The transfiguration of Jesus in the presence of Peter, James, and John was the culminating point of the public ministry of Jesus that started with his baptism and ended with his ascension. One week prior to this glorious experience, Jesus had predicted his passion, death, and resurrection that was incomprehensible to his apostles. Peter even rebuked Jesus for accepting a torturous setback while he was highly popular. Following the widespread belief of the time, the apostles also expected an earthly Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke contrary to that. So, he took the three representatives of his disciples to experience the glory awaiting him and them after their suffering for the Kingdom of God. Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and Prophets, witnessed to the glory of Jesus. God the Father confirmed the divine sonship of Jesus. This is an assurance for the heavenly glory awaiting us if we work for the church in our lives.
BIBLE TEXT (MARK 9:2-13)
The Transfiguration of Jesus
(Mk 9:2) Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. There his appearance was changed before their eyes. (3) Even his clothes shone, becoming as white as no bleacher on earth could bleach them. (4) Elijah and Moses appeared to them; the two were talking with Jesus. (5) Then Peter spoke and said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (6) For he did not know what to say; they were overcome with awe. (7) Then a cloud formed, covering them in a shadow, and from the cloud came this word, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” (8) And suddenly, as they looked around, they no longer saw anyone except Jesus with them. (9) As they came down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (10) So they kept this to themselves, although they discussed with one another what the rising from the dead could mean.
The Question about Elijah
(Mk 9:11) And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?” (12) Jesus answered them, “Of course, Elijah will come first so that everything may be as it should be. But, how is it that the Scriptures say that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be despised? (13) I tell you that Elijah has already come and they have treated him as they pleased, as the Scriptures say of him.”
The interpreters consider Mark’s gospel as the revelation of the mystery of Jesus and his Kingdom (Mk 4:11). He revealed them fully to the apostles. But to others, he presented them through parables. Mark’s gospel has four sections: The preparation for the public ministry of Jesus (1:1–13), the mystery of Jesus (1:14–8:26), the beginning of unfolding the mystery of the kingdom (8:27–9:32), and full revelation of the mystery (9:33–16:8). So, the event that we reflect today and subsequent discussion of Jesus with his apostles are part of revealing the mystery of Jesus.
The unveiling of the mystery started with Peter’s confession of Jesus, “You are the Messiah” at Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:27-30). While acknowledging it, Jesus predicted his upcoming passion, death, and resurrection (Mk 8:31). Then he exposed the sacrifices expected from the disciples, for which he will reward them at his glorious return (Mk 8:34-38). The transfiguration of Jesus happened after these teachings.
The Transfiguration of Jesus
The transfiguration of Jesus is such a significant event that all the synoptic gospels and the second epistle of Peter present it (Mt 17:1–8; Mk 9:2–8; Lk 9:28–36; 2 Pet 1:16–18). It is known as metamorphosis in the Greek Orthodox Church. This is special because, except few miracles like this, Jesus did all the others to relieve the suffering of others. Considering the importance of transfiguration, Pope John Paul II included it as one of the luminous mysteries in the rosary.
(Mk 9:2) Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and John, and led them up a high mountain. There his appearance was changed before their eyes.
Six days later
The evangelist counted the day of transfiguration based on another important event happened six days ago. While Jesus and the disciples were at Caesarea Philippi, Peter professed his faith in Jesus as the Messiah (Mk 8:29). Then Jesus revealed to the disciples how he “must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days” (Mk 8:31). The disciples could not grasp it. Hence, Peter requested Jesus to avoid suffering (Mk 8:32). Six days later, Jesus let him and the sons of the Zebedee to experience the divinity of Jesus as a foretaste of his resurrected stage. The transfiguration experience with the Father’s revelation was an affirmation of Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Christ.
There is a difference in the counting of days by Luke stating, “About eight days after he said this” (Lk 9:28). Luke included the day of the prediction of passion and the day of transfiguration, while Matthew and Mark excluded those days in the counting.
Jesus took with him Peter, James and John
Jesus selected Peter, James, and John as a representative body of his disciples. The following were their common features: All of them belonged to the group of twelve apostles who were full-time followers of Jesus. They were fishermen and belonged to the inner circle of Jesus. Hence, they were the chosen among the elect. These three were the only people privileged to accompany Jesus to witness raising Jairus’ daughter to life (Mk 5:37), to the Mount of Transfiguration (Mk 9:2), and to be close with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:33). All of them wrote epistles, and John authored the fourth gospel.
Peter had several features and initiatives during his association with Jesus, such as:
Peter and John had common activities during their life with Jesus that the gospels record.
James and John had few things in common.
John: Besides the common features shared with Peter and James as given above, John had the following specialties during the ministry of Jesus.
Jesus took three apostles with him to witness the remarkable events in his life because, according to the Law, two or three witnesses could support to prove a truth (Deut 17:6; 19:15). They should not lose their hope when they would see Jesus’ bitter agony in the garden or when John witnesses the crucifixion. Jesus took Peter with him because he had rebuked Jesus to avoid the passion (Mt 16:21-23; Mk 8:31-33) and so Jesus wanted to show him the heavenly glory waiting for him. Besides, Jesus had selected Peter as the head of his church. So, he should have the conviction of the glorious future of the faithful. Jesus took James and John because James would be the first martyr among the apostles and John the last to die. So, they also should remember the heavenly glory when they face challenges in their ministry and when they deal with others in their faith crises.
and led them up a high mountain.
Mountains have prominence as a meeting place of believers with God in religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism. They consider mountain peaks close to heaven from the earth. Most momentous events of the Bible took place in the mountains.
Prominent mountains where major events happened in the Bible are:
(1) Mount Ararat, where the ark of Noah landed after the deluge (Gen 8:4) and where God made a covenant with Noah.
(2) Mount Moriah (Gerizim) where God had asked Abraham to sacrifice his son (Gen 22:2).
(3) Mount Sinai, where Moses met God and received the Ten Commandments.
(4) Mount Nebo (Pisgah) where Moses saw the promised land (Deut 34:1-4).
(5) Mount Carmel, where Prophet Elijah proved God as genuine against Baal by calling down fire from heaven to ignite fire on water-soaked sacrifice (1 Kgs 18).
(6) Mount Zion (Jerusalem) where Solomon built the Temple.
(7) Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount.
(8) Mount Tabor (Hermon) where the Transfiguration of Jesus took place. Moses and Elijah appeared there with him, and God’s voice from the cloud confirmed the divine sonship of Jesus.
(9) Mount of Olives, where Jesus prayed before his arrest. He ascended to heaven from this mountain.
(10) Golgotha (Calvary) was a skull-shaped hill in Jerusalem where the enemies crucified Jesus. His followers buried him near here and he rose from the same place.
The Bible presents mountain as a holy place where God and men could meet. Like Moses met God on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:1 – 34:30), Jesus also used to go to mountains for solitary prayer. This was besides his prayers with the people at the Temple of Jerusalem and local synagogues. Besides preaching in the synagogues, houses, lakeshores, and from the boats, Jesus preached also on mountains (Mt 5:1). Mountain was also a place of divine revelation (Ex 24:12).
Mountain of Transfiguration
The gospels do not specify the name or location of the mountain where the transfiguration took place. Peter mentions it as “the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18). So, people during the apostolic times knew the mountain. In later times the scholars differ on the location of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place. The two major considerations are Mount Tabor and Mount Hermon.
This mount is in the Lower Galilee, twenty-four kilometers (15 miles) west of the Sea of Galilee. Though it is only six hundred meters (1968 feet) high, it stands as a prominent mountain because of its location in the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. Important Biblical events happened here like the Battle of Mount Tabor between King Jabin of Canaan, whose army led by captain Sisera and the Israelite army led by Barak and Deborah (Judges chs 4 and 5). During the ministry of Jesus, Tabor was an important junction on the Roman Highway, “Way of the Sea.”
The reasons for considering Mount Tabor as the mount of Transfiguration are:
Cyril of Jerusalem and Jerome confirmed Mount Tabor as the mountain of Transfiguration in the next century. Origen’s views on the transfiguration became the basis of Transfiguration Theology of the church fathers, like Tertullian, Irenaeus, and Augustine. The tradition continued throughout the centuries without variant views. The Christians built churches on the top of Mount Tabor in the fourth century. The Fifth Council of Constantinople erected a See at Mount Tabor in 553 (https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/15019a.htm). Crusaders had their fortification here. At present there are a Franciscan church and a Greek Orthodox Church here.
Few modern scholars uphold Mount Hermon as the site of Transfiguration, stating that Mount Tabor had a fortress on the top built by Antiochus the Great in 219 BC that could be occupied during the time of Jesus’ ministry. If that is true, Jesus would not prefer it because he wanted to be alone with the three apostles. However, there is no proof of inhabitation on the top of the mountain, especially during the period of Jesus’ ministry. Other suggested mountains are Mount Meron and Mount Nebo.
The favoring factor for considering Mount Hermon as the location for the Transfiguration is that Jesus and his apostles were at Caesarea Philippi at that mountain prior to Transfiguration. Since there were mountain peaks there, it could happen at that mountain without traveling far south to Mount Tabor.
Considerations against Mount Hermon and favoring Mount Tabor as the location of Transfiguration are:
There his appearance was changed before their eyes.
Peter, James, and John were fortunate to see the change in the bodily appearance of Jesus. His human form had wrapped his internal divine shining. Jesus revealed the splendor of his divinity for a brief time to the three apostles. While speaking about discipleship, Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Mt 16:28). The three disciples witnessed the glory of Jesus prior to his second coming. The transfiguration happened while Jesus was praying (Lk 9:29).
According to Peter, Jesus “received honor and glory from God the Father” (2 Pet 1:17) that changed his appearance from the human to divine. Hence, Luke reports, “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white” (Lk 9:29). Matthew has a stronger presentation: “his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 19:2).
Transfiguration has resemblance to what happened to Moses when he met the Lord at Mount Sinai. When Moses came down from the mountain holding the two tablets of the covenant after spending forty days and nights with the Lord, “he did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while he spoke with the LORD” (Ex 34:29). Because people were afraid of his shining face, Moses had to put a veil over his face whenever he came out from the presence of the Lord (Ex 34:33-35). Just as meeting of Moses with the Lord on Mount Sinai was to receive the commandments and to establish a covenant, Jesus’ meeting with the Lord on Mount of Transfiguration signified the renewal of those commandments and the establishment of a new covenant.
(3) Even his clothes shone, becoming as white as no bleacher on earth could bleach them.
Even his clothes shone
Because of the transformation of Jesus’ human body into a glorious one, the appearance of his clothes also changed. His dress of an ordinary Jew shone in front of the three apostles. The rays of his internal glory penetrated through his body had passed through his clothes, making it bright and shining.
becoming as white as no bleacher on earth could bleach them.
The ordinarily colored dress of Jesus had changed its color to white. That whiteness was shining with an unusual illumination. That is why the evangelist reports that even a professional cleaner’s bleaching could not enhance such a glare.
White color has a biblical meaning of light, purity, sanctity, innocence, and holiness. That is why artists depict angels wearing white dress. Like gold, it is also a divine color. In the vision of Daniel, the Son of Man’s “clothing was white as snow” (Dan 7:9). The Israelite’s prayer included, “Cleanse me with hyssop, that I may be pure; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:9). When Jesus rose from the dead, “His appearance was like lightning and his clothing was white as snow” (Mt 28:3) as it happened during the Transfiguration. Unlike black that absorbs light, white reflects light. So, white is symbolic of God’s love and power that permeates the world.
Transfiguration Vs Metamorphosis
Some believers use the term metamorphosis instead of transfiguration. Though they have similar meaning, transfiguration is more appropriate because of the difference in the implication. The zoological connotation of metamorphosis is the transformation of insects and amphibians from the larval stage to adulthood, resulting in a different bodily form. Metamorphosis can mean change of a person or anything from one form or nature to another by natural or supernatural means. In the literature, its usage is for degradation from one state to another. It cannot reverse its form to its original state.
Though transfiguration also implies a change of form or appearance, it is to a higher or spiritual level. So, unlike degradation in metamorphosis, transfiguration is an exaltation or glorification. Jerome used transfiguration in his translation of the Bible. The word metamorphosis is of Greek origin and transfiguration is of Latin origin. That must be the reason for the Greek church to use the term metamorphosis.
Transfiguration and Resurrection
According to Origen of Alexandria (185–253), the transfiguration was a foretaste of the glorious resurrection of Jesus. He observed a link between the two because of their heavenly splendor. The later fathers of the Church followed this view. The transfiguration was a visual affirmation of Peter’s declaration of the divinity of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi. It is also an assurance that the holy people can attain such a state in heaven.
(4) Elijah and Moses appeared to them; the two were talking with Jesus.
Elijah in Hebrew and Elias in Greek means “My God is Yahweh.” He was a prominent prophet in the Northern Israel in the ninth century BC. Like Jesus, he performed miracles like bringing fire from the sky on the burned offering, wood, stones, and dust (1 Kgs 18:19-40), multiplied a jar of flour and a jug of oil in Zarephath for a long time (1 Kgs 17:7-16), raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:17-24), and God took him up in a whirlwind to heaven without facing death (2 Kgs 2:11). However, Jesus did more miracles than Elijah.
Malachi had prophesied that Elijah would reappear as a forerunner of the Messiah. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23 / 4:5). The Jews have been expecting the physical reappearance of Elijah and that is still a part of the Passover ritual of the Jews. Though John the Baptist came according to this prophesy, some believed that Jesus was the forerunner for the Messiah to come because the actions of Jesus resembled that of Elijah (Mt 16:14; Lk 9:19). It is appropriate that this prophet give witness to Jesus fulfilling the prophesy that he would return before the day of the Lord.
Moses was a prominent leader, prophet, lawgiver, and deliverer of the Israelites. They considered Moses as the author of the first five books of the Bible. God providentially saved his life when he was born because the Pharaoh had ordered to kill all the newborn Hebrew boys to reduce the population growth of the Israelites in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him when he was a baby and she brought him up in Pharaoh’s palace. When he was forty, he killed an Egyptian slave-master who was beating a Hebrew. For fear of punishment from Pharoah, Moses fled to Midian and lived there for another 40 years. There he got the call from the Lord to go back to Egypt to liberate the Israelites from slavery. The Lord sent ten plagues, one after another, to the Egyptians. Finally, Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt. On the way to Canaan, God gave the ten commandments to the chosen people through Moses at Mount Sinai. Because of the people’s disobedience, they had to wander in the desert for 40 years under the guidance of Moses.
When the people reached close to Canaan, the Lord allowed Moses to see the promised land but did not allow him to enter it. He died at the age of 120 in the land of Moab. “He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor; to this day no one knows the place of his burial” (Deut 34:4-7). However, the Lord allowed him to enter Canaan at the Mount of Transfiguration when the Messiah came into the world.
Elijah and Moses appeared to them
Moses and Elijah represented the Old Testament because Moses was the lawgiver and Elijah was the most prominent prophet. Their appearance representing the Old Testament was to bear witness to Jesus as the Messiah. That was sufficient to prove a truth. The three representatives of the disciples got convinced of it.
According to Luke, Moses and Elijah appeared in glory and were conversing with Jesus on “his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). He further illustrates, “Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him” (Lk 9:32). The reason for the disciples’ snooze was probably because of the intense shining of Jesus, like the sun and the glory of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The disciples’ human eyes could not adjust the eyesight at first to such a bright light.
The two were talking with Jesus.
Luke specifies their discussion. They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Lk 9:31). The first exodus was from the Egyptian slavery to Canaan, the promised land. The new exodus they discussed was the liberation from the bondage of Satan to the Kingdom of God, starting with the church and ending in heaven at the second coming of Christ. Both exoduses were initiatives of God the Father. The first one was under the leadership of Moses and the second by Jesus.
The exodus here literally means departure. It was the departure of Jesus in Jerusalem from the earthly life to heaven through his sacrifice on the Calvary. It is also an assurance for his followers that, when they depart from this life, they will also reach heaven because of the merit of his sacrifice and their sacrificial discipleship. That was the fulfillment of the Law and the prophetic teachings.
(5) Then Peter spoke and said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
Peter spoke and said to Jesus
Though James and John were present, Peter spoke on behalf of them as well. He was an in-born leader, a man of initiative, and a spokesperson. He spoke when Moses and Elijah were about to part from Jesus (Lk 9:33). His interference was to prevent the prophets from leaving them.
Master, it is good that we are here
The heavenly glory the disciples enjoyed made them to desire its continuation. They wished to stay longer on the mountain with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. To see the two prominent prophets of the old, along with Jesus in his glorious appearance, was a thrilling experience for them.
let us make three tents
Peter did not consider any tent for the disciples. He wished to honor Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. The reappearance of the departed souls assured the apostles of the glorious life after death. Jesus had promised that he would prepare dwelling places for his followers in heaven. By mentioning a tent as a temporary residence, Peter knew their permanent abode was in heaven.
one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.
Since Moses and Elijah lived centuries before the birth of the apostles, how they identified Moses and Elijah is unclear. Jesus might have revealed that to the apostles.
(6) For he did not know what to say; they were overcome with awe.
As an opinionated, Peter had the tendency to speak whatever came to his mind without understanding everything he spoke. Out of confusion, Peter made the request to prolong the meeting. The reason for his request was, as Mark reports, the disciples were in awe. So, Peter thought of providing accommodation for Jesus and the prophets so they would stay there for long.
(7) Then a cloud formed, covering them in a shadow, and from the cloud came this word, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
Then a cloud formed
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Lord appeared to them in a cloudy pillar during the day and a fiery pillar by night (Ex 13:20-22). The Lord’s glory later filled the tabernacle as a cloud. “Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle” (Ex 40:34). This glorious presence of God continued in the Temple of Jerusalem. “When the priests left the holy place, the cloud filled the house of the LORD so that the priests could no longer minister because of the cloud, since the glory of the LORD had filled the house of the LORD” (1 Kgs 8:10-11). According to Psalm 104:3, God makes the clouds his chariot. So, God came down and dwelt among the people as a glorious cloud. Since it was the glorious dwelling of God on the earth, the rabbis call it Shekinah, which means “that which dwells.” It was this Shekinah cloud that came and stood above the apostles.
covering them in a shadow, and from the cloud came this word
The cloud of God’s glorious presence did not encircle the apostles. That stood above them and covered them in its shadow. The word that came from the cloud was God’s voice because God’s presence was in the cloud. Hence, Peter reported, “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Pet 1:18).
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.”
This was the LORD’s message directly addressed to the three apostles. A week ago, Peter had professed his faith in Jesus, saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16). God the Father confirmed that at the holy mountain. A similar message with a slight difference came to John the Baptist after he baptized Jesus. There “the heavens were opened for him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Mt 3:16-17; Mk 1:9-11; Lk 3:21-22). Hence, at River Jordan, the voice was the Father’s affirmation of Jesus’ divine sonship and His delight on the Son. At the transfiguration also, God affirmed the divine sonship of Jesus and commanded the three apostles to listen to Jesus. He is the new lawgiver in the place of Moses, and the divine teacher substituting Prophet Elijah. Moses had prophesied centuries ago: “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen” (Deut 18:15).
However, in Peter’s report of the same event, the message from the Father is the same as it came during the baptism of Jesus. “This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (1 Pet 1:17). So, it is possible that the Father gave both messages during the Transfiguration, one addressing Jesus and the other the apostles.
(8) And suddenly, as they looked around, they no longer saw anyone except Jesus with them.
Matthew gives a detailed description of this. “When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone” (Mt 17:6-8). So, Moses and Elijah had disappeared while Peter, James, and John were listening to God’s voice from the cloud. With the lifting of the cloud, the divine vision and the voice were over. They were again with Jesus alone in his physical state.
(9) As they came down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Jesus instructed demons not to reveal his identity as the Son of God. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he saw a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue there. The demon possessed man said, “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” (Mk 1:24-25). Later, “He drove out many demons, not permitting them to speak because they knew him” (Mk 1:34). “And whenever unclean spirits saw him they would fall down before him and shout, ‘You are the Son of God.’ He warned them sternly not to make him known” (Mk 3:11:12).
Sometimes Jesus instructed the recipients of healing, the crowd, and his disciples to avoid the publicity of his favors to them or his divine identity. After healing a leper, Jesus said, “See that you tell no one, but go show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them” (Mt 8:4; Mk 1:43-44). After raising Jairus’s daughter, “He gave strict orders that no one should know this and said that she should be given something to eat” (Mk 5:43). After healing a deaf man whom people brought to Jesus, “He ordered them not to tell anyone. But the more he ordered them not to, the more they proclaimed it” (Mk 7:36). After Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, “he warned them not to tell anyone about him” (Mk 8:30).
Why Jesus wanted to keep the secrecy? The following could be the possibilities:
The secrecy was not permanent. After the inauguration of the church on the day of Pentecost, the disciples could reveal and announce the secrets of the kingdom of God to all. A premature revelation of the secrets of the messianic role of Jesus could have disrupted his redemptive mission. After his resurrection, all the disciples could understand the mystery of transfiguration and other secrets hidden from them.
(10) So they kept this to themselves, although they discussed with one another what the rising from the dead could mean.
Peter, James, and John obeyed Jesus by keeping the transfiguration experience secret without sharing it with even the other apostles until Jesus rose from the dead. Otherwise, the other apostles could have an offensive feeling toward Jesus and the three apostles. After Pentecost, the disciples had the gift of understanding the mysteries of Jesus and the Kingdom of God.
The three apostles discussed among themselves not on the Transfiguration but on the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. That implied the death of Jesus. Though Jesus had predicted his passion, death, and resurrection a week ago, they could not understand it or believe it. They were shocked to hear that their dear master, who is only thirty-three, was going to die soon. Because of that Peter had objected to the passion of Jesus when he predicted it (Mk 8:31-33; Mt 16:22).
The Question about Elijah
(Mk 9:11) And they asked him, “Why do the teachers of the Law say that Elijah must come first?”
they asked him
While coming down the mountain, Peter, James, and John were still confused on the return of Elijah before the Messiah to prepare his way as written in the Scripture. They asked Jesus to clarify their doubt based on the teaching they had received from the teachers of the Law.
the teachers of the Law
The teachers of the Law and the Scribes have different shades of meaning. The scribes were a group of Jews whose primary responsibility was studying, copying, and interpreting the Holy Scripture. They served in the synagogues as readers and interpreters of the Bible. They were also experts in the judicial procedures, and some of them were members of the Sanhedrin. Jews respected them because of their knowledge in the Bible, dedicated service, and adherence to the Laws. They thrived from the time of Babylonian exile to the destruction of the second Temple in 70 A.D. The top-level scribe was known as Rabbi.
The scholar of the law means an expert in the laws of Moses, given in the first five books of the Bible called Torah or Pentateuch. The difference between a scribe and scholar of the law is that the scholar of the law was a scribe who specialized in the Mosaic laws than in the other sections of the scripture. Such scholars of the Torah were in demand because the written laws and their interpretations governed the whole lives of the Jews.
Elijah must come first
God had informed of sending a precursor before the Messiah. “Now I am sending my messenger – he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple” (Mal 3:1). Through Malachi, God specified the messenger would be Elijah’s return. “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the LORD comes, the great and terrible day; he will turn the heart of fathers to their sons, and the heart of sons to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Mal 3:23-24).
The Jews took that in a literal sense and expected that Elijah, whom God took to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kgs 2:11) without facing death, would return in person before the Messiah. The apostles also believed the same teaching of the scribes.
(12) Jesus answered them, “Of course, Elijah will come first so that everything may be as it should be. But, how is it that the Scriptures say that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be despised?
Jesus agreed with the apostles’ understanding that Elijah must come prior to Messiah to fulfill the prophecy. Before further clarification on the Elijah’s return, Jesus reminded the apostles on the prophesy of the suffering and the enemies’ contempt of the Messiah soon after the return of Elijah. Thus, Jesus justified his prediction of the previous week on his passion, death, and resurrection. Unlike the popular Jewish belief of the Messianic kingdom on earth, Jesus came first to redeem the world through his self-sacrifice and then he will come again to establish his eternal rule.
(13) “I tell you that Elijah has already come and they have treated him as they pleased, as the Scriptures say of him.”
I tell you that Elijah has already come
When Angel Gabriel announced the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zachariah, he predicted the child to be born as a spiritual return of Elijah. “He will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn the hearts of fathers toward children and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). Jesus confirmed this in his testimony about John to the crowd, saying, “This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you’” (Mt 11:10). Jesus continued, “if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come” (Mt 11:14). When Matthew reports the discussion of Jesus and the three apostles during their return from the mountain of Transfiguration, he added, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Mt 17:13).
They have treated him as they pleased, as the Scriptures say of him.
John the Baptist, who came in the spirit and power of Elijah, experienced acceptance, rejection, and martyrdom. People from Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan came to listen to John and received baptism of repentance from him (Mt 3:5-7). Jewish leaders from Jerusalem sent Levites, priests, and Pharisees to question his identity (Jn 1:19-28) and they rejected him. Because John questioned the immoral life of King Herod Antipas and Herodias, the king imprisoned him and later beheaded him (Mt 14:1-12).
Jesus mentions people’s response to John to relate that to his passion and death to fulfill what God had predicted of him through the prophets (Isa cha. 53). Jesus told the three apostles, “I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him but did to him whatever they pleased. So also will the Son of Man suffer at their hands” (Mt 17:12).