MARK CHAPTERS 8-9. THE CONTEXT
The story of the transfiguration is located almost exactly at the mid-point of this Gospel. Along with Peter’s confession (8:29), the Transfiguration is the turning point of Jesus’ ministry. Until now, Jesus has been teaching and healing. Now he will begin his journey to Jerusalem, where he will die.
Immediately prior to the transfiguration, Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30), and Jesus foretold his death and resurrection—to which Peter expressed serious objection (8:31-33). Jesus then began to teach his disciples the sacrificial nature of discipleship (8:34-38).
The transfiguration reaffirms Jesus’ identity, reveals his glory, and calls the disciples to listen to him. It validates that, in spite of his announcement that he will suffer and die (8:31), Jesus is the messiah—the Son of God.
This section is bounded on both ends by the healing of a blind man (8:22-26; 10:46-52)—but the disciples remain blind throughout. Peter made a good start by identifying Jesus as the messiah (8:29), but his response to Jesus’ prediction of his death made it clear that he expected a different kind of messiah than Jesus has to offer.
During the transfiguration itself (vv. 2-9), Jesus does not speak even one word. In 9:1, however, which concluded the section where Jesus foretold his death and resurrection, Jesus promised, “Most certainly I tell you, there are some standing here who will in no way taste death until they see the Kingdom of God come with power” (v. 1). In the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John catch quite a glimpse of kingdom glory.
Some have proposed that the transfiguration story is really a resurrection appearance that Mark has placed out of sequence in this Gospel (Matthew and Luke use Mark’s Gospel as one of their primary sources, so we would expect them to agree with Mark’s account). Few scholars support that idea today. In the resurrection accounts, no prophet from the past accompanies Jesus. Jesus does the talking rather than a voice from heaven, and there is no mention of Jesus’ dazzling clothing or face. After the resurrection, people will mistake Jesus for an ordinary traveler (Luke 24:16)—or a gardener (John 20:15)—or a stranger (John 21:4). The events of the resurrection appearances are quite ordinary compared to the pyrotechnics of the Transfiguration.
Immediately after the transfiguration story, Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountaintop into a very un-mountaintop situation (9:14-29). A crowd has gathered around a boy with a spirit that convulses him. Disciples who remained at the base of the mountain have failed to cast out the spirit, so Jesus does it. The disciples’ problem is lack of faith and prayer.
MARK 9:2-4. AND HE WAS CHANGED IN FRONT OF THEM
2After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and brought them up onto a high mountain privately by themselves, and he was changed (Greek: metemorphothe—was changed or transformed) into another form in front of them. 3His clothing became glistening, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were talking with Jesus.
This account closely parallels the story of Moses at Sinai (Exodus 24, 34).
• Three men accompanied Moses (Exodus 24:9; Mark 9:2).
• A cloud covered the mountain for six days, and God spoke from the cloud (Exodus 24:16; Mark 9:2, 7).
• Moses saw, at least in part, God’s glory (Exodus 33:17-23; Mark 9:3).
• The skin of Moses’ face shone dazzling bright (Exodus 34:30; Mark 9:3)
• The people of Israel were afraid (Exodus 34:30).
• On coming down from the mountain, Moses encountered faithless “disciples” (Exodus 32:7-8; Mark 9:14-29).
“After six days” (v. 2a) is another way of saying “on the seventh day.” Seven is an important number in the Bible—a number with sacred significance from beginning (Genesis 2:2-3; 5:7, 25, etc.) to end (Revelation 1:4, 11-12, 16, 20, 2:1, etc.). God finished his creation work on the seventh day—and rested on the seventh day—and blessed the seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3). The sabbath is the seventh day of the week (Exodus 16; 20:11; 31:14-16; 35:2, etc.). The number seven is associated with numerous ritual observances (Genesis 21:29-30; Exodus 29:30-37; 34:18; Numbers 23, 28, etc.) and tabernacle/temple furnishings (Exodus 25:31-37; 1 Kings 7:17; Ezekiel 40:22, etc.).
“Jesus took with him Peter, James, and John, and brought them up onto a high mountain privately by themselves” (v. 2b). Peter, James, and John constitute Jesus’ inner circle. Jesus will choose them to accompany him at special occasions, such as the healing of Jairus’ daughter (5:37) Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies (13:3), and Gethsemane (14:33). Mark double-emphasizes that, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus leads these three “apart, by themselves” (v. 2), their solitude signaling an event of great significance.
“up onto a high mountain” (v. 2b). The high mountain is more significant theologically than geographically. Mount Hermon best fits the description of this mountain (Mount Tabor is another possibility), but Mark does not count it important to tell us its name. High mountains are places where people encounter God. In this Gospel, Jesus goes up mountains to call and appoint the twelve (3:13), and to pray (6:46).
“and he was changed into another form in front of them” (v. 2c). On this high mountain, Jesus is transfigured (metemorphothe—changed or transformed) before them. Metemorphothe is the Greek word from which we get our word metamorphosis, which we use to describe the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly—a truly dramatic transformation.
However, what takes place at the transfiguration is more an unveiling than a transformation. It simply reveals Jesus’ true identity—an identity that he had from the beginning (Luke 1:31-35; John 1:1-4). Suddenly, the disciples are suddenly able to see Jesus’ glory—glory that Jesus always possessed but that has been veiled until this moment.
“His clothing became glistening, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (v. 3). Jesus’ clothing becomes dazzling white, like the snow-white clothing of the Ancient of days in Daniel 7:9. In that account we read:
“I saw in the night visions,
and behold, there came with the clouds of the sky
one like a son of man,
and he came even to the ancient of days,
and they brought him near before him.
There was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom,
that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him:
his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14).
Note that Daniel used the title, Son of man. Mark also uses this phrase in his account of the transfiguration (9:9). Note also the similarities between the description of the Son of man in Daniel and this description of Jesus in Philippians:
“Therefore God also highly exalted him (Jesus),
and gave to him the name which is above every name;
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,
and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
The glimpse of Christ’s glory at the transfiguration speaks more loudly than any words to promise these disciples that Jesus’ prediction of suffering and death is not the whole picture. Jesus will undergo suffering and death, as will his disciples, but their final destination will be glory.
“Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and they were talking with Jesus” (v. 4). The order of the names is the reverse of what we would expect. Moses came first chronologically, and was the more important of the two. It could be that Mark puts Elijah first because he is remembering God’s promise to send Elijah before the coming of the Day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5). Matthew and Luke, who both use Mark’s Gospel as one of their key sources, “correct” Mark’s order (Matthew 17:3; Luke 9:30), placing Moses’ name before Elijah’s.
• It has oft been noted that Moses was the great lawgiver and Elijah the great prophet, so these two men embody the Law and the Prophets. However, if Mark intended them to embody the Law and Prophets, we would expect Moses’ name to appear first so that we would have the traditional order, Law and Prophets, rather than Prophets and Law.
• Others have suggested that Elijah and Moses are included because they both suffered for their faith, but that was true of many faithful people.
• Still others have suggested that these two are similar in that neither suffered death. 2 Kings 2:1-12 tells us that Elijah did not die. Some rabbis held that Moses did not die either—but Deuteronomy 34:5-6 records Moses’ death and burial.
• One solid connection is that Moses and Elijah both experienced dramatic encounters with God on mountains (Moses in Exodus 3; 19-20; 24-27; 32; 34 and Elijah in 1 Kings 19).
• But we must not forget that, in the presence of these great men of faith, Jesus remains the central figure (Geddert, 219).
MARK 9:5-6: LET US MAKE THREE TENTS
5Peter answered Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let’s make three tents (Greek: skenas—booths or tabernacles): one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6For he didn’t know what to say, for they were very afraid.
“Peter answered Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here’ “ (v. 5a). It seems odd that Peter should refer to Jesus as rabbi so soon after confessing him as Messiah (8:29). In view of Peter’s confession and the transfiguration, rabbi seems too modest a title. However, rabbis are teachers and, until now, Jesus has conducted a ministry of teaching and healing. It is also clear that Peter, in spite of his confession of Jesus as messiah, does not really understand what that means. He is struggling to come to grips with Jesus’ true identity and role, and his confusion surfaces here. He doesn’t know what to say but, being Peter, feels compelled to say something.
But Boring says that Peter’s misunderstanding has more to do with the “messianic secret” than with Peter’s personality (Boring, 262). During his ministry, Jesus frequently commanded people to keep silence rather than revealing him to be the messiah (Mark 1:25, 34, 44; 3:12; 5:43; 8:30; 9:9). Jesus’ reasons for this concern appear to be twofold. First, people thought of the messiah as a warrior-king like unto David, and that was not at all how Jesus saw his role as messiah. Second, the culmination of his work would be his death, resurrection, and ascension, and people could not properly understand his work until his resurrection vindicated his death on the cross.
“Let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (v. 5b). Peter also feels a need to do something. When one is befuddled, it sometimes helps to do something—anything. Peter is overwhelmed at being in the company of the messiah and these two great men. He feels a need to do something to honor the occasion and, perhaps, to prolong the experience. He suggests building three skenas—booths or tabernacles such as those in which Jews dwell to observe the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:42-44), which commemorates the Exodus and the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness.
“For he (Peter) didn’t know what to say, for they were very afraid” (v. 6). Mark shows his disdain for Peter’s suggestion by telling us that Peter did not know what to say because they (all three disciples) were terrified (v. 6).
However, Peter’s suggestion may not have been as far off the mark as it might seem. The Feast of Booths had taken on an eschatological flavor, promising Israel’s deliverance (Evans 242).
The voice from heaven diverts attention from Peter’s proposal before he can take action. Scholars have suggested various reasons why Peter’s proposal is off the mark. It could be because:
• Peter is trying to prolong this great experience rather than getting back to the ordinary day-to-day work of discipleship.
• Peter is proposing equal treatment for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, not realizing the degree to which Moses and Elijah are subordinate to Jesus.
• Peter is trying to take charge—to gain control of the situation when he should be watching and listening. This idea gains credibility from verse 7, where the voice from the cloud tells the disciples to listen to Jesus.
Mark’s comment about the disciples being terrified (v. 6) makes us sympathetic. Who among us has not been terrified—unsure what to do—desperate to find something to do? These disciples are terribly human and vulnerable. Instead of criticizing Peter, we would do better to put ourselves in his shoes, to feel his fear and to experience being overwhelmed in a dramatically new situation. Would we have done better if Jesus had taken us up that mountain? Probably not!
MARK 9:7-8. THIS IS MY BELOVED SON. LISTEN TO HIM.
7A cloud came, overshadowing (Greek: episkiazousa—cast a shade upon—enveloped—overshadowed)them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” 8Suddenly looking around, they saw no one with them any more, except Jesus only.
“A cloud came, overshadowing them” (v. 7a). Throughout scripture, clouds symbolize the presence of God, beginning with the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness by day (Exodus 13:21). The most obvious parallel is the cloud that covered Mount Sinai when Moses ascended it (Exodus 24:15ff), but clouds are associated with the presence of the Lord in both testaments (Exodus 13:21-22; 16:10; 19:9; Daniel 7:13; Mark 9:7; 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; Revelation 1:7; 14:14-16).
On the Mount of Transfiguration, the cloud episkiazousa (overshadows, overwhelms) them. Episkiazousa combines epi (upon or over) with skiazo (to shade or cast a shadow). It is the same verb that is used to describe the power of the Most High overshadowing Mary (Luke 1:35), which resulted in her conceiving the child who would be Son of God/Son of Man.
“and a voice came out of the cloud” (v. 7b). God speaks from the cloud, just as he spoke from the cloud at Sinai (Exodus 24:16).
“This is my beloved Son” (v. 7c). These are very nearly the same words that God spoke at Jesus’ baptism, except that at the baptism God addressed Jesus, while on this mountain God addresses the disciples.
“Listen to him” (v. 7d). This is reminiscent of Deuteronomy 18:15, where Moses told the people, “Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen (Hebrew: shama—hear) to him”
The three disciples have been accustomed to being with Jesus, and are, most likely, in awe of Elijah and Moses. From childhood on, they were taught to reverence the words of Moses especially, but also the words of Elijah. Now the voice from the cloud tells them to listen to Jesus. It is not that Moses and Elijah have lost their significance, but that Jesus is of such overwhelming importance that he eclipses them.
“Listen to him!” There is a sermon in these words. We listen to so many voices today, all of which seem wise and attractive—pundits, columnists, commentators, political analysts, religious gurus, celebrities, tempters, seducers. They promise us health, wealth, and happiness, but seldom live up to their promises and often lead people toward ruin. Is there any trustworthy voice amidst the cacophony? The voice from the cloud says that we can always trust Jesus—”Listen to him!”
• We say, “But Jesus is too idealistic to understand the bare-knuckles world in which I live!” The voice says, “Listen to him!”
• We say, “Later, perhaps, but I have other things to do right now!” The voice says, “Listen to him!”
• We say, “But I am not sure that I truly believe.” The voice says, “Listen to him!”
How many broken hearts and broken lives could be avoided if we would just listen to him! There are many people who regret not listening to Jesus. Do you know one who is sorry for having listened?
“Listen to him!” The disciples need to hear that. Jesus has told them that he will suffer and die (8:31-33), but they did not listen. Even after this voice from the cloud says, “Listen to him!” they will fail to hear Jesus when he speaks of suffering and death (9:31; 10:33-34). The path that Jesus will take is so different from their expectations that they cannot accept his words. It is interesting to note that, just before the transfiguration, Jesus healed a blind man (8:22-26). Shortly after the transfiguration, he will heal another blind man (10:46-52). The disciples, however, continue not to see—not to hear—not to listen. Only after the resurrection will they begin to understand that the way to glory is through suffering and sacrifice.
“Suddenly looking around, they saw no one with them any more, except Jesus only” (v. 8). Suddenly Elijah and Moses are gone. Only Jesus remains, because only Jesus is needed. The disciples find themselves, not alone, but in the presence of the Beloved Son of God. Elijah and Moses have borne their witness to the Son, and are no longer needed.
MARK 9:9. HE COMMANDED THEM THAT THEY SHOULD TELL NO ONE
9As they were coming down from the mountain, he commanded them that they should tell no one what things they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
“As they were coming down from the mountain” (v. 9a). How difficult it must have been for the three disciples to come down from the mountain after experiencing the presence of Elijah and Moses and hearing the voice of God on the mountaintop—but one cannot live forever on the mountaintop. It is necessary to descend into the everyday world of work and responsibility and commerce and ordinary people. Life is messy, as we will be reminded again when Jesus and the disciples reach the base of the mountain (9:14-29), but God calls us to live in the midst of the mess—to live there in faith—to be beacons of faith. Discipleship is rarely easy.
“he commanded them that they should tell no one what things they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (v. 9b). Earlier, Jesus told the demons not to make him known (3:12). Following Peter’s confession, he told the disciples not to tell anyone (8:30). Here on the mount, though, he gives a time limit on that order. They are to tell no one “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
For the disciples to reveal Jesus’ identity earlier would result in two problems. First, the disciples misunderstand Jesus and his mission, and so are not yet able to proclaim his Messiahship faithfully. Second, coming down from the mountain, Jesus will begin his journey to Jerusalem, but he still has much to do and to say to prepare the disciples for what lies ahead. It will not do to rush things.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan