Mark 9:2-13

The Mountaintop Experience

We have now moved into the second half of the Gospel of Mark.  Through the first eight chapters Mark was slowly leading us to discover the true identity of Jesus.  We learn who Jesus is from the lips of Peter — “You are the Christ.”  And now in the final eight chapters Mark moves from the identity of Jesus to the mission of Jesus.  Why has he come?  What has he come to do?  As the disciples struggled to understand who Jesus was, now we see that they struggle with why Jesus has come.

In the our passage today Jesus is going to allow a few of his disciples to experience who he is and why he has come.  This is a true mountaintop experience for Peter, James, and John where they come to behold the glory of God.

#1 The disciples experience the glory of God through Jesus.

2And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Mark 9:2-4

NOTE: Mark links the transfiguration with Peter’s confession and Jesus’ teaching on the Son of Man with this phrase “after six days.”  That Luke tells us it was after eight days (c.f. Luke 9:28) should cause us no alarm.  Augustine attributes this difference to how time can be counted with Mark counting the intermediate days and Luke counting the days on the either end.  For instance, if you meet a friend on Monday and don’t see him until the next Monday, you could say it was 6 days in-between your time together or you could say you saw him on the eighth day.  

Jesus takes a small group of his disciples away with him on a high mountain.  When you are reading your Bible and you hear that someone is on a mountain, you should pay careful attention.  Important things happen on mountains.   Jesus is transfigured before their very eyes.  Not only is he transfigured but even his clothes take on a special light becoming “radiant, intensely white” — whiter than even Tide could achieve. We struggle to understand exactly what happened here. What we know is that these three disciples come to see Jesus in an extraordinary light.

The only incident in the Bible that comes close to paralleling this event is Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai.  Remember that on that mountain God was also revealed (or perhaps concealed) in a cloud.  After spending time in the presence of God, Moses came down the mountain, and the Israelites were surprised to see the his face shining (c.f. Exodus 34:30).  The difference between the glory seen in Moses’ face, and the glory seen here in Jesus’ face is this:  Moses reflected glory while Jesus possessed glory.  In the same way that the moon reflects the light of the sun, so Moses displayed a reflected glory of God.  But with Jesus it is different.  The author of Hebrews puts it this way (Hebrews 1:3): “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”  To see Jesus is to see the glory of God.

This is no ordinary way to see Jesus.  The crowds saw Jesus in an earthly manner even if they did walk away truly astounded by what they saw.  Many today see Jesus only in ordinary light.  Yet these three disciples are given a special gift.  They have special view of Jesus.  They behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  This, says Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6, is how we come to experience God’s glory: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Appearing with Jesus are Elijah and Moses.  Of all the people in the Old Testament why Moses and Elijah?  It is generally taken that Moses  represents the law and Elijah the prophets. It is the law and the prophets (c.f. Luke 24:44) that bear witness about Jesus.  It is significant that both Moses and Elijah encountered God in their own lifetime on a mountain.   Both Moses and Elijah were deliverers of Israel with Moses leading God’s people out of Egypt and Elijah leading people out of Baal worship.   Both Moses and Elijah had unusual departures from this life with Moses dying alone leaving God himself to bury him (c.f. Deuteronomy 34:5-6) and Elijah being taken up directly to heaven in a  whirlwind (c.f. 2 King 2:11).

The three disciples continue to stand in awe when a cloud overshadowed them.  This has often been referred to as shekinah-glory.  Shekinah is a Hebrew word used to describe the glory of God’s presence.  It is the visible manifestation of the invisible God. While this word itself does not appear in the Bible, it is a helpful description nonetheless.  In the Old Testament the shekinah-glory was seen in the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire in the wilderness.  It was seen in the cloud that filled the tabernacle (c.f. Exodus 40:35) and later the temple (c.f. 1 Kings 8:10-11) with the the glory of God.  The twist in the New Testament is that the shekinah-glory is not found in a temple or a cloud but in Jesus himself.

#2 In response to beholding the glory of God the disciples are terrified.

5And 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.” 6For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  Mark 9:5-6

True to our modern sentiment of “capturing the moment” with a camera rather than just being in the moment, Peter suggests constructing three tents or tabernacles.  While this may have been a foolish comment to make, it demonstrates that Peter has at least some understanding of what is going on in front of his eyes.  God’s glory is being displayed.  He perhaps remembers in the Old Testament that God’s glory was manifested in the Tent of Meeting (also called the Tabernacle).  The issue, of course, is that God was already dwelling or tabernacling with his people apart from any earthy tent.  No tent was needed since God took on flesh in the person of Jesus (c.f. John 1:14).

Verse 6 captures the disciples’ response to all that was going on around them.  They were terrified.  This is what happens when you encounter the glory of God.  Over and over again in the Bible when someone encounters God in his glory, the response is fear.  And a specific kind of fear.  Not a fear of reverence, though that certainly would be appropriate. Not a fear of awe though that too would be appropriate.   Mark describes the fear experienced here as terror.  Terror is a unique kind of fear that undoes a person.  When we are gripped by this kind of fear, our whole bodies respond.  Our minds can think of nothing else.  This is no half-hearted response to encountering God.

#3 The disciples come to understand the meaning of their experience through revelation.

7And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.  Mark 9:7-8

As they continue to behold the radiance of Jesus, a cloud appears and overshadows them.  Just as a cloud settled on the tabernacle (c.f. Exodus 40:35) and later filled the temple (c.f. 2 Kings 8:10-11), so a cloud envelops them here.  A voice is heard which gives meaning to this event “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

This is not the first time that Mark has recorded a voice from heaven. Remember that at Jesus’ baptism God spoke saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased (c.f Mark 1:11).”  The first time the Father spoke, he did so for the benefit of his Son.  Now he speaks for our benefit.  Not ” you are my Son,” but “this is my Son.”  And we are to “listen to him.”  Only the Father can convey this kind of knowledge of the Son to us.  No amount of human reasoning or  human effort will lead us to a right understanding of the Son.  It comes only through revelation.  Specifically, for us it comes when the Spirit illumines our minds to behold Him in the already revealed Word of God.

#4 Jesus can only be understood through the cross and resurrection.

9And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”  Mark 9:9-13

Jesus once again commands silence.  But there is a twist this time. He charges them to tell no one until he has risen from the dead.  So here we have the most important reason  for Jesus’ insistence on silence.  Previously, we’ve gathered that it wouldn’t be wise for the disciples or others to pass on incomplete knowledge.  They knew he was the Christ but didn’t know what that meant.  Now we see that no understanding of Jesus is complete without first understanding the cross.  Any report that the disciples pass on will be altogether inadequate.  It is his death and resurrection that make sense of his identity and his purpose.

We see the disciples are still puzzled.  They question among themselves “what this rising from the dead might mean.”  This question they do not put to Jesus, rather they ask about the role of Elijah.  Jesus responds say that they are correct that Elijah must come first.  Presumably, Jesus is connecting Elijah with John the Baptist.  John came in the Spirit of Elijah to restore all things and they “did to him whatever they pleased.”  If they mistreated the forerunner to the Messiah, so they will mistreat the Messiah.

Discussion Questions

  1. Describe a time when you were filled with awe or amazement.  What was it like?  What were thinking?  What were you feeling?
  2. What do you think this experience was like for Peter, James and John?  What might have been going through their mind? What might they have felt?  Why are they terrified?
  3. What does it mean to be “transfigured?”  What does Jesus’ transfiguration teach us about the glory of God?
  4. Why do you think Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus?  What is the significance of their presence?
  5. How does Peter respond to this situation?  How is this “typical” of what we see of Peter in the Gospels?  Why do you think he wants to put up tents?  Can you relate to this desire to “capture” the moment rather than be “in” the moment?
  6. In verse 7 a cloud appears.  Name some of the instances in the Old Testament that God appeared in a cloud.
  7. What did the Father say to the disciples?  What did he want them to do?
  8. What command does Jesus give to the disciples as they come down from the mountain?  Why is it necessary to wait until after Jesus has been resurrected?
  9. What do we learn about Jesus and Elijah in verses 11 to 13?
  10. Read Peter’s reflection on the transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:17-20.  Peter says we have something better than an actual mountaintop experience.  What is it?
  11. On a practical level how can we be constantly fueled and driven by the glory of God?  What might be hindering you from being driven by God’s glory?
  12. What is one thing you want to be sure to remember from this passage?


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