Mountain Top Experiences
The Transfiguration of Jesus: 2 March Mark 9:2-9
The vision of the transfiguration opens itself to many interpretations. Ascending a mountain with his companions after six days would recall for many Moses’ ascent of Sinai with Joshua in Exodus 24, where the cloud covered the mountain for six days. We might expect revelation, such as at Sinai. 9:7 also mentions a cloud. The disciples see Moses. Just the fact of ascending a mountain would raise expectations. On mountains one encountered the divine. Exodus 34 tells us that when he returned from his second ascent, Moses’ face shone. Matthew’s account of the transfiguration also has Jesus’ face shining (17:2).
In Mark’s account the first major event is the transfiguration (metamorphosis). Jesus is changed before their eyes and his clothes become glistening white. While such splendour indicates belonging to the heavenly world, the transformation of a normal physical body into a spiritual body was part of the hope of the future resurrection. As Paul puts it, ‘We shall all be transformed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet’ (15:51-52). Paul is picturing what will happen to those who remain alive at the second coming of Jesus. In Mark 9:2-9 this is already seen as happening for Jesus, even if temporarily. We are being given an advance showing of the climax of history. It is what we might expect after 9:1 which speaks of the kingdom come in power.
So something is being said about Jesus both in the vertical dimension: heavenly; and in the horizontal dimension: he belongs to the vision of future hope. This last emphasis also explains some other elements in the story. Elijah was expected to come at the climax of history (Malachi 4:5-6). This hope reappears during the crucifixion where people think Jesus’ cry is for Elijah (15:35). Elijah is mentioned in 8:28 and also in 9:11-12, on the descent from the mountain, where the interpretation is offered: John the Baptist is to be seen as Elijah. Elijah is Mark’s main focus in 9:2-9, rather than Moses, so we are told they saw ‘Elijah with Moses’. There was also a common expectation, based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18 that in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear. This expectation also appears in 8:28. The words of Deut 18:18, ‘Listen to him!’ are picked up in the voice from heaven.
The complex tapestry of allusions continues with Peter’s suggestion that tents be erected for the three persons, probably reflecting the practice of the Feast of the Tabernacles when men and their sons spent time in such temporary huts in a reminder of the time Israel spent in the wilderness, but possibly also to be seen as an attempt by Peter to secure the experience in some tangible way – out of his ignorance and fear, as Mark explains. Cloud is common imagery related to the coming of divine presence. The Son of Man will come on clouds (14:62; cf. 8:38; see also 1 Thess 4:17, ‘caught up to meet him in the clouds’) and we have already noted the cloud at Sinai. The voice from heaven echoes the voice at the baptism of Jesus, in speaking of Jesus as God’s beloved son (1:11). It is spoken here to the disciples; there it was addressed to Jesus, himself. The effect is to remind us of who Jesus is. The remaining words, ‘Listen to him!’, put major emphasis on his teaching. In the context this will be teaching for disciples, but, alas, they will not show themselves good listeners but will pursue their ambitions of greatness (9:30-34; 10:33-45).
When 9:9 reports that Jesus instructed them not to tell what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, it is also making the point to us, the hearers and readers, that the meaning is not necessarily straightforward. – which we well know by now! If Mark had been producing a movie, we would be quite used to the technique of cutting to a symbolic scene which served as a commentary on the movie as a whole. The narrative of the transfiguration is similarly meant to be understood in the light of the whole of Jesus’ ministry, indeed, to throw light on it. That will include not only what has come to this point in Mark, but especially what follows. That is the point of the waiting in 9:9. The distinctive emphasis in what follows is the path of lowliness and suffering which the disciples fail to ‘hear’.
We are now in a position to try to hear what is being said. The vertical dimension links Jesus to the divine world, using Sinai imagery. We are being told: in this life of service and suffering we are receiving divine revelation such as was given to Moses on Sinai. Here is revelation of God’s way. The horizontal dimension is saying: this life is the ultimate criterion of what matters in the end. In him the values of the end and made known in the present. What human beings ultimately hope for is to be found in him. He is the Son in whom we can know the Father.
It is possible that Mark also links Moses with the Law and Elijah with the prophets, although I think this unlikely because the context does not suggest it. Rather the scene, like the baptism, is an instance of symbolic narrative alluding primarily to two complexes of tradition: expectations associated with the day of resurrection and revelation imagery of Sinai. It is a complex way of doing christology, celebrating who Jesus is. Mark’s use of the story connects so strongly to what follows that we can scarcely interpret it without reference to what Jesus’ disciples were to ‘listen to’ in the chapters which follow, namely lowliness and compassion. It is not just any elevation of Jesus which will do, but this particular one, which we appreciate when we know the whole story. Mark’s story reminds us that disciples, then and now, frequently get it wrong, through fear and ignorance and much else.
THE SEASON'S "BOOKENDS"
Both the Last Sunday (Transfiguration of Jesus) and the First Sunday (Baptism of Jesus) after the Epiphany are texts where God (a voice from heaven) makes Jesus known to the world. ("epiphany" = "to make known"). I've often wondered why Bible publishers don't print the words of God in a separate color: green for God, red for Jesus, ugly brown for demons, black for the narrative, etc. Note also that the "green" Epiphany Season begins and ends with "white" Sundays. The same is true of the "green" Pentecost Season, starting with Holy Trinity and ending with Christ the King.
SIX DAYS AFTER
Mark indicates that this event took place six days after something (Luke has "about eight days" 9:28) -- presumably it refers to those events that started with Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus' first "passion prediction" (Mk 8:27 ff.). More about this will come later.
Why tell us about the "six days"? This is perhaps a connection with Moses and the mountain from Exodus 24:15-16: "Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud."
A commentator on this passage also indicated that the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles occurs six days after the Day of Atonement.
THE INNER THREE
This is the second time the "inner three" are set apart in Mark. They witness the raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead in 5:37ff. It is then ironic that these three question what the rising from the dead could mean (9:9-10). The same word anistemi is used in both contexts.
The next time Jesus takes these three with him is in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:33). The three who have seen his power to raise the dead, who have seen his heavenly glory, also see his earthly agony. In these last two instances, they, especially Peter, respond poorly. On the mountain Peter wants to build booths. In the Garden they are to stay awake and pray, but they fall asleep three times.
WHY THE TRANSFIGURATION?
I wonder why there was this transfiguration/metamorphism of Jesus? What purpose(s) did it serve? Most of my answers to this question come from its possible role(s) within the narrative of Mark.
(1) to see the Kingdom of God coming in power.
One purpose is that it may be the event referred to in 9:1: "And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." These three disciples have seen the kingdom of God in all its power with the transfiguration of Jesus.
Going back another verse: Jesus said: "Those who are ashamed of me and of 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" (8:38). Do these words also point to the transfiguration? Do all three of these references: coming in glory, coming in power, the transfiguration; preview the parousia rather than the resurrection? I think that the transfiguration indicates that Jesus is the one who contains his Father's glory and the Kingdom's power. While that was experienced in part in the past and in the present, we are waiting for it to come in its fullness.
(2) connects (and contrasts) Jesus with the Law and prophets.
Another purpose is to indicate that Jesus fulfills the words of the Law and prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah on the mountain. We are told that they are speaking with Jesus, but we aren't told what they are talking about. I've always wondered how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. Did they have pictures of them hanging in their synagogues? Did they have their names over their pockets on their presumably white robes -- or perhaps their names were printed on the back, across their shoulders like football players? How they knew who they are is not a question our text answers. They are there representing the law and the prophets. In addition, there were traditions about both that they had never died -- Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, (not a chariot -- 2 Kings 2:1-11) and the fact that Moses' burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:5-8) led to the idea that he had been taken up by God. Origin (c.185-c.254) writes that the dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over Moses' body in Jude 9 comes from a little treatise entitled: "The Ascension of Moses." So there was a tradition that Moses had not died.
This event may also distinguish Jesus from "the prophets." The disciples had said that people think that Jesus might be one of the prophets (8:28). At the end of transfiguration, there is only Jesus. The "Law and prophets" have faded away. The one remaining is Jesus.
(3) connects Jesus with "mountaintop experiences" at down times.
Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) in commenting about the appearance of Moses and Elijah suggests:
The two great prophets represent those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh's epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission. In the story of Elijah, the great prophet has for his trouble become a man hunted by the authorities. He tries to flee, but is met by Yahweh who dispatches him back into the struggle (1 Kgs 19:11ff.). And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh's envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must thus ascend the mountain a second time (Ex 33:18ff.). Both stories are clearly instructive at this point in Mark's narrative. [p. 250]
(4) Jesus: a divine being.
The dazzling white clothes indicates a heavenly, rather than an earthly being (Dan 7:9; 12:3; Mk 16:5; Mt 28:3).
(5) the coming martyrdom of Jesus
Myers (Binding the Strong Man,) indicates that "in apocalyptic intertextuality, white garments came to symbolize the clothing of martyrs (as in the Book of Revelation, 3:5, 18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13).... We must conclude that in the transfiguration, following as it does directly upon the first portent and teaching of the cross, Jesus' new garment is symbolic of the martyr's white robes" [p. 350].
(6) another indication of disciples' blindness.
The disciples, once again, are unable to fully understand what's going on. Peter says, "It is good that we are here." Why is it good that they are here? Why is it good that people are at worship? Do they come to only see Jesus in all his glory and to try and capture that event with booths? Note that immediately after they come down from the mountain, they run into an argument between scribes and the other disciples, because they couldn't exorcise an evil spirit. This latter event is more typical of what happens in congregations than the glory experienced on the mountaintop. Jesus says: "You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?" (9:19). I'm not sure that we have progressed much from that first century crowd; but the place of ministry is down the mountain with the sick and demon possessed. Jesus, Elijah, and Moses in their glory on the mountain don't need to be ministered to.
Peter says, "We will build three booths." What are the skene that he plans to have them build? The word can mean a "tent" or "temporary shelter." It can mean "tabernacle" as a worship place (the dwelling place of God in the OT). It can mean a "house" -- a permanent dwelling place. Why would these three need houses? Perhaps he wants to "house" the event so that it will last forever. A clergy friend has diagnose Peter as having an "edifice complex."
Mark includes this critique of Peter: "For he did not know what he is saying. For they were terrified" (9:6), which Matthew omits. (Luke omits "They were terrified.") There are times in our lives when we don't know what to say. There are times when we are terrified. Can one have these defects and still be a disciple of Jesus? Peter proves we can.
I'm not sure that we would have done any better than Peter had we been on the mountain with Jesus, Moses and Elijah. I'm certain that we would prefer to dwell up on the mountain of glory rather than to live in the dirt and grime and filth and demonic down from the mountain. I'm certain that we would rather bask in the glory of divine light than to live in the humdrum of everyday life. We could easily have blurted out something just as stupid as Peter did. More about Peter later.
(7) disciples (and readers again) now hear God's declaration about Jesus.
At his baptism, only Jesus (and the readers) hear the words of the voice that declares Jesus to be "My son". Now the three disciples also hear the heavenly voice attest to this relationship. However, this knowledge didn't help them much in the garden. They fall asleep instead of pray (14:37-41). The run away, rather than follow (14:50). Hearing the witness from God didn't produce a lasting or deep faith that would see them through difficult times.
(8) a new commandment from God.
The voice gives the command: "Listen to him," "Listen" (akouete) is a present imperative, implying continuing action: "Keep on listening to him" or "Continue to listen to him." God gave Ten Commands in the OT. In the NT, we have this one command. (It should be printed in green.)
This command to listen contains enough possibilities for many sermons. Connected to Romans 10:17, we can conclude that the Christian faith comes through our ears: "So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ."
Connected with Luther's explanation to Holy Communion -- the benefits come through our ears: "The benefits of this sacrament are pointed out by the words...."
This could be an opportunity to talk about silence in worship so that we might better listen. Without explanation, silence in the liturgy can be interpreted as "somebody forgot something". It is an opportunity to unplug the noise from our ears and tune in to God. In a workshop I attended on Taize style worship, the presenter recommended that the length of time for extended silence (5 minutes or more) should be put in the bulletin, e.g., "10 minutes for silent meditation." Otherwise, as I mentioned earlier, people may think that someone forgot something.
This could be an opportunity to talk about the importance of listening to others in our evangelism efforts. Too often evangelism is seen as talking. Effective evangelism begins with listening. A course on witnessing has this wonderful analogy: "You don't throw a drowning person a sandwich -- no matter how good the sandwich might be." To know what aspect of the good news one needs to hear, the evangelist first needs to listen to hear the need. If one is hungry, a sandwich is good news. If one is drowning, a rope or a life-jacket is good news.
I'm sure that every church has a cadre of "doers." Unfortunately, sometimes these very valuable workers are not always willing to stop doing (or talking) and listen to God -- to come to and participate in Bible studies, to have private devotions, to practice silence in the presence of God, etc.
LISTEN TO WHAT?
What are they to listen to? While "all the words from Jesus" is a general answer, a more specific answer from our context is Jesus' teaching just before our text (8:31-38). In these verses, Jesus speaks words that the disciples (especially Peter) were unable to hear. Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about his passion. Peter doesn't want to listen to such words. Peter's problem, as Jesus indicates it, "You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (8:33). The same problem might be evident in his desire to build three booths.
What is ironic, is that just before this rebuking of Peter by Jesus, Peter's had made his good confession: "You are the Messiah" (8:29), but this knowledge about who Jesus is doesn't help Peter understand what Jesus will do -- suffer, die, and be raised. Peter rebukes him. Jesus wants him "behind him" and to set his mind on divine things.
In a similar way, in the transfiguration, they see who Jesus is: the glorified, beloved Son of God, but this revelation doesn't help Peter understand what they should do. He wants to build booths. God wants him to listen.
In the verses before our text, not only did the disciples turn a deaf ear to the words about Jesus' suffering, they also failed to hear his words about the subsequent resurrection.
A sermon theme I've used with this text is "Seeing with Your Ears."
While it probably wasn't a purpose in Mark's writing, it could be in a sermon from this text. In Exodus 33:17-23, Moses asks to be shown God's glory. God replies, "You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." Instead, God tells Moses to hide in the cleft of a rock and that he would be covered with God's hand until God has passed by. With the removal of the hand, Moses would see God's backside, but not God's face. (I've wondered if this is when God created the "moon".)
In the human Jesus, we are able to see God's face. The transfigured Jesus produced terror (ekphobos -- stronger than mere phobos 9:6) and the disciples were unable to relate properly to the glorified Jesus. With verse 8, we have the "ordinary" Jesus again -- one who relates to and carries on conversations with human disciples.
After weeks of miraculous healings, we return to a truth that I quoted from Myers (Binding the Strong Man,) with the first healing: "After all, in Mark the true impediments to discipleship have nothing to do with physical impairment, but with spiritual and ideological disorders: 'Having eyes can you not see? Having ears can you not hear?' (8:18)" [p. 149].
It is the same word (akouo) that is translated "hear" in 8:18 and "listen" in 9:7. 8:18 goes to say: "And do you not remember?" As I noted above, the three disciples do not seem to remember that Jesus had raised a young girl from the dead.
Our faith is about proper seeing and hearing and remembering. Generally, seeing, hearing, and remembering don't produce faith, but one's belief in God can produce changes in seeing, hearing, and remembering.
(9) a time to speak.
A final purpose in our text is that there is a time to speak. Often in Mark, Jesus gives the command of silence to those who have identified him or been healed by him: 1:25, 34, 43; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26, 30. The command of silence in 9:9 also has a time to speak of the event -- after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.
Perhaps we might suggest that an indication that we live on the other side of the resurrection is the willingness to tell the story to the world. It is no longer the time to be silent.
An illustration I've used is that when our children were small, we discovered that there were some words that we couldn't say at the supper table. As soon as we said words like "cookies, candy, or cake," our children didn't want to eat supper any more. They know what "cookies, candy and cake" mean, but they didn't seem to understand the word "later". They want the dessert now. They no longer want to eat the main course -- the more nutritious foods. If we let them eat the sweet stuff, we knew that they would have no room for the nutritious stuff. They would never have a healthy diet.
The glorification of Jesus is like the desserts. It needs to come at the end. It needs to come after the suffering and death. If we start with the "desserts," we may never get to salvific events. If we center only on the "desserts," we may find a lot people pretending to be Christians (or being "unhealthy" and "poorly fed" Christians), not really believing in or serving Jesus, not really willing to deny themselves and carry their crosses (part of what we are to "listen to"); but seeking an escape from their problems -- divine cures for sickness, financial worries, and the anxieties of life -- the glory on the mountain top.
Besides the theme of the disciples' blindness (or stupidity) in Mark, there is also the theme of Jesus' faithfulness to his blind disciples. Given the choice of glory on a mountain or death on a cross, which is more attractive? Jesus comes down the mountain. He will not give up on his disciples. He will not give up his divine mission for the sake of all humanity.
There is a significant part of the speech at the empty tomb in Mark that is not included in the other accounts: "But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." Throughout Mark, Peter is pictured as a bumbling idiot -- usually doing and saying the wrong things; but he is also highlighted after the resurrection as one to whom Jesus will personally appear. Then, Peter may "get the picture." Then, he, and all the other disciples, are to spread the word about Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.
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