Commentary on Mark 9:2-9
Biblical scholar Ched Myers calls this Transfiguration Sunday text one of the three “pillars” of Mark’s apocalyptic Gospel. I see these three revelatory events—Mark’s baptism of Jesus, transfiguration of Jesus, and crucifixion of Jesus—as foundational for Mark’s way of understanding how “the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1) relates to Jesus’ own preaching of the “gospel of God” (Mark 1:14) in announcing God’s apocalyptic reign. In short, Jesus is the gospel, yet that gospel has as its horizon God’s purposes in the advent of God’s reign. We begin by noting Myers’ three pillars and their parallel elements:1
|Garments turn white
|Sanctuary veil rent
|Voice from heaven
|Voice from cloud
|Jesus’ great voice
|“You are my Son, beloved”
|“This is my Son, beloved”
|“Truly this man was Son of God”
|John the Baptist as Elijah
|Moses appears with Elijah
|“Is he calling Elijah?”
The point here is not the perfect repetition of parallels, but the consistent apocalyptic character of these three defining moments for Mark’s narrative. In the beginning, middle, and end of his brief Gospel, Mark highlights three revelatory moments in an apocalyptic mode. We readers have the good fortune to witness all three and become privileged knowers in Mark’s narrative rhetoric. We become insiders to the mysterious disclosure of Mark’s gospel—even when the disciples fail to understand.
The apocalyptic character of Mark 9:2-9
Turning to the Transfiguration Sunday text of Mark 9:2–9, thanks to Myers’ pillars we see a familiar story of the three-year lectionary cycle in a decidedly apocalyptic light. It is no accident that this story takes place on a mountain. Mountains are places of epiphanic disclosure throughout the Bible, but especially in the story of Moses. Anthropologists often tell us that mountains are places of meeting between heaven and earth.
From an apocalyptic perspective, it can be helpful to note that what is revealed is a mystery: something deeply true yet only in the process of becoming revealed. When we introduce this dynamic of present mystery and future disclosure, the apocalyptic tension of the Transfiguration story comes out clearly. Jesus’ garments turn dazzlingly white beyond any earthly fuller’s capacity. The great figures of Israel’s past, Moses and Elijah, join as cameos in a conversation with Jesus. Peter is so overwhelmed he wants to build dwellings for all three of them—though he does this because he is terrified (apocalypses feature a lot of very fearful human witnesses).
But just when you think you can’t outdo this apocalyptic picture, a cloud of divine presence overshadows them all and speaks. We notice that the voice speaks familiar words from Mark’s first apocalyptic scene in chapter 1: “my beloved Son.” This second pillar on the mountain is a confirmation of the revelation of the first at Jesus’ baptism. A crucial difference: the divine says directly to Jesus in 1:11, “You are my Son, the Beloved.” In Mark 9:7, however, the disclosure is spoken directly to the three disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
And then comes the kicker: “Listen to him.” Apocalyptic visions give you a lot to see, but this one gives you something it really wants you and the three disciples to hear: “Listen to him.”
Mark 9:2–9 as a call to apocalyptic praxis
Visions, you see, are not mere visual spectacles but pictures that move toward action. In the commentary on Mark 1:21–28 we discussed the impact of apocalyptic praxis and drew on Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s example of hypomone, or what she calls “steadfast resistance” in her commentary on Revelation. The sense here in Mark 9:2–9 is different but just as decisively oriented to apocalyptic praxis.
We need to remember that the mountain epiphany of 9:2–9 is surrounded by two important elements on either side: two Markan passion predictions (8:34–9:1 and 9:33–37) and two nearly failed healings (Jesus Cures a Blind Man at Bethsaida in 8:22–26 and the Healing of a Boy with a Spirit in 9:14–29).
With the two passion predictions, everything that the disciples see on the mountain is qualified by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s not about glory, but an apocalyptic mystery that includes a cross and rejection.
With the two healing stories, Jesus has to intervene a second time to produce the expected therapeutic result. The young boy’s father may be baffled with the disciples’ inability to heal the boy with the spirit (9:18b) just after they come off the mountain, but Jesus completes it and reminds them that this kind of spirit takes prayer (9:29).
The revelation on the mountain is important to buttress the praxis of the disciples (and us) when the cross is forgotten or dismissed, and the healings start going wonky and require a second laying on of hands or ardent prayer. The point is that the vision serves to strengthen such praxis in the face of suffering and pain, or healings gone awry.
My homiletics colleague Martha Simmons has a great way of describing the kind of praxis-oriented tension that all eschatology provides: it is, she says, “where the sweet by and by meets the nasty here and now.”2 An apocalyptic vision like Mark’s in 9:2–9 is a revelation designed to buttress our discipleship and to keep it from slipping up when glory looks so much sweeter and failure so much more likely.
And what else does a North American church need to see and hear in its post-Covid stupor and real-life disappointment? It might be that all we need is a true vision of God’s purpose in Jesus and a brief command to go: “listen to him.” And then once you do it, you’re in it—the realm of apocalyptic praxis.
- Myers, Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), 391. The scripture references for the columns and the bold highlighting for the purpose of emphasizing the Transfiguration text and parallels are my own.
- Martha Simmons, “Introduction,” in 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy, ed. M. Simmons and F. Thomas (Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 2001), x.