Part Two: Disciples Go Down
As the Transfiguration party goes back down the mountain, Jesus orders them to keep the story to themselves “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (verse 9). They complied with the order, but they discussed and argued among themselves (the NRSV “questioned” seems a bit non-specific here) “what this rising from the dead could mean.” In fact, the word for “questioned” could just as easily be translated as “seized upon.” They are doing more than wondering about what Jesus intended.
Were the disciples unfamiliar with the idea of resurrection from the dead? No, that can’t be the case. The common expectation of the time was that there would be some sort of resurrection at “the end of the age,” whenever that might be. This was, obviously, a live issue for theological debate in Second Temple Judaism and certainly in the first century.
We know that the Sadducees did not believe in any sort of postmortem resurrection, since they were sure such an idea could not be found in the Torah. They engage Jesus in this debate later in the synoptic accounts. We know that Martha expected a general resurrection at the end of the age that would include her brother, Lazarus. We can see the developing expectation of a resurrection of, at least, the “just” in the account of the martyred brothers in 2 Maccabees. So, the disciples had plenty of data to frame their conversation.
It wasn’t the resurrection of the dead that caused the arguments. It certainly must have been the mystery surrounding the resurrection of the “Son of Man.” Apparently, this individual resurrection was going to happen at a time when it would be appropriate and useful to tell people about the Transfiguration as a foreshadowing of that resurrection. That was, for the disciples, a real theological head-scratcher.
“No second-Temple Jewish texts speak of the Messiah being raised from the dead,” N. T. Wright notes in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “Nobody would have thought of saying, ‘I believe that so-and-so really was the Messiah; therefore he must have been raised from the dead’” (page 25). It’s no wonder the disciples are puzzled by Jesus’ command.
For Christians, as Wright puts it, the Resurrection has been “split” into two parts – Jesus’ resurrection in the middle of history, and resurrection for the rest at the end of the age. “Mark, clearly, intends his readers to recognize that they share with hindsight the knowledge that Jesus seemed to have in advance,” Wright says. “The reader understands what was, for the disciples at the time, still a puzzle” (Resurrection of the Son of God, page 415).
We get the substance of the disciples’ debate in verses eleven through thirteen. The disciples know that Elijah is the predicted forerunner of the Messiah. In a veiled reference, Jesus points to John the Baptist as Elijah, just as Mark did in his description of the Baptist in chapter 1. “But I tell you that Elijah has come,” Jesus assures them, “and they did to him whatever they pleased…” In fact, they executed John for speaking the truth, and Jesus prepares the disciples to expect the same for him.
It’s a funny thing about resurrection – you have to die first. Was that part of the shock that smacked the disciples upside the head as they made their way down the mountain? If it hadn’t occurred to them before, Jesus makes it clear. “How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” It’s not clear what scripture Jesus references here, but it is clear that he brings together the Davidic Messiah and the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah.
The Transfiguration party has barely gotten off the mountain and they find themselves under the shadow of the cross. Welcome to the disciplined journey of Lent!
Jesus comes down the mountain to find things in an uproar, just as Moses did in Exodus 32. Hurtado notes that listeners to Mark’s gospel experience resistant teachers of the law, powerless disciples, and Jesus, “who both meets the needs before him and calls his followers to more faithful obedience to him” (page 147). He draws a parallel between the resurrection prefiguring of the Transfiguration and the similarities between this scene and the life of the post-resurrection church. “Implicit in the account is that Jesus’ followers are expected to have full faith in his power,” Hurtado writes, “even when he is not with them as he was with the Twelve, and that they must continue his ministry in the same power that he manifested” (page 148).
Critical in Mark’s account is the conversation between Jesus and the father of the demon-possessed boy. This is one of the pivotal scenes in Mark’s gospel. I don’t know if Mark intends this or not, but in this scene, we have one “Beloved Son” healing another. We have one loving Father sending help to another loving father. The voice from heaven tells the disciples to “listen to him!” The verb for “listen” has in the sense of “obey.” That will be the call to the father who wants his son set free.
The struggling disciple dad doubts whether Jesus can conquer the demon, since his disciples could not. Jesus’ response to the father’s request seems harsh to our ears. “Something in the father’s statement of the problem, in the crowd’s prurient but faithless interest, and in the disciples’ inability to deal with it all, says to him that whatever is going on it isn’t faith,” suggests N. T. Wright. He concludes, “That sad reflection confirms him in his belief, announced already at Caesarea Philippi, that he must now himself go the way of sorrow, the way of the cross, the path of his redeeming vocation” (page 150).
The father, as a struggling and doubtful disciple, makes his request again. But he clearly has doubts about Jesus’ power to anything about the situation. He murmurs, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus sounds offended or incredulous at this lukewarm response. “Of course, I’m able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father then cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Hurtado suggests that this cry of desperation “was no doubt intended by Mark to depict the need of his readers to trust in Christ more fully and intelligently” (page 150).
This is the situation of all disciples who follow Jesus from the resurrection into the world. N. T. Wright notes that the father’s words were, “shouted out in the mixture of despair and trust that so often seems to characterize our prayers when things are tough…” (Location 2202). We dare not cease trusting in him for our life and mission.
When that happens, resurrection takes place. Jesus lifts the boy to his feet, an image of resurrection. “Jesus, the beloved son on his way to his own death and resurrection, rebukes the spirit,” notes N. T. Wright, “it leaves the boy apparently dead, but Jesus (in Mark’s words) ‘raises him up, and he arises’ (both words are regular resurrection words in the New Testament)” (Location 2203). “And we have the promise, Hurtado suggests, of Jesus’ power available to us “by faith to meet any need that arises in the course of ministering in his name” (page 150).
“And when faced with crises ourselves,” wonders N. T. Wright, “do we know how to pray with whatever faith we may have? ‘I believe; help me in my unbelief!’ When we find ourselves at that point,” he suggests, “the only thing to do is to put the first foot on the ladder, ask for help and start to climb” (Location 2210). This must have been a moving challenge to our baptismal candidate shivering in the dark of Easter eve on the brink of baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection.
Hurtado offers this summary. “In the same way that the disciples are brought back into Jesus’ earthly mission here after the transfiguration that prefigures and symbolizes Jesus’ resurrection, so Mark’s readers were to realize that they, after the resurrection of Christ, were called still to an earthly mission of faith and of proclamation of Christ against the forces of evil” (page 149). This is the final exorcism in Mark’s gospel and draws together all the ways in which Jesus triumphs over sin, death and the devil in his life, death, and resurrection.
Following this preview of resurrection, we get Jesus’ second Passion Prediction in Mark, followed by his discourse on the nature of discipleship in the balance of chapter nine and the whole of chapter ten. We learn that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). We sit with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who regains his sight and immediately follows Jesus on the way. The way leads to Holy Week and the cross.
But, hold on for a bit. Lent doesn’t start until Wednesday.
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.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.