The Transfiguration of Jesus: 14 February Mark 9:2-9
The vision of the transfiguration opens itself to many interpretations. Ascending a mountain with his companions after six days would recall for many Moses’ ascent of Sinai with Joshua in Exodus 24, where the cloud covered the mountain for six days. We might expect revelation, such as at Sinai. 9:7 also mentions a cloud. The disciples see Moses. Just the fact of ascending a mountain would raise expectations. On mountains one encountered the divine. Exodus 34 tells us that when he returned from his second ascent, Moses’ face shone. Matthew’s account of the transfiguration also has Jesus’ face shining (17:2).
In Mark’s account the first major event is the transfiguration (metamorphosis). Jesus is changed before their eyes and his clothes become glistening white. While such splendour indicates belonging to the heavenly world, the transformation of a normal physical body into a spiritual body was part of the hope of the future resurrection. As Paul puts it, ‘We shall all be transformed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet’ (15:51-52). Paul is picturing what will happen to those who remain alive at the second coming of Jesus. In Mark 9:2-9 this is already seen as happening for Jesus, even if temporarily. We are being given an advance showing of the climax of history. It is what we might expect after 9:1 which speaks of the kingdom come in power.
So something is being said about Jesus both in the vertical dimension: heavenly; and in the horizontal dimension: he belongs to the vision of future hope. This last emphasis also explains some other elements in the story. Elijah was expected to come at the climax of history (Malachi 4:5-6). This hope reappears during the crucifixion where people think Jesus’ cry is for Elijah (15:35). Elijah is mentioned in 8:28 and also in 9:11-12, on the descent from the mountain, where the interpretation is offered: John the Baptist is to be seen as Elijah. Elijah is Mark’s main focus in 9:2-9, rather than Moses, so we are told they saw ‘Elijah with Moses’. There was also a common expectation, based on Deuteronomy 18:15-18 that in the last days a prophet like Moses would appear. This expectation also appears in 8:28. The words of Deuteronomy 18:18, ‘Listen to him!’ are picked up in the voice from heaven.
The complex tapestry of allusions continues with Peter’s suggestion that tents be erected for the three persons, probably reflecting the practice of the Feast of the Tabernacles when men and their sons spent time in such temporary huts in a reminder of the time Israel spent in the wilderness, but possibly also to be seen as an attempt by Peter to secure the experience in some tangible way – out of his ignorance and fear, as Mark explains. Cloud is common imagery related to the coming of divine presence. The Son of Man will come on clouds (14:62; cf. 8:38; see also 1 Thess 4:17, ‘caught up to meet him in the clouds’) and we have already noted the cloud at Sinai. The voice from heaven echoes the voice at the baptism of Jesus, in speaking of Jesus as God’s beloved son (1:11). It is spoken here to the disciples; there it was addressed to Jesus, himself. The effect is to remind us of who Jesus is. The remaining words, ‘Listen to him!’, put major emphasis on his teaching. In the context this will be teaching for disciples, but, alas, they will not show themselves good listeners but will pursue their ambitions of greatness (9:30-34; 10:33-45).
When 9:9 reports that Jesus instructed them not to tell what they had seen until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead, it is also making the point to us, the hearers and readers, that the meaning is not necessarily straightforward. – which we well know by now! If Mark had been producing a movie, we would be quite used to the technique of cutting to a symbolic scene which served as a commentary on the movie as a whole. The narrative of the transfiguration is similarly meant to be understood in the light of the whole of Jesus’ ministry, indeed, to throw light on it. That will include not only what has come to this point in Mark, but especially what follows. That is the point of the waiting in 9:9. The distinctive emphasis in what follows is the path of lowliness and suffering which the disciples fail to ‘hear’.
We are now in a position to try to hear what is being said. The vertical dimension links Jesus to the divine world, using Sinai imagery. We are being told: in this life of service and suffering we are receiving divine revelation such as was given to Moses on Sinai. Here is revelation of God’s way. The horizontal dimension is saying: this life is the ultimate criterion of what matters in the end. In him the values of the end and made known in the present. What human beings ultimately hope for is to be found in him. He is the Son in whom we can know the Father.
It is possible that Mark also links Moses with the Law and Elijah with the prophets, although I think this unlikely because the context does not suggest it. Rather the scene, like the baptism, is an instance of symbolic narrative alluding primarily to two complexes of tradition: expectations associated with the day of resurrection and revelation imagery of Sinai. It is a complex way of doing christology, celebrating who Jesus is. Mark’s use of the story connects so strongly to what follows that we can scarcely interpret it without reference to what Jesus’ disciples were to ‘listen to’ in the chapters which follow, namely lowliness and compassion. It is not just any elevation of Jesus which will do, but this particular one, which we appreciate when we know the whole story. Mark’s story reminds us that disciples, then and now, frequently get it wrong, through fear and ignorance and much else.
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