The Son’s Transfiguration

Title: The Son’s Transfiguration

Aim: To assess how our devotion to the Savior can strengthen our understanding of His teachings.

Scripture: Mark 9:2–13


The mountaintop experience, Mark 9:2–4


Sometime during the last year of Jesus’ earthly ministry, He told His disciples that He would be executed and then rise from the dead (Mark 8:31-32). Not even Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers, could prevent this series of events from happening (v. 33).


The Messiah stated that those who give Him complete control of their lives are His genuine followers and would be eternally blessed. In contrast, those who reject Him would experience eternal loss (vv. 34–38). 


Mark 9:1 records Jesus’ statement that some of His hearers would not experience “death” before they saw the “kingdom of God” arrive in great “power.” About six days after making this declaration, Jesus split up His group, taking three of the disciples with Him up the side of a “high mountain” (v. 2). The interim period is reminiscent of the same amount of time Moses delayed before going up Mount Sinai (Exod 24:16–18).


The literary context of the Transfiguration seems to indicate that it occurred in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27). Because Mount Tabor, the traditional site of the event, is some distance from the city and only 1,800 feet in height, it is unlikely that it took place there. 


Mount Hermon fits better in that it is close. Also, three different mountains to the southeast of Caesarea Philippi are each over 4,000 feet. Any of these could fit the context and provide the solitude Jesus desired for the Transfiguration.


Some interpreters see a parallel between the Transfiguration and the episode in which Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu accompanied Moses up Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:1, 9–11). This suggestion harmonizes with the truth that Jesus is the end-time prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15. 


In a way comparable to the event that occurred on Mount Sinai, the Transfiguration was an opportunity for Peter, James, and John to witness a manifestation of Jesus’ sacred, regal presence. Also, like that previous, long-ago incident, it is reasonable to conclude that Jesus’ three disciples caught a glimpse of the Lord’s celestial throne room in veiled form on the high mountain.


Why Jesus specifically chose Peter, James, and John is subject to debate. The Bible describes Peter’s special role in confessing Jesus to be the Messiah (Matt 16:16-19), John as the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 13:23), and James as the first of the Twelve to be martyred for the Lord (Acts 12:2). 


By and large, Peter, James, and John enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Savior, and now they would be privileged to witness a special unveiling of the Messiah’s eternal glory. In addition to this occasion, Jesus allowed only Peter, James, and John to accompany Him when He raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead (Mark 5:37; Luke 8:51) and while Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33). 


As Jesus prayed on the mountain, He was “transfigured” (Mark 9:2). The Greek verb used is a form of metamorphoō, which means an essential change in form. This term is the origin of our English word metamorphosis


The gleam on Jesus’ face was translucent, coming from within, like a lampshade’s luminance when the bulb inside is turned on. Mark also noted that Jesus’ garments became dazzling white—indeed, far more than any launderer on earth could bleach them (v. 3). 


Matthew 17:2 adds that Jesus’ countenance shone with the brightness of the sun. In the Bible, God’s glory is often associated with light. So, in the Transfiguration, Jesus’ majestic splendor was being unveiled, and it must have been a marvelous sight.


Centuries earlier, Moses’ face also shone with the Creator’s glory when the lawmaker came down from Mount Sinai. His glow, however, had been external and transitory (Exod. 34:29-35; 2 Cor 3:7). In contrast, Jesus’ glory was internal and always present, though it was veiled by His human form, that is, except during His transfiguration. 


According to John 1:14, the eternal Word “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” “Made his dwelling” translates a Greek verb that is more literally rendered “tabernacled.” This serves as a reminder of the sacred shrine in the wilderness wherein the Lord displayed His glory among the Israelites (Exod 25:8; 40:34–35; 1 Kings 8:10–11). 


The grandeur and splendor of God were also present in the Messiah, whose “glory” (John 1:14) the disciples noted. In one sense, the luminescent perfection of the triune God shining forth from Jesus is implied by the Greek noun, doxa


Yet, the most profound way in which Jesus’ followers witnessed His glory was through His death on the cross, followed by His resurrection and ascension (John 7:39; 12:23, 28; 13:31-32; 17:1, 4-5). At His second coming, Jesus’ majestic splendor again would be totally revealed to the entire world (Matt. 25:31).


As if the Lord’s transfiguration in glory was not enough, two former heroes of the faith—Moses and Elijah—appeared and began talking with Jesus (Mark 9:4). Luke 9:31 indicates that the subject of their conversation was Jesus’ approaching death (literally, exodus; translated, “departure”). 


It has been suggested that these two men, in particular, appeared because Moses (the nation’s number-one lawgiver) represented the Law and Elijah (a premier spokesperson for God) represented the Prophets. Their appearance was a visual reminder that Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, that is, the entire Old Testament revelation.


The Father’s voice, Mark 9:5–8


The Old Testament prophets had foretold the Messiah’s suffering and glory to follow (1 Pet. 1:10-11). Peter, however, having just witnessed Jesus’ regal splendor during His transfiguration, evidently assumed that His glorification and manifestation of His kingdom were immediately coming. 


Peter clearly didn’t grasp the redemptive significance of Jesus’ transfiguration, at least not while it was occurring. In fact, Mark 9:6 explains that Peter and his two peers were so terrified that Peter was at a loss for words. 


According to verse 5, Peter spoke to Jesus on behalf of the other two disciples and offered to build “three shelters,” namely, “one for [Jesus], one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It seems that Peter’s intent in building the huts was to prolong the surreal experience. 


Peter’s wording shows that he was thinking about Jesus as being on a par with the other two Old Testament luminaries. Peter failed to recognize that Moses and Elijah were secondary figures when compared to Jesus. 


Furthermore, though Peter’s motive seemed laudable (at least on the surface), his timing was out of sync with that of God and the Old Testament messianic prophecies. In short, Peter was eager to experience Jesus’ promised glory without the suffering that Jesus had foretold.


The Jewish feast of Tabernacles forms the backdrop of Peter’s remarks. This feast (also known as Sukkoth, Ingathering, Shelters, Booths, and Tents) was celebrated in autumn after the harvest. 


The observance lasted seven days, making it the most extended festival of the Jewish year. During this time, participants lived in tents or shelters made from branches and leaves. 


Tabernacles was a sacred season when God’s people commemorated the way the Lord graciously provided for the Israelites during their years of wilderness wandering. The feast was also a time to thank God for allowing the year’s harvest to be completed (Lev 23:33-43; Num 29:12-39; Deut 16:13-17).


Peter’s mistake was pointed out to him by none other than the Father. While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud (representing God’s sacred, heavenly presence) enveloped the people on the mountaintop (Mark 9:7). In the Bible, God is often associated with clouds, such as when He led the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. 


Previously, the Lord communicated with Moses at Mount Sinai (Exod 24:15–18) and Elijah at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8–18). Hundreds of years later, the Father, while speaking from the cloud that enveloped the unidentified high mountain, gave the Son the divine stamp of approval. 


Incidentally, the Father made a similar declaration at Jesus’ baptism, which signified the start of His earthly ministry (1:11). Now that Jesus was about to experience the horrors of the Cross (the makeshift altar on which He was sacrificed), the Father’s voice saying, “This is my Son” (9:7), affirmed Jesus’ earthly ministry before His disciples.


It is worth noting that the Father, in making this pronouncement, rebuked Peter by pointing out that Jesus was not just another hero of the faith, but the Father’s one and only Son. Furthermore, the Father expressed His supreme love for and approval of Jesus. 


The Son had come to earth to accomplish an agonizing mission, yet He was being completely obedient to the Father. Considering this, the three disciples—and all people—should have listened to and obeyed Jesus’ teachings. 


Admittedly, the Twelve had often listened to the Son, but frequently they did so without understanding or obeying His words. So now, the Father commanded that the Son’s teachings were to be taken to heart and heeded. Doing so was especially appropriate considering the difficult days that lay ahead.


According to Matthew 17:6, the three disciples were terrified when they heard the voice of God and fell prostrate. The ancient Israelites had felt the same kind of fear when they had heard the voice of God originating from the cloud on Mount Sinai. 


With genuine sensitivity and compassion, Jesus came to His three disciples, gave them a reassuring touch, and said, “Get up. . . . Don’t be afraid” (v. 7). Jesus’ actions reflected His deep affection for these three followers.


Mark 9:8 clarifies that suddenly when the disciples looked up, Jesus alone was with them. Moses, Elijah, and the cloud were gone, and the extraordinary experience was over.


The Son’s instructions, Mark 9:9–13


As the Lord and His three followers descended from the high mountain, the disciples most likely were eager to tell the others what they had witnessed. Yet, Jesus directed them not to tell anyone about it, that is, not until after He, the “Son of Man” (Mark 9:9), was raised from the dead. 


One reason for the preceding admonition is that Peter, James, and John did not really understand the full import of what they had witnessed. They were especially perplexed by what Jesus meant when He talked about “rising from the dead” (v. 10).


It would only be after Jesus’ resurrection that the disciples could correctly grasp the full significance of the Transfiguration. Also, Jesus certainly didn’t want to give the impression that He was about to establish a glorified earthly kingdom. 


On other occasions, Jesus had made a similar statement about not publicizing His messiahship (for example, when Peter said that Jesus is the Messiah; Matt. 16:16-20; Mark 8:29-30). In each of these instances, the time was not right for the people at large to know Jesus’ true identity as the Messiah.


The Transfiguration was important for several reasons. First, it unveiled the majestic splendor of the Redeemer, the Son of God, which in turn authenticated His messiahship. Second, the vision of Jesus confirmed and expanded what He had been teaching His followers about Himself. 


Third, the Transfiguration revealed the great depth to which the Savior had humbled Himself in becoming a human being. Fourth, the mountaintop experience was a foretaste of the unveiled splendor Jesus would manifest after His resurrection, when He returned to earth to establish His kingdom.


Fifth, the episode on the high mountain encouraged the Twelve to remain faithful to one who would be executed on a cross. They knew that, despite the immediate prospect of suffering and shame, they could look forward to a future of unending glory with their ascended and almighty King.


Having been reminded that Jesus was going to die, the disciples asked why the scribes taught that Elijah would appear first, that is, before the advent of the Messiah (Matt. 17:10; Mark 9:11). It didn’t make sense to the disciples that Jesus, whom they now knew to be the Messiah, would have to perish, especially if Elijah came first and initiated widespread repentance (Mal. 3:1; 4:5-6). 


Of course, three of Jesus’ disciples had just seen Elijah, but they assumed that this was not the return of the prophet that Malachi had foretold. Understandably, then, the Twelve wondered why Elijah had not come to prepare the way for Jesus.


Jesus did not contradict the scribes’ teaching about Elijah’s arrival, which was certainly part of God’s eternal plan (Rev. 11:3-6). Instead, Jesus affirmed that the scribes were correct in teaching that Elijah would precede the Messiah (Sir 48:10; Matt. 17:11; Mark 9:12). 


Yet, Jesus pointed out that the scribes had failed to recognize that Elijah had already come (Matt. 17:12; Mark 9:13). Specifically, Jesus was talking about John. 


The Baptizer was not a reincarnation of Elijah, but one who fulfilled the role of Elijah by preaching repentance and preparing the way for Jesus. The religious elite had not only failed to recognize John for who he was, but also partnered with the civil authorities in bringing about John’s persecution and eventual murder. This anticipated Jesus’ own suffering at the hands of the civil and religious authorities.


When the Savior declared the above truths, it became clear to His three disciples that the Baptizer was the Elijah-like figure who had already come (Matt. 17:13). He was the person whom the prophet, Isaiah, had promised would prepare the way of the Lord (Isa. 40:3). 


John’s ministry also found fulfillment in what the prophet, Malachi, had described when he spoke about Elijah preparing the hearts of the people for the advent of the Lord (Mal. 4:5-6). Jesus, in confirming John’s role, both affirmed the Baptizer’s ministry and Jesus’ own redemptive work as the Messiah.


For thought and application


Jesus selected Peter, James, and John to witness the Transfiguration probably because they had proved themselves to be the more committed followers. Then, through this amazing mountaintop episode, they gained a greater understanding of Jesus, His regal splendor, and His teachings.


Peter, later recalling his encounter with Jesus during His transfiguration, wrote, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16; see also vss. 17-18). The apostle’s memory of this incident no doubt increasingly encouraged him, James, and John, especially as their commitment to the Lord deepened. 


Moreover, as Peter’s devotion to the Messiah became stronger, Peter looked forward to a greater understanding of Jesus’ teaching. Each step in the apostle’s walk with the Lord helped Peter to comprehend more of what the Savior wanted the apostle to tell others concerning the gospel.


We can follow Peter’s example, and if we do, we can also look forward to a deeper comprehension of our Lord’s teachings. This is especially true as we become more committed to Him. 


It’s exciting to know that God’s Word will become clearer to us as we deepen our relationship with the Redeemer. In fact, the more we submit to the Son on a daily basis, the greater will be our awareness of how His teachings apply to our lives.


Our world often tells us what is wrong with our faith in the Savior and how dull Christianity seems. The spiritual journey, however, can be a thrilling adventure of discovery to which we are always looking forward with excitement. After all, what awaits us is always a clearer awareness of our eternal King.

Professor Dan Lioy (PhD, North-West University) holds several faculty appointments. He is the Senior Research Manager at South African Theological Seminary (in South Africa). Also, he is a professor of biblical theology at the Institute of Lutheran Theology (in South Dakota). Moreover, he is a dissertation advisor in the Leadership and Global Perspectives DMIN program at Portland Seminary (part of George Fox University in Oregon). Finally, he is a professor in the School of Continuing Theological Studies at North-West University (in South Africa). Professor Lioy is active in local church ministry, being dual rostered with the Evangelical Church Alliance and the North American Lutheran Church. He is widely published, including a number of academic monographs, peer-reviewed journal articles, and church resource products.