THESE WORDS, if they at all realized their import, must have come to the disciples as a great blow. Hence the Lord, in His tender consideration for them, proceeded to give them very ample assurance as to the reality of the glory that is to come. They had expected God's kingdom to come with power and glory in their lifetime, and that illusion being dispelled, they might easily jump to the conclusion that it was not coming at all. Hence the three disciples, who seemed to be leaders among them, were taken aside to the high mountain that they might be witnesses of His transfiguration. There they saw the kingdom of God come with power-not in its fulness but in sample form. They were granted a private view of it in advance.
In the first chapter of his second Epistle Peter shows us the effect that this wonderful scene had upon him. He was an eye-witness of the majesty of Christ, and thereby he knew that His power and the promise of His coming was no cunningly devised fable, but a glorious fact, and so the prophetic word was made "more sure," or "confirmed." He knew, and we may know, that not one jot or little, of that which has been foretold concerning the glory of Christ's coming kingdom, will fail.
The transfiguration scene itself was a prophecy. Christ is to be the shining Centre of the kingdom glory, as He was on the mountain top. Saints will be with Him in heavenly conditions, just as Moses and Elijah were: some of them buried and called forth by God, like Moses; some raptured to heaven without dying, like Elijah. In the kingdom too there will be saints on earth below, enjoying earthly blessedness in the light of the heavenly glory, just as the three disciples were conscious of blessedness during the brief vision. It was "after six days," and only six were present, so all was on a small and incomplete scale; still the essentials were there.
Peter, ready to speak as ever, blurted out what he intended to be a compliment, but which in reality was far otherwise. The scene of glory could not then be prolonged upon earth, nor could the Christ-nor even Moses and Elijah-be confined to earthly tabernacles. But more serious than this mistake was the thought that Jesus was only the first amongst the greatest of men. He is not the first amongst the great, but "the beloved Son," of the Father, perfectly unique, immeasurably beyond all comparison. No other may be mentioned in the same breath with Him. He stands alone. This the Father's voice declared, adding that He is the One who is to be heard.
The Father's voice has been heard very rarely by men. He spoke at Christ's baptism, and now again at His transfiguration, this time adding, "Hear Him." Since then His voice has never been heard by men in intelligible fashion. The Son is the Spokesman of the Godhead, and it is to Him that we have to listen. God once spoke through the prophets, Moses and Elijah: He now has spoken in His beloved Son. This shuts Peter out, as well as Moses and Elijah, which is significant when we remember what the Romish system makes of Peter and his supposed authority. In this incident Peter again showed that as yet he was just like the man whose eyes were out of focus, so that he saw men as trees walking.
No sooner had the Father's voice thus exalted His beloved Son than the whole vision was gone, and only Jesus was left with the three disciples. Saints disappear, but Jesus remains. The words, "They saw no man any more, save Jesus only," are very significant. If any of us approximate to that in our spiritual experience, we shall no longer be like a man who sees men as trees walking, but be like the man after the second touch, seeing all things clearly. Jesus will fill the picture as far as we are concerned, and man be eclipsed.
All this was made known to the disciples, as verse 9 shows, in view of the time when His death and resurrection should be accomplished. Only then would they really understand it all, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and be able to effectually use it in testimony. At that moment they did not even understand what rising from among the dead really signified, as the next verse shows. The rising of the dead would not have puzzled them in any special way: it was this rising "out of," or "from among," the dead-which first took place in Christ-that raised such questions. The first resurrection of the saints, the resurrection of life, is of the same order. Are there not many, calling themselves Christians, who are full of questions as to it today?
The disciples' question as to Elijah, and his predicted coming, was naturally raised in their minds by the transfiguration scene. The Lord used it to again turn their thoughts to His death. In regard to this first advent of His, the part of Elijah had been played by John the Baptist; and his murder was symptomatic of what was to happen to the greater One, of whom he was the forerunner.
The scene on the high mountain soon came to an end but not so the scenes of human sin and misery and suffering which filled the plains below. From the heights to the depths they had to come, to find the rest of the disciples defeated and anxious in the absence of their Master. Immediately He appeared the crowds were amazed, and all eyes turned from the distracted disciples to the calm and all-sufficient Master. A moment before the scribes had been heckling the disciples, now He questions the scribes, invites the confidence of the troubled father, and displays His sufficiency.
Happy is the saint who is able to bring something of the grace and power of Christ into this troubled world! But even so, we shall have to wait for His coming and kingdom to see fully accomplished what this scene foreshadows. Only then will He transform the whole world, and turn the defeat and disquietude of His tried and distracted people into the calm of His presence and into a complete and manifested victory.
There had been a singular manifestation of the glory of God in the peaceful scene upon the mountain-top, whilst at the foot of the mountain the dark power of Satan had been displayed, with all the distraction that it brings. The boy demon-possessed, the father disappointed and distracted, the disciples defeated and dejected, the scribes not at all averse to making capital out of the incident. The Lord walks into the midst and all is changed.
In the first place, He puts His finger upon the spot where the root of the failure lay. They were a faithless generation. The root was unbelief This applied to His disciples, as well as to the rest. If their faith had fully laid hold of who He was, they would not have been baffled by this test, any more than when confronted by the matter of feeding the multitudes. They were still like the man of chapter 8, before he saw all things clearly.
But now the Master Himself is in the midst, and the word is, "Bring him unto ME." However, the first result of the boy being brought was disappointing, for the demon flung him down in a terrible fit. Yet this was made to serve the purpose of the Lord, for on the one hand it made the more manifest the terrible plight of the boy the very moment before he was delivered, and on the other it served to bring out the feelings and thoughts of the anguished father. His cry, "If Thou canst do anything, have compassion on us, and help us," revealed his lack of faith as to His power, whilst he was not too sure of His kindness.
The reply of Jesus was, "The 'if thou couldst' is [if thou couldst] believe" (N. Trans.). That is, He said in effect, "There is no 'if' on My side, the only 'if' that enters into this matter is on your side. It is not 'if I can do anything,' but 'if you can believe.'" This put the whole thing in the true light, and in a flash the man saw it. Seeing it, he believed, whilst confessing his former unbelief.
Having evoked faith in the man, the Lord acted. The object before Him was not to create a sensation amongst the people; had it been, He would have waited for the crowd to collect. His object evidently was to confirm the faith of the father, and of any others who had eyes to see. The demon had to obey, though he wrought his worst before relinquishing his prey. This display of demonic power, after all, only gave an opportunity for a more complete display of Divine power. Not only was the boy completely delivered but also delivered for ever, since the demon was commanded to enter him no more.
Having thus manifested the power and kindness of God, the perfect Servant did not court popularity amongst the crowds but retired to a certain house. There His disciples in quietness enquired as to the reason of their failure, and got His answer. Again and again we ought to be asking their question, as we find ourselves weak in the presence of the foe; and as we do so we shall doubtless get just the answer they got, as recorded in verse 29. The Lord had already declared how unbelief lay at the root of their powerlessness: now He specifies two further things. Not only is faith needed, but also prayer and fasting.
Faith indicates a spirit of confidence in God: prayer-dependence on God: fasting-separation to God, in the form of abstinence from lawful things. These are the things which lead to power in the service of God. Their opposites-unbelief, self-confidence, self-indulgence, are the things that lead to weakness and failure. These words of our Lord play like a searchlight upon our many failures in serving Him. Let us consider our ways in the light of them.
In verses 30 and 31 we again see the Lord withdrawing Himself from publicity, and instructing His disciples as to His approaching death and resurrection. We first saw this in verses 30 and 31 of the previous chapter.
It was the next great event in the Divine programme, and He now began to keep it steadily before the minds of His disciples, though at the moment they failed to take it in. Their minds were still filled with expectations of the coming of a visible kingdom, so they were unable to entertain any idea that controverted that.
The idea that Christ's kingdom would immediately appear appealed to them because they expected to have a large place of honour in it. They conceived of it in a carnal way, and it awakened carnal desires in their hearts. Hence on the journey to Capernaum they fell to discussing who of them was to be greatest. The Lord's question was sufficient to convict them of their folly, as was evidenced by their abashed silence; yet He knew it all, for He proceeded to answer them though they made no confession.
His answer appears to be two-fold. First, the only way that leads to real greatness is one that goes to the bottom as servant to all. This being so, we can see how the Lord Jesus is pre-eminent even apart from His Deity. In manhood He has taken the lowest place, and become Servant to all in a way that is infinitely beyond the service of all others. The one most like Him is likely to be first.
In the second place, He showed that the personality of the servant is of small significance: what does count is the Name in which He comes. We have that beautiful and touching scene in which He first set a small child in their midst, and then took him up in His arms, in order to enforce His point. That child was an insignificant scrap of humanity, yet to receive one such in His Name was to receive the Lord Himself, and also the Father who sent Him. The reception of a thousand such in any other name or on any other ground would signify but little. The fact is that the Master Himself is so supremely great that the relative position of His little servants is not worth disputing about.
This teaching seems to have come as an illumination to John, and caused his conscience to prick him as to their attitude towards a zealous man who acted in His Name, though not following the twelve. Why he did not follow, we are not told; but we must remember that it was not open to anyone to attach themselves to the twelve just as they chose: the Lord's own choice decided that matter. Whatever it was, the Lord's reply again laid all the emphasis on the value of His Name. Acting in His Name, the man was clearly for Christ and not against Him.
As a matter of fact this unofficial individual had been doing the very thing which the disciples had just failed to do-he had cast out a demon. Office is one thing: power is quite another. They should go together, in so far as office is instituted in Christianity. But very frequently they have not done so. And in these later days when offices have been unscripturally instituted, we again and again see some simple and unofficial person doing the thing which the official has no power to do. The power lies in the Name not the office.
Verse 41 shows that the smallest gift in the Name, and for Christ's sake, is of value in the sight of God and will meet with reward at His hands. Verse 42 gives us the converse of this: to be a snare to the feeblest of those who are Christ's is to merit and to get severe judgment. The losing of life in this world is a small thing compared with loss in the world to come.
This leads to the very solemn passage with which this chapter closes. Some of His hearers might have thought the Lord's word about the millstone a bit extreme He adds yet stronger words, which have hell-fire itself in view. His thoughts at this point evidently broadened out beyond His disciples to men generally, and He shows that any loss in this world is very small compared with the loss of all that is life in the next, and being cast into the fire of Gehenna. Hand and foot and eye are very valuable members of our bodies, and not to be lightly parted with; but life in the coming age is beyond all price, and hell-fire an awful reality.
The Valley of Hinnom, the refuse dump outside Jerusalem, where fires always burned and maggots continually did their work, was known as Gehenna; and this word on the Lord's lips became a terribly apt figure of the abode of the lost. Verily hell will be the great refuse heap of eternity, where all that is incorrigibly evil will be segregated from the good, and lie for ever under the judgment of God. This terrible fact reaches us from the lips of Him who loved sinful men and wept over them.
The first statement of verse 49 sprang out of what the Lord had just been saying. Fire searches and consumes and disinfects. Salt not only seasons but preserves. Fire symbolizes the judgment of God, which all must face in one way or another. The believer must face it in the way indicated by 1 Corinthians 3: 13, and by it he will be "salted," since it will mean the preserving of all that is good. The ungodly will be subjected to it in their persons, and it will salt them; that is, they will be preserved in it and not destroyed by it.
The latter part of the verse is an allusion to Leviticus 2: 13. Salt has been described as symbolizing that "power of holy grace, which binds the soul to God and inwardly preserves it from evil." We cannot present our bodies a living sacrifice to God if that holy grace is absent. It is indeed good, and nothing would compensate for its absence. We are to have in ourselves this holy grace which would judge and separate us from all that is evil. If each is concerned to have it in oneself, there will not be difficulty in having peace amongst ourselves.
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