Two weeks ago, we were driving in the mountains of southern Utah and we saw an animal that looked like it had been dropped in from Africa. With its unusual horns and stripes, it was like nothing we had ever seen before. Later that day we saw some strange looking birds with long curved bills. Again we thought we were in Africa except that it was very cold! For the rest of the day we wondered what strange animals we had seen. Only through some extensive Googling were we able to determine that we had seen a Prong-horned Antelope and a White-faced Ibis. But until the help of Google, we were baffled and wondered what he had seen that day.
I. The Transfiguration itself is described in verses 2-4.
Mark writes in verse 2, “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.” The six days refer back to the time of Jesus’ teaching in the previous section. This event is what Jesus meant when he said in Mark 9:1– “Some standing here will not taste death” until they have seen the power of Kingdom of God revealed. Six days also comes from Exodus 24:16f where six days designates a time of preparation for the reception of God’s revelation to Moses.
Jesus’ leading the three disciples to a high mountain is also significant. In the choice of this location Jesus was not merely seeking to be alone. To help the disciples better grasp the significance of what was about to happen he used the mountaintop in the wilderness much like God did in the Old Testament. He chooses Peter, James and John to see this because they would be the first witnesses to the resurrection and the Transfiguration would prepare them for that event.
Then, in the presence of his closest disciples, Jesus’ human appearance was visibly changed to something brilliantly white to reflect his true majesty. In the Old Testament the glory of God is often portrayed in shining brilliant light. The reference to Jesus’ clothing shining is used to describe the glory of the Messiah as well as demonstrate the coming reality: the glory of Jesus. The disciples thus saw a revelation of the mystery of the coming Kingdom and the glory of God in Jesus more than any time before. And then while there, Jesus was joined by Moses and Elijah. It was appropriate that Jesus is accompanied in this moment by the prophets of the wilderness who stand by his side to testify to his character and mission. Moses appears to be the representative of the old covenant and its promises, now shortly to be fulfilled in the death of Jesus. Elijah is the appointed restorer of all things and so Elijah being present indicates the fulfillment of “all things” that has now arrived. Perhaps Jesus called them by name but at any rate, Peter knows who they are.
Peter says that it is good that they are there and proposes to build three tabernacles. His desire is to erect new tents of meeting where God can again dwell with his people. This implies that Peter believes the time of the second exodus is now fulfilled. He is anxious to find the fulfillment of the promised glory now before Jesus’ sufferings, which Jesus had just said were necessary. However, the blessings of the new age cannot be secured until Jesus has actually suffered and died. The disciples were completely unable to grasp that the Transfiguration was only a momentary anticipation of the glory of the fulfilled kingdom.
Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on what God is about to do through Jesus. God is about to fulfill what he had planned to do from the fall of Adam. This is the culmination of his plan to save the world! This is the pivotal point in all history when things will never be the same again. D-Day changed World War 2 so that from then on victory was a matter of time.
“We who believe in Jesus Christ are aware that we are living between the time of Jesus' resurrection from the dead and the fulfillment of all things. We live, not in utopia, not in a cloud-cuckoo land, for we are aware of the pain and evil around us. The struggle against evil continues. But we know that the beginning of the end has come. Like the Allied forces in World War 2, we have landed on the beaches of Normandy; the war is not over; there is still a costly fight ahead, but victory is certain; the end is in sight. We know that a new creation has been inaugurated. We know that something has happened in history which cannot be turned back. We know that we will still have to struggle against evil, but we know that the victory has been won.”
This is what the Transfiguration is pointing forward to but it’s not there yet.
II. Therefore, Jesus’ instruction given in verses 9-10 is vital for the disciples.
God’s response to Peter’s proposal discloses the real significance of this event. A cloud appears and envelopes Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The cloud is a frequent means of God’s revelation in the Old Testament which served as a symbol of God’s presence and protection. In the case of Moses and Elijah, the appearance of the epiphany of the glory of God vindicated their mission during their respective missions in the wilderness. The cloud and the heavenly voice on this occasion also vindicate Jesus. When Jesus began his mission in the wilderness of Judea the voice of God declared him to be the beloved Son. Now on the wilderness mountain the voice is heard again, reaffirming the Father’s approval and confirming Jesus’ dignity as the Son of God. Jesus’ obedience to his messianic task of suffering is vindicated by God.
God makes it clear first that Jesus is the Son of God. And note that Jesus IS the Son of God right now. This is not something that will happen later on in the future. As a result they are to listen to Jesus. Jesus is like the prophet Moses whom the people were to listen to. Mark intends that his Roman readers are to take this to heart and obey his words.
When the cloud lifted, Moses and Elijah had vanished and Jesus alone remained. Jesus is the sole bearer of God’s new revelation as seen in the cross and resurrection. Moses and Elijah have borne witness to Jesus’ character and mission, but they can help him no more. The way to the cross demands that Jesus set out on this mission alone. The transfiguration, however, has disclosed a new aspect of God’s truth: Jesus himself is the new Tabernacle for he is indeed now God with us in all grace and truth.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone what had just happened until after his resurrection. Jesus prohibits them saying anything because they don’t really understand yet who Jesus is and what his being the Messiah means. Again, remember that Peter believed that Jesus was the Messiah but he and the other disciples cannot understand Jesus’ way of being the Messiah. They need to fully grasp that the way Jesus is Messiah is through the cross, resurrection and then the ascension. The resurrection would be the event that would help the disciples begin to understand what they had just seen. The disciples obeyed Jesus but were puzzled about Jesus’ reference to resurrection. To them the resurrection of the dead was the climactic event of the last days. However, this was completely different and left them wondering what this rising from the dead of the Son of Man could mean.
At times we don’t grasp all the implications from what God has done for us in Jesus. We think that Jesus’ death and resurrection simply punches our ticket to heaven but it doesn’t mean anything really changes right now. Several years ago a bank robber in Minneapolis told arresting police officers that he had been converted at a Billy Graham Crusade and that is why he didn't use a weapon during the holdup. Too many "conversions" don't lead to transformations.
But this is the beginning of life that will never be the same again. It’s what happens when there is a heart or lung transplant to a dying patient. There is now new life and life will be completely different than it was before. There is a huge change even they continue to live their lives. And until Jesus comes again, we still live in this world with all of its issues and problems but we do so with clear hope and a clear purpose.
III. Then the disciples ask Jesus a curious question about Elijah in verses 11-13.
The presence of Elijah at the transfiguration, as well as Jesus’ reference to the resurrection, suggested to them that the final days were imminent. They knew that Elijah would be the one to prepare the people for God’s judgment. They are trying to figure out a way for Jesus to avoid his suffering and death. If Elijah is coming soon, then this makes Jesus’ messianic suffering unnecessary. In verse 12, Jesus acknowledges that Elijah must come first and restore all things. However, the Scripture also affirms that the Son of Man must experience suffering and rejection. That is why Jesus alludes to Isaiah 53, where the servant, who is Jesus, experiences rejection and contempt; there must be suffering and humiliation.
In verse 13, Jesus is quietly making it clear that John the Baptist was the messenger promised in Malachi 4:5. John the Baptist is Elijah sent by God because he fulfilled the function expected of Elijah leading the people to renewal through repentance and forgiveness. His sufferings at the hands of Herod and Herodias strengthen the identity of John with Elijah, who in his own ministry was harassed by a wicked woman and king. In this sense, John provides an example for the persecuted Christians in Rome. What Herod did to John the Baptist, others who are hostile to God will do to those who remain faithful to Jesus and the gospel. Yet Jesus in his Transfiguration shows that the time of victory will indeed come. But glory comes only after humiliation for Jesus and for all who follow him.
There will be suffering as we await the final victory when Jesus comes again. Many love to teach that being a Christian means the end of all pain and sorrow now. But that is clearly not what Jesus is teaching here. There will be suffering of many things as we await Jesus’ return, but that suffering will be only temporary. We know the suffering we have to endure in this life yet. There are illnesses that wear us down and change our lives completely. There are attacks from those who want to hurt us or our reputations. There are those who put down or belittle us because of our faith in Jesus. There are the hardships that many may have to face because of injustice. Christians around the world still continue to suffer oppression in this world.