This is not a sermon; this is simply my study notes as I have been engaging with the Biblical text today. Hopefully they might be useful to other preachers as we meditate on scripture in preparation for next Sunday.
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Mark begins with a time reference: ‘six days later’. This is six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, after Jesus’ first prediction of his suffering and death, and after his call to his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.
Is there more to it than that? The last thing Jesus says in the previous section is “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that kingdom of God has come with power” (9:1). Is Mark’s ‘six days later’ meant to connect this promise with the Transfiguration – that the ‘some standing here’ are Peter, James, and John, and this moment of Transfiguration was the time when they saw the Kingdom of God come with power? Some interpreters think so, but I’m not so sure. Verse 1 should not be read in isolation from what comes immediately before it: “Those who are ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels”. Whatever ‘coming in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ means (and I don’t think that’s at all cut and dried; because in the light of Daniel 7:13-14 it could just as easily refer to the Ascension as to the ‘Second Coming’), I think it’s the most likely referral for the Kingdom of God coming with power.
Pheme Perkins points out the links between this passage and the previous one:
The Christological emphases of the previous episode are repeated in the transfiguration story. Jesus’ status as Messiah is confirmed by the divine testimony that he is God’s beloved Son (8:29, 9:7, 14:61); the predicted glory of the coming Son of Man (8:38) is anticipated by the shining white garments of Jesus (9:3). Finally, the disciples were instructed to tell no one that Jesus was the Messiah (8:30), and now those who witness the transfiguration are to tell no one until the Son of Man has risen (9:9).
No doubt the entire conversation with Jesus in 8:31 – 9:1 is still uppermost in the minds of the disciples, like a dark truth on the edge of their consciousness that they are trying to ignore but that just won’t go away. Peter has already tried to talk Jesus out of it once, and has gotten himself royally chewed up as a result (‘Get behind me, Satan!’). Perhaps he and the other disciples are thinking, “Why does he believe he has to do ‘undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed’? The mission is going well; crowds are growing, and before long we’ll be in a good position to claim the throne”. But of course this is all speculation; we can’t really know exactly what was on their minds, beyond what the text actually says.
The Old Testament overtones are clear here. Going up a high mountain is a very Old Testament way of meeting God. Moses met God on Mount Sinai and received the Law there; Elijah also made the desert journey to Mount Sinai to meet God. Now Jesus takes three disciples up a high mountain, and there Moses and Elijah appear to them. Moses is the great lawgiver of Israel, and Elijah is the first and greatest of the prophets; it is as if Jesus is meeting, not only with two of the greatest heroes of his people, but also with the embodiment of ‘the Law and the Prophets’, the phrase used so often to describe the Scriptures. ‘The presence of Moses and Elijah reminds us that the death and resurrection of Jesus are the goal of the story of God’s salvation in the Law and the Prophets’ (Pheme Perkins).
Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white just as Moses’ face was transformed when he met the Lord on Mount Sinai. ‘The dazzling white clothing signals heavenly rather than earthly beings (Daniel 7:9, 12:3)’ (Pheme Perkins). A cloud comes down on the mountain, just as it did when Yahweh descended to Mount Sinai to give the Law, and when Solomon dedicated the Temple; the cloud is one of the symbols of the presence of Yahweh.
Peter, James and John often appear as a kind of inner circle of Jesus: they witnessed the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:37), and they will also witness the agony in Gethsemane (14:33). However, they aren’t exactly shining examples of insight or faithfulness.
Peter has already been castigated for rejecting the necessity of suffering (8:33). James and John will soon show themselves as preoccupied with greatness rather than service (10:35-37). All three will fail to watch with Jesus during the agony in the garden (14:33-41). These failures become all the more striking because the divine voices has instructed them to listen to the Son (9:7), an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 (‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him’). Jesus is the promised Mosaic prophet. (Pheme Perkins)
Mark gives us no details of when this event took place, although it has traditionally been assumed that it was at night. Were Peter and James and John woken from their sleep by the dazzling light of the Transfiguration and by the appearance of Moses and Elijah? I note that the text says nothing about Moses and Elijah being similarly ‘transfigured’. At any rate, Peter just says the first thing that comes into his head: ‘Rabbi, it’s good for us to be here! Let’s make three tents – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’. Mark explains that Peter didn’t know what to say, because they were all terrified – which we can well understand, as these two revered figures from the past stand with Jesus in the dazzling light.
Tom Wright comments:
It’s easy enough (and they themselves must have known this) to dismiss such an experience as a hallucination, albeit a very odd one. Jewish scriptures and traditions tell of various events like this, when the veil of ordinariness that normally prevents us from seeing the ‘inside’ of a situation is drawn back, and a fuller reality is disclosed. Most of us don’t have experiences like this (nor did most early Christians, as far as we can tell); but unless we allow sceptics to bully us we should be free to affirm that this sort of thing has indeed happened to some people (usually completely unexpectedly), and that such people usually regard it as hugely important and life-changing.
The three watchers and others were of course terrified. Peter…blurts out the first thing that comes into his head, trying vaguely not only to prolong the moment but to hook it into one of the Jewish festivals. That wasn’t the point, but the sheer oddity of his bumbling suggestion is itself strong evidence of the story’s basic truth. Nobody inventing a tale like this would make up such a comic moment, lowering the tone of the occasion in such a fashion.
What went through the minds of the apostles? Up until now, what have they been assuming about their Master? That he is a prophet? That he is a wise spiritual teacher? Perhaps this is where they started. But Peter’s understanding of him has developed further, to the point that he has now confessed his faith that his Master is the Messiah, the king who is going to set Israel free.
But the Messiah, in Israelite belief at the time, was not a divine figure – he was a human king, a descendant of David. And I doubt if people conceived that the Messiah would be greater than his ancestor David (like many traditional societies, people in those days seemed to have the idea that the figures from the past were always greater!).
But now, as the cloud descended, the three disciples heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved – listen to him’ – a clear allusion to the voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) and also, as Pheme Perkins points out, to the command to ‘listen’ the the prophet like Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. If this command to ‘listen’ to God’s beloved Son is in response to Peter’s proposal to build three tents – in other words, to treat Jesus and Moses and Elijah as three equals – then it is a firm rejection of it. Moses and Elijah are honoured and revered figures from Israel’s history, but God never said of either of them, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved’. Jesus is unique, and the disciples must not succumb to the temptation of seeing him as just another religious figure, on the same level as all the others.
‘Listen to him’. Listen to him in general, or listen to something specific he has said? Possibly the latter – the prediction of his suffering and death that he has made six days before. Don’t listen to your rational arguments about why this is not a good idea, Peter – listen to what my Son has to say, because he’s speaking the truth. It is necessary for him to suffer and die. He knows what he’s talking about.
But also, listen to him as the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is the point in the story that they’ve been leading to. He fulfils the prophecies and interprets the Law as God’s anointed Son. He is greater than the ones who came before him – listen to him.
The final verse just gives us a fragment of the next paragraph, the discussion about Elijah and whether he should come first. Here in verse 9 I note that the disciples would have been very confused about Jesus’ reference to the resurrection because their Jewish belief saw the resurrection as something that would happen at the end of time to all the righteous, not in the middle of time to one young Jew. If they had to hold their tongues until the end, that would be a long wait! But no doubt they understood ‘after the fact’, which is why the story made it into the gospels at all!
‘As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead’. Lamar Williamson comments on the command to silence:
The command to silence (v.9) is the last and climactic case in which a Christological confession, whether by demons (3:11), by Peter (8:29), or by God himself (9:7) is to be kept secret. Only here is a time limit set: “Until the Son of Man (shall) have risen from the dead”. This detail offers a fundamental clue for understanding the entire series of commands to silence, or the so-called ‘Messianic secret’ theme. There is no way to rightly understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again (emphasis mine).
Reflecting on the significance of this passage, Pheme Perkins has a telling comment:
Christians frequently think of the divinity of Jesus in terms of heavenly glory or the triumph of the Parousia without recognising the real presence of God on the cross. We tend to think that Jesus is most clearly Son of God in glory, not in suffering. This passage challenges us to revise our understanding of how God’s presence comes to the world.
In this way we are like the disciples who assumed that a true Messiah would give evidence of his identity by military victory over the enemies of Israel, and who struggled with Jesus’ sense of call to sacrifice on the cross (‘And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him’ – 8:32). Apparently we are often still tempted to forget the centrality of the cross in Jesus’ mission – probably because we would prefer to avoid its centrality in the call of disciples too – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34) – remembering that the call of the cross is not about suffering in general, but rather relates specifically to the call to follow Jesus faithfully and being willing to pay the price of suffering for that faithfulness.
Lamar Williamson sets the text in context of the other ‘Son of God’ confessions in Mark:
The first is the voice of God to Jesus himself at the baptism (1:9-11), in which Jesus’ identity as Son of God is established. In the second, the transfiguration, that identity is confirmed to an inner circle of three disciples, offering a parallel to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, a counterpoint to the first passion prediction, and a foretaste of the Parousia announced in the verses immediately preceding. The last in the series is the crucifixion, a sort of reverse transfiguration, in which the sight of Jesus dying in utter abandonment to the will of God wrings from the lips of a Roman army officer the confession, “Truly this man was the Son of God”.
The first of these is full of radiant promise, the last a witness to steadfastness in despair, and the middle one – the present text – combined glory (vv.2-8) and suffering (vv.9-13, especially verse 12) to present the paradox of divine power and weakness, lowliness and majesty, in the person of Jesus Christ. Israel’s Messiah and Son of God is the suffering and dying Son of man. For those who have eyes to see, his very suffering in steadfast obedience to the will of God is a mark of God’s own glory; but that glory can only be understood by resurrection faith, and it will become evident to all only at the Parousia of the Son of man. In the transfiguration, then, Jesus is revealed as Son of God, the one in whom is manifested simultaneously the splendour and lowliness of God.
Tom Wright adds:
It isn’t a revelation of Jesus’ divinity; if it were, that would make Moses and Elijah divine too, which Mark certainly doesn’t want us to think… Rather, as the similar experiences of mystics in various cultures and ages would suggest, this is a sign of Jesus being entirely caught up with, bathed in, the love, power and kingdom of God, so that it transforms his whole being with light, in the way that music transforms words that are sung. This is the sign that Jesus is not just indulging in fantasies about God’s kingdom, but that he is speaking and doing the truth. It’s the sign that he is indeed the true prophet, the true Messiah.
That, too, is what the heavenly voice is saying. Jesus is God’s special, beloved son. Elijah and Moses were vital in preparing the way; Jesus is finishing the job. Mark is happy for later Christian readers to hear, in the phrase ‘son of God’, fuller meanings than the disciples would have heard. For them, the primary meaning, as with the voice at the baptism, is that Jesus is Messiah. That’s enough to be going on with.
Pheme Perkins: ‘Mark’ in ‘The New Interpreter’s Bible’ (1995).
Lamar Williamson: ‘Mark’ in the ‘Interpretation’ commentary series (1983)
Tom Wright: ‘Mark for Everyone’ (2001)