Let’s read Mark 9:2-13.
There is great significance to Jesus going to a mountain. This is part of what it means when he says the Time is fulfilled and God’s Kingdom has come. In Exodus 33 God meets with Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses asks to see his face, but he refuses because it would have killed Moses. Instead, God speaks to him out of a cloud. He allowed his glory to pass by Moses while he hid him and even though Moses only saw the remnant of God’s glory, his face shined brilliantly so the people were amazed by it.
In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah is hidden in a cave on the same mountain Moses stood on and God passes by him. There was wind, then an earthquake, then fire, but the Lord was not in any of those. Then, there was a quiet whisper, and this was the voice of the Lord. Elijah was the prophet that was taken up into heaven in whirlwind with Chariots of Fire later in 2 Kings 2.
Mark paints this picture for us centuries later: there’s a mountain, a voice out of the cloud, and Moses and Elijah are even there. If you take the time to read those stories you will see that both Moses and Elijah were hidden so that they wouldn’t see God’s face. Moses was hidden in the cleft of a rock, and Elijah was hidden in a cave. But when Jesus takes his disciples up on the Mountain, he doesn’t hide. Instead, he is transfigured. There’s a metamorphosis. A transformation. Verse 3 describes this other-worldliness about Jesus’ clothes because they are so bright white. And Elijah and Moses are with him and they are talking to each other. The presence of Elijah and Moses in verse 4 points the disciples and those who read this story to the Messianic age where God dwells with his people. Both Moses and Elijah met with God on Mount Sinai and now Jesus meets with them on a Mountain.
This scene is meant to portray the place of Jesus in the plan of God, fulfilling a dual role of Moses and Elijah as the long-awaited Messiah. This story unites two expectations which were alive in 1st century Judaism: the coming of the end-time prophet which is like Moses and the appearing of Elijah at the dawning of the end-times. Malachi 4:4-5 says that Elijah would return before the Day of the Lord, when God will appear and make everything right and he includes Moses in the context of this prophecy. It was passages like this that fueled the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people in the time surrounding when Jesus lived on earth. They expected a great teacher like Moses and a great prophet like Elijah in the form of a military leader like David. The disciples see Jesus standing there with Elijah and Moses and they realize that their assessment of Jesus as the Messiah was correct. But, rather than teaching about the role that Elijah and Moses would play in God’s judgment on the nations, God’s deliverance and restoration of Israel, and God’s ruling over his people himself, this is a picture of the roles of Moses and Elijah being fulfilled in Jesus.
Some of the literature that is found from the in-between period of the Old Testament and New Testament fueled these Messianic expectations, but they never foresaw anyone like Jesus coming. God wasn’t going to send Moses or Elijah, he was going to send someone with a much higher authority. He was going to send his Son.
This is another way of displaying that in Jesus, the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom has come. HE is like Moses and Elijah but greater, he is God’s son. This is the point of this passage. All of the prophetic and cultural expectations of the Messiah, and the roles of Moses and Elijah in God’s final act in history are summed up in Jesus. This scene is another way that Jesus depicts the Time being fulfilled and God’s Kingdom coming.
In verses 5-6, Peter is so scared he starts talking and suggests that places of worship be built to honor Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Peter is so terrified, he has to do something so he suggests constructing some tent or building for worship. Verse 7 seems to interrupt Peter’s babbling. A cloud envelopes the mountain just like in the times of Moses and Elijah and a voice booms from it. “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” The disciples can stop waiting for a Messiah like Moses and Elijah, because the Son has come. This is an echo back to his baptism and a mark of the change in Jesus’ ministry. The Father speaks about his son when Jesus begins his ministry and now the Father speaks about his son as he goes to the end of his ministry. Verse 8 says this whole experience ended abruptly. Then just like that, everything went back to normal.
You can imagine the questions going through the three disciples’ heads: What was that all about?! But before they can ask him, and before he explains it, Jesus says, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until the son of man rises from the dead”. Just as Jesus has told them to be quiet about saying he is the Christ, he tells them to be quiet here. If they told even the remaining 9 disciples or anyone else, it would no doubt fuel the misdirected misunderstanding of Messiah that were popular in their day. Remember that Jesus had said in verse 1 that some would see the Kingdom of God come in power, well, before the resurrection, James, John, and Peter have had a glimpse of it. But Jesus says, not to say anything about it until everyone gets a chance to see it when he is resurrected.
It’s Jesus’ death and resurrection that will calibrate the disciples understanding of Messiah, and Jesus tells them to wait until then. He refers to himself as “Son of Man” in 8:31 and also here in 9:1. This was a title from Daniel 7 which speaks to God’s vindication of his people through a coming ruler. Jesus had referred to himself in this manner before, but now the disciples have a new understanding of who the Son of Man is. After Jesus tells them to be quiet about what they have seen until he rises from the dead, in verse 10 the three disciples begin to ask one another questions about what Jesus might have meant when he referred to rising from the dead. The disciples still haven’t realized all that was going to take place.
They do know that they have just seen Elijah though, and that meant that Malachi’s words were coming true before their eyes. They were about to witness the “Great and awesome day of the Lord”. They were having trouble putting all of these pieces together, so they ask Jesus about Elijah’s coming in verse 11. Jesus’ explanation is not what they would have expected in verses 12-13. He says Elijah has come and the Elijah that was on the mountain is not the one to which he is referring. John the Baptist has already come fulfilling the Role of Elijah. He worked to restore all things through preaching a message of repentance calling the people of Israel to rightly align their lives. But the puppet king, Herod, had him arrested and later on killed. Jesus says, that this “Elijah” preceded him in ministry and in death, preparing the way. Elijah was the herald of not only the Lord’s coming, but his execution. Jesus again is teaching his disciples that the Kingdom coming has nothing to do with rebellion or military action. But it has everything to do with suffering and dying, and then finally rising. And Jesus will accomplish exactly that. He will be rejected, he will suffer, he will die, and then he will rise. This is how the Kingdom of God will come in power. But it is going to take some time before the disciples can understand this.
We are not so different from the first disciples. They were significantly influenced by their cultural understanding of God and the nature of the Messiah. We are naïve if we think we are not. So it requires vigilance and devotion to the word of God to guard against being led astray by false beliefs. If you remember previously in Mark, some thought that Jesus was a reincarnation of John the Baptist or Elijah or another prophet. On the mountain as Jesus speaks with Moses and Elijah, the scene would have spoken vividly to the disciples that he was not a reincarnation, but a new and distinct person from them and possessed a greater authority than they ever did or would. Our culture is going to tell us things like all religions are essentially the same. It will tell us that one idea about God is as good as any other. But Jesus spends much of his ministry explaining through teaching and action the difference between the culture’s understanding of God and the truth. His chief lessons are depicted in the cross and in the empty tomb. And he says following him will cause our lives to look very similar in their death to ourselves and our promised resurrection. We all need the Lord to calibrate our theologies. We all need the Holy Spirit to lead us into true and give us grace to understand how his word integrates into our lives.
Jesus shows his disciples a glimpse of the glory he is withholding and it terrifies them. The time will come when they will see him suffer and die and they will again be terrified. But when they see Jesus risen, they are no longer terrified, instead they worship and they understand. Our understanding of who Jesus is and what difference it makes in our lives grows when we worship. When we read, pray, sing, and listen the Holy Spirit works to bring transformation to our hearts and minds. This happens individually and when we meet together, neither to the exclusion of the other. It takes time and we will grow in our understanding of who God is from now into eternity as we pursue the Lord forever. But understanding who God is, begins with believing that what he says is true, and aligning our lives accordingly. Understanding and even worship begins with belief and repentance.