By J.C. Ryle
The connection of this passage with the end of the last chapter ought never to be overlooked. Our Lord had been speaking of His own coming death and passion--of the necessity of self-denial, if men would be His disciples--of the need of losing our lives, if we would have them saved. But in the same breath he goes on to speak of His future kingdom and glory. He takes off the edge of His "hard sayings," by promising a sight of that glory to some of those who heard Him. And in the history of the transfiguration, which is here recorded, we see that promise fulfilled.
The first thing which demands our notice in these verses, is the marvelous vision they contain of the glory which Christ and His people shall have at His second coming.
There can be no doubt that this was one of the principal purposes of the transfiguration. It was meant to teach the disciples, that though their Lord was lowly and poor in appearance now, He would one day appear in such royal majesty as became the Son of God. It was meant to teach those who when their Master came the second time, His saints, like Moses and Elijah, would appear with Him. It was meant to remind them, that though reviled and persecuted now, because they belonged to Christ, they would one day be clothed with honor, and be partakers of their Master's glory.
We have reason to thank God for this vision. We are often tempted to give up Christ's service, because of the cross and affliction which it entails. We see few with us, and many against us. We find our names cast out as evil, and all manner of evil said of us, because we believe and love the Gospel. Year after year we see our companions in Christ's service removed by death, and we feel as if we knew little about them, except that they are gone to an unknown world, and that we are left alone. All these things are trying to flesh and blood. No wonder that the faith of believers sometimes languishes, and their eyes fail while they look for their hope.
Let us see in the story of the transfiguration, a remedy for such doubting thoughts as these. The vision of the holy mount is a gracious pledge that glorious things are in store for the people of God. Their crucified Savior shall come again in power and great glory. His saints shall all come with Him, and are in safe keeping until that happy day. We may wait patiently. "When Christ, who is our life shall appear, then shall you also appear with Him in glory." (Colos. 3:4.)
The second thing which demands our notice in this passage, is the strong expression of the apostle Peter, when he saw his Lord transfigured. "Master," he said, "it is good for us to be here."
No doubt there was much in this saying, which cannot be commended. It showed an ignorance of the purpose for which Jesus came into the world, to suffer and to die. It showed a forgetfulness of his brethren, who were not with him, and of the dark world which so much needed his Master's presence. Above all, the proposal which he made at the same time to "build three tabernacles" for Moses, Elijah, and Christ, showed a low view of his Master's dignity, and implied that he did not know that a greater than Moses and Elijah was there. In all these respects the apostle's exclamation is not to be praised, but to be blamed.
But having said this, let us not fail to remark what joy and happiness this glorious vision conferred on this warm-hearted disciple. Let us see in his fervent cry "It is good to be here," what comfort and consolation the sight of glory can give to a true believer. Let us look forward, and try to form some idea of the pleasure which the saints shall experience, when they shall at last meet the Lord Jesus at His second coming, and meet to part no more. A vision of a few minutes was sufficient to warm and stir Peter's heart. The sight of two saints in glory was so cheering and quickening, that he would gladly have enjoyed more of it. What then shall we say, when we see our Lord appear at the last day with all His saints? What shall we say, when we ourselves are allowed to share in His glory, and join the happy company, and feel that we shall go out no more from the joy of our Lord? These are questions that no man can answer. The happiness of that great day of gathering together is one that we cannot now conceive. The feelings of which Peter had a little foretaste, will then be ours in full experience. We shall all say with one heart and one voice, when we see Christ and all His saints, "It is good to be here."
The last thing which demands our notice in this passage is the distinct testimony which it bears to Christ's office and dignity, as the promised Messiah. We see this testimony first in the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the representatives of the law and the prophets. They appear as witnesses that Jesus is He of whom they spoke in old times, and of whom they wrote that He would come. They disappear after a few minutes, and leave Jesus alone, as though they would show that they were only witnesses, and that our Master having come, the servants resign to Him the chief place. We see this testimony, secondly, in the miraculous voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son--hear Him." The same voice of God the Father, which was heard at our Lord's baptism, was heard once more at His transfiguration. On both occasions there was the same solemn declaration, "This is my beloved Son." On this last occasion, there was an addition of two most important words, "Hear Him."
The whole conclusion of the vision was calculated to leave a lasting impression on the minds of the three disciples. It taught them in the most striking manner, that their Lord was far above them and the prophets, as the master of the house is above the servants, and that they must in all things believe, follow, obey, trust, and hear Him.
Finally, the last words of the voice from heaven, are words that should be ever before the minds of all true Christians. They should "hear Christ." He is the great Teacher; those who would be wise must learn of Him. He is the light of the world--those who would not err must follow Him. He is the Head of the Church--those who would be living members of His mystical body must ever look to Him. The grand question that concerns us all is not so much what man says, or ministers say--what the Church says, or what councils say--but what says Christ? Him let us hear. In Him let us abide. On him let us lean. To Him let us look. He and He only will never fail us, never disappoint us, and never lead us astray. Happy are they who know experimentally the meaning of the text, "my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me--and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." (John 10:27, 28.)
The contrast between these verses and those which precede them in the chapter is very striking. We pass from the mount of transfiguration to a melancholy history of the work of the devil. We come down from the vision of glory, to a conflict with Satanic possession. We change the blessed company of Moses and Elijah, for the crude communion of unbelieving Scribes. We leave the foretaste of millennial glory, and the solemn voice of God the Father testifying to God the Son, and return once more to a scene of pain, weakness, and misery--a boy in agony of body, a father in deep distress, and a little band of feeble disciples restrained by Satan's power, and unable to give relief. The contrast, we must all feel, is very great. Yet it is but a faint emblem of the change of scene that Jesus voluntarily undertook to witness, when He first laid aside His glory and came into the world. And it is after all a vivid picture of the life of all true Christians. With them, as with their Master, work, conflict, and scenes of weakness and sorrow will always be the rule. With them too, visions of glory, foretastes of heaven, seasons on the mount, will always be the exception.
Let us learn from these verses, how dependent Christ's disciples are on the company and help of their Master.
We see this truth brought out in a striking manner in the scene which meets our Lord's eyes, when He came down from the mount. Like Moses, when he came down from Mount Sinai, He finds his little flock in confusion. He sees His nine apostles beset by a party of malicious Scribes, and baffled in an attempt to heal one who had been brought to them possessed with a devil. The very same disciples who a short time before had done many miracles and "cast out many devils," had now met with a case too hard for them. They were learning by humbling experience the great lesson, "without me you can do nothing." (John 15:5.)--It was a useful lesson, no doubt, and over-ruled to their spiritual good. It would probably be remembered all the days of their lives. The things that we learn by smarting experience, abide in our memories, while truths heard with the ear are often forgotten. But we may be sure it was a bitter lesson at the time. We do not like to learn that we can do nothing without Christ.
We need not look far to see many illustrations of this truth in the history of Christ's people in every age. The very men who at one time have done great exploits in the cause of the Gospel, at another time have failed entirely, and proved weak and unstable as water. The temporary recantations of Cranmer and Jewell are striking examples. The holiest and best of Christians has nothing to glory of. His strength is not his own. He has nothing but what he has received. He has only to provoke the Lord to leave him for a season, and he will soon discover that his power is gone. Like Samson, when his hair was shorn, he is weak as any other man.
Let us learn a lesson of humility from the failure of the disciples. Let us strive to realize every day our need of the grace and presence of Christ. With Him we may do all things. Without Him we can do nothing at all. With Him we may overcome the greatest temptations. Without Him the least may overcome us. Let our cry be every morning, "leave us not to ourselves--we know not what a day may bring forth--if your presence does not go with us we cannot go up."
Let us learn, in the second place, from these verses, how early in life we are liable to be injured by Satan. We read a fearful description of the miseries inflicted by Satan on the young man, whose case is here recorded. And we are told that he had been under this dreadful visitation from his very infancy. It came to him, "from childhood."
There is a lesson of deep importance here which we must not overlook. We must labor to do good to our children even from their earliest years. If Satan begins so early to do them harm, we must not be behind him in diligence to lead them to God. How soon in life a child becomes responsible and accountable, is a difficult question to solve. Perhaps far sooner than many of us suppose. One thing, at all events, is very clear--it is never too soon to strive and pray for the salvation of the souls of children--never too soon to speak to them as moral beings, and tell them of God, and Christ, and right, and wrong. The devil, we may be quite sure, loses no time in endeavoring to influence the minds of young people. He begins with them even "from childhood." Let us work hard to counteract him. If young hearts can be filled by Satan, they can also be filled with the Spirit of God.
Let us learn, in the third place, from these verses, how faith and unbelief can be mixed together in the same heart. The words of the child's father set this truth before us in a touching way. "Lord," he cried, "I believe; help my unbelief."
We see in those words a vivid picture of the heart of many a true Christian. Few indeed are to be found among believers, in whom trust and doubt, hope and fear, do not exist side by side. Nothing is perfect in a child of God, so long as he is in the body. His knowledge, and love, and humility, are all more or less defective, and mingled with corruption. And as it is with his other graces, so it is with his faith. He believes, and yet has about him a remainder of unbelief.
What shall we do with our FAITH? We must use it. Weak, trembling, doubting, feeble as it may be, we must use it. We must not wait until it is great, perfect, and mighty, but like the man before us, turn it to account, and hope that one day it will be more strong. "Lord," he said, "I believe."
What shall we do with our UNBELIEF? We must resist it, and pray against it. We must not allow it to keep us back from Christ. We must take it to Christ, as we take all other sins and infirmities, and cry to Him for deliverance. Like the man before us, we must cry, "Lord, help my unbelief."
These are experimental truths. Happy are they who know something of them. The world is ignorant of them. Faith and unbelief, doubts and fears, are all foolishness to the natural man. But let the true Christian study these things well, and thoroughly understand them. It is of the utmost importance to our comfort to know, that a true believer may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace.
Let us mark, in the last place, the complete dominion which our Lord exercises over Satan and all his agents. The spirit who was too strong for the disciples, is at once cast out by the Master. He speaks with mighty authority, and Satan at once is obliged to obey, "I charge you, come out of him, and enter no more into him."
We may leave the passage with comfortable feelings. Greater is He that is for us than all those who are against us. Satan is strong, busy, active, malicious. But Jesus is able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by Him--from the devil, as well as from sin--from the devil, as well as from the world. Let us possess our souls in patience. Jesus still lives, and will not let Satan pluck us out of His hand. Jesus still lives, and will soon come again to deliver us entirely from the fiery darts of the wicked one. The great chain is prepared. (Rev. 20:1.) Satan shall one day be bound. The God of peace shall bruise Satan under our feet shortly." (Rom. 16:20.)
Let us mark, in these verses, our Lord's renewed announcement of His own coming, death, and resurrection. "He taught His disciples, and said unto them, The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill Him; and after He is killed, he shall rise the third day."
The dullness of the disciples in spiritual things appears once more, as soon as this announcement was made. There was good in the tidings as well as seeming evil--sweet as well as bitter--life as well as death--the resurrection as well as the cross. But it was all darkness to the bewildered twelve. "They did not understand what He was saying, and were afraid to ask." Their minds were still full of their mistaken ideas of their Master's reign upon earth. They thought that His earthly kingdom was immediately to appear. Never are we so slow to understand, as when prejudice and pre-conceived opinions darken our eyes.
The immense importance of our Lord's death and resurrection comes out strongly in this fresh announcement which He makes. It is not for nothing that He reminds us again that He must die. He would have us know that His death was the great end for which He came into the world. He would remind us that by that death the great problem was to be solved--how God could be just, and yet justify sinners. He did not come upon earth merely to teach, and preach, and work miracles. He came to make satisfaction for sin, by His own blood and suffering on the cross. Let us never forget this. The incarnation, and example, and words of Christ, are all of deep importance. But the grand object which demands our notice in the history of His earthly ministry, is His death on Calvary.
Let us mark, in the second place, in these verses, the ambition and love of pre-eminence which the apostles exhibited. "By the way they disputed among themselves who was the greatest."
How strange this sounds! Who would have thought that a few fishermen and publicans could have been overcome by envious rivalry, and the desire of supremacy? Who would have expected that poor men, who had given up all for Christ's sake, would have been troubled by strife and dissension, as to the place and precedence which each one deserved? Yet so it is. The fact is recorded for our learning. The Holy Spirit has caused it to be written down for the perpetual use of Christ's Church. Let us take care that it is not written in vain.
It is an dreadful fact, whether we like to allow it or not, that pride is one of the commonest sins which beset human nature. We are all born Pharisees. We all naturally think far better of ourselves than we ought. We all naturally imagine that we deserve something better than we have. It is an old sin. It began in the garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve thought they had not got everything that their merits deserved. It is a subtle sin. It rules and reigns in many a heart without being detected, and can even wear the garb of humility. It is a most soul ruining sin. It prevents repentance, keeps men back from Christ--checks brotherly love, and nips in the bud spiritual desires. Let us watch against it, and be on our guard. Of all garments, none is so graceful, none wears so well, and none is so rare, as true humility.
Let us mark, in the third place, the peculiar standard of true greatness which our Lord sets before His disciples. He says to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all."
These words are deeply instructive. They show us that the maxims of the world are directly contrary to the mind of Christ. The world's idea of greatness is to rule, but Christian greatness consists in serving. The world's ambition is to receive honor and attention, but the desire of the Christian should be to give rather than receive, and to attend on others rather than be attended on himself. In short, the man who lays himself out most to serve his fellow men, and to be useful in his day and generation, is the greatest man in the eyes of Christ.
Let us strive to make a practical use of this heart-searching maxim. Let us seek to do good to our fellow men, and to mortify that self-pleasing and self-indulgence, to which we are all so prone. Is there any service that we can render to our fellow Christians? Is there any kindness that we can do them, to help them and promote their happiness? If there is, let us do it without delay. Well would it be for Christendom, if empty boasts of churchmanship and orthodoxy were less frequent, and practical attention to our Lord's words in this passage more common. The men who are willing to be last of all, and servants of all, for Christ's sake, are always few. Yet these are the men who do good, break down prejudices, convince infidels that Christianity is a reality, and shake the world.
Let us mark, in the last place, what encouragement our Lord gives us to show kindness to the least and lowest who believe in His name. He teaches this lesson in a very touching manner; He took a child in His arms, and said to His disciples, "Whoever shall receive one of such child in my name, receives me, and whoever shall receive me, receives Him that sent me."
The principle here laid down is a continuation of that which we have just considered. It is one which is foolishness to the natural man. Flesh and blood can see no other way to greatness than crowns, and rank, and wealth, and high position in the world. The Son of God declares that the way lies in devoting ourselves to the care of the weakest and lowest of His flock. He enforces His declaration by marvelous words, which are often read and heard without thought. He tells us that to "receive one child in His name, is to receive Christ, and to receive Christ is to receive God."
There is rich encouragement here for all who devote themselves to the charitable work of doing good to neglected souls. There is encouragement for every one who labors to restore the outcast to a place in society--to raise the fallen--to gather together the ragged children, whom no man cares for--to pluck the worst of characters from a life of sin, like brands from the burning and to bring the wanderers home. Let all such take comfort when they read these words. Their work may often be hard and discouraging. They may be mocked, ridiculed, and held up to scorn by the world. But let them know that the Son of God marks all they do, and is well pleased. Whatever the world may think, these are they whom Jesus will delight to honor at the last day.
We see in these verses, the mind of Christ on the great subject of TOLERATION in religion. The apostle John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he isn't one of our group."
The man was doing a good work without doubt. He was warring on the same side as the apostles, beyond question. But this did not satisfy John. He did not work in the company of the apostles. He did not fight in line with them. And therefore John had opposed him. But let us hear now what the great Head of the church decides! "Don't stop him!" Jesus said. "No one who performs miracles in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us."
Here is a golden rule indeed, and one that human nature severely needs, and has too often forgotten. Men of all branches of Christ's Church are apt to think that no good can be done in the world, unless it is done by their own party and denomination. They are so narrow-minded, that they cannot conceive the possibility of working on any other pattern but that which they follow. They make an idol of their own peculiar ecclesiastical machinery, and can see no merit in any other. They are like him who cried when Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp, "Moses, my master, make them stop!" (Num. 11:28.)
To this intolerant spirit we owe some of the blackest pages of Church history. Christians have repeatedly persecuted Christians for no better reason than that which is here given by John. They have practically proclaimed to their brethren, "you shall either follow us, or not work for Christ at all."
Let us be on our guard against this feeling. It is only too near the surface of all our hearts. Let us study to realize that liberal, tolerant spirit which Jesus here recommends, and be thankful for good works wheresoever and by whoever done. Let us beware of the slightest inclination to stop and check others, merely because they do not choose to adopt our plans, or work by our side. We may think our fellow Christians mistaken in some points. We may fancy that more would be done for Christ, if they would join us, and if all worked in the same way. We may see many evils arising from religious dissensions and divisions. But all this must not prevent us rejoicing if the works of the devil are destroyed and souls are saved.
Is our neighbor warring against Satan? Is he really trying to labor for Christ? This is the grand question. Better a thousand times that the work should be done by other hands than not done at all. Happy is he who knows something of the spirit of Moses, when he said, "I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them all!" and of Paul, when he says, "If Christ is preached, I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice." (Num. 11:29; Phil. 1:18.)
We see, for another thing, in these verses, the need of giving up anything that stands between us and the salvation of our souls. The "hand" and the "foot" are to be cut off, and the "eye" to be plucked out, if they are occasions of falling. The things that are dear to us as eye, foot, or hand, are to be cast off and given up if they injure our souls, whatever pain the sacrifice may cost us.
This is a rule that sounds stern and harsh at first sight. But our loving Master did not give the rule without cause. Compliance with it is absolutely necessary, since neglect of it is the sure way to hell. Our bodily senses are the channels through which many of our most formidable temptations approach us. Our bodily members are ready instruments of evil, but slow to that which is good. The eye, the hand, and the foot are good servants, when under right direction. But they need daily watching, lest they lead us into sin.
Let us resolve by God's grace to make a practical use of our Lord's solemn injunction in this place. Let us regard it as the advice of a wise physician, the counsel of a tender father, the warning of a faithful friend. However men may ridicule us for our strictness and preciseness, let us habitually "crucify our flesh with its affections and lusts." Let us deny ourselves any enjoyment, rather than incur peril of sinning against God. Let us walk in Job's steps--he says, "I made a covenant with my eyes." (Job 31:1.) Let us remember Paul--he says, "I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast away." (1 Cor. 9:27.)
We see, in the last place, in these verses, the reality, awfulness, and eternity of future punishment. Three times the Lord Jesus speaks of "hell." Three times He mentions the "worm that never dies." Three times He says that "the fire is not quenched."
These are dreadful expressions. They call for reflection rather than exposition. They should be pondered, considered, and remembered by all professing Christians. It matters little whether we regard them as figurative and emblematic. If they are so, one thing at least is very clear. The worm and the fire are emblems of real things. There is a real hell, and that hell is eternal.
There is no mercy in keeping back from men the subject of hell. Fearful and tremendous as it is, it ought to be pressed on all, as one of the great truths of Christianity. Our loving Savior speaks frequently of it. The apostle John, in the book of Revelation, often describes it. The servants of God in these days must not be ashamed of confessing their belief in it. Were there no boundless mercy in Christ for all that believe in Him, we might well shrink from the dreadful topic. Were there no precious blood of Christ able to cleanse away all sin, we might well keep silence about the wrath to come. But there is mercy for all who ask in Christ's name. There is a fountain open for all sin. Let us then boldly and unhesitatingly maintain that there is a hell, and beseech men to flee from it, before it be too late. "Knowing the terrors of the Lord," the worm, and the fire, let us "persuade men." (2 Cor. 5:11.) It is not possible to say too much about Christ. But it is quite possible to say too little about hell.
Let the concluding words of our Lord ring in our ears, as we leave the passage--"Have salt in yourselves, and have peace one with another." Let us make sure that we have in our hearts the saving grace of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying, purifying, preserving from corruption, our whole inward man. Let us watch the grace given to us with daily watchfulness, and pray to be kept from carelessness and sin, lest we be overtaken in faults, bring misery on our consciences, and discredit on our profession. Above all let us live in peace one with another, not seeking great things, or striving for the pre-eminence, but clothed with humility, and loving all who love Christ in sincerity. These seem simple things. But in attending to them is great reward.