The Son of Man, Jesus announced (Mark 8:31), must suffer, die on a cross and then be raised from the dead. The Son of Man must lose his life before it can be saved. The path of suffering (losing his life) leads to glory (saving his life). The Son of Man will appear in the Father’s glory when he comes again. Yet, Jesus assured the crowd that some of them would see that glory—the arrival of the kingdom of God in glorious power—before they died (Mark 9:1). It is a rather enigmatic saying, but one that makes sense in the light of the next event in Jesus’ ministry.
Mark’s narrative has focused on the kingdom message and actions of Jesus. His ministry has embodied the reality of the kingdom. But it is a kingdom reality located in the brokenness of this old age, this broken creation. His ministry has reversed the curse but it has not, as yet, transformed the old age into the new age, the old reality in the new one, that is, the old creation into a new creation. The curse is lifting but people are stilly dying and even the Son of Man must suffer and die.
What will the disciples “see” when they “see the kingdom of God come with power”? They saw, in this immediate context, the transfiguration of Jesus into glory. They will see, in a more remote context, the resurrection (transfiguration) of Jesus from the dead. That is the glory of the kingdom of God. It is the glory of the Father that belongs to the second coming of Jesus–an eschatological glory. It is a glory as yet unknown in the Gospel of Mark but revealed on this mountain which anticipates the resurrection. The disciples are warned to keep this secret until Jesus was raised from the dead, that is, until the glory was fully actualized through resurrection though the reign of God would not fully come until the second coming of Christ.
It is a “high mountain” experience, perhaps on Mt. Hermon. Readers of Israel’s story should make immediate connections (e.g., “six days” echoes Exodus 24:16). Peter did. Seeing what he saw, he wanted to build three structures (booths) which are appropriate for festive dwelling in the presence of God (as in the Feast of Tabernacles). He seems to have associated this with Mt. Sinai and the “meeting” between God and Israel there. Both Moses and Elijah encountered God at Sinai. In the same way, God meets with Jesus and his disciples here. It is a time to celebrate and enjoy the divine presence.
Peter, though speaking out of fear and uncertainty, was right and he was wrong. He was correct to see something here that was analogous to Sinai. He was wrong to think that the reality was, at this point, permanent. He seems to have assumed this glory was a new permanent presence, perhaps even the inauguration of the kingdom in permanent form. But he misunderstood. This was but a temporary manifestation of eschatological glory.
Nevertheless, it was for their benefit. Peter, James and John—again the intimate circles of Jesus’ friends—were brought to the mountain so that they might experience this glory. Jesus was transfigured “before them” and Elijah and Moses appeared “before them” (the disciples). The experience intended to assure them that though Jesus would suffer and die, he would nevertheless experience glory as well. It was an assurance, no doubt, that Jesus also needed though Mark does not emphasize this.
On this high mountain, this new Sinai, Jesus is transfigured or transformed. His form changed. He appeared in the glory of dazzling white clothes—a whiteness that exceeded what was possible for any human effort. This was a divine act. It was heavenly glory, divine glory. It was the glory of the new age—the glory of the heavenly Father in which the Son of Man would ultimately come again.
But the Son of Man is glorified in this moment rather than at his second advent. This momentary glory here–much like the momentary glory Moses experience on Sinai and at the ”Tent of Meeting–anticipates the fullness of that second advent glory. To see this glory is to see the final coming of the kingdom of God proleptically. It is to see it as if it has already happened. It appears now even though it belongs to the future. The glory of the parousia (second coming) of Jesus is revealed on this “high mountain” in Palestine. It is the glory which Jesus experiences in his resurrection which is also a glorious transfiguration or transformation. This mountain-top transfiguration is a promise of the resurrection and an assurance of the second coming of the Son of Man. It is a divine witness that though the Son of Man may suffer and die, he will surely rise again as the firstborn of a new creation, which includes a glorified and transfigured new heaven and new earth.
In this moment, the Father speaks. A cloud, like that which led Israel in the wilderness and rested on Sinai, appears and a voice speaks from the cloud. The Father comes and speaks: “This is my Son, my beloved. Listen to him.” Again, this is directed to the disciples.
Some think the imperative “listen” may provide a clue for why Moses and Elijah were present. Perhaps the disciples are to listen to Jesus rather than Moses and Elijah. But I don’t think it is a function of contrast but of fulfillment. Jewish Messianic expectations surrounded the prophetic figures of Moses and Elijah. The Messiah would be like Moses, and Elijah would precede the Messiah. Now Moses and Elijah have fulfilled their function, and the Son of Man, the Messiah, has arrived and is prepared to fulfill his mission. “Listen to him.” Listen to what he says about messianic mission–he is going to suffer and die, and only then enter into glory.
But as quickly as it happened, it was over. The dazzling glory receded (just as it had from the face of Moses at the tabernacle), Elijah and Moses have disappeared, and the echo of the voice fell silent. The disciples were alone with Jesus. It must have seemed like a dream, but their eyes and ears had not deceived them. It really happened, and it proclaimed the coming resurrection of Jesus and the eschatological glory of the second coming of Christ (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18) even though the disciples did understand what Jesus meant by “rising from the dead.”
Yet, they do know what they just saw. They saw Elijah. Maybe that was what the teachers of the law meant by saying Elijah must first come before the Messiah (cf. Malachi 4:5).
Jesus acknowledges that Elijah must first come before the Messiah, but this was not that. Rather, John the Baptist was Elijah. His ministry ended just as the Son of Man’s will. Just as John suffered and died, so the Son of Man will too. They persecuted and executed John—“they have done to him everything they wished”—and they will persecute and execute the Son of Man just as they did to John.
The transfiguration is a momentous event in the life of Jesus. It assures him of eschatological, resurrected glory even though he must suffer and die. It is a foretaste not only of his resurrection but also of the consummation. It is the assurance that all things will be restored as the coming of Elijah promises. The kingdom of God will come. Indeed, it has already come, but it will come with power. That power is proleptically experienced at the transfiguration of Jesus, actualized in the person of Jesus through resurrection, and fully restores the kingdom of God to the earth at the parousia.
We stand where the disciples stand. We anticipate death but hope for glory. We “lose” our lives in order to save them. We follow Jesus to the cross and we hope in the resurrection. We give up the whole world in order to gain it in the kingdom of God. We believe, we follow and we wait.
Lord Jesus, come quickly.