Have you ever taken a telescope out on a dark night to explore the sky? With the right equipment, the heavenly bodies that only appear as specks of light to the naked eye take on a new brilliance. Details emerge that had been previously invisible. Colors appear where before there had been none. What had only appeared as small dots of light are now seen to be intricate shapes and patterns. The heavens take on a new radiance. The glory that had always been there, but that was previously unseen, has now been made known.
This is one way that we can begin to think about the experience had by Peter, James, and John as they saw Jesus transfigured before their very eyes. He was the same Jesus they had always known. But now, the veil was drawn back, and they saw his glory as they had never seen it before. But what does it mean? What would Mark have us learn of Christ by including this event at this point in his gospel? What are we to understand about Jesus? Indeed, how are we to respond as we peer through the lens of scripture to see the glory of Christ revealed?
Jesus is who he says he is.
This is precisely the point with which Peter and the others were struggling. We are familiar with the idea of a suffering Messiah, but they certainly were not. Peter had confessed Jesus as Messiah only six days earlier, and Jesus had responded by indicating that, as Messiah, he must suffer, be killed, and be raised from the dead. The disciples had no category for a suffering Messiah. The Messiah, so they thought, was to inflict suffering on their enemies, not be the recipient of it. They needed a reason to believe that Jesus’ understanding of himself as the suffering Messiah was right.
So, Jesus took them up the mountain to see the glory of God revealed in him in a unique way. Peter indicates in his second letter that, at this moment, God bestowed glory and honor upon Christ (1:16-18). His clothes were radiant and the purest white. The gathering cloud echoes the symbol of the presence of God descending on Mt. Sinai to meet Moses and constitute his covenant people. The voice of the Father confirms that Jesus is God’s anointed, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him: (9:7). Listen to him to learn what it means to be Messiah. Let him teach you what it means to be my people.
This whole scene should be a great comfort to us, because it means that we don’t have to understand everything to believe in Christ. Peter didn’t understand what the Old Testament scriptures taught about the Messiah, but that did not mean that he could not rely on Jesus and obey the command to believe and repent. Peter didn’t have to understand everything to believe in Christ, and neither do we. Understanding is, of course, important. But it comes as we walk with Christ. If we wait until we have it all figured out to come to him, we will never come. Our acceptance before God in Christ does not depend on how bright we are. If we are to learn of Christ, we must first come to him in faith. Deeper understanding follows from there.
Jesus is who the scriptures say he is.
The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Christ point to the reality that the Old Testament scriptures witness to him. Moses was the great lawgiver of Israel, Elijah a prophet. Together, they represent that the Law and the Prophets and that the Hebrew scriptures testify to Christ. Only Jesus radiates the glory of God. He is the unique fulfillment of all the scriptures spoke of. Jesus is who the Bible says he is. He is the great atoning sacrifice prefigured in the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). He is the prophet foretold by Moses who would speak the word of God directly to God’s people (Deuteronomy 18). He is the king promised to sit on David’s throne (2 Samuel 7). And he is the one who suffers for his people (Isaiah 53).
Again, the truth of this passage speaks comfort to those with ears to hear. History is not random. The Old Testament is not just a collection of odd stories and peculiar systems of sacrifice and outdated religious practices. It is, rather, the story of God’s providential work to bring about his purposes to redeem for himself a people. All of history is orchestrated towards God’s great work of salvation which climaxes in the cross of Christ and his substitionary death and resurrection. God is at work to save you, to save me. History is the stage on which the drama unfolds. We can take great comfort in the reality that God is purposefully at work to bring us to himself, and the Law and the Prophets testify to this truth.
God knows what his children need before they ask. He knows when his people need comfort. Peter and the other disciples needed to be reassured that Jesus was indeed God’s Messiah, the one chosen by God to be king of Israel and the world. The transfiguration of Jesus is the revelation of the glory of God in Christ to comfort his people that they may have confidence that he is who he says he is, even if it does not yet make perfect sense to them. The presence of Moses and Elijah reveal that God’s great work of redemption has come to its fulfilment in Christ. He is God’s anointed one.
Mark gives us the opportunity to peer through the telescope of scripture and see Jesus, if only for a moment, in all his great glory, to hear the voice of the Father say, “This is my Son, my beloved; listen to him.” The veil has been momentarily pulled back to reveal the glory of Christ that we may see it and take comfort in him.