be read), all things that were written of him, all the predictions of the coming of Elias. John Baptist came to restore things spiritually, to revive the decays of religion, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children; which means the same with this, he shall restore all things. John preached repentance, and that restores all things.
[2.] He asserts the accomplishment. The scribes say true, that Elias is come, Matt. 17:12. Note, God’s promises are often fulfilled, and men perceive it not, but enquire, Where is the promise? when it is already performed. Elias is come, and they knew him not; they knew him not to be the Elias promised, the forerunner of the Messiah. The scribes busied themselves in criticizing upon the scripture, but understood not by the signs of the times the fulfilling of the scripture. Note, It is easier to explain the word of God than to apply it and make a right use of it. But it is no wonder that the morning star was not observed, when he who is the Sun itself, was in the world, and the world knew him not.
Because they knew him not, they have done to him whatsoever they listed; if they had known, they would not have crucified Christ, or beheaded John, 1 Cor. 2:8. They ridiculed John, persecuted him, and at last put him to death; which was Herod’s doing, but is here charged upon the whole generation of unbelieving Jews, and particularly the scribes, who, though they could not prosecute John themselves, were pleased with what Herod did. He adds, Likewise also shall the Son of man suffer of them. Marvel not that Elias should be abused and killed by those who pretended, with a great deal of reverence, to expect him, when the Messiah himself will be in like manner treated. Note, The sufferings of Christ took off the strangeness of all other sufferings (John 15:18); when they had imbrued their hands in the blood of John Baptist, they were ready to do the like to Christ. Note, As men deal with Christ’s servants, so they would deal with him himself; and they that are drunk with the blood of the martyrs still cry, Give, give, Acts 12:1-3.
(4.) The disciples’ satisfaction in Christ’s reply to their objection (Matt. 17:13); They understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist. He did not name John, but gives them such a description of him as would put them in mind of what he had said to them formerly concerning him; This is Elias. This is a profitable way of teaching; it engages the learners’ own thoughts, and makes them, if not their own teachers, yet their own remembrancers; and thus knowledge becomes easy to him that understands. When we diligently use the means of knowledge, how strangely are mists scattered and mistakes rectified!