Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 11 Then they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 12 He said to them, “Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”
The mention of the high mountain takes us back to two other mountains in the story of God’s people.
The first mountain is Sinai. After the Exodus, God gathers the people at Sinai and gives them the Law through Moses.
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
1 Kings 19:11-13
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Each of the previous mountaintop experiences has led to community building moments. The Law established the boundaries of the community and was meant to give life to the people of God. At its heart the Law was meant to build relationships - first, between God and humanity, and second, within people that God had delivered from Egypt.
The second mountaintop experience was to recall Elijah to his task of building up the people of God who had been scattered by false prophets and idol worship. The mission of Elijah, and the other prophets, can be understood as community restoration. They were called to help in the process of relationship renewal - first, between God and humanity, and second, between the people of God.
This third mountain confirms the mission of Jesus to build a new community. The kingdom of God is communal in nature. It establishes God’s relationship with all peoples, demonstrated in the first half of the Gospel with the sea crossing narratives and Jesus’ ministry on the “other side,” among the gentiles. It also builds relationships across cultural boundaries. The kingdom of God is meant for all people. The way of the cross is about sacrifice on behalf of the vulnerable. The community is called to give up it’s life for the sake of building the kingdom of God, a social reality where all people have a place at the table and all are filled (Mark 6:42; 8:8).
The White Robe
The white robe of Jesus is a symbol connecting him to the “human one” of Daniel 7, a title that Jesus has chosen for himself. Human One stands before the Ancient of Days, who wears the white robe. The Human One becomes an advocate for those in need.
Ched Myers argues: The “new” garments are described as extremely “white” (leukos). Once again, this term recalls the Danielic courtroom(Dn 7:9; see also 10:8); more importantly, in apocalyptic intertextuality, white garments came to symbolize the clothing of the martyrs (as in the Book of Revelation, 3:5, 18; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9,13) (Myers, 250).”
The white robe is also an allusion to the young man in the garden in 14:52, who looses his robe in the chaos after the arrest of Jesus, and the “young man” dressed in white linen who greets the woman in the early morning and tells them that Jesus “has been raised (16:5).”
The Voice from Heaven
The voice from heaven - “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” - takes us back to the river and Jesus’ baptism. At that point the heavens were torn open and Jesus ministry was set in motion through God’s authority. Here we hear the added “listen to him,” perhaps a confirmation of Jesus call - “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Back Down the Mountain
Jesus’ ministry continues with the trip back down the mountain. He will not take Peter’s advice and stay on the mountaintop. The mountaintop was a vision of the glory of God, but it is not to be confused with the way of the cross, the true ministry of Jesus. Jesus is to be found where the people are, leaning into their needs, and giving life back to those on the margins.
The disciples do not understand this, and will not understand it until they here the message from the young man at the tomb, delivered by the women. “He has been raised…Go back to Galilee..he is going ahead of you to Galilee (16:6-7).” That is where the ministry of the kingdom of God continues to unfold.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- What part to we play in the on-going story that God is writing as we walk back down the mountain with Jesus?
- How do we help to build relationships - between God and humanity, and between each other?
- How are we witnesses of the new social reality of the kingdom of God?