Biblical Words 
II Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; II Corinthians 4:3-6;
At times of transition in leadership or mission, God grants forecasts of coming glory.
The readings for Transfiguration Sunday are about revelations of power and meaning that ordinary people do not normally see. These include the glory of God seen in the face of Jesus.
II Kings 2:1-12.
The prophetic reading presents the passing of the mantle from Elijah to Elisha.
For the age of the kings in
The same was true of Elijah. He had been the model of zeal for the
Lord: he had defeated a host of Baal
Both Moses and Elijah were taken away to God (in approximately the same geographical location!), and both were taken away before the completion of their work.
The enigmatic but clever story of Elisha hanging on to Elijah to the last second shows that Elisha was worthy of Elijah’s mantle (which he actually picks up in verse 13, just after our reading).
As the story is presented, Elijah, on his way to his rendezvous with God, keeps trying to put off Elisha, telling him there is no need for him to go further. But Elisha knows better. The several speeches to Elisha by the local companies of prophets are like the chorus of a Greek tragedy: he is leaving you, you know! Elisha hangs on, and is rewarded by being present when God’s fiery horses and chariot whisk Elijah to heaven in a whirlwind.
While this story is about Elisha,
Elijah is the major figure standing as a colossus in Israelite prophecy. Elijah was such a favored one of God that,
like Enoch before him (Genesis -24),
he was taken to God without seeing death.
Having gone to heaven without dying, Elijah was available to return when
God had special work on earth at a later time (see
The Psalm reading is the opening section of a covenant liturgy in which God appears before the hosts in fiery and stormy presence to bring judgment. The later parts of the psalm address the question of what constitutes appropriate sacrifice (verses 7-15) and delivers an indictment of covenant-breakers (verses 16-23).
The opening of the psalm is a theophany. God comes in earth-spanning majesty to muster the covenant ranks. The rigor and discipline of this awesome parousia is presented very effectively in the New Jerusalem Bible translation:
“Gather to me my faithful,
II Corinthians 4:3-6.
The Epistle selection presents the radiance of the new covenant against the background of the old.
Paul has just been talking about
the old covenant brought by Moses (II Corinthians 3:7-16). There was a glory to that
covenant written in stone, a glory that was reflected on Moses’ face after he
had been talking with God. Moses put a
veil over his face to protect the Israelites from its radiance—or as Paul
suggests () to conceal the fact
that the glory was fading. This veil on
Moses’ face symbolizes the concealing of God’s revelation and glory from the
elect people. “Indeed, to this very day
whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the
Lord the veil is removed” (3:15-16,
In our passage, Paul says there are powers (“the god of this world”) that keep the power of the gospel veiled from some people. Nevertheless, when the gift of faith is given, the original first-created light of God shines in the hearts of the believers, and they behold the glory of God’s own self in the face of Jesus Christ.
The real “transfiguration” brought by the gospel is that unveiling from inner blindness, that showing forth of the image of God (verse 4), that is seen in the radiant face of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel reading is the “transfiguration” of Jesus before the three disciples of the inner circle.
This is a surprising narrative. If you are reading along through Mark, it leaps out from the surrounding narratives, because it is a heavenly intervention down into the human scene, like nothing else since Jesus’ baptism. In detail, the three disciples see Jesus brilliantly shining in heavenly clothes, as heavenly beings usually do in visions (Daniel 10:5-6) or as messengers (“angels”) do in special moments (Matthew 28:2-3). Talking with this heavenly Jesus are—Elijah and Moses.
The disciples suddenly behold Jesus in his real heavenly status, a figure especially beloved by God. The Voice declares that he is God’s own Son, the Beloved One.
Before the Voice speaks, however, Peter is inspired (or misled) to propose erecting three tents (“booths,” as at the Jewish festival of Sukkoth in the autumn) to memorialize these three heavenly lords. The narrator indicates that there is something wrong with Peter’s proposal (“He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” verse 6). The Voice dismisses Peter’s proposal by declaring, “This is my Son. Listen to him.”
What is wrong with Peter’s
suggestion? The answer, almost
certainly, is shown by where this narrative comes in Mark’s Gospel. It comes shortly after Jesus has first
revealed that “the Son of Man” (Jesus) must go to
Though Jesus has a primary place in the heavenly glory, the way of the gospel is not the way of glory, but the way of suffering and death at the hands of the tenants of the vineyard. “The glorious vision may be what Peter and many others want to see, but it is the message of suffering that all must hear” (Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel). And the Voice says, Listen to him!
The Feast of the Transfiguration was long observed in the Eastern Christian churches before it was observed in the West, but its date in both traditions was August 6th (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., “Transfiguration”). Why does Transfiguration Sunday now appear at the end of the season of Epiphany, just before Lent begins?
Surely for the same reason it appears where it does in the Gospel According to Mark: The epiphany of the Lord in power and good works (Mark ) has reached a climax, sealed by this moment of glory. But what the disciples need to hear from here on (for the season of Lent) is that ahead lies the real cost of Jesus giving his life as a ransom for many (Mark ).
Special Note: Transfiguration as Resurrection Appearance
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, some New Testament scholars have seen Mark’s transfiguration narrative as his (only) report of a resurrection appearance.
The early versions of this theory
thought of a piece of writing that got more or less mechanically transferred to
the mid-point of the ministry in
This misses the point, of course. This is not a misplaced appearance of Jesus after the resurrection; it is a vision – a preview – of the real heavenly Jesus, the one who will return on the clouds as the Son of Man.
In this Gospel the Transfiguration is one of only two times when GOD declares who Jesus really is. (The other is at Jesus’ baptism.) But this declaration is not for Jesus only (as the baptism voice apparently is); this is for eyewitnesses, who are here given divine certification that the one who is about to suffer for “many” is really a glorious heavenly lord!
The End of Mark’s Gospel. It
is striking that Mark does NOT have any appearances of the resurrected Jesus at
the end of the Gospel. The revelation to
the women at the tomb (16:1-8) has two main points: Jesus has risen, he is not here (at the
tomb); and, “tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to
(This was a great embarrassment to Christians in the second century, and they felt compelled to add Mark 16:9-20, which gathers snippets from the other Gospels to round out Mark’s narrative. A couple of other shorter “endings of Mark” also appeared.)
Obviously, the Gospel has some
resolutions built into it before the last paragraph. For example, in the midst of the Passion
narrative Jesus says to the disciples, “You will all become deserters; for it
is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, / and the sheep will be
scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I
will go before you to
Mark is very much a Galilee-centered
Gospel. In its overview,
This is also how Matthew’s
community understood Mark a decade or two after Mark was written. Matthew retains Mark’s references to