Summary of the Text
The Gospel of Mark presents two clear phases of Jesus’ ministry. The first phase (chapters 1-8) takes place in Galilee. It is characterized by words and deeds of power and authority. The second phase (chapters 9-16) turns toward Jerusalem and is characterized by the passion and persecution of Jesus.
Our text today comes at the end of phase one. It is on the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the anointed one of Israel in chapter 8. The metamorphosis on the mountain serves as a confirmatory stamp of the divine origin of this messianic mission. It is also a pivotal turning point in the Gospel of Mark linking the two phases of Jesus’ ministry. It acts as a bridge for the reader between the wonderfully powerful Jesus presented in Galilee and the dissonance created by the suffering and dying Jesus that would follow.
As Craig Evans says on page 35 of his Word Biblical Commentary, “The evangelist must assure his readers that Jesus still enjoys heaven’s favors and that his mission still has validity. The evangelist achieves this by a heavenly endorsement where not only do we hear God again claiming Jesus as his son, but we witness Jesus in the company of two of ancient Israel’s greatest figures: Moses and Elijah.”
Jesus’ transfiguration, metamorphosis, or change of form, is reminiscent of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Sinai in Exodus 24:16-18,
The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain…
It also parallels closely to the prophet Daniel’s vision, Daniel 7:9, 13-14,
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire…and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.
We will see a similar epiphany in Revelation 1:14-15 when the resurrected and ascended Jesus appears before John on the Isle of Patmos, “The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace…”
Below, are a few additional notes for the preacher on this text that may be helpful as he or she explores the theme of the transfiguration this week:
1. The transfiguration of Jesus extends the season of Epiphany before the journey of Lent begins. As Grant Osborne mentions in Baker’s Teach the Text: Commentary Series, Mark, page 152, “…this is an epiphany story in which God reveals the preexistent glory of his Son as the majestic Lord and eschatological Moses.”
2. The transfiguration of Jesus, as mentioned before in the discussion of this text as a bridge between the two phases of Jesus’ ministry, is a vocalization of God’s pleasure with Jesus and his task at hand. At Jesus’ baptism in Mark 1:11 the voice of the Father from heaven speaks directly to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” In the transfiguration, Mark 9:7, the intended audience are Jesus’ disciples, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” It is helpful to note that at the appearance of Moses and Elijah, Peter in both his fear and fandom was ready to build tents for Jesus and the first and last of the greatest prophets of Israel (a resemblance of the Feast of Booths and its seven-day commemoration of Israel’s time in the wilderness). God will have none of this. It is Jesus alone whom God describes as his beloved Son and it is he alone who now carries the mantle of truth forward. To hammer this point home, the text immediately following the voice of the Lord (v. 8) says, “And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.”
3. The transfiguration evokes fear as evidenced in Peter’s response to Jesus’ radical change in appearance and audience with God and the prophets. With some cajoling, we can get our hands around a miracle worker, a man with more confidence and chutzpah than the rest of the clan, who knows his way, proclaims it, and profoundly changes others through his presence, a Tony Robbins-like-confidence that one can conquer the world, but for that individual to be glorified in the way of Jesus on the lonely mountain peak is quite a different story. How often are we in awe of Jesus’ messianic ministry of word and wonder and undone by his incomprehensible and inexplicable divine Sonship?
4. The transfiguration is to be a secret, at least for a while. Jesus charges his disciples in verse 9, “to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Thanks to William Wrede’s 1901 Book, The Messianic Secret, many have performed theological gymnastics to explain the gospel’s intention. Craig Evans shares a simple and profound expression of the messianic secret in the Word Biblical Commentary on Mark, page 16. The experience cannot be shared until it can be proclaimed in the context of the passion, “The Messianic secret…is part of the evangelist’s strategy to heighten the awesomeness of Jesus and at the same time give definition to Jesus and Messiahship.” The true wonder will be that the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 will be the glorious messianic king of Psalm 2:6-8, “‘As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.’ I will tell of the decree: The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.” Peter will indeed declare at a later time in reference to this experience, “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 ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:17-18).
Jesus fulfills his mission from Mark 1:14, that the “kingdom of God is at hand” by enacting not only the words but the works of the kingdom. Mark’s stress on the swift and immediate flow of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in chapter one reflects the “nearness” and “immediacy” of the kingdom. The remainder of Mark’s Gospel uses the word euthus more sparingly, but his near overuse to this point has set the scene for his readers of the the impending Kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.
The glory of Christ is such, that it is of a transforming nature. It’s of a powerful nature: it changes all that behold it into the same image; it reaches to the bottom of the heart, to the most inner soul; it is a sight that purifies and beautifies.
God’s Glory and a Surpassing Beauty
God’s “glory”: the phrase means, no doubt, that when people eventually see God the sight is astonishingly bright and dazzling. But beyond that it also means that it is surpassingly lovely and beautiful. We don’t talk as much about the beauty of God as we do about the glory of God, but glory surely embraces beauty, and a sense of awe and delight, as well as simply a sense of utterly dazzling light. And this is because God’s glory, ultimately, is the revelation, the shining of who God actually is. In the gospel we discover that God is at Heart the God of total self-giving love.
The experience is a bit like traveling alone, away from the people we love, and having nobody around with whom we can relax, with whom we can be friendly. And then somebody we know comes to meet us, in an airport or railway station, or when we finally arrive back home. Our hearts are warmed, deeply comforted, by this sudden presence of somebody with whom we can be truly ourselves. someone who will give themselves to us.
That is a very pale illustration of what it’s like when you are away from God, not knowing who you are, not knowing who God is, and then you discover that the God who made the world is the God of utter self-giving love who longs to be there for you; to give himself to you and help you discover who you are.
All of this is contained in the remarkable claim that “God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God.” We can know God deeply inside ourselves, in the face of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one. When Paul says the word “Jesus,” he never forgets that this is the Jesus who died on the cross. If we want to know who God really is, we don’t discover it by forgetting that Jesus died on the cross, by skipping past that and going on to what, seems so obviously like “glory.” We discover it as we look at the face which is crowned with the crown of thorns.