MENU

Where the world comes to study the Bible

The Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9.1-10): Some Biblico-Theological Reflections

Related Media

Cranfield concludes his section on this account by noting three main questions “(i) Is this a legend or a piece of theological symbolical writing or is it historical? … (ii) If then ix. 2-8 is in some sense a historical narrative, what was it that happened? … (iii) What is the theological significance of what is recorded in ix. 2-8?”1 We will begin with his answers, adding some modifications along the way.

  1. Is this legendary or historical? Bultmann, Nineham, Perrin, et al. reject this story as true, calling it a legendary development of a resurrection-story. However, it is unlike any of the resurrection accounts in the following ways: (a) all of the resurrection appearances have Jesus being absent to begin with, while he is present here; (b) he speaks in the resurrection appearances and what he says is of great significance, while here he is silent; (c) if this were a resurrection appearance by Jesus to Peter, one might expect certain other features such as are found in the John 21 account; all such peculiar features are lacking here; (d) Moses and Elijah never appear with Jesus in the resurrection accounts; only angels appear in these pericopae and never with Jesus; and (e) Bultmann’s suggestion does not account for Peter’s suggestion about the tents.
    On the other hand, there are several features in this story which give it the stamp of authenticity: (a) the mention of ‘after six days’ which seems to lack symbolical force and thus must simply be a historical note; (b) Peter’s use of the term ραββι, which is never used of Jesus outside of the gospels, and within the gospels only in pre-crucifixion narratives; and (c) Mark gives no clue at all that he is giving us other than an actual historical account. (d) Second Peter 1:16-18 is Peter’s own testimony to the historicity of this event (see NET Bible note there). (Since, however, the authenticity of 2 Peter is doubted by many—including Cranfield—it is rarely mentioned as evidence on the side of the historicity of this event.)
  2. Assuming then that this was an actual historical event, what actually happened? Three options are (a) a vision, (b) a factual happening, or (c) a combination of these two. Two factors need to be considered in answering this question: First, we are reminded of Paul’s statement about a man he knows (though this is likely autobiographical) who visited the third heaven: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a man was caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor 12:2, NASB). Paul’s inability to distinguish a vision from a factual event in his own life when it came to heavenly glory may well be a parallel to the transfiguration. Second, although Cranfield says that the transfiguration was meant for the disciples, if it was also meant for Jesus then this might presumably color our assessment of the account. In light of the self-revelation Jesus had just made six days earlier about his own suffering and death, and in light of the parallel with the heavenly voice at his baptism being followed by a major trial, it seems likely that the transfiguration would be equally an encouragement for Jesus. The presence of Elijah and Moses with him in the cloud would affirm his path to the cross and remind him of its necessity, for as Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ… whom God publicly displayed as a mercy seat for sins…” (Rom 3:21-22, 25).

With these two factors in mind, what can we say? On the one hand, if the transfiguration had meaning only for the disciples, then whether it was a vision or a factual, sensory occurrence matters little, since that same question remained unanswered by Paul regarding the third heaven but the incident became a source of great encouragement to him to press on (cf. 2 Cor 12:4-5). At the same time, if 2 Peter is authentic (and I believe that it is), then Peter’s own statement about the transfiguration is that it was more than a vision; he treats it as a genuine factual, sensory experience (cf. 2 Pet 1:16-18). On the other hand, if this event had meaning for Jesus as well as for the disciples—that is, that it was meant to be an encouragement to him too—then it must surely have been a factual event, for otherwise how are we to account for him being both a part of the vision and a recipient of it?

  1. We conclude with notes on some of the theological significance of the transfiguration. The following comments are only preliminary; frankly, it would take years, perhaps a lifetime, to explore the depths of the meaning of the transfiguration. (a) It symbolized and foreshadowed both the resurrection and parousia. (b) It was a temporary unveiling of the Son of God’s eternal glory. (c) That this glory was seen and not just expounded on was so that “the disciples could taste in part what could not be fully comprehended” (Calvin). That is, as the old Chinese proverb says, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” (d) Moses and Elijah were a part of the picture to show both continuity with the OT in the ministry of Jesus and his own uniqueness and absolute authority (hence he alone wore the brilliant clothing, and he alone is identified from heaven as the one to be obeyed). (e) The cloud was a continuation of the Shekinah glory: the presence of God has returned fully in the person of Jesus Christ. And Moses and Elijah are there, silently endorsing him as the one in whom men meet God.

Our final two points are taken largely from 2 Peter rather than from Mark; they represent Peter’s own reflections on the theological significance of the transfiguration. (f) The certainty of Christ’s glory is transferred to believers: they too will glorified and this fact should give them confidence as they face death (cf. 2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 3:2). (g) The certainty of Christ’s glory also gives believers confidence in him as a prophet and those whom he authorizes as prophets (2 Peter 1:16-21). In sum, the transfiguration is a part of the heavenly glory that even the apostle Paul could allude to when he wrote, Λογίζομαι γὰρ ὅτι οὐκ ἄξια τὰ παθήματα τοῦ νῦν καιροῦ πρὸς τὴν μέλλουσαν δόξαν ἀποκαλυφθῆναι εἰς ἡμᾶς (Rom 8:18).


1 Cranfield, Mark, 293-95.

Related Topics: Christology