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Mark 9:2-9

For years I never really understood what the big deal was about the Transfiguration. It’s a story I’ve heard read and preached on since my earliest days, but I never really “got” it. It feels like a crazy ancient ghost story, or a fantastical dream someone had. Jesus goes up on a mountain and . . . changes appearance? What does that mean exactly? Then he starts talking with two (very important) dead dudes, who are clearly visible to and recognizable by the disciples who are with him? What the what? Then God speaks to them out of a cloud? What is going on here? And why is this bizarre story even in the canon when other ancient texts about Jesus which smack of the supernatural were axed in the canonization process? So many questions.

Despite the event’s strange elements, clearly the Church (by which I mean capital “C” Church) through history deemed the Transfiguration significant enough to include its celebration in the church calendar. In the Protestant Revised Common Lectionary, Transfiguration Sunday immediately precedes the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.[1] This Sunday also goes by the delightfully strange Latin name “Quinquagesima,” which means “fiftieth” because it is (roughly) 50 days before Easter. (Impress your congregation with that this week!) So what is the big deal?

This story is told in all the Synoptic Gospels (Mt 17:1-9; Lk 9:28-36). Mark, in his characteristic terse style, gives the shortest and most bare-bones version of the three, but they all contain the same basic elements. First, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up to a high mountain (v. 2). Secondly, Jesus is “transfigured” before them (v. 3); his face and clothes become bright as dazzling light. Mark alone provides a note of realism in his description by saying the clothes are “whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them” (v. 3).[2] Then suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus and talk to him (v. 4). Mark and Matthew tell us nothing about the subject of their conversation, but Luke helpfully informs us that they “spoke about [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). Next, Peter offers to build three “shelters” (Gk. skēnos–“booths” or “tabernacles”) for the men to rest in (v. 5). In all of the accounts, the disciples are said to be terrified either by what they witnessed (Mk 9:6), or by the cloud and the voice they hear from it (Mt 17:6; Lk 9:34).

The most significant difference between the three tellings is found in that voice from the cloud. Mark simply has: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (v. 7). Matthew expands on that basic statement by describing Jesus as “my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Mt 17:5). And Luke puts a slightly different twist on this description by saying “this is my Son, whom I have chosen” (Lk 9:35). All three exhort the bystanders to “listen to him.” The stories all close with the cloud disappearing along with Moses and Elijah. On the way home, Mark and Matthew both report that Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone what they saw “until the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.” Luke, interestingly, portrays the disciples as keeping this secret on their own (Lk 9:36). 

Before looking more deeply into the story itself, we will examine the surrounding textual context. Three significant things happen in the Markan story just prior to this passage. First, Peter makes his confession that Jesus is the Messiah or Christ (Mk 8:27-30). Secondly, feeling that at least one of the disciples has finally understood who he is, Jesus expounds on his mission by predicting his coming death and passion (Mk 8:31-32). Peter stoutly rejects this idea to Jesus’ face, and Jesus commands Satan to leave him (Mk 8:33). Finally, Jesus teaches the crowds and his disciples about the way of the cross, saying that those who want to be his disciples must sacrifice themselves and follow in his footsteps of suffering. 

Apparently some in the audience are incredulous at this teaching. After all, they had established that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But suffering? Sacrificing? This wasn’t what they had signed up for! That wasn’t what the Messiah was supposed to do. Everyone knew he was supposed to come in power and soundly defeat their enemies. He was to restore Israel to its rightful place as first among the nations. He and his followers needed to be strong and commanding, not meek and forgiving. Jesus apparently understands their concern, because his final statement to the crowd is found in 9:1: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” He assures them that, yes, the Kingdom of God is being ushered in, some of them will see it, and it is powerful– just not in the way they all assumed. This, in conjunction with the previous revelation about his imminent death, surely caused a lot of disciples and other followers to question what this Jesus movement was even about.

The story of the Transfiguration which immediately follows can be seen, then, as an answer to these concerns. Amidst doubt, misunderstanding and possible exodus of followers, these people need a glimpse of the glory to come if they are going to understand and accept the new narrative Jesus is introducing them to. They need to see that he is the embodiment of God’s kingdom and power. They also need to understand Jesus’ connection to past Jewish history and prophecy, to see that he is the fulfillment of it all.

The glory part is seen in Jesus’ appearance, the setting and the atmosphere of the event. Jesus’ face and clothes both appear to be bright as flashing white light, an archetype of epiphany or revelation.[3] His face is changed in some way that is not specified, but it is said to have shone like the sun.

The atmosphere, the mountaintop, would have been a familiar one to the disciples as it was the typical location in Scripture for revelations of God (“theophanies”) to take place (e.g, Gen 8; 22; Ex 3; 19-20; I Kgs 18). Hearing a voice from a cloud that temporarily enveloped them terrified the disciples, and rightly so. In the Old Testament a cloud represented the presence of Yahweh (Ex 13:21; 24:6; 40:34-35; I Kgs 8:10-11; II Chr 5:13-14; Is 4:5; Ez 10:4). The disciples instantly knew they were standing in front of the Almighty. Combined with the other symbolism, it is no wonder that Matthew tells us they fell to their knees in awe (17:6). A clear point is being made here: Jesus IS God. He is being revealed in the same way that God has always revealed himself. And God even speaks to declare Jesus “his son,” which to the Jews would have meant “he’s just like me.” Therefore, they should “listen to him.”

But what is the role of Moses and Elijah in all this? First of all, why would other figures from Jewish history need to be involved in a theophany at all?  And if they were needed, why these two out of the hundreds that could have been chosen? Elijah’s significance in this context is the most obvious, as he was the prophetically predicted forerunner to the Messiah. This is why both John the Baptist and Jesus are asked at various times in their ministries whether they are the new Elijah, the “one who is to come” (Matt 16:14; Mk 6:15; 8:28; Lk 9:8,19). Since Jesus is not acting like the Messiah himself, perhaps he is the one who has come to announce the Messiah’s imminent arrival. John the Baptist, from prison, even asks this about Jesus at one point (Matt 11:3; Lk 7:19). And we see the disciples ask Jesus about this belief as they are walking down the mountain immediately after the Transfiguration, perhaps prompted by Elijah’s appearance (Mk 9:11-13; Mt 17:9-13). If Elijah himself, not just someone like him, is pointing to Jesus as the Son of God, Jews would have to take notice.

And then there’s Moses, considered not only the law-giver but also the greatest prophet, even though he is not traditionally put into this category by Christians today. It’s often speculated that Moses and Elijah were chosen for this scene because they represented the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). Again with this choice God is making a point: Jesus may not be doing things the way the Jews had come to expect, but nevertheless he was the fulfillment of all of the Old Testament and everything Yahweh had been doing in the world since creation. Along with the Father’s command to “listen to him,” the message is clear: Jesus has come to fulfill all the Law and Prophets had foretold, and by fulfilling them, superseding them. Yahweh’s people must now look to Jesus and his teachings to know His plan.

The literary context of this event is extremely important. In a somewhat rare moment of synchronicity, all three of the Synoptics place this passage immediately or shortly after Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah, the Son of God, and Jesus’ revelation to them about his imminent death (Matt 16:13-28; Lk 9:18-27). Since Matthew and Luke have no trouble tweaking Mark’s arrangement of events in other parts of their Gospels, it seems that all three read the importance of this moment to lie with these new revelations: the disciples’ burgeoning belief that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jesus’ announcement that he has a far different plan for the future than any of them expected. This makes sense in the context of the overall Gospel narrative, for unless the disciples and his other followers truly understand who Jesus is as not just the Messiah, but as the Son of God, his atoning death will not have the same meaning and impact. The Transfiguration helps prepare them for interpreting Jesus’ death by making it as clear as it can get that Jesus is one with God. I mean, they heard God himself say so! How could there be further doubt?That’s ultimately why the Transfiguration was so important in its original context, and is still necessary for those of us today who may doubt. It’s also why it is such a great lead-in to the beginning of Advent, which will culminate with Christ’s death on the cross. God has a master plan, and the most important part is carried out by his Son through his atoning sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean the plan is over! Nor will it be over after Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. No, God is still carrying out and fulfilling his plan to restore all of creation to what He meant it to be, even when we modern-day disciples may not see or understand his plan. The only question is, will we see the truth, believe and join him in this mission?


[1] Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on August 6

[2] All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible, copyright 2011.

[3] Interestingly, the word Mark uses for “to make white” in v. 3 is used only one other time in the NT, in Rev 7:14, to describe the robes of those who had come through the tribulation, that had been “made . . . white in the blood of the Lamb.”


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