The Transfiguration of Jesus
9:1 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.”
The transfiguration of Jesus is one of the most colorful stories in the gospel accounts. But it can be just as puzzling for us to understand today as it was for the three disciples who witnessed it.
We cannot understand the significance of the transfiguration of Jesus without paying close attention to the context in which we find it. With Peter’s confession in Mark 8:29, we have come to an important place in the development of Mark’s account. Peter, speaking on behalf of the disciples, responds to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” with this: “You are the Messiah.” In other words, the disciples understood Jesus to be the long-awaited promised king whom God would send to establish his eternal reign over all the earth.
They have good reason to believe this about Jesus, having observed his miraculous works and his authoritative words. And Jesus does not deny this identification, though once more he commands them to keep silent about it (Mark 8:30). But then, in the very next verse, Mark tells us that
He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly (Mark 8:31-32).
The idea that Messiah would suffer and be killed rather than triumph over his enemies simply made no sense to the disciples and would bring into question the validity of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. But Jesus isn’t done. He goes on to explain (Mark 8:34-38) that those who want to follow him as loyal subjects must themselves embrace a similar path of self-denial rather than self-exaltation.
So here we have Jesus, claiming to be the long-awaited king, but predicting his own demise and inviting those who want to be a part of his kingdom to follow him in death. Why would anyone want to do that? Where is the promise of victory and power that we expect from a king?
It is at this point that we find Mark 9:1, an enigmatic verse for sure. Jesus said, “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.” Does this verse belong at the end of chapter 8 or at the beginning of chapter 9?
It belongs with both. It is a transitional verse, showing us that death does not invalidate the power of the kingdom that Messiah has come to inaugurate. It is meant to encourage Jesus’ disciples—then as well as now—to continue after him, to seek the kingdom of God in spite of the call to die. The transfiguration account that follows is to be viewed not as the fulfillment of the promise made in Mark 9:1 but as a brief glimpse at its ultimate fulfillment.
Therefore, we can understand the meaning of the transfiguration of Jesus by observing what it is telling us about this “kingdom of God” that comes with “power.” In other words, the transfiguration of Jesus is intended to give us a glimpse of the kingdom, but we are also to learn about the essence of the kingdom and the prerequisites that must be accomplished before it comes.
A GLIMPSE OF THE KINGDOM
The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is full of interesting themes and symbols from the Old Testament. It is possible the Old Testament allusions begin with the words “after six days.” This is the most specific time description Mark has made to this point, so we might wonder why he bothered to tell us this, especially since Luke says the transfiguration happened “about eight days” later (Luke 9:28). The differences between the two time periods is solved if we understand that the tradition probably was that about a week had transpired, which might be noted as anywhere between six to eight days. But Mark may use “six days” in order to draw a parallel with Moses who waited six days on Mt. Sinai before God spoke to him there (Exod 24:16); for the entire account is full of similarities to Moses’ Sinai sojourn.
The Kingdom Is Otherworldly
And as with Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai, we see in this kingdom something much different from what we find on earth. This kingdom is otherworldly.
For example, we read that Jesus took them “up a high mountain.” Mountains play an important role throughout the Gospels and indeed throughout all of Scripture. Moses received God’s law on a mountain. Elijah caught a glimpse of God as he passed by him on a mountain. Jesus frequently ascended a mountain to pray or to teach his disciples. In the Bible, a mountain is usually the place where God reveals himself to humanity.
Indeed there on that mountain the disciples would hear from God, but the first thing Mark tells us is that Jesus “was transfigured before them.” The word transfigured simply indicates that Jesus’ outward appearance was transformed: “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” Now Jesus would have been wearing normal clothing, so this kind of transformation is symbolic. White clothing conveyed the idea of holiness, purity, and beauty. In the Old Testament God himself was described as wearing clothes “white as snow” (Dan 7:9).
So this kind of transformation in Jesus’ appearance reflects an outward change to match his inner nature. For just a few moments on this mountain, the disciples are allowed to catch a glimpse of the glory hidden in Jesus as he walked upon the earth in the form of a mere mortal.
Elijah and Moses
Then we are told that two Old Testament prophets, Elijah and Moses, appeared on the mountain and were having a conversation with Jesus. These two prophets stand out in the prophetic tradition, Moses as the great lawgiver, and Elijah for his ability to convince sinful Israel to repent and turn back to God. The two are mentioned together in the closing verses of the Old Testament (Mal 4:4-6) and so appear here as representatives of the prophetic tradition which pointed toward Jesus as the final and most authoritative prophet. They need no introduction to Jesus, and though Mark does not record any of the words they spoke to each other, Luke does give us the content of their conversation. They “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). We cannot escape the clear implication that Jesus’ coming death of which he has begun to speak of so freely to his disciples is the heavenly plan he has been sent here to accomplish.
The Kingdom Is Overwhelming
We can only imagine what it would have been like to have seen Jesus’ appearance overtaken by a revealing of his inner nature, and to watch as he conversed with two Old Testament characters who had been dead for several hundred years. If we can believe the Scriptures, then this glimpse at the kingdom of God would have also been overwhelming.
Peter responds to what he sees with these words: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (v. 5). We might want to give Peter a pass for uttering such seemingly absurd words, especially since Mark tells us that “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”
It is understandable that Peter and his companions were fearful because of what they were seeing, but fear can also lead to misunderstandings, and that seems to be what has happened here. Peter has not said something ridiculous so much as something wrong. His fear has prevented him from understanding what he is seeing. The word “tents” refers to temporary dwelling places and recalls the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles or “booths.” During this annual feast, observers would construct temporary shelters in which to eat and sleep. This feast eventually became associated with the anticipation of the Messiah and national independence. So when Peter suggests constructing some dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, he is wanting to celebrate the moment as the fulfillment of the kingdom.
And in spite of how much we might read his suggestion as a gesture of honor toward Jesus and these two prophets, it actually was dishonoring to Jesus. Peter has given Jesus equal honor with Moses and Elijah, but that is not enough. The transfiguration of Jesus is not intended to bring Jesus’ status up to the level of the great Old Testament prophets. It is to show that his glory far surpasses that of all the Old Testament witnesses.
THE ESSENCE OF THE KINGDOM
So Peter is still struggling to understand what Jesus and this kingdom are all about. His failure to grasp the essence of the kingdom is indicated by what happened next.
The Cloud and the Voice
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. (v. 7)
Clouds are often used in Scripture to indicate the presence and glory of God. If you think the disciples were terrified before, imagine how they felt now!
Similar words were uttered from heaven at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:11), but this time the words are directed toward the disciples. God directs the attention of the disciples solely on Jesus. He is God’s “beloved Son,” the one who is in a very special and unique relationship to the Father. It is to him that the disciples need to pay close attention. What Jesus says is what matters most.
That means that if we want to know what the essence of God’s kingdom is, then we need to listen carefully to Jesus when he talks about it.
The Command to Silence
But as Jesus and the three disciples came down from the mountain, Jesus once again ordered them “to tell no one what they had seen” (v. 9). Over and over again we find Jesus commanding people to keep silent about him, but for the first time in Mark’s gospel this command to silence is provisional. They were to keep silent about him “until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”
This indicates that there is something revelatory about Jesus’ resurrection apart from which our understanding of him is incomplete and even incorrect. If we want to see the kingdom of God in its power, then we must see Jesus in his resurrection.
The Difficulty of the Resurrection
The disciples are well acquainted with the idea of resurrection, but they question what this rising from the dead might mean. The Scriptures had pointed toward a day of resurrection for both the righteous and the wicked at the day of judgment (Dan 12:2). But surely Messiah would not be a part of that. For if Jesus is going to rise from the dead, then that means he must be killed. And if he were to be killed, then how could he bring about the kind of deliverance they were looking for?
We face the same dilemma today when we look at Christ. We may believe that there will be a resurrection and final judgment, but what can Jesus do for me now? A dead Savior does me no good. We can get amped up about the glory he possesses, but if he takes that glory to a cross then what hope can he give me this side of the grave?
THE PREREQUISITE FOR THE KINGDOM
This is the question the disciples are struggling with. After all, they have sacrificed greatly to follow Jesus. All their hopes are tied up in him. Death seems like it could only be failure.
The Coming of Elijah
So as they continue down the mountain with Jesus, they decide to question him more about this. Their question is a subtle rejection of the death Jesus has implied in verse 10. If Jesus is the Messiah, the promised King who is to establish God’s eternal kingdom, and yet he is going to die, then “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” (v. 11). If indeed Elijah is coming to restore righteousness among God’s people, then there is no reason for Jesus to go to the cross. They are referring to the passage in Malachi to which we referred earlier (Mal 4:5-6). According to this passage, God would send Elijah before the “great and terrible day of the LORD” to restore righteousness among God’s people so that they would be able to enter his righteous kingdom. Given the fact that these three disciples have just seen Elijah on the mountain with Jesus, this suggests that the day of the Lord is near. This matches what Jesus has been proclaiming all along (Mark 1:15).
The Suffering of the Son of Man
Jesus affirms their interpretation of the Scripture in verse 12: “Elijah does come first to restore all things.” But he counteracts their misunderstanding by pointing to another prophecy in Scripture that also must be fulfilled before the day of the Lord. Jesus says, “You are right to believe that Elijah will come and restore all things, but you also must deal with this affirmation in Scripture, that the Son of Man will suffer many things and will be treated shamefully.” Jesus seems to be referring to the prophecy of Isaiah 53 where it is said of the “Suffering Servant” that he would be “despised and rejected by men” (v. 3); that he would be “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (v. 4); and “wounded for our transgressions . . . crushed for our iniquities” (v. 5).
So Jesus answers the challenge of these disciples with his own Scriptural proof. If Messiah does not need to suffer, then why is it said of him that he would? You cannot believe any Scripture without believing all Scripture. We, too, are guilty of believing only the parts that we want to believe, or the parts that are the easiest to believe. But Jesus reminds us that we must believe the entirety of Scripture and that its truth emerges from the witness of the whole rather than from what we can glean from its parts.
Elijah Has Already Come
Of course, this is what makes the Scriptures difficult to understand at times. As soon as we think we have a handle on one passage, we are challenged by the teaching of another. The disciples struggled to understand how all this suffering talk fit with their Messianic hopes. We struggle to understand how suffering in any way fits with the glory of the kingdom of God. How does the transfiguration of Jesus fit with the cross of Jesus?
Jesus answers that question for us in verse 13. Notice how the verse begins: “But I tell you.” This is the way Jesus talks. It is the language of authority. Jesus is telling us how we should understand the Scripture. He does not invalidate the disciples’ understanding of Elijah, but he broadens it so that we can see deeper. We often misinterpret Scripture not because we get its basic message wrong but because we don’t let that message go deeper. It’s like when we believe the sixth commandment forbids only the physical taking of the life of another. Jesus would say, “Yes, but I say to you, everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt 5:21-22).
Here, then, Jesus sets the disciples straight regarding the coming of Elijah. “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” Let’s break down the implications of this comment and how it sheds light on the meaning of the transfiguration.
- Elijah has [already] come. Jesus is not referring to Elijah’s presence on the mountain of transfiguration. Matthew’s account (Matt 17:13) makes it clear that Jesus was referring to John the Baptist. Not that he was a reincarnation of Elijah, but that he had come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:16). In other words, the ministry of John the Baptist was patterned after the ministry of Elijah.
- Elijah has suffered. John the Baptist’s identity with Elijah exceeds beyond his similar taste in clothing (Mark 1:6 cf. 2 Kings 1:8). He, too, was threatened by the wife of a king. In John’s case, “they did to him whatever they pleased,” a reference to his martyrdom.
- Suffering is the divine plan. Jesus also says that though John’s enemies had their way with him, they only fulfilled what was prophesied about him. Nowhere do we find an objective prediction of martyrdom for the returning Elijah, but as we have seen, John the Baptist was Elijah “in spirit,” meaning his ministry is patterned after that of the Old Testament prophet. And what we find is that as these prophets boldly proclaimed God’s truth, this brought them into conflict with the ruling powers of their day. But twice in verses 12 and 13 we find the phrase “it is written,” and both in the context of predicted sufferings. Jesus is saying to us that the cross and the guillotine are no threat to the kingdom. They are part of the divine plan all along.
- Restoration comes through suffering. In fact, there is one more connection we need to make. Jesus affirmed that when Elijah returned, he would come for the purpose of restoring all things (v. 12). And since he went on to explain that Elijah has already returned, we cannot miss the obvious point that Jesus must assume this restoration has either been accomplished or the divine plan has failed. So in what sense did John the Baptist restore all things?
The answer lies in the transfiguration of Jesus. The shining clothes, the Old Testament visitors, and the voice from the cloud all serve to point our attention to Jesus and to Jesus alone. As the Messiah, he has come to inaugurate the kingdom of God. But he is careful to point out that this kingdom will not come without his death and subsequent resurrection. Only then will we see the kingdom of God come with power, for the only way “all things” can be restored is by dealing with the problem of sin that has wrecked all of creation.
CONCLUSION: The Kingdom of Glory
To summarize, then, the transfiguration of Jesus is a glimpse into the fulfillment of Mark 9:1. Jesus prophesied that there would be some in his day who would not die before they witnessed the kingdom of God coming with power. And the transfiguration was a demonstration of the power and glory of this promised kingdom. In the transfiguration of Jesus we are drawn to the majesty of the person of Jesus, to see that the kingdom we long for is wrapped up in Jesus alone.
So we have one major question left to answer. If the transfiguration of Jesus is only a glimpse at the fulfillment of Mark 9:1, then what is its actual fulfillment?
And the answer is this: The greatest display of God’s kingdom coming with power and glory is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Nothing—not shiny angelic garments or Old Testament saints or anything else—can match the glory of the resurrected Jesus.
Why is that so? It is because in the resurrected Christ we find the end to Elijah’s work. John the Baptist came preaching repentance, and by this message began the work of restoration. But only because of the death and resurrection of Jesus can we be finally restored. His substitutionary death for our sins has put an end to the hostilities between a holy God and sinful humanity.
The reason why the disciples and you and me are not impressed by the glory of this kingdom is because we instinctively think there must be something more. Because we don’t see how vicious an enemy our sin is we cannot see how glorious our Savior must be. We think we would be more impressed by his miracles than by his cross. And so when he insists on keeping us focused on his death we pull away. We would like to take him aside and rebuke him.
But the glory of God’s eternal kingdom is here for all to see, all that is who will gaze upon his cross. May God give us a glimpse of that glory, as he did for three disciples on the top of a mountain, so that we will look no further for the glory that will satisfy us forever than Jesus, his cross, and his resurrection.