[February 14, 2010] The story of the transfiguration follows Jesus’ revelation of the way of the cross (Mark 8:31—9:1) as the way in which the kingdom of God will come in power. But that revelation came only when Jesus heard the disciples confess that He was the Christ (8:27-30).
He was the Christ (Mark 1:1), but did they see what that meant? This section of Mark, which narrates Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to be crucified—which Mark repeated refers to as “the way”—begins and ends with the story of Jesus healing a blind man (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). In the story that begins this section, the man at first only receives his sight partially, for he sees men “as trees, walking,” but in the healing of blind man at the end, Bartimaeus immediately received his sight and followed Jesus on “the way.” Before this section, Mark shows the disciples as those who have eyes but do not see (8:18). They do not understand (6:52; 8:21), even though they know Jesus to be the One anointed by God, and so they rebuked Jesus—through their spokesperson Peter—when He first began to reveal to them the way of the cross. The issue then is whether we really see, or are we still blind? Do we understand? Do we get it? Whether we “get it” all depends on whether we “get” the cross. The glory of the Christ—and consequently the glory of His disciples—depends on taking up the cross, of dying to self and losing the soul as we follow Jesus without shame.
Comparisons between Gospels
So first, before we follow Mark (or Peter rather) on this telling of the transfiguration of Jesus, let us tease out some of the differences between the accounts by Matthew, Luke and Mark. Mark follows Matthew’s “after six days” (associating the transfiguration with the theophany in Exodus 24:16), but emphasizes that they were “by themselves alone (verse 2). Luke alone mentions that Jesus went up into the mountain to pray. Mark does not record that Jesus’ face shone as both Matthew and Luke do (associating Jesus with Moses, whose face shone), but instead emphasizes, more than they do, the brilliance of Jesus’ clothes (verse 3; see Daniel 7:9 and Malachi 3:2). He also reverses the other of the names, Moses and Elijah in verse 4, thus emphasizing Elijah. Moses and Elijah are the only ones to whom God spoke on Sinai, and they are both linked in Malachi 4:4-5, but Mark emphasizes the role of Elijah in verses 9-13. Luke alone mentions the content of their conversation and that the theophany awoke the disciples from their sleep. Luke tells of the disciples fear when they enter the cloud and Matthew tells of their fear when they hear the voice from the cloud (they fell on their faces), but Mark describes the disciples fear—they were “extremely frightened” (a word used elsewhere only in Hebrews 12:21 in relation to Moses’ fear on Sinai)—as the explanation of why Peter did not know what he was saying (verse 6). Matthew alone records that Jesus touched them and bade them rise and not be afraid.
When they descend from the mountain, Mark alone records that the disciples were discussing the meaning of Jesus’ reference to the resurrection (verse 10). This sets up the discussion about Elijah’s coming to restore all things. Does that not precede the resurrection from the dead? But Elijah has not restored all things. So how can the resurrection take place? Mark does not explicitly say that John the Baptist is this Elijah (as in Matthew 17:13), following Luke, so that verse 13 might be referring to no more than the historic Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:2 and 10). But more likely, in Mark, Jesus is saying that John was the reappearing of Elijah but he did not restore all things because he was killed. The same thing will happen to the Son of Man, but unlike John, the Son of Man will bring about the restoration by rising from the dead (Mark 9:10). The one Messiah thus fulfills the three roles of prophet, priest and king (some Jewish interpreters expected three messiahs). Mark changes the import of Matthew 17:10-13 by prefacing the discussion with the disciples’ debate about the meaning of “rising from the dead” (verse 10).
“The Transfiguration” (Mark 9:2-8)
Let us return to the context within the Gospel according to Mark. Peter, shortly before his own martyrdom, is narrating the story of Jesus in such a way as to affirm what he found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but also to emphasize the importance of fidelity (faithfulness) in the face of trial, persecution, discouragement and confusion. It seemed, at least in Rome, that the church was being crushed by the opposition of the empire. Popular opposition had been a part of the church’s experience all along, but for it to be focused in the hands of the state made the diabolical nature of it all the more apparent, for collective entities are synergistic and demonstrate the existence of organizing powers greater than themselves. Was not the Messiah supposed to overcome all the enemies of God? Yet to all appearances, the messianic movement seemed to be overwhelmed by its enemies.
Yet, until the kingdom is manifested openly (when “the Son of Man comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels”), it has a hidden reality that already exists in the world “in power.” In the midst of this defeat, there is a hidden reality that denies and defies it. To help us to see it, Peter brings our attention to the Gospel.
The opposition that we experience and the hardship that we endure as a result of choosing the way of Jesus is nothing other than what Jesus Himself experienced and what He calls His disciples to. Jesus did not interpret it as defeat but rather as the only and necessary way to victory. The way of Jesus and the way of the church are one in this regard; they are both the way of the cross. For it is only in the denial and death of the soul that the divine life within Him (and which He shares with those who believe into Him) can become manifest in this world and begin to overturn the manifest age (aeon, order) of this world. It is not by manipulation or force or by political might but by the dying to the self as the artificial creation of society and culture: of Adam, of Cain, of the Nephilim and of Babel. Jesus took this way decisively when He chose to be baptized by John, and He pursued it to Gethsemane and Golgotha. And He now begins to reveal this way to the disciples. If they would be His disciples, they have to comprehend this, and comprehend that this way is their own pathway, the way for all Christians, the way for the church to exist in the world.
The church cannot be a power in this world. Instead, it must renounce that kind of power. It cannot be triumphalistic. The dream of the Constantinian church that was imposed on believers was a delusion and a denial of the cross. The “millennium” (or any utopian vision) does not come before the Second Advent. The church has never been in the “millennium” and needs to renounce its millennial ambitions. The church’s pathway through this world is the way of the cross.
This is no less true for the individual believer. The prosperity teaching of many in the Christian world is a false gospel. Yes, the Lord will provide for us, and yes, we are not to be a passive victim of our circumstances but are to seize responsibility for our lives. But our hearts must also be purified of worldly ambitions. What the believer values is different than what the world as a system values. Christian teaching often erroneously denounces created desires of body and nature while pursuing the symbolic system of the world (for example, money and power). The Gospel calls the Christian back to the reality of God and creation, imbuing our created nature with the divine presence through the redemption of personhood by our relationship of communion with Jesus.
There is no way to get there—to the divinization of creation promised in our redemption—except through the cross.
But this earthen vessel that must be broken by the working of death conceals a treasure (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), the treasure of the divine life, which when it overcomes the working of death manifests itself as resurrection.
What was revealed to a few disciples—but continues to be hidden from the majority—is that this powerful life, the divine life that overcomes death, was already present in Jesus as He walked the way of the cross. The divine life in Him was not given when He resurrected (and thus attained by Him), rather He resurrected because the divine life was already there. Jesus did not attain divinity but was divine even as He went to His death. So the transfiguration took place at the earliest point: as soon as He announced His coming death at the beginning of His final journey to Jerusalem.
Moreover, the transfiguration also was not something new that happened to Jesus. The voice that spoke from the cloud that said, “This is My Son, the Beloved,” is the same voice that spoke out of heaven at His baptism. It was manifest then for His own sake (hence, in Mark the voice at His baptism said, “You are …”), but here it is manifest for the sake of the disciples (“This is …”), with the accompanying imperative, “Hear Him.”
The life that vivified Jesus, this resurrection life that enlivened Him before His death, is now the life that enlivens us. This life enabled Jesus to deny His soul when He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, and to continue to deny His soul as He took the way of the cross in obedience to the Father, offering Himself (His holy soul) up to the Father to be consumed by the altar-fires of love. This life is the eternal life that is in us when we believe into Him and live in communion with Him. Paul, in the letter that he wrote to the church in Philippi, said that he suffered the loss of all things and counted them as refuse that he might gain Christ and be found in Him, not having his own righteousness but that which is through the faithfulness of Christ, so that he might know Christ “and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (3:8-10). Knowing the power of the resurrection within himself was inseparable from knowing the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings, for it was this power of life within Jesus that led Jesus to go the way of the cross and to suffer. The more we are conformed to His death, the more we know the power of His resurrection.
This is not a passive suffering, I remind you, but a suffering that is willfully and boldly chosen as a result of faithful obedience to Christ, whose command to us is the command of God. We are not the victims of the world, but we offer ourselves to God. When we are faithful to God, the world does not cooperate and instead offers us resistance. We do not therefore surrender to the will of the world. Instead, we deny our soul (the world’s darling and mirror) and suffer that resistance with patience.
The reality of this suffering, however, is the glory that is hidden by it. For a brief moment the three disciples on the mountain with Jesus saw this reality (or rather, a sign of it in the transfiguration of Jesus). Jesus was transfigured before them—without changing!—and his clothes became sparkling, exceeding white. Daniel 7:9 describes the Ancient of Days as clothed this way. The Ancient of Days gives to the Son of Man eternal dominion and glory and kingship so that all the peoples of earth might serve Him, and “His kingdom will not be destroyed.” Jesus, the Son of Man, radiates with the glory of the Ancient of Days, the glory of God, and though He denies His soul and is going to the cross, He is impervious to destruction. Nothing can hurt Him.
When the voice says “hear Him” we recall the Sh’ma of Deuteronomy 6:4 calling Israel to the exclusive love of God alone without reservation. The glory of Jesus is the glory of God and our love of Jesus is inseparable from our love of God, for we see in the face (Person) of Jesus Christ the effulgence of the glory of God. He is the visible image of the invisible One.
The appearance of Elijah and Moses recalls the prophecy of Malachi 4:4-5 as though the three disciples with Jesus were looking through a window and seeing “the great and terrible Day of Yahweh.” It is an eschatological (end-time) vision. They were seeing how Jesus will be manifest on that day.
When the glory disappears, Jesus is as He was. The One who will be manifested with the glory of God at the end of time, the One who is revealed to be the divine One, the Creator, is none other than this creature, the very human Jesus who will suffer death. The divine and human natures are undivided and inseparable, yet unmixed and unconfused in the one divine Person who assumed our human nature as His own.
This becomes our own reality. He became who we are so that we can become what He is. We too suffer in our humanity, but because He has taken us into union with Himself, our suffering humanity participates in the divine nature and glory. It too now lives with the eternal life of God. His resurrection life imparted to us through His death becomes the seed within us of the resurrection of our own humanity, body, soul and spirit. This seed, however, is our present reality. We are not only human but possess the divine life, His life, the life of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:10-11), in us as our own life. See 2 Peter 1:3-4.
Hebrews 12:2 instructs us to “look away unto Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down on the right hand of the throne of God.” The joy set before Him came from knowing that where He was going He already possessed. The divine glory was already there, though hidden, and this knowledge enabled Him to “endure the cross.” Yet what was true for Him is no less true for us. The better we know this divine life within us—the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord—the more we count all other things as loss and suffer the loss of all things (Philippians 3:7-8). “For our commonwealth exists in the heavens” where Christ is, who when He becomes manifest “will transfigure [same word!] the body of our humiliation to be conformed to the body of His glory” (Philippians 3:20-21). We too will one day be transfigured the way Peter, John and James saw Jesus transfigured, only unlike on the mount, our transfiguration will be permanent, as Jesus’ also became in resurrection.
The purpose of the transfiguration was to reveal the hidden side of the cross: the glory of Jesus as He took the way of humiliation, and the treasure that is within us which only becomes manifest when we let death—and the dying of Jesus—do its work in our soul.