The Harmony of the Gospels (Volume XVII)
Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke
And after six days.
We must first inquire for what purpose Christ
clothed himself with heavenly glory for a short time, and why he did not
admit more than three of his disciples to be spectators. Some think that he
did so, in order to fortify them against the trial which they were soon to
meet with, arising from his death. That does not appear to me to be a
probable reason; for why should he have deprived the rest of the same
remedy, or rather, why does he expressly forbid them to make known what they
had seen till after his resurrection, but because the result of the vision
would be later than his death? I have no doubt whatever that Christ intended
to show that he was not dragged unwillingly to death, but that he came
forward of his own accord, to offer to the Father the sacrifice of
obedience. The disciples were not made aware of this till Christ rose; nor
was it even necessary that, at the very moment of his death, they should
perceive the divine power of Christ, so as to acknowledge it to be
victorious on the cross; but the instruction which they now received was
intended to be useful at a future period both to themselves and to us, that
no man might take offense at the weakness of Christ, as if it were by force
and necessity that he had suffered.
It would manifestly have been quite as easy for Christ to protect his body
from death as to clothe it with heavenly glory.
We are thus taught that he was
subjected to death, because he wished it to be so; that he was crucified,
because he offered himself. That same flesh, which was sacrificed on the
cross and lay in the grave, might have been exempted from death and the
grave; for it had already partaken of the heavenly glory. We are also taught
that, so long as Christ remained in the world, bearing the form of a
servant, and so long as his majesty was concealed under the weakness of the
flesh, nothing had been taken from him, for it was of his own accord that he
emptied himself, (Philippians
2:7;) but now his resurrection has drawn aside that veil by which his
power had been concealed for a time.
Our Lord reckoned
it enough to select three
because that is the number which the Law has laid
down for proving any thing;
at the mouth of two
witnesses or three witnesses,
The difference as
to time ought not to give us uneasiness. Matthew and Mark reckon six
which had elapsed between the events. Luke says that
happened about eight days afterwards,
including both the
day on which Christ spake these words, and
on which he was transfigured. We see then that, under a
diversity of expression, there is a perfect agreement as to the meaning.
2. And was transfigured before them.
that this happened
while he was praying;
and from the circumstances of time and place, we
may infer that he had prayed for what he now obtained, that in the
brightness of an unusual form his Godhead might become visible; not that he
needed to ask by prayer from another what he did not possess, or that he
doubted his Father's willingness, but because, during the whole course of
his humiliation, he always ascribed to the Father whatever he did as a
divine Person, and because he intended to excite us to prayer by his
transfiguration did not
altogether enable his disciples to see Christ, as he now is in heaven, but
gave them a taste of his boundless glory, such as they were able to
comprehend. Then his face shone as the sun;
but now he is far beyond the sun in brightness. In his
raiment an unusual and
dazzling whiteness appeared; but now without
raiment a divine majesty shines in his whole body.
Thus in ancient times God appeared to the holy fathers, not as He was in
Himself, but so far as they could endure the rays of His infinite
brightness; for John declares that not until
they are like him will
they see him as he is, (1
There is no
necessity for entering here into ingenious inquiries as to the
for this was not a complete exhibition of the heavenly glory of Christ, but,
under symbols which were adapted to the capacity of the flesh, he enabled
them to taste in part what could not be fully comprehended.
3. And, lo, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah.
It is asked, Were
Moses and Elijah
actually present? or was it only an apparition that
was exhibited to the disciples, as the prophets frequently beheld visions of
things that were absent? Though the subject admits, as we say, of arguments
on both sides, yet I think it more probable that they were actually brought
to that place. There is no absurdity in this supposition; for God has bodies
and souls in his hand, and can restore the dead to life at his pleasure,
whenever he sees it to be necessary.
Moses and Elijah
did not then rise on their own account,
in order to wait upon Christ. It will next be asked, How came the apostles
to know Moses and Elijah,
whom they had never seen? The answer is easy. God,
who brought them forward, gave also signs and tokens by which they were
enabled to know them. It was thus by an extraordinary revelation that they
obtained the certain knowledge that they were
Moses and Elijah.
But why did these
two appear rather than others who equally belonged to the company of the
holy fathers? It was intended to demonstrate that Christ alone is the end of
the Law and of the Prophets; and that single reason ought to satisfy us: for
it was of the utmost importance to our faith that Christ did not come into
our world without a testimony, but with commendations which God had formerly
bestowed. I have no objection, however, to the reason which is commonly
adduced, that Elijah
was selected, in preference to others, as the
representative of all the Prophets; because, though he left nothing in
writing, yet next to Moses he was the most distinguished of their number,
restored the worship of God which had been corrupted, and stood unrivaled in
his exertions for vindicating the Law and true godliness, which was at that
time almost extinct.
And they conversed with Jesus.
along with Christ, and held
with him, this was a declaration of their being agreed.
The subject on which they conversed is stated by Luke only: they talked of the decease
which awaited Christ at Jerusalem.
This must not be understood to refer to them as
private individuals, but rather to the commission which they had formerly
received. Though it was now a long time since they had died and finished the
course of their calling, yet our Lord intended once more to ratify by their
voice what they had taught during their life, in order to inform us that the
same salvation, through the sacrifice of Christ, is held out to us in common
with the holy fathers. At the time when the ancient prophets uttered their
predictions concerning the death of Christ, he himself, who was the eternal
wisdom of God, was sitting on the invisible throne of his glory. Hence it
follows that, when he was clothed in flesh, he was not liable to death any
farther than as he submitted to it of his own free will.
4. Lord, it is good for us to be here.
Luke tells us that Peter uttered these words
while Moses and Elijah were departing;
and hence we infer that he was afraid lest, at
their departure, that pleasant and delightful exhibition should vanish away.
We need not wonder that Peter was so captivated by the loveliness of what he
beheld, as to lose sight of every other person, and rest satisfied with the
mere enjoyment of it; as it is said in the psalm,
In thy presence is
fulnessess of joy, (Psalm
But his desire was foolish; first,
because he did not comprehend the design of the vision; secondly, because he
absurdly put the servants on a level with their Lord; and, thirdly, he was
mistaken in proposing to build fading tabernacles
men who had been already admitted to the glory of heaven and of the angels.
I have said that he
did not understand the design of the vision; for, while he was hearing, from
the mouth of Moses and Elijah,
that the time of Christ's death was at hand, he
foolishly dreamed that his present aspect, which was temporary, would endure
for ever. And what if the kingdom of Christ had been confined in this way to
the narrow limits of twenty or thirty feet? Where would have been the
redemption of the whole world? Where would have been the communication of
eternal salvation? It was also highly absurd to conceive of
Moses and Elijah
as companions of the Son of God, as if it had not
been proper that all should be reduced to a lower rank, that he alone may
have the pre-eminence. And if Peter is satisfied with his present condition,
why does he suppose that earthly supports were needed by those persons, the
very sight of whom, he imagined, was enough to make him happy?
is it stated by two of the Evangelists, that he
knew not what he said;
and Mark assigns the reason, that
they were afraid;
for God did not intend that the apostles should, at
that time, derive any advantage from it beyond that of beholding for a
moment, as in a bright mirror, the divinity of his Son. At a later period,
he pointed out to them the fruit of the vision, and corrected the error of
their judgment. What is stated by Mark must therefore mean, that Peter was
carried away by frenzy, and spoke like a man who had lost his senses.
5. Lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them.
Their eyes were covered by
in order to inform them, that they were not yet
prepared for beholding the brightness of the heavenly glory. For, when the
Lord gave tokens of his presence, he employed, at the same time, some
coverings to restrain the arrogance of the human mind. So now, with the view
of teaching his disciples a lesson of humility, he withdraws from their eyes
the sight of the heavenly glory. This admonition is likewise addressed to
us, that we may not seek to pry into the secrets which lie beyond our
senses, but, on the contrary, that every man may keep within the limits of
sobriety, according to the measure of his faith. In a word, this
cloud ought to serve us as a
bridle, that our curiosity may not indulge in undue wantonness. The
disciples, too, were warned that they must return to their former warfare,
and therefore must not expect a triumph before the time.
And, lo, a voice from the cloud.
It deserves our attention, that the
voice of God was heard from the
but that neither a body nor a face was seen. Let us
therefore remember the warning which Moses gives us, that God has no visible
shape, lest we should deceive ourselves by imagining that He resembled a
4:15.) There were, no doubt, various appearances under
which God made himself known to the holy fathers in ancient times; but in
all cases he refrained from using signs which might induce them to make for
themselves idols. And certainly, as the minds of men are too strongly
inclined to foolish imaginations, there was no necessity for throwing oil
upon the flame.
8 This manifestation of the
glory of God was remarkable above all others. When he makes a cloud to pass
between Him and us, and invites us to himself by His voice, what madness is
it to attempt to place Him before our eyes by a block of wood or of stone?
Let us therefore endeavor to enter by faith alone, and not by the eyes of
flesh, into that inaccessible light in which God dwells.
that the disciples, knowing it to have proceeded
from God, might receive it with due reverence.
This is my beloved Son.
I willingly concur with those who think that there
is an implied contrast of
Moses and Elijah
with Christ, and that the disciples of God's own Son are
here charged to seek no other teacher. The word Son
is emphatic, and raises him above servants. There
are two titles here bestowed upon Christ, which are not more fitted to do
honor to him than to aid our faith: a
and a Master. The Father calls him my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,
and thus declares him to be the Mediator, by whom
he reconciles the world to himself. When he enjoins us to
he appoints him to be the supreme and only teacher
of his Church. It was his design to distinguish Christ from all the rest, as
we truly and strictly infer from those words, that by nature he was God's
In like manner, we learn that he alone is
beloved by the Father, and that
he alone is appointed to be our Teacher, that in him all authority may
But it will perhaps
be objected, Does not God love angels and men? It is easy to reply, that the
fatherly love of God, which is spread over angels and men, proceeds from him
as its source. The Son
beloved by the
Father, not so as to make other creatures the objects of his hatred, but so
that he communicates to them what belongs to himself. There is a difference,
no doubt, between our condition and that of the angels; for they never were
alienated from God, and therefore needed not that he should reconcile them;
while we are enemies on account of sin, till Christ procure for us his
favor. Still, it is a fixed principle that God is gracious to both, only so
far as he embraces us in Christ; for even the angels would not be firmly
united to God if Christ were not their Head. It may also be observed that,
since the Father here speaks of himself as different from the Son, there is
a distinction of persons; for they are one in essence and alike in glory.
I mentioned a little ago, that these words were intended
to draw the attention of the Church to Christ as the only Teacher, that on
his mouth alone it may depend. For, though Christ came to maintain the
authority of the Law and the Prophets,
5:17,) yet he holds the highest rank, so that, by the
brightness of his gospel, he causes those sparks which shone in the Old
Testament to disappear. He is
the Sun of righteousness,
whose arrival brought the full light of day. And
this is the reason why the Apostle says (Hebrews
God, who at sundry times and in various
ways spoke formerly by the Prophets, hath in these last days spoken to us by
his beloved Son.
In short, Christ is as truly heard at
the present day in the Law and in the Prophets as in his Gospel; so that in
him dwells the authority of a Master, which he claims for
himself alone, saying, One is your Master, even Christ,
23:8.) But his authority is not fully acknowledged, unless all the
tongues of men are silent. If we would submit to his doctrine, all that has
been invented by men must be thrown down and destroyed. He is every day, no
doubt, sending out teachers, but it is to state purely and honestly what
they have learned from him, and not to corrupt the gospel by their own
additions. In a word, no man can be regarded a faithful teacher of the
Church, unless he be himself a disciple of Christ, and bring others to be
taught by him.
6. And having heard this.
God intended that the disciples should be struck
with this terror, in order to impress more fully on their hearts the
remembrance of the vision. Yet we see how great is the weakness of our
nature, which trembles in this manner at hearing the voice of God. If
ungodly men mock at God, or despise him without concern, it is because God
does not address them so as to cause his presence to be felt; but the
majesty of God, as soon as we perceive him, must unavoidably cast us down.
7. Then Jesus approaching touched them.
Christ raises them up when they had fallen, and by
so doing performs his office; for he came down to us for this very purpose,
that by his guidance believers might boldly enter into the presence of God,
and that his majesty, which otherwise would swallow up all flesh, might no
longer fill them with terror. Nor is it only by his words that he comforts,
but by touching also that
he encourages them.
8. They saw no man but Jesus only.
When it is said that in the end they saw Christ
this means that the Law and the Prophets had a
temporary glory, that Christ alone might remain fully in view. If we would
properly avail ourselves of the aid of Moses, we must not stop with him, but
must endeavor to be conducted by his hand to Christ, of whom both he and all
the rest are ministers. This passage may also be applied to condemn the
superstitions of those who confound Christ not only with prophets and
apostles, but with saints of the lowest rank, in such a manner as to make
him nothing more than one of their number. But when the saints of God are
eminent in graces, it is for a totally different purpose than that they
should defraud Christ of a part of his honor, and appropriate it to
themselves. In the disciples themselves we may see the origin of the
mistake; for so long as they were terrified by the majesty of God, their
minds wandered in search of men, but when Christ gently raised them up, they
saw him alone.
If we are made to experience that consolation by
which Christ relieves us of our fears, all those foolish affections, which
distract us on every hand, will vanish away.