Mat_16:13 to Mat_17:21; Mar_8:27 to Mar_9:29; Luk_9:18-43
Cesarea-Philippi, or Philip’s Cesarea, was so called to distinguish it from another and more important city of the same name upon the coast, and derived its distinctive designation from the tetrarch Herod-Philip (not the husband of Herodias), in whose territory it lay. It was, therefore, a modern town—but, perhaps, upon the site of the ancient Dan; and being away remote near one of the springs of the river Jordan, and far beyond the limits of Herod’s dominion, the district had probably been sought by our Savior as a place of temporary retirement and retreat.
It was in this neighborhood that our Lord questioned the disciples as to the opinions entertained of Him. The answer has been already stated by anticipation. But now when Jesus farther asked—“But whom say ye that I am?” Peter answered for the rest—“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter had made virtually the same declaration not long before; and Jesus had simply remarked, that notwithstanding this declaration made on behalf of all, there was one among the chosen twelve who would prove a traitor to the conviction thus expressed. He was then, apparently, not willing to enter into the Messianic question, on which He knew that their views were still erroneous, because the time was not come to explain all things distinctly even to them. Therefore, although, as it seems to us, they had got so far in advance of the mass of their countrymen as to believe that the kingdom He came to establish was not one of vulgar conflict, conquest, and glory, they did believe that it was to be a visible earthly kingdom of truth, righteousness, justice, and blessing. But now, Jesus being ready to enlighten them farther, received the declaration of Peter with marked emphasis of approbation. The apostles were highly elated by this supposed confirmation of their views; and doubtless supposed that He was now at last about to declare himself openly; and they felt that when He thought fit to do this, among a people already willing to receive Him in that character, his miraculous powers would suffice to silence all opposition, and to seat him on the throne of David.
These hopes were somewhat damped, when, the instant after He had received and plainly responded to their recognition, He strictly enjoined them to let no man know that He was the Christ.
Still more were they disheartened when, from that time forward—when their hopes had been raised so high—He began to talk to them plainly—to them, not to the people at large—of things that had only been at times obscurely hinted at before: “how that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, chief-priests, and scribes, and be raised again the third day.” This degrading contrast to the visions of glory which had but just now dazzled their aching sight, was too painful, too incomprehensible, to be borne without remonstrance by such men as the disciples. Peter again took upon him to express the general feeling—besides that his love for his Master revolted from the images of dishonor which were thus presented. He began to rebuke Him. Peter began to rebuke Jesus! He said, “Be it far from Thee, Lord: this shall not be unto Thee!” Little did he know then—but he knew well afterwards—that the destinies of the world hung upon that being done which he said should not be done; and that his puny “shall not” was a denial of the “shall” which had been uttered in the eternal counsels of God. Jesus, who in this beheld, with pain, the instinctive abhorrence of the natural mind to the doctrines of the Cross, replied by a rebuke, the severity of which comes out strongly in contrast with the commendation the same apostle had lately received. Here was another of the “falls” to which the overconfidence of Peter continually subjects him.
In the close of the discourse which our Lord then addressed to the disciples, He clearly pointed out that the glory which they had expected to attend the present coming of the Messiah was reserved for a future time. And He now purposed to encourage them, to strengthen their faith, and to advance their views of his character and office, by affording them a glimpse of that glory which essentially belonged to Him.
Six days after He had opened their eyes, but not yet their understandings, with regard to the humiliations awaiting Him; and while they still pondered with depressed spirits on a matter which they regarded with dismay and aversion, and which they found it so difficult to reconcile with his previous distinct admission that He was the Christ of God—they arrived, towards evening, at a mountain, the name and situation of which is unknown, but which is generally conceived to be Mount Tabor. This supposes they had meanwhile come into Galilee, which is, indeed, on other grounds sufficiently likely. Into this mountain our Lord withdrew for quiet prayer, leaving the body of his disciples below, and taking with Him only the three always favored apostles, Peter, James, and John. Here He seems to have retired a little apart from them, though still within sight and hearing; and, as He continued long in prayer, they, under the pressure of fatigue and unrest, fell asleep. They were awakened suddenly by a glare of light; and then, to their great amazement, they saw that a great change had passed over their Master. “His face did shine as the sun; and his raiment was white as the light.” And He was not alone; for two glorified beings appeared beside Him, conversing with Him; and the bewildered apostles knew that they were Moses and Elias—the chiefs of the law and the prophets, who came, as it were, to give testimony and homage to the Consummator, who had in these latter days appeared to finish the work, which they had in their day been employed to advance and prepare. And what was the subject of their conversation? “They spake of the decease Note: Literally exodus, a departure—that is, departure from this life, and, therefore, properly death. which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. This must have greatly surprised the apostles, and no less have edified them. They saw that the matter, from the very idea of which their souls shrank, was familiar to Moses and to Elias, and, therefore, as they would infer, one of deep and solemn interest in the courts of heaven. This impression was made, and bore good fruit thereafter; but at the moment, Peter having the two ideas of his Lord’s glory and of his humiliation presented to his mind, thrust the latter aside, and rested wholly upon the former. He fancied that now at last his Master had assumed his visible Messianic glory; and that thus introduced and inaugurated by Moses and Elias, his reign would commence from that hour, and that, perhaps, this very mountain was to become the seat of his power. He cried out, “Lord, it is good to be here!” That was, indeed, most true; and he felt what he said. But be added—“If Thou wilt, let us build three tabernacles; one for Thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias.” Luke says, that in uttering these words, Peter did not know what he said; which seems to imply that he expressed merely a vague impression, without grasping the full purport and effect of his own words. The idea in his mind seems to have been founded on a fear that Moses and Elias should disappear, before the effect which he supposed might be produced by their presence, could be realized; and, therefore, he would detain them with Jesus, and provide them with booths for their seclusion and shelter, while he and the others went about to proclaim this manifestation, and direct the multitude to repair to the mountains to render homage to their lawgiver, their prophet, and their Messiah. There was an offensive equalization of the three in this mode of expression; and while he yet spake, they were enclosed in a far different tabernacle—a tabernacle of bright cloud, which gathered around them upon that mountain-top, and hid them from view. Then a voice was heard saying—“This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased: Hear ye Him.” As the beloved Son, He was far greater than Moses and Elias, who were but servants; and they were henceforth to hear Him—Him only. When the cloud of light melted into thin air, Jesus remained alone, and had resumed his ordinary appearance, except that, perhaps, a Divine effulgence lingered on his face, as on that of Moses when he descended from the Mount.
One of the evangelists records a short but important conversation on the subject of this manifestation which took place between Jesus and his three disciples. Fully acknowledging, on the evidence before them, the absolute certainty that their Master was indeed the Messiah, on which their convictions had at times wavered, they now ask, “How then say the scribes that Elias must first come?” That is, since Thou art come as the Messiah, how is it that Elias, as we have now seen him, did not precede Thee? He replied that Elias had preceded Him; and went on so to speak as to show them that He referred to John the Baptist.
The disciples below had meanwhile been applied to by a distressed father to heal his son, a lad possessed by a devil, who seems to have kept him in the condition of a deaf and dumb lunatic, subject to strong paroxysms of violence and pain. The disciples were unable to effect this cure, and some scribes, who had by this time gathered around, were questioning them and taunting them upon their failure, when Jesus appeared. The disciples were glad to shelter themselves under the broad shield of their Master’s protection, who sternly called the attention of the scribes to himself as One ready to answer all they could allege, and to do every work of God. They held back, however, and the father of the lad came forward, and respectfully explained the case. Jesus directed the lad to be brought to Him, who no sooner came near, than he fell to the ground wallowing and foaming there. Jesus asked, how long it had been thus with him, and was told from infancy; the father adding—“But if Thou canst do any thing, have compassion upon us, and help us.” It is clear that the scribes had succeeded in raising a doubt as to the power of the Master to accomplish that in which the disciples had failed. But Jesus said, “If thou canst believe: all things are possible to him that believeth.” The poor man, greatly agitated, even to tears, made the memorable answer, which remains as a precious gift to the church in all ages—“Lord, I believe, help Thou mine unbelief.” Nothing more was needed—Jesus made no remark. This faith was of a kind to ask the response of acts, not words. And Jesus did act signally. There was nothing intermediate, as usual in such cases—none of the customary appliances and seeming instrumentalities. He did not take the lad aside—He did not touch him—He made no applications to his ears or mouth; but covering the failure of his disciples with the glory of his own acts, He commanded the unclean spirit to quit the child, and enter into him no more. The parting throe was, indeed, terrible, and the boy lay as dead upon the ground. But Jesus raised him by the hand, and delivered him, perfectly restored, to his father.
The sensation produced by this miracle was very great. It was attested by the crowds which Jesus had seen running from all quarters, and which had, perhaps, made Him hasten his proceedings. “They were all amazed at the mighty power of God.”