Please take a seat and let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, by your Holy Spirit please open our eyes to see the truth about Jesus; and open our ears to hear your voice as we look at your Word together. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
So as we look at these central chapters in Mark’s Gospel on these autumn Sunday evenings, we’ve come to Mark 9.1-13. That’s on page 844 in the church Bibles – and it would be useful to have that open in front of you. As you’ll see on my outline in the service paper, I’ve called this ‘Three Revelations’ because that’s what we’ve got in these verses. This is one of those sections of Scripture that’s so overwhelming when we really stop and try and take in what’s going on, that it’s hard to know where to begin when it comes to talking about it. As I struggled with how to go about it, Mark 9.6 jumped out at me. It talks about Peter’s reaction to seeing the transfigured Jesus, flanked by Moses and Elijah, and it says:
For he did not know what to say…
I identify with that. Words seem inadequate. But we must have a go and trust that the Holy Spirit will be do all the heavy lifting of showing us the significance of what’s going on here. Because without the help of the Holy Spirit, we can’t see with our spiritual eyes. Let me just illustrate that. Work with me on this. I want us to do a simple little experiment. Nothing remotely embarrassing, I promise. Hold your hand in front of your face and at the same time close your eyes. Your hand is right there in front of your eyes, but you can’t see it. Why? Because your eyes are closed, of course. Now, open your eyes again. That is the moment of revelation. What was there in front of your eyes, but you could not see, all of sudden you can see clearly, because your eyes have been opened. You can put your hand down! At the heart of this passage is that kind of revelation of Jesus.
So, in all there are Three Revelations here. First, Jesus revealed what would soon happen. Secondly, God the Father revealed the glory of Jesus. And thirdly, Jesus revealed the prophesied Elijah. Before we get into those, let’s get a wider perspective on what’s happening here. We’re at the pivot of Mark’s Gospel. Mark is in two parts. For the first 8 chapters, the key question is: Who is this Jesus? And that comes to a head in Mark 8.29, when Jesus asks his disciples:
“But who do you say I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”
In other words, the Messiah, God’s chosen, anointed and eternal King. Then for the rest of Mark, the key question is in two parts. Part one: What kind of Messiah is Jesus? And the answer is that, contrary to the expectation of those disciples, he is a suffering, dying, rising and returning Messiah. And part two: What does it mean to follow this kind of Messiah? Answer, it means suffering before glory for those who follow him. So at the point we’ve got to here, the disciples are only half understanding who Jesus is, and they’re full of misunderstandings. When Jesus tells them that he’s going to suffer, be rejected, killed and then rise again, Peter is stupidly bold enough to rebuke Jesus, of all things. And Jesus responds fiercely (this is Mark 8.33):
“Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.”
Peter’s arrogant and misplaced self-confidence needs to be shattered. Peter and the others need to learn a lesson about spiritual realities. They need to get a new heavenly perspective. So do we. And that’s what’s about to happen, through these three revelations. So:
First, JESUS REVEALED WHAT WOULD SOON HAPPEN
This comes at the end of that earlier encounter between Jesus and the disciples that Matt took us through last week. That ends with Jesus teaching them that he will be rejected, that those who follow Jesus will be rejected, but that it will be eternally worth it. Then he says something startling. Here it is. Mark 9.1:
And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”
How are we to understand that? We can rule one option out straight away – that Jesus was referring to his second coming and the Day of Judgement, and he got the timing wrong. We’re still waiting 2000 years later. It didn’t happen in the lifetime of any of those standing there listening to Jesus. Jesus didn’t make mistakes. He was talking about something different. Some think Jesus is referring to his coming ascension to the all-powerful throne of heaven, or the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came with great power. And certainly the coming of the Kingdom with power was closely related to those key events. But I’m persuaded by those who think that Jesus is looking further ahead, to the devastating, deadly, destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the brutal Roman army about 40 years after this, in AD 70, when the Romans ferociously put down a Jewish revolt against their rule.
There are two reasons. One: what Jesus says indicates something that will happen within a lifetime, not within just a few weeks. Two: later on, just before the crucifixion, Jesus repeats what he says here, in connection with a direct warning about that coming destruction of Jerusalem. That’s in Mark 13, and also most clearly in Luke 21. So when Jesus revealed what would happen soon, he was speaking of a coming of the kingdom of God in powerful judgement on those who did not recognise the Messiah in their midst, and who rejected and killed him. A sobering and salutary warning.
A few years ago I visited the Temple site in Jerusalem. I was deeply moved. Where the Temple once stood, now stands the Islamic Dome of the Rock. At the foot of the walls around the Temple Mount still lie some of the great stones that were thrown down at that very time. There’s no word about what the disciples made of this at the time. But they needed to learn what Messiah really meant. So this was like a trailer to the main revelation that was coming next – a week later. And what about us? Are we blind to the reality that Jesus the King is actively ruling in history, even when bad things happen? And can I gently and respectfully ask, are you Jewish? If you are, have you recognised Jesus as the true Messiah? As your Messiah?
And to all of us, Jew or Gentile alike, do we see that this revelation of what would soon happen shows that Jesus holds the whole world, and the whole of history, in his hand? It shows that we can’t get away with thinking that Christianity is simply a variation on secular materialism, with a garnish of talk about Jesus and how if only we would learn from him to love one another and look after the planet things would be better. No – just this one sentence from Jesus shatters that illusion. This requires a complete rebuilding of the architecture of our minds. We need to have a radically supernatural world view with Jesus at the centre of it. That’s the first revelation. Jesus revealed what would soon happen. Then:
Secondly, GOD THE FATHER REVEALED THE GLORY OF JESUS
So now we come to the Transfiguration of Jesus – and this is where any words do begin to feel utterly inadequate to the task of helping us see the sheer grandeur and immensity of what happened here. Anyway, let’s listen to the voice of God in Mark’s Gospel telling us about it. This is Mark 9.2-8:
And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
This is Jesus and his Father teaching to those three select disciples a seminar that they would never forget. It must have burned onto their hearts and minds like a red hot brand. The mountain, the burning light, the cloud and the presence of Moses himself bring to mind that encounter between Moses and the unapproachable, holy and living God at Mount Sinai after the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Moses and Elijah between them represent the whole of Biblical history, and all the Law and the Prophets – all that God had spoken up to this time. Jesus is the culmination and the fulfilment of it all. Here the curtain is drawn aside and Jesus is revealed as the divine man, fully man and fully God, sharing in all the blazing glory of God himself. Moses and Elijah are the servants. He is the Son.
I’ve learned a lot about mission from Roland Allen, the missionary writer of a century ago. He says that at the heart of mission work is what he calls ‘the manifestation of Jesus’. Showing Jesus to people, in all his glory. That’s what’s happened here. This transfiguration brings to mind three later manifestations of Jesus. The encounter of Saul with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, when the light of Christ was so bright that it blinded him. Then the ascension of Jesus from the Mount of Olives, when he was enveloped in the cloud and when to the right hand of his Father in heaven to rule all things. And then the vision of the risen Jesus that one of the disciples here, John, had. It’s in Revelation 1.14-17:
The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace …When I say him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
Tim Keller, the American pastor and writer, has written an article on The Decline of the Mainline Christian denominations in the US. It starts:
There is no more urgent question for American Christians than this: What is wrong with the American Christian church and how can its witness and ministry be renewed?
What he says could equally be applied to the UK and the British church. He makes reference to the brilliant old book called Christianity and Liberalism by Gresham Machen. He says:
[Machen] argued that liberalism’s attempt to create a de-supernaturalized Christianity “has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity”… There have always been religions in the world that aspired to a higher form of living…But Christianity was and is wholly different. It insists that we are saved not by what we do, but by what God in Christ has done for us in history—in his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension.
That gets to the heart of it. And that’s why seeing the Transfiguration with our spiritual eyes is so important. Christian faith is not primarily about ideas – though plenty of world-changing ideas flow from it. No. It’s about a person. A man who is God. This is my beloved Son, God the Father says to us now, as then at the Transfiguration, “listen to him.” How did Peter, James and John react? How would you have felt? They were stupefied and speechless – or least had nothing sensible to say. Mark 9.6:
[Peter] did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
What about us? We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us the same experience. We too need to see Jesus for who he is. We too need to hear the voice of the Father. We too need to listen to Jesus. This needs to be burned onto our hearts and minds too, like a red hot brand. I remember being on a Christian Union weekend away when I was a student, sitting with a fellow student who had recently become a Christian, as he sobbed his heart out. Why? Because he had seen in a new and deeper way the reality of who Jesus was, and who he was, and what Jesus had done for him on the cross. The whole direction of his life had been changed. So it was for Peter, James and John. I pray that will be true for us too, as the Father, by the Spirit, reveals to us Jesus in all his glory. Jesus revealed what would soon happen. God the Father revealed the glory of Jesus. Finally, and:
Thirdly, JESUS REVEALED THE PROPHESIED ELIJAH
Take a look at the last part of this section – Mark 9.9-13:
And as they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” And [Jesus] said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
Peter, James and John have no idea what Jesus’ talk of resurrection means. As they puzzle over that, they have the prophet Elijah on their minds. That’s understandable. Earlier they had told Jesus that some people were saying that he was Elijah. Then they’d actually seen Elijah on the mountain. They were remembering Malachi 4.5-6, the very last words of our Old Testament, which prophesy:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
They ask Jesus about that. And by the way, note how Jesus in his response endorses the truth of Old Testament prophesy – as he does again and again. Jesus says:
“Elijah does come first to restore all things.”
Not, though, as the restorer himself. But as the forerunner to the Son of Man – Jesus – who by his suffering, death and resurrection will restore all things. And in fact, Jesus says, the one who fulfilled that Elijah prophecy has already come. And he was killed. Who does he mean? John the Baptist. In fact, Jesus has already told them that earlier, but, not for the first time, they just didn’t take it on board. So in Matthew 11.13-14 Jesus told them:
“For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Let’s close, then, by reflecting on the fact that, in the light of these three revelations, we need to follow the example of John the Baptist ourselves. John said about Jesus “He must increase, but I must decrease”. We need to think the same. John pointed people away from himself and to Jesus. So must we. John suffered in the service of Jesus, even to death, before going to glory. We may not be executed as John was. But we too need to be ready to take up our cross. And then our witness, like John’s, will pave the way for the Holy Spirit to reveal the glory of Jesus in the hearts, minds and lives of others. Let’s pray:
Heavenly Father, thank for revealing Jesus to us in all his glory. Please give us your Holy Spirit so that our eyes will be open to see him as he is, and our ears will be open to listen to what he says. And then, Lord, please open our mouths to speak of him, so that he will be revealed to others and they too will see his glory. In his name we pray. Amen.