On the 6th August the Church celebrates the feast of the Transfiguration. It is a hugely mysterious event recorded in the New Testament. But what is its significance? St Mark, Chapter 9:2-10 is set within a narrative sequence beginning at Caesarea Philippi where Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and which ends with Jesus’s prediction of his Passion and the journey to Jerusalem (Mk10.52). The story of the “Transfiguration” as it is known follows Jesus’s earlier prediction, recorded by Mark, about the kingdom of God coming in power. By placing it here the evangelist links the events at Caesarea Philippi and the Transfiguration with the resurrection.
Mark would most probably have been writing in Rome between AD65-70 at a time of religious persecution of Jewish and Gentile Christians and when Christian apologetics sought to explain Jesus’s suffering, death and rejection. Throughout his Gospel he constantly seeks to work out a theme of the “messianic secret”, that is that the revelation of God’s reign has begun in Jesus, but remains hidden until the final act of revelation on the Cross. An important emphasis in his writing is Jesus’s Passion. The resurrection is proclaimed only once, by the women’s discovery of the empty tomb (Mk 16.1-8) and the words “He has risen, he is not here” (Mk 16.6). Most notably, Mark makes three predictions of Jesus’s passion (Mk 8.31, Mk 9.31 and Mk 10.33f), each of which alludes to the resurrection by stating “……after three days he will rise”. It is within this context that the Transfiguration is recorded to show the significance of Jesus’s passion and resurrection.
Fact or Theological Symbolism?
An important question is whether or not the Transfiguration has a factual basis or whether it represents theological symbolism. So what can we learn from the passage itself? Well, Mark begins “After six days”. This in itself is unusual. Mark rarely gives precise detail of time and this may be part of the symbolism or, conversely, a note to establish the Transfiguration as an historical event. Luke, for example, begins his account “After about eight days” (Lk 9.28). It is interesting to note that the opening is reminiscent of Exodus 24.13-16 when God revealed himself to Moses: “The Glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it six days” and this has led some Biblical commentators to suggest that, for Mark, the Transfiguration may have eschatological significance. Peter’s wish to build three dwellings (or “tents”) could be closely associated with the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, commemorating the time in the wilderness which had acquired eschatological significance in contemporary Judaism, that is, the looking forward to a new age, the hope that God would once more lead his people towards the promised land – in other words, the final realization of God’s Kingdom here on earth. What is clear is that the passage is a crucial turning point for Mark. In his Gospel, it brings to an end Jesus’s Galilean ministry and, having established that Jesus is the Son of God, looks forward to the resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom.
Another explanation of the Transfiguration is that it could be a vision to Peter which gives insight into Jesus’s role. Several features of the account support this argument. In Biblical writing “the mountain” is often used as a symbol of divine revelation, and it is a common setting for theophanies. The time period of six days, apart from its association with the Exodus story (Ex24.13-16), corresponds to the time spent by the priest in the Temple before the Day of Atonement to purify himself; possibly therefore, this signifies a time of preparation for divine revelation. The “coming on a cloud” was also a recognised means of describing God’s presence (see for example, Ex16.10). The divine voice which Mark records is similar to that at Jesus’s Baptism “and a voice came from Heaven” (Mk 1.11). And so Mark, by inserting the story after Peter’s confession, may be describing Peter’s spiritual experience, that time when, perhaps, he saw Jesus in a new light or, in the terms of the Transfiguration, in new “Glory”.
The events which Mark records at Caesarea Philippi, and the Transfiguration, inevitably point to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man must go to face his final conflict and win his greatest glory. They show the relationship between Jesus as the Son of Man and as the Son of God. Mark’s use of the term “transfigured” (from the Greek “metamorphothe”) suggests the form of Jesus was changed, as evidenced by his shining face and dazzling white clothes – Jesus is in splendour, glorified with Moses and Elijah, and identified by a voice from Heaven as God’s beloved Son. The belief that “glory” was almost infectious and could extend even to clothes was common at the time (see 1 Enoch 62.15-16); Luke also specifically mentions “they saw his glory” (Lk 9.32) and significantly Peter, James and John, the same disciples who will be with Jesus at Gethsemane (Mk 14.33), are witnesses.
Using the Exodus story Mark shows that the old covenant of Moses had passed away, Jesus is the new covenant. This teaching emphasises (Mk 14.17-25) that the first covenant was made through the blood of animals, but the new covenant can be brought in only through the death of Jesus on the Cross. The passage also gives a glimpse of Jesus’s Messiahship, a glimpse of his future glory, the final state of Lordship to come through the resurrection.
The role of Moses and Elijah is important. The Old Testament depicts an account of the death of both these characters; they were each “taken up” in mysterious circumstances and after suffering. It was widely believed that various Old Testament figures would appear at the end of this world and play a part in the events leading to it. Traditionally, they have been held to represent the “Law and Prophets” (Rev 11.3) which witness to Jesus. Mark may have seen the Transfiguration as a disclosure of God’s eschatological purpose.
The Transfiguration shows Jesus as the Son of Man and the Son of God who inaugurates the kingdom of God and the new covenant relationship between God and his people. Whether it is an attempt to interpret an historical event is impossible to say. Mark portrays an eschatological message by using a recognisable genre and symbolism. Jesus is the Messiah because he must suffer but the Transfiguration portrays the glory which is beyond the suffering. It confirms the truth about Jesus, that above all he is God, and that in him God comes among us not only to share our humanity, but to be transfigured with it by giving up his life, sacrificially, for our salvation. In the Transfiguration it is this truth which is revealed to us.