ENCOURAGEMENT FOR THE FAITHFUL
Readings: Psalm 77; Mark ch. 9
Though apparently unconnected, the two readings from the Holy Oracles to which we have just listened this morning contain a theme which links them most closely together. Were we to seek for a title for that theme we could not suggest one more appropriate than just this: "Encouragement for the faithful." Both readings bring before us cloud and sunshine in the experience of the saints. David in the Psalm and Jesus and his beloved disciples in the gospel record are portrayed as being in great distress, in circumstances of sore trial and temptation, but nevertheless they were sustained by a reflection upon the mighty acts of God and a contemplation of the glory ahead and a recollection of the sure, certain grounds upon which faith and hope are built.
We have similar trials and temptations and difficulties, though of course in a much lesser degree than theirs, but nevertheless the same encouragement is available to each of us if we will consider it to the full.
Let us for a short time then first study the Psalm and understand the underlying principles expressed in it, and then we will see how they can be made to connect quite simply with the things we have read in the gospel record by Mark. So we turn to Psalm 77 and commence to read verse 1: "I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered God and was troubled: I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak."
In times of prosperity or perhaps in the bloom of youth it is difficult to enter into the Psalmist's feelings expressed in those plaintive words. To the young especially life seems so happy, so vigorous, so interesting, so full of promise, so carefree. We sing sometimes about "Youth's smooth, unwrinkled brow." But sure enough, whether we are old or whether we are young, sooner or later the problems come and the troubles multiply. It may be family responsibilities or ecclesial worries or persistent ill-health or bereavements which come into our experience; difficult situations resulting from faithfulness to principles; at times perhaps even a feeling of insufficiency in our capacity to grapple with all life's varying problems, so perplexing as they are. All these influences come into our lives and induce a weariness and an intense longing for help from Him who is higher than we are, and we take our matters, as David did in this Psalm, to the throne of God. We pray, yet possibly in our extremity there are times when we know not what to pray for. We are overwhelmed perhaps with grief or anxiety and, like David, we begin to wonder.
"Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?" The answer is, No; definitely No. He has done none of these things. It is our infirmity, which David humbly acknowledged, that makes us think that He has. How weak are we all at times; the strongest at times are unutterably weak.
But then David quickly recovered his confidence by turning his thoughts away from himself to God. Introversion is a dangerous state of mind and is best avoided. Nolongerthe repetitive "I": "I cried . . . I sought... I complained ... I am in trouble," but instead "Thou." "Thou art the God that doest wonders." Verse 11: "I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy works, and talk of thy doings. Thyw&y, 0 God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God? Thou art the God that doest wonders: thou hast declared thy strength among the people. Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob." You see the change in the viewpoint, and how powerfully it speaks to us by way of exhortation.
That is the antidote to depression: a lively recognition of the Deity's ways, a contemplation of the evidence of His power in the universe, of His work among the nations, of the deliverance from Egypt, and especially as far as David was concerned and the faithful in Israel, of the vindication of Moses and Aaron: "Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron."
We might just digress here for a moment and notice how the Psalmist refers to the mighty events of the Exodus as incontestable facts, beyond all doubt or dispute. We have read of them in the past week, those miracles by which the world was forced to realise the existence and the power, the sovereignty of the Lord God of Israel, and because men will not recognise those facts today they endeavour to whittle away the argument for the fact of Israel's miraculous deliverance from Egypt, but it is still true nevertheless. Nothing that they can say can alter it.
But as far was we are concerned, cannot this same great God of Israel equally care for and protect and succour all of us if we put our trust in Him? "Thou leddest thy people like a flock," and then the psalm abruptly ends on that note: true of Israel nationally, and true
of every individual saint of every age. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he
leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a
table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil. . . Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the
days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever." "Thou leddest thy people like a flock." That is the Divine assurance, and because that is so there is no reason for any of us ever to be downhearted or depressed, still less to doubt or disbelieve. God's mighty acts are not confined to the deliverance from Egypt. The miraculous birth and resurrection of Jesus, our beloved Master, are just as wonderful to us as were the miracles associated with the early history of Israel. Christ is now our Good Shepherd, more powerful than Moses and Aaron. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." This is the Divine promise in which we can repose. We are safe in Christ's keeping. He knows all our needs, our cares, our anxieties, our fears and our misgivings. He has promised to lead us to the green pastures of his words, to the still waters of his peace, and to grant usthe protection of his rod and staff, and soon he will manifest himself as the Shepherd and Stone of Israel in power and might and glory, and then will be fulfilled the words: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young." A beautiful, figurative, entrancing picture of the Good Shepherd and his
sheep in the age to come, for it is clearly prophetic, those words just quoted follow the prophet's declaration: "Behold, Yahweh Elohim
will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock
like a shepherd." That is the connection of ideas, and to that reward and work we stand related.
So then let us all resolve that no amount of weariness or depression or care or sorrow shall deprive us of the participation in these things.
So much for the teaching in the Psalm. We will now consider the things that are written in the gospel record by Mark, but before doing so we will just as it were forge a link between these two readings, and the link is this. Jesus gave a special commission to one of his disciples regarding the care of the flock, this same flock about which we have just been speaking. It was to Peter that he gave that special commission; thrice repeated it was: "Feed my lambs." And again: "Feed my sheep." And yet again: "Feed my sheep." Peter obeyed that injunction. He did it well. Among the many things with which he strengthened the faith of the flock, feeding them according to the commission that was given him, he recounted a most wonderful personal experience which came to him, and this is what he wrote in a personal letter to the flock: "We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount."
The apostle Peter, anxious to feed the flock, to assure them that it was no cunningly devised fable, recounts this wonderful incident of the Transfiguration about which we have read from the New Testament this morning. We believe the apostle Peter. He is one of our brethren. He was beloved of the Master. We have every reason to accept him as a credible eye witness of the things of which he spake and which he declared he saw. Why should not we believe him? Peter saw these things in vision and he assures us that it was the evidence to him (and it can be to all of us) that the Truth is no cunningly devised fable.
Now to appreciate the meaning and the purpose of the Trans-figuration about which we have read, and to see just how it connects with the theme of our Psalm, we must consider the circumstances in which it happened. Just before the Transfiguration took place Jesus had told his disciples that he must suffer many things and be rejected and be put to death. And then he went a stage further than that and told them that they must share in his sufferings. "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me." Jesus knew that the outworking of that law of disciplesbip would mean hardship, self-denial, persecution, trouble. At times those disciples and all who would afterwards aspire to follow Christ would find themselves in a condition of extremity, just like David in the Psalm from which we have read this morning.
Jesus and his disciples at this particular time were about to face enormous trials. They needed—the Lord and his disciples—a strong incentive to faith and to fortitude. And the Transfiguration followed.
That is the connection; that is why it was given, without a shadow of doubt.
Now let us think of it first of all in relation to the Lord himself. There is no doubt that the consciousness and the reality of coming death upon the cross bore heavily upon him. Did he not say to his disciples: "How am I straitened until it be accomplished?" "My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." Having spoken to the disciples of his approaching death, as recorded in the chapter which we read yesterday in Mark, he selected the three of them particularly beloved by him, Peter, James and John, and invited them to ascend with him to a high mountain. Luke records that he went up into the mountains to pray. Well, there is significance in that fact. We are not told of the subject matter of that prayer but the inference is that he sought for strength for himself and for his disciples in the face of coming trials, because the record puts it in that way: "as he prayed" there was a marvellous transformation, as though that was the answer to his prayer, there and then, an instantaneous response.
That idea is further strengthened by considering the subject of the conversation between Christ and Moses and Elias. It was "his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." How we would like to know the substance of that conversation which took place between Christ and Moses and Elias, but probably it was too sacred, too lofty for mortal minds to receive and so it is not recorded. It is not presumption, however, to apply the words of our Psalm to it: "I will remember thy wonders of old. I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings." Undoubtedly that would describe the subject-matter of that holy conversation, the doings of the Almighty. We cannot suppose that that conversation between the Lord and Moses and Elias concerning Christ's death would not cover the sublime truths concerning the spotless Lamb and the means of human redemption, assured by the shed blood, and the glory also that should follow.
Moreover, how comforting for the Lord to reflect that though forsaken by man he was sustained by his Father and ministered unto by the angels. And lastly, what an encouragement to the Lord, about to face the supreme trial of his life, to hear that Divine commendation in the words from heaven: "This is my beloved Son; hear him." We say, what commendation! What wonderful Divine approval of his life's work! And with it all, a manifestation of Divine glory, a foretaste of the honour and glory and power which still awaits him in the age to come. "His face" we read "did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light." "His raiment was white and glistering" so as no fuller on earth can white them." All emblematic of spotless righteousness enveloped in Spirit. The very presence of Moses and Elijah was a testimony that the Law and the Prophets were fulfilled in him.
Can we wonder that Paul should afterwards write concerning Christ: "For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." Is there not an analogy between David and Christ, both of whom illustrate so well in their experiences the Divine principle that probation must precede exaltation?
That then was the purpose of the Transfiguration as far as the Lor himself was concerned; as we have said, "Encouragement for the faithful." Now we think of it in relation to the disciples, and especially the three selected ones. We have said that before them lay an arduous task, arduous indeed; the establishment of the Truth in the earth in the face of the bitterest opposition. And even before they were to set about that work, which was after the resurrection, they were to be sorely tried immediately. There and then they firmly believed that the Kingdom of God should immediately appear, that general expectation among such people as the Essenes of whom we have learned as a result of the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the general expectation of the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of the Kingdom. It was well shared by these disciples. In faith and in hope they thought that the Kingdom of God should immediately appear, and the Transfiguration did not by any means diminish that view. "There be some standing here which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power."
How would they react when their Master, to whom they were so devoted and so endeared, was snatched from them, taken by cruel hands, slain, hung upon the cross? What a disappointment that would be! The gospel records tell us exactly how they did react. Their behaviour was a real life illustration, shall we say, of the words of the Psalm we have read this morning: "I remembered God, and was troubled; I complained, and my spirit was overwhelmed. Thou holdest mine eyes waking: I am so troubled that I cannot speak." We can rest assured that that is just how Peter, James and John felt under those trying circumstances. "Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore?"
But not many days after they regained their spiritual equilibrium and they confessed, in the words of our Psalm again: "Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God?" And henceforth nothing, not death itself, could deflect them from their faithful course in carrying out the commission entrusted to them. "This is my beloved Son; hear him." They did. Peter declared to the multitude but a few days after the resurrection: "There is none other name under heaven given among man, whereby we must be saved." Jesus Christ and him crucified was the theme of their preaching, and thirty years later Peter recalled the incident of the Transfiguration as though it were to him but yesterday, and he affirmed that it was no cunningly devised fable but a sure guarantee of the exceeding great and precious promises involving a participation in Divine nature itself: for that, you will recall, is the connection of ideas in 2 Peter 1 wherein he refers to the Transfiguration.
So that was the effect it had upon these early disciples. And now we think for a moment of the Transfiguration as a principle in its relation to ourselves. We have not been privileged to witness a scene depicting Christ in glory, but we firmly believe, as I have said, those who did: Peter, James and John, names greatly beloved among us. Those disciples were our brethren, honest and loyal exponents of the Truth of God. We would rather believe them than anybody, whether he be called a scientist or a philosopher or a theologian or anything else. The testimony of these three dear brethren of ours means more to us than all their jargon and talk. But more than that, Peter said that the Transfiguration was only one of the two great pillars of the faith. "We have also" he said, "a more sure word of prophecy." "For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord," and then he refers to the Transfiguration, but he says, add to that, "We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place." That is what we have, though we may not have an actual presentation in vision of the glory that lies ahead.
The more sure word of prophecy: backwards from Peter's day nearly two thousand years, and forward from Peter's day again nearly two thousand years, of fulfilled prophecy to guarantee that the purpose of God will most surely be realised and every promise that He has made will be fulfilled. And above all, we have the Book of Revelation, containing the record not of just one vision which John saw but of many visions which he saw in Patmos, of Christ and the saints in glory. In a sense we have a repetitive account of many transfigurations that John could describe in the Book of Revelation whilst he was "in Spirit on the Lord's day."
Shall we just look at one of them, one we all know so well? "What are these which are arrayed in white robes?" White robes, just like Christ and the others at the Transfiguration. "Whence came they?" Like David, like Christ, like the disciples, "These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth upon the throne shall dwell among them. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun light on them, nor any heat. For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: (he leadeth them beside the still waters): and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes."
Is not that again another word picture, so entrancing, so appealing, so meaningful, comparable to the things that were transacted upon that holy mount at the Transfiguration?
That then is the lesson of the Transfiguration so far as we are concerned. But just one final thought. Jesus said to them at that time: "There be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." Those words may have significance to us that they could have had to no previous generation of believers. It may still be true, in all high probability, that there be some sitting here this morning—and, please God, standing as well—who will not taste of death until they see the kingdom of God come with power. We may expect it in our lifetime, may we not, if God spares us to that great end.
So then, let us take courage from these things. Away with depression and downheartedness and feelings that all is lost. It is not so at all. That is a cunningly devised fable, but here we have words of soberness and truth on which our faith is based and our hopes are built. Let us believe it with all our hearts, then, every one of us.
And now we come to the things associated with this Table. After so long a time we are now, each one, to concentrate our thoughts for just a few minutes upon the very theme that engaged Christ and Moses and Elias on the holy mount. And what was it? "His death, which he should accomplish at Jerusalem."—H. T. Atkinson.