The ninth chapter of Mark is the last chapter where we see Jesus teaching his disciples in Galilee. After this chapter Jesus is going to head to Jerusalem to accomplish the purpose for which he came to the earth. These are the final teachings for his disciples before he goes to Jerusalem for his death. This is why we saw Jesus in chapter 8 plainly tell his disciples that, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). The disciples rejected this idea and Peter vocalized that rejection by rebuking Jesus. But Jesus has to tell these disciples what is going to happen because it is going to happen soon.
Before we can examine our text today we also need to consider the framework of the Gospel of Mark. Remember when we started our study of Mark we saw that the author declared this gospel to be, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet” (Mark 1:1-2). We have seen that this gospel is revealing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies and Isaiah’s prophecies frequently picture the Christ as the new Moses bringing about a new exodus for the salvation of the people. This is important to keep in mind as we come to Mark 9 where we read a truly amazing scene.
The Mountain (9:2-3)
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. (Mark 9:2 ESV)
This is not a random sequence of information. Rather, this is a direct parallel to the events that happened at Mount Sinai with Moses in Exodus 24. The glory of the Lord covered Mount Sinai for six days and on the seventh day God called out to Moses (Exodus 24:15-16). Interestingly, we also have three named individuals going up with Moses on the mountain: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu (Exodus 24:1,9). It is certainly not an accident that Jesus does not take all twelve of his disciples on the mountain here but only three are named: Peter, James, and John.
And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2–3 ESV)
We do not use the word “transfigured” in our English much today. The Greek word simply means “transformed” (cf. Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The transformation is explained to us in verse 3. Jesus’ clothes became radiant, intensely white, white beyond what any specialists could achieve. This matches what is recorded regarding what happened to Moses on the mountain in Exodus 34 when Moses’ face was shining because he was in the presence of the Lord. The point is that the introduction to this event in Mark 9 is echoing the picture of Moses going up Mount Sinai. At this moment the divine glory of Jesus is unveiled for Peter, James, and John to see.
Elijah and Moses (9:4-7)
Now as staggering as this moment would be in seeing the glory of Jesus revealed, there is more that happens. In verse 4 we see that Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking with Jesus. Now Elijah and Moses also appear in their resurrected glory. We need to consider why Moses and Elijah appear. This must be for the sake of the three disciples who are watching this. It is not that Moses and Elijah would be adding anything to the nature or knowledge of Jesus. Notice that the impact is not lost of these three disciples in verse 5.
And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. (Mark 9:5–6 ESV)
This is making a big impression on these disciples. So why is it Elijah and Moses that appear? Both witnessed the glory of God on a mountain. Both were faithful servants who suffered because of their obedience, were rejected by the people, and were vindicated by God. Both are the only ones who worked miracles through their hands. But the bigger point is that Moses and Elijah were referred to in an eschatological context and salvation history when Christ came. Remember what was said regarding Moses and Elijah in Malachi 4.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:4–6 ESV)
One of the final prophecies before the arrival of Christ spoke of the coming of Elijah who would restore the hearts of the people. Also remember what was said regarding Moses in Deuteronomy 18.
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15–19 ESV)
Notice that the coming of the prophet like Moses is tied remembering how God came down to the people at Mount Sinai. Also notice how this prophecy fits what happens on the mountain. Look at verse 7:
And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7 ESV)
This is the same declaration made at the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:11). The voice confirms the confession of Peter that Jesus is the Christ (Mark 8:29). God’s words are in his mouth. Therefore all are to listen to him. Whoever does not listen, God will require it of that person. Everything about the prophet to come like Moses is to be applied to Jesus and the Lord in the cloud confirms this.
The cloud overshadowing them is also what happened at Sinai as God appeared in an overshadowing cloud (Exodus 24:15-18). The cloud also overshadowed in Exodus 40:35 and 1 Kings 8:10-11 when the cloud filled the tabernacle and the temple with the glory of God. The cloud is a picture of the presence of God. A voice also spoke from the cloud in Exodus 24:16 and the result of the experience was the fear of the people (Exodus 35:30; 20:18). What an amazing scene that here are Moses and Elijah! They are not dead but alive and glorified after their suffering and work.
Verse 6 tells us that the disciples were terrified and Peter does not know what to say at this moment. Have you ever been in a situation where you did not know what to say but it was so amazing that you needed to say something? I think about standing at the Grand Canyon and just being in awe. But then after some time you feel like you need to say something about what you are seeing. So Peter suggests three tents, either for honor or for prolonging the time together.
The Message (9:8-13)
But rather than getting any other details, the scene ends suddenly in verse 8. The three no longer see anyone with them but Jesus. The only person left is Jesus and he is the person they are to listen to. This scene confirms the preeminence of Jesus. But Jesus instructs Peter, James, and John to not speak about what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. It is interesting that there is nothing in the text to help us understand the message of the transformation of Jesus. But the rest of the discussion will fill in the details.
Notice that the disciples are now questioning with each other “what this rising from the dead might mean” (9:10). The disciples are still trying to soak in everything that they have just seen and heard. They are trying to work through this. So the disciples ask a question about the last days, the times of the arrival of the Messiah. They ask, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” They are trying to understand more about what has happened. So they ask a question to put the pieces together.
You will notice that Jesus agrees that Elijah does come first with the purpose of restoring all things (9:12). But now Jesus wants his disciples to consider something. How is it written of the Son of Man that we should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? Think about what Jesus is making the disciples think about. If Elijah’s role is to restore everything, how can the scripture predict the suffering of the Christ?
I hope you see that this is the very issue the disciples are struggling with. How can Jesus say that he is going to suffer, be rejected, be killed, and raise from the dead three days later (8:31)? Jesus after this transformation on the mountain tells Peter, James, and John to not speak of this until after he had risen from the dead, which implies again that Jesus is going to be killed. How can Elijah come first and restore all things and also have the Son of Man suffer many things and be treated with contempt? The answer has been the answer revealed to us from the beginning of this gospel. The restoration of all things would be accomplished through Christ’s suffering and death. Notice how verse 13 confirms that this is the message.
But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him. (Mark 9:13 ESV)
Elijah did come and the people did whatever they wanted to with him. This is reference to Herod imprisoning and killing John the Baptizer as recorded in Mark 6:14-29. Please also notice that Jesus said that this happened “as it is written of him.” Where do the scriptures say Elijah is going to suffer and be mistreated? It does not. However, what do we see happening in the life of Elijah? We see King Ahab and Queen Jezebel causing Elijah’s suffering as he proclaimed the message of God to Israel. Now Herod and Herodias have fulfilled that role. If you have been with us in our Bible studies you have heard of me speak about typological fulfillment and this is another way. The pattern that we see in the life of Elijah as a type that would be repeated again and it was repeated with John the Baptizer, just as the pattern of Mount Sinai has been repeated here with Jesus on this mountain. Jesus’ point is that restoration has always come through suffering. This happened to the prophets. This happened to John the Baptizer. Now it will happen to Jesus.
Why is this message so important? Why is this the focal point of the transfiguration? We see and grab hold of the glory of Jesus through suffering. Glory comes through suffering according to God’s will as Isaiah 53 speaks about. The glory of Elijah was through the suffering he endured in restoring all things. The message is not just about Jesus but about all who follow in authentic discipleship. Disciples suffer to follow Jesus but will be rewarded and glorified in the final day.
This is the picture we saw in the last paragraph, that we are to lose our life to save it (Mark 8:35). To state this another way, glory comes only after humiliation. Suffering is not incompatible with glory. In fact, it is the path to glory. How can discipleship require carrying a cross? How can the Lord of glory need to carry a cross? The cross is a stumbling block and foolishness to people. But suffering for the Lord is the path to glory: see Elijah. See Moses. See Jesus. This is what they just saw: the glory of Moses, the glory of Elijah, and the glory of Jesus.
Here is another way we can know this is the message of the transfiguration. In all three accounts of the transfiguration, the teaching Jesus gives before this transformation occurs is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him (cf. Matthew 16:24-28; Luke 9:23-27). This is Jesus’ message and Moses said that a prophet like him would arise and his voice must be listened to. The Lord’s voice spoke during the transfiguration to listen to Jesus. Notice that this was the point Peter understood as well as we close.
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:16–19 ESV)
What was the big message? We would do well to pay attention to the message of Jesus. What was Jesus’ message leading into the transfiguration? Suffering is not incompatible with glory. Suffering is the path to glory from God. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. There is no other path to glory. Follow Moses. Follow Elijah. Follow John. Follow Jesus.