The church goer will be familiar with this passage. I certainly have been, but have tended to stare with curiosity at Peter’s confusion and befuddlement. The scope of the transfiguration, though, should not be limited to the disciples. It was every bit as important as a moment of help sent to Jesus at this time of crisis in his life.
2 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, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:2-4–ESV)
The humanity of Jesus on display
This passage seems so supernatural. Jesus seems so connected with deity with things exalted and heavenly. We can miss its point though if we stop and watch the glory. Mark 9 has a parallel passage in Luke 9, but the topic of conversation is shared by Luke.
30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:30-31–ESV)
Luke also pointed out1 that Jesus had gone up this mountain to pray. Elijah and Moses came after the prayer. These three spoke of “his departure” and the task to be accomplished at Jerusalem. It is reasonable to presume that Jesus had been praying about the tough time before him. Consider the prayer offered by Jesus in Gethsemane. There Jesus prayed that the manner of his death be altered. Jesus sought that “this cup might pass,” meaning that he would not have to drink it. Jesus asked God if there might be “another way.” Angels attended him in Gethsemane, but Moses and Elijah here.
So, while our imaginations may fire up at the appearance of Jesus’ clothing and at the appearance of Elijah and Moses to stop there is to fall short. It is crucial that our minds not forget that before this celestial meeting Jesus was praying. He was troubled. His humanity was being weighed down by that which was yet before him. Elijah and Moses were an answer to prayer. They were God’s benevolence and grace given in time of need.
In reality it is the humanity of Jesus that motivated the prayer. His weakness was met by God’s strength.
What aids could Jesus have drawn?
The specific encouragements that Jesus drew are not known to us. Careful consideration, though, grants construction of some potential conclusions. Those which A.B. Bruce found reasonable to draw are recorded in his book The Training of the Twelve. Here are those aids:
Help #1: Foretaste of glory
Elijah and Moses were not pure in their own right, but they had been exalted to glory. These two were sent to Jesus to remind him of that which he laid aside. Jesus himself was given a brief moment of personal glory. All we know is how Peter and his fellow disciples perceived the event. Jesus had different clothes. Jesus spoke with heroes of old.
Jesus was given this moment as a reminder to ground his spirits better as he followed this course of obedience. After his passion and for his humiliation a great exaltation awaited. With this event Jesus tasted again what he had set aside and what was not far from being his again.
Help #2: The mystery of the cross was understood and appreciated in heaven
The death of Jesus was a great mystery on earth. The context with which the disciples viewed Jesus was of necessity bred into them by their culture. That culture taught that the Messiah was to be an earthly king ruling over an earthly kingdom. Christ’s life and doings made many consider him to be the Messiah, but Jesus had not led in a style suggesting earthly domination. The manner of his approach to people was far different that the kings and religious authorities. Even so, neither the lessons nor the demeanor were sufficient to dissolve the hopes of these disciples. The mental context of the disciples could not accept the death of Jesus.
These things left Jesus with no earthly collegiality. There would have been a lonesomeness to it, an isolation. He had to be content without being understood.
So Elijah and Moses were sent as representatives of that heavenly community. In that community there was great understanding. It was clear to them that their own standing in heaven was made possible by the soon coming deed of Christ. Remember they spoke with Jesus about his departure. Jesus, thus, was given a reminder that there were those who “got” Jesus. None on earth may have, but there were others who did. Jesus was comforted by that.
Help #3: Approval of God the father
Jesus had shown his fixed intention to go to Jerusalem. Through his steady march toward Jerusalem and the presumed content of his prayers Jesus had demonstrated his intention to discard himself for others. It had not been long before the transfiguration event when Peter tried to abort the cross. Think of the rebuke Jesus distributed to Peter for that. Jesus even tied that to a Satanic suggestion. It had been a devil working through a disciple. The arrival of these men in the transfiguration and the words spoken by God the Father to the disciples were approvals given by God to Jesus.
What aids can we draw?
Jesus has not been too ashamed to call us his brothers. While it would be unwise to expect visions of the sort that Peter, James and John saw it would be equally unwise to miss the manner of God working with his distressed children.
Heaven is no pipe dream
Who did Jesus see? People from of old. They had been long dead, but had continued to exist. They were real. The words that they could share were an encouragement. While some people will dismiss our hope as “pie-in-the-sky” we should not dismiss it. Take moments like the transfiguration as a help to faith. It is prudent to place faith in the events of Jesus’ life as strength for ours.
Things done in this life matter
A representative of the law (Moses) and a representative of the prophets (Elijah) were sent to Jesus. There was a time when both were of utmost importance as God taught and rolled out the revelation of himself to his creation. Jesus excelled both of these drawing them together and to a conclusion, but the things done by Moses and Elijah in obedience to God during their time on earth were relevant. Those were their tasks as part of God’s timing.
Live like things matter
While you and I are not Elijah, Moses or Jesus and neither are we Peter, James or John we are God’s creation. Jesus came for each of us. That is Biblical. The things that God did for us matter. Similarly the things we do for God matter. Heaven is real and we would do well to live in a manner that will fit us for that kingdom.
God’s mysteries will be revealed in their proper time
Who knew the mystery of the cross? Not the disciples. Neither did Moses nor Elijah when they walked on the earth. Jesus knew and it would seem that the members of the heavenly community knew since Moses and Elijah discussed what was coming. There are things that you and I know not while we take our steps in this life. We may be impatient for their revelation. That impatience will yield nothing of value. God will reveal everything of value in his good time.
God provides strength when it is needed
Jesus was not having a good time of it. He was in crisis mode as the cross drew near. Even at Gethsemane he sought another way. It had to be sanctioned by God for obedience and submission were the primary modes of Jesus, but petitioning God did not break those modes. While God did not allow Jesus a different pathway God did provide support in the terrible moments.
Believe that God will do for you what he did for Jesus
This is not to say you should expect transfiguration-like events. You should expect strength and insight to submit and obey. You should expect the timing to be God’s and yet perfect unto your own situation. Remember, like last week, that faith is acting on belief not just looking at the Bible and while saying, “Yep, that was nice,” discarding it as for them. You and I do not know the shape of heaven, but we do know the manner of God. You and I don’t know the timing of heaven, but we do know the character of God. Allow God to unravel these two laying out the pathway to his glory and your salvation.
God does approve of us
God does not merely watch over us to see who is naughty and nice. He desires to look at what our lives are about and how they are unfolding and say, “That is my child and I am well pleased with him.” That is not a pipe dream either.