This chapter does not comment on the conversation carried on by Moses, Elijah, and Christ; Chapter 6 treats wholly of that.
And Peter answered and said to Jesus: Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles: one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. For he wist not what to say; for they were sore
JUST as in all things God’s revelation evolves progressively and each new day marks some development of it, so in the history of Christ’s suffering there is a gradual evolution which leads to a definite climax. And, precisely as in a well- motivated drama, so in this history that climax presents the sharp contrast of diametrically opposed forces.
The text before us illustrates such a climax. Before we note that, however, we must pick up the thread of events we dropped in the preceding chapter. In it we saw that Christ had been driven by the Spirit into Caesarea Philippi, and we found Him there in the company of the “satan” who tried to hinder Him from fulfilling His function. Now we are to observe Him again. This time the Spirit drives Him up to the mountain of transfiguration. But the remarkable thing in this circumstance is that this satan accompanies Him again. Accompanies Him? No, the fact is more striking than that: Jesus Himself takes with Him the very man whom He had called a satan; in fact, He names him one of the three favored disciples who may see at close range. It is that which, humanly speaking, gives this story such stirring dramatic effect.
Satan in the person of Simon Barjona, by placing his hand upon the pulpit from which the Master taught, had tried to interfere as Jesus was teaching His disciples the inevitability of His suffering and death. Jesus had done that teaching in a calm, conversational manner and in the language of the day. But now— prodigious difference—heaven itself opens to explain that inevitability. Moses and Elias come down from the skies to a high mountain, and there they show Jesus, not men, the way of His passion and death.
Nevertheless, even in this hour, in which the dazzling effulgence of heavenly glory forms a sharp contrast to the shadows of the cross, even now that satan of flesh and blood may accompany Jesus. No, not may, he must accompany Him. Jesus selects him to go along; the Spirit drives Christ to take Simon along. That is because the Son of man must carry out the choice of His sacrifice straight against the satanically protesting voice of His bride, the church.
In Caesarea Philippi Satan, called Simon Barjona, had in a negative way objected to the concepts of suffering and death. Now in a positive spirit he is to ask for a prolongation of life. But in both instances he will prove to be a satan.
It is very likely that in this contention of spiritually opposed forces and powers, nature, too, had to contribute in her own way to depicting the awful contrast. God, who is the Artist of artists, always knows how to make nature and Spirit speak the same language in a given moment. He reveals that art especially in the history of Jesus’ passion. We can readily understand, therefore, why some have supposed that Christ’s transfiguration upon the mountain occurred at night. According to Luke’s account Jesus had gone up the mount partly to pray, and we know that Jesus more than once chose the evening for prayer. Besides, we note that the disciples, later, have fallen asleep. That too suggests a nocturnal scene. And if we remember, moreover, that the Master and His disciples, upon coming down from the mountain, were confronted by the spectacle of a despairing father and his mortally stricken son, that fact, too, confirms the opinion that the event of transfiguration took place at night. Such an interpretation, at least, leaves room for the time which must necessarily have elapsed during the journey downwards, and between Christ’s metamorphosis and His confronting that pathetic scene in the valley.
If it is true that God Himself planned that the events on the mountain should occur after dark, that circumstance enhances the dramatic effect of the story still more. For then we recall Christmas eve, that night “more beautiful than days.” When that night settled upon the fields of Bethlehem the angels came to dispel the darkness with the light of heaven. But there is this difference: on that occasion angels brought the heavenly light, but on this one those who bear it to earth and lavishly shed its radiance abroad are men. Angels are much, but men are more. Besides, the angels on Christmas spoke about the Christ, Himself a child at the time. But now two men appear, men who stand in the presence of God daily and, as do the redeemed of mankind, stand nearer Him than the angels. These men, Moses and Elias, appear not merely to talk about the Christ but to talk with Him about “his departure at Jerusalem.” And that Christ is no longer a child but a man, ready for the great deed.
Heaven exerting itself to give unusual distinction to this scene! We blush in shame at the thought of it. Heaven leaving nothing undone to create an atmosphere of translucent radiance as a fitting medium for the event — and men, as always, imposing what is ugly upon the perfect beauty. A satan in Caesarea Philippi is bad enough. But a satan upon the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration is worse. Sinning tomorrow is always worse than sinning today, for each day proffers more abundant grace and therefore aggravates transgression.
There is no need to speak at length of what Simon Peter said. The story is well known. Heaven opened itself and two lustrous forms, later recognized as Moses and Elias, appeared upon the mountain on which Jesus wanted to meet God. They enveloped the Son of man within the aureole of their glamour. It was still their hour. Because darkness still obtained upon earth and everywhere surrounded Jesus, therefore mere men — rare privilege — might share their glory with the Son, and let Him shine in their light.
The three disciples, Peter, James, and John, are suddenly shocked awake by the superfluity of heavenly light. Their eyes have been heavy with sleep. Now they rub them and, in their astonishment, say nothing. But Peter cannot be silent long. “Master,” he says, “what a happy circumstance that we are here; let us make three tabernacles, one for Thee, one for Moses, and one for Elias. Yes, we will make three shelters for Thee and Thy guests.” For that is the sense of his words. By “tabernacles” he means make-shift shelters, quickly constructed from such branches, twigs, and foliage as were at hand.
It would be wrong to say more about this desire of Peter than is actually warranted. Some have speculated very boldly about his impromptu utterance. Some have said that Simon would by his proposal unite the Old Testament, represented by Moses and Elias, with the New Testament, represented by Christ, without the intervention of a legally adequate event. Others have supposed that Peter was pleading for escape from the world. That interpretation, significantly enough, would make of his improvised huts a kind of prototype of monasticism and the monastery. And many have inferred much besides, much more, in fact, than the words justify. We shall not indulge similar conjectures.
That is not saying, however, that Peter’s speech, because it was uttered on the spur of the moment, was insignificant. True, he was unaware of its content, for he “wist not what to say.” But God freighted his words with meaning. By this spectral miracle God elicited from Peter what was latent in him. God who even now shapes history, who by the Spirit brought Christ, Moses, and Elias into Peter’s company, He it was who imparted profound significance to Peter’s words.
Studying those words in the light God sheds upon them, we immediately notice two things. The first is the folly of Peter’s proposal. Think of it: he wanted to build huts for heavenly visitors, to erect rudimentary tents for heaven’s messengers. As well try to catch fluid sunlight in a mold. Yes, Peter would actually have prepared a kind of welcome, a reception for the children of heaven. As though earth could welcome heaven to itself! How differently Jesus Himself had taught. He had told of a celestial reception, a welcome at which heaven would receive earth. He assured the believers that one day the redeemed will receive them, the children of the earth, and will welcome them, not to Peter’s primitive lean-to’s, but to the eternal mansions above. Really, how foolish this disciple’s suggestion was.
Foolish — but that is not all. His words were sinful. Christ did not actually pronounce it, but Peter’s speech again deserved the reprimand: Behind me, satan.
At this point we must, of course, digress to say that Simon’s words also manifested great love. Note his readiness to serve. And how unselfish he is. He gives no thought to shelters for himself and the two other disciples; his only regard is for the Master and His guests. Truly, this is a love which gives itself unstintedly precisely because it wells up so spontaneously from a naive source. To such love it goes without saying that all must be given for Christ. For Peter assumes, you notice, that the moment he begins picking up twigs and branches, the others will immediately and eagerly assist him. Let us make tabernacles, he says. How fortunate that we are here. Indeed, this is an expression of the pupil’s delight in serving his Master.
So far the digression. The fact remains that Peter’s proposal was sinful. And the sin in it was this: he wanted to perpetuate the sheer bliss he saw. By that desire he was registering exception to the great theme Christ and His guests were discussing. Elias and Moses were placing the cross before Christ, were confronting Him with death. And in this awful hour Simon Peter wanted to cling to this dazzling crown, wished to possess forever this translucent beauty, to hold eternally this lavishment of light. Sun, he would pray, stand still beneath this mountain, and, thou moon, be fixed forever over this billowy refulgence of glory.
While Christ, and that in the very atmosphere of heavenly light and life, chooses voluntary death and hell’s darkness, that satan of flesh and blood comes up to hinder Him and say: Master, prolong this hour of life and light; make the moment eternity; let us forget the world and its people, forget the temple, the myriad millions of men, forget Israel and the deep, dark valley of human suffering; come, consummate the present bliss; say to this passing moment: Ah, still abide, thou art so fair.
It would be unsympathetic in us to suppose that Peter’s desire did not constitute a very real temptation to Christ’s human spirit. His perfect humanity loved the light and longed for the life abundant. His soul, too, had it but for a moment severed itself from its official calling, would have yearned to eternally retain this heavenly vision. Therefore Peter’s words were so characteristically those of a satan, a tempter. If the Saviour had, even in His thoughts, wanted to escape from the avalanche of suffering God was to loosen over Him at Gethsemane and upon Golgotha, He would have proved unfaithful to His office; such an attitude would have put a breach into the course of His obedience, and we all would have been lost with Him. Christ glorified after the cross, that is God’s triumph. But a Christ who could have wished to be glorified before the cross would have been a victory for Satan.
How pronounced the contrast represented on this mountain, then. Here is Christ, surrounded by His church. Both branches of it, the militant and the triumphant, are represented, the one by Peter, the other by Moses and Elias. The triumphant church acts from eternal principles; the militant from the whims of the moment. The one lays bare before the Son of man the fixed decrees of God’s eternal justice; the other the momentary desire of a poor, misguided, human heart. Heaven would make haste. See how it labors till all be fulfilled. It sends its own best representatives to the place where Jesus waits and prays. But Peter has time to spare. While all that is spiritual in the universe drives Christ to His death, Peter tempts with a prayer for delay. Surely anyone who is at all sensitive to spiritual realities will admit that this is a critical moment, a conflict between time and eternity.
If any should ask what point there is in so seriously considering Peter’s foolish fancies, we would reply with the counter-question: Why did the Holy Spirit record them for us in the Scriptures? Surely, that record was not entered to give some amateur a handy jumping-off place for psychological character sketches. The matter was written for those who are willing to view it in the light of Christ and the rest of the Scriptures.
We happen to be thinking of one of Raphael’s pictures in the Vatican at Rome. The canvas presents a contrast of light and shadow. In the darkly shaded foreground are a lunatic youth, a despairing father, and a group of disciples, helplessly huddled together. But one of this group is pointing upwards, for the light is there. High on the mountain the Master bathes in radiance. So Raphael divided light from shadow, light above and shadow below.
But the Holy Spirit painted differently in the Gospel account. On His canvas light and shadow are simultaneously present on the mountain top. On God’s side, and heaven’s, and Christ’s, all is light. But on the side of Simon Peter and the militant church all is dark. That is what we must learn to see. Only by seeing both sides at once can we learn from that canvas how necessary the Christ is for us. So we shall be able to appreciate realistically that we rebel against our own salvation, that we, like the typical satans we are by nature, cruelly go counter to God’s determinate plan.
And so the night of transfiguration does indeed transcend Christmas eve in significance. But the more we think of that superiority the more we should blush. For the distinguishing feature of this as compared with that other night is that now Christ has mankind, His church, His bride, with Him. But that church is pathetically divided. To the extent that it is already in heaven, its desire merges with heaven’s and shows Jesus “his departure which he is to fulfill at Jerusalem.” But the militant church, represented by Simon Peter, neither sees nor understands. Planted squarely in the center of the enormities of God’s plan, it remains impervious to their significance. No, not impervious; it ventures an appropriate remark. And when it comes, the comment is full of folly and sin. So are things in pathetic contention: militant against triumphant church, flesh against Spirit, human naiveté against heaven’s law.
There is but One who can substitute unity for the confusion. He is Christ Jesus.
We should be willing to learn personally from this event. If we have in us some of the good characteristics of Simon Peter, we must accept a discipline of them. And we must be purged of the evil which we share with him. We noted that there was good in Peter. An additional comment on that is in place, now that we want to profit from his conduct. The text gives us a helpful hint by the discriminating use of a word. Peter, it tells us, in making his proposal, “answered and said.” To what, pray was he answering? He had been asked no questions. In fact, he was rubbing the sleep from his eyes when he spoke. Still, the word has a definite connotation. It is this: Peter knew that all of these events upon the mountain concerned him personally. And that is the simple truth. Every redemptive act, every message from heaven, every manifestation of grace, every herald of judgment, in short, every token of revelation concerns us personally. Peter can serve to teach us that the moment God does something we must do something. Events are God’s words. And when God speaks, we must answer.
But how, how make an adequate response? How convert the love and fervor we know into an intelligent zeal? Perhaps we can learn by following the narrative to its conclusion. Remember, it closes with the words: Hear Him! Hear Him!
Precisely that had been Peter’s error up to this time. He had not listened enough. And as long as we fail to hear, to listen intently to Christ’s words, our love and fervor will remain pathetically unintelligent. So long, too, we will continue to taint the atmosphere of God’s immaculate holiness.
If anyone, indeed, could have prophesied some worthy thing without the arduous discipline of listening to the preached word, Peter could have done so at this moment. Think of his qualifications. He had the zeal, he had the love, he had that spontaneity of response, that disposition to answer when the facts speak. Besides — and this is remarkable — he had clarity of insight. God Himself illuminated his vision. For you must not fail to take note of one thing. No one had told Peter who were with Christ on the mountain. Yet he recognized them at once. He was sure of it: that one, he said, is Moses, and that other, Elias. He had never seen either. His certain knowledge was owing to the fact that God, as by a sixth sense, clarified his vision, gave him a privilege granted men only in moments of apocalyptic insight, moments in which eternity goes storming through time. Surely, these are special privileges, these which Peter enjoys above all others. Yes, if ever man could immediately have intuited truth, and that without having listened to the preached word, that man was Peter in this hour.
The issue of it, qualifications and all? — Folly and sin.
Now, however, we must bare our heads and tremble at the voice from the clouds: “This is my beloved Son; hear Him.” The Satan who so summarily profaned the pulpit at Caesarea Philippi is embarrassed now. He has not listened to Jesus’ exposition of the inevitability of His passion and death, the one needful thing for the world. Hence he cannot understand heaven’s haste. Therefore God’s voice thunders through the murkiness and nebulosity of Peter’s mind and through that of the militant church. And its burden is: hear Him. Never forsake the pulpit, it admonishes, never leave the prophetic chair at which Jesus sits and explains the dire necessity of His death. Hear Him till He has done.
So God unites the Word which became flesh to the Word of the Scriptures, isolating neither from the other.
And you, religious enthusiasts, are you listening? Mystical souls, impetuous natures, naive children, are you? You, worshippers of spontaneity, gropers-about in your own nebulosity, do you hear the voice from the clouds? Hear Him! That extrasensuous insight, that immediacy of knowledge by which Peter at once recognized heaven-sent guests — perhaps you have often wanted that. But you must hasten to the Word. The Word is more than Peter’s intuition. You are jealous of his impromptu utterance, are you? You thought that mood of transporting fear and astonishment the best possible for receptivity to heaven’s verities? Hear the voice from the cloud. You must go back to the Word.
If that is the plain teaching of the matter we must be content to have it so. We will let the pulpit stand beside the cross. So only can we keep undisciplined impulse and foolish naiveté from saying unbecoming things in Jesus’ holy presence. For spontaneous expression we shall have to wait until heaven has welcomed us (and not we, heaven) to the eternal tabernacles. That will be the better day when folly and sin shall be completely purged from the militant church.
When that day comes, we shall be allowed to follow impulse spontaneously again. Then the law will be written upon our hearts. Then that right of impulsive conduct which once made Paradise a delight will be returned to us by God. Any form we chance to grasp will express the essence of holy things. Peter, having heard and heard all the Master’s teaching, will by the living Christ be completely conformed to Moses and Elias. And he may build tabernacles then as quickly as he pleases. For in that realm every single tabernacle will exhibit the form and be characterized by the dominant tone of the one great Father’s house. “And the Lord will create upon every dwelling place of Mount Zion and upon her assemblies, a cloud and smoke by day, and the shining of a flaming fire by night: for upon all the glory shall be a defense. And there shall be a tabernacle for a shadow in the daytime from the heat, and for a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm and from rain” (Isa_4:5-6).
We leave the picture, knowing that we shall not see the significance the Holy Spirit sought to embody in it if we fix our eyes solely upon Peter, or solely upon Christ. We must, in short, be as charitable to the Holy Spirit as we are to Rembrandt when we go to see one of his canvases. When we look at a Rembrandt we take in light and shadow at a glance and so let the spirit of the artist possess us.
Let yourself be captivated in that way by the Spirit of God, who depicted Simon’s folly and Christ’s glory, both, the one beside the other; depicted, that is, the folly of the sinner and, over against it, the wisdom of our great Prophet; depicted the naivete that invites damnation upon itself and, in stark contrast to it, the inevitable progress of God’s determinate counsel, which leads us into life, through Christ Jesus, our Lord.