Sep 3, 2006

Transfiguration (Part 2)

Mark 9:2–12

When the disciples came near to despair after the prediction of Christ’s death, He brought them to a remote mountain and was transfigured before them. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the book of Mark by contemplating that moment when the disciples basked in Jesus’ unveiled glory.


We continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, and I will be reading from Mark 9:2–12, since we considered verse 1 of this text last week. I’ll ask the congregation now to stand for the reading of the Word.

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 from 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.

For our benefit, the Gospels give to us this narrative of the glorious manifestation of Christ in the transfiguration. May the Spirit take this revealed Word to our hearts. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Father, we have absolutely no hope whatsoever in this world to fathom in its fullness the things that we have just heard. Indeed, our souls burn with fire to have the opportunity to glimpse our Savior in the pure raiment of His divine glory. And so we ask that in this hour, through this text, You will give to us a glimpse of that glory. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Little Vignettes of Glory

Several years ago, I wrote a kind of unusual book. It was titled The Glory of Christ, and I wrote it for this reason: in classical theology, we note that the progress of Jesus’ life in general moves mainly from humiliation to exaltation. It begins with the New Testament narrative of His birth in the circumstances of poverty, moves towards His rejection by His own people, and reaches its nadir in His betrayal and crucifixion on the cross. The first movement towards exaltation comes with the circumstances of His burial, then reaches its peak with the resurrection, and finally the ascension.

The point is this: the general progress from humiliation to exaltation is not absolute. Throughout the life of Jesus there are vignettes. There are little moments where glory bursts forth, even during His humiliation. At the time of His birth, the circumstances of poverty were contrasted with the glory manifested by God to the shepherds in the surrounding fields. There is presumably no point in the life of Jesus prior to the resurrection where His glory shines forth so magnificently as it does here at Mount Hermon in His transfiguration.

Jesus’ Dramatic Transformation

Let’s note the setting for the transfiguration. Mark tells us that after six days, Jesus took the inner circle—Peter, James, and John—up to a high mountain apart from the crowd. It’s significant that the timing of this event took place after six days. What had happened six days prior? Remember, we’ve seen the confession of Peter of the Messiahship of Jesus, and then only a little while later Jesus explained to His disciples that He must suffer and die, and Peter was aghast at such a suggestion. Now, when they begin to turn from the north of Galilee and move towards Jerusalem where the cross and death await Jesus, the disciples move in an attitude of ominous, grim foreboding. All they can think about are these terrible words that Jesus had spoken to them right after the Caesarea Philippi confession, that now He was moving towards death. This foreboding cloud of doom hovers over the disciples for six days.

As they are at the edge of despair, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain, apart from the people, and the Scriptures tell us He was “transfigured” before them. The word in the Greek is a form of the verb metamorpheo, from which we get the English word metamorphosis. You may have learned that word metamorphosis in school when you learned about the dramatic change that takes place in a caterpillar when it becomes a butterfly. It undergoes a change of form. The Greek word for form is morphos, and a metamorphosis is a transfiguration. The prefix trans- means across. When we go transcontinental, we go from one part of the land to the other. If we go transatlantic, we go across to Europe.

What happens in this text is that Jesus moves in terms of what is visible to the eyes of His disciples. There is a transformation, a movement from one perspective to another. For all His earthly life, the incarnate Logos, the second person of the Trinity, has His glory hidden and veiled in the cloak of Jesus’ humanity, but now suddenly before the eyes of the disciples bursts forth of the full deity of Christ.

Let’s notice the details that Mark gives us. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them. When the Gospels describe the appearance of Jesus, they talk about the change in His face and the change in His clothes. When we look at the rest of the synoptic reports of this event in the life of Jesus, they tell us that the face of Jesus shone with the brilliance and the intensity of the sun.

Not a Reflection, but the Source

Where else in Scripture do we read of someone’s face shining with a blinding intensity? When we look back in the Old Testament at the life of Moses, we remember when Moses was on the mountain with God. He begged God for the ultimate, blessed beatific vision, saying to God, “God, please show me Your glory.” God denied it. He said: “Moses, remember, no one can see My face and live, but I tell you what I’ll do. I’ll carve a niche in the rock, and I’ll place you in the safety of the rock, and I will pass by and let you get an instantaneous glimpse of My backward parts (literally in the Hebrew, the “hindquarters” of Yahweh), but my face shall not be seen” (Ex. 33:18–23).

So, the Lord passed by. When Moses got this momentary glimpse, the backward glance of the glory of God, that experience was so intense, the glory of God was so radiant and so refulgent that when Moses gazed on this, his own face began to shine like the sun. When Moses’ face shone with such intensity, it was the shining of the face of a creature who had been in the presence of God and whose face was now reflecting the radiance of God. That is to say, the light in the face of Moses was a reflected light. Moses’ face was not the source of the light, but rather the light of God was rebounding from the face of the creature. That’s not what happens at the Mount of Transfiguration.

The intense brightness like the sun that transforms Jesus so that even His garments become whiter than snow, whiter than any fuller or launderer can possibly make them, indicates not a reflection, but that the source of the light the disciples are seeing is coming from within Christ Himself. It’s not refracted. It’s not a reflected glory. It’s an internal, inherent glory that is now bursting forth before their very eyes.

Throughout the Gospels, the Gospel writers refer to this when they say, for example, “And we beheld His glory as the only begotten Son of God” (John 1:14). The author of Hebrews describes Christ as the express image of God and the brightness of His glory (Heb. 1:2). Jesus doesn’t just reflect the brightness of the glory of God, He is the brightness of the glory of God.

A Flood of White Light

Throughout Scripture, we see that manifestation of the Shekinah—that brilliant, flaming cloud that attended the presence of God, that bright light that blinded Saul on the road to Damascus, out of which light even then Jesus spoke to Saul, saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” The word glory means weightiness or heaviness, and it is assigned eternally to the being of God Himself. Out of the depths of Christ’s divine nature now comes this flood of light which is perfectly white.

Back when I preached on this text in the Page School, I asked one of the children in the front row a question: What color is a lemon? I got the answer, “Yellow.” Here’s the philosophical question: Is a lemon really yellow? What color is the lemon when the lights go out? If you’re in a room with no light whatsoever, what color is the lemon now? Do you see anything yellow?

Philosophers argue about this, and they say that color is not primary. It’s secondary. It is not something that inheres in a substance, but something that is added to the substance by the presence of light. Where does color come from? It comes from the light, from the pure light of the sun, where all the hues of the rainbow are found. If you add all those colors together in the purity of light, you get absolute whiteness.

I don’t have time to develop it this morning, but I do have to tell you: as far as I’m concerned, the most profound chapter in English or American literature ever written by a human pen without divine inspiration is found in Melville’s Moby Dick, in the chapter entitled “The Whiteness of the Whale.” There was a reason why that whale was white in the literary creativity of Melville. If you want to catch a glimpse into the significance of whiteness in theology and in biblical concept, I urge you to go home and read that chapter, “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Jesus manifests His deity in a purity of whiteness that contains no spot, no wrinkle, and no blemish. It is the overwhelming manifestation of His deity.

Moses and Elijah Speak of Jesus’ Death

Then we read that Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. Can you imagine? The disciples are watching this display of light, this breakthrough of glory, and suddenly there appears before them Elijah and Moses. They are watching Jesus in a conversation as He’s huddled together with Moses and Elijah. What are they talking about? Luke tells us what they’re talking about—they’re talking about what is waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem. Jesus didn’t have to say to Elijah, “Get behind Me, Satan.” Jesus didn’t have to say to Moses, “Get behind me, Satan,” because both Elijah, who represents the Prophets, and Moses, who represents the Law, clearly understood the vocation of the Messiah. They knew Jesus had to die, and they knew why Jesus had to die.

They come now to the second person of the Trinity with their comfort and their encouragement, reminding Him of His destiny that they had predicted centuries before. Elijah, who had been carried up to heaven in a chariot, not yet to return to Palestine, now sets foot in the Holy Land. Moses, who was denied entrance into the Promised Land, waited for centuries, and now he comes not in a horizontal venture where he crosses over the border, but a vertical one. He comes from heaven, and his feet finally touch the Promised Land as he is there to speak to the Savior.

Then what happens? Peter speaks: “Rabbi, this is fantastic. It is good for us to be here. I love this mountaintop experience. I’m not even going to think about Jerusalem. Let’s camp out here. Let’s build a tabernacle—one for You, one for Moses, one for Elijah. I don’t need one for me. I’m happy to lay my head on a rock and just bask in this glory forever. It would be good for us to stay.”

Peter didn’t know what to say, Mark tells us, “for they were greatly afraid.” If you think they were afraid then, look at what comes next.

God’s Overshadowing Glory

We read in verse 7 that a cloud came and overshadowed them. Hear the language: the cloud of the presence and weightiness of God comes and creates a shroud around the disciples, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and covers them so that they can’t see past the rim of this cloud overshadowing them.

Where else do you hear that word overshadowing in Scripture? I can think of two times that you hear that concept in a very important setting. We go back to the origin of the earth, where the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. The Spirit of God hovered or brooded over the waters, and then God said, “Let there be light,” and the lights came on (Gen. 1:1–3). That word there was “overshadowing” the abyss.

Later, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will bear a Son whose name will be Immanuel. She says, “How can that be, for I know not a man?” And the angel says, “The Spirit of the Lord will overshadow you, so that that which is born unto you will be the child of the Most High God” (Luke 1:34–35).

Now, that power of God comes with the cloud as it settles on the mountain and overshadows these people who are hidden amidst the cloud. Then they hear a voice. The voice thunders from heaven, “This is My beloved Son.” Three times God is heard to speak audibly in the New Testament, and every time it’s to acknowledge His only begotten Son: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to what He says. Hear Him!” If God were to speak aloud today from the heavens, you know what He’d say? He’d say to us, “Listen to My Son, My Son in whom I am well pleased.”

“Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with them.” The voice was silent, the cloud lifted, the air was no longer heavy, permeated with divine glory. Jesus’ face wasn’t shining anymore. Elijah was gone, Moses was gone, and basically Jesus is saying, “Let’s go.” Where He went was to His betrayal and to His death as the Son of glory who was a Man of Sorrows and acquainted with grief. That’s why we come to the Table to show forth that death until He comes.

Come to the Table to Remember His Sacrifice

We remember the words of institution that the Apostle Paul gave to the church when he wrote to the Corinthians, saying, “The night in which our Savior was betrayed, He took bread and when He had blessed it, He broke it, and He gave it to His disciples, and He said, ‘This is now My body which is given for you, eat all of it.’” After they had supped in like manner, He took the cup, and He changed the liturgy from the Passover, and He said, “This is now My blood, the blood of a new covenant, My blood which is shed for you for the remission of your sins.”

Since that night, over and over again, the people of God come to that Table to remember and reflect on the sacrifice of the Son of glory. If you are a Christian, you need to come to the Table, not with pride, but with humility. Come because you need to come. If you are not a Christian, then for your own protection, let this pass, because this has been designed only for those who put their trust in Christ. It is a sign and seal for them of the efficacy of His atoning death. Let’s pray.

Now, O Lord, we ask that You would take these normal, common elements of bread and wine, and set them apart to a sacred use, that by Thy Spirit they may be for us a sign and seal of the perfect work of redemption that has been wrought for us by Him. Amen.

The transcript has been lightly edited for readability.