2After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6(He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.
11And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”
12Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? 13But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
Sometimes you think you know someone, but then you discover something about them that you never knew, which totally shakes the way you see them. It might be something truly astounding; you might discover that they have previously been a famous pop star or a published author. It might be something that they say – perhaps you always thought of them as polite and well-mannered, but then you see them transform into a swearing maniac behind the wheel of a car. Maybe it’s something to do with their background – maybe it transpires that one of your best friends is an orphan or was abused as a child and you never knew about it. All of these things can transform the way that we see someone. We might never see them in the same light again.
It’s interesting to pick up Mark’s Gospel once more at this point. The disciples, having spent some time with Jesus and observed his teaching and healing ministry, think that they have a fair idea of who Jesus is. But then, in Mark 8, they were challenged significantly about Jesus identity. Peter, one of Jesus’ best friends amongst the disciples, recognised Jesus as ‘the Christ’ but saw this in a purely human way; he thought that Jesus would be more of a military figure who would liberate the Jews from the Romans. Peter proceeded to rebuke Jesus when he was told that Jesus would suffer, be killed and then rise again.
Today’s the day, though, when the apostles’ view of Christ begins to change. Jesus takes them to the top of a mountain, and there he was “transfigured,” or transformed, right before their very eyes. His clothes glow whiter than white. For just a little while, Jesus’ inner purity and holiness shines out of him, and he is revealed for who he is – the good and blameless Christ. Jesus’ identity as the messiah is witnessed to by Moses and Elijah. To the Jews, Moses was the personification of the law, and Elijah of the prophets. Mark does not record the incident, but in Matthew 5 Jesus tells those listening to the sermon on the mount that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them. Here then are the Law and the Prophets, bowing to Jesus’ superiority over them. They concede that Jesus is what they have been pointing towards. Jesus’ identity, therefore, as the messiah, is made clear to the apostles he was closest to – Peter, James and John – and through them, to us. What is very exciting that, seeing Jesus in all his sinless glory is perhaps a foresight of how we will appear in heaven, when our sins have been cleansed and we are restored to our pre-fall condition. Paul picks up on this in Romans 12, when we says that we should strive in the here and now to live a pure and blameless life. He says that we, too, should be “transfigured” (although most translations use the word “transformed”) by the renewing of our minds, and no longer conform to the ways of the world. In other words, we should aim to resemble Jesus in all that we do. Not only do we get a glimpse of Jesus as Son of God at the transfiguration, but we also gain a rare insight into what might lie beyond death for us – if we start that process now of living as if we are destined for heaven.
Interestingly, even though we see Jesus as he is in this incident, the apostles still fail to grasp the true significance of this; they see him as somehow similar to Moses and Elijah, wanting to build the three of them shelters on the mountain top. We have to feel some sympathy for the apostles, however, since they are clearly petrified at what they are seeing – as I would be too!
If there was any doubt about Jesus’ divinity, it is blown out of the water by what happens next. Suddenly that big, bombing voice that is the stereotypical view of God, sounds from the cloud, telling the apostles that Jesus is his son, and he loves him. There is no mistaking Jesus’ identity. He comes from God, he is his son, and he loves him. What follows is of great importance for the disciples; they are told that they must listen to Jesus. That’s not a hint that they might like to, but a direct order from God. Since we too are disciples of Christ, even if we are not apostles, this clear instruction comes down to us too. We must listen to Christ. We must study what he said by reading the gospels. We must be open to God speaking to us through the entirety of scripture. It is only through listening to Jesus that we understand who God is, and only by listening to Jesus that we can understand what is expected of us if we wish to enter God’s new creation after our deaths. This is a perfect reminder for us of the importance of listening to Jesus, just as we start our second Mark Marathon, studying the second half of Mark’s gospel.
As they begin to grasp Jesus’ true identity, Peter, James and John continue to have questions. They know that it is foretold that before the messiah arrives, Elijah will return to prepare the way. Apart from their recent fleeting glimpse of him, they have not seen Elijah. They certainly haven’t seen a full-scale return, in which Elijah declares the arrival of the Christ. They are taking things too literally, however. Jesus tells them that in actual fact Elijah HAS returned, and he was treated in the way that scripture foretold. For Jesus, John the Baptist is the embodiment of Elijah, having come in Elijah’s “spirit and power” (see Luke 1:17). Here, then, is a further indication that Jesus just might be the promised messiah that the Jewish world have been waiting for with bated breath.
In this episode, three of Jesus’ most trusted apostles, Peter, James and John, begin to see Jesus in a new light, as they begin to understand who he is. As we study the rest of Mark’s gospel we will see whether they grasp the significance of what they have seen on that mountain top. For us, though, with the benefit of hindsight, we see Jesus in all his glory, and gain an insight into what heaven may be like. We also begin to see the importance of living as if we are already in that reality, not living for the world today. And finally, we get that important order direct from God – listen to Jesus. Let’s strive to do that as we study the rest of Mark’s gospel!