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The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah
THE DESCENT: FROM THE MOUNT OF TRANSFIGURATION
INTO THE VALLEY OF HUMILIATION AND DEATH.
ON THE MORROW OF THE TRANSFIGURATION
(St. Matthew 17:9-21; St. Mark 9:9-29: St.
IT was the early dawn of another summer's day when the Master
and His disciples turned their steps once more towards the plain. They had seen
His Glory; they had had the most solemn witness which, as Jews, the could have;
and they had gained a new knowledge of the Old Testament. It all bore reference
to the Christ, and it spake of His Decease. Perhaps on that morning better than
in the previous night did they realise the vision, and feel its calm happiness.
It was to their souls like the morning-air which they breathed on that
It would be only natural, that their thoughts should also
wander to the companions and fellow-disciples whom, on the previous evening,
they had left in the valley beneath. How much they had to tell them, and how
glad they would be of the tidings they would hear! That one night had for ever
answered so many questions about that most hard of all His sayings: concerning
His Rejection and violent Death at Jerusalem; it had shed heavenly light into
that terrible gloom! They - at least these three - had formerly simply
submitted to the saying of Christ because it was His, without understanding it;
but now they had learned to see it in quite another light. How they must have
longed to impart it to those whose difficulties were at least as great, perhaps
greater, who perhaps had not yet recovered from the rude shock which their
Messianic thoughts and hopes had so lately received. We think here especially
of those, whom, so far as individuality of thinking is concerned, we may
designate as the representative three, and the counterpart of the three chosen
Apostles: Philip, who ever sought firm standing-ground for faith; Thomas, who
wanted evidence for believing; and Judas, whose burning Jewish zeal for a
Jewish Messiah had already begun to consume his own soul, as the wind had
driven back upon himself the flame that had been kindled. Every question of a
Philip, every doubt of a Thomas, every despairing wild outburst of a Judas,
would be met by what they had now to tell.
But it was not to be so. Evidently, it was not an event to be
made generally known, either to the people or even to the great body of the
disciples. They could not have understood its real meaning; they would have
misunderstood, and in their ignorance misapplied to carnal Jewish purposes, its
heavenly lessons. But even the rest of the Apostles must not know of it: that
they were not qualified to witness it, proved that they were not prepared to
hear of it. We cannot for a moment imagine, that there was favouritism in the
selection of certain Apostles to share in what the others might not witness. It
was not because these were better loved, but because they were better prepared1
- more fully receptive, more readily acquiescing, more entirely
self-surrendering. Too often we commit in our estimate the error of thinking of
them exclusively as Apostles, not as disciples; as our teachers, not as His
learners, with all the failings of men, the prejudices of Jews, and the
unbelief natural to us all, but assuming in each individual special forms, and
appearing as characteristic weaknesses.
1. While writing this, we fully remember about the title of St. John as he 'whom Jesus loved' specially, even in that inner and closer circle.
And so it was that, when the silence of that morning-descent
was broken, the Master laid on them the command to tell no man of this vision,
till after the Son of Man were risen from the dead. This mysterious injunction
of silence affords another presumptive evidence against the invention, or the
rationalistic explanations, or the mythical origin of this narrative. It also
teaches two further lessons. The silence thus enjoined was the first step into
the Valley of Humiliation. It was also a test, whether they had understood the
spiritual teaching of the vision. And their strict obedience, not questioning
even the grounds of the injunction, proved that they had learned it. So entire,
indeed, was their submission, that they dared not even ask the Master about a
new and seemingly greater mystery than they had yet heard: the meaning of the
Son of Man rising from the Dead.2
Did it refer to the general Resurrection; was the Messiah to be the first to
rise from the dead, and to waken the other sleepers - or was it only a
figurative expression for His triumph and vindication? Evidently, they knew as
yet nothing of Christ's Personal Resurrection as separate from that of others,
and on the third day after His Death. And yet it was so near! So ignorant were
they, and so unprepared! And they dared not ask the Master of it. This much
they had already learned: not to question the mysteries of the future, but
simply to receive them. But in their inmost hearts they kept that saying - as
the Virgin-Mother had kept many a like saying - carrying it about 'with them'
as a precious living germ that would presently spring up and bear fruit, or as
that which would kindle into light and chase all darkness. But among
themselves, then and many times afterwards, in secret converse, they questioned
what the rising again from the dead should mean.3
2. St. Mark ix. 10.
3. St. Mark ix. 10.
There was another question, and it they might ask of Jesus,
since it concerned not the mysteries of the future, but the lessons of the
past. Thinking of that vision, of the appearance of Elijah and of his speaking
of the Death of the Messiah, why did the Scribes say that Elijah should first
come - and, as was the universal teaching, for the purpose of restoring all
things? If, as they had seen, Elijah had come, but only for a brief season, not
to abide, along with Moses, as they had fondly wished when they proposed to
rear them booths; if he had come not to the people but to Christ, in view of
only them three - and they were not even to tell of it; and, if it had been,
not to prepare for a spiritual restoration, but to speak of what implied the
opposite: the Rejection and violent Death of the Messiah - then, were the
Scribes right in their teaching, and what was its real meaning? The question
afforded the opportunity of presenting to the disciples not only a solution of their
difficulties, but another insight into the necessity of His Rejection and
Death. They had failed to distinguish between the coming of Elijah and its
alternative sequence. Truly 'Elias cometh first' - and Elijah had 'come
already' in the person of John the Baptist. The Divinely intended object of
Elijah's coming was to 'restore all things.' This, of course, implied a
moral element in the submission of the people to God, and their willingness to
receive his message. Otherwise there was this Divine alternative in the
prophecy of Malachi: 'Lest I come to smite the land with the ban' (Cherem).
Elijah had come; if the people had received his message, there would
have been the promised restoration of all things. As the Lord had said on a
'If ye are willing to receive him,5
this is Elijah, which is to come.' Similarly, if Israel had received the
Christ, He would have gathered them as a hen her chickens for protection; He
would not only have been, but have visibly appeared as, their King. But Israel
did not know their Elijah, and did unto him whatsoever they listed; and so, in
logical sequence, would the Son of Man also suffer of them. And thus has the
other part of Malachi's prophecy been fulfilled: and the land of Israel been
smitten with the ban.6
4. St. Matt. xi. 14.
5. The meaning remains substantially the same whether we insert 'him' or 'it.'
6. The question, whether there is to be a literal reappearance of Elijah before the Second Advent of Christ does not seem to be answered in the present passage.
Perhaps it is purposely left unanswered.
Amidst such conversation the descent from the mountain was
accomplished. Presently they found themselves in view of a scene, which only
too clearly showed that unfitness of the disciples for the heavenly vision of
the preceding night, to which reference has been made. For, amidst the
divergence of details between the narratives of St. Matthew and St. Mark, and,
so far as it goes, that of St. Luke, the one point in which they almost
literally and emphatically accord is, when the Lord speaks of them, in language
of bitter disappointment and sorrow, as a generation with whose want of faith,
notwithstanding all that they had seen and learned, He had still to bear,
their failure in restoring the lunatick, to their 'unbelief.'8
7. In St. Matthew and St. Mark.
8. The reading 'little faith' instead of 'unbelief,' though highly attested, seems only an early correction. On internal grounds it is more likely, that the expression 'little faith' is a correction by a later apologete, than 'unbelief.' The latter also corresponds to 'faithless generation.'
It was, indeed, a terrible contrast between the scene below and
that vision of Moses and Elijah, when they had spoken of the Exodus of the
Christ, and the Divine Voice had attested the Christ from out the luminous
cloud. A concourse of excited people - among them once more 'Scribes,' who had
tracked the Lord and come upon His weakest disciples in the hour of their
greatest weakness - is gathered about a man who had in vain brought his
lunatick son for healing. He is eagerly questioned by the multitude, and moodily
answers; or, as it might almost seem from St. Matthew,9
he is leaving the crowd and those from whom he had vainly sought help. This was
the hour of triumph for these Scribes. The Master had refused the challenge in
Dalmanutha, and the disciples, accepting it, had signally failed. There they
were, 'questioning with them' noisily, discussing this and all similar
phenomena, but chiefly the power, authority, and reality of the Master. It
reminds us of Israel's temptation in the wilderness, and we should scarcely
wonder, if they had even questioned the return of Jesus, as they of old did
that of Moses.
9. ver. 14.
At that very moment, Jesus appeared with the three. We cannot
wonder that, 'when they saw Him, they were greatly amazed,10
and running to Him saluted Him.'11
He came - as always, and to us also - unexpectedly, most opportunely, and for
the real decision of the question in hand.12
There was immediate calm, preceding victory. Before the Master's inquiry about
the cause of this violent discussion could be answered, the man who had been
its occasion came forward. With lowliest gesture ('kneeling to Him'13)
he addressed Jesus. At last he had found Him, Whom he had come to seek; and, if
possibility of help there were, oh! let it be granted. Describing the symptoms
of his son's distemper, which were those of epilepsy and mania - although both
the father and Jesus rightly attributed the disease to demoniac influence - he
told, how he had come in search of the Master, but only found the nine
disciples, and how they had presumptuously attempted, and signally failed in
the attempted cure.
10. There is no hint in the text, that their amazement was due to the shining of His Face.
11. St. Mark.
12. In St. Mark ix. 16 the better reading is, 'He asked them,' and not, as in the T. R., 'the Scribes.'
13. St. Matthew.
Why had they failed? For the same reason, that they had not
been taken into the Mount of Transfiguration - because they were 'faithless,'
because of their 'unbelief.' They had that outward faith of the 'probatum
est' ('it is proved'); they believed because, and what, they had seen; and
they were drawn closer to Christ - at least almost all of them, though in
varying measure - as to Him Who, and Who alone, spake 'the words of eternal
life,' which, with wondrous power, had swayed their souls, or laid them to
heaven's rest. But that deeper, truer faith, which consisted in the spiritual
view of that which was the unseen in Christ, and that higher power, which flows
from such apprehension, they had not. In such faith as they had, they spake,
repeated forms of exorcism, tried to imitate their Master. But they signally
failed, as did those seven Jewish Priest-sons at Ephesus. And it was intended
that they should fail, that so to them and to us the higher meaning of faith as
contrasted with power, the inward as contrasted with the merely outward
qualification, might appear. In that hour of crisis, in the presence of
questioning Scribes and a wondering populace, and in the absence of the Christ,
only one power could prevail, that of spiritual faith; and 'that kind' could
'not come out but by prayer.'14
14. The addition of the word 'fasting' in St. Mark is probably spurious. It reads like a later gloss. It is not unlikely that St. Matt. xvii. 21 is merely a spurious insertion from St. Mark. However, see Meyer on this point.
It is this lesson, viewed also in organic connection with all
that had happened since the great temptation at Dalmanutha, which furnishes the
explanation of the whole history. For one moment we have a glimpse into the
Saviour's soul: the poignant sorrow of His disappointment at the unbelief of
the 'faithless and perverse generation,'15
with which He had so long borne; the infinite patience and condescension, the
Divine 'need be' of His having thus to bear even with His own, together with
the deep humiliation and keen pang which it involved; and the almost
home-longing, as one has called it,16
of His soul. These are mysteries to adore. The next moment Jesus turns Him to
the father. At His command the lunatick is brought to Him. In the Presence of
Jesus, and in view of the coming contest between Light and Darkness, one of
those paroxysms of demoniac operation ensues, such as we have witnessed on all
similar occasions. This was allowed to pass in view of all. But both this, and
the question as to the length of time the lunatick had been afflicted, together
with the answer, and the description of the dangers involved, which it
elicited, were evidently intended to point the lesson of the need of a higher
faith. To the father, however, who knew not the mode of treatment by the
Heavenly Physician, they seemed like the questions of an earthly healer who
must consider the symptoms before he could attempt to cure. 'If Thou canst do
anything, have compassion on us, and help us.'
15. The expression 'generation' although embracing in its reproof all the people, is specially addressed to the disciples.
It was but natural - and yet it was the turning-point in this
whole history, alike as regarded the healing of the lunatick, the better
leading of his father, the teaching of the disciples, and that of the multitude
and the Scribes. There is all the calm majesty of Divine self-consciousness,
yet without trace of self-assertion, when Jesus, utterly ignoring the 'if Thou
canst,' turns to the man and tells him that, while with the Divine Helper there
is the possibility of all help, it is conditioned by a possibility in
ourselves, by man's receptiveness, by his faith. Not, if the Christ can do
anything or even everything, but, 'If thou canst believe,17
all things are possible to him that believeth.'18
The question is not, it can never be, as the man had put it; it must not even
be answered, but ignored. It must ever be, not what He can, but what we
can. When the infinite fulness is poured forth, as it ever is in Christ, it is
not the oil that is stayed, but the vessels which fail. He giveth richly,
inexhaustibly, but not mechanically; there is only one condition, the moral one
of the presence of absolute faith - our receptiveness. And so these words have
to all time remained the teaching to every individual striver in the battle of
the higher life, and to the Church as a whole - the 'in hoc signo vinces'19
over the Cross, the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.
17. The weight of the evidence from the MSS. accepted by most modern critics (though not by that very judicious commentator, Canon Cook) is in favour of the reading and rendering: 'If Thou canst! all things are possible,' &c. But it seems to me, that this mode of reply on the part of Christ is not only without any other parallel in the Gospels, but too artificial, too Western, if I may use the expression. While the age of a MS. or MSS. is, of course, one of the outward grounds on which the criticism of the text must proceed, I confess to
the feeling that, as age and purity are not identical, the interpreter must weigh all such evidence in the light of the internal grounds for or against its reception. Besides, in this instance, it seems to me that there is some difficulty about the to if pisteusai is struck out, and which is
not so easily cleared up as Meyer suggests.
18. 'OmnipotentiŠ DivinŠ se fides hominis, quasi organon, accommodat and recipiendum, vel etiam ad agendum.' - Bengel.
19. 'In this sign shalt thou conquer' - the inscription on the supposed vision of the Cross by the Emperor Constantine before his great victory and conversion to Christianity.
It was a lesson, of which the reality was attested by the hold
which it took on the man's whole nature. While by one great outgoing of his
soul he overleapt all, to lay hold on the one fact set before him, he felt all
the more the dark chasm of unbelief behind him, but he also clung to that
Christ, Whose teaching of faith had shown him, together with the possibility,
the source of faith. Thus through the felt unbelief of faith he attained true
faith by laying hold on the Divine Saviour, when he cried out and said:20
'Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief.'21
These words have remained historic, marking all true faith, which, even as
faith, is conscious of, nay implies, unbelief, but brings it to Christ for
help. The most bold leap of faith and the timid resting at His Feet, the first
beginning and the last ending of faith, have alike this as their watchword.
20. The words with 'tears,' in the T.R. are apparently a spurious addition.
21. The interpretation of Meyer: 'Do not withhold thy help, notwithstanding my unbelief' seems as Jejune as that of others: 'Help me in my unbelief.'
Such cry could not be, and never is, unheard. It was real
demoniac influence which, continuing with this man from childhood onwards, had
well-nigh crushed all moral individuality in him. In his many lucid intervals
these many years, since he had grown from a child into a youth, he had never
sought to shake off the yoke and regain his moral individuality, nor would he
even now have come, if his father had not brought him. If any, this narrative
shows the view which the Gospels and Jesus took of what are described as the
'demonised.' It was a reality, and not accommodation to Jewish views, when, as
He saw 'the multitude running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying
to him: Dumb and deaf spirit, I command thee, come out of him, and no more come
Another and a more violent paroxysm, so that the bystanders
almost thought him dead. But the unclean spirit had come out of him. And with
strong gentle Hand the Saviour lifted him, and with loving gesture delivered
him to his father.
All things had been possible to faith; not to that external
belief of the disciples, which failed to reach 'that kind,'22
and ever fails to reach such kind, but to true spiritual faith in Him. And so
it is to each of us individually, and to the Church, to all time. 'That kind' -
whether it be of sin, of lust, of the world, or of science falsely so called,
of temptation, or of materialism - cometh not out by any of our ready-made
formulas or dead dogmas. Not so are the flesh and the Devil vanquished; not so
is the world overcome. It cometh out by nothing but by prayer: 'Lord, I
believe; help Thou mine unbelief.' Then, although our faith were only what in
popular language was described as the smallest' - like a grain of mustard-seed'
- and the result to be achieved the greatest, most difficult, seemingly
transcending human ability to compass it - what in popular language was
designated as 'removing mountains'23
- 'nothing shall be impossible' unto us. And these eighteen centuries of
suffering in Christ, and deliverance through Christ, and work for Christ, have
proved it. For all things are ours, if Christ is ours.
22. But it is rather too wide an application, when Euthymius Zygabenus (one of
the great Byzantine theologians of the twelfth century), and others after him, note 'the kind of all demons.'
23. The Rabbinic use of the expression, 'grain of mustard seed,' has already been noted. The expression 'tearing up' or 'removing' 'mountains' was also proverbial among the Rabbis. Thus, a great Rabbi might be designated as one who
'uprooted mountains' (Ber., last page, line 5 from top; and Horay, 14 a), or as one who pulverised them (Sanh. 24 a). The expression is also used
to indicate apparently impossible things, such as those which a heathen
government may order a man to do (Baba B. 3 b).
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