Mark 9, 2-9
TITLE: Manifestation and Mission
SCRIPTURE: Mark 9:2-9
EXEGESIS: (Top of page)
CHAPTERS 8-9: THE CONTEXT
The story of the transfiguration is located almost exactly at the mid-point of this Gospel, and is the climax of its turning point, which began with Peter's confession (8:29). 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 confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (8:27-30), and Jesus foretells his death and resurrection -- to which Peter expresses serious objection (8:31-33) -- and then Jesus begins to teach his disciples the sacrificial nature of discipleship (8:34-38).
Following these words of sacrifice and death, the transfiguration reaffirms Jesus' identity, reveals his glory, and calls the disciples to listen to him. "It meant the validation of Jesus, that Jesus' interpretation of the role of the Messiah was true, that in spite of the shock which the proclamation of his own suffering and approaching death gave them, he was the Lord's anointed, 'my beloved Son' " (Luccock, 775).
The section of this Gospel in which the transfiguration story is told is bounded on both ends by the healing of a blind man (8:22 - 10:52) -- but the disciples remain blind throughout. Peter makes a good start by identifying Jesus as the Messiah (8:29), but his response to Jesus' prediction of his death make it clear that he expects a different kind of Messiah than Jesus offers. "Peter's confession has the right words but the wrong meaning" (Craddock 127).
During the transfiguration itself (vv. 2-9), Jesus does not speak even one word. In 9:1, however, which concludes the section where Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, Jesus promises, "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." Indeed, 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 other 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. The transfiguration, then, "cannot be convincingly interpreted as a misplaced resurrection story" (Hooker, 214).
Immediately after the transfiguration story, Jesus and the three disciples descend from the mountaintop into a very un-mountaintop situation. 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 problem is the disciples' lack of faith and prayer.
VERSES 2-4: AND HE WAS TRANSFIGURED BEFORE THEM
2Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured (Greek: metemorphothe -- was changed or transformed) before them, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
This account has a number of points in common with the story of Moses at Sinai (Exod. 24, 34). In the Exodus account, Moses was accompanied by three men (Exod. 24:9; Mark 9:2); a cloud covered the mountain for six days, and God spoke from the cloud (Exod. 24:16; Mark 9:2, 7); Moses saw, at least in part, God's glory (Exod. 33:17-23; Mark 9:3); the skin of Moses' face shone dazzling bright (Exod. 34:30; Mark 9:3); the people of Israel were afraid (Exod. 34:30); and on coming down from the mountain, Moses encountered faithless "disciples" (32:7-8; Mark 9:14-29).
"After six days, of course, means that this narrative takes place on the seventh day. The number seven is a favorite of Jewish writers of the first century for signaling the presence and purpose of God" (Allen, 32).
Peter, James, and John constitute Jesus' inner circle. Jesus will choose them to accompany him at particularly sensitive moments, such as the healing of Jairus' daughter (5:37) his 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.
The location on a high mountain (v. 2) is more significant theologically than geographically. Mount Hermon best fits the description of this mountain, 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).
On this high mountain, Jesus is transfigured (Greek: metemorphothe -- changed or transformed) before them. This 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. "The verb occurs only four times in the Greek Bible (9:2; Matt 17:2; Rom 12:2; 2 Cor 3:18), and in each instance it denotes a radical transformation…. In Mark's transfiguration narrative, metamorphoun does not signify a change in Jesus' nature but rather an outward visible transformation of his appearance to accord with his nature" (Edwards, 263).
Jesus' clothing becomes dazzling white, like the snow-white clothing of the Ancient of days in Daniel 7:9. In that account, "behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, 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" (7:13-14). Mark also uses the phrase, Son of Man, 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: "Wherefore God also hath highly exalted (Jesus), and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:9-11 ).
This glimpse of Christ's glory speaks more loudly than any words to promise these disciples that Jesus' prediction of suffering and death hardly constitutes the whole picture. Jesus will undergo suffering and death and so will his disciples, but their final destination will be glory.
"And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses" (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. Edwards sees it differently, saying that "the Greek has Elijah appearing with Moses, which seems to imply a certain subordination of Elijah to Moses" (Edwards, 265). Matthew (17:3) and Luke (9:30) "correct" Mark's order, placing Moses' name before Elijah's.
It has oft been noted that Moses was the great lawgiver and Elijah the great prophet, so that these two men embody the Law and the Prophets. However, if it were Mark's intent to have these two 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, and some rabbis held that Moses did not die either -- but Deut. 34:5-6 records Moses' death and burial. One solid connection is that Moses and Elijah both experienced dramatic encounters with God on mountains.
Geddert analyzes it this way, "Moses is the precursor and Elijah the preparer (Mal. 4:5-6). Elijah's preparatory role is much more strongly emphasized in Mark, explaining the order in which they are listed…. According to Malachi, final preparations for God's intervention include careful attention to the commands God gave Moses on the mountain (4:4), and a spiritual renewal initiated by the returned Elijah (4:5-6)…. (However), Elijah and Moses may make an appearance, but Jesus is the central figure" (Geddert, 219).
Lane adds, "It was appropriate that Jesus, whose work was inaugurated in the wilderness at his baptism and whose way through the desert was directed by the Spirit (Ch. 1:9-13), should be accompanied in this moment of high revelation by the eminent prophets of the wilderness who stand by his side to testify to his character and mission" (Lane, 319).
VERSES 5-6: LET US MAKE THREE DWELLINGS
5Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings (Greek: skenas -- booths or tabernacles), one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
It seems odd that Peter should refer to Jesus as rabbi so soon after confessing him as Messiah (8:29). However, the word rabbi means teacher and, until now, Jesus has conducted a teaching/healing ministry. 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, he feels compelled to say something.
Peter also feels a need to do something. When one is befuddled, it sometimes helps to be busy doing something -- anything. Peter is overwhelmed at being in the company of the Messiah and these two great prophets, and feels a need to do something -- anything -- 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 (Lev. 23:42-44), which commemorates the Exodus and the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. Mark shows his disdain for Peter's suggestion by telling us that Peter did not know what to say because they (presumably 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 as the gathering of the faithful. It was "understood by many as looking ahead to the glorious day of Israel's deliverance" (Evans, 242).
But Jesus does not authorize Peter to follow through with his suggestion to build booths:
-- Perhaps because Peter is trying to prolong this great experience rather than getting back to the ordinary day-to-day work of discipleship.
-- Perhaps because Peter proposes equal treatment for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, not realizing the degree to which Moses and Elijah are subordinate to Jesus.
-- Perhaps because Peter is trying to take charge -- to gain control of the situation when he should be watching and listening. This idea gains credibility from v. 7, in which 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 by a situation wholly unlike anything that we have ever experienced. Would we have done better if Jesus had taken us up that mountain? Probably not!
VERSES 7-8: THIS IS MY SON, THE BELOVED; LISTEN TO HIM
7Then a cloud overshadowed (Greek: episkiazousa -- cast a shade upon -- enveloped -- overshadowed) them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
Throughout the scriptures, a cloud symbolizes the presence of God, beginning with the pillar of cloud that led the Israelites through the wilderness by day (Exod. 13:21). The most obvious parallel is the cloud that covered Mount Sinai when Moses ascended it (Exod. 24:15ff), but the examples of God's presence in clouds are too numerous to list. On the Mount of Transfiguration, the cloud episkiazousa -- overwhelms them. This is the same verb that is used to describe the power of the Most High overshadowing Mary (Luke 1:35), which results in her conceiving the child who will be Son of God/Son of Man.
God speaks from the cloud, just as he spoke from the cloud at Sinai (Exod. 24:16).
"This is my Son, the Beloved" (v. 7). These are very nearly the same words that God spoke at Jesus' baptism, except that at the baptism God addressed Jesus, while on the mount God addresses the disciples.
"Listen to him." This is reminiscent of Deut 18:15, where Moses tells the people, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed (Heb. shama -- hear) such a prophet." The three disciples have been accustomed to being with Jesus, and were, perhaps, in special awe at the appearance of Elijah and Moses. From childhood on, these disciples have been taught to reverence the words of Moses especially, but also of Elijah. Now the voice from the cloud tells them to listen to Jesus. It is not that Moses and Elijah are no longer significant, 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 us 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 the disciples look around and see that 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.
VERSE 9: HE ORDERED THEM TO TELL NO ONE
9As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
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 ordered them to tell no one." 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). Only here on the mount, though, does he give a time limit. 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.
SERMON: (Top of page)
Today I invite us to consider the relation between God’s manifestation and our mission. In the name of the God who makes himself known: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Often enough it seems that when God is manifest, someone is entrusted with a mission. And often that manifestation occurs when someone is in the midst of a crisis. The divine manifestation comes to someone who seems an unlikely choice to be entrusted with a mission.
Consider an example from the Old Testament, namely Moses. A native of Egypt, raised in Pharaoh’s palace, he is nonetheless of Hebrew stock, and when he sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew, he kills the Egyptian and buries his body in the sand. The murder becomes public knowledge, and Moses flees for his life. He makes a new life for himself in the desert. He marries, settles down, and works for his father-in-law as a shepherd. Yet this is existence in exile, far from home. It seems like the other end of the world from Egypt’s regal splendor.
But he is not so far away that God cannot find him. The divine voice calls out to him from a mysterious burning bush. This God of his ancestors goes on to do more than reveal himself to Moses. There is not just God’s manifestation. Moses is entrusted with a mission. He is to go and do something: liberate the people from their slavery.
Consider another Old Testament example. Elijah the prophet is a marked man. His opposition to idolatry and injustice in the midst of spiritual and social confusion has placed him among a persecuted minority. Indeed, it seems to him that he is alone, utterly alone, in standing up for the name of the Lord. And so Elijah the fugitive seeks refuge in a cave. It’s there he spends the night.
And in the deep darkness of that place the Lord calls out to him, and speaks to him in sheer silence. God does more than make himself known to his beleaguered prophet. God does more than console his loyal servant. Elijah does not simply witness a manifestation. He is entrusted with a mission. He is to go and do something: designate new leadership who will restore authentic religion and true justice. He is to initiate a new and unexpected beginning.
Let us turn our attention now to a New Testament example, one that concerns the disciples of Jesus, especially his inner circle: Peter, James, and John. These followers are experiencing confusion and turmoil. Peter has identified Jesus as the messiah, yet Jesus has made it clear that he’s a different sort of messiah than anyone imagined: rather than the triumphant sacred king they were hoping for, Jesus asserts that he is a messiah destined to suffer. He tells his disciples what awaits him is rejection and execution and resurrection. They find this mighty hard to swallow.
It’s only a few days later that something happens that had never happened before. Jesus and his inner circle are on a mountain top alone. There he is transfigured, and radiates an unearthly light. Leaders from Israel’s ancient past appear with him: Moses and Elijah. A cloud overshadows the entire scene, and from the cloud a voice thunders, identifying Jesus as the Son of the Most High, the one the disciples should hear and heed. Suddenly Moses and Elijah are gone, leaving Jesus alone with his disciples.
There is wondrous manifestation here: the glory of Jesus bursts forth as never before. But is there mission? Yes, and in two ways. First, the command from heaven to listen to Jesus. Mission is announced in another way once everyone has left the mountain. Jesus then charges his disciples to keep what they witnessed a secret until he has risen from the dead. This remarkable event can only be understood in the context of an event even more remarkable: the empty tomb and the resurrected Lord. Then the disciples will be let loose to tell the world.
They are to go and do something. Listen to Jesus and then proclaim the full truth of Jesus. And they are to do this not as they choose, but when God would have them do so, when the time is right.
What happened to Moses, to Elijah, and to Peter, James, and John happens to us as well. I don’t mean the burning bush, the sound of sheer silence, or the mountaintop transfiguration. What I mean is the pattern which is apparent in all these incidents.
We find ourselves in trouble, anxiety, confusion, and in the midst of that unwanted experience, God is manifest in some new, fresh, and unexpected way. But what happens is something more than manifestation. There is also mission. We are to go and do something: not just anything, nor simply what we want, but what God would have us do to serve his great and good purposes.
There on the mount of Transfiguration, overcome with amazement, Peter is ready to build three shelters--for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah--in order to commemorate this extraordinary event. His plan comes to nothing, and that is just as well, for here too is part of the pattern that can mark our lives.
When we encounter God’s glory, when the Lord is specially manifest to us, perhaps in the midst of trouble, anxiety, and confusion, we cannot rest content with raising memorial shelters, with building a museum, with placing the occasion in the scrapbook of our minds. We are invited to something far larger than this. God entrusts us with a mission.
Our response can be to go and do something: not just anything, not simply what we want, but what God would have us do when God would have us do it. May we generously accept the part offered to us in the building of a new world, for this is what God is about.