Text: Mark 9:2-13
The Transfiguration is one of the strangest, and one of the most dramatic, events in the whole of the Bible. A mountain-top experience that tops the lot. My own feelings in approaching this passage are not so very different from Peter’s, who, as we read in v6, ‘did not know what to say’.
But even though we can scarcely scratch the surface in trying understand this extraordinary gathering, we would not want to ignore it. Just take a look at the guest list. God the Father and God the Son were both there. And, of course, where the Father and the Son are, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is also. Elijah and Moses – two of the greatest figures from OT times – both put in personal appearances. And then, of course, there were the three leading apostles, Peter, James and John.
In fact, the passage goes out of its way to emphasise that the Transfiguration took place in the presence of these three disciples:
v2 ‘he was transfigured before them’
v4 ‘there appeared before them Elijah and Moses’
v7 ‘a cloud appeared and enveloped them’. And avoice spoke, not directly to Jesus as at his baptism, but to the disciples – “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
What we have here, then, is an eyewitness account of a unique event. We know that Peter was frightened and speechless at the time. However, he later learned to treasure what he had witnessed as a wonderful confirmation of the glory of Jesus Christ and the promise of his second coming. Right at the end of his life, he wrote:
2 Peter 1:16: ‘We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.’
Let’s look, then, at Mark’s account of this event as it was witnessed by Peter and the others.
1. Jesus was transfigured before them
v2. ‘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.’
The word ‘transfigured’ simply means ‘transformed’. But what did this transformation look like?
v3 – ‘His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.’ Matthew tells us that ‘his face shone like the sun.’ Luke says, ‘the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.’ He shone. He shone, not with reflected glory, but with a glory all of his own.
I do not doubt that what Peter and the others glimpsed has something to do with the glory which was Christ’s since before the world began. This glory he voluntarily laid aside, when he became a child in a manger, when ‘our God (was) contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.’
But I think that what we especially have here at the Transfiguration is a preview of Christ’s future glory. My reason for saying so is this: Mark is careful to inform us, v2, that the Transfiguration took place ‘six days’ after the events recorded at the end of the previous chapter – six days, that is, after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ (8:29); six days after Jesus’ began to teach plainly that he must suffer and be killed and rise again (8:31); six days after he spoke of “the Son of Man…[coming] in his Father’s glory with the holy angels” (8:38); six days after he promised that “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (9:1)
Yes, I think the Transfiguration anticipates that great day when the Son of Man will come in his Father’s glory with the holy angels. It provides a foretaste of the coming of the kingdom of God with power. It looks beyond Christ’s atoning death; beyond his victorious resurrection; beyond his glorious ascension to the highest place in heaven; beyond his present saving work in the hearts of men and women; it looks forward to his glorious return at the end of the age.
Think about it. Jesus was about to make his way to Jerusalem. There he would be mocked and scourged. But let it be known that his crucifixion was not, after all, a terrible mistake. There were thousands of crucifixions taking place in those days. But this one was of cosmic significance. The Transfiguration assures us that despite apparent abandonment by God, Jesus is the Lord’s Servant who prospers in the task he has been sent to accomplish. Beyond all the pain that he endured, beyond all the pain that his followers may have to endure, there is hope, there is victory, there is closure. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Come on, heaven’s children. The city is in sight. Let’s be ready for it.
Jesus was transfigured before them. And this was a foretaste of his coming again in radiant splendour. That’s the first thing.
The second thing that happened is that
2. Elijah and Moses appeared to them
V4 – ‘there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.’
Although he might be despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders of his day – the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law – Christ is here honoured by two of the most illustrious personages from Israel’s history.
Why Elijah and Moses? Well, of course, these two OT men of God had been very eminent for their faith. Both had fasted forty days and forty nights, just as Christ had, and they had been been miracle-workers. Both had had unusual endings to their earthly lives: the body of Moses was never found, and that of Elijah was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Moses and Elijah were like Christ in many different ways, but they were not Christ. Jesus was not a reincarnation of one of these OT saints, as many people thought. No: they were forerunners of the Messiah, but Jesus was the Messiah. They were the sign-posts; he was the one to whom they pointed.
This brings us to something else about Elijah and Moses. Moses was the great law-giver; Elijah was one of the first and greatest of all the prophets. Jesus constantly reminded people that the law and the prophets testified to him, and here is a walking, talking embodiment of that testimony. There are some Christians today who tend to down-play the importance of the Old Testament. But Jesus never did. And we shouldn’t either, knowing as we do that Jesus did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them.”
V5 – Peter wanted to erect three shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. As if to say, ‘Don’t let this stop’. He wanted to prolong – even to institutionalise – the encounter. But his commendable enthusiasm is mixed with a great deal of misunderstanding: Moses and Elijah belong to another world, and have no need of earthly shelter. Jesus has recently predicted his own death, and so for him this mountain-top experience cannot last.
Moses and Elijah appeared momentarily, and then, v8, they were gone. Our Saviour might well have felt sorely tempted to return with them from whence he came. ‘The door through which Moses and Elijah had come stood open, and by it our Lord might have returned. But he could never, under those circumstance, have been our Saviour. He knew this, so he set his face toward Calvary.’ (F.B. Meyer)
That, then, is the second thing. Elijah and Moses appeared to them, and spoke with Jesus. What a fantastic picture that is of the essential continuity of the Old and New Testaments, and of the way in which both parts of our Bible testify to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.
Now the third thing that these disciples experienced was that
3. God the Father spoke to them
V7 – a voice is heard from an enveloping cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” There is here both a statement and a command. The statement affirms the supremacy of Christ: Elijah and Moses were great men of God, but ‘this is my Son, whom I love’.
But there is a command here as well: “Listen to him.” Why did Peter and the others need to hear this? Well, of course, only a few days earlier Peter had rebuked Jesus, and now, here on the mountain-top, Peter is more than ready to ‘do his own thing’ again by building three shelters.
Do we need to be reminded to “Listen to him”? I think we do, because too often allow other voices to drown out his wise and loving voice. We are too apt to call him, ‘Lord, Lord’, but do not do what he commands.
‘He is the great Teacher: they that would be wise must learn of him. He is the Light of the world: they that would not err must follow him. He is the Head of the church: they that would be living members of his mystical body must ever look to him…In him let us abide. On him let us lean. To him let us look. He and he only will never fail us, never disappoint us, and never lead us astray.’ (Ryle)
And then – it was all over. Jesus was left – to suffer and to die. As for the three who witnessed his Transfiguration, they would continue to puzzle over what they had seen and heard, at least until Jesus rose from the dead. They can scarcely have dreamt of the dangers, toils and cares that lay ahead. James would become one of the first Christian martyrs, Acts 12:2 informing us that Herod Agrippa had him put to death with the sword. Peter would become, as Jesus had predicted, a rock upon which Christ built his church. Then, thirty or so years later he was a victim of Nero’s terrible persecution of Christians, and tradition says that he suffered death by crucifixion. Of the three, only John would live to a ripe old age, but continuing to testify to Christ to the end, ‘We have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.’
But what a strength it must have been to them all, to have seen Jesus gloriously transformed, to have witnessed Elijah and Moses appearing and talking with him, and to have heard the loving, approving voice from heaven.
May we be strengthened too, as we seek to live as those who joyfully wait for his return in glory. May we exult in Jesus, crucifed, risen and glorified, the centre point of both the Old and the New Testaments of Scripture. And may we ever trust him, and obey him too. What he says we will do. Where he sends we will go. For he is the one of whom God the Father says, “He is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”