Many commentators point to 8:27-38 as the center of Mark’s gospel. Chapter 9 begins the second half of Mark’s gospel: the transfiguration of Jesus has several similarities to Jesus’ baptism (e.g. voice from heaven, presence of the Spirit, mission statement, etc.). Here Jesus begins openly describing His coming Passion (8:31-32, 9:12, 9:31, cf. Lk. 9:51). But Mark is not written merely that we might know what happened; it was written after the Resurrection to also explain what it means for us on this side of Easter (e.g. 8:34-38). What Jesus is doing He is calling His disciples to do.
The Text: “Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them…” (Mk. 9:2-32)
This chapter puts a lot of emphasis on the disciples. He chooses three to witness the transfiguration (9:2), they don’t understand what he means by the resurrection (9:10), the disciples cannot cast out the demon (9:18, 28-29), his disciples still don’t understand Jesus’ words about his coming death and resurrection (9:32), they are confronted for disputing about greatness (9:34), they are concerned about other miracle workers (9:38), and finally Jesus warns his disciples about people and body parts that cause sin (9:42ff) and exhorts them to have peace with one another (9:50). Putting all of this together, it’s quite likely that some of the disciples believed they had been exalted to some higher position than others. Some had witnessed the glory of Jesus and others had failed to cast out a demon. And this supposed greatness seemed like enough to even forbid others casting out demons. Rivalry is emerging in the ranks of the disciples but all in a quite ironic way: they don’t understand what they are pushing in line about. They don’t understand that Jesus is pursuing death (9:10, 32).
One way that Mark is trying to make his point in this chapter is by telling the story of the “son.” Jesus is the “beloved Son” who has come down from heaven all glorious (9:3-7), but He has humbled Himself being born a man and subject to all our weaknesses, even to the point of being afflicted by evil spirits and temptations (9:17-22). Ultimately, He overcame the Evil One and all of His power by dying and rising again (9:26-27). The demon possessed son is a type of Jesus, and that makes the disciples’ confusion all the more inexcusable (9:31-32). But if it is a type of Jesus then it is also a type of every Christian life. Here in worship on Mt. Zion, God assures us of His love and grace. In the sacraments, God claims us and shines His face upon us. But God always sends us out.
At the Bottom of the Mountain
While our King has risen from the dead and has been seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, “we feebly struggle while they in glory shine.” We live our lives at the bottom of the mountain while our King and many other glorious saints have gone on before us to glory. And we frequently face significant obstacles, demons that don’t seem to budge, physical dangers, and sin, but Jesus calls His disciples to a life of faith, prayer, and fasting (9:23, 29), a life of service (9:35-37), a life of fighting sin (9:42-48), and a life of seeking peace (9:49-50). The point isn’t to wallow around in the difficulties. The point is to remember and revel in the glory of Easter.
We Don’t Understand
But far too many Christians are just like those first disciples. They saw a type of resurrection right in front of them (9:26-27), and they still didn’t get it (9:31-32). And we have seen the true and glorious resurrection of God’s Beloved Son, and Jesus immediately says, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (8:34ff). And we say, “I wonder what that could mean?” We want justice now, we want peace now, and we are surprised when we are mistreated, slandered, betrayed, deserted, when things just don’t go our way. Or perhaps we are just easily distracted by rivalry, by sectarianism, and divisions. But Easter means that God’s plan of undoing evil through innocent suffering has worked. Jesus as our head has accomplished this in His own death and resurrection, but to make Him your God, to make Him your Lord, to follow Him is to set your face toward Jerusalem, is to expect betrayal, expect suffering, to expect a cross, and above all else, expect Easter.
The Loveliness of the Cross
This should not create a host of cranky pessimists; this should open our eyes to what is actually happening all around us. God is in the process of remaking this world through the cross. God loves the cross because God loves resurrection. And this means that God calls all of His disciples to follow Jesus this way. We don’t struggle and suffer and fight in spite of Easter. We struggle and suffer and fight because of Easter. We believe, pray, and fast because of Easter (9:23-29). We serve gladly because of Easter (9:35). We love little ones because of Easter (9:37). We bless other Christians with whom we differ because of Easter (9:40-41). We fight sin and repent because of Easter (9:42-48). We seek peace with one another because of Easter (9:49-50). Christ is risen, and therefore every cross is lovely to us. Every sacrifice is seasoned with peace (9:49-50).