Commentary on Mark 8:27—9:8
Who does the world say Jesus is? What about you?
The book of Mark breaks open with the decisive claim: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). A mere 10 verses later, at Jesus’ baptism, a voice from heaven affirms his identity: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Another 10 or so verses later, a demon recognizes Jesus as “the Holy One of God” (1:24), and then a whole gang of demons: “Son of the Most High God” (5:7).
While the spiritual world is buzzing about who Jesus is, people in Mark are generally slow to grasp the truth about him. They raise a lot of questions—regarding his teaching and authority over unclean spirits (1:27), his authority to forgive sins (2:7), his fellowship with sinners and tax collectors (2:16), his authority over nature (4:41), and more—but they all fail to understand Jesus. Not until several chapters into the book, when Jesus directs the question about his identity to his disciples and Peter declares that he is “the Christ” (8:29), does someone finally get it right.
The question “Who is Jesus?” has been the driving force behind Mark’s storytelling from the start. Peter’s succinct statement provides satisfying (though temporary) relief from the mounting tension of the disciples’ ignorance and misunderstanding up to this point. Also, the christological confession and Jesus’ subsequent announcement of his passion, death, and resurrection (8:31–38) act as a critical turning point to the narrative, which will go on to show how Christ—the beloved Son of God—exercises his authority and fulfills his role as the Messiah. Jesus will defy people’s expectations. He will not dominate or conquer with worldly power. He will save sinners by becoming a servant and will “give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Then he will rise again—victorious and vindicated as the Messiah.
The transfiguration account (9:2–8) follows on the heels of this pivotal event in the narrative. Some six days earlier, Peter had proclaimed Jesus as the Christ but was rebuked when he denied Jesus’ mission to suffer and die for sinners. This taught Peter and the rest of the disciples that rejecting Jesus as the suffering servant of God is diabolical (8:33).
They cannot fashion an idol from their hopes and expectations; they must accept God’s plan of redemption and Jesus who is committed to it. They also learned that being a disciple of Jesus requires self-denial, daily cross-bearing, and following in the Lord’s footsteps. This is the way of life for all Christ-followers and the only way to life—as shall be made evident when Jesus comes in power and glory at the end of age (8:34–9:1). Now, standing on top of a high mountain and seeing Jesus resplendently transfigured before their eyes, Peter, James, and John have another opportunity to learn who Jesus is.
The lesson is rich. From Jesus’ dazzling clothes to the shocking support cast—Elijah and Moses, the great prophets of old—there is so much to process and an abundance of meaning in everything that unfolds in this scene. But the props and the supporting characters should not distract. The focus is on Jesus, who radiates from within an unmistakable divine glory. As the presence of Moses and Elijah signifies, Jesus is the one through whom God’s story of redemption continues and is being realized.
Yet, he is not simply another prophet or the greatest: he is the long-awaited Messiah who fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 5:17). The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Suffering Servant will die as a sin offering to reconcile people to God, but will subsequently be resurrected to execute and prosper God’s will and plan (Isaiah 53:10). The transfiguration the disciples are witnessing is the proleptic glory of the Servant’s resurrection and reappearance on the day he comes to consummate his kingdom.
Evidently, Peter, James, and John do not understand at the time the full meaning of all that is revealed to them. Overwhelmed and terrified, Peter, the impulsive one, blurts out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:6). A week earlier, he rightly recognized Jesus as the Christ and was plainly taught that the Messiah must be rejected, be killed, and rise on the third day. Yet now, Peter regresses by calling Jesus “Rabbi” (rather than “Christ”), fails to see his greatness as superseding that of Moses and Elijah (a tent for each of the three “great prophets”), and once again gets in the way of Jesus’ mission to bear the cross (insisting that they stay on the mountaintop).
A voice from an overshadowing cloud quickly corrects Peter’s lack of understanding: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him!” (9:7). With that, everything fades, leaving only Jesus to behold. As at Jesus’ baptism, the Father confirms Jesus’ identity as the beloved Son. None is greater, and no one else compares. Only Jesus Christ saves; only he remains. The Father’s voice also affirms that the path of suffering on which Jesus walks is the good will of the Father. The proper response of a disciple of Jesus would be to remember who their Lord is and to heed and trust his word.
The future may be painful and frightening (both because of Jesus’ humiliation and death on the cross and because of the cross his followers must bear), but his disciples can rest assured because glory is promised to them. The Suffering Servant is also the victorious Lord of glory.
As you journey through Lent, ask yourself, “Who do I say that Jesus is?” Is he a religious fanatic or a revered prophet to me? Is he merely a miracle-worker or social activist? Or is Jesus the exalted Messiah who took on our punishment to make us whole (Isaiah 53:5)? How you—and how we all—answer these questions matters because our discipleship journey goes only as far as who Jesus is to us.
Peter may have failed on the mountain of transfiguration, but we know from his letter (1 Peter) that many years later he did eventually understand what he had missed that day. Writing to the struggling and persecuted believers in Asia Minor, he encourages them, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12–13 English Standard Version).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of light, as you were transfigured on the mountain, your followers were given a glimpse of your glory. Shine your light in our lives so that we will know how truly marvelous you are. Amen.
Christ upon the mountain peak, William Beckstrand