He Was Transfigured Before Them | Mark 9:2-13

And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”

And 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, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And 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.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.

And 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. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And 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? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

Mark 9:2-13 ESV

After bringing His people out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, the LORD led the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through the wilderness and to the foot of Mount Sinai, also called Horeb, the mountain of God. Once there, the LORD’s presence descended upon the mountain as a thick cloud of fire and darkness. From Sinai, God assembled His people together and spoke directly to them, declaring His Ten Commandments, yet the people begged the LORD to speak to Moses alone, fearing that God’s holy presence would burn them away like stubble. The LORD did so, but even when Moses descended after speaking with God, the Israelites needed to cover the prophet’s face since the light of God’s glory reflected from him too sharply for their eyes to bear.

Our present text is similar to the display of God’s glory upon Sinai, except in one critical manner, as Tim Keller says:

Moses had reflected the glory of God as the moon reflects the light of the sun. But Jesus produces the unsurpassable glory of God; it emanates from him. Jesus does not point to ‘the glory of God as Elijah, Moses, and every other prophet has done; Jesus is the glory of God in human form.[1]

May we behold His glory today in the light of His Word.

THE TRANSFIGURATION // VERSES 2-7

Our passage begins by telling us that these events took place six days after Peter’s confession and Jesus’ revelation to His disciples of His coming suffering, death, and resurrection. Now we are simply told that Jesus took three of His disciples with Him to the top of a high mountain. Jesus, of course, already pulled these three disciples apart to witness the raising of Jairus’ daughter back in chapter 5, and He will again do so at Gethsemane.

Upon the mountain, Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. We rightly call this event the transfiguration since Jesus was transfigured before His disciples. The Greek word is the source of our word metamorphosis; thus, we might also say that Jesus was metamorphosized before them. If you remember elementary science, butterflies have likely already popped up in your mind, for we call the process by which a caterpillar becomes a butterfly metamorphosis, which literally means changing form. Just as a butterfly, while being the same creature, has an entirely different form from when it was a caterpillar, so Jesus displayed an entirely different form upon the mountain. But what was that form?

In Philippians 2:6-8, the Apostle Paul beautifully describes the humbling of Jesus, and to do, he begins with Jesus’ normal, eternal state: “he was in the form of God.” The word that we translate as form is morphe, which means something like the essential nature of something. Thus, Jesus was of the same essential nature as God the Father, or as the Nicene Creed puts it: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.” Yet Jesus displayed His humility by not grasping onto His equality with the Father but rather by “taking the form [morphe] of a servant.” Thus, when Jesus descended to earth, taking on human flesh as an infant within Mary’s womb, Jesus’ form was changed. He certainly did not cease to be God, yet there was a very real emptying of Himself, a forsaking of His divine glory in order to tabernacle among the people that He Himself made.

The Transfiguration of Christ upon the mountain, therefore, appears to be a momentary lifting of that earthly veil, a brief glimpse, however small, of Jesus’ preincarnate glory. Indeed, the unearthly nature of this metamorphosis is described in radiance and intensity of His clothing. They were whiter than humanly possible. The subtly of this description reminds me of the stone that “was cut out by no human hand” in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Daniel 2:34, 44-45). Both objects are glaringly ordinary, clothing and a stone, yet there was something altogether extraordinary about them. They were beyond human production. Nothing short of the glory of God was emanating out of Jesus.

To make matters even more astounding two of the greatest Old Testament saints appeared with Jesus to speak with Him: Moses and Elijah. The only two men from the Old Testament who bear as high of a status as these two are Abraham and David, who were both within Jesus’ direct lineage. Oh, to be present as Peter, James, and John were as our Lord conversed with Moses and Elijah! What did they speak about? What deep and heavenly mysteries were unfolded in their conversation?

While we are not given direct dialogue (and given verse 6, I am sure that they forgot most of the details), Luke 9:31 does tell us the subject of their discussion: they “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The ESV footnotes that departure in Greek is literally exodus. They spoke of Jesus’ exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

What a strange reversal! Upon Horeb, Moses was sent by God rather unhappily to Egypt to accomplish the exodus of God’s people from their bondage to Pharaoh, which would result in Moses being exalted in everyone’s sight. Now on this mountain, Moses was sent to encourage the Son of God as He was readying Himself for the greater exodus that He would accomplish, the liberation of God’s people, both Jew and Gentile, from their slavery to sin, which would result in Him being lifted up for all the world to look upon with scorn and contempt. An exodus that would require the Author of life to humble Himself even further “by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).

R. C. Sproul writes:

Both Elijah, who represents the prophets, and Moses, who represents the law, clearly understood the vocation of the Messiah. They knew Jesus had to die, and they knew why. They came to the second person of the Trinity with their comfort and their encouragement, reminding Him of His destiny that they had foretold centuries before. Elijah, who had been carried up to heaven in a chariot of fire, set foot once more in the Holy Land. Moses, who had been denied entrance into the Promised Land, at last stood there after centuries.[2]

In response to all of this, Peter speaks, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” G. Campbell Morgan says that “This is surely what they were thinking on the mount. Lord, not that Cross to which Thou art going; let us stay here! Let us build three tabernacles here. Let us stay in this light, in this glory, in this holy conversation. Yet the conversation was of the exodus; and if they had stayed there, the exodus had never been accomplished!”[3]

I think that Morgan speaks a bit too strongly when he says that the disciples were surely thinking those things. I think most certainly that they were feeling them, but I doubt that their thoughts were as organized as to consciously be aware of those things. I say this because of what Mark goes on to say: For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.

Early writings in church history say that Mark wrote down his Gospel after hearing it largely from Peter. Scripture lends credibility to this tradition when Peter calls Mark “my son” in 1 Peter 5:13, which implies that Peter developed a similar relationship with Mark to the relationship that Paul had with Timothy. If this is so, we can easily imagine Peter telling Mark about the Transfiguration and laughing at his suggestion, saying, “I was just babbling. The whole thing had James, John, and I terrified!”

Verse 7 then tells us that a cloud overshadowed them and the Father spoke from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” It is difficult to miss the echoes of Sinai here. The cloud of God’s glory overshadowed that mountain as well, and the Israelites also heard the Father speak audibly to them. The message then was: “I am the LORD [Yahweh] your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:1). The LORD then gave them the Ten Commandments, literally the Ten Words. The command to listen was implied then but explicitly said when Moses reiterated them in Deuteronomy 5:1, “Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn to do them.”

Millennia later, Yahweh was speaking again upon a mountain, but this time He said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” This was the Father’s audible confirmation of what Jesus said of Himself. “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Here was a greater revelation of the glory of God than Sinai could ever have been. Recall that when Moses asked to behold God’s glory, the LORD answered, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Thus, Moses was only permitted to see where God’s presence had just been. Upon this mountain, however, the disciples were looking upon the face of God in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we have the full revelation of God, for “he is radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). And most marvelously, they did not die because God had stooped down to become flesh.

But of what real benefit is this to us? Only three disciples saw this glory of Christ, so how are we strengthened by it? In Peter’s second letter, he answers these questions:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

2 Peter 1:16-21

In this text, Peter appeals to his eyewitness account of the transfiguration and the Father’s audible pronouncement as evidence for the reliability of the gospel that he was declaring. Yet he then added to this a second witness “more fully confirmed:” the Scriptures. The Old Testament should be our default understanding, yet in chapter three verses 15-16, Peter clearly places the letters of Paul under the canon of Scripture as well. John Owen explains Peter’s point, saying:

There [on the mount of Transfiguration] God gave Christ honour and glory, which all those who believe in him should behold and admire, not only those who heard this testimony with their physical ears, but all who read the Scriptures. We are all obliged to search for and to meditate on the glory of Christ. From the throne of his majesty, by audible voices, by visible signs, by the opening of the heavens, by the descent of the Holy Spirit on him, God testified to Jesus as his eternal Son. In all these, God gave him the honour and glory which has often filled the hearts of many with joy and delight.[4]

Owen then goes on to make application to us today:

So, in reading and studying the Bible, we ought to make every effort to search for the revelations of the glory of Christ in it as did the prophets of old. The glory of Christ is the ‘pearl of great price’ which we should make every effort to find (Matt. 13:45-46). And the Scripture is the ocean into which we dive to discover this pearl, or the mine in which we dig for its precious treasures (Prov. 2:1-5). Every sacred truth that reveals something of the glory of Christ to our souls, is a pearl or precious stone which enriches us. But when the believer discovers this pearl of great price itself, then his soul cleaves to it with joy.

The glory of Scripture is that it is the great, indeed, the only outward means for us to know the glory of Christ.[5]

There is a fairly common assumption that our Bible reading and sermon hearing should be practical. And by practical, we imagine lifehacks and bullet-point lists for how to be happier, for how to be more successful at work, for how to have a healthier marriage, etc. Thankfully, the Bible does have much to say about such topics, yet the primary practical action that the Scripture presents is to know God.

The Scriptures are, after all, first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself to humanity; thus, while He has much to say about our daily lives, He primarily aims to show us Himself. Since Jesus is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15) and all of Scripture is about Him (John 5:39-40), we should come to the Bible primarily expecting to see a further glimpse of Christ’s glory, as Owen said. Indeed, because knowing the LORD is eternal life (John 17:3), if we do not delight to know God more through His Word now, how can we expect to delight to know Him face to face in the age to come?

O brothers and sisters, do not pine after the experience of Peter, James, and John; instead, ascend the mountain of Scripture and beg the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of your heart to see the glory of Christ, to see the radiance of His goodness shining forth through His Word!

HOW IS IT WRITTEN THAT THE SON OF MAN SHOULD SUFFER? // VERSES 8-13

And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. As suddenly as Christ’s glory burst out, so did everything return to normal. Moses and Elijah returned to their place, the cloud dispersed, and Jesus was ordinary again. Thus, they went down the mountain, as must always happen.

As with Peter’s confession, Jesus told the three disciples to tell no one of what happened until after His resurrection. This is almost certainly because speaking of Jesus’ majestic glory would only lead to further speculation on how exactly He was going to restore the kingdom of Israel and subjugate all the other nations of the earth. Although they correctly understood that Jesus is the Christ, they did not yet understand how Christ was going to conquer and build His everlasting kingdom. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.

They then asked Jesus a question: Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come? While this may seem like a non sequitur at first, it was very fair question to ask given everything that had just happened. Of course, it made sense that Elijah would be in their thoughts since they had just seen him. Yet the very last words of the Old Testament also prophesy of Elijah’s coming. Malachi 4:5-6 says,

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of father to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.

This passage also likely came into their minds because of Jesus’ words about rising from the dead, which they must have thought could only mean the resurrection at the last day, following the “great and awesome day of the LORD.” That was Martha’s answer when Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24). Thus, the disciples were most likely wondering if the Day of the LORD was coming very soon, and if so, how should they have been looking for Elijah’s coming?

Jesus answers, “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? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”

Matthew’s Gospel gives clarification to what exactly Jesus meant when He said that Elijah had come. Speaking of John the Baptist, Jesus told His disciples: “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matthew 11:14). This, of course, did not mean that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. If that was the case, then Peter, James, and John would have surely recognized that Elijah and John were the same person upon the mountain.

No, John the Baptist was not literally the return of Elijah; rather, he came in the spirit of Elijah. Dressed in the traditional prophet’s garments and calling for repentance, John’s appearing would kind of be as if a person with the dress (wig and all) and character of George Washington appeared out of nowhere on the political scene. Indeed, John was the very greatest of the old covenant prophets, sent to herald the Messiah’s coming, to prepare the people to receive their long-awaited King.

Yet John’s ministry did not end in glory. It ended with him sitting in prison until a girl seduced Herod into giving John’s severed head to her on a platter. John was truly one who denied himself and carried his cross to follow Jesus. And they did to him whatever they pleased… Indeed, the scribes who were looking for Elijah’s coming were among the very ones who rejected John’s ministry and message. His ministry was a flicker of light, a fascinating spectacle, yet the Day of the LORD did not seem to be any closer.

This brings us to Jesus’ question about the Son of Man in the middle of His answer, which also seems out of place at first. Yet in many ways, this is the central question of the remainder of Mark’s Gospel. Why must the Christ suffer? Especially now that these disciples had witnessed a glimpse of the preincarnate glory of Jesus, how could He suffer and be killed? How could anyone treat this glorious King with contempt?

Yet for this very reason, He humbled Himself and took on human flesh “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He left His heavenly throne to purchase our freedom from our slavery to sin. And because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 3:23), that price was to be paid in blood, life for life, His death in our place. He was treated with contempt, so that it can now be said that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). He nailed the record of our debt to His cross, bearing it Himself and putting it to death by His death.

As we come to the Table, we lift our mind’s eye to another mount, to the hill of Golgotha, where the King of Glory, the Upholder of the universe, bore our sin unto death so that by His blood we may be raised to life and restored to communion with the Father, accomplishing a far greater exodus of God’s people. Come taste and see the goodness and glory of our Lord and Savior, who died for us while we were still sinners.


[1] Timothy Keller, King’s Cross, 113.

[2] R. C. Sproul, Mark: An Expositional Commentary, 192.

[3] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Mark, 188-189.

[4] John Owen, The Glory of Christ, 33.

[5] Ibid.

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