What is being ‘transfigured’ in Mark 9?

This week’s lectionary gospel reading, the last Sunday before Lent, is Mark 9.2–9, this gospel’s account of the Transfiguration. I confess I don’t quite understand the logic of reading about the transfiguration here, just before we look at the temptations of Jesus in the desert as the introduction to Lent, especially when we will revisit it at the festival in August. But it is one of the odd things that happens when the church year folds story of Jesus over, so that the early episode of temptations becomes the lead into the climactic events of Holy Week.

All three Synoptic accounts place this immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus then starts to talk about his betrayal and death. They seem to want us to hold these two truths together: that the Son of Man is one who is humble and obedient even to death; and yet he is also the one spoken of in Daniel 7 where he comes to the Ancient of Days and receives a kingdom that will never end. Both of these are true about Jesus, and both must be held together. This is made clear by the final saying of Jesus in the previous pericope (section):

Amen I say to you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come in power (Mark 9.1).

Note that Mark adds ‘with power’ which is omitted in Matthew and Luke, and Matthew uses the phrase ‘the Son of Man coming in his kingdom’ (Matt 16.28); this is the erchomenos language of Matt 24 referring to the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days, not the parousia language of Jesus’ return at the End, so we can see that all three understand Jesus’ comment as a reference to his exaltation and ascension, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost followed by the preaching of the gospel.

All three gospels then follow this by specifying the short time period of about a week between that and the revelation on the mountain (the difference between Luke’s ‘eight days’ and Matthew and Mark’s ‘six days’ being the difference between inclusive and exclusive ways of counting), the only place in Matthew where he is so specific about a time period. The ‘some’ (who will see the kingdom come with power) makes sense when we see Jesus taking with him only his inner circle of Peter, James and John, as he does later at Gethsemane. The Fourth Gospel then talks of having ‘seen [Jesus’] glory’ (John 1.14) and 2 Peter 1.17–18 includes testimony to this incident.

Mark’s account is, as we might expect, notable by its parataxis, with successive events connected simply by ‘and…and…and…’, omitting most of the various asides, comments and explanations found in the parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke—giving this short reading a kind of breathless directness.

This incident might be felt to have a dream-like quality to it, and Matthew uses the term horama, vision or sight, in Matt 17.9—but there is no sense that any of the gospel writers think of it as something different in kind from the events before and after. Though Luke specifies that Jesus went up the mountain to pray, in keeping with his distinctive focus on the prayer of Jesus, Mark emphasises that Jesus takes the three ‘by themselves alone’, using similar language to that of being apart from the crowds in Mark 6.31.

The three Synoptics vary considerably in the exact language that they use to describe Jesus’ appearance; it is difficult to know what it would have looked like had we been there and filmed it on our iPhones, but what the gospel writers want us to know is its significance. Where Matthew and Luke focus on Jesus’ face, Mark’s emphasis is on his garments. This connects with Old Testament language of God as clothed in light (compare Ps 104.2), and white clothes can be the hallmark of angelic figures and even the High Priest (compare Matt 28.3, Mark 16.5, Luke 24.4 and Rev 1.13–16 with its reuse of imagery from Dan 10.5–6). Jesus is depicted here both as the presence of the divine and as the mediator between the human and the divine.

There are striking connections with Moses’ encounter with God on Mount Sinai in Ex 24.9–18, where he ascends a mountain, with companions, there is an overshadowing cloud, and a revelation of God’s glory. But, although there are parallels here with Sinai, there are also key differences; the glory of Moses’ face was reflected glory which faded with time, but the glory of Jesus here is a revelation of who he really is, and continues even when the vision (Matt 17.9) has passed; this is not so much a transformation as a pulling back of the ‘veil of flesh’ (Wesley) to reveal the true nature of the Son of Man. There might be a hint of change in Jesus in the comment in Mark 9.15 that the crowd were ‘amazed’ when they saw him—but there is no equivalent comment in Matthew and Luke. The key difference, though, is that where Moses is the focus of transformation in the Sinai account, here the focus is Jesus, and he is radiant with the glory of God himself.

In popular readings, Moses and Elijah are often thought to represent the law and the prophets; this is hinted at in the picture at the top, the depiction by Peter Paul Rubens, who has included the tablets of the Ten Commandments with Moses. But Elijah was not one of the writing prophets, and in Jewish tradition the mysterious circumstances of Moses’ death on Mount Nebo (Deut 34.5–6) and Elijah’s being taken up to God on a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2.11) earned them the title of ‘the deathless ones’. Their presence with Jesus is an anticipation of Jesus’ own conquest of death, something that Luke alone (perhaps particularly for the non-Jewish parts of his audience) makes explicit by reference to his ‘exodus’ that he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9.1). They also signify the rescuing of God’s people from slavery to freedom (Moses) and the call to faithfulness (Elijah); both encountered God on the mountain (Sinai/Horeb) and both experienced rejection by and suffering at the hands of God’s own people, which makes the connection between the suffering Jesus has just spoken of and the glory which he will receive.

Peter’s clumsy interjection, offering to make shelters and capture the moment, is ameliorated by Mark and Luke in their explanation that he didn’t know what to say in the context of such an unsettling experience. Mark adds a further explanation that ‘they were terrified’, characteristic of his playing down of the faults of Peter in comparison with the other gospels—though it is striking that none of the gospels portrays the disciples as the perfect models that we might find if they were writing propaganda for the early Christian movement. Peter appears to want the experience to persist (as again Luke makes more explicit), or perhaps to try and make his own contribution when he really should have been simply attending to what was before him. He has not yet understood that this is a drawing back of the curtain, giving him and the other two a glimpse of the heavenly reality of who Jesus really is.

They are covered with a ‘cloud full of light’ in Matthew’s unique description, and rather than ‘overshadowing’ them as in Mark and Luke, it comes with a startling suddenness marked by the ‘behold!’ (idou) which had also introduced the appearance of Moses and Elijah in verse 3. All through the story of scripture, clouds signify the presence of God (which is more easy to understand if you live in a country where the sky is blue for much of the time) and this evokes fear as well as awe (compare Ezek 1.4); ‘falling on their faces’ is a common expression of fear (see Rev 1.17) or worship and entreaty. The voice of God here echoes what was said at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1.11), and this time there is no ambiguity as to whether the words are addressed to Jesus or to those watching—the audience of the three disciples are commanded or invited to listen to him. Jesus is not simply one like Moses or Elijah; he far transcends them as the Son of the Living God, the one in whom we encounter God’s own presence and glory. The words also echo Is 42.1, making again the connection between suffering and glory.

Luke moves on to the next episode of Jesus’ ministry, but both Matthew and Mark fill out the details of the disciples’ puzzlement. They still do not understand the significance of this vision or insight—and indeed, they will not until they have begun to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They are slowly putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of Jesus’ identity and how he is fulfilling the purposes of God. We are like those who have been given the puzzle box, with the finished picture on the outside so that we can see with hindsight where the pieces fit together.

This rather striking, unusual and numinous encounter with Jesus sits in rather stark contrast to the material either side in Mark’s narrative. Its position in the lectionary hides that rather, though does place it adjacent to the temptations of Jesus in the desert in Mark 1.9–15, offering a different kind of contrast. But this sense of the transcendent irrupting into the mundane is an important reality of the Christian faith. Paul talks of the ‘transformation’ that is effected by God as we continually offer our lives as ‘living sacrifices’ in Rom 12.1–2. Alluding to Sinai, but also connecting with some of the ideas and imagery here, Paul talks of our transformation as we see the transformed face of Jesus:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor 3.18)

Paul goes on to contrast this spiritual truth with the mundane realities of life by talking about ‘having this treasure in jars of clay’ (2 Cor 4.7).

Recently, our church small group were talking about the work of the Holy Spirit; we watched the Bible Project video on the Holy Spirit, and for Pentecost they portray figures as both receiving flames and becoming lit up by them, so they themselves are shining. One member of the group was excited by this as a vivid depiction of what the Spirit does, and as she described it her face did indeed light up! Others talked about the transformation that they had seen when friends came to faith. Despite the dominance of materialism, our culture is fascinated by the supernatural, the numinous and the transcendent—though we are often reluctant to talk of our experiences in this area.

The whole theme of the Book of Revelation is that the events we would otherwise understand as mundane and of this world are actually the working out of a cosmic spiritual battle, and that numinous and ‘supernatural’ experiences are part and parcel of this.

In any relationship, it takes time to understand and get to know someone, and even with people we know well, there are times when we gain particular insight into their character by something they do or say which gives us fresh insight into who they are. This seems to be how the Transfiguration functions for the three disciples, and offers key insight into who Jesus is. Is it an insight we have yet gained for ourselves?

Come and join Ian and James as they discuss these issues:

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14 thoughts on “What is being ‘transfigured’ in Mark 9?”

  1. “The whole theme of the Book of Revelation is that the events we would otherwise understand as mundane and of this world are actually the working out of a cosmic spiritual battle, and that numinous and ‘supernatural’ experiences are part and parcel of this.”

    —which is what Michael Heiser argues is a key message of the transfiguration which he places on Mount Hermon where the fallen angles of the unseen realm came to earth in the Genesis 6 account.
    Heiser, Michael S. Reversing Hermon: Enoch, the Watchers and the Forgotten Mission of Jesus Christ. Crane, MO: Defender, 2017.

    • Angels – not angles of course. And I personally would not endorse a charismatic view of ‘supernatural’ experiences (and I suspect neither would Heiser).

      There is simply no textual basis for the statement on the Bible Project video that “the spirit powerfully comes on all his disciples” —the whole passage from Acts 1 to Acts 2:13 makes it repeatedly clear that it was the 11 Galilean disciples “the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:2) on whom the spirit fell.

      • That’s odd. The text says ‘In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty’ (1.15) and then ‘When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.’ (2.1). I don’t know of any commentator who argues that ‘all’ is the 11 rather than the 120. Do you?

      • Ian,

        The antecedent pronoun for the ‘they’ in Acts 2:1 is surely found in the preceding verse – Acts 1:26 – not half way through the preceding chapter?

        The narrative throughout is dealing with (at least) two groups. It would be physically and ethically improbable for 120 men and women to stay in one room. Luke makes it clear that all the apostles are Galileans, and the crowd perceived that ALL those speaking in tongues were from that place – geographically remote from the Pentecostal event.

        • To argue the Holy Spirit only fell on the Twelve is a stretch. In Acts 1, “Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers”.

          So at least all the above met in a single room, not just the Twelve. And we shouldnt assume that only those specifically mentioned by a Gospel author were present in any given situation. Perhaps, but more likely they are emphasizing certain individuals (similar to the angels at the tomb).

          Then “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) “. He stood up to gain their attention and to speak. It appears all 120 disciples voted for Judas’ replacement. Interesting that not just the other apostles voted but every disciple had a vote. Odd if the Twelve were the only ones that mattered.

          On the day of Pentecost, the whole house was filled, not just one room. We dont know the size of this particular house, but presumably if every room had people in it, a considerable number were there, not just 12. And I suspect if there was outside space there were disciples there too.

          “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

          17 “‘In the last days, God says,
          I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
          Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
          your young men will see visions,
          your old men will dream dreams.
          18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
          I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
          and they will prophesy.”

          The scene I have is the disciples were already starting to come out of the house. Peter, along with the 11, stood up out of the rest of the group. Just as Peter had stood up out of the group earlier. Then Peter, as the lead spokesman, explains to the watching crowd what they are witnessing. The fact that he quotes Joel, referring to both men and women, would seem odd if the crowd did not witness any women do the same thing as the men. Rather Joel’s prophecy was being literally fulfilled before their eyes. The Spirit fell on both men and women, and they were all praising God in various languages. This links back to the women mentioned earlier.

          As for ‘Galileans’ they just mean locals. In other words how could all these locals be speaking in languages they likely shouldnt have known.

          So in my view the scene being painted here is of the Twelve plus the women plus Jesus’ brothers initially meeting in a single room, then later along with the other disciples experiencing the Spirit, with the Twelve taking the lead and Peter giving the explanation.

          I dont see any justification from the text the Spirit only fell on the Twelve, thus automatically reducing the scope of Joel’s prophecy despite Peter claiming it was being fulfilled right there and then.

          • PC1
            I think we are conflating two things. It is difficult to see how the text could make it clearer that the initial reception of the Holy Spirit came only on the apostles —remember there are no verse or chapter divisions in the original Greek MS:
            “And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” —the last verse of chapter 1 and the first verse of chapter 2. And, of course, the Galileans weren’t locals— Galilee was at least a day’s journey away.

            How the gifts were distributed subsequently is a different matter. I would argue that they were distributed by the Apostles themselves laying their hands on recipients—as Acts 8:18 records, and Romans 1:11 seems to indicate—and in several other places. So, although others could perform miracles and exercise other spiritual gifts they could not transmit them—it was the unique imprimatur of apostolic authority in the early church in fulfilment of Jesus’s promise to them in John 16:13.

          • In Acts 10:44 we read that “while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.” No laying on of hands is mentioned.

            And I also don’t think that the

      • Ian,
        I think Unseen Realm or Reversing Hermon should be obligatory for any biblical theologian even if eventually you choose to deny his thesis, which is consistent and clearly presented.

    • I think Heiser took things too far. We dont actually know how influential the likes of 1 Enoch was on 1st century Jews. ‘Some’ Jews may have viewed it as authoritative, but was there a consensus? Which bits, if any, of 1 Enoch reflect reality and which bits dont? How would you know? Some early church fathers gave 1 Enoch credence, others didnt. Did all the beliefs/worldviews of Second Temple Judaism reflect reality? Even Heiser said some were ‘absolute nonsense’.

      He claims it was believed, due to these influences, that Jesus was born in 3BC, and that Jupiter was the ‘star of Bethlehem’. Both are likely false. More likely, as shown by the extensive research of Colin Humphreys, Jesus was born in 5BC and the star was a long-tailed comet. Also Paul referred to the woman’s hair, not some sort of head covering protecting her from fallen angels. Rather he is asserting women have their own authority over themselves, which is important as they, along with male believers, will judge angels as Paul referenced earlier in the same letter. If you dont have authority over yourself, how on earth would you have any authority to judge angels?

      So take what he said with a pinch of salt.

      • Hello PC1
        Heiser is an ANE specialist—never to my knowledge does he base his work on an understanding of 1 Enoch, instead he points out that 1 Enoch is in accord with ANE understanding. It is the world that the Hebrew Bible writers lived in but largely lost to Western culture until recent decades.

  2. The Transfiguration and connection with -Lent?
    The BBC Says this of Lent: –
    Millions of Christians all over the world will be marking the start of an important period of time – the festival of Lent.
    That is because it is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent in Western Christian churches. On Ash Wednesday, churches hold special services, at which worshippers are marked with ash.

    During Lent, many people decide to give something up that they love – perhaps chocolate, sweets or even using social media.
    Others might decide to take up something, like helping out more with chores at home or making an effort to do nice things for their family and friends.[?]
    Perhaps you may want to try and give up checking social media for the next 40 days?

    It is a time of reflection and of asking for forgiveness, and when Christians prepare to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection at the feast of Easter, which comes at the very end of Lent.
    This is a symbol of death and remembering bad things that we have done, and is where the day gets its name from.
    Typically, the ash is made from burning special crosses made out of palm wood,
    Why do people give things up until Easter Sunday?
    Millions of people do this during Lent as a sign of sacrifice and to test their self-discipline.[?]
    In the Bible’s New Testament, while Jesus was in the wilderness, Satan tempted him to turn away from God and worship him instead, but Jesus refused to, which is why people might give something up, in order to test their own self-discipline too.[?] End of quote.

    I don’t know how others experience Lent but the above is not for me.
    Mankind is not happy doing nothing, it has to exert will power in some form;
    It wants to make changes or change the world through some activity, so called “making progress”. Making a better world, making things justly equal etc.

    Jesus drank the cup to satisfy His Father’s thirst and desire for Justice.
    Not for his own justice.
    Hence the transfiguration where the prophets discussed His Exodus, the sprinkling of his blood to escape the Justice and the Judgement of God for the people.
    Both He and His sacrifice are approved of God in the mountain.

    He was the “whole burnt offering” of which the one offering the people were not allowed to eat. The ash was just discarded,
    And for me what Ash Wednesday signifies as a reminder that through the Cross I am crucified With Christ – just ashes; but receiving a New Resurection Life.
    Paul develops this by advising us to “go to our own White Funeral” [Oswald Chambers]
    Rom 12:1 I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. That is our new creation life completely devoted to God for His own purposes.
    That is to be crucified with Christ in order that the life we now live is by faith
    Completely in what Christ does in us and through us. A new Creation. Not just a new presentation of our “best selves” “He must increase and we must decrease “.

    Thus, for the Overcomers through faith, Fear and Doubt, Worry and Anxiety are overcome; thus, the glorious liberty of the sons of God, whom Christ has/is bringing into [Sharing] His GLORY. 2 Pet 1:4 and Heb.3:14.

  3. Overshadowed episkiazo appears in each reading, alongside Gabriel’s description of the Holy Spirit’s work in the incarnation Luke 1.35 Does this give us a more trinitarian reading of the Transfiguration would you say?

  4. Ian, Your insight that it was the disciples that were transfigured is an excellent thing to think upon. Thank you. The other disciples missed out did they not, but they had other experiences; Jesus breathed on them; they witnessed miracles?
    In the transfiguration we see Jesus through the Holy Spirit. The cloud/voice is the Father; the effulgent light is the Holy Spirit.


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