Lesson Focus: We won’t truly know who Jesus is until we experience his suffering and death.
Catching Up on the Story: All of the stories we’ve looked at so far in Mark’s Gospel, from Simeon and Anna to John the Baptist, to powerful preaching and casting out demons, have left us asking the question, “What’s going on here?”
As we’ve poked around a bit, we discovered that the story that the author of Mark is relating to us focuses squarely on another question, “Who is Jesus, and what does he have to do with me?
Answering that question is one of Mark’s main objectives. He’s told us upfront who he thinks Jesus is, and a few of the characters in the story know, but for the most part, the entire narrative is an exercise in discovery for the people with whom Jesus comes in contact. And the same is true for us, too, as we discovered that there’s a difference between knowing about Jesus, a difference in reading what Mark says about Jesus, and learning that for ourselves.
Of course, Jesus is “the holy one of God,” as Mark proclaims. And Jesus wants to reach down, grab our hand to heal us from our fevers, the fevers that are fed by our vices, jealousy, hatred, selfishness, greed, anger, envy, lust, and the like.
This week, we’re skipping ahead a few chapters to chapter 9 in Mark’s story. Jesus has been moving about the countryside preaching, healing, teaching, and even feeding large crowds. The Pharisees, who are the Jewish religious elite, don’t like Jesus one bit, and they often engage Jesus in arguments, seeking to trap him in some way so that they might have cause to get rid of him.
As any good teacher does, Jesus takes advantage of the conversations he has with the Pharisees, as well as the events of everyday life, to help his followers understand better who he is and what he’s doing.
For their part, the disciples are a little slow on the uptake. It’s easy to be hard on these men, thinking they’re a bit dense, but that’s probably not entirely the case. Just like everyone else that Jesus comes in contact with, they have a lot of unlearning to do about who they think Jesus is and what they think he’s come to do. And more often than not, I think we need to do the same thing.
The Mountain: There’s nothing about today’s passage that isn’t strange. There’s a temptation for me, anyway, to try and explain every little detail to you so that you might fully understand and catch the significance of what’s happening here. But the world of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, and Peter are just so far away from us. I’d almost venture to say that it’s virtually hopeless for us to understand what’s happening on this mountain with Jesus. After all, Peter, who has been with Jesus for so long, witnesses the event, and even he can’t truly comprehend the meaning of it all. No, perhaps the best approach to take is to sit with its strangeness awhile, to soak in the mystery of transfiguration, of dazzling white clothing, of the appearance of ancient men before our eyes. So, that’s what we’re going to do.
In Mark’s narrative, it’s been six days since Jesus had a conversation with his followers about his identity. It’s been six days since Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, albeit without truly knowing what that means. It’s been six days since Jesus told his followers that he must suffer and die.
I must tell you that no one, it doesn’t matter what year it is or on what continent, no one wants to hear that their leader, the one in whom they have placed so much hope for the future, that he’s going to suffer and die. More than that, no one wants to hear that to follow this leader, they might be called to suffer and die too. But that’s what Jesus says. It’s with that backdrop that Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, set out on a little journey by themselves.
Apart from the other disciples, Jesus and these three men take a hike up a tall mountain. We could spend some time wondering where the exact location of this mountain is, but that might be missing the point. Though, it does bear mentioning that throughout Israel’s history, mountains are important. Rather, important things happen on mountains. World-changing things happen on mountains.
So there they are the four of them up on the mountain. Jesus doesn’t tell them why they’re there, and Mark doesn’t tell us why either, though we know it’s something important.
In Mark’s characteristic fashion, no time is wasted. Immediately we’re told that Jesus was transfigured.
Now that’s a funny word, maybe even a strange word. The Greek word that Mark uses is metemorphe, which is the word from which we get metamorphosis. It can mean either an external change or a complete internal change. We usually associate this word with the caterpillar/butterfly change. But that’s not what’s happening here. Jesus’ nature, his essence, isn’t changing, though his outside appearance is.
At this moment, Mark wants us to think back to Genesis and the Moses story. After God brings Israel up from Egypt, out of slavery, Moses goes up on a tall mountain and meets with God. And afterward, his face begins to glow, dazzling white. He’s so radiant that he has to cover up his face. So, there we have Jesus, standing atop a high mountain, his appearance has changed, he’s glowing brightly, and his clothes are a bright white, whiter than any clothes refiner could make them. What in the world is going on?
Peter Interrupts: As quickly as Jesus and his follower arrive on the scene and as quickly as Jesus beings to glow, Moses and Elijah show up. Now, I have no idea how it is that Peter knows it’s those two heroes of the faith, but he does. After all, there weren’t any photographs back then, so he wouldn’t have known what they looked like. Perhaps Peter overhears the three men in their conversation. Maybe he heard Jesus greet Moses and Elijah like they were longtime friends. Maybe Jesus calls them by name as he embraces each man. “Oh, Moses, it’s so good to see you! It’s been so long! How did you stand to live so long? I’ve only been fully God and fully human for 30 years! How do you deal with the smell!” Or maybe Peter just knew that it couldn’t be anyone other than these two. So much of Israel’s hopes dealt with what God had done in the past through Moses. After all, the Exodus was the defining moment of God’s salvation for Israel. Moses had to be included. Elijah had to be there, too, because Elijah was intimately connected with Israel’s hope for God’s future salvation. It could be no one else. Elijah had to be included. There in one moment, God’s past salvation and Israel’s hope for future salvation collide.
As Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking, Peter impulsively interrupts them. Can you imagine? Two of the most important characters in Israel are there, right before your eyes, along with the person you just confessed to being God’s anointed Messiah, and you just decide that you’re going to insert yourself into the conversation? What guts!
Actually, our English translations miss what’s happening with Peter. Verse 5 begins with a bland and plain, “Then.” But the original Greek force is more like a verbal reaction rooted in shock and amazement. Peter is just reacting.
Peter’s just like that one friend who just says stuff without really thinking. We all have friends like that who don’t know what they’re saying; they just react and blurt things out, and more often than not their either flat wrong, or what they’re saying is wildly inappropriate. And if you don’t have a friend like that, you probably are that friend! I should know because sometimes that’s me! Unable to fully comprehend what he’s seeing and hearing, Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
The first part of Peter’s statement is painfully obvious. Of course, it’s good that you are there! Jesus wouldn’t have brought you up on to this high mountain if it weren’t for a good reason. Now the second part of Peter’s interruption isn’t so obvious. Why in the world would he want to make some dwellings? Did he think they’d stay there for a while?
While we’ve giving Peter a little bit of a hard time about his rash vocalizations, he’s not entirely off with his suggestion to build some small shelters. The Jewish festival of booths was a celebration that looked forward to the end-time Sabbath rest. Peter’s put together a few pieces of the puzzle. The end of things is near, and God is finally bringing this sabbath rest we’ve all longed for! And he’s excited to be a part of it. Peter’s fear and bewilderment at the sight of the dazzling white Jesus and the two heroes of the faith, Moses, and Elijah begins to turn to excitement.
Echoing in his ears are the words that Jesus said just six days ago, “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 can just see the cogs in Peter’s mind working. He’s putting two and two together, and he’s beginning to imagine what the world will look like for him and his fellow Jews now that God’s kingdom is coming. And indeed, this is what Jesus was talking about. Surely, he’s one that won’t taste death until he sees God’s kingdom coming in power! It’s coming. It’s here! Peter thinks to himself.
The Cloud and the Voice: It’s funny that Jesus never says a word in this passage, not directly anyway. Though I suspect that if he had, he would have told Peter to sit down and be quiet because he has no idea what he’s talking about. “Oh, hush up!”
Then, all of a sudden, a cloud descended upon the mountain and covered them all. Maybe that’s God’s way of telling Peter to be quiet! Though, in reality, it’s another illusion to Moses on the mountain after the Exodus. For Israel, God is almost always present in the cloud. As the cloud surrounds them, a voice booms loud and clear, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
We’ve already heard these words, at least some of them, at Jesus’ baptism. Though then, we’re not sure anyone other than Jesus heard them. Now, though, Jesus hears them, and so do Peter, James, and John. In fact, they seem meant only for those three fellows. Of course, we get the revelation once again that Jesus is God’s son, his beloved son. There is no other. Jesus is it. Then comes the command, “Listen to him!” It’s not just a call to hear the words that Jesus says, but to follow and conform to what Jesus says. Hear and obey; that’s what God is saying to Peter, James, and John.
Certainly, God knows how confused Peter and the others are. The last few years with Jesus have been hard to digest, let alone the previous few moments. If Peter and the others are to truly follow Jesus, they’re going to need to pay rather close attention to what it is that Jesus says to do.
Be Quiet: As quickly as it all began, it ended. God’s voice booms loud and clear, proclaiming that Jesus is his beloved son and that we should listen to him. Then, the cloud is gone, and so are Moses and Elijah. And Jesus has returned to his usual self. I’m sure that Peter and the others sit there for a moment in stunned disbelief. What in the world just happened? James turns to Peter and scolds him for foolishly interrupting Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah.
After a bit, the four men leave the mountain top to rejoin the rest of the group. As they’re walking down the mountain, Peter, James, and John are shaking their heads in disbelief, trying to make sense of it all; Jesus turns to them and commands them to not tell anyone about what’s happened until he’s risen from the dead?
What the what!? I’m sure they’re thinking, “We’ve just seen you glow while having a conversation with Moses and Elijah, and you don’t want us to tell anyone? That’s like hitting a hole in one and not being able to share the experience with anyone! And what do you mean by “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead?” I’m reasonably certain that they had figured out that the Son of Man was Jesus, but to rise from the dead, someone has to die first. That just doesn’t make sense. Only six days ago, Jesus said that God’s kingdom was coming in power? What gives? Jesus can’t establish God’s kingdom. He can’t be more significant than Moses or Elijah if he’s dead? And what about the power part? Powerful people don’t die, at least not until they’re ready to, in old age. Just what in the world is going on here?
So What? After this experience, I imagine that there’s a lingering question in Peter’s mind, who is Jesus? I think that every time Peter believes he’s got a good handle on who Jesus is and what Jesus will do next, he finds out he’s wrong. He certainly knew that Jesus is the Messiah, but then Jesus calls him Satan because Peter urges Jesus to be God’s Messiah in a way that would be unfaithful. Peter was right about Jesus in connecting him with the significance of Moses and Elijah, but clearly, he doesn’t understand what it means for God’s kingdom to come in power. Yes, I’m sure that Peter keeps asking himself, “Just who is this Jesus?” Why must he suffer and die? Messiah’s don’t die.
I think that’s the key to understanding this strange event. Peter wants, we want, the salvation that comes through power, not salvation that comes through suffering.
Peter gets all excited because he thinks that God’s kingdom is coming in power the way that he understands power. God’s kingdom will not come about through the power of armies or through violence, but through the power of suffering love.
That’s why Jesus commands the group not to tell anyone about the events on the mountain. He knew they’d be misunderstood. Everyone who heard the story would want to come and make Jesus king by force. They’d expect him to do things he wasn’t supposed to do. But Jesus knows that the only way to truly understand the kind of power that Jesus talks about is by first experiencing Jesus’ suffering and death.
As long as we want to conquer life and our enemies through power, through the sheer force of will, or through coercion, we’ll never, ever be able to see who it is that Jesus really is. It’s why we’re going to spend so much time preparing ourselves for Good Friday. It’s why we’re going to gather on Good Friday and narrate Jesus’ death because we can’t understand the resurrection. We can’t understand the power of God’s love until we first journey through Christ’s suffering.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Read Exodus 24:15-18 and Exodus 34:29-35. Are there any similarities between the passage in Mark and the two from Exodus? If so, what are they? Why might they be important?
Why do you think Jesus only asked Peter, James, and John to join him on the mountain?
Why do you think Peter was so quick to interject himself into the conversation Jesus was having with Moses and Elijah?
Why would Peter offer to make “three dwellings” the group?
Read Mark 8:31-9:1. What might the connection be between this passage and the Transfiguration story?
Do you think Peter, James, and John understood who Jesus was at this point in the story? What makes you think that?
Why does Jesus tell the three disciples not to tell anyone about what they witnessed?