Aug 27, 2006

Transfiguration (Part 1)

Mark 9:1–12

What did Jesus mean when He told the disciples that some of them would not die until they saw the kingdom of God coming in power? As he continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark, R.C. Sproul wrestles with this challenging prediction.


Let’s turn our attention now to the reading of the Word of God, of which this morning’s text is Mark 9:1–12, which gives us Mark’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus. I would ask you to stand for the reading of the Word of God.

And He said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.”

Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles; one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.

And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, Hear Him!” Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.

Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising of the dead meant.

And they asked Him, saying, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Then “He answered and told them, “Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things. And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him.”

The infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God, written by the power of the Holy Ghost for your comfort and for your edification. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Now, O Lord, as we give attention once more to Thy Word, we need Your help. We need Your help to understand it. We need Your help to embrace it, for our ears are clogged to Thy truth, save through the power of the Holy Ghost. Our hearts are covered with calcium, lest that Word penetrate our souls. And so, O Spirit of Truth, grant us hearing in the fullest sense of the word this morning, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

A Word of Explanation

The transfiguration is one of my favorite narratives in the entire New Testament. When I think of having the opportunity to have been alive during the earthly ministry of Jesus, and I ask myself what events in that period would I most have desired to see with my own eyes, at the top of the list, of course, has to be the resurrection. However, very close to it on my list is the transfiguration, of which we’ve just heard. So, I have been looking forward with joy and eager anticipation to focus once more with you on this episode in the life of Jesus with respect to His transfiguration, the manifestation of His glory before the eyes of His inner core of disciples.

My preparation for this morning has come in three stages, and a word of explanation, I think, is necessary for you. Notice that between the end of chapter 8, in which Jesus talked about the cost of discipleship and of bearing one’s cross and of being exposed to suffering and rejection and death, and the actual narrative of the transfiguration, verse 1 of chapter 9 reads as follows: “And He said to them, ‘Assuredly I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God present with power.’” Immediately after that verse, Mark tells us that after six days the transfiguration takes place.

The first question I have is, Why in the world is verse 1 in chapter 9 and not at the end of chapter 8? This tells us that the man who divided the Bible into verses and chapters was an itinerate Methodist minister in the wilderness, riding along on horseback, and this night the sun was setting, and he lost track of where he was, because it just doesn’t make sense to put that into chapter 9 rather than at the end of chapter 8, where Jesus talked about suffering and death and rejection. But that’s really not what concerns me so much.

I decided in stage one of preparation that I would just gloss over that first verse and get on with our study of the transfiguration. Then the second stage happened when I realized that this verse is so important and so loaded with controversy that I could not legitimately sidestep it or gloss over it. So, I decided in stage two to treat verse 1 and the transfiguration. Then I came to stage three. I said, “There’s no way I can do justice to the transfiguration if I spend any time on verse 1.” I’ve already spent too much time on it by way of introduction. So, stage three led me to the conviction that I need to spend the whole sermon this morning on verse 1 and postpone our exposition of the transfiguration until our next time together.

Jesus’ Cryptic Prediction

Why would I go through these stages of struggle and be concerned enough to give more time to this first verse? Well, to get a flavor of it, let’s listen to it again: “He said to you, ‘Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God present with power.’”

What you have in this verse is a prophecy, and it’s a prophecy of something that will take place in the future. It’s not a future event that is going to take place, according to this text, two thousand years later. There is a timeframe specifically attached to this prophecy. Jesus says, “Some of you who are present will not taste death [which means “will not die”] until you see the kingdom of God present in power.”

We have this cryptic prediction about something that’s going to happen. It’s going to happen within the space of time of the lifetime at least of some of the disciples. When Jesus says, “Some of you will not taste death,” He does not say, “None of you will taste death until this takes place.” He uses what we call a particular negative proposition, saying that some people will not do something. This indicates less than a universal negative or universal affirmative, which would include all people, or at least all of the group that’s under discussion here. The implication is that though some of those standing with Him and listening to this prediction will not die before the prediction comes to pass, some of them will die before the prediction comes to pass.

Two Other Controversial Texts

The first question is, What event is Jesus talking about when He makes the prediction that some people will not die before they see the coming of the kingdom of God in power? What is He referring to? What is this coming of the kingdom in power all about? Before I try to answer that question, let me raise the ante on this text and show you that it’s linked closely to two other texts in the New Testament that are equally, or even more, controversial.

Matthew 10:23: Until the Son of Man Comes

Let me read, first, from Matthew 10:23. I’ll start at verse 21: “Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another.”

Notice that the context in which Jesus is speaking is similar to Mark’s in that He predicts suffering and affliction for His followers. He says in the first half of Matthew 10:23, “If they persecute you in this city, then flee to another city,” and then comes the climactic statement: “For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

In this text, we have a future prediction of something, which is introduced by a timeframe reference. In this case, He refers not to the time that they will see the kingdom of God coming in power, but rather He speaks of the Son of Man coming. Instead of saying, “Some of you will not taste death before you see this future event,” He says now, “You will not go through all of the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes.”

Are you beginning to feel the problem? The first aspect of this problem has to do with a timeframe reference. Obviously, it’s not going to take the disciples two thousand years to go through the cities of Israel. They accomplished that within the first generation of Christian missionary activity to the cities and villages of Israel. We could say of that text that some of those who were sent out also would not taste death until that event came to pass.

Matthew 24:34: The Meaning of “This Generation”

The most controversial of all with respect to timeframe references in the New Testament comes later in Matthew 24, which is Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse, a discussion that Jesus had near the end of His life with His disciples on the Mount of Olives. That discourse is contained in all of the Synoptic Gospels and has become the most controversial of all. It begins when Jesus makes a future prophecy. He looks at the temple that is standing there, and He says: “That temple will be destroyed. Not one stone will be left upon another. Jerusalem will be destroyed and trampled underfoot by the Gentiles.”

When He makes this prediction of the destruction of the temple and of the destruction of Jerusalem, it is a prediction of the most shocking magnitude available. The Jews of Jesus’ day thought that if anything was unthinkable, it was that the temple would be destroyed and Jerusalem would be left desolate. After all, Jerusalem was the holy city, it was Mount Zion, it was the place of the coming of the people of God for their king. Jesus shocks them by saying, “The temple is going to be destroyed and the cities are going to be destroyed.”

While Jesus is shocking His disciples, they ask Him a question. The question is straightforward: “Lord, when will these things happen?” That’s a time question: “When?” Jesus gives an elaborate answer, and I’m not going to go into all of the Olivet Discourse this morning because we’ll face it again later as we study the book of Mark. But let me turn your attention to part of it:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

Now learn this parable from the fig tree: When its branch has already become tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So you also, when you see all these things, know that it is near—at the doors! Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place. (Matt. 24:29–34)

Maybe you still haven’t felt the weight of the problem I’m setting before you this morning. The text that I’ve just read is used often by skeptics and higher critical scholars in the academic world to deny the credibility of Jesus and the credibility of the New Testament. When Bertrand Russell wrote his book, Why I Am Not a Christian, he gave this text as his number one argument for not believing in Jesus. He said, as the skeptics say, “Jesus clearly predicted His return to this world within one generation.” In Jewish terms, that is forty years.

What’s striking about this particular text and the prophecy in the Mount of Olives is that Jesus, with astonishing accuracy, predicts the future destruction of the temple. He predicts the destruction of Jerusalem, which takes place just about forty years after the prediction. If there was ever a future prediction in the New Testament that would prove the truth of the Bible and the deity of Christ, it’s this prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, which took place exactly as Jesus prophesied.

But what happened? When He is predicting these events of the temple and of the city, and the disciples ask Him when, He links the coming of the Son of Man to the answer. He says of this coming—whatever coming Jesus is talking about—“Assuredly, this generation will not pass away until panta tauta—all of these things—come to pass.”

The Weight of the Problem

So, you have three critical passages in the New Testament that set forth future events, and they all have a timeframe within the first generation of believers. The first thing we don’t know is whether all three of these passages I’ve just talked to you about are referring to the same historical event. Notice that, in the passage I read from Mark 1, Jesus says, “Some of you will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God coming in power.” In Matthew 10, He says, “You will not go through all of the cities of Israel until you see the Son of Man come.” In the third one, He says, “This generation will not pass away until all of these things come to pass,” including the destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of Christ.

Do you see the problem? The weight of New Testament skepticism is this: Jesus predicted His return in the first generation of believers. Yes, the temple was destroyed.  Yes, Jerusalem was destroyed. But Jesus didn’t come back. Therefore, if He was a prophet, He was a false prophet, and not only is His prediction not true, but the New Testament documents cannot be trusted either.

How Do We Resolve This Dilemma?

What do you do with that? Well, if you would look at the gymnastics that people use to get around these problems, it’s unbelievable. The most standard argument among evangelicals is that when Jesus said, “This generation will pass away,” He meant, “This kind of unbelief will not pass away.” In other words, He was saying, “There will be people like you—unbelievers—in every generation between now until when I come back at the end of the age.” They say that is all He meant; it was not an answer directly to the question of when. So, if that’s the answer to that dilemma, it involves a twisting of that phrase, “this generation,” in a way that’s utterly foreign to its usage in the New Testament.

If you’re going to be serious about that text, and if you believe that the Bible is the Word of God, then you need to ask what the disciples understood by Jesus’ statement. He said, “this generation.” That’s forty years. He was saying: “This is going to take place in the next forty years. I can’t tell you what day. I can’t tell you what hour. But certainly, it’s going to be within the next forty or so years, this generation.” This leads me to conclude that what Jesus is talking about is not His coming at the end of time. He is not talking about His second coming, but His judgment coming on Israel, which does happen within that framework of forty years with the destruction of the temple and the destruction of Jerusalem.

I’m going to leave the Olivet Discourse aside for now and come back to these other two texts. “Clearly,” Jesus says to His disciples in Matthew 10, “you’re not going to go through every city in Israel till the Son of Man comes.” Again, He’s putting a first-century timeline on some kind of coming of the Son of Man. In my judgment, it can’t possibly be referring to His final coming at the end of the age.

Back to Mark: Three Popular Explanations

When we go back to Mark 9:1, it says, “Some of you will not taste death until you see the kingdom of God manifested in power.”

What is Jesus talking about? He doesn’t say, “Some of you will not taste death until I return.” He doesn’t say, “Some of you will not taste death until you see me coming on clouds of glory.” All He’s saying here is that some will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God made manifest in power. How have commentators treated this prediction in church history?

The Transfiguration

Many commentators argue that since Mark places this prediction right before his description of the transfiguration, and since the transfiguration was the most dazzling manifestation of the presence of the kingdom of God in glory and power that occurred during Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to His resurrection, the editorial reason Mark places it here is that Mark is giving a prediction of the transfiguration. Maybe that’s why Jesus made that statement six days before the transfiguration.

Something puzzles me about that explanation. I’ll put my Lieutenant Colombo hat on and say, “You know, I see some loose ends that I’ve got to tie together.” For one thing, I don’t understand why Jesus would say, “Some of you won’t taste death.” Is he saying, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to die in this next week”? It’s overkill, isn’t it? It doesn’t make any sense for Him to put a timeframe in which some of those people standing there will not die if He’s talking about something that’s going to take place within the next seven days with no intervening plague or war breaking out that would claim the lives of some of His disciples.

The Resurrection

Others look at this text and say, “This refers to the resurrection because the resurrection certainly demonstrates the manifestation of Jesus and His kingdom in power, even more powerfully than the transfiguration.” However, the same problem is present. None of those who were there at this moment died between this announcement and the resurrection, and even the resurrection is too soon ahead to have Jesus saying, “Some of you will not die before you see the kingdom coming in power.”

The Day of Pentecost

The next favorite interpretation of the text is that when the disciples really saw the kingdom coming in power was on the Day of Pentecost. It was then that they received power from heaven, that they saw the dove come down, and that the church was empowered as the presence of the kingdom of God. That could be what the reference is, but again I’m puzzled about this statement that some of them would not taste death. It still seems to me too soon to put it in the timeframe of life where some of them will not have died.

Option Four: The Kingdom of God Manifest against Jerusalem

If Jesus is talking about the manifestation of the kingdom of God in power coming during the last vestiges of Jewish resistance to the breakthrough of the kingdom of God, which Jesus has been encountering all through the gospel of Mark, it happens when the temple is destroyed and Jerusalem is laid bare.

In AD 70, for the first time, the Christian church was understood as a distinct entity from Judaism. It was no longer considered a subset or a sect within Judaism. The triumph of the Messiah’s church was made visible and manifest in power with the judgment of God that came to Jerusalem in 70 AD. Some of those who were present when Jesus was talking about the coming manifestation of the power of the kingdom did, in fact, die between His announcements and the coming of the kingdom in power in AD 70.

Let me end by saying this: maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about, but I don’t know for sure. I do know, however, that if you’re wrestling with these timeframe passages in the New Testament, you don’t need to wrestle any more if you take seriously the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy concerning the temple and concerning the city of Jerusalem. One thing I know for certain: the Word of God does not fail. Jesus was truth incarnate, and when He said that something was going to happen in a certain timeframe, then I know it happened within that timeframe. If my coming to that conclusion makes me challenge some of the constructs of theology in our day, so be it, because where we go for truth is to the mouth of Jesus. Let’s keep that in mind when we come to the Mountain of Transfiguration. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank you that the words of Jesus can not be broken, and we pray that you would give us understanding of some of those messages that were difficult to comprehend. Open our eyes to the fulfillment of Jesus’ predictions that took place even in the first century. And yet, at the same time, keep our hearts aflame in joyous expectancy as we await His final coming at the end of the age. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.