Mark 9:1-8. The mountain at the middle of the book.

“And he said to them, “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.” And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them and a voice came out of the cloud “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them, but Jesus only.” (Mark 9:1-8)

 Irritating children often go through a “Yes, but why?” phase where they continually ask you why something is the way it is, and any explanation you offer is met with a further “Why?”

“Daddy, why is the sky blue?”

“Because, O my son, of Rayleigh scattering.”

“Why Rayleigh scattering?”

“Because a man named Rayleigh described the fact that particles in the atmosphere scatter blue light more than red light. This, my child, is why the sky is not black like space, and also why sunsets and sunrises are mostly red.”

“Why do particles in the atmosphere do that?”

“Because of their inherent properties of reflection and refraction.”

“Why do they have inherent properties?”

“Because God made them that way.”

“Why did God make them that way?”

“Because he is a God who loves beauty, and he decided that blue was the right colour for the sky.”

“Why is he a God who loves beauty?”

“Because he is.”

 The answer at the bottom of all the “Why?” questions is always “Because God is.” But all the explanations in between show us something about God’s character.

 So…

  1. Why does the transfiguration happen here?
  2. Why does Jesus say that some of the disciples won’t die until they see the kingdom of God come with power?
  3. Why after 6 days?
  4. Why Peter, James and John?
  5. Why up a high mountain?
  6. Why radiant white clothes?
  7. Why Moses and Elijah?
  8. Why does Peter want to make tents?
  9. Why does a cloud overshadow them?
  10. Why does the voice say what it says?
  11. Why do the disciples see Jesus only?

 1. Why does the transfiguration happen here?

By “here”, I don’t mean “here geographically”- we’ll come to that question later. I mean, “here in the Gospel”. Why does the transfiguration happen at this point in Mark’s Gospel, and at this point in Jesus’ life and ministry?

 9:1 is part of the earlier passage in chapter 8, and links the dialogue in chapter 8 into the transfiguration. In chapter 8, we thought about Jesus’ words to his disciples concerning suffering. Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say that I am?”, and Peter said that the disciples thought Jesus was the Christ. Others might not know what to think of Jesus, but the disciples; those who had been with him daily, observed him closely; they knew that he wasn’t Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the Prophets- he was the Christ, the Messiah.

And then Jesus began to teach them that he was going to suffer and to die. The Messiah, the king of all the earth, was going to the cross. And his followers could expect the same (8:34-35). This would surprise them. In fact, it would more than surprise them- it would turn their whole world upside-down.

Think for a moment about these 12 disciples, and place yourself in their sandals. They have left all they had to follow Jesus. Some of them have left wives and children, some of them have left parents and career, all of them have left home and hearth. They’ve signed on as followers of Jesus. They’ve joined themselves to this wandering preacher. And why? Because they think he is the Messiah. They think he’s the king God promised to Israel, the one who would make everything right. They expect him to take his throne and start reigning, with them at his side. They might have expected some temporary hardship- they had already had some of it, sleeping rough half the time and making enemies of the Pharisees and teachers of the law- but they didn’t expect their Messiah to die. In their minds, the Messiah couldn’t die- because death would mean defeat, and the Messiah couldn’t be defeated. By definition, he had to be victorious, to establish his kingdom- otherwise he wouldn’t be the Messiah at all. Some of the disciples might die defending him, and there would doubtless be battles along the way, but Jesus himself had to live. So they thought, and so Peter said to Jesus (8:32). But Jesus knew that the crown would be won only through the cross. He would willingly lay down his life, to redeem the new humanity from it’s fallenness – and then he would reign over them forever. But the disciples hadn’t understood that at all. Jesus told them plainly that his kingship would be in two parts, as it were. He says to them that he has come now to suffer and to die, and he says to them that he will come again in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

But the disciples are shaken. They’ve given up everything to follow this man, and now the man starts saying mad stuff. They’ve pinned their hopes, staked their lives, on Jesus as king. But now their king starts saying that he’s going to die, and that they’ve all got to get ready to die too. They need reassurance. They need to be shown that Jesus is God’s king, and that what he says can’t be wrong. Jesus has just made this big shift in his teaching to his disciples, just introduced this new element, and their reaction is one of horror and incomprehension. Jesus knew that, and so did his Father, and therefore Jesus is revealed in glory at this point. The time-barriers are broken down for a moment. Figures from the past appear, and Jesus is seen as he will be in the future. The disciples can be reassured that their faith is not in vain.

 2.Why does Jesus say that some of the disciples won’t die until they see the kingdom of God come with power?

Having spoken about death and cross-bearing, Jesus then made this statement (9:1) – that there were some among his hearers who would not taste death- who would not experience dying- until after the kingdom of God had come with power. He then showed himself in power, as the king. From the flow of the Gospel, it seems pretty plain that Jesus was referring to the transfiguration as a demonstration of the kingdom of God coming with power- as indeed it was.

Admittedly this is enigmatic, because Jesus’ words seem at first glance to refer to the second coming or at least to the ascension. After all, that is what Jesus has just been speaking of in 8:38- the Son of Man coming in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.  But Jesus didn’t expect to come again so soon, not while the disciples were still alive. So it couldn’t be about the second coming, could it?

There is a difference in the wording of 9:1 and 8:38- Jesus speaks now not of the coming of the Son of Man but of the Kingdom of God. But then it has been seen in Mark so far that these two- the kingdom of God and the person of Jesus- are inextricably linked. The kingdom has been brought near with Jesus’ coming, his miracles, his authority and power in defeating forces hostile to God. So we are back at the second coming again.

Yet Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all record this statement and all follow it with the account of the transfiguration of Jesus before a small group of those who were standing there. The Gospel writers obviously saw the prediction that some of these standing there would see the kingdom come in glory as being fulfilled in the transfiguration.

The “kingdom of God come with power”, is a reference to the resurrection, ascension, and the sending of God’s Spirit, and ultimately, indeed, of the second coming. But the transfiguration is a foretaste of this glory. The disciples are meant to be encouraged that their faith is not in vain. Their Messiah will rise again, will be vindicated, will be shown to be the beloved Son of God. They are right to hope in his kingdom, for he shall establish it. And this transfiguration is a momentary collapsing of the time-barriers, a glimpse of the future. Jesus is seen there as he will be. He is seen as the king, as God come to earth. 8:38 and 9:1 are looking at the same thing from different perspectives. Essential to both is the contrast between the hidden character of Jesus’ earthly ministry and the revealed character of his final coming. The first warns those who would disown the hidden king, saying that he will one day be revealed. The second encourages those who do share the sufferings of the king, for they shall also share his shining glory.

 And we’ve now basically answered all the other questions. All of the details in this account point to Jesus’ glory as the anointed beloved king of God.

 3. Why after 6 days?

4. Why Peter, James and John?

5. Why up a high mountain?

 After 6 days, a few close disciples, a high mountain… Where are we in the Old Testament?

After 6 days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John-the same three as accompanied Jesus into the room where Jairus’ daughter lay dead, and the same three who Jesus drew aside with him in the garden of Gethsemane- up a high mountain. Significance?

 We’ve looked a bit at the Hebrew mindset- with Heaven being up and the grave/Sheol being below. We looked at the way the world was made- the heavens and the earth in the beginning; and then the “second” heaven afterwards to separate the water above from the waters beneath, made as a picture of the “first” heaven. That sets the scene for a conceptual cosmology in which God’s dwelling place is “up there”.

And right at the start of human history, we have the garden of Eden on the holy mountain of the Lord. Adam is holy, and lives on the holy mountain and God comes to walk with him. That is possible in a pure clean world. God can come down and walk with men as a friend and counsellor.

In contrast to that, we have Sinai, post-fall, where the mountain is part of the cursed earth. When the holy God comes down to the cursed mountain, he cannot come as a friend and guide as though things were still cosy between him and mankind. He comes with fire and earthquakes. The mountain trembles and blazes. It is set apart as a holy mountain- like Eden was- but now that means that it is out of bounds. Nobody can go up on it except by express invitation. The penalty for going up on it is death- even for animals who stray onto it. It is set apart as a holy mountain, and God comes down to it, standing on a floor of sapphire, blue as the sky. Because God is holy, and the world no longer is, there is fire and thunder on the mountaintop, and the Israelites are terrified and beg Moses to go up and speak to God for them.

Sinai is the great mountain of the OT, and it is Sinai to which Mark alludes with references to 6 days and to a few close disciples. But even between Eden and Sinai, we have had the Ark- the tallest structure in the world at that point- with Noah living on the top deck; we have had Babel- man’s attempt to build a mountain of his own; and we have had Jacob’s vision of a stairway to heaven with angels going up and down- Jacob’s hope was that the vision would become reality, that the bridge between heaven and earth could be remade.

 All through the OT, we have altars, which look like Sinai. They are mini-mountains, representing the cursed earth (which is why they are square- the earth has four corners in a Hebrew conceptual cosmology). They are connections between the earth and heaven, and so they have fire on top, and an innocent victim must be consumed there.

In this case, perhaps Ex 24:15 is especially in view. The Israelites have arrived at Sinai, and God invites a select group- Moses, Joshua, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders of Israel- to come and meet him on the holy mountain. These men eat with God on the mountainside, and then all bar two are sent back down to the camp. Moses and Joshua camp out for 6 days on the mountain, and then after 6 days, Moses is summoned to the mountaintop and given a revelation of God. Mark uses OT allusions to establish the significance of what he records.

There are applications running all through the whole mountain/altar idea about God’s greatness and majesty, his holiness and purity. But ultimately, we are meant to look at Christ as the fulfillment of it all. In him, it finds its fullest expression. He is the real sacrifice consumed. He is the proper link between heaven and earth. He is the greater Moses going up the mountain on behalf of his people. He is God, calling his disciples up the mountain.

 6. Why radiant white clothes?

 Jesus is changed in appearance before them. He blazes with glory, the veil of his humanity is lifted for a moment, and he is seen in the splendour of his majesty. He has dazzling white clothes- white like snow, and yet unlike snow. He shone like the sun, or like lightning, and yet unlike these things. This is seen from the reaction of the disciples to all this (v. 3). They were terrified (v. 6). From Luke we learn that the transfiguration probably occurred at night, which no doubt made the whole thing more terrifying

Where is this drawn from? Maybe the priests clothed in white linen. Maybe Moses’ shining face (Ex 34:30, cf Lk 9:29, which mentions Jesus’ face). But in Mark, Jesus is more like God himself. Mark is probably thinking of Daniel’s description of the Ancient of Days, who appears in Daniel’s vision (Dan 7:9f). Daniel sees the Ancient of Days seated on a throne of fiery flames, in clothes as white as snow. And one like a Son of Man comes to him, and is given dominion, glory, and a kingdom over all nations which shall not pass away. Jesus has claimed the title of the Son of Man for himself a few verses ago, but here, he is seen as clothed in the robes of the Ancient of Days. This is Divine glory. He wears his Father’s robe.

Where else in the Bible does Jesus appear in shining light? The Damascus road, (and Rev 1:9-18). The transfiguration shows Jesus as he will be eternally, the shining Son of God, with power and dominion, and a kingdom. It is a collapsing of the constraints of time.

 7. Why Moses and Elijah?

Moses and Elijah also appear before the three disciples on the mountain, and talk with Jesus. Again, it is a collapse of time, but why Moses and Elijah?

These men are the two key figures in the OT. There are many many heroes and great men in the history of Israel, but two men really stand tall even among the giants. Moses was the founder of Israel, the one who received the law and gave it to the people. Under God, he took them out of Egypt. He judged them for 40 years in the wilderness. He was the father of the nation.

And Elijah was the one who brought Israel back from idolatry under Ahab and Jezebel. The nation was almost apostate. The covenant was held by a thread. Elijah himself once prayed for God to end it all, to cut off his covenant with his people and abandon them. He thought that he was the only faithful man left in the whole country, and he prayed that God would kill him and so stop the whole show. But Elijah was used to preserve a faithful remnant among a disobedient people. He was used to put a stop to Baalism just as it seemed likely to become the official religion of Israel.

There are remarkable similarities between these men- both Moses and Elijah fasted for forty days in the wilderness, both withstood tyranny, both met with God on the mountain, both led and delivered their people. And in all those respects, they are only shadows of the greater leader, who is Jesus.

These are key figures of the OT. “The law and the prophets”, was the phrase used to describe the Old Testament- and the law and the prophets are represented by these two men. They are probably the two witnesses of Revelation 11 (On Moses, see Ex 7:11, 19. On Elijah, see 2 Kg 1:10). They are the two men who met with God on mount Sinai. But here on this mountain, these two great figures appear to do homage to a greater man than either of them. They meet with God again.

 8. Why does Peter want to make tents?

Peter then babbles about making tents. What is Peter’s intent? Mark knew Peter very well, and probably got most of the material for his Gospel from Peter. His comments here show that Peter, looking back, knew that he hadn’t understood at all, knew that he was just speaking out of turn. He was frightened, and just spoke without thinking about what he was saying. He spoke so that he might not remain silent.

But even so, why would talk about putting up tents be what sprang to his lips? Admitting that he was letting his mouth move without engaging his brain, it is still significant that the talk that naturally came out of his mouth was about tents. And what is actually wrong with his suggestion?

Is Peter thinking of booths of intertwined branches (Lev 23:42) erected for the Feast of Tabernacles, or of the skin tent of meeting (Ex 27:1) where God rested? Both would carry the idea of God dwelling among his people, but it is probably the booths Peter is thinking of. Giving to heavenly messengers the dwelling reserved for God is unlikely from a good Jew like Peter.

So see Ezk 37:27, 43:7,9, Joel 3:21, Zech 2:1, 8:3,8, 14:16-19 for God dwelling amid his people, but more importantly see Lev 23:42-44 and Neh 8:14-17 on the Feast of Tabernacles.

At this festival, several things were celebrated. It was a harvest thanksgiving, and an exodus thanksgiving, and a remembrance of God’s sovereignty, and a festival of hope for the final consummation. It would be an exciting family occasion. Israelites would all gather together in the big city, see friends and family, and live in tents for a week. Tents were erected , and the vistors and inhabitants of Jerusalem lived in them, in order to commemorate the exodus years when they had to live in tents, and to look ahead to the kingdom of God when all the nations of the world would join with Israel in observing the feast (Zech 14).

There is a lot of theology behind Peter’s thoughtless statement. Peter read Zechariah. Perhaps he expected that one of the things Messiah would do would be to hold a renewed feast of tabernacles. Perhaps Peter thinks that the kingdom now has come, that God was about to bring in the reign of righteousness, that Jesus, Moses, and Elijah would rule from this mountain as the nations flocked to them. It is wholly understandable in one sense. After all, he has just seen the glory of the Lord Jesus as the great king- the glory which Jesus will have when he comes to rule the earth. His trouble is that he recognised that that this is the glory of the promised kingdom, but does not recognise that it is only a momentary glimpse. He wants to build 3 tabernacles, so that God’s people can come to worship God. He thinks that the glory is here now, and is here permanently- that this is the promised kingdom, even though the sufferings Jesus has just been speaking of haven’t yet happened. Peter still hasn’t grasped, despite Jesus rebuke of him in the last chapter, that the blessing of the new covenant, to be shared by all God’s people, cannot be secured until Jesus has died. Jesus’ announcement of his suffering is necessary preparation for this revelation, but the disciples still don’t understand this.

 9. Why does a cloud overshadow them?

10. Why does the voice say what it says?

11. Why do the disciples see Jesus only?

Also mistaken is the implicit assumption of Moses’ and Elijah’s equality with Jesus. God’s response to Peter’s suggestion is very clear. The glory-cloud descends and the voice is heard. In this baptism of light, the Father speaks as He did at Jesus’ baptism of water (v.7). And then suddenly the disciples found themselves alone with Jesus (v.8).

The cloud is the symbol of God’s presence. (Ex  13:21, 16:1, 19:9, 24:15-18, 34:5, 40:34-38), and further developed in the day of atonement, and hundreds of other instances. He hides himself in a cloud, to protect his people from looking on him. The whole scene bears resemblance most strongly to Sinai- it is a recasting of that theophany with Jesus as the central figure.

The voice says that Jesus is the beloved son, just like at Jesus’ baptism. God identifies Jesus as a man of unparalleled glory and divine favour, and it is a phrase redolent of kingly psalms (Ps 2:7) as well as of the servant songs of Isaiah and Isaac in Gen 22:2.

The instruction to listen to him is an echo of the prophecy of Moses, where Moses predicts another prophet to be raised up after him. Deut 18:15. “to him you shall listen” Moses is here on the mountain, giving his assent to the new Moses, endorsing him as the one he had spoken of. Jesus is the authoritative prophet. His words are God’s.

And that is also why Mark tells us that the disciples “saw Jesus only”. A moment ago, they had been looking at Jesus and Moses and Elijah. But now those two great men have vanished. Jesus alone remains. He is the sole bearer of revelation- to be fully disclosed in the cross and the empty grave. Moses and Elijah are only witnesses. Jesus alone is the Son of God, shining with glory.

 This passage is all a glimpse of the glory which is to follow Jesus’ sufferings- the transformed person, glistening clothes, the Father’s presence and pleasure in his Son. The exaltation and second coming are run together, as happens in Biblical prophecy with foreshortened pictures of the future. Jesus had spoken of the cross, and the need to bear the cross, but had also said that whoever loses life, would gain it. Now it is shown- with tantalising brevity, the glory of Messiah, which his followers will share. Peter never forgot it- II Peter 1:16-18. It made a deep impression on him, and when he speaks of the glory that will be, he does so in terms of the glory he saw here. The second coming is an absolute certainty- and the transfiguration is a guarantee of it. The Father has already glorified his Son before 3 men. He will do so before the whole world. The church at Rome would find renewed hope in these verses. They are there, as part of the kingdom of Messiah, serving King Jesus under the nose of the king of the fallen world. They face daily trials and persecution. It would be easy for them to falter, to slip into defeatism. The relentless humiliation of believers and the apparent strength of Rome would be disheartening. But here they see the kingdom of God fulfilled before its time, and a reminder that the kingdom was established through the suffering of the king. What a comfort to harassed believers. What a warning to those who reject the Son of Man.

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