Tonight, we are gathering to discuss the Transfiguration found in Mark 9:2-13, Matthew 17:1-13, and Luke 9:28-36. We will focus on Mark’s version that we previously discussed in our study of his gospel. As we sing in verse 4 of our hymn: “Manifest on mountain height/ shining in resplendent light/ where disciples filled with awe/ thy transfigured glory saw./ When from there thou leddest them/ steadfast to Jerusalem”.
Traditionally, Mark is considered to be the companion and interpreter of Peter who wrote down Peter’s recollections of Jesus after Peter was martyred. Throughout his gospel, Mark is deeply allusive and draws heavily on his Jewish and Greco-Roman background in telling us the story of Jesus. This is particularly true in Mark’s telling of the Transfiguration. I have attached a discussion of Mark’s use of these cultural and historical references in the Transfiguration from Anchor-Yale Commentary on Mark. pp.1109-1118. If you have the opportunity today, please take the time to read this over.
The first biblical character in the Transfiguration is Moses. In setting up the Transfiguration, Mark draws heavily from the story of Moses’ ascent of Mt. Siani for the ceremony of covenant ratification where the people of Israel give their assent to the Ten Commandments in Exodus 24 and the second covenant ratification in Exodus 34 (which was necessary because of the golden calf incident in Exodus 32). If you have time today, please read Exodus 24 and 34 and see how closely the account of the Transfiguration tracks these two accounts of Moses and the first covenant. In the Exodus accounts we have Moses going up the mountain with three named companions. God’s glory comes to Moses in a cloud after six days and speaks to Moses out of the cloud. When Moses exited the cloud of God’s glory, his face continued to shine with a terrifying radiance. There are some differences, in that only Moses sees God’s glory and only Moses hears God’s voice, not the companions, but the basic outline of the stories are the same.
This parallelism between Moses and Jesus is confirmed by the voice from the cloud. In Deuteronomy, Moses says that God will raise up for you a prophet just like Moses and “it is him you shall listen to.” Deut. 18:15. The voice at the Transfiguration commands the disciples that it is Jesus “you shall listen to.” v.9. Jesus is the successor to Moses who gives us the new covenant.
The other biblical character that appears at the Transfiguration is Elijah. As we discussed during Advent, the last image we have of Elijah is him being taken up into heaven on a chariot of fire. This glory of God that surrounded Elijah as he left his earthly existence, now returns with him.
The very last statement of the biblical prophets (Malachi 4) speaks of the coming of Elijah on the day of the Lord. Mark addresses the question of the coming of Elijah immediately before and after the Transfiguration, and his appearance here answers those questions.
As an aside, Mark also uses Malachi to describe the brightness of Jesus. In Malachi 3, the prophet says that the Lord is like “fullers’ soap” and Mark describes Jesus’ garments as whiter than any fuller could bleach them. v.3.
As we have discussed previously, the early Jesus Movement was not simply a religious movement but a political movement that showed an alternative to the Roman Empire. For example, when Paul insists that we must “confess with our lips that ‘Jesus is Lord’” he is not giving a magical incantation to achieve God’s grace. Rom. 10:9. Rather, Paul is telling his Roman audience that they must affirm “Jesus is Lord” (Iesoun or (Chrystos) Kyrios) not that “Ceasar is Lord” (Kaiser Kyrios). This is one of the great themes that we looked at in Revelation.
In the same way, the word “Gospel” itself is not a Christian term but a Roman Imperial term. The Priene calendar inscription erected in 9 BC gives us the Evangelion or “good news” of Ceasar (king) Augustus (one who is revered, venerated, or worshiped), the great high priest, the son of God, savior, prince of peace, and the manifestation of god. Mark begins his work by using the same word “gospel” to show that Jesus is the alternative to the Roman imperial system.
In 8AD, the Roman poet, Ovid, composed his epic poem Metamorphoses. Ovid traces the history of the world from its creation to the deification of Julius Caesar. Near the end of Book 15, the gods make Julius Ceasar one of their own by metamorphosizing him into a star. It is also here that the poet looks forward to the same transformation into a god occurring to Augustus as well upon his earthly death. The word Mark uses for “transfiguration” is metamorphoses, the title of Ovid’s poem. In Mark’s use of this term, like his use of the word “gospel” to open his work, he wants us to see that Jesus is Lord and God, not Ceasar. (As an aside, when Peter(?) writes about the Transfiguration in 2 Peter 1:16-21, he compares the glory that he saw on the mountain to a star.)
Although Jesus’ metamorphosis into radiant light occurs during his life, it does occur between the first two instances of Jesus foretelling of his death on the Cross. Mark 8:31, 9:31. By placing the Transfiguration between these two statements, Mark is telling his audience that Jesus’ impending death is not the end, but the inauguration of his divinity. See, also, Phil. 2:9-10. Jesus is the one to be worshipped as Divine, not Caesar.
- Next Tuesday: There is no lesson. We are having a Mardi Gras celebration with traditional New Orleans fare.
- Lenten Study: For Lent, we are reading through Walter Bruggemann’s seminal work The Prophetic Imagination. Books are available for $13 each. A short overview of the book by Richard Beck is here.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is Blackened Shrimp Bowls. Discussion about 6:45. Compline at 8. Hope to see you here!
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we heard this voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word made more sure. You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.2 Peter 1:16-19