Synopsis: The Transfiguration was the divine confirmation of his status as Messiah and of the necessity for Jesus to suffer death before he received his revealed glory – Mark 9:2-13.
The Transfiguration confirmed not only that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel but, also, of the necessity for him to suffer and die so that he would receive the glory manifested in that event. The description of the event in the gospel of Mark begins with the clause, “After six days.”
This not just a temporal reference but a link to the preceding story in which Peter confessed Jesus to be the Messiah. In response to the confession of Peter, Jesus explained the true meaning of discipleship. To follow him, the disciple must “deny himself, take up his cross and follow” Jesus (Mark 8:28-30).
At the end of the previous section, Jesus had 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 Matthew’s account, what the disciples saw is called “a vision” (Matthew 17:9). This should be kept in mind before speculating about things like the roles played “in heaven” by Moses or Elijah. 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 three disciples with Jesus are the same (Luke 9:28-32).
“After six days” may also be a verbal allusion to the day when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive the two Tablets of Stone. Just as ancient Israel was commanded to hearken unto the Law given through Moses, so now the disciples are admonished by a Divine voice to “hearken” to God’s Son:
(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 indication of Moses typology 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 by the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament in Exodus 40:34-35.
The Exodus allusion is strengthened by Peter’s offer to build three “tabernacles” (Greek, skéné), using the same Greek noun for “tabernacle” found in the 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 dwells not in a tent made by the hands of man, but in Jesus.
(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 proclaims Jesus to be “my Son,” thus, God confirms and endorses the preceding confession of Peter identifying Jesus as the Messiah. This declaration constitutes the Divine acknowledgment of the messianic status of the man, Jesus Christ.
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 important to the story.
The Greek word translated “transformed” or “transfigured is metamorphoō. English words such as ‘metamorphic’ are derived from it. The term 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 a case of Jesus revealing his inner true glory. Instead, God revealed something about what he was doing or was about to do in Jesus. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the ordinary garments Jesus wore were also changed and “became brilliant, exceedingly white.” His clothes certainly had no glory inherent in their nature.
God promised, as recorded in Malachi 4:4-6, 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 mount:
“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 names is unusual. While Elijah was held in high regard, Moses was always placed as the foremost of all prophets, second only to Abraham in honor and esteem. In this regard, Peter offers to build three tents, “one for Moses and one for Elijah,” reversing the order of their names.
Moreover, Moses is said to be “with” Elijah in this vision, implying in some sense his subsidiary or supporting role to Elijah.
In the preceding chapter, some speculated that Jesus was Elijah. In Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27-30), the identification of Jesus as “Elijah” was rejected. Following the Transfiguration, Jesus affirmed that Elijah had come already, that the promise of Elijah who was to come was fulfilled in John the Baptist who heralded the arrival of Jesus.
Jesus previously declared that the Son of Man must suffer as “it is written.” In Malachi 4:4-6, God promised to send Elijah and commanded Israel to remember the Law of Moses. In the Transfiguration vision, Moses may represent the Law and Elijah the Prophets. Both the Law and the Prophets foretold of God’s coming Anointed One. The Law and the Prophets looked forward to the coming Messiah.
Now that the Messiah had come, God commanded His people to “hearken to him!” Alternatively, Moses and Elijah together may represent the prophetic tradition of Israel that was preparatory for and pointed forward to the coming greater “Prophet like unto Moses,” that is, the Messiah (Deuteronomy 18:15).
The offer by Peter to build three tents demonstrates his high regard for Jesus, even placing him on a par with Moses and Elijah. This serves to make the words of God even more fitting (“This is my beloved Son; be hearkening to him!”). Jesus is now the one they 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 to symbolize the presence of God in passages 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 it states that the cloud “overshadowed them,” the “them” refers to Jesus, Elijah and Moses, not to the three disciples. That is, the cloud did not also overshadow the three disciples. Instead, the heavenly voice spoke to the three “out of the cloud.”
The words of God echo the words from heaven at the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, as well as the promises of Deuteronomy 18:15 and Psalm 2:7 (“this is my Son, the Beloved, be hearkening unto him”):
(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 ends as suddenly as it began. Only Jesus is left standing. The purpose was not to place Jesus on a par with Moses and Elijah but, instead, to distinguish him from them as well as to place the endorsement of God on his ministry. The divine voice recognized Jesus as the “beloved Son,” not Moses or Elijah, and directed the disciples to heed his voice.
As Jesus and the three disciples departed from the mountain, Jesus commanded them to tell no one of the vision until after he rose from the dead. In Verse 10, the disciples “seized this saying to themselves, disputing what was the rising from among the dead.” This indicated their continuing confusion about the identity and mission of Jesus. What is NOT meant is a dispute about the general resurrection of the dead, which was a widely accepted belief among first-century Jews. Instead, their consternation was over his reference to his resurrection.
The confusion of the disciples sheds light on the question they next asked about Elijah. If Elijah 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 His Son.
The command to silence about the Transfiguration is another link to the preceding story. After Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, he charged his disciples “to 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 Jesus was resurrected about either his messianic status or the Transfiguration. In both stories, Jesus referred to himself as “the Son of Man” who must die and then be raised from the dead. The charge to tell no one of the vision until after his resurrection means that what the disciples saw was a vision of the glory that Jesus would receive after his resurrection.
The Transfiguration is not only the divine confirmation of his status as Messiah but, also, of the necessity for Jesus to suffer and be executed before he could receive this revealed glory. The command to silence suggests further that the teachings and ministry of Jesus can only be understood in the light of his subsequent crucifixion and resurrection. The Cross must precede Resurrection Glory.