The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. Sometimes a picture can simply remove the need for words. In some ways, words can carry more than a picture can. A picture cannot describe the emotion as well as words can. With a movie, you are an onlooker, however, in a book, it pulls you into the pages, and you use your imagination to be in the story. However, even with words and pictures, some things cannot be captured in words or pictures. Several times I have tried to capture a moment with our family that I knew would be a memory. However, my camera phone was unable to do that. Not because of the lack of megapixels or the lens range, but there is something that a phone or even words cannot explain. This week we look at the glorious event of transfiguration. We will be looking at this passage (Mark 9:1-13) over the next three weeks. The first week we will look at the event itself and Jesus. Then the following weeks, we will look at how Moses and Elijah point to Jesus.
I. Not Taste Death (1-2a)
Mark 9:1 Jesus explains to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Some translations include that in the section of Jesus’ first teaching, the Son of Man must suffer many things (Mark 8:31-38). This is based on chronology, the time when Jesus said it. However, it is included in chapter 9 because of the relationship between what he states and the transfiguration. This is not based on chronology but content, how they relate to one another. Chapter divides and headings were not in the original Greek text, and therefore we should be reminded not to read too much into them. We can blame Stephen Langton for the divisions we have today. If I were to divide this section up into a chapter (no one has asked me), I would begin in Mark 8:27 and end at Mark 9:29. Back to the actual words of the Bible and not the numbers. Jesus tells his disciples that some of the disciples will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come with power. Hence, therefore Mark then begins with verse two with the statement of the time, six days. Mark very rarely writes about the particular day on which an event occurred. Generally, he uses the ‘In those days’ (Mark 1:9, 8:1), ‘after some days’ (Mark 2:1). Mark refers to the length of days to show this is the fulfillment of what Jesus had told them six days prior.
Jesus’ first statement is that “there are some standing here who will not taste death,” these men are Peter, James, and John. Jesus takes the three disciples to a high mountain. Some have suggested this mountain to be Mount Tabor. However, this is not close to the region they are in (Mark 8:27), and secondly, Mt Tabor is not an exceptionally high mountain (1,886 ft). Most have suggested this took place at Mount Hermon, located near Caesarea Philippi, and has a much higher elevation (9,232 ft). The event’s actual location is not the critical part; the mountain represents something distinctive in the Bible. This is where God’s people meet with God. G.K Beale, in his book, ‘New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New,’ argues that the garden of Eden was on the top of a mountain. The Bible then is filled with men and women who meet God on the mountain. Who stand in his presence. They depict the closeness to the heavens and the proximity to God. Therefore, in Revelation, mountains are destroyed and thrown into the sea (Rev 6:14-16, 16:20), and then Mount Zion coming down out of heaven, because the saints will be close to God forever. The three disciples were tired after climbing the mountain (Luke 9:32) had no idea who they would meet at the top of this mountain. They would see Jesus in glory and majesty, unlike they had seen him before.
II. Transfiguration (2b-5)
“And he was transfigured before them.” Six words in English and four in Greek. This simple sentence has many asking, “what does this actually mean?” The Greek word used by Matthew and Mark is where we get the word ‘Metamorphosis.’ This is used to describe the biological change of an animal from one form to another, such as a caterpillar to a butterfly. The same word is used in Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18 to speak of our transformation with the renewal of our minds and transformation into the same image as we behold the glory of God. Luke explained that Jesus’ “appearance of his face was altered” (Luke 9:29). So, what does this mean? We need to look at this in two ways; the first is understanding the two natures of Jesus. Jesus does not become more divine, for he is truly God and truly man. John Calvin describes that the disciples do not get a taste of Christ’s glorified body, “but gave them a taste of his boundless glory, such as they were able to comprehend.” Matthew explains that Jesus’ face shone like the sun (Matt 17:2). Interestingly Mark does not mention Jesus’ face (unlike Matthew and Luke). We do not know why Mark does not mention Jesus’ face. In his Gospel account, he only does in Mark 14:65, when Jesus’ face is covered.
Mark (like Matthew and Luke) explains that Jesus’ garments changed. Mark goes into greater detail about Jesus’ garments. However, Mark says three things about Jesus’s garments after his transfiguration. First, his clothes became radiant. Jesus’ clothes shone. The word is used in the Septuagint as a swinging sword sharpened for battle. Like a twinkling star in the sky, Jesus’ clothes became radiant. Secondly, they were intensely white. White robes are the unform of heaven; we need to note this is not a comment on skin pigment but the color of clothes. When an angel comes to speak, they often wear a white robe (Matt 28:3, Mark 16:15, John 20:12, Acts 1:10). However, white is not the color of choice because of style. White speaks of holiness and purity. Mark lastly explains the extent of the whiteness of Jesus’ clothes. He explains that the white that no one can bleach them. Over time our clothes become dim, a white undershirt loses its brightness. In our house, the challenge is cleaning the clothes to get them to the color they once were, a mud-covered outfit back to how it was before the child had fun in it. However, Mark’s comment is not even about washing something dirty but making something so white, to begin with. It does not speak of someone washing the clothes but making them white. Jesus stands before the three disciples, and Mark mentions that you couldn’t buy a new white garment.
Both Elijah and Moses appear before them, and they start talking about Jesus. (We will spend more time on these two men in the coming weeks). Peter then utters his third comment to Jesus. His confession (Mark 8:29), his rebuke (Mark 8:32), and finally his suggestion (Mark 9:5). Mark explains that he did not know what to say. You could imagine Mark listening to Peter tell of this mountain top experience and Mark asking the question, “Why did you offer to build three tents?” Peter’s response is quite simple. I didn’t know what to say. However, Peter does speak saying, “It is good that we are here!” We are told that the reason he didn’t know what to say was that the three disciples were afraid. Now we could spend more time on the response of fear when confronted with God or angels. Sadly, we do not understand the weight of glory, and the reaction of many people in the Bible is fear, yet today is arrogance, or privilege. In his recent book, ‘Rejoice and Tremble,’ Michael Reeves wrote,
“We who love theology need to remember that there is no true knowledge of God where there is no right fear of him. The fear of God is the only possible foundation upon which true knowledge is built: all knowledge acquired elsewhere is counterfeit and will eventually prove itself as such.”
III. A voice from heaven (6-8)
However, Peter does not have the last word on this mountain. A cloud overshadows them. The cloud speaks again of God’s presence. God led the Israelites in the wilderness by a pillar of cloud (Ex 13:21-22). At the dedication of the temple of Solomon, which is on a mountain, a cloud filled the house of the Lord after the priests came out of the Holy Place after placing the Ark of the Covenant there. However, the priests were unable to stand in the temple to minister because of this cloud, which we are told is the Glory of the Lord, that filled the house of the Lord (1 Kings 8:10-11). The cloud comes down on Mount Hermon, and God the Father speaks out of the cloud. This is an echo of the Baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:11). However, the Baptism speaks to Jesus, saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you, I am well pleased.” However, God the Father does not talk to his Son but the disciples, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Peter writes about this in his second epistle,
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).
Peter explains what happened in the transfiguration was Jesus received honor and glory from God the Father. He heard the voice of God the Father speak from the cloud. Peter explains he was not only an eyewitness to the transfiguration, but he was also an ear witness to God the Father speak from the cloud, the very voice borne from heaven. However, after God the Father speaks, it is Jesus who is alone. The author of Hebrews explains that God used to speak through the prophets, but now he has spoken to us by his Son (Heb 1:1). God the Father speaks of Jesus, his Son tells the disciples to “Listen to Him.” Taking us back to the valuable lesson found in the Parable of the Sower, “He who has ears to hear let him hear” (Mark 4:11). We need to be reminded this is in the middle of a section explaining who Jesus is, the Christ and what Jesus came to accomplish as the Christ, that he must suffer many things. Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, but he did not listen to what Christ came to do. Listen to him. Peter, towards the end of his life, tells his readers to pay attention:
And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19–21)
Right, after hearing the heaven-born voice, Peter explains that the prophetic word is more fully confirmed. Just as the author of Hebrews explains God spoke by the prophets, Peter explains that the prophets spoke from God. The word points to Jesus. That we would behold his majesty, glory, splendor. Peter does not get to make up his job description of Christ. God the Father tells us to listen to him. God the Holy Spirit, through the Prophets, speaks of him. The question in Mark asks is, “Who do you say that I am?” But this question has more profound implications than a title you give Christ. If you truly believe Jesus is God, listen to him. This moment would have a huge impact on life of Peter. He would explain in Acts 3:18, “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” Previously, Peter had rebuked Jesus for saying the Son of man must suffer many things. God the Father tells Peter to listen to his Son, and then Peter explains to others that they need to listen to the prophets.