|Listen to Him! (Mark 9:1-13)
January 16, 2000 / Mark 9:1-13
The Transfiguration of Jesus is reported in all of the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:1-13; Luke 9:28-36). Each author tells the story in light of the purpose for the Gospel he is writing. So there are details in one account that supplement what is found in the others. But it is clearly the same event. And there is clearly a theological purpose to it. But we have not always lingered long enough with the facts of what happened to figure out why they are so significant.
Given our study of Markís Gospel around the theme of discipleship (i.e., "Take Up Your Cross!), what does the Transfiguration tell us? What does it say about Jesus? What does it tell those of us who have committed ourselves to follow him?
The watershed event in the Gospel of Mark is the confession by Peter and the other apostles that Jesus is the Christ (8:27-29). It is the "great divide" in the book: everything prior to it has set the stage for the confession, and all that follows expands on its significance. To say the least, the apostles believed and confessed more than they understood at this point. Surely that is the primary reason Jesus ended that significant day warning them not to tell anyone their conclusion about him (8:30).
To illustrate how little they understood, just consider that their confession was Jesusí immediate background to telling them plainly what lay ahead. "He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" (8:31-32).
Peter, how dare you! You are going to "rebuke" Jesus? Preposterous! The fisherman is still listening to his childhood training. Heís trying to make Jesus fit the expectations of the rabbis who had told him to look for a nationalistic, militaristic Messiah. Peter, canít you give up on your preconceived agenda for Jesus and let him explain it in his own words? Canít you listen to him?
Jesus turned from Peter and the little band of apostles to tell all his disciples ó in that setting and in ours ó the key to discipleship: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (8:34b). Thatís the secret. Die to self in order to live to him. Give up your notions of how things should be to receive his presence, his words, his will. Abandon your expectations for his revelation.
Their heads must have been left spinning by all this. So Jesus told them to stay close, trust him, and wait. "I tell you the truth," he said, "some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power" (9:1). And maybe Jesus had Pentecost and the establishment of the church in mind with those words. But many scholars think the fulfillment of this prediction came a week later in an episode on Mount Hermon.1
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters ó one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus (9:2-8)
From the standpoint of discipleship, I believe there are at least three profound purposes served by all that happened on the mountain that day.
First, the apostolic confession needed a strong confirmation. They were right in their identification of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. They had even glimpsed his deity and were able to confess him as the Son of God. But they had no clue what either title implied ó either about Jesus or their allegiance to him. Although their confession would ultimately cost them their lives, at that point they were still struggling to make Jesus fit the common-but-mistaken notion of the Messiah that was abroad in Judaism.
What is more, Jesus had spoken harshly to Peter just a week before this happened. "Get behind me, Satan!" he had said to him. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (8:33). Peter had to have smarted from that censure. And the rest of the group must have been wondering what the exchange meant. So Jesus took Peter, James, and John to an experience that would confirm their emerging, naive, and unsteady faith.
While they were in that high place, Jesus was transfigured (Gk, metemorphothe, to which our English "metamorphosis" is related) so that even his clothing was brilliantly white beyond description. Then, toward the end of the time there, Jesus, Elijah, Moses, and the three disciples were received into a radiant cloud like the one that led Israel in the wilderness period (cf. Ex. 13:21, et al.). It was no mere cloud of water vapor but the Shekinah glory that attends the presence of God, the radiance that was reflected in the face of Moses when he came down from talking with Yahweh on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29). The combined effect of all this was to present Jesus in the glory and unapproachable light of his heavenly splendor.
At various times during his earthly sojourn, Jesus must have longed for what he would later pray for just before his death ó to return to his heavenly glory. "And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began" (John 17:5). Here he "stepped back into eternity," we might say. Jesus didnít have to go through betrayal, suffering, and death to have his heavenly glory. It was his by eternal divine right. He could simply step back across the boundary of time into glory at will, but he chose to travel the long path for our sakes.
Surely one of the reasons for allowing Jesus to be seen in this radiant, glorious form was to confirm the confession that Peter had made. Peter was right about Jesus ó even if he didnít understand the meaning of what he had glimpsed! Canít we all be grateful for grace? Havenít we confessed something greater than our understanding?
Second, the disciples needed a peek into their own glorious future. As would soon be clear to them, Jesus would re-enter his heavenly glory permanently only after the ordeal of his suffering, death, and resurrection. It would not be long after that until it dawned on Peter and the others that their own path to glory would be through suffering as well. This little glimpse of the future would give them motivation for hanging on in their own dark hours. Donít you suppose it accomplished that for Jesus himself in the days immediately following?
Peter would later write two epistles that have been preserved to us. Both were written to Christians in order to engender hope and steadfastness in the face of persecution for their faith. One of the personal assurances that Peter gave his readers about the legitimacy of their faith was this event on what he called the "sacred mountain" of Transfiguration.
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain (2 Pet. 1:16-18).
Did the event make an impression on him? Thirty years later, he is still writing about it and referencing it as a legitimating proof of his personal faith. Thirty years later, he is still offering it as an encouragement to others in their time of struggle.
Third, the disciples needed to know the priority of Jesusí words over all else. In the Shekinah brilliance of the mountain, with Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus before their very eyes, and with Peter offering to build a memorial to the day, God spoke. And this is what he said: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"
Surely this is a rebuke to Peter. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are continuous players in the redemption drama, but they are not equal in status. Moses, Plato, Buddha, Mohammed ó all these figures of the major world religions may be put on equal footing in a comparative religions class but not in Scripture. Not among those who have taken up their crosses to follow Jesus. And certainly not with God! "Hear my Son before all others," he says. He fills the unique position of The Beloved, Godís Incomparable (Gk, monogenes) Son, and The One in Whose Name Alone Salvation Is Found. Whatever contribution Moses or Elijah, mother or father, teacher or mentor may have made to bringing us to Christ, it is his voice alone that we must hear.
Peter must have gotten the point of this rebuke, for he made the same one to his readers later. After relating his personal experience of the sacred mountain to them, he called them to the testimony of Scripture as the solid foundation for their faith.
And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophetís own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21).
Just a final word to us all before leaving this wondrous scene on the Mount of Transfiguration: Enduring faith is rooted in the lasting words of the Lord and not in occasional mountaintop experiences.
That day on the mountain had been unique. There was Jesus in his eternal glory. Moses and Elijah were called back from the dead. Secrets about Jesusí future were discussed. And the voice of God was heard from heaven. It was perfect! And it needed to be memorialized and preserved forever. At least, thatís what Peter thought. So he suggested the three booth-memorials to the Lawgiver, Prophet, and Messiah. Present for the greatest salvation-history summit conference in history, he wanted to mark the moment for posterity. Maybe he thought about living there ó making the place into their world headquarters.
Jesus would have none of it. He took the three men down the mountain and told them to keep what had happened just among themselves for the time being (9:9). The meaning of the truth Peter had confessed at Caesarea Philippi and the significance of Jesusí glory seen on the Mount of Transfiguration would not be clear until after the path of suffering and death had been walked in its entirety by their Lord.
In the meanwhile, their discipleship call required them to deny themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow him in obedience. Christianity is not the preservation of occasional rare moments but faithfulness in the tough times which these flashes of glory help prepare you to face and endure.
Havenít you had a worship experience you wished would never end? Maybe it was something even more private between you and God in prayer or service or teaching. But there was something you wished you could preserve forever ó and the feeling of awe and nearness to God that came with it. Havenít you lamented that your spiritual life canít always be mountaintop quality? I have.
But discipleship doesnít consist of the occasional experience of intense joy, uplifting music, or soul-quickening insight. It also includes the routine and demanding. No, it not only "includes" them but sanctifies them and makes them meaningful.
I love those mountaintop days. And it helps me to remember them on the darker, more dismal days when Iím plodding rather than soaring. Above all, the mountaintop is most helpful when it allows me to hear the voice of God saying, "Listen to Jesus. You can trust him. Hear him, obey him, and share his glory at the end."
1Although the traditional site of the Transfiguration is Mount Tabor, the fact that it was then occupied by a military fortress weighs against the likelihood. Mount Hermon is both closer to Caesarea Philippi and some 9,000 feet higher.
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