Transfiguration: context

transfiguration mystagogy2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. 4 Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. 7 Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; then from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. 9 As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.

Context. The first eight chapter of the Gospel according to Mark have been a display of the teachings, authority, and power of Jesus. These chapters include accounts of healings, casting out of demons, and the miracle feeding of more than 4,000 people – and yet the question still remained: who is this person Jesus? At Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks the disciples who the people say that he is (8:27) and received a variety of answers: “John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others one of the prophets.” And then the question is turned to the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said to him in reply, “You are the Messiah.”

Many scholars see this as a turning point in Mark in which Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for the events that will unfold in Jerusalem. It is at the revelation at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus first predicts his Passion (8:31-33) and teaches that being a true disciples means one must take up the cross daily (8:34-9:1). Soon enough there will be a second prediction of his own Passion, but before that we come to the narrative of the Transfiguration.

Commentary. “After six days…” is a rather precise temporal reference that is unusual in Mark and suggests that the evangelist attached special importance to this episode. Many see a connection to Moses’ experience on Sinai (Exodus 24:15-16). There Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. A few scholars want to place this event six days after the Day of Atonement which is the Festivals of Booths (Tabernacles).

But the most immediate reference likely points back to the events of Caesarea Philippi and Peter’s profession of Jesus as Messiah (8:27-30), but one should also not overlook Mark 9:1, the verse immediately preceding our text: He also said to them, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” This verse should really be part of Mark 8 as it is part of the complex of encouragement in the face of the Passion predictions and warnings of the necessity to take up one’s cross. The unveiling of Jesus’ glory in the presence of the three disciples corresponds to the assurance that some will indeed see.

What will they see? The transfiguration is presented as a theophany (a manifestation of God) which points to the powerful coming of the Kingdom of God. The three key visual items are that “his clothes became dazzling white” – a description echoing the divine in Daniel 7:9 – as well as the appearance of Elijah and Moses, representing the all the Prophets and the Law, the two cornerstones of Jewish faith. The “high mountain” recalls the theophanies on the mountain of God (Sinai, Ex. 24; Horeb, 1 Kings 19) where Moses and Elijah received a vision of the glory of God. Now the theophany is given to the disciples who will carry the revelation of Christ Jesus to the world.

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