Liturgically, today is Ascension Sunday, the day when the Church celebrates the resurrected Christ returning to heaven. Originally I had planned on preaching a sermon on the ascension, but I really didn’t want to interrupt our study of Mark or take things out of order so I decided to continue on in our study of Mark. But know that the last two verses of Mark will give us a chance to return to this very important topic of the Ascension of Christ. And when we get to those last two verses, we will have a much fuller understanding of what the seating of Christ in the heavenly realms means as part of the gospel story.
But don’t be disappointed! Today’s passage is just as marvelous and just as wondrous as the Ascension of Christ. Today we are going to look at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain top. As we do that please remember that the transfiguration occurs in a section of Mark which all share the theme of Living a Cruciform life, that is a life of self-denial and carrying the cross in order to follow Jesus Christ (Mark 8-10). And so this morning we are not only going to look at the story as it is commonly told, but we are also going to ask this question: What does the transfiguration reveal to us about Jesus’ self-denial and road to the cross?
In order to begin answering this question, let me draw your attention to our first observation: Everything Jesus does in the Transfiguration is done for the benefit of the disciples (Lane 316). If this were not so, then Jesus could have easily gone up the mountain alone, and the transfiguration could have occurred without anyone knowing it. But that isn’t how it happened. Jesus took 3 of his disciples up the mountain with him – Peter, James and John. Why? Because Jesus’ life is a life that is lived in service to his people. Jesus’ life is lived to benefit those whom are his disciples. Our story makes the point of declaring that Jesus was transfigured before them (v2), that Moses and Elijah appeared before them (v4) and that God commands the disciples to listen to Jesus (v7). The transfiguration, the appearance of the 2 great prophets and the command of God all occurred before the disciples so that their faith would grow and be strengthened in light of the confession of the Jesus being the Christ.
So how would the faith of the disciples be strengthened by witnessing the transfiguration? I can think of two ways that it could strengthen my faith, and so I will assume that those would also be valid for these three men. First, imagine seeing Jesus in all his glory. That is essentially what the transfiguration is, a revealing of the glory of Christ. If I had just confessed that Jesus was the Christ and then was given the chance to see his full magnificence revealed, it would certainly make an impression upon my faith and strengthen it. It would give me food for thought and further proof that the words I had uttered, You are the Christ (Mark 8:29) were true. It would even cause me to think about what those words really mean – The Anointed One radiates the Glory of God like Moses had shined with after meeting with God on the Mountain or in the Tabernacle. It would give plenty to reflect on in those hard days following the crucifixion and before the resurrection as I tried to make sense of the death of God’s Anointed, but by Easter Sunday it would be another piece in the puzzle affirming that Jesus is the Son of God. The resurrection would make sense in light of the glory of the incarnation.
All of these conclusions are reinforced by the details given in the Mark 9. Even a quick look at the stories of Moses and Elijah reveals a number of parallels. Both men had mountain top experiences with God and then communicated the words of God and the way of the covenant to the people. Both saw the glory of God in the cloud and then heard the voice of God speaking. And in Moses case, that glory caused him to shine so much that he had to cover his head so the people couldn’t see the radiance fading. Let’s look at Moses story in Exodus 24:15-18, where we read, “When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
This story recounts the second time Moses receives the Law of God and comes to communicate it to the nation. Mark has been very careful to inform us that 6 days had elapsed since the confession of Christ, before traveling up the mountain as Moses had done when suddenly the cloud of God envelops them and the glory of Christ is revealed and the word of God is revealed. It is no wonder Peter stumbles out with his dumb question about being in the presence of these three great people and wanting to build some tents. Peter thinks that he is in the presence of a new administration of the old Covenant, hence the presence of Moses and Elijah and the need for a new “tent/tabernacle” (Lane 317). Peter thinks God is going to establish a new tabernacling relationship with his people, he thinks and he is going to start telling them how to come into a new relationship with God that will usher in the earthly kingdom of God. He is under the impression that the full implementation of the Mosaic Law will begin again. And that is entirely understandable, the people of his day believed that when the Messiah came, all the Mosaic Law would be practiced faithfully as it had never been practiced before. In fact, the entire purpose of the Messiah was to usher in faithful Torah observance.
And in one sense Peter is right. God is ushering in a kingdom. But it isn’t the kingdom of rules and regulations, but rather it is a kingdom of love and grace, of self-denial and service and that is what makes the words the Father speaks so powerful and transforming. God tells the disciples they are to listen to Jesus now, not Moses, not Elijah. Jesus is the new bearer of the Word of God for humanity. His words are the words of life and peace, conviction and transformation. His words are the faithful celebration of the Law. He speaks about the fulfillment of the covenant, and he does it by speaking of denying oneself, taking up the cross and following. He will fulfill the Torah by speaking about his death and resurrection, because only his life could perfectly obey all the commands of God and only his death could atone for all the ways humanity violates the Law of God. Jesus is the one who will be the author of their faith and so his words are the words that must be heard and obeyed. The whole scene, the details about the days, the cloud, the high mountain, the glory of God being revealed, it all points to a story meant to convey the fact that Jesus is the New Moses. He is Greater than Moses and his words are greater than any words that have ever been spoken before or will ever be spoken again.
Wouldn’t that experience bolster your faith? Would it not strengthen you in times of doubt? For me it does, for often I find myself questioning or wondering if the Law must be obeyed. Does God still care about things like this: Lev. 19:19 “‘Do not mate different kinds of animals. “‘Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed. “‘Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.”? And the simple answer is no. Jesus never made a pronouncement about planting fields with two kinds of seed or wearing clothes with two kinds of material or even discussing animal eugenics. Rather he called his people to love and mercy. Service and selflessness. These are the things of the Kingdom of God.
If I was a disciple 2000 years ago, this experience would give me much comfort that as I faced times of questioning from the Jewish authorities, that I must rest in the words of Christ. It would provide guidance as I navigated the ever-changing nature of the church as she welcomed in the Gentiles. What would matter was only what Jesus had said not the laws of the old covenant that is passing away but the cry of a new covenant beginning in Christ.
There is a second way my faith would be strengthened. And that would come as I grew in my faith and began to reflect more upon the words of Jesus and his actions. As the days would roll on, and as I would tell of Jesus’ story, the call of Christ to deny oneself and follow would come into sharp focus as I realized that Jesus willingly gave up his glory while on earth in order to serve humanity. The transfiguration is an astounding lesson in denying oneself and taking up the cross in order to save one’s life. For in this event, the disciples glimpsed how much power, majesty, honor and glory the Son of God gave up in order to come to the earth. When Jesus told them to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow, he wasn’t asking them to do anything he himself had not already done. The transfiguration is proof, that Jesus was living everything he demanded of his followers. He is living the cruciform life.
Imagine living as the Son of God on this earth. You are bounded by time and space. You can’t be everywhere all the time. You are denied the worship of creation as people confuse you with being merely a man from Galilee and not the Son of the Most High God. You are misunderstood, mocked, berated and eventually you will be beaten and crucified. The transfiguration gives us a glimpse of just how much Jesus has given up in order to come and redeem his world and his church.
But the Transfiguration also paints us a picture of the expected outcome of such a cruciform life. For though Jesus has denied himself, the Father honors the Son saying, “This is my son” and places him in authority over men saying “Listen to him!”. Furthermore, it is because of the inherent power of God, dwelling in the Son that he will rise from the dead when he has completely denied himself, even to the point of being crucified on a cross. In this event the disciples are given the keys to understanding all that Jesus is about to undergo but they didn’t get it. They are like so many of us who struggle with the thought of sacrificing oneself in order to be raised to a new life.
Do we truly believe that the key to Jesus’ glorious exaltation lies in his self-denial and service to the father? If so, then why do we struggle with self-denial so much? We are called to walk the road Jesus walked and to reap the benefits Jesus reaped. In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul says: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” And the result of such a selfless life is there: “9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The Transfiguration paints a picture of radical self-denial while also giving us the hope of what that denial will mean in the ages to come. For if Jesus is exalted as the first-born from among the dead and if God has reconciled us by Christ’s physical body through death, then he will present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel (Col 1:22-23). The gospel is a radical call to denying your sufficiency, supremacy and right to rule your own life. But it goes further, it calls one to submit to the rule of God, a rule which asks us to love God and neighbor, to be a servant of others, to live a life of holiness and sacrifice just as our savior lived in order to free us from sin. And when we follow our savior into this kind of life, we show by our actions that we truly believe in the cruciform life of Jesus Christ. We declare by our deeds that such a life truly is redemptive and salvific. We truly carry out the command to Listen to Christ (Mark 9:7) and all the haze and fog of life disappears for our gaze is found transfixed upon the transfigured one as we live out the life of Christ in our world.
- Transfigured means…
- Transfiguration is for the benefit of the Disciples (Mark 9:2, 4, 7)
- To bolster their faith
- To Show How Jesus is Greater than Moses (Ex 24:15-18)
- What it really means to Deny oneself (Phil 2:5-11)
- Picture of the Rewards to come (Col 1:22-23)