Reflections on the Lectionary Gospel Reading for February 15: Mark 9:1-10
And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”
2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
The story of Jesus as told by Mark is punctuated by three nodal moments: the baptism of Jesus, the transfiguration, and the crucifixion. These stories appear to be of the same fabric. They all speak to the identity of Jesus; they all announce Jesus as God’s special messenger, even the Son of God. They all partake of theophanies, or stories in which God appears.
There are several of these stories in the OT: Moses on Mt. Sinai, Isaiah before the throne of God, and others. Often these stories involve clouds, the voice of God, dazzling white garments, and a new direction or clarity for the one who experienced it. Though the elements vary from story to story, they always involve an encounter with the living God.
Though the reading for this coming Sunday is actually Mark 9:2-9, a larger context is necessary to catch the sense of the text. Therefore, I have included v. 1 and v. 10. The first verse sets up the story of the transfiguration. Here Jesus states that some of his audience would be alive to “see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” While this comment may refer to the founding of the church, Mark does not tell us that story in his Gospel. More likely, then, the comment makes sense within in the immediate context. Mark had already introduced the centrality of the “kingdom of God” to the ministry and preaching of Jesus (cf. Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14–15, 23–25; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43).
Jesus has been very clear that the Kingdom of God was in fact already present in his ministry. In Mark 1:15, Jesus states that the kingdom of God has come near (perfect tense in Greek) and in 4:11 that the mystery of the Kingdom of God has been given (again perfect tense) to his disciples, though they did not understand what he meant. Now, in Mark 9:1, Jesus states that some of his audience would see the Kingdom of God “having come” (another perfect) with power. This text is not predicting some future coming of the kingdom, that kingdom is present in the ministry of Jesus. Instead he is predicting that some of this hearers will experience coming of that kingdom “in power.” (Notice that v. 2 begins with a marker of time: six days later, that is, six days after Jesus said some would see the Kingdom of God having come with power).
The next story, the story of the Transfiguration, satisfies both that some of his audience would experience the kingdom and that it would be a powerful experience. The Transfiguration is certainly nothing short of powerful!
When Jesus had led his closest disciples up a high mountain, he was “transfigured” (μεταμορφόω) in their presence and his clothing became brilliantly white. “Transfigure” is such an ugly English word; the only time we use the word is for this story. The Greek word is the one from which we get metamorphosis, and can just as easily be translated “changed,” “transformed,” etc. More pertinent than the meaning of the word is how Jesus’ transformation sounds like what happened to Moses when experienced the presence of God on Mt. Sinai. The text of Exodus notes that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” (Exodus 34:29). Just as Moses experienced God on Mt. Sinai, so now Jesus in this mountain-top experience.
Out of nowhere Elijah and Moses appear to chat with Jesus. Scholars and commentators have speculated on why Moses and Elijah and whether there is a deeper meaning to be found here. Here are a few of the better suggestion:
1) Both Moses and Elijah had theophanic exits. In the case of Moses, the text of Deuteronomy say that God allowed Moses to see the Promised Land, and then he died and was buried in an unknown location (Deut 34:5–6). With Elijah, when it was time for him to exit, God swooshed him to heaven in the wake of a fiery chariot (2Kings 2:11–12).
2) Moses represents the Law and Elijah, as the beginning of the prophetic movement in ancient Israel, represents the Prophets. Thus, the Transfiguration is about how Jesus is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets.
3) In Deuteronomy 18 Moses predicted that one day God would raise up a prophet like himself. The earliest Christians read this text to refer to Jesus (cf. Deuteronomy 18:15; Acts 3:22). Yet many of the miracles of Jesus sound like those that occurred in the ministry of Elijah. Furthermore, since John the Baptist is identified with the ministry of Elijah (cf. Mark 9:11–13), Jesus would be like Elisha, Elijah’s disciple, who received a double portion of Elijah’s spirit after the latter departed.
In short, the stories related to Moses and Elijah provide a rich pool of images and echoes through which to understand the meaning of the Transfiguration and the mission of Jesus.
Clearly Peter misses the full meaning of the experience, when he said, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The point, of course, is that Jesus is the one who now represents the will of God. Jesus, as the Voice from heaven says, is “my Son, the Beloved” and the appropriate response is to “listen to him!” One might say that is Mark’s point throughout the Gospel in seeking disciples who will listen carefully to Jesus. Remember “The one who has an ear to hear should listen up!”
Peter, who may well be Mark’s source for this story, speaks before listening. “He did not know what to say!” So as we are prone to do ourselves when we don’t know what to say, we speak anyway. When we do this, what follows is usually disastrous.
Yet Mark goes deeper into the motivation of Peter and the others: “for they were terrified!” Had I experience what they had, I’m sure I would have been terrified, too. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus elicits two basic responses from people: faith or fear. In Mark’s Gospel, the opposite of “faith,” is not un-faith, or disbelief, but fear. At the end of Mark, this same thought recurs. When the women who came to tomb are invited to go tell of the empty tomb, they don’t, “because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8).
When the experience was over, Peter, James and John looked around. They now saw no one but Jesus!
And that is Mark’s point: to see no one but Jesus!