Gospel Lesson – Mark 9:2-10, NRSV
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
“Listen to him!” This is a familiar phrase echoed about Jesus in the New Testament. It’s not unlike what Mary, his mother, said to the servants during the wedding of Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5). Doing whatever Jesus tells us. Come now, Ryan, you must be saying. This is Christianity 101. Of course, we know all about that. But do we?
What is the significance of having Moses and Elijah present on the mountaintop? Now, Jesus had ascended with his very inner circle of disciples – Peter, James, and John. It’s not that the other disciples were not important people – they were. But for some reason unbeknownst to us and unrevealed by God, these three where uniquely special to Christ. We find later in Paul’s writings that Peter, James and John were known as “pillars of the church” (Galatians 2:9). It’s just safe to say at this point that these men were held in high regard, even though you and I don’t especially know why.
Moses and Elijah, as we have discussed before, are symbolic of the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. It’s known as the tanak in the Hebrew language. Moses, the great lawgiver, is directly associated with the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (this part is known as the torah). Every commandment and law practiced in Judaism in one way or another found a connection to Moses. Elijah, who in our Old Testament reading assigned for Feb. 15 was hurried away into heaven by a flaming chariot, is considered the greatest and most powerful of Hebrew prophets — the one to whom all other prophets are compared and with whose teaching they are understood to correspond with.
Just as we have shorthand ways of calling the Bible “the Bible,” such as when Christians say “the Good Book says,” or “the Word says,” so, too, did the Jews of old. In the time of Jesus could say — meaning the whole Bible as they had it — “Moses and Elijah say.”
Moses represents every commandment and instruction God gave in Old Testament Scripture, while Elijah represented God’s power, authority, and future declaration of God’s coming messiah and the judgment of Earth.
As we’ve discussed before, the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day held very feverishly to the Law of Moses. It was very “fundamentalist” religion, as we might call that sort of ideology today. Rigid. Extreme. Literal. Cold. Now, to be fair, that wasn’t everyone, but it certainly was a large segment of the religious community, and it was something Jesus opposed with equal fervor to theirs.
It is, therefore, no small thing that both Moses and Elijah appear. There presence communicates this essential fact of Christian teaching: “Everything commanded in the Old Testament (Moses) finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus Christ, just as everything prophesied about God’s messiah and all of his power and glory (Elijah) are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
The booming voice from God that echos across the canyons and cliffs of that mountaintop rang clear: “Listen to Him!” That is, “What Moses has told you? That has been fulfilled. What Elijah has told you? That, too, is fulfilled. Moses and Elijah taught you much that was good and necessary, but now — now from here on forward — the way you will understand and know Me is to listen to My beloved Son, Jesus Christ, who is your Savior.”
Wow! Think about that! If we take God at his very word as it shook the earth that day, leaving the ever-talking Peter dumbfounded and struggling to speak coherently, it means that the only way we truly can read the Old Testament and understand what it means is to read it through Christ.
This is a very important point. Saying that the Law and the Prophets (Moses and Elijah) are fulfilled, is NOT to say that the Old Testament is null and void, or that it is no longer the word of God or has lost any authority in our lives. Some people have made that mistake throughout history. They’re called “antinominans,” meaning “those who are against the law.” They are horribly mistaken and their errant teachings have rightly been condemned by councils and theologians of the church.
Hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:18-19, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever nullifies one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
What then: Are we to give up eating pork? No more ham on Easter? Shall we ban interracial marriage and start sacrificing goats? Of course not! Read again what Christ also said. Do you see that word above, “accomplished?” Let’s approach it from another Scripture: “The law and the prophets were in effect until John [the Baptist] came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone is strongly urged to enter into it” (Luke 16:16).
This is what God is teaching us: Until John the Baptist came proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, people had to understand the Old Testament, the Bible, simply at its face value. Scripture said it. They believed it. That settled it. Sure enough, the prophets warned the people to obey the law — and to do so in a merciful and compassionate manner — something, they usually failed at. But at the end of the day, reading the Old Testament before Christ could only get you so far. You could figure out you were a sinner and realize you needed to discipline your passions—and you could see that God would one day restore righteousness. However, one couldn’t see that what they were practicing was symbolic: sheep, goats, birds, and grains sacrificed were symbolizing the ultimate sacrifice of Christ to come (which is, by the way, why we don’t make sacrifices anymore: Christ is the perfect sacrifice that forever satisfied the wrath of God and purchased our lives from sin and death. It’s not something we repeat again and again.)
Now that Christ has come, we read the Old Testament…we even read the New Testament…in the light of Jesus who was born, lived, and died–and was resurrected. Just as in the example I gave you about sacrifices, why we don’t do them anymore, we don’t do a lot of things found in the Hebrew Scriptures that were demanded by Moses. The forbidding of the blending of cotton and other fabrics, of example. Thank heaven that still isn’t a rule, or all of us reading this would be in hell right now! That was symbolic of how God’s people were not to “blend” themselves with non-Jews who were pagans. Symbolic. We see that in Christ. All ethnic groups are now welcomed into God’s covenant equally because of what Christ did. Does this begin to make sense?
So that takes us back to the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John — and, perhaps, the most important words mentioned in this lesson: “[T]hey saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.” Folks, don’t make the mistake of what we today call “fundamentalism.” It isn’t that you open your Bible, see a line of Scripture, and then vigorously demand everyone live that way, beating everyone over the head who doesn’t comply. It isn’t strictly and rigidly following rules, not taking the circumstances, hurts, pains, and needs of human beings into account. You must read your Bible seeing “only Jesus.”
That is, the Bible must be interpreted. And the way you interpret it is by seeing Christ. How did he live? How did he interact with people who were like him and different than him? How has his winning our salvation changed the equation? How did he apply the law?
Too many people trust the Bible, but not Jesus. What?! What did I just say?
Too many people open up the book and start rattling off phrases and scriptures, wounding everyone as though they are haphazardly firing canons into the crowds. This is spiritual malpractice.
Is the Bible the Word of God? Absolutely! Should you trust the Bible? Absolutely! But it being God’s word and you trusting it does nobody any good (indeed it does us all much harm) if Christ isn’t your first and foremost love. Believe the Bible because you believe Jesus, not vice versa. Approach all Scripture through prayer. Approach all Scripture through the life of Christ. Approach all Scripture with an open mind, recognizing your own fallibility. Ponder your experiences and those of others — even the experiences of those you dislike, question, or don’t understand — when confronting the text. And put that confrontation front and center at Jesus’s feet. Observe him. Know him. Love him.
Jesus Christ is God’s beloved Son. Listen to Him! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
P.S. Note that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus. It’s further witness that we must take Scripture to Jesus. The Old Testament (Moses and Elijah) is consulting with Christ. So does all of the Bible.