Mark 9:2-13

Saving Mystery within Historical Events

Mark 9:2-13 – Jesus is Transfigured

With Jesus’ mention of his own impending death, and his statement that those who wished to be his followers must be ready also to face the real possibility of the cross (or the lesser death of inner growth), the narrative had taken a whole new direction and depth. 

It was a crucial moment for self-examination, no doubt, for Jesus’ disciples. As far as Mark was concerned, the issue was of burning importance also for his community of disciples. Discipleship was not a choice to be made lightly. By his inclusion of the following passage, Mark endeavoured to address the issue.

The questions raised early in the narrative in connection with Jesus’ post-baptismal experience, his encounters with Satan in the wilderness, his calming of a storm and his walking on water, need to be faced again with this passage. 

Was Mark’s intention to give an account of an actual event the way that it in fact had happened? The language used was so highly symbolic that it would seem to suggest other than an actual, historical happening. The description presented Moses and Elijah as actually present and visible; yet both were well and truly dead, and resurrection from the dead was not yet reality.

Was Mark recounting an actual vision shared by the three disciples? If that were the case, their continuing obtuseness and hardness of heart would have been difficult to understand. (It may be important, however for modern readers to realise that most other cultures are often more attuned to inner visionary experiences than are those educated into a scientific mindset.)

Or was Mark’s description his own creative construction by which he sought to “remove the veil" and to re-emphasise the reality unfolding beneath the surface - the mystery of Jesus’ identity and role? The contemporaries of Mark were used to apocalyptic literature. They would have recognised the literary form much more naturally than does the modern reader. To the question: “Did it really happen?” Mark would have answered: “It is happening all the time, but to know it, one must have eyes that see and hearts that are not hardened.”

Whatever stance the modern reader adopt, the more important issue is to recognise the message that Mark was conveying through his richly symbolic description.

2 After six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

The phrase after six days, and the careful mention of an unidentified high mountain, created the mood, drawing from a description of Moses’ experience of God recorded in the Book of Exodus. 

So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua,
and Moses went up into the mountain of God.
To the elders he had said,
“Wait here for us, until we come to you again... (Exodus 24:13-14)
... and the cloud covered it for six days;
on the seventh day (Yahweh) called to Moses out of the cloud...
Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. (Exodus 24:16,18)

It had also been on a mountain (Mount Horeb or Sinai) that Elijah had had his experience of God passing him by, and had been reassured by God in face of the widespread faithlessness of the people.

Elijah went ...
to Horeb the mount of God... 
He answered, “... the Israelites have forsaken your covenant...
I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”
(The word of the Lord)
... said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, 
for the Lord is about to pass by.” (1 Kings 19.8,10,11)

In the Exodus passage Moses had not taken up the mountain with him the leaders of the twelve tribes but only Joshua. Joshua was Moses’ apprentice, as it were, the man on whose shoulders would fall the task, after the death of Moses, of leading the Israelite tribal confederacy to take possession of the Promised Land and to hold them together in some sort of unity. This may explain why Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, rather than the whole group of twelve. These three men would be the key leaders in the new community, the ones particularly entrusted to hold it together in unity and fidelity to the vision of Jesus.

Mark continued his account:

In their presence he was transformed.
3 His garments became an intensely brilliant white,
whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them.
4 Elijah and Moses appeared to them,
and were talking to Jesus. 

What was the relevance of these two characters talking to Jesus? Mark did not give an answer but left his readers to reach their own conclusions. Among some generally relevant issues could be the following:

  • Both Moses and Elijah were men who had had privileged visions of God on the mountain. Both had been loved and trusted by God and consistently faithful in their total dedication to God and God’s vision for his people.
  • Both had fulfilled significant roles in the formation of the Israelite people. Moses had seen to Israel’s initial formation from an unorganised, dispirited, ignorant group of separated descendants of Jacob and Rachel into a motivated, unified and enlightened People. Elijah had championed the cause of God at a time of virtually universal apostasy in Israel under the monarchy, and succeeded in turning around the destructive death wish of the People of God.
  • Both had experienced hardship, persecution and near-despair. The Israelites in the desert had rebelled against Moses’ leadership time after time and relapsed into their former idolatry, trying the patience of God and leading Moses to desperation. Elijah had been persecuted by Jezabel, the wife of King Ahaz, pursued by false prophets, and plagued with the temptation to lose hope at Israel’s lack of faith.
  • Both prophets had been enlightened and encouraged by God in their moments of extreme testing.
5 Responding to this, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is a good thing that we are here.  
Let us erect three shelters,
one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
6 Really he did not know what to say – they were so terrified.

Peter’s reference to shelters picked up the custom of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), associated with the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was basically a harvest festival when the Jews would often pilgrimage to Jerusalem and erect temporary dwellings or shelters of tree branches around the city. (Tabernacles is a more elaborate word meaning shelters). The Feast was precisely a commemorative celebration of the formative period in the desert when the People had been given the Torah and organised under the leadership of Moses.

7 A cloud overshadowed them,
and from the cloud came a voice,
“This is my son, my beloved.  
Listen to him.” 
8 Immediately looking around,
they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus alone.

The cloud had been a traditional accompaniment of the mysterious presence of God during Israel’s’ desert wandering. The voice from the cloud partly echoed the voice that had resounded from heaven at Jesus’ baptism. This time, however, the voice was insistent that the disciples listen to Jesus, God’s beloved.

The description echoed a description in the Book of Daniel (a classic apocalypse):

I (Daniel) looked up and saw a man clothed in linen,
with a belt of gold ... around his waist...
He said to me,
“Daniel, greatly beloved,
pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you...
(Daniel 10:5,11)

Though there were notable differences in the two accounts, the building blocks of Marks’ creative construction become apparent. In Daniel’s vision, the man clothed in linen had been unidentified, as had been the “human one/Son of Man” of his earlier vision.

Mark situated the story at an ominous turning point in the life of Jesus and the disciples. Jesus had faced the reality of his own impending death and had warned the disciples. If the earlier message of the essence of the Kingdom had been hard to hear, the probability of suffering and death was particularly tough. The disciples basically went into denial.

Mark’s real purpose, however, was to educate his own community of disciples. They were the ones who needed reassurance that their choice to follow Jesus, despite persecution and the threat of death, was the right choice and indeed the way to experience life to the full. They were the ones in danger of being ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous (faithless) and sinful generation. They were the ones faced with the burning query: “Who do you say that I am?” and Mark wanted to tell them the real answer to the question, whatever about the answers of Herod, Peter, the people generally, or the disciples.

9 On their way down the mountain,
he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen
until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 

Why the embargo? Perhaps because it was essential to Mark’s plot. The disciples had been challenged to face the powerlessness espoused by Jesus. Jesus would not give signs to this generation beyond the sign of his own integrity and the truth of his stance.

10 They kept his word,
while discussing among themselves
what rising from the dead could mean.

Particularly if Jesus’ reference to his eventual resurrection had originally indicated no precise time line, it was not surprising that the disciples wondered about its meaning and its implications. It is too easy for modern readers, who accept the details of the resurrection with such nonchalance, not to identify with the puzzlement and virtual panic of the disciples. It is sometimes too easy to hear the Gospel narrative, to take it for granted, and to miss the continuing urgency of Jesus’ call to conversion and its practical expression in the present world.

Mark continued to emphasise his point of the certainty of suffering.

11 And they asked him,
“Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 
12 He said to them, “ ... And, indeed, that Elijah come first
to restore everything,
and as it is written about the Son of Man,
to suffer much and to be despised?
13 I tell you, however, that Elijah has come
and they did what they liked to him,
as is written about him.”

Mark had clearly indicated that the Elijah figure preceding Jesus was in fact John the Baptist (1:6). Jesus read an inevitable pattern in humanity’s dealings with God: “as it is written..” -- the predictableness proceeding not from the mind of God but from the persistent sin of humanity. As had happened so often in Israel’s history, the man of God, the prophet, had been made to suffer humiliation and contempt, and even sometimes death. John had been no exception. He had been imprisoned and then executed by Herod. The destiny of John, following that of so many prophets and holy persons in Israel’s long history, would be the anticipated fate also of Jesus and, in some cases, also of the disciples. The Son of Man would be no exception. Indeed, the whole context of Daniel’s vision, from which Jesus took the title Son of Man, presupposed persecution.

Mark invited his readers to consider not simply the precedent of Jesus’ own fate, but the consistent pattern throughout the whole of the Jewish Scriptures.

Next >> Mark 9:14-29