This is the twenty-third installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 2, chapter 9: 1-13, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty second installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 2: 9:1-13
1 And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." 2 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" 12 He said to them, "Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him." (NRSV)
Act 1 begins with Jesus calling followers to him; Act 2 begins with Jesus appointing 12 apostles; Act 3 begins with the sending out of the Apostles; Act 4, Scene 1 begins, as we saw with the previous entry, with Jesus asking his chosen followers whether they truly understand who he is and, more significantly in the immediate context, his destiny. He reveals to them his destiny: he must suffer and die and rise again. Peter rejects Jesus’ claim initially, but Jesus tells him that the way of the Messiah is God’s way, that of divine things not human longings,
Act 4, Scene 2 gives us new insight into Jesus, as we are brought into a new inner circle (though the inner circle has been seen before in the healing of Jairus’ daughter) comprised of Peter, James and John, and we are privy with them to a manifestation of the glory and power that so attracts them. It is also a key moment where we begin to understand why Peter would reject Jesus’ suffering: if you are the Messiah, bathed in glory and light, why suffer a death of humiliation and pain? This is the context for the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is also a challenge to us, the audience, as we are brought from Jesus’ explanation of the necessity of his death to a scene of glory, in some ways an unexpected scene given what we have just witnessed. Jesus, if not precisely a man of mystery or secrecy, is a man who keeps upending expectations. Exactly when you are trying to wrap your mind around a suffering Son of Man, he explodes in glory.
A short scene, 9:1, I include here as a precursor or foreshadowing of the Transfiguration and because it does not fit properly anywhere else, though according to 9:2 it takes place six days prior to the Transfiguration. I think, however, that Mark places it here to focus us on the meaning of all that has just been said and all that is still to come. For us as an audience, we must imagine the disciples reflecting on Jesus' words for a week. In 9:1, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." Coming as it does immediately on the heels of Jesus’ revelation of suffering and resurrection, it would seem to indicate that the Messianic kingdom will quickly appear and that it will, regardless of what Jesus has said, manifest itself in “power,” which was generally thought to indicate a crushing of oppressors and an overthrow of human kingdoms (as in, for instance, 1 Enoch and Daniel).
The Transfiguration itself, then, would seem to fit in this Messianic context as a sign of Jesus’ true being and a sign of the coming kingdom. Jesus took Peter and James and John to a mountain top alone. Mountains are often a place of divine revelation, both in biblical narratives, such as Moses’ encounter with God on the mountaintop, and in those of other religions. On the mountain, alone with three chosen followers, Jesus
was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.(9:2b-8)
The word for “transfigured” is metemorphothe, a Greek verb which here appears in the passive voice and which we know in English more commonly in the form of the noun “metamorphosis”. In this scene Jesus not only astonishes his disciples with his transformation, it is Jesus who is “transfigured,” though we are not told how, but even his clothes become whiter than is humanly possible. He is radiant. But the disciples also perceive Moses and Elijah with him in his transfigured state, two ancients who have generally been seen in this scene as representatives of the Law and the Prophets. Is Mark’s intent in this scene to say that Jesus fulfills their work, the Mosaic code and the prophecies? That he is the apex to which they were pointing? Simply as an audience member, imagining their presence with Jesus in this scene, an explanation along these lines seems likely. In the scene itself, though, there is little time for reflection, as Peter once more takes the lead and begins to blurt out something. As usual, he is the spokesman for his fellow apostles.
Peter says that they should make three “dwellings” (skenas), which is more like a tent or tabernacle, or perhaps even like a booth for Sukkoth. What is Peter intending? Again, this has been the subject of much speculation, with some scholars suggesting that Peter wants to “tame” or “manage” the presence of the divine by building places for these great men to reside, or that he wants to create equality amongst Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, when he should see Jesus’ superiority. Maybe, but I like Mark’s simple explanation, which seems to fit with Peter’s character and personality: “he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). They were all terrified during this event, but Peter felt like he ought to take the lead, even if he had nothing to say, and offers a form of hospitality which might not match the intensity of the situation. I see the first audience laughing, not at Peter in this case, but with him: how do you deal with the presence of God in your midst? What is the right thing to say or do? Peter tried, even if he came up wanting.
It is the voice of God who gives Peter, and James and John, the right thing to do: “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus” (9:7-8). "Listen to him," whether you understand why, or the purposes of events to come, listen to him. In a scene that draws us back to the beginning of the Gospel and Jesus’ baptism, God now directs Jesus followers by revealing that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.
Still, Jesus directs them to “tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean” (9:9-10). Finally, though, the secrecy makes sense. In Act 4, Scene 1 we learn that Jesus must suffer and die; in Act 4, Scene 2, we learn that he is indeed the one who has power and glory as God’s son. Mark is posing a question to us: you know the truth about Jesus, about his power and true being, will you have faith that his destiny must be carried out in the way he has revealed even if it does not make sense to you on human terms? Will you listen to him? It is a matter of faith because they still do not know what Jesus means by rising from the dead. This must indicate that they do not understand what it means that Jesus himself will rise from the dead, in the context of his revelation of suffering, for the nature of resurrection was widely shared and known in Judaism of this time with the only major group rejecting it being the Sadducees. Resurrection as known amongst the Jews, however, was the general resurrection at the end of time, with the coming of the Messianic kingdom.
Whether they understand him precisely, their minds are now turning to the coming end, the establishment of the Kingdom of God, the apocalypse, for they ask, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?" (9:11). Jesus’ answer is cryptic, acknowledging not just that Elijah is coming (9:12), but that he has already come and “they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him" (9:13). This draws a parallel with the opening description of John the Baptist in the prologue and the death of John as described in chapter 6, but by stating that this all took place “as it is written about him," it suggests John’s divine destiny (9:13). So when Jesus also draws a parallel with himself - “How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?” (9:12) – we know that whatever has been revealed the providential plan has not changed. The suffering of the Messiah is written no matter what glory he possesses.
John W. Martens
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