What are they to understand? What purposes did this theophany serve? There are a number of possibilities. Brian Stoffregen has compiled a good list of things to consider.
- to see the Kingdom of God coming in power. One purpose is that it may be the event referred to in 9:1: ““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.” These three disciples have seen the kingdom of God in all its power with the transfiguration of Jesus. Going back another verse: Jesus said: “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (8:38). Do these words also point to the transfiguration? Do all three of these references: coming in glory, coming in power, the transfiguration; preview the parousia rather than the resurrection? I think that the transfiguration indicates that Jesus is the one who contains his Father’s glory and the Kingdom’s power. While that was experienced in part in the past and in the present, we are waiting for it to come in its fullness.
- connects (and contrasts) Jesus with the Law and prophets. Another purpose is to indicate that Jesus fulfills the words of the Law and prophets, represented by Moses and Elijah on the mountain. How the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah is not a question our text answers. They We are told that they are speaking with Jesus, but we aren’t told what they are talking about. In addition, there were traditions about both that they had never died — Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, (2 Kings 2:1-11) and the fact that Moses’ burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:5-8) led to the idea that he had been taken up by God. Origin (c.185-c.254) writes that the dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over Moses’ body in Jude 9 comes from a little treatise entitled: “The Ascension of Moses.” So there was a tradition that Moses had not died. This event may also distinguish Jesus from “the prophets.” The disciples had said that people think that Jesus might be one of the prophets (8:28). At the end of transfiguration, there is only Jesus. The “Law and prophets” have faded away. The one remaining is Jesus.
- points to Jesus as the one whom the prophets anticipate. In contrast to the “law and prophets” interpretation above, others hold that it is more probable that Moses and Elijah appear in the transfiguration narrative as representatives of the prophetic tradition that, according to the belief of the early church, would anticipate Jesus. “All the prophets testify to [Jesus] (Acts 10:43). It is probably too specific to maintain that Moses stands for the law and Elijah for the prophets, because each figure was associated with both the law and prophets. According to Deut 18:15, 18, a passage that is recalled in v. 7, Moses is considered the prototype of the eschatological Prophet, and Moses is frequently regarded as the representative figure of the prophetic tradition in Judaism. Likewise, Elijah was associated with Mt Sinai (1 Kgs 19:1-9), where he also received the word of God, though in a different fashion from Moses. In Mal 4:4-6, Israel is commanded to remember the “instruction” (Heb. torah) of god’s servant Moses. Immediately following, Elijah is introduced as the prophet who turns the hearts of people to repentance on the Day of Yahweh. The appearance of Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration narrative likely recalls this passage and their prophetic roles as joint preparers of the final Prophet to come (so Deut 18:15, 18; Mal 4:5-6). Their joint preparation for Jesus is further signified by Marks’ description of them “talking with Jesus”; that is, they hold an audience with Jesus as a superior.
- connects Jesus with “mountaintop experiences” at points of discouragement. Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) in commenting about the appearance of Moses and Elijah suggests that the two great prophets represent those who, like the disciples at this moment, beheld Yahweh’s epiphany on a mountain at crucial periods of discouragement in their mission having heard the Jesus will suffer and die. In the story of Elijah, the great prophet has for his trouble become a man hunted by the authorities. He tries to flee, but is met by Yahweh who dispatches him back into the struggle (1 Kgs 19:11ff.). And in the case of Moses, he is Yahweh’s envoy whose message has been once rejected by the people, and who must thus ascend the mountain a second time (Ex 33:18ff.). Both stories are clearly instructive at this point in Mark’s narrative.
- Jesus: a divine being. The dazzling white clothes indicates a heavenly, rather than an earthly being (Dan 7:9; 12:3; Mk 16:5; Mt 28:3).
- the coming martyrdom of Jesus. Myers (Binding the Strong Man) indicates that garments came to symbolize the clothing of martyrs (as in the Book of Revelation, 3:5, 18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9, 13)…. We must conclude that in the transfiguration, following as it does directly upon the first portent and teaching of the cross, Jesus’ new garment is symbolic of the martyr’s white robes” [p. 350].
- another indication of disciples’ blindness. The disciples, once again, are unable to fully understand what’s going on. Peter says, “It is good that we are here.” Why is it good that they are here? Why is it good that people are at worship? Do they come to only see Jesus in all his glory and to try and capture that event with booths? Peter says, “Let us make three tents.” What are the skene (tents, booths) that he plans to have them build? The word can mean a “tent” or “temporary shelter.” It can mean “tabernacle” as a worship place (the dwelling place of God in the OT). It can mean a “house” — a permanent dwelling place. Why would these three need houses? Perhaps he wants to “house” the event so that it will last forever. Mark includes this critique of Peter: “He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified.” (9:6).
- disciples hear God’s declaration about Jesus. At his baptism, only Jesus hear the words of the voice that declares Jesus to be “My son”. Now the three disciples also hear the heavenly voice attest to this relationship. However, this knowledge didn’t help them much in the garden. They fall asleep instead of pray (14:37-41). The run away, rather than follow (14:50). Hearing the witness from God didn’t produce a lasting or deep faith that would see them through difficult times.
- a new commandment from God. The voice gives the command: “Listen to him,” “Listen” (akouete) is a present imperative, implying continuing action: “Keep on listening to him” or “Continue to listen to him.” God gave Ten Commands in the OT. In the NT, we have this one command. This command also recalls a word from Moses, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me…. You must listen to him” (Deut 18:15).