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The Transfiguration of the Lord

The Transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel is many things. It fulfills and explains Jesus’s cryptic words in Mark 9:1, it reveals Jesus as the summation of the Old Testament, and it encourages the three witnesses with a vision of glory while yet reminding them of the Cross.

Many doubters have pointed to Mark 9:1 as a reason to reject Christian faith, for, read on its face, it seems Jesus was simply wrong. The last real public atheist, Bertrand Russell, adverted to it in his Why I Am Not a Christian as a major reason he wasn’t a believer.[1] But did Jesus expect the coming of the kingdom within the lifetime of his disciples? Is that really what Mark means by Jesus’s words here?[2]

Mark’s narrative structure provides the answer. The Transfiguration of Jesus Christ is a proleptic, before-the-fact disclosure of the Resurrection glory of the kingdom. Mark makes the link clear by informing readers that the Transfiguration happened only six days after Jesus’s words (9:2).

The Transfiguration is a moment of revelation so secret only the inner triad of Peter, James, and John witness it. Jesus leads them deliberately “up a high mountain apart by themselves” (9:2). Mountains are natural locations for supernatural revelation, given that, in the ancient conception of the universe, the dwelling of God is up in the heavens above the earth, and so Jesus leads them up a high mountain, like Moses receiving the Torah at Sinai.

The three disciples witness his metamorphosis (metamorphoō) as he becomes whiter than we can imagine. Mark trips over himself to describe the indescribable, writing that Jesus’s garments “became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (9:3). He has to use analogical language to describe the Resurrection reality of Jesus’s Transfiguration here, for it transcends any human experience while remaining intelligible. It’s a display of the kingdom glory of which Jesus spoke in 8:38. It is the kingdom come with power.

Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, now appear in Mark 9:4 to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets. Further, Jews believed both were assumed into heaven,[3]and both had met with God on Sinai/Horeb (Exod 19–20; 1 Kgs 19:9–18).

The vision overwhelms the disciples; they are terrified (ekphobos, 9:6), never a good sign in Mark’s Gospel. And so, Peter speaks when he should be silent: “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Eli’jah” (9:5).

Now we approach the heart of Mark’s concerns. Peter’s desire to make three booths indicates both (1) that he yet doesn’t get Jesus’s identity as one superior to even Moses and Elijah and, more importantly, (2) that he’s enraptured, overcome with a theology of glory. “Booths” is significant here; it likely evokes the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths, which was the second and final Jewish harvest festival later in the fall.

The first harvest festival was Pentecost, with which Christians are much more familiar. It’s no accident the Holy Spirit descends at Pentecost, for it’s the birthday of the Church when the Holy Spirit arrives to empower her for mission, for a great harvest of souls.[4]Pentecost begins the great harvest. Booths or Tabernacles, then, takes on an eschatological character: it would be the end of the season of harvest. And so, when Peter wishes to make booths, it suggests that Peter, enraptured as he is by Jesus’s eschatological glory, believes they’ve arrived—and managed to duck the Cross after all.

But then comes the cloud of the divine presence and the heavenly voice. God the Father shows up to correct Peter, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (9:7). As at the Baptism, the heavenly voice here alludes to Isaac, the original sacrifice, and so the voice now reminds Peter, as it initially informed Jesus at the Baptism, that Jesus is to be a sacrifice. That’s his mission. Further, the Father makes sure Peter doesn’t miss the point; he tells Peter to “listen to him.” The last words Jesus spoke before this scene concerned the necessity of the Cross for Jesus and for his disciples.

And so, the voice is reminding Peter and the disciples that the only way to the glory they seek is through the way of the cross. They’ve been given encouragement for their way of the cross with this vision of Transfiguration glory; the cross isn’t the end. And yet, they must remember there are no shortcuts. The way to glory runs the way of the cross.

And the scene folds up: they see only Jesus, and descending the mountain, Jesus charges them to keep the vision secret until after the Resurrection (9:8–9). Glory will come, but now is the time to live and proclaim the cross, lest a theology of glory run rampant and risk salvation. And yet, even here, they lack understanding: although Jesus had spoken to them “plainly” (8:32) about his Passion and Resurrection, and although they had just witnessed it in proleptic display, they question “what the rising from the dead meant” (9:10).

In their defense, no Jew was expecting a resurrection of one person in time Most Jews believed in the general resurrection of the dead at the end of time. A crucified and risen Christ is a singularity for which they were unprepared, but it is precisely that singular complex of events that will bring the eschaton into their own time, and they should have trusted Jesus’ words.

Loosing the Lion at the St. Paul Center

[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects,Routledge Classics (London: Routledge, 2004), 13.

[2] It’s ironic that many of the same people who would make this claim would also date the Gospel of Mark relatively late. But, if the Gospel was written late, why would the author include these words of Jesus, which, if they mean Jesus expected an imminent kingdom, would seem ever less likely to be true as time marched on?

[3] With regard to Elijah, see 2 Kgs 2:1–12 and 1 Macc 2:58. For Moses, see: b. Yoma4a in the Babylonian Talmud; Pesiqta Rabbati20:4, Josephus, Antiquities 4.325–326, and the Testament of Moses.

[4] Jesus himself used the language of harvest for mission: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matt 9:37–38).

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