2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them,3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4 Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One[a] had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept it to themselves, wondering, “What’s this ‘rising from the dead’?” 11 They asked Jesus, “Why do the legal experts say that Elijah must come first?”12 He answered, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. Why was it written that the Human One[b] would suffer many things and be rejected? 13 In fact, I tell you that Elijah has come, but they did to him whatever they wanted, just as it was written about him.”
It seems a strange thing to say to Peter, James, and John there on the mountaintop. The voice of the Lord, up until this point in Mark’s telling of the Gospel exclusively silent to the disciples, pipes up and says, “This is my son, whom I love, listen to him.” In so speaking now, the Voice of the Lord echos some of God’s previous comments spoken only to Jesus, but revealed to all readers and hearers of Mark’s Gospel in Mark 1 when Jesus, at his baptism sees the Holy Spirit descend upon him in the form of a dove and hears the audible voice of God, in Mark’s account spoken only and solely to Jesus (and heard by no other) and also using exclusively second person pronouns.
So it is strange because it is unprecedented, but it is also strange because it is ironic – ironic because at the time of God’s speaking, instructing the disciples to listen to Jesus, Jesus remains silent. In fact throughout the entire scene on the mountaintop as Jesus is transfigured, as Moses and Elijah arrive, as Peter continues to foolishly get his discipleship wrong and suggests to build booths or tents for the ephemeral guests, Jesus himself remains silent. He speaks not a word on top of the mountain. And yet, at that moment, in Jesus’ silence, God instructs the disciples to listen to Jesus.
So God’s words to Jesus’ disciples are strange because they are unprecedented and ironic, but they are also strange because it would appear that up until this point at least, the disciples have been doing exactly that…they have been listening to Jesus – and for the most part, doing exactly what Jesus has asked them to do. A quick review of the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark finds five different occasions in which Jesus gave a direct command to his disciples, told them something to do, and they listened and did what Jesus asked:
In 1:17 when Jesus first meets Peter and Andrew he says to them, “Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men…” And guess what, Peter and Andrew listen to Jesus and follow him. And they actually catch some men (and women) and introduce them to Jesus.
In 1:38 when Jesus has been healing in Capernaum and is overwhelmed by the crowds and the need and the crowds want more of Jesus and go looking for Jesus after he is snuck away to be by himself in prayer, and the disciples find Jesus and instruct him that everyone is looking for him so he needs to head back – tout suite – and start healing some more of the good folks in Capernaum, Jesus surprises his disciples and says, “let’s head to the other villages too, for that is why I have come…” The disciples don’t understand, they don’t even agree, but they listen and they do what Jesus asks.
In 6:8 Jesus has just gathered his twelve apostles around himself and is preparing to send them out in pairs to preach, heal, and cast out demons he instructs them to “take nothing for the journey, and whatever house you enter, offer it your blessing…” Again, the disciples – probably absolutely terrified by the prospects of their first solo missions without Jesus with them, they do it. They do everything Jesus asks, they fulfill all his requirements and requests and actually see some success. Their ministry wasn’t perfect, but they did some good Kingdom work.
In 6:31 upon returning from their mission in pairs of healing, preaching, and casting out demons, Jesus sees that his disciples are tired from their kingdom work and says to them, “come by yourselves with me to a secluded place and rest for a while.” The disciples do exactly what Jesus asks of them…they probably don’t want to…they are probably so amped and fired up from their sortee in Kingdom work that they want to keep going, they want to do more healing and casting out, but they listen to Jesus’ instructions and they do what Jesus asks.
In 6:37 when after seeing Jesus and disciples try and sneak away for some sabbath rest a crowd follows Jesus and gathers around demanding more miraculous healings and more teaching with authority, and Jesus acquiesces and teaches all throughout the day so that evening has approached and the disciples then instruct Jesus to send the crowd home so they can feed themselves, Jesus instead asks the disciples to give an account of whatever food staples they have with them – 5 loaves and 2 fish – and then Jesus turns to the disciples and says to them, “You give them something to eat…” The disciples, who rightly have seen Jesus do some amazing things, but have to be filled with doubts regarding the efficacy of 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed 5,000 people listen to Jesus and do what he says. They organize the crowd into smaller circles and distribute the fish and loaves that miraculous by reproduce themselves until the entire crowd has been feed.
So the disciples have a track record here of listening to Jesus and doing exactly what Jesus has asked them to do. So why the stern voice of the Lord instructing them to listen? It is because there is one aspect of Jesus’ identity and Jesus’ mission the disciples still do not fully understand and their understanding the truth of it is of the absolute importance for the continued ministry of the Church in Jesus following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.
The disciples, are still unclear about Jesus’ messianic identity. They are finally just beginning to understand and believe that Jesus is the long awaited messiah, or Christ, of God. The one promised in the Hebrew Scriptures and the one whom God’s covenant people had built their hopes around. For the Messiah would be one who would liberate and deliver God’s people from their oppression and bondage. The Messiah was not understood in spiritual terms but was understood in political and social terms. Literally, the Messiah was understood to be a warrior prince who would lead the Israelites into a revolutionary war throwing off the bondage of their captors – in this case the Romans – and thus establish Israel as an independent, sovereign, self-governed and prosperous nation state.
So in the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus asks his disciples who his disciples say that he was, and Peter replies, you are the Christ the Son of the living God… Jesus knew the understanding and expectations that Peter had of Jesus. While it was great that someone other than a demon finally recognizes and confesses Christ, the great problem is Jesus’ messianic identity and his messianic mission looked nothing like this often expected version.
And so the voice of the Lord speaks and instructs the disciples, there on the mountaintop and Jesus is transfigured revealing his divine glory and his eschatological appearance. In many ways, the transfiguration is a taste of the Kingdom of God on earth and it is as close to an earthly image the disciples get of Jesus’ heavenly glory which he dwelled in prior to his incarnation and in which he returns to upon his ascension. We as Christians confess that now we believe Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father. The transfiguration is the closest thing we have to a snap shot of what Jesus looks like, on the right hand of God in all his Divine glory. Sheer, pure, unadulterated brilliance.
So now that the disciples have seen this adding further evidence to their burgeoning identification of Jesus as the Christ, now they have seen the glory of God’s reign manifested on the earth, now they have seen Jesus’ divinely, beautifully transformed, their fervor regarding Jesus’ messianic ministry is only going to kick into greater zeal. They will soon be demanding and expecting Jesus to lead the revolution. There is greater urgency for the disciples to understand correctly who Jesus is. So the voice of the Lord speaks, instructing the disciples to listen to Jesus…
And when Jesus finally does speak as they four of them are descending from the mountaintop the first thing Jesus says to his disciples is to tell no one what they have seen until the son of man rises from the dead… To which the disciples confused look to one another and say, what’s he talking about with this whole rising from the dead thing…
Despite the fact that just one chapter previously Jesus had instructed his disciples at length that he would die and be resurrected the disciples have no idea what Jesus is taking about. You would think that if someone confides in you that he or she was going to die and then come back to life, even if you thought they were insane and crazy to say this, you would remember that the conversation had taken place. But it’s as if the disciples, so overwhelmed and confused by what Jesus had communicated to them could not process or handle the information they simply blocked the conversation from their minds.
But that conversation was so important. It was essential because it provided a much needed correction to the previous misunderstood messianic identity and mission. Jesus is instructing the disciples that their mental maps for the messiah are insufficient and dangerous. Jesus, as the messiah would not be a conquering prince, but a suffering servant. He would himself enter into glory and lead the covenant people of God into glory as well, but only through his suffering and his death.
It was because the messianic mental maps were so insufficient regarding the identity and mission of the messiah that Jesus is constantly instructing his disciples and those who received his miraculous healing towards secrecy. When Jesus would heal or cast out demons he would tell people to say nothing. Now, following what the disciples have seen of Jesus transfigured he instructs them to say nothing. The reason for this secrecy is that, as Lamar Williamson says, “there is no way to rightly understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer and die and rise again.” He is the Messiah. But telling people who he is will do no good for their understanding of who he is until they see him die and rise again from the dead. This eye witness testimony will be absolutely essential to understanding who Jesus is as the messiah and what Jesus is coming to do as the messiah. Confessing Jesus to be the messiah is worthless and empty until after they have seen him suffer and die…then and only then will they have a proper understanding of who he is and how he will reign. And then and only then will they have a proper understanding of what discipleship in his name looks like. Just as Jesus will suffer and die and by so doing enter into glory and author glory for God’s covenant people, so the followers of Jesus will suffer and die as they enter into glory. This is the way of the Messiah and this is the messiah’s mission. There will be no violence, no blood shed, no political revolution. There will only be submission, seeming defeat, but everlasting reign.
But the disciples – their theological education is insufficient at this point. They must listen to Jesus, especially now when they think they have all the answers and have everything figured out. They must listen to Jesus to understand who he is, what he has come to do, and what discipleship and mission in his name will look like.