SYNOPSIS – The Transfiguration was the divine confirmation of his status as Messiah and of the necessity for Jesus to suffer before he received his glory – Mark 9:2-13.
In Mark, the description of the event known as the “Transfiguration” begins with the clause “after six days.” This not just a temporal reference but a link to the preceding story in which Peter acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah. In response to his confession, he explained the true meaning of discipleship. To follow him, a man must “deny himself, take up his cross” walk the same path as the “Son of Man” – (Mark 8:28-30).
At the end of the preceding section, Jesus promised that “certain of those standing here shall in nowise taste of death until they see the kingdom of God having come in power.” That time has now arrived:
(Mark 9:2-13) – “And after six days Jesus takes with him Peter and James and John, and brings them up into a high mountain apart, alone, and he was transfigured before them; and his garments became brilliant, exceeding white such as no fuller on the earth is able so to whiten. And there appeared unto them Elijah with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus…And as they were coming down out of the mountain he charged them that to no one they should narrate what they had seen, save whenever the Son of man should arise from among the dead. And this saying they seized to themselves, disputing what was the rising from among the dead. And they began to question him, saying, ‘The Scribes say that Elijah must needs come first?’ And he said to them, ‘Elijah indeed, having come first restores all things; and yet how is it written regarding the Son of Man that many things he must suffer and be set at naught? But I say unto you, Elijah also has come and they have done with him whatsoever they pleased, according as it is written regarding him’.” (Parallel passages: Matthew 17:1-13, Luke 9:28-36).
In the version of the story recorded in Matthew, what the disciples saw is called “a vision.” In Luke’s version, Jesus took the disciples apart to the mountain to pray. As he prayed, he was transformed. At the start of his transformation, Peter, John, and James were asleep. In all three gospel accounts, the same three disciples were with Jesus when he was transfigured – (Matthew 17:9, Luke 9:28-32).
“After six days” may also be a verbal allusion to the day when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets of stone with the “ten words.” Just as ancient Israel was commanded to hearken unto the Law given through Moses, so the disciples were admonished by the Divine voice to “hearken” to the “Son of God”:
(Exodus 24:12, 15-18) – “Then said Yahweh unto Moses, ‘Come up unto me in the mountain and remain thou there, for I must give thee tables of stone, and the law and the commandment which I have written to direct them…Then Moses went up to the mountain and the cloud covered the mountain. And the glory of Yahweh rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of Yahweh was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the sons of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud and ascended into the mountain. And it came to pass that Moses was in the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
Another echo from the story of Moses on Sinai is the description of the cloud “overshadowing them.” This translates the Greek verb episkiazō, which means “to overshadow, to envelop.” It is the same one used in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew sentence from Exodus 40:34-35.
The Exodus allusion is strengthened by the offer by Peter to build three “tabernacles” (Greek, skéné), here, using the same Greek noun for “tabernacle” employed in the Greek Septuagint translation of the passage in Exodus. Under the Mosaic covenant, the glory of Yahweh filled the “Tabernacle” in the Wilderness. Now, in the new covenant established in Christ, the glory of God “tabernacles” in Jesus, not in a tent made-by-hand.
(Exodus 40:34-35) – “Then did the cloud overshadow the tent of meeting and the glory of Yahweh filled the Tabernacle; and Moses was not able to enter into the tent of meeting because the cloud had made its habitation thereupon and the glory of Yahweh filled the Tabernacle.”
The heavenly voice called Jesus “my Son” – God confirmed and endorsed the preceding confession by Peter – His identification of Jesus as “Messiah.” This constituted the Divine acknowledgment of his messianic status.
The Transfiguration takes place on a “high mountain.” The identity of the mountain remains uncertain. It is not possible to ascertain its location with certainty and its precise location is not relevant to the story.
The Greek word translated “transformed” or “transfigured” is metamorphoō from which English words like ‘metamorphic’ are derived. It means “to transform, to transfigure, to change in appearance.” The verb is in the passive voice, signifying not that Jesus changed himself, but that someone or something else transformed him.
This was not Jesus revealing his inner glory. Instead, God revealed something about what he was doing in him. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the ordinary garments that he wore were also changed and “became brilliant, exceedingly white.” His clothes certainly had no glory “inherent in their nature.”
God promised in the book of Malachi that Elijah would return just before the end. Moses is mentioned in the same passage and this may explain why Moses and Elijah appeared together on the mountain:
(Malachi 4:4-6) – ““Remember the law of Moses my servant, even the statutes and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of Yahweh. And he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”
In verse 4, “Elijah with Moses” appeared with Jesus. The order of the two names is unusual. While Elijah was held in high regard, in the Hebrew Bible, Moses is always presented as the foremost of all the prophets, second only to Abraham in honor and esteem. Moreover, Moses is said to be “with” Elijah in the vision, implying in some sense his subsidiary or supporting role to Elijah. Note that Peter offered to build three tents, “one for Moses and one for Elijah,” reversing the order of their names.
In the preceding chapter, some men were asking whether Jesus was Elijah. In Peter’s confession, the identification of Jesus as “Elijah” was rejected. Following his Transfiguration, Jesus affirmed that Elijah had come already – The promise of “Elijah who was to come” was fulfilled in John the Baptist when he proclaimed the “coming one,” Jesus – (Mark 8:27-30).
“This is my beloved Son; be hearkening to him!” Jesus was the one the disciples must heed above all others, exactly what Yahweh commanded Israel to do when he raised up among them the “prophet like unto Moses” – (Deuteronomy 18:15).
“Clouds” are used in the scriptures to symbolize the presence of God, especially in the Hebrew Bible – (e.g., Exodus 13:21-22, 14:19-20, 33:7-11, Numbers 9:15-23, Leviticus 16:2, Isaiah 6:4-5).
When the text states the cloud “overshadowed them,” “them” refers to Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, not to the three disciples. That is to say, the cloud did not also overshadow the three disciples. Instead, the heavenly voice spoke to the three “out of the cloud.”
These words of God echo the words from heaven heard at the baptism of Jesus, as well as the promises from Deuteronomy 18:15 and Psalm 2:7 – (“This is my Son, the Beloved, be hearkening unto him”). Note the following:
- (Deuteronomy 18:15) – “Yahweh your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall hearken to him.”
- (Psalm 2:7) – “I will surely tell of the decree of Yahweh: He said to me, ‘You are My Son, Today I have begotten you.”
- (Mark 1:11) – “And a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are My beloved Son; in you I am well-pleased.”
The Transfiguration ended as suddenly as it began. Only Jesus was left standing. The purpose was to place the endorsement of God on his ministry and authoritative word. The heavenly voice recognized him as the “beloved Son,” not Moses or Elijah, and directed the disciples to heed his voice.
As Jesus and the disciples departed from the mountain, he commanded them to tell no one of the vision until after he rose from the dead. Then, the disciples “seized this saying to themselves, disputing what was the rising from among the dead,” indicating their (continuing) confusion about the identity and mission of Jesus.
Their confusion sheds light on the question the disciples had asked about Elijah. If that prophet had just come in the ministry of John the Baptist, why was there any need for the “Son of Man” to suffer and die, let alone to be raised from the dead? Did they not just see him in his glory?
In the minds of Peter, James, and John, the coming of Elijah to restore all things ruled out the need for Jesus to die. By instructing them that “Elijah” had already come in the ministry of John, and by pointing out that John had suffered imprisonment and execution, Jesus emphasized that suffering and death are not optional in the plan of God for the Messiah.
The command to silence is another link to the preceding story. After Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, he charged his disciples:
“Tell no one concerning him. And he began to teach them, The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the Elders and the high priests and the Scribes and be slain; and after three days arise” – (Mark 8:30-31).
The disciples were ordered to tell no one until after his resurrection – What they saw was a vision of the glory that Jesus would receive after he was raised from the dead.
The “Transfiguration” is not only the divine confirmation of his messianic status but also of the necessity for Jesus to suffer and be executed before he could receive this glory. The command to silence suggests also that the teachings and ministry of Jesus can only be understood in the light of his crucifixion and resurrection – The Cross must precede Resurrection Glory.