By S.D. Gordon
God in Sore Straits.
The darkest hour save only one has now come in Jesus' life. And that one which was actually darkest, in every way, from every view-point darkest, had in it some gleams of light that are not here. Jesus is now a fugitive from the province of Judea. The death plot has been settled upon. There's a ban in Jerusalem on His followers. Already one man has been cut off from synagogue privileges, and become a religious and social outcast. The southerners are pushing the fight against Jesus up into Galilee.
Four distinct times that significant danger word "withdrew" has been used in describing Jesus' departure from where the Judean leaders had come. First from Judea to Galilee, then from Galilee to distant foreign points He had gone, for a time, till the air would cool a bit. The bold return to Jerusalem at the fall Feast of Tabernacles had been attended, first by an official attempt to arrest, and then by a passionate attempt to stone Jesus to death.
And now the Galilean followers begin to question, and to leave. His enemies' northern campaign, together with His own plain teaching, has affected the Galilean crowds. They come in as great numbers as ever to hear and to be healed. But many that had allied themselves as Jesus' followers decide that He is not the leader they want. He is quite too unpractical. The kingdom that the Galileans are eager for, that the Roman yoke may be shaken off, seems very unlikely to come under such a leader. Many desert Him.
Jesus felt the situation keenly. The kingdom plan in Jerusalem had failed. And now the winning of individuals as a step in another plan is slipping its hold. These people are glad of bread and the easing of bodily distress, but the tests of discipleship they pull away from. He turns to the little band of His own choosing, with a question that reveals the keen disappointment of His heart. There's a tender yearning in that question, "Will ye also go away?" And Peter's instant, loyal answer does not blind His keen eyes to the extremity. With sad voice He says, "One of you, my own chosen friends, one of you is a--devil." Things are in bad shape, and getting worse.
It was a time of dire extremity. God was in sore straits. The kingdom plan was clearly gone for the present. The rub was to save enough out of the wreckage to get a sure starting-point for the new plan, through which, by and by, the other original plan would work out. There can be no stronger evidence of God's need of men than this transfiguration scene. Just because He had made man a sovereign in his will, God must work out all of His plans through that sovereign will. He would not lower one whit His ambition for a man free in his own will. He Himself would do nothing to mar the divine image in man. For man's sake, and through man's will--that is ever God's law of dealing.
Fire and Anvil for Leaders.
The great need just now was not simply for men who would be loving and loyal, but men who would be leaders. It has ever been the sorest need. Men are not so scarce, true-hearted men, willing to endure sacrifice, but leaders have always been few, and are. Nothing seems to be less understood than leadership; and nothing so quickly recognized when the real thing appears. Peter was a leader among these men. He had dash and push. He was full of impulse. He was always proposing something. He acted as spokesman. He blurted out whatever came. The others followed his lead. There were the crude elements of leadership here. But not true leadership of the finer, higher kind.
The whole purpose of the transfiguration was to get and tie up leaders. It was an emergency measure, out of the regular run of things. Goodness makes character. It takes goodness plus ability to make true leadership. The heart can make a loving follower. It takes a heart, warm and true, plus brains to make a leader. Character is the essential for life. For true leadership, there needs to be character plus ability: the ability to keep the broad sweep of things, and not be lost in details, nor yet to lose sight of details; to discern motive and drifts; to sift through the incidentals which may be spectacular and get to the essential which may be in Quaker garb.
There are two sorts of leadership, of action, and of thought. By comparison with the other, leaders of action are many, leaders of thought few. Peter was the leader in action of the disciples, and in the earlier church days. John became the leader in thought of the later years of the early church. Paul was both, a very unusual combination. Leaders are born, it is true. But the finest and truest and highest leaders must be both born leaders, and then born again as leaders. There needs to be the original stuff, and then that stuff hammered into shape under hard blows on the anvil of experience. The fire must burn out the clay and dirt, and then the hammer shape up the metal. Leaders must have convictions driven in clear through the flesh and bone, and riveted on the other side.
Simon loved Jesus, but there needed to be more before Peter would arrive. It took the transfiguration to put into the impulsive, unsteady, wobbling Simon the metal that would later become steel in Peter. Yet it took much more, and finally the fire of Pentecost, to get the needed temper into the steel. These same lips could give that splendid statement that has become the church's foundation; and, a bit later, utter boldly foolish, improper words to Jesus; and, later yet, utter vulgar profanity, and words far worse, aye, the worst that could be said about a friend, and in that friend's need, too.
This was a fair sample of the clay and iron, the Simon and the Peter in this man. Yet it was with painful slowness that he had been brought up to where he is now. Two years of daily contact with Jesus. Slow work! No, rapid work. Nobody but Jesus could have done it in such a short time. Nobody but Jesus could have done it at all. And, mark you keenly, this man is the leader of the band of men that stand closest to Jesus. This is the setting of the great transfiguration scene.
An Irresistible Plan.
Jesus goes off, away from the crowds, to have a bit of quiet time with this inner band of His. Here is the strategic point, now. The key to the future plan is in this small group. If that key can be filed into shape, cleaned of rust, and gotten to fit and turn in the lock, all may yet be well. The nub of all future growth is here. With simple, keen tact He begins His questionings, leading on, until Peter responds with his splendid declaration for which the church has ever been grateful to him. "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." It comes to Jesus' ears as a grateful drink of cold water to a thirsty man on a hot day in a dusty road.
Then to this leader and to the inner circle, He reveals the changed plan. For the first time the word church is used, that peculiar word which later becomes the name of the new organization, "a company of persons called out." He is going to build up a church upon this statement of faith from Peter's lips, and this church will hold the relation to the kingdom of key-holder, administrator. The church is to be a part of the administration of the coming kingdom.
And so Jesus begins His difficult, sad task of preparing this band for the event six months off in Jerusalem. There is to be a tragedy before the building of the church which will hold the kingdom keys. So thoroughly does Peter fail to understand Jesus, that with stupid boldness he attempts to "rebuke" Him. Peter "took" Jesus. A great sight surely! He slips his hand in Jesus' arm and takes Him off to one side to--straighten--Him--out. This Jesus is being swept off His feet by undue emotional enthusiasm. Peter would fix it up and save the day. It would take Peter to do that.
And this is a sample of the best leadership in this inner group. Things were in bad shape. All the machinery hung upon a little pin holding two parts together. That pin threatens to bend and break for lack of temper. The Son of God leaves all else and turns aside to attend to a pin. The future of the kingdom hung upon three undisciplined country fishermen. The transfiguration spells out God's dire extremity in getting a footing in human hearts and brains for His plans. Something must be done.
Mark what that something was to be: so simple in itself, so tremendous in its results. They were to be allowed to see Jesus. That would be enough. The Jesus within would look out through the body He was using. The real Jesus within looked out through the Jesus they knew. He let these men see Himself a few moments; simply that. All of that, yet simply that. They were His lovers. They were to be sorely tried by coming events. They were to be the leaders. To love, for a time of sore need, for service's sake, for the sake of the multitudes whose leaders they were to be, for the saving of the church plan, and beyond of the kingdom plan, the Jesus within looked out for a few moments into their faces.
It was the same plan used later in getting another leader. Jesus had to go outside these men for a man with qualifications needed by the situation that these men did not have. The human element again in evidence. Paul says, "When I could not see for the glory of that light." That light bothered his eyes. The old ambitions were blurred. He couldn't see them. The outlines dimmed, the old pedigree and plans faded out. They could no longer be seen for the glory of that light. It is the plan the Master has ever used, and still does. It is irresistible.
"The Glory of that Light."
It was six days, or eight counting both ends, after the first telling of the coming tragedy that shook them so. Here is a bit of practical psychology. Jesus lets the brain impression made by that strange announcement deepen before making the next impression. Jesus went up into the mountain "to pray." Prayer never failed Him. It was equal to every need with Jesus. It was while praying that the wondrous change came. Changed while praying. When Moses came down from that long time alone with God, his face was full of the glory reflected from God's presence. Stephen's face caught the light of another Face into which he was intently looking.
Jesus was changed from within. It was His own glory that these men saw. He had wrapped Himself up in a bit of human tapestry so He could move among men without blinding their eyes. Now He looks out through the strands. They are astonished and awed to find that face they know so well now shining as the sun, and the garments made transparent as light, glistening like snow, by reason of the great brilliance of the light within. Yet Jesus let out only a part of the glory. When Paul saw, on the Damascus road, the light was above the shining of the sun.
When their eyes get over the first daze, the disciples come to see that besides Jesus there are two others, two of the old Hebrew leaders. There is Moses, the great maker of the nation, the greatest leader of all. And rugged Elijah, who had boldly stood in the breach and saved the day when the nation's king was proposing to replace the worship of Jehovah with demon-worship. They are talking earnestly together, these three, about--what? The great sacrifices Jesus had been enduring? The disappointment in the kingdom plan? The suffering and shame to be endured? The bitter obstinacy of the opposition? The chief priests' plotting? Listen! They are talking about the departure, the exodus, the going out and up, Jesus is about to accomplish. They are absorbed in Jesus. He was about to execute a master-stroke. He is going to accomplish a great move. They are wholly absorbed in Him, this Moses, and Elijah, and in this great move of His for men.
Meanwhile these men lying on the ground are waking up and rubbing their eyes. The only jarring note is a human note. John and James look with awe, reverent awe. It is an insight into their character that nothing is said about them. Their sense of reverence and power of control are to the front. It is dear, impulsive old Peter who can't keep still, even amid such a scene. His impulsive heart is just back of his lips, with no check-valves between. He must offer a few remarks. This great vision must be duly recognized. What a sensation it would make in Jerusalem to get these two men to stay and come down and address a meeting! That would turn the tide surely. Luke graciously explains that he did not know what he was saying. No, probably not. The tongue seemed to be going mechanically, rather than by the controlling touch of the will. Peter seems to have a large posterity, some of whom abide with us to this day.
Then the vision is shut out by the intervening cloud. This human interference disturbs the atmosphere. For Peter's sake, the glory is hidden that the impression of it may not be rubbed out even slightly by his own speech. We blur and lose the impression God would make upon us, by our speech, sometimes. A bit of divine practical psychology, this movement of the cloud. Then the quiet voice that thrilled them with the message of the Jordan, "This is My Son; My Chosen One: hear ye Him." Then it is all over.
It is most striking that this wondrous vision of glory is for these three obscure, untutored men, of lowly station. Not for the nation's leaders. Yet the reason is plain. They had gladly accepted what light had come. To them came more. Their door was open. It is these men who had obeyed light that now received more. To him that hath received what light has come shall be given more. From him that hath no light, because he won't let it in, shall be taken away even what light he has. Shut fists will stifle what is already held, and the life of it oozes out between the fingers.
In each of the three Gospels recording this scene it is introduced by the same quotation from Jesus' lips. There were some persons in His presence who would not die until they had seen the kingdom of God. The writers' reference is clearly to the vision that follows. It is said to be a vision of the coming kingdom. Jesus, with the divine glory within, no longer concealed, but shining out with an indescribable splendor, up above the earth, with two godly men, one of whom had died, and the other had been caught up from the earth without death, talking earnestly about men and affairs on the earth, and in direct communication with the Father--that is the vision here of the kingdom.
A Vision of Jesus.
And so the darkest hour save only one was filled with the brightest light. The after, darker hour of Calvary had gleams of light from this transfiguration scene. There was faithful John's sympathetic presence all through the trial. John never flinched. And Peter had tears that caught the light from Jesus' eyes, and reflected their glistening rays within. Those tears of Peter's were a great comfort to Jesus that night and the next day. The two greatest leaders were sure.
The transfiguration served its purpose fully. The memory of it saved Peter out of the wreckage of Simon, else Judas' hemp might have had double use that night. Under the leadership of these men, the little band hold together during that day, so awful to them in the killing of their leader and the dashing of all their fondest hopes on which they had staked everything. Two nights later finds them gathered in a room. Could it have been the same upper room where they had eaten with Him that never-to-be-forgotten night, and listened to His comforting words? Only Thomas does not come. Everybody swings in but one. That shows good work by these leaders. But another week's work brings him, too, into the meeting and into the light.
These three men never forgot the sight of that night. John writes his Gospel under the spell of the transfiguration. "We beheld His glory" he says at the start, and understands Isaiah's wondrous writings, because he, too, "saw His glory." The impression made upon Peter deepened steadily with the years. The first impression of garments glistening beyond any fuller's skill has grown into an abiding sense of the "majesty" of Jesus and "the majestic glory." I think it wholly likely, too, that this vision of glory was in James' face, and steadied his steps, as so early in the history he met Herod's swordsman.
It was a vision of Jesus that turned the tide. There's nothing to be compared with that. A man's life and service depend wholly on the vision of Jesus that has come, that is coming. When that comes, instinctively he finds himself ever after saying, without planning to,
"Since mine eyes were fixed on Jesus,
I've lost sight of all beside.
So enchained my spirit's vision,
Looking at the Crucified."
With the Damascus traveller he will be saying, "When I could not see for the glory of that light." May we each with face open, uncovered, all prejudice and self-seeking torn away, behold the glory of Jesus, even though for the sake of our eyes it come as a reflected glory. Then we shall become, as were Moses and Stephen, unconscious reflectors of that glory. And the crowd on the road shall find Jesus in us and want Him. Then, too, we ourselves shall be changing from glory to glory, by the inner touch of Jesus' Spirit, as we continue gazing.