The transfiguration of our blessed Lord marks a crisis in His history. It was in one aspect the end of His trial as man, and at the same time it was God's answer to man's rejection of Christ. At the end of chapter 12 the Lord broke His links, according to the flesh, with the Jewish nation; in chapter 13, instead of seeking longer for fruit from man, He goes forth as a Sower to sow - He would now produce fruit; in chapter 14 the actual work of rejection commences with the murder of His forerunner, although the Lord continues His patient ministry in the midst of His people; in chapter 15 He reveals, and passes judgment morally upon, the wicked heart of man, and unfolds in contrast the perfect goodness of the heart of God; in chapter 16 we have the church and the kingdom of heaven, the two things which were about to displace Judaism on the earth; and lastly, having announced His rejection, and the consequent nature of true discipleship, He spoke of the Son of man coming in the glory of His Father with His angels, when He would reward every man according to his works, adding, "Verily, I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of man coming in His kingdom." After six days this glorious scene was witnessed by Peter, James, and John, who were, as Peter afterwards wrote," eye-witnesses of His majesty."
The dispensational character of these successive incidents is easily apprehended, and when understood helps us to enter into their main significance. But, having pointed out the connection, we desire to consider the question at the head of this paper in its application to ourselves. For while the casting out of this demon from the child, when Jesus came down from the mount, undoubtedly foreshadows what will take place on the Lord's return to establish His kingdom (see Rev. 19:11-21; 20:1-3), there is special instruction in it for the saints of this period, who are left on earth to represent Christ during His absence. This will readily be perceived when it is pointed out that it was while the Lord was on the mount, that this distressed father brought his suffering child to the disciples, "and they could not cure him." (v. 16.) Remark further, to show the parallel still more strikingly, that the Lord had given the twelve "power against unclean spirits, to cast them out" (chap. 10:1), and yet when besought to exercise the power they could not - they failed, and had to confess that Satan was stronger than they.
That we may not miss the application let us pause and collect the points of correspondence between ourselves and these disciples. They are three: First, the Lord is absent in both cases; secondly, we, as they, are continually in the presence of Satan's power, seen, alas! sometimes amongst Christians, and always in the souls of the unconverted; and, lastly, power superior to all the strength of the enemy is bestowed upon us (Ephesians 6:10-18; 1 John 4:4) equally with, not to say more than, the disciples. To this we might add that very often, to our sorrow, we have to acknowledge that we, like these disciples, are powerless in the presence of the display of the enemy's power.
Let us then enquire what was the secret of their failure. It lies on the surface, that they knew not how to avail themselves of the power which their Lord had conferred upon them; and He expressly tells them that the cause of this was their unbelief. So plainly does He lead their hearts into the secret of their failure that He adds, "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible unto you." Without the present operation of faith therefore, there can be no display of power through the servant, whatever his earnestness or zeal for the glory of God; whereas, on the other hand, if there be but the smallest degree of faith in exercise, divine power is so brought in that obstacles as large as mountains are removed, and all difficulties are victoriously surmounted.
But this is not all. Had the Lord paused here, it might have been concluded that this victorious faith could easily be obtained and become a common possession. The Lord therefore goes deeper, down to the root of the failure to use the power entrusted to His servants, when He says, "Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting." By these words He teaches most distinctly that faith can only thrive in a congenial soil, that a certain state of soul is requisite for that confidence in God which can call Him in, and avail itself of His power in the emergencies of service.
What then is meant by "prayer and fasting"? Prayer is the realisation of complete dependence, and the expression of it before God, combined with confidence in Him, and the expectation of His response to our cries. True prayer, therefore, presupposes that we have come to the end of ourselves, of our own wisdom, and of our own strength; for as long as we have the slightest trust in ourselves, in our own skill, mode of service, manner of speech, or in our natural abilities, we cannot be wholly cast upon God. This was the lesson Paul had to learn from the thorn in the flesh, and which he was taught by the Lord when, in answer to his prayers, He said, "My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness!' (2 Cor. 12:8, 9.) By "fasting" we are to understand, not the mere abstinence from food, but rather the refusal of the things of the scene through which we are passing, the things which appeal to us as men, such as the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, which the apostle Paul terms "worldly lusts." (Titus 2:12.) He shows us in Philippians 3 that he himself practised fasting, and the only power for it, viz., having a glorified Christ as the absorbing Object of his soul. It was in the joy of possessing such an Object that he counted all things loss, all things whether good or bad (as men deem good and bad), because he desired to have Christ alone as his gain.
One therefore who prays and fasts in the sense of these words will be a true Nazarite, and a Nazarite state of soul is the condition which the Lord speaks of as indispensable for the activity of faith. If therefore a believer or a servant has not learned what it is to pray without ceasing, and to count all things loss for the excellency of Christ Jesus his Lord, he could not go forth expecting the fulfilment of the Lord's words," Nothing shall be impossible unto you." That God in His sovereign grace, and in His purposes of blessing, may often work through instruments of another order is quite true, for "if we believe not, yet He abideth faithful: He cannot deny Himself"; still it remains true that none but those who are in the condition here described can confidently expect God's irresistible power to work with and through them in their labours. It cannot be too often insisted upon that power is in God, not in the vessel, and consequently that the vessel must be in a suited state to receive and use the power. Undoubtedly the Holy Ghost dwells in the believer; but even He, divine as He is and unlimited in His resources, is not a Spirit of power within us, unless prayer and fasting are maintained. Do not many of us know from bitter experience, as well as from the teaching of Scripture, that the slightest allowance of the flesh grieves that blessed Spirit, and that when we go forth in service in that condition we are as weak and powerless as Sampson was after he had lost his Nazarite locks?
There is much then in these words of our blessed Lord to exercise our souls, especially at the present moment, and it may help to this if a few words of application are given. That our Lord's instruction is primarily intended for the servant will scarcely be questioned; and hence what most nearly corresponds with the failure of the disciples to expel the demon from this afflicted child, is what is understood by the want of blessing in the preaching of the gospel, that is to say, when it is constantly and faithfully preached without, as far as is known, conversions following. Satan in such a case retains his hold upon his captive-slaves. That God is working mightily in these last days through evangelists for the salvation of souls is undeniable, and is gratefully owned; but, on the other hand, there is many a place where Christ is constantly proclaimed as the Saviour of sinners to deaf ears, and before unmoved hearts. And what is the resource in such circumstances? Very often, instead of asking the Lord, as the disciples did, "Why could not we cast him out?" a special prayer meeting is held, the object of which is to beseech God to bless the preaching of His word. Would that such meetings were multiplied a hundred-fold! Fellowship with the heart of God in the gospel would prompt these on every hand. Not therefore as discouraging them, but simply as giving force to the scripture under consideration, it is urged that want of blessing in connection with the preached word should lead to the enquiry, "What hinders?" Is there a lack of prayer and fasting in the servant? Or is it in the believers associated with him? Has the word been preached in faith? and has it been heard by the Christians present with believing expectation? Such questions - self-examination, self-judgment, and confession - should always precede and accompany special meetings for prayer, or otherwise the desired blessing may not be received. Further observations might be made, but enough has been said on this head to promote searchings of heart in the presence of God.
The same principle might be affirmed concerning the meetings of God's people, especially when Satan causes his activity to be felt in disturbing their unity, in bringing sin, through his temptations, into their midst, or in provoking the manifestation of the flesh. Want of power to deal with these things and to cast out the adversary may ever be traced back to the same cause as in the case of the disciples - unbelief, and failure in prayer and fasting. It is humbling to the last degree to have so often to acknowledge how ignorant we are of the enemy's devices, and, even when they are perceived, how impotent we are to frustrate them. We do not reckon sufficiently on the subtle activity of the foe, and, occupied with his instruments, we often overlook the hand by which they are wielded. But if through grace we return to prayer and fasting we shall be brought into such intimate communion with the mind of God that our spiritual vision will be so quickened, and our confidence in Him will be so increased, as to enable us to act at the right moment with divine power, called in by a living faith, for the deliverance of God's people from all the efforts of Satan to mar their testimony. Let us then make constant supplication that God may be pleased to raise up servants who, being men of prayer and fasting, and distinguished by the activity of faith, shall find that nothing is impossible to them.