“After six days, Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain by themselves to be alone. He was transfigured in front of them, and his clothes became dazzling – extremely white as no launderer on earth could whiten them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Men have a reputation in this culture. Okay, that’s a setup for a political and cultural fight which is not what we’re going to have this morning. Let’s try that again: One of the stereotypes men carry in this culture (and most cultures, honestly, because this is a human trait) is that we don’t like to quit when we’re behind. Perhaps to put that another way: We don’t know when to quit. Admitting we’re lost when driving is a perfect example. The stereotypical man doesn’t look at a map and insists he knows right where he is even when he’s hopelessly lost. And heaven forbid he stops and asks for directions. Well, sometimes what is true about men on the road, is true about all of us when we read the Scriptures. There are places and stories that are hard to understand. Let’s talk about one of them this morning.
This is an incredibly significant moment. Other than the cross itself, this is probably the most significant moment Jesus had with the disciples before the resurrection. This moment on the mountain with Peter, James, and John marked a transition in Jesus’ life and ministry. Before this, Jesus was traveling around with no particular destination in mind. He worked miracles wherever He went, but with a few notable exceptions, most of them seemed tailored to the moment He was in rather than trying to communicate something in particular. His teachings were always amazing, but they were more about building a foundation than necessarily preparing His followers for anything specific.
When the group descended from this literal mountaintop experience, all of that changed. From this point forward there is a clarity and focus to everything Jesus says and does. It is all aimed now squarely in the direction of the cross. Luke has this great statement in Luke 9:51: “When the days were coming to a close for him to be taken up, he determined to journey to Jerusalem.”
And all of that sounds really good. But my question is: Why? What was the purpose of this incredible display of power? Why did Moses and Elijah show up? How did the trio of disciples even know it was Moses and Elijah? What was Jesus trying to accomplish here?
It would be nice if we had a nice, neat, obvious answer to those questions…but we don’t. At all. And when you read through various commentaries on Mark, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the experts don’t know either. Sure, some offer guesses, but the best of them openly acknowledge they are just guessing. The simple truth is that we don’t know why Jesus gave these three this experience. Stories like this are why there are academic journals committed to publishing long, well-written, educated guesses on what this or that passage means. They stay in business because we don’t know so much. There are places (like this one) that seem really significant, but if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t know why.
In light of that, I’m not going to wax long or even try to aim for eloquence with you this morning. Let me leave you with two thoughts and you can get on with the rest of your day.
First, a guess of my own. What Jesus revealed here to the disciples was a glimpse of His divinity. It wasn’t nearly the full picture that John would later receive in His vision recorded at the beginning of Revelation, but it was a whole lot more than they had ever even imagined before this moment. I think He gave them this experience because of the significant role He knew these three would play in the immediate future of His movement. He wanted them to have this absolute assurance that He was who He claimed He was so that when the tough stuff started to come they would be able to stand resolutely firm in their faith. Now, am I right in this? I don’t know. I’m guessing. What are your thoughts on the experience?
Second, this is a place where we ultimately need to wave the mystery flag. One of the ideas I’ve talked about for quite some time when it comes to the Scriptures is that there are places we finally have to wave the mystery flag. What’s the mystery flag? It is the acknowledgement to ourselves and others than we don’t understand a passage and we are probably not going to understand it (short a special revelation from God) on this side of eternity.
Waving the mystery flag is something we have to be careful about doing. If we do it too soon, we’ll miss out on the real meat of the Scriptures. We dare not wave it until we have exhausted all our options for understanding, and even then, we keep occasionally coming prayerfully back to a passage in hopes that the Spirit will reveal something we had not seen before. On the other hand, if we refuse to wave it like a man refusing to stop and ask for directions, we are likely to get ourselves hopelessly lost and start claiming knowledge and understanding we don’t actually have. That’s a recipe for heresy every single time. Too many Christian cults have been developed because someone claimed certainty where they should have waved the mystery flag and built a theological system around their errors.
Sometimes we just don’t understand why a particular story happened the way it did. This is true even when the story seems really significant like this one. When this happens, we wave the mystery flag and hold the sense we are able to make of it with humility and never dogmatism. We don’t have to understand every part of the Scriptures in order to trust them. We trust the one who inspired them and the clear record of truthfulness the vast majority of them bring to the table, and from there trust that when we need to know, the Spirit will make sure we do. In the meantime, we remain humble and committed to studying them diligently and prayerfully. That’s the makings of a deeper faith.