And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7 ESV)
Mark’s version of the Transfiguration transports us to at least two other passages in the biblical text. One is in Mark itself. “This is my beloved Son.” We’ve heard similar words before at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-12). The literary function of this reprise is to call attention to a new theme in Mark’s gospel.
In a sense, we’re beginning again. At the end of chapter 8, we are at the beginning of three cycles characterized by Jesus predicting his death, the disciples getting things wrong and Jesus teaching them what discipleship really means. This pattern dominates the material in Mark from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of the passion narrative in chapter 11.
Two stories of healing blind men set the boundaries for this section on either end (8:22-26 and 10:46-52). Jesus’ healing of the blind man in chapter 8 produces at first only partial sight. The healing of Bartimaeus at the end of chapter 10, however, produces perfect sight that enables Bartimaeus to follow Jesus. Similarly, the miracles of Jesus in the first 7 1/2 chapters of Mark’s gospel produce only imperfect understandings of discipleship. Jesus’ teachings about the cross produce a more complete understanding of discipleship, one that enables people to follow Jesus more fully. To “see clearly” means this: to understand that Jesus’ crucifixion provides a more complete picture of the meaning of discipleship than does his miracle-working alone.
Specifically, the voice of the Transfiguration validates Jesus’ words (“listen to him”) at the end of chapter 8: “he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31). Jesus then declares that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (8:34). Jesus’ crucifixion and Christian discipleship are inseparably bound together in chapters 8-10, and the voice from heaven at the Transfiguration puts God’s stamp of approval on the connection.
Additionally, the story of the transfiguration transports us back to the story of Moses on Mount Sinai and the establishment of the covenant in the book of Exodus. Some details recall Moses’ transfiguring experience on the mountain in Exodus 34:29, in which his encounter with God causes his face to shine. Other details, such as the references to “six days” and the “cloud” point us to Moses’ earlier trip to the mountain in Exodus 24. The “Moses” references point us to the idea of “covenant,” which is again associated with Jesus’ death. Mark records Jesus as saying, “This is my blood of the covenant” at the Last Supper (14:24). It is this idea of [new] “covenant” that best expresses Mark’s understanding of the effect of Jesus’ death (although Mark doesn’t explore this concept in much detail).
In other words, where the voice from heaven and the baptismal allusion point us to the subjective meaning of Jesus’ death (as a model for discipleship), Moses’ presence and the Exodus allusions point us to the objective meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion (as establishing a new covenant).
Elijah’s presence is more of a mystery. Some have pointed to Moses and Elijah as being representative of the “Law” and the “Prophets,” with the point being that Jesus fulfilled and superseded them. Perhaps, but Mark doesn’t show much interest in following that line of argument. Still, the superior position of Jesus is unmistakable. Both Moses and Elijah disappear from view at the conclusion of the pericope, leaving the disciples to see only Jesus only, the “beloved Son” (9:7-8).
Perhaps the presence of Elijah is intended to remind the reader of Elijah’s escape from death and transport to heaven (2 Kings 2:1-12). In this sense, Elijah’s presence foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. In the narrative, however, Mark uses Elijah for quite the opposite purpose: to point toward Jesus’ coming passion and death. In 9:11-13 the discussion of Elijah’s coming strongly hints at equating Elijah with John the Baptist who had been executed by Herod (6:14-29). Both Elijah and the Son of Man, Jesus says, would be treated with contempt. Elijah’s presence in 9:2-9 is a springboard for yet another discussion how both the Son of Man and those associated with him would suffer.
The Transfiguration narrative concludes with yet another charge to the disciples not to reveal the glorious things they had witnessed, this time with a condition: “until the Son of man should have risen from the dead” (9:9). It is clear that the true significance of this heavenly event lies in an all-too-earthly event just over the horizon: the crucifixion of Jesus.