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The Transfiguration

Mark 9:1 -- 16

The concept of “glory” is little understood today. We refer to the American flag as “Old Glory,” but do we really know what that means? It was not always so vague. Webster’s Dictionary – the 1913 edition – defines it in these ways:

  1. praise, honor or distinction.
  2. the attributes which bring about praise, or
  3. the presence of God. (Usually in the sense of meeting him at death).

The reason we have lost the sense of this word is because we are now a nation of cynics. We know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Everything is reduced to dollars; nothing is worthy of praise, honor or distinction in and of itself.

This is a peril to Christians. It means that we have lost the sense of the glory of God – those things about God which are intrinsically praiseworthy. We are willing to praise him for what he has done for us, but not for what he is. I don’t think God is any the less for this; but we are.

In this we find the explanation of the Scripture passage for this lesson: we are about to encounter the glory of God.

And Jesus was saying to them, "Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power." Six days later, Jesus *took with Him Peter and James and John, and *brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus. Peter *said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified. Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, "This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!" All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone. As they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man rose from the dead. They seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead meant. They asked Him, saying, "Why is it that the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" And He said to them, "Elijah does first come and restore all things. And yet how is it written of the Son of Man that He will suffer many things and be treated with contempt? "But I say to you that Elijah has indeed come, and they did to him whatever they wished, just as it is written of him." When they came back to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them, and some scribes arguing with them. Immediately, when the entire crowd saw Him, they were amazed and began running up to greet Him. And He asked them, "What are you discussing with them?"

(Mark 9:1-16 NASB)


To the modern mind this passage seems very strange. It certainly frightened the three disciples mentioned here. I suspect our reaction is more along the lines of “why?”

Why only the three disciples?

There is a purpose to that. Jesus does not want his divine glory revealed before the Crucifixion. There should be no possibility that the people would make him king by force or by acclamation. So the matter must be kept quiet until the resurrection.

You might think that all twelve disciples would obey his commands in this. Jesus is taking no chances on that. He has arranged the minimum number of witnesses under Jewish Law. The number is both necessary and sufficient.

Why the wait?

You’ll note that it’s about a week after Peter makes the Great Confession. (One account has 6 days, another 8 – depends on how you count the days.) There are two reasons for that:

  1. Christ does not want to create dissension and jealousy within the ranks of the disciples. By delaying, he disconnects the confession and the transfiguration in their minds. As we shall soon see, there is already contention in the ranks.
  2. It is also a lesson to us. When we make a commitment to God, we often expect God to blow away the obstacles - instantly. But we need to learn to wait for his timing.
Why does he foretell the Crucifixion here?

Go back to the dictionary definition – number two. Glory is that which gains praise. It is by the atonement that Christ is exalted.[1] He is connecting his atonement with his glory. His actions – his death on the Cross – bring him glory. We should recognize this and praise this.

Why Moses and Elijah?

There are a number of reasons why these two were selected:

  • At a simple level, this is the solid answer to “some say.” Some people said Jesus was Elijah or one of the prophets. Here we see the difference in honor given.
  • They are also here to refute the charge that Jesus violates the Law. Indeed, the chief lawgiver is Moses; his presence certifies this fact.
  • More than that, this shows Christ’s power over the living and the dead. You will recall that Moses died before entering the promised land; now at last he sets foot on that land. Christ has granted his great desire. Elijah is the man who never died, and Christ summons him.
  • Taken together, these men represent “the Law and the Prophets” – the entirety of the Old Testament way. Christ is preparing the disciples for the idea that the old order is going to pass away.
  • Finally, that these disciples might see the glory in the Cross to come.
Why did they leave?

Their disappearance is no mystery. It is so that the disciples will see the superiority of Christ before God. It is a symbol of the end of the Law and the beginning of the new covenant.

Why the Transfiguration at all?

This seems the most difficult of questions – until you look at it in the light of the Cross. The Cross is a painful, humiliating death. It was considered by all of the time to be a disgraceful end. Indeed, it was devised for just that purpose. By this moment of glory Jesus balances the shame of the Cross with the glory of God in the hearts of the disciples. It is by the Cross that Christ earns the same glory on earth that he had in heaven.

Man’s reaction


Whenever man sees the glory of heavenly things, the usual reaction is fear. Note how Christ relieves that fear by his calm presence. He is Lord of All.

Peter’s reply – about building three shelters – is a completely human reaction to the glory of God. He knows that it’s important to do something – but he doesn’t know just what to do. Some authors place this event around the time of the Feast of Tabernacles; if so, it would seem to be an appropriate “religious” thing to do. Note that Christ does not reject this; God the Father does. Why? Jesus is fully human; the feast of Tabernacles is intended for humans. But here, transfigured, it is not appropriate. Lest the humble servant, the Messiah, reject this aspect of the Law (and be misunderstood) God the Father pronounces upon it.

Three Tabernacles (shelters)

There is no question about it: we would rather spend our time on the mountain top with Jesus than in the valley with sinners. Why?

  • On the mountain top we perceive no threat. There are no challenges to our faith, and we feel at ease.
  • On the mountain top there is no labor or weariness.
  • On the mountain top there is nothing to depress us – no “downers” so to speak.

So we want to stay on the mountain top. But if we are to be partakers of the glory of Christ we must do as he did – return to the plains below. If we suffer with him, we shall reign with him. That must be done in the plains below.

Tell no man…

We are an impatient lot. Christ instructs these disciples that they are to tell no one until after the resurrection. The injunction is necessary for God’s timetable, but also it is a lesson to us. We need to learn to wait upon the Lord. (We’re not very good at this; how many times has someone figured out the date of the second coming?)

God says…

We go from man’s reaction to God’s action. God says little here, but each phrase is worth the trouble of digging into.

My beloved son

In this simple phrase we have the statement of the relationship of Jesus of Nazareth to God Almighty.

  • They are the same in essence – which is existence. Both have existed forever, from before time (for time is God’s creation too).
  • They have (and indeed are) the same attributes – righteousness, truth, wisdom and even love.
  • The fact that God is love carries with it the clear idea that Jesus must be his beloved son; no other relationship than love is possible. More than that (I hope you can see this) the fact that God is love means that God must be plural in persons – for there is no love if there is only one person.
Well pleased

This carries two thoughts for us:

  • It implies that the actions of Jesus of Nazareth are approved by God; he finds them pleasing. “Pleasing” is from the same root as “pleasant” – look this up in the Old Testament. You’ll be surprised how often it refers to the pleasant aroma of sacrifice on the altar. It is by doing God’s will – in the atonement – that Jesus is pleasing to God.
  • It also means that his actions are example for us. We are Christians; little imitators of Christ.
Hear Him

How can I hear my Master’s voice?

  • I can hear him through the Scriptures – daily reading in the Bible.
  • I can hear him in prayer. Luke, in the parallel passage, tells us that they went up on this mountain to pray.
If I be lifted up

We began this lesson with glory. If we will “lift him up” – that is, give Christ the glory he deserves in our lives – he will draw all men to him. More than that; if we give glory to him in our lives by imitating him in his suffering and sacrifice, we shall share that glory by reigning with him when he comes again.

[1] Philippians 2:8-9

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