We are like the disciples. As they often saw the Lord’s glory and heard the unfolding of His plan for the world, yet so frequently misunderstood and misapplied it, so do we. (At least they had Jesus physically present to correct them!) Rooting their understanding of Jesus more in their cultural expectations and tradition rather than the clear exposition of the authoritative Word, apart from the kind grace of God illuminating what little they did understand they would have been no different from the recalcitrant Jewish leadership, whose persistence in loyalty to ancestral tradition and cultural milieu overtook consecration to the Word of God (and caused them to reject the Lord Jesus as Messiah and God).
The Transfiguration, which manifests the glory of Jesus’ kingdom and rule, especially the shekinah glory He will manifest at His glorious future return, opened many questions and even some confusion for the disciples. The truth and its implications revealed to them by our Lord conflicted with their accepted understanding of Messiah, particularly the immediacy of His entering into visible glory. As He so often does, our Lord used this to explain to them more of the truth, giving them truth and a framework they needed both for their own spiritual lives as well as that of the household-kingdom of which they would soon be the foundation (Eph. 2:20).
This passage demonstrates three features of the post-Transfiguration events, all of which illuminate our understanding of the king and His Kingdom.
A. The Prohibition (v. 9)
Our Lord and Peter, James, and John are descending the mountain after the most dazzling display of divine glory the latter three men had ever seen. And Jesus tells them something startling: They are not to tell anyone this happened—not even their brother disciples waiting for them, nor their wives, nor children—until after He has risen from the dead!
To explain this command, we must reach back to the several other times in Mark the Lord has similarly prohibited individuals from saying who He is or what He has done for them. At least twice (1:25, 3:10) the command is given to demons the Lord is casting out of people. Other times, it is either given to people the Lord healed (1:44) or who witnessed His miracles (5:43, 7:36). Only here and in 8:30 is the command given to the apostles.
Why does the Lord keep telling various individuals not to reveal His identity, or even what He did for them—especially in cases where the events have clear witnesses? The answer depends on whom He is commanding. In the case of demons, Jesus very obviously did not want unclean, fallen spirits to confess Him at a time when controversy over His identity and role was at its peak. Even though what the demons were saying was true—and even though they, along with all the finally impenitent, will confess His lordship on the last day (Phil. 2:10-11)—He did not wish to be associated with unclean spirits who tormented people. The fallen could not be a frontrunner for the Holy. Jesus wished to underscore with absoluteness the chasm that existed between holy Creator God and fallen angels.
With the people witnessing miracles: It wasn’t so much that Jesus was concerned with keeping the actual event under wraps—He knew, for example, that they very continued existence of Jairus’s daughter or the obvious healing of the congenitally ill would denote something supernatural had taken place—as it was preventing people getting the wrong idea about it. If the recipients or witnesses told people, it would fan the already-existing wrong idea about Jesus: That He was here as a solely earthly Messiah exclusively for Israel, bent on healing and redeeming them on a physical level only, including from political oppression. Of course, as the people foolishly disobeyed Him, we see just this wrong popularity spread ever more fervently.
This also explains why Jesus prohibited the apostles from proclamation after they confess His messiahship—perhaps the oddest prohibition of all, given that they were intended to be His emissaries and representatives to Israel and the world (cf. Isaiah 8:17-18). But again we must recall the flawed understanding of Messiahship that ruled in Israel back then: Messiah was strictly a human, overtly political deliverer that solely existed to exalt Israel and crush all Gentiles. He did little if anything to reconcile people to a holy God (not that this idea was utterly absent—it was just under emphasized to the point of functional distortion or nonexistence). To proclaim publicly that Jesus was Messiah to people who interpreted “Messiah” very wrongly would have done more to obscure Jesus’ mission and message than anything else.
This is why He pits a time limit on the prohibition: The disciples can proclaim the Transfiguration only after He has risen from the dead. Why? Because then His substitutionary saving work—the heart of His mission and the heart of the gospel—has been completed. Beforehand, it would be too easy to miss the point of why He came. After, while scoffers and the deceived continue to propose alternate theories of Jesus’; identity and work, the Father Himself placed His stamp upon Jesus, and it was not primarily as a healer, miracle-worker, or political deliverer. Rather, it was as the savior from sin and anointed Lord of the world, whose redemption yes extended to every area and aspect of life but was founded upon an unshakable reality: blood shed for innumerable sinners to reconcile them to a holy and sovereign God, then a victorious resurrection to prove the Father accepted His payment and self-claims, risen to rule and eventually return.
Once that unmistakable divine approval has been proclaimed, the disciples may freely proclaim His glory and kingship. They are not to do so apart from the proper foundation of both the cross and resurrection. Jesus’ blood redeems all of life, but it was first and foremost shed to call out a saved people from all the nations of the earth—to transform rebels into happy children and servants of the only God.
B. The Discussion (vv. 10-11)
Of course, as we might expect, the disciples are even more confused by this assertion. The text tells us they seized upon it—a Greek term denoting taking possession of or latching on to something—specifically wondering what He meant by rising from the dead. Now, obviously they knew what resurrection was—they knew the Old Testament promises (Job 19, Daniel 12, Isaiah 25)—and they had also seen Jesus raise numerous people from the dead. Rather, their question was how on earth resurrection of Messiah fit into what they understood of His identity and work. For obviously, resurrection meant He had to die. And while Messiah’s death was also clearly proclaimed in the OT (Isaiah 53; Zech. 12:10), that truth had been so encrusted with centuries of Jewish misunderstanding and misinterpretation that it was no wonder the apostles were startled and confused to have it brought to their attention.
The view of Messiah and His kingdom they had inherited focused exclusively on earthly glory. And Jesus’ blatant demonstration of almighty power, along with His repeated and clear proclamation that the promised kingdom was indeed here would have been filtered through that grid. This explains Peter’s strong denunciation of Jesus when He said He would be rejected and killed. And it explains the disciples’ continued puzzlement when Jesus is still talking about resurrection after such an overt demonstration of divine glory as the Transfiguration was.
Isn’t now the time for the kingdom? Yes. And no. Yes, He absolutely will reign from Jerusalem—but first it will be from heaven, as He pours out His Spirit on the waiting 120 to create His Church, and that scepter would be extended from Zion (!) over the next centuries just as Psalm 110 promised. Yes, He will exalt Israel—but that is in the future millennial reign (Amos 9:13-15), and not before He sweeps untold numbers of Gentiles as Gentiles into His one kingdom today (Amos 9:11-12).
And while they are on the subject, their minds wander to another, related question: Why do the scribes say Elijah must come first? Of course, doubtless this was prompted by their just seeing Elijah on the mount. After all, if Elijah was to come before the day of the Lord (Mal. 4:6), and if that day was the final outpouring of wrath on God’s enemies and the rescue of Israel…well…explain that, Jesus!
And He does.
C. The Instruction (vv. 12-13)
Jesus surprised the disciples by saying the scribes did get this aspect of theology and prophecy right—Elijah does come first (v. 12a). He adds that Elijah will “restore all things”—a phrase I will explain in a moment. Elijah did come—he obviously came in the flesh at the Transfiguration, but more importantly he came typically in John the Baptist. This time he would come to make a way in the wilderness (a euphemism for repentance from Isaiah 40:3) doing a spiritual new covenant work to prepare men and women for the coming of God incarnate (cf. Matt. 10:11-14). Gabriel’s message to Zechariah identifies the work of John the Baptist as in the spirit and power of Elijah and as a new covenant work (Luke 1:15-18).
But Jesus asks His own question, drawing attention back to His suffering and death: If Elijah has come—if Messiah is preceded by such a great, powerful prophet and divine work—then how can it be He is destined to suffer? Of course, He knows the answer: The new covenant the new Elijah came to announce and initially fulfill is founded upon the shed blood of its Maker, the Lord Jesus Christ. They are not contradictory but complementary.
Moreover, the Lord adds that Elijah has come in John the Baptist. Jesus’ death does not cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Elijahite mantle placed on the Baptist’s shoulders (nor does the future fullness of the kingdom contradict either the Baptist being Elijah nor the inauguration of that kingdom). And Elijah coming does not cancel out the necessary, bloody death of Jesus for sinners. Both are part of the plan of God. Both are necessary. Both enable the establishment and advancement of His glorious, promised kingdom.
Just like our Lord and His forerunner, so also those that follow Him will know the suffering commensurate with proclaiming and advancing that kingdom. May God help us to be ever more confident in Christ’s redemption and present-future glory to sustain our hope for this life and the next.