1 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.”
2 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, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 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.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” – Mark 9:1-13
In the form of a pillar of smoke and fire, God led His people to His holy mountain. It had maybe been a couple of weeks since the ultimate act of deliverance in the Old Testament had been worked. An enraged and murderous Pharaoh chased the Hebrews to the very edge of the Red Sea, only to see the waters explode heavenward making a dry pathway for the Israelites to cross through. And as Pharaoh rushed in after them, the walls of water came crashing down. The horse and his rider He has cast into the sea! But now, God made it clear that He did not merely intend to deliver His people from the slavery of Egypt, but to enter into a covenant relationship with them and to make them into, “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Ex 19:6. But, for this to happen, Israel needed a representative to be a mediator between them and God. At Mount Sinai, God speaks directly to the people as they are gathered at the base of the mountain, but they quickly beg Moses to go speak with God instead because they are certain that if God keeps speaking, they will all die (Ex 20:18-21). God’s holiness is just too overwhelming; He appears on the top of the mountain, wrapped in thick smoke and scorching the mountain with shafts of fire; trumpets from heaven are blowing so loudly that the mountain is trembling; and when God speaks, it sounds like thunder. The people are not afraid for no reason. God even tells Moses that if anyone comes to close to Him they will just drop dead; God’s presence is like a nuclear reactor, emanating such power and glory that it will simply overwhelm any sinful human who comes to close. And yet, this is precisely what Moses now must do: draw close to this awesome, holy and terrifying God. How will he do this and not be consumed?
Well, even within the cloud that Moses enters, we are told that He is still not permitted a direct experience with the face of God. He is given a passing glance, a partial glimpse of the fringes of God’s glory that is figuratively described as “the back of God” (Ex 33:18-23). But still, his near proximity with God and His glory changes Moses. When Moses descends the Mountain, He is surprised to see the rest of the people reel back in fear: Moses’ face is shining (Ex 34:29-35). Moses has to hang a piece of fabric over his face to shield the people from the reflected glory of God in the face of Moses.
Hundreds of years later, on that very same mountain, another prophet meets God. Elijah, after fleeing for his life from the wicked queen Jezebel, arrives at the mountain of God (1 Kings 19:1-8). There, just like Moses, Yahweh reveals Himself to Elijah through speaking His word to the prophet (1 Kings 19:12; compare: “The LORD passed before him” Ex. 34:6 and “the LORD passed by” 1 Kings 19:11). But, unlike Moses, when Elijah hears God’s Word, he veils his face prior to hearing the word, not after: “And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave,” 1 Kings 19:13. Elijah does not presume to be able to speak “face to face” with God as Moses did (Ex 33:11), so he hides his face. Both Moses and Elijah, however, are up on the mountain of God while God’s people down below are in the process of violating the covenant and both receive God’s instructions on how to respond to these covenant-breakers.
Nearly 900 hundred years later, we see these two figures return at another mountain where God will once again reveal Himself in shining glory, where God’s people will again almost wholly be violating His covenant, and where God will again reveal instructions about what must be done in response. But this time, God will reveal Himself in a way that He never had before. The terror, and glory, and power that had made an entire mountain tremble like an earthquake was now condensed into a solitary human being: a travelling peasant from Nazareth.
The Kingdom in Power
Peter, upon confessing that Jesus was the Messiah, is immediately baffled by Jesus’ explanation of what the Messiah must do: die (Mark 8:27-33). The Messiah being rejected and put to death sounds like failure to Peter’s ears, not success. So he begins to rebuke Jesus over this idea, only to receive the stinging words of Jesus: Get behind me, Satan! The disciples don’t understand why Jesus, as the Messiah, must die, and therefore don’t understand what it actually means to follow Jesus. Jesus clarifies for them that following Him does not mean getting on the fast track to the life of “the rich and the famous.” Rather, following Him looks like denying ourselves, picking up a Roman crossbar, and walking in Jesus’ footsteps (Mark 8:34-38). Discipleship to Jesus leads to life, but only after we surrender control over our life to Jesus and follow Him wherever He leads us, even when it is hard, embarrassing, and painful.
But, lest the disciples be left too confused by this teaching, Jesus then quickly offers this explanation: “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.” (Mark 9:1). Jesus is not explaining that He is going to die, or that His disciples must submit to this life of self-denial and cross-bearing because He lacks power. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche hated Christianity in part because he thought that all its teaching of self-denial, forgiveness, and turning the other cheek was just a religious charade to disguise and encourage weakness by calling it a virtue. He called it “slave or herd-morality.” If one had power, they would use it to exalt themselves and dominate others—there would be no need for this limp-wristed notion of “turning the other cheek.” Thus, Nietzsche concluded, one would only “turn the other cheek” because they are weak and are just looking to make their weakness look like virtue, since that was the only kind of “power” they had. Of course, Jesus blows a gaping hole in Nietzsche’s theory. Jesus’ death (and the life of discipleship He is calling us to) did not occur because He lacked power, but the exact opposite. But to help and strengthen His disciples, to make it clear that His death on the cross does not come at the expense of His power, He lets them peak at what “the kingdom of God in power” looks like.
So Jesus summons Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain where Jesus is “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.” (Mark 9:2-4).
Why do Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus? Why not Abraham? Why not David? The last book of the Old Testament, Malachi, written about 400 years before the coming of Christ ends with a command and a promise: “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes,” Mal 4:5-6. Remember Moses; I will send Elijah. Do you remember how Mark begins His gospel? By citing Malachi’s promise of the messenger who comes like Elijah, preparing the way of the Lord (Mark 1:2-3). Here again we see Moses and Elijah, another seeming nod to Malachi’s closing promise of what would happen before the “great and awesome day of the Lord.” The appearance of Moses and Elijah show us that Jesus is not representing a fundamental break with the Old Testament. God is not switching from “Plan A” to “Plan B.” Rather, Jesus is fulfilling what the Old Testament, what Moses and Elijah promised and pointed to all along. What do I mean?
Mark just tells us that Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah, but does not tell us what they are talking about. Luke’s account, however, explains that Jesus is discussing with them his “departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem,” (Luke 9:31). The word for “departure” is literally the word “Exodus.” Jesus is speaking with Moses and Elijah because Moses promised there would one day be another prophet that would arise like him (Deut 18:15) and the “Day of the LORD” that Malachi refers to, that Elijah is to prepare the way for, is repeatedly described in the Bible like a new Exodus. What did Moses do? Led the people through the Exodus. What will a new Moses do? Lead his people through another Exodus. What is the second coming of Elijah to prepare the way for? A new Exodus. What is Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah about? His Exodus which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem. What is Jesus about to accomplish in Jerusalem? He is about to be nailed to a cross. You see, Jesus, like Moses and Elijah, is up the mountain while most of Israel down below is busy breaking God’s commandments, violating the covenant. The nation of Israel has so far largely ignored, misunderstood, and flat out rejected the arrival of its very own Messiah! But this time, Jesus’ remedy for these covenant breakers is different than what Moses or Elijah did. Moses and Elijah called the people to back to obey the covenant they had broken. Jesus has not come to call people to work harder at keeping the old covenant. He has come to establish a new covenant through His death and resurrection. A covenant supersedes the glory of the old in its profound promise of forgiveness: Jesus will bear our sins to the cross, and wash them away. Jesus will forgive our sins!
What does all of this mean? It means that Jesus is the new prophet that Moses promised would come. Jesus is like a new Moses, but the exodus He is going to lead His people on isn’t a delivery from physical slavery, but a spiritual one. Jesus has come to redeem His people from their slavery to sin and the devil, to make them into a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, to give them His new law that isn’t merely written on tablets of stone but on their very hearts! He has come to bring about the new covenant.
But Jesus isn’t merely another human prophet the same way Moses was. No, He is much more than that. We are told that on the mountain Jesus suddenly begins to radiate light, similar to Moses’ experience with his face shining, but Jesus is so radiant that the disciples only speak of his clothes because they seemingly cannot see Jesus’ face. Moses could simply put a veil over his face—but Jesus’ whole body is luminous! What is happening? Moses would reflect God’s glory after entering into His presence (the glory cloud), but Jesus hasn’t entered into the presence of God, yet He is shining—He is the presence of God. The light is not reflecting off Him, but emanating from Him! Jesus is like a new Moses, but unlike Moses. To put it more starkly: Jesus is the God whom Moses worshipped.
You see, most religions often view the pathway of their teaching like a journey up a mountain. There is a goal (heaven, nirvana, bliss), and if you will strive diligently enough, work hard enough, you can make the courageous climb up the mountain. Whether that be traditional religions or more garden variety western secular ones. But Jesus sets Himself apart by not staying atop a mountain and calling people up to Him, but by coming down the mountain itself and coming to us. Jesus does not wait for us to prove we are morally worthy of Him; He tromps down the mountain to the muck of our sin that we are mired in and plunges His hands into our filth to lift us up and carries us to Himself.
It is hard to imagine how we would have responded were we in Peter’s shoes. Seeing Jesus become robed in lightning, speaking with two of the most significant human beings who have ever lived, upon whom much of your faith has depended on. Peter is understandably struck dumbfounded: “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.” (Mark 9:5-6). Why Peter suggested they make three “tents” is unclear. While Moses was up on the mountain in Exodus he was given the instructions for the tabernacle, a tent in which the presence of God would make Himself manifest. Maybe that’s what Peter is thinking of, though it wouldn’t make sense for Moses and Elijah to have a tabernacle, since that is reserved for God alone. Perhaps he is slipping into a kind of superstitious veneration of these heroes of the faith, or maybe he just, as Mark tells us, doesn’t really know what he is saying. It does seem clear, however, that Peter still doesn’t fully understand the truth of Jesus’ identity since he seems to put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. But, this will be corrected quickly.
“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 9:7-8. The glory cloud of Exodus reveals itself, like at Mount Sinai, a voice booms from within. But, unlike Sinai, it does not give us a Law. No, it identifies Jesus: we are to listen to Him. The fact that Jesus alone is left is a subtle nod in the narrative to Jesus’ unique status over Moses and Elijah. Jesus is not just another prophet; He is the Son of God.
Listen to Him!
In a world that is crying out with a thousand different voices to listen to, isn’t it so comforting to know, dear Christian, that there is one voice that we must listen to. Maybe you are perplexed by what is going on in the world today. Which news channels should you listen to? What narratives should you buy? If you don’t act, if you don’t vote now, the world as we know it is doomed! If you don’t speak up and join our side, YOU are the problem! These apocalyptic cries are coming from several mutually contradictory sides in our country—who are we to listen to? What are we to do? Listen to Him. Pay attention to what Jesus has to tell you and be faithful to simply follow it. There will still be issues you are confused on, things that you won’t understand. But if you simply pursue faithfulness, listening to Jesus, in the here and now with what is in front of you, then God will provide what you need. Like the birds and the lilies, don’t worry about tomorrow; seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and the rest will be added to you (Matt 6:33). Listen to Him most.
We need worship
Jesus gives Peter, James, and John this mountain top experience to help alleviate their doubts and provide a powerful encounter with who he really was so that they could endure the difficulties that discipleship would demand of them. We likewise need worship to propel us through the demands of the Christian life. If we simply try to grit our teeth and bear it, we will either wind up with a cold, Pharisaic heart, or we will simply burn out in a pit of immorality. But how do we have a worshipful experience like Peter, James, and John? We can’t necessarily just hike to the top of the nearest hill and have Jesus appear transfigured before us. Peter helps us in his recounting of this event in his second epistle:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 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,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. – 2 Pet 1:16-21
Peter is relaying his experience up on the mountain and uses that as one of the evidences for why his account is trustworthy. However, notice what he says in verse 19 after relaying these details: We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention. What is Peter saying? In the prophetic words of Scripture we have a “more fully confirmed” word than what Peter had while he was up on the mountain. While Peter was up on the mountain, he had his own experience to draw from, which was certainly powerful. But, now, Christians have the Holy Spirit inspired and authoritative word of God that is “more confirmed.” When we open our Bibles we can climb the mountain, so to speak, with Peter and see Jesus revealed. So this means that if we are to prioritize (as we should) worship in our life, we need that worship to be centered on and derived from God’s Word. So we spend time, day by day, in God’s Word. We prepare ahead of time for Sunday morning where we hear God’s Word declared to us. Why? Because we need worship, or we will putter out. And worship, true worship, will always be fueled by God’s Word.
There are only two other places in the Bible that use the word that is used here to describe Jesus being “transfigured.” One place is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. In the third chapter Paul is describing what happened to Moses’ face when he would speak with God and how he had to veil his face to hide the glory that was reflected. Paul uses this as an analogy to describe the inferior nature of the covenant Moses was under. It was a covenant that revealed God’s glory, but that glory led to people being terrified and wanting the glory to be hidden. Paul calls it a covenant of “condemnation” (2 Cor 3:9), but now the new covenant exceeds the old in glory. It does not bring about condemnation, but righteousness! It does not bring about the covenant members fleeing in fear, but drawing near to God through the Spirit. Paul writes: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” – 2 Cor 3:18. We, members of the new covenant, do not veil our face. We behold the glory of God, and as we do, we are “transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” The word for “transformed” is the exact same word translated as “transfigured” in Mark 9. Under this new covenant, as we behold God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:4), we ourselves are being transfigured, degree by degree, into His very likeness. Shockingly, this is telling us that Jesus’ display of radiant glory at the Mount of Transfiguration is no mere power display—it is a veritable preview of what the children of God will one day be like, and are in the process of becoming even now.
C.S. Lewis reflects on this truth in his profound essay The Weight of Glory:
We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it …That is why the poets tell us such lovely falsehoods. They talk as if the west wind could really sweep into a human soul; but it can’t. They tell us that “beauty born of murmuring sound” will pass into a human face; but it won’t. Or not yet. For if we take the imagery of Scripture seriously, if we believe that God will one day give us the Morning Star and cause us to put on the splendour of the sun, then we may surmise that both the ancient myths and the modern poetry, so false as history, may be very near the truth as prophecy. At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.”
But how do we do that? The one other place this word is used is in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed (transfigured) by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Rom 12:2. Through renewing your mind we can be transfigured. What is renewing your mind? It is the process of setting your mind on the things of God, which we can do by meditating on and reading God’s Spirit inspired Word. So, degree by degree, as we read our Bibles, as we attend corporate worship, as we speak the truth to one another in live, as we memorize verses and teach them to others our minds are being renewed, and we are being transfigured into the same image of Jesus Christ, from one degree of glory to one another.