Recently, a member of our congregation told me of their desire to write an article for publication about the Christian and chronic illness. As she investigated various options, she came across the website of a well-known South African Christian magazine and read its policy concerning what it will and will not publish. It read, in part, “You should avoid sending teaching articles, interviews, sermons, poetry, or fiction. We are, however, always looking for miracle and healing testimonies.” To its credit it requires that the testimonies be “thoroughly researched…. Healings must be also be medically documented.”
Nonetheless, I find this disappointing, though unfortunately unsurprising.
We crave success stories while ardently avoiding stories about suffering. We want coronation without the cross. And like this magazine, we want testimonies without teaching.
We want illumination without instruction. We want the light without the requisite listening. In other words, most Christians are just like the disciples of whom Mark so honestly wrote. We are selective in our listening. We tune out the hard sayings of Jesus while tuning in to his happier sayings. But, as Mark instructs us from this passage, we need to get a good look at Jesus, and then we need to carefully listen to him. When we do, we will live as he intends. In other words, we need to look up and then listen up. Then, and only then, will we take up our cross and grow up in Christ. And we need to grow up. We need a biblically mature view of the Christian life, for we are surrounded by the so-called prosperity gospel—the teaching that we can expect health, wealth, and prosperity. But, as I trust we will see, this passage contradicts such teaching.
The Transfiguration was an Illumination
The transfiguration illuminated the disciples as to who Jesus really was:
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.”
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.
We live between the cross and the crown. This was a fundamental purpose for the transfiguration. The representatives of the disciples needed this glimpse of glory to encourage them to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.
Having promised the establishment of his kingdom with the attendant promise of his coronation, Jesus provided the disciples with this vision as a means of encouragement. They were going to face difficult times (“taste death”) but the assurance of eventual glory would empower them to persevere. The promise of the crown was to empower them for the pain of the cross. This glimpse of glory was intended to provide proper perspective.
What transpires in this section is an intensifying of Jesus’ march to his cross and to the establishment of his kingdom. Of course, these two themes were completely incongruous in the minds of the disciples. They just couldn’t grasp the idea of a suffering, never mind a crucified and killed, Messiah.
So, no doubt, as this truth began to take root, and as they began to grapple with the very costly terms of following Jesus, they may have been tempted to over-emphasise the sufferings and to lose sight of the success promised for Messiah. Like you and me, the disciples were prone to move from one extreme to the other.
But certainly there is more to following Jesus than suffering. There is a glory that awaits and it is precisely because of this promised expectation that the transfiguration is significant. It provides a glimpse of final conquest. It reveals to us the glorious person and glorious power of the glorious preeminence of the Lord Jesus Christ. It reminds us that weeping may endure for a night, but that joy will definitely come in the morning.
This is the significance of the timing of the transfiguration of Jesus, as recorded by all three Synoptic Gospels. Mark’s account is before us in 9:1–13.
The transfiguration quite literally illuminated Jesus Christ. Who and what he was came to the surface and they could clearly see that he was the light of the world. The representative disciples were exposed to Jesus’ brilliant holiness. It illuminated Jesus’ nature. It would prove to illuminate the disciples.
This was a foretaste of what we all one day will be exposed to. Christians will exult to see our glorious Saviour “as he is” (1 John 3:2) while unbelievers will be terrified to realise this holy God is their Judge. What will be your response?
The Transfiguration was a Vindication
In vv. 4–7a, we learn that the transfiguration was a vindication:
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.
The illumination of Jesus at his transfiguration was for the purpose of assuring Jesus, and the witnessing disciples, that he would be vindicated. I believe this was a reason for the presence of Elijah and Moses. These men, who represented the Law and the Prophets—that is, the old covenant in its entirety—were present as a statement (as we will see) that Jesus was the culmination of messianic hope. But this would also serve to encourage Jesus as, from that point forward, the cross loomed that much closer.
We need to remember that Jesus was both human and divine. In his humanity, he felt the trauma of his impending crucifixion. For this reason, after his temptation, the Father sent angels to minister to him (Matthew 4:11). In a few months, he would be strengthened by God as he endured an enormous spiritual, emotional, and even physical onslaught in Gethsemane.
Jesus had just introduced the theme of his imminent betrayal, suffering, and death, and so the timing of this scene is significant. Like the other cases, this would encourage Jesus to persevere. Though he would be treated ignobly, yet he would receive his deserved glory one day. He could persevere to the cross with this glorious assurance.
As we have seen, with such a heavy—though necessary—emphasis on the cross, the disciples needed to be reminded of the glory. And so do we. While the Christian life includes suffering, it is not all suffering! The Christian has a wonderful future to look forward to—as well as some wonderful blessings in the present.
Theology of Glory
Peter’s response helps us to see that we sometimes get stuck on the glory and then we resist the groaning.
It is interesting that Peter was not satisfied with just a glimpse. No, he wanted this glory to continue uninterrupted. As we have seen, he was still scandalised by the cross. He had fallen into what Luther called “the theology of glory.”
The theology of glory is what today we call prosperity theology—the teaching that the Christian should expect glory now, not later. It is the result of what theologians call an “over-realised” eschatology—that is, the assumption that the consummation of the kingdom has come. This is problematic as it is potentially destructive to faith.
Though in our circles, the Osteen, Hinn, Copeland, Macauley versions are forthrightly rejected, we are not immune from the desire to have the glory now. We are not immune from the temptation to avoid the pain of the cross; we are not immune from the erroneous expectations that everything will go our way, according to our desires and according to our plans. In other words, we, like the disciples, are prone to pursue a life of detached comfort—the desire for a holy huddle of happiness—without a willingness to suffer hardship.
Satan often tempts us with the immediate and the visible. This was the underlying problem of Israel’s rejection of the suffering Messiah.
For example, we are tempted to believe that all prayers for health will be answered now. We are tempted to expect marvellous and unimpeded church growth now. We are tempted to expect unhindered missions expansion, conflict-free marriage, conflict-free child-rearing, financial security, job security, retirement security, and unimpeded sanctification—now. But this is not what the Bible promises.
This brings us to the last section of this passage.
The Transfiguration was a Revelation
The transfiguration revealed both the character of Jesus (vv. 7b–8) and the heart of the disciples (vv. 9–13). The overall theme is simply this: We need to see Jesus as the Father sees Jesus.
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.
And as they were coming down the mountain, he 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 he 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.”
This revelation is akin to Exodus 24:15–18. The glory of God had appeared in the face of Jesus Christ, and, as at Sinai, it led to further revelation. Just as it got the attention of Moses, and secured his full attention, so it was to do here.
With the declaration, “This is my beloved Son,” the Father was affirming his satisfaction with his Son. The Father was proud to identify with Jesus, as a parent is proud of their child in some accomplishment. This phrase parallels the Father words at Jesus’ baptism, “In whom I am well pleased” (1:11).
The Father looked at his Son and made it clear that he was worthy of his commendation. Matthew records the words “with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 17:5), and Luke records “my chosen one” (Luke 9:35). Mark’s briefer “listen to him” captures the same thought. Jesus is worthy to be heard, and to be heeded. Jesus was God’s final revelation to the world.
If we will hear Jesus, we need to see Jesus. And when we truly see him, we will better hear him.
Of course—and this almost goes without saying—the ultimate purpose of the transfiguration was for the Father to reveal to these representative disciples, and for all who take seriously this Gospel record that Jesus is Lord. The appellation—“this is my Son”—speaks of Jesus as the unique Son of God. He is the promised Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:15 to whom Israel was to listen (Acts 3:22–23). Since Jesus is Lord, the disciples needed to listen to him.
Peter had blurted out his plan, and the Father in effect replied, “Be quiet and listen up.” The scene was now set for Jesus to speak and, hopefully, for the disciples to listen. “You have seen the glory of Jesus—now, listen up!”
Looking and listening are inseparable when it comes to following the Lord. As we come to see more and more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6), we are moved to greater practical devotion. Vision and voice determine our vocation. That is as we look and listen we will know what to do (cf. Ephesians 1:15ff; 3:15ff).
The cloud had disappeared, the famed visitors were gone, the loud voice was silent, and the terrifying vision had been subdued. The disciples looked around and “only” saw Jesus. This was enough. He is enough. The Law and the Prophets pointed to Jesus and then got out of the way.
When God illumines our understanding, the results are intended to outlive the experience. That is, illumination is designed to lead us to listen to Jesus with new ears. We need to look and then we must listen. And, according to James, biblical listening is accompanied by doing what we hear (1:22).
Since Jesus Christ is God’s final revelation (Hebrews 1:1–2), and since this revelation is preserved in God’s inspired and inerrant word, we prove we are listening to Jesus when we obey his rightly-divided word—the Bible.
Do we listen to Jesus as Lord, or as simply another good teacher?Do we listen to Jesus when he defines what a biblical marriage is (Matthew 19:4–5)—namely, a lifelong union between one male and one female with no sexual relations outside of this heterosexual covenant? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us be covenantally faithful members? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to confess ours sins and to forgive others? Do we listen to him when he tells us to live out the New Testament one anothers? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to join the local church? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbour as ourselves? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to seek first the kingdom and his righteousness? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us that we must be willing to forsake family and friends in order to follow him? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us that he is the only way to be reconciled to God? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us that, unless we repent, we will perish? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to care for the poor, when he tells us to care of the orphans? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to seek the restoration of sinning church members? Do we listen when he tells us to remove unrepentant church members from membership of the congregation? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to not fear man but rather to fear God? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us to make disciples of all the nations? Do we listen to Jesus when he tells us that it is of no profit to gain the whole world at the expense of losing our soul?
Finally, do we listen to Jesus, when he tells us, as he told these first disciples, to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him? This is the most vital of questions, and what follows is directly connected to this. Would the disciples listen to him as he continued to speak about his impending suffering?
From what has preceded, and from what follows, it is clear that Jesus’ teaching about the suffering of the cross had not sunk in. Not only was there a physical descent here; it seems also that, for these three, there was a spiritual descent. They were going backwards, rather than forwards, in understanding.
As Jesus and the three disciples descended from the mountaintop, his friends were confronted with their first opportunity to listen to him. They were now put to the test. Would they obey the Father’s command? Would their recent vision of the transfigured Jesus make a practical difference to them? That is, would they “listen to him”? Will you?
Jesus “charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Mark informs us of their response, and it is (partially) commendable: “So, they kept the matter to themselves.” This is the first time in Mark that Jesus tells someone to be quiet and they actually obey—except for demons! I believe these three served the other disciples as representatives and so probably the mandate of silence was intended for the wider group of disciples, not to the Twelve.
But Mark goes on to record that they were “questioning what the rising from the dead might mean.” As they descended, they were confused and perhaps, in hushed tones, were asking among themselves how any of this made sense. After all, had they not just seen the glory of Jesus? Had they not just witnessed the confirmation of the promised second exodus? Had they not just witnessed something of the promised “power and coming of the Lord Jesus Christ” into his kingdom? In fact, it seems that they had interpreted v. 1 as incorrectly as many do in our day—that is, that the transfiguration was the kingdom of God coming in power. Why then was Jesus still speaking about his death? Yes, he said that he would rise, but resurrection necessitates death. They just did not understand. They had tasted glory; how then could there still be talk about suffering? Like so many throughout history—and like so many in our day—they were stumbling at the cross. They were not rightly dividing the word. They needed–and we need—to learn to listen to Jesus, not only when he made glorious promises but also when he promised the grief of suffering (see Romans 8:16ff; 2 Cor 4:17–5:10).
Their question, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” reveals that the disciples had the glory of the kingdom in mind. In fact, they would for some time (cf. Acts 1:4–8).
Having just seen Elijah, they assumed that Malachi’s prophesy had come to pass. And in their interpretation, in the light of this glorious vision, they assumed the glorious kingdom was on the verge of being restored to them.
Jesus answered with an affirmation and with a question. Yes, “Elijah does come to restore all things.” The scribes and the disciples certainly knew this Scripture. Sadly however, they did not pay attention to all the Scripture and Jesus made this clear with his follow up question, “And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” This was probably a reference to Isaiah 53. How are these two matters related?
Jesus said two things that seem diametrically opposed: They must count on success and suffering at the same time.
In the first statement, Jesus affirmed the purpose of Elijah. His purpose was for all things to be restored as he proclaimed the coming of Messiah. Sadly, however, the nation would reject him because the nation would reject the heart of his message: Messiah.
According to Malachi 4:4–5, Elijah would come to Israel with the message of repentance. If the people faithfully responded, the hearts of fathers would be turned to their children and vice versa. Probably this was a reference to God’s covenant children turning back to the covenant that God made with Israel’s patriarchal fathers. The implication is that judgement cold be avoided. It all depended on how the nation received Messiah’s Elijah-like messenger (Malachi 3:1).
It seems that the disciples failed to listen to the whole passage. That is, the passage speaks of judgement on God’s people if they did not receive the messenger and his message. The message was Messiah. The disciples perhaps should have observed that Jesus, who was “the Christ” (8:29), was consistently being rejected by the leaders of Israel. They should have been paying attention. They should have listened to him when he told them that he was going to be betrayed, suffer, and die. In other words, “Elijah” was being rejected, not embraced. Therefore, they should temper their kingdom expectations and prepare for difficulties. The kingdom would come, but not without pain, not without suffering, not without the cross.
Jesus final words tied this together when he said, “But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” Without belabouring the point, John the Baptist was the Elijah-like messenger. John the Baptist was the fulfilment of Malachi’s prophecy and, according to Matthew, the disciples understood this (Matthew 17:13).
“As it is written of him” references 1 Kings 19 where Ahab and Jezebel persecuted Elijah—just as Herod and Herodias had persecuted John the Baptist, successfully, to death.
Jesus was helping the disciples to see that if John the Baptist suffered as the one proclaiming the coming Messiah, how much more should it be expected that the Messiah himself would suffer. And if he suffered, his disciples should expect to suffer. Therefore, they needed to listen to him. They needed to listen to his theology of the cross while turning a deaf ear to the theology of glory.
What’s the Point?
The disciples needed to keep before them this glorious vision. As they do, they would be equipped to listen to him. The glory of Jesus would provide equilibrium to them as they faced the difficulties of this world. The promise of the ultimate would equip them to faithfully and fruitfully face the pain of the immediate. The glory of the consummation of the kingdom would empower them to persevere through the grief of their cross. Jesus wanted them to listen and to be equipped to avoid an over-realised eschatology. Jesus wanted them to avoid the popular prosperity gospel of the nominal Judaism.
Messianic fever abounded in Jesus’ day (13:5–6). Therefore, they must hold in tension the twin truths: the kingdom would come but commencement and construction are not synonymous with consummation.
We need to read the Bible carefully. This was a problem with the scribes and those they instructed. They misread Malachi 4. We avoid carelessness when we read the Bible as one story: the story of God’s kingdom that will one day be a consummated and glorious kingdom. If we misread, if we do not look and listen properly, we will fall into the trap of the prosperity gospel.
The plague of the prosperity gospel is pandemic, and it is a threat to Christian maturity. In a February 2019 article on CNBCAFRICA.com, a researcher claimed that the prosperity gospel is the “fastest growing religious movement in South Africa,” and that “prosperity gospel followers rival, if not exceed, the numbers of so-called mainline churches.” When we think of the prosperity gospel we tend to think of its representatives like the whacko health-and-wealth charlatans Benny Hinn, Ray McCauley, Prophet Shepherd Bushiri, Creflo Dollar, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, etc. These false teachers have brought, and continue to bring, much disgrace to the true gospel. In fact, when I travel to speak in other African nations, I have to now jump through several bureaucratic hoops because governments are sceptical about those who claim to be ministers of the gospel. Out of their desire to protect their people from charlatans, they want proof of the integrity of those who say they are preachers of the gospel. This is tragic.
And yet, what we often don’t realise is the more subtle forms of the prosperity gospel that are prevalent in mainline churches. We fail to recognise the insipient prosperity gospel that exists right under our theological noses in our own local churches. Martin Luther famously described these as a “theology of glory”—that is, the worldview among Christians that following Christ has lots of space for success with little or none for suffering. It is a religious worldview that makes no or little allowance for suffering. Rather, the Christian life, it assumes, is about going from success to success.
For example, the theology of glory expects that prayer will be answered immediately and affirmatively. It assumes that decisions are correct because they were prayed about. Trials are assumed to be rare because, after all, boxes are correctly ticked. It expects an idyllic home like because Ephesians 5 is understood and believed.
Theologians of glory demand that church life be hassle-free they we have a correct theology and ecclesiology. They expect that the orphaned will always get a godly home, that all babies conceived will be born healthy, that the advancement of the gospel will take place with relative ease because they have sent out and/or supported men who are zealously devoted to God and his gospel. They presume that everyone in the church will grow by leaps and bounds.
Though we rightfully scoff and condemn the peddling of the health, wealth, prosperity proliferation, yet we ourselves need to be on guard against its more subtle, and often equally destructive, forms that exist in good Reformed churches like ours.
Don’t expect that following Jesus will be pain-free. It wasn’t for John the Baptist. It wasn’t for Jesus’ disciples. Most importantly, it wasn’t for Jesus (see 2 Peter 2:20–25).
Even though Jesus had made it clear that he would die, and they therefore must be prepared to die, yet they still could (would not?) grasp the teaching of the cross. And this event had added to their confusion.
You see, having gotten this wonderful glimpse of Christ’s glory, they assumed that, for whatever reason, all that talk about suffering was behind them. Perhaps Jesus had changed his mind? We sometimes assume the same.
Consider the euphoria of answered prayer for a job. We may expect all to go so well and then we face immense trials in the workplace.
Consider the experience of a wonderful quiet time. We feel so close to God and perhaps we expect a glorious day. But a day follows that is everything but quiet!
Consider the beginning of your marriage with all its hope and promise. You enjoy a glorious wedding day as you experience God’s amazing presence. Are you prepared for the mundane—even the heartaches that you will face? Do you expect that all will be happy, happy, happy? Or are you realistically prepared for the difficulties?
Consider a wonderful healing. How wonderful. Thank God for this. But are you prepared for a report that rocks your world—the dreaded word “cancer”?
Consider the joy of a new baby. What a gift from God! And yet, there may be the sobering news of a health problem—perhaps a deadly health problem.
Consider a wonderful church service in which your heart is set aflame with love and devotion and hope. Are you prepared to come down from the mountain to the grind of Monday?
Consider the beginning of your church membership. How glorious your fellow church members are! How perfectly loving and understanding and thoughtful they are! Are you prepared for the harsh reality that they are not fully sanctified?
Consider the experience of victory over sin. Wonderful! Illuminating! This is indeed wonderful. But are you prepared for the next battle with the next sinful disposition or habit?
Consider a wonderful season of church growth. What a mountaintop! Can it get any better? Are you prepared for a season of disappointment if not a season of decline?
Finally, consider your experience of the new birth. A whole new world opens before you with illumination of the glorious Saviour. You find a whole new appetite for what is holy, just, and good. The world looks so different. You are on a spiritual high. This is wonderful. But not everyone will be thrilled. Some will end their relationship with you. You might even lose your job. In some parts of the world, people will lose their lives.
I could give other applications and illustrations but suffice it to say that mountaintop illuminations and celebrations are wonderful and real, but until Jesus returns to complete the work of making all things new, the glory cloud will often disappear—and sometimes behind a frowning providence. When it does, it is time to apply the revelation. It is time to listen; it is time to hear and to heed the Lord Jesus. It is here where Christian maturity takes place. It is here where we learn to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow Jesus.
Don’t be surprised when things don’t work out according to your plan. This is where we must all learn contentment. As Erik Raymond has written, “We don’t graduate from the school of contentment; we’re career students.” He continues, “Contentment is the inward, gracious, quiet spirit that joyfully rests in God’s providence.” This joyful rest derives from a biblical look at the character of our Lord, which fuels our confidence in him. Confidence and contentment are inseparable from the cross. Again, “Contentment does not mean ignoring problems or pretending they do not exist [contra prosperity gospel]. Quite the opposite! A contented spirit is one that realizes the difficulty but can nevertheless rest in God in the midst of it.”
None of this means that we should live without expectation. We should very much expect the kingdom to advance. We should very much expect that, one day, all sin, sorrow, and stain of the curse will be removed. This should fuel our faith and empower our labours. Triumph will occur. The mountain will be ascended. But in the meantime, down below, we love and labour and long for the day when the glimpse of glory we have been given comes in all its fullness. And the only way that we will do this is if we daily keep listening to him. We should so preach Christ and pray for a greater revelation of him so that disciples will learn to listen to him.
Finally, non-Christian, you need to listen to Jesus, and you need to do so today. The Father sent Jesus into this world and Jesus willingly listened to him and came. And though he was sinless, he died as a sinner for sinners like you and me. On the cross, the Father treated Jesus not as one who was well-pleased, not as one who was his beloved Son, but rather as one who was full of sinful shame and as one who was cursed. But thanks be to God, Jesus has risen from the dead (v. 9)! He is therefore able to raise you from your spiritual death. He is able to make you a beloved child.
Will you listen to him as he calls you today? Repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.