Part One: a Glimpse of Gory
I think the text requires that we read through 9:29 in order to get Mark’s full understanding of the significance of the Transfiguration. Verses ten through twenty-nine do not make an appearance in the Revised Common Lectionary. The events related there come through other gospel accounts. So, let’s read them today.
If time is a concern in that regard, I would omit the first reading for the day. So, I will spend at least a couple of posts on the Mark text and related accounts and omit comments on the first reading for this day. We will have plenty of references from the Hebrew scriptures to help us make sense of what Mark portrays here.
We began Epiphany with the Baptism of Jesus and the voice from heaven. In Mark, that voice spoke only to Jesus. Now we come to the other end of that divine uncovering. “The Transfiguration is a very different kind of a revealing, however,” writes Matt Skinner in his workingpreacher.org comments. “Jesus becomes a beacon, like a lighthouse planted in the middle of the desert. The heavenly voice addresses all the witnesses: Peter, James, and John. On this Sunday, there is a promise that Jesus can and will be noticed. Epiphanies aren’t always subtle.”
It is noteworthy that the Transfiguration leads to the second Passion prediction, and that the disciples did not understand second passion prediction and were afraid to ask Jesus to explain it. The Transfiguration is not just a light show to dazzle the disciples. It is a glimpse of Jesus’ glory to sustain them on the journey to and through the cross on Golgotha.
The lectionary text is framed by the first and second passion predictions. The lead-in to this reading in 9:1. Jesus tells the disciples, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” I think it might be best to read this verse as well, if we’re adding.
This verse is “one of the most difficult in Mark,” Hurtado writes, “and has attracted a number of suggestions” (page 139). What does Jesus mean that some “will not taste death” before they “see that the kingdom of God has come with power”?
“It has been fashionable,” N. T. Wright observes, “to take Mark 9.1 as a classic example of misplaced hope, with Jesus and the early Christians looking for the end of the space-time world and the establishment of a totally different existence. But,” he asserts, “that’s not what Jewish language like this means” (Location 2062). Instead, Jesus expects that his mission will be fulfilled during the lifetimes of at least some of those present. “Jesus seems to think that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come,” Wright concludes, “precisely through his own suffering and death” (Location 2065).
It could be, as Hurtado notes, that Jesus got it wrong. That seems unlikely, however, at least in how the Synoptic writers report it. Mark, writing perhaps forty years after the events recorded here, “would have realized that no such complete transformation of the world had happened yet.”
This report is carried in modified forms into both the Matthew and Luke accounts. “It seems unlikely that the Gospel writers would have recorded a saying of Jesus that they and their readers understood to be a flat error,” Hurtado continues. “This means that the Gospel writers must have understood the saying” in a different fashion (page 139).
The Transfiguration account is the follow-up to Jesus’ cryptic words. “This suggests,” Hurtado notes, “that each of the gospel writers saw the prediction as fulfilled in the transfiguration and what it in turn signified and prefigured…the resurrection of Jesus as Lord and Christ” (page 140). Hurtado suggests that for Mark, this verse means that Jesus’ contemporaries would not die before his mission was confirmed and completed in the cross and resurrection. The Transfiguration is a preview of and preparation for that completion.
Hurtado describes the connection between the first passion prediction and the Transfiguration as “balancing a foreshadowing of Christ’s glory to come with the emphasis upon humiliation and obedience” (page 140). The Transfiguration is a glimpse of that glory followed by a deeper descent into the humiliation.
In Mark, the Transfiguration takes place six days after the first Passion prediction, while in Luke it takes place after “about eight days.” Since I’m preaching on the narrative lectionary reading from Luke on February 14, I will take the opportunity to compare the two accounts at a few points. This comparison is often helpful in discerning the outlines of the understandings of the various Synoptic writers.
For Mark, this glorious epiphany on the mountain is a final act before the great Sabbath of the crucifixion. This will help us to understand Mark’s account of the last week of Jesus’ life as a descent from the heights of Palm Sunday to the depths of Good Friday. Hurtado notes that Mark’s reference may be to Exodus 24:15, “where after six days, Moses is summoned to a mountaintop and is given a revelation of God.” He suggests that Mark wants us to see that “a new revelation is given that therefore surpasses the former one to Moses” (page 144).
“The bright light of the Transfiguration affirms life, a light that shines ahead into Lent to keep that season in perspective, never without hope and confidence,” writes Matt Skinner. “This light speaks a promise that God is here. And that God is knowable. God seeks relationship. Because God is life.”
Luke emphasizes the resurrection reverberations of the Transfiguration and focuses us on the first day of the New Creation, the eighth day, the day of that first Easter. Luke also uses different terminology regarding the change in Jesus’ appearance. Both Mark and Matthew use a word that is the root of our English word, “metamorphosis” (which literally means to have another form). Luke says that Jesus’ appearance became “other.” Witherington and Levine suggest that Luke is trying to avoid any accidental connection with stories of Greek mythology and divinities by making this change.
Moses and Elijah appear on the mountain with Jesus in his glory. Hurtado connects Moses’ presence to the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15, which we read not long ago, that a prophet like Moses would bring the Reign of God. “Moses’ appearance in the vision of the disciples meant that he was endorsing Jesus as the one he had promised,” Hurtado writes, “the one who now bore all the authority of Moses in speaking for God.” Hurtado points to the fact that the command to “listen to him” is a quote from Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15 (page 145).
The prophet, Elijah, also brings a vote of confidence for Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. Earlier in Mark (chapter 6:14-15), we read that Elijah is expected as the forerunner of the Messiah. Mark begins the gospel by identifying John the Baptizer in that role, especially through John’s clothing and diet. The appearance of Elijah as the forerunner will be discussed in Mark 9:11-13. The disciples somehow don’t get that Elijah has in fact appeared in a couple of guises, so Jesus has to make it clearer in those verses. Matthew leaves no doubt as to the identification between John and Elijah, not trusting readers to make the connection themselves.
Mark makes clear in his account that Jesus is the Messiah. He also includes features to show that Jesus is the Son of God, that is the presence of God among us. Hurtado reminds us that the dazzling white clothing takes us to Daniel 7:9, a vision of God. The disciples, Hurtado notes, are viewing a theophany, a Divine appearing like that experienced by Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. So Jesus is not “just the Messiah, an especially godly human chosen to rule in God’s name,” Hurtado writes, “he is himself ‘clothed’ in divine glory” (page 145).
The voice from heaven repeats part of the declaration made to Jesus at his baptism. Here at the Transfiguration, that declaration becomes more public. As God’s “Beloved Son,” Jesus is superior to all the “sons of God” who have come before him. “Jesus is superior to them all,” Hurtado writes. “Together with the transfigured appearance of Jesus, this statement shows that there rests upon him,” he continues, “unparalleled glory and divine favor” (page 146).
The cloud reminds us of the cloud leading Israel in the wilderness and descending on the mountain to envelope Moses in the theophany at Sinai. There is no doubt that the voice is God’s voice. “The voice from heaven not only recognizes Jesus as the Son of God but also commands the disciples to pay attention to what he is telling them about the task and the suffering that lie ahead,” Hurtado notes, “both for Jesus and for them” ( page 146).
The disciples can’t and won’t get this fully until after the Resurrection, and we as the readers understand this. The command to keep quiet about what they have seen and heard” means that it is only in the light of the crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus’ true person can be understood,” Hurtado continues, “for he is not just a wonderful visitor from heaven or an especially favored man given mystic glory but the one called to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:45).” The fact that our imagined baptismal candidate won’t understand it all until the end of the story is affirmed as the prototypical experience of any and every disciple.
“The lesson for the reader,” Hurtado says, “is that any intelligent talk of the glory of Jesus cannot be done apart from emphasis upon his death and resurrection, and that any Christian preaching and devotion that is not centered on the meaning of these events is shallow and confused” (page 147).
More on this text in the next post.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Levin, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). London, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.