Lent Week 2: The Transfiguration

lent04This week we move to the Transfiguration.

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone.  There he was transfigured before them.  His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.  And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.  Let us put up three shelters–one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud:  “This is my Son, whom I love.  Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what “rising from the dead” meant.

And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

He replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things.  Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?  But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”

–Mark 9:2-13

Jesus goes up a mountain with his three closest disciples, and there is joined by Moses and Elijah.  Moses, representative of the Law, and Elijah, representative of the Prophets.  For Jesus is the one to whom both the Law and the Prophets point.

A couple of things here:  Moses is now in the Promised Land.  He died on Mount Nebo, just outside the Promised Land, without ever setting foot there.  Yet now, here he is.  All his desires to reach the Promised Land have now been fulfilled in Jesus.

Peter’s response:  Why in the world would he say such a thing?  Commentators have read all sorts of interesting explanations into his words, but the best thing, I think, is to just go with what the next verse says.  He was afraid, and he just didn’t know what to say.  So the first thing that popped out of his mouth was the thing about the three shelters.  But really, if you had just seen your teacher turn bright white and start talking to an apparition of Moses and Elijah, would you have come up with anything better?

Up until this point, Jesus had commanded people who saw him do miracles to not say anything about him.  Now, he gets specific:  Don’t say anything until after he has risen from the dead.  Earlier, Jesus had told his disciples that he would die.  Now he tells them not to say anything about what they just saw until after he had risen.  He did not want the word of this to get out until it could be understood in light of his dying and rising from the dead.

In the next verse it says that the disciples discussed among themselves what “rising from the dead” meant.  Cut them some slack.  We know what Jesus meant here, only by virtue of 2,000 years hindsight.  The disciples had no such thing.  They had never seen a resurrection.  They had no conception that anyone could come back from the dead.  They lived in a culture that had no conception of heaven or hell; once you were dead, you were dead and that was it.  Old Testament Jews believed in Sheol as a sort of holding area for the souls of the dead, but that was the extent of their knowledge or belief in the afterlife.

And then we segue right into the discussion of Elijah.  Here the disciples are referencing a verse at the end of Malachi:  “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.”  (Malachi 4:5-6) They had just seen Jesus announced as the promised Son of God, so why had they not seen Elijah beforehand?  Jesus explains that Elijah has come, in a cryptic reference to John the Baptist, whose ministry was very much like that of Elijah.

The linkage here:  Elijah prophesied against a weak king and his evil consort (Ahab and Jezebel).  He was driven to the desert by Jezebel’s threats against him.  John the Baptist, a type of Elijah, prophesied against a weak king and his evil consort (Herod and Herodias).  Herodias did to John the Baptist the very things Jezebel threatened against Elijah.  And finally, a short time later, Jesus himself would suffer and be rejected to the point of dying on a cross.