A sermon prepared for Wintersburg Presbyterian Church in Santa Ana CA. A series adapted from Tim Keller’s book, Jesus the King
Most of us have heard the expression “mountaintop experience.” It’s one of several expressions that come from the Bible and have made their way into secular society.
The term “mountaintop experience” comes from the many times in the Bible when God revealed Himself to people on a mountain.
- Like the testing of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 22:1-19)
- Moses receiving of the 10 Commandments (Ex 19:20-21)
- Elijah learning how to hear the voice of God (1 Kings 19:11-12)
- The Transfiguration, which we’ll be considering today…
And as we recently closed out Black History Month, I was also reminded of the final speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the day before he was assassinated in Memphis. The speech is regarded as the “Mountaintop Speech,” where he spoke of having seen the Promised Land but was pretty sure he wouldn’t live to reach it…
Mountaintop moments are not to be confined to momentary memories. Like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, (and as we’ll see) Peter, James, and John, mountaintop moments are moments of personal insight and breakthrough that we are to take with us as we head back down into the valley. Because if we’re on a mountaintop there’s nowhere else to go but down. I think it’s important for us to keep in mind that fruit doesn’t grow on the mountaintop. Fruit is grown down in the valley.
Our passage for today is a long one—28 verses, and it contains a pivot point in Mark’s Gospel. As has been noted, Mark’s Gospel can be separated into two parts. Part 1 is describing who Jesus is (and we’ll see the culmination of Part 1 today), and Part 2 is describing what Jesus came out of heaven to accomplish on our behalf.
Part 1 begins to climax in chap 8:29 when Jesus asked His disciples who they thought He was, and Peter answered with conviction: “You are the Christ!” Now, Peter was an impetuous guy and sometimes it got him into big trouble and sometimes his impetuous nature led him to make profound announcements. This is one of those moments. And then Jesus tells His disciples that He must suffer and die—and then be resurrected. And Peter, probably feeling pretty confident, rebukes Jesus. And Jesus then rebukes Peter, calling him Satan.
I think we’re all at least a little bit like Peter. Sometimes we make profound declarations and sometimes we say the dumbest things.
If you can relate to Peter—even a little bit—I think this sermon is for you…
In the final 5-verses of chap 8, we see Jesus clearly stating that true followers must join Him on His journey to the cross. It would be nice to think that Jesus suffered so we wouldn’t have to – and in a way that is true – Jesus is the better Adam and He suffered to restore our access to a holy and righteous God. The writer of Hebrews tells us that, “Jesus learned obedience through the things that He suffered” (Heb 5:8). And the same is true for us as well.
In Tim Keller’s book, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering he states, “The great theme of the Bible itself is how God brings fullness of joy not just despite but through suffering.” This is counterintuitive for most people; but suffering, the Bible seems to say, is the unlikely route to joy. The trouble with us humans is that we too often settle for momentary happiness instead of a deep and lasting joy.
As we narrow down our focus, there are two parts to our passage for today in Mark 9…
- The first 8 verses are about Jesus and the 3-amigos heading up the 9k foot Mount Hermon (the topographic prominence is at about 6k feet). Luke says in his account, that they went up the mountain to pray (9:28).
- 9-29 (of Mark) are about coming off the mountaintop experience and going back into the valley with all of its difficulties and disappointments.
Mark 9:2-8: “Six days later, Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John, and brought them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; 3 and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. 4 Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ 6 For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified. 7 Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!’ 8 All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.”
The big idea: Our glimpses of God’s glory are not to become momentary memories but motivation for devotion.
I would like to ask and provide a brief response to four questions that I asked of this Transfiguration text…
- What is the significance of the Transfiguration?
- Why Elijah and Moses?
- Why do we need to read about Peter’s faux pas?
- What is the significance of the cloud and the Father’s voice?
We simply don’t have the time to go into sufficient detail. Nevertheless, let’s look at them one at a time…
- What is the significance of the Transfiguration? And He was transfigured before them; 3 and His garments became radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them.
- Catholic theologian Peter Phan describes it most succinctly, “The full identity of Jesus is revealed in the Transfiguration.”
- Most scholars agree that the Transfiguration serves two primary purposes:
- It turns an important corner in the ministry of Jesus – from who He is to setting His course to Jerusalem and the cross.
- It’s also believed that the 3 disciples needed to be strengthened for the days ahead by this divine affirmation (even though they didn’t understand it at the time.
- The Greek word for transfigure is the same word we get the English word metamorphosis from and the root meaning “to change.”
- “The word transfigured describes a change on the outside that comes from the inside. It is the opposite of ‘masquerade,’ which is an outward change that does not come from within.”
- In Ex 33:18-23 Moses was on Mt Sinai, and he was exposed to God’s glory and Moses reflected God’s glory for several days afterward—like the moon reflects the sun. When Moses went back to the Israelites, he needed to wear a veil to shroud God’s glory (Ex. 34:33–35). But here, Jesus produces the glory of God—because Jesus is the glory of God in human form.
- Referencing the Transfiguration Paul tells the Corinthians in 2 Cor 3:18, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…” What Paul is saying here is that unlike the glory of the Old Covenant that was given to Moses alone, the glory of this New Covenant is changing us from the inside out. Another word for this ongoing transformation is sanctification.
- We could say the transfiguration was not a new miraculous moment, but a temporary pause of an ongoing miracle. “For Christ to be glorious was almost a less matter than for Him to restrain or hide His glory”
- Why Elijah and Moses? 4 Elijah appeared to them along with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.
- Most (western) theologians see that Moses and Elijah represent the whole OT consisting of the Law and the Prophets – Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets. The thought behind them meeting is that Jesus is the completion of the Law and the fulfillment of the prophecies in the Old Testament.
- Lk 24:27 (Road to Emmaus): “Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.” Although the disciples of Jesus wouldn’t understand it at the time, Jesus is telling them in Lk 24 that the whole OT is really about, and points to, Jesus.
- It should also be noted that both Moses and Elijah had their own mountaintop experiences with God. And in death, both were tended to by God. God Himself buried Moses somewhere on the plains of Moab (Deut 34:5) and Elijah was taken into heaven in a “chariot of fire” (2 Kings 2:11).
- Why do we need to read about Peter’s faux pas? 5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tabernacles, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to answer; for they became terrified.
- Mark tells us that Peter, in his terrified state, blurts out the suggestion of building three tabernacles, but the voice of Heaven elevates Jesus above Moses and Elijah. There is room for only one tabernacle. As Keller says in Jesus the King, “Jesus is the temple and tabernacle to end all tabernacles and temples, He is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the ultimate priest to point the way for all priests.”
- In 2 Peter 1:16-19, Peter recalls this event and reaffirms the authority placed upon Jesus in this event: “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. 17 For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased’ — 18 and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain. 19 So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.”
- Church fathers going back to the first century, as well as theologians since that time, agree that Peter, himself, informed Mark’s gospel…
- What is the significance of the cloud and the Father’s voice? 7 Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!”
- The cloud has come to be called the Shekinah Glory cloud, which shows up several times throughout the OT and has often been described as the “raw presence of God.” (The word Shekinah is not in the Bible, it was introduced by Hebrew scholars and means “dwelling” or “one who dwells,” referring to the divine presence of God.)
- And it’s worth noting that only twice in the Synoptic Gospels, is a voice from heaven heard: the first time is at the baptism of Jesus, the second time is at the Transfiguration. If the baptism signifies and initiates the opening phase of Jesus’ public ministry, the Transfiguration inaugurates the next, cross-focused phase.
- We assume that the Father’s voice coming from the cloud is intended to be a rebuke of Peter—and it was, but it was also more than that. Because the disciples of Jesus were having such a difficult time understanding why Jesus must suffer and die, the Father wanted them to both grapple with the words of Jesus and also be encouraged as Jesus moved toward the cross. And I think these words are meant for us as well…
8 All at once they looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.
So, what we see in this Transfiguration passage is the pinnacle of the first half of Mark’s gospel narrative—who Jesus is and then Mark’s gospel now transitions to what He came to accomplish on our behalf.
As Jesus, James, Peter, and John make their way back into the valley they encounter a father whose son is demonized. And a crowd has gathered wondering why the other disciples of Jesus have not been able to cast the demon out of the boy.
From my perspective, there are two key verses in this section (vs. 14-29)…
- The first one is v. 24 where the exasperated father proclaims, “I do believe; help my unbelief.”
- “His disciples began questioning Him privately, ‘Why could we not drive it out?’ 29 And He said to them, ‘This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer.’” (28b-29)
In the light of the Transfiguration of Jesus and His call to His followers to take up our cross and follow Him, here are some application points for us to consider as we live most of our lives down here in the valley…
- The gospel narratives show us that the cross must proceed the crown. The arc of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation is that God doesn’t take His people, or Jesus, around suffering loss, and grief; He takes us through suffering, loss, and grief. The good news is that He goes with us and we go in His strength and power. I find myself thinking often of Job 42:5: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees You.”
- We are facing a very broken world each and every day—and some days the best we can muster is, “I do believe, help my unbelief.” We notice that the father of the boy came to the disciples of Jesus and then to Jesus Himself, in helplessness and vulnerability. What we see in these verses is an exasperated father bringing to Jesus what was most precious to him—his beloved son who was repeatedly being tormented by the god of this world. What can you bring to Jesus during this Lenten season?
- Last week Pastor Dave spoke to us about how idolatry is a constant temptation for us to find our comfort, joy, and delight in people or in things that are less than the glory and the majesty of the transfigured Jesus Christ.
- When Jesus cast the demon out of the boy it appeared as though the boy died (v. 26). For that moment, things seemed to get worse before they got better. When we surrender our lessor source/s of glory it will be painful, but it will eventually be replaced with the glory of Christ. What is your lessor source/s of glory today (money, power, status, sex, family, a relationship, an ability, or education)? As we move through this Lenten Season, how can you turn it over to Jesus?
- And finally, in v. 29 there is the call to prayer. Prayer is the focusing and directing of our faith in specific requests to God. Both faith and prayer remind us that [real] spiritual power is not in ourselves but in God alone, and both wait and trust in His promise to [deliver and] save. The most important thing you can do during this (hopefully) final stage of this long transition season is prayer.
- I have great hope and excitement regarding the next season of fruitful ministry here at WPC. I would only remind you of two things as we draw to a close:
- That faith coexisting with doubt is normal. It’s always going to be both/and.
- And that Jesus meets us in our admitted helplessness and vulnerability.
As Tim Keller in Walking with God through Pain and Suffering restates the gospel saying, “Jesus lost all His glory so that we could be clothed in it. He was shut out so we could get access. He was bound, nailed so that we could be free. He was cast out so we could approach. And Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God. He took that so that now all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great. A lump of coal under pressure becomes a diamond. And the suffering of a person in Christ only turns you into somebody gorgeous.”
See Christ only…
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine,
Under every grief and pine,
Runs a joy with silken twine.
It is right it should be so,
We were made for joy and woe,
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.
~ by William Blake
 Peter C. Phan. Being Religious Irreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue, Orbis 2004.
 Warren Wiersbe, Be Diligent (Mark): Serving Others as You Walk with the Master Servant (The BE Series Commentary), Cook; (2nd ed.): 107.
 C. H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon’s Sermons Volume 47: 1901 (No. 2729), Christ’s Transfigured Face (ccel.org).
 Pg 114.
 Pillar NT Commentary. DA Carson, Ed., Mk 9:28-29.
 Viking 2013: 180-181.
 Auguries of Innocence (1863).