When we read the gospels today, we read them with the benefit of hindsight. We know the end
of the story - the cross and resurrection, and the significance of these in bringing salvation to the
In order to understand what is happening in the gospels, we need to try to recreate the original
events in our minds, and see them from the perspective of the twelve disciples and other
eyewitnesses to Jesus and his ministry. None of these people knew the end of the story, and had
particular expectations of what they thought the future would bring.
Because of this, they often misunderstood, or could not accept what Jesus said about himself.
They often reacted in ways that seem strange to us. It is easy for us today to think they were being slow
to understand. It is important that we do not criticise them or point the finger, with the superior
or even proud attitude of wondering how they could be so slow or stupid.
The big question
Throughout the four gospels run the big questions of ‘Who is this Jesus?’ and ‘What did he
come to do?’
As we read the accounts, we can observe the disciples wrestling with these questions, as they try
to decide whether Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed one God had been promising for hundreds of years. It seemed to them that some of the actions and words of Jesus fitted their expectation of him being the Messiah, while other things he said and did confused them. To put it in modern wording, he ticked some of the boxes but not others.
This big question was asked directly after Jesus had calmed the storm in the Sea of Galilee. The
disciples were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind
and sea obey him?’ (Mk 4:41).
The big secret
In Mark’s Gospel there is an interesting and sometimes rather puzzling theme. It is seen in the following examples: The man in the synagogue with an unclean spirit was calling out that he knew Jesus was the Holy One of God. Jesus rebuked him, saying ‘Be silent, and come out of him.’ (1:26-27). The cleansed leper was sternly warned not to say anything to anyone (1:43). After raising the daughter of the synagogue leader from the dead, Jesus strictly ordered them that no one should know about it (5:43). In the account of the transfiguration, Jesus again ordered his disciples to tell no one about what they had seen (9:9).
This is often known as ‘the Messianic secret’. Jesus performed actions that demonstrated he was anointed by God and worked in the power of God, such as healing diseases, feeding multitudes in the desert, casting out demons, and showing power over nature. However, when people began to say who he was, he told them to keep quiet. We would naturally think that Jesus would want people to know that he was the Messiah, but instead, he silenced them.
Soon before the transfiguration, Jesus had asked his disciples about who he was. On the way to Caesarea Philippi he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mk 8:27). In reply, they gave the popular understanding of who Jesus was: John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets (8:28).
Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?”, and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). After giving the correct answer, it is surprising that Jesus sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him (8:30). Again, there is an example of the ‘Messianic secret’.
Instead of congratulating Peter on giving the correct answer, he gives the first prediction of his
suffering and death. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said this quite openly.” (8:31-32). This was the first time that Jesus predicted his suffering and death, which would have come as a great shock and surprise to his disciples. He repeated this prediction at least twice more, sometimes briefly and sometimes in more detail (9:31, 10:33-34).
In response, Mark notes that Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him (v32b). The actual
words of Peter are not recorded, so it is a matter of speculation about what Peter said to Jesus.
The response of Jesus was to rebuke Peter publicly. “But turning and looking at his disciples, he
rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things
but on human things.’” (v33).
The popular expectation of the Messiah was of a political or military figure, a glorious conquering hero on a white horse who would deliver Israel from the Romans. He would be rather like Judas Maccabaeus, who led the Jews into victory over the Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucids during the inter-testamental period. The disciples would also have this understanding, which would explain why Peter responded in the way he did. In popular understanding there was no possible way that the Jewish Messiah will suffer and die, and particularly not by crucifixion. According to the law of Moses, anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse (Deut 21:23), and it was unthinkable for them that the Messiah would come under God’s curse.
Jesus had to re-educate his disciples about the true nature of the Messiah, that instead of glory
now, the cross must come first, as the way to glory is through suffering and death. There will be
suffering first, then glory, for Jesus and for his disciples. They too have to deny themselves and
take up their cross and follow him (v34).
Peter’s confession marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus in all three synoptic gospels, but
is particularly evident in Mark’s Gospel. Before this, Jesus focussed on his public ministry in and
around Galilee, demonstrating the coming of the kingdom of God, healing the sick, casting out demons, as well as teaching the crowds about the nature of that kingdom. After Peter’s confession, the emphasis changes away from the crowds as Jesus spends more time with his disciples preparing them for his suffering and death in Jerusalem.
Six days after Peter’s confession is the transfiguration, through which the disciples are privileged
to see a preview of Jesus in his glory, and hear the Father’s acknowledgement of his Son (9:2).
It is only the inner group of three disciples, Peter James and John who receive this revelation.
Jesus took his disciples to a high mountain. Mountains were frequently significant places of
meeting with God in the OT, including Sinai and Zion. There is an important theme in the OT
of God’s holy mountain. Sinai was where Moses and Elijah both received a vision of the glory
of God, known as a theophany.
Jesus was transfigured (Gk ‘metamorphosed’) before them (v2b-3). Jesus was transformed in
their sight as the veil of his humanity was briefly lifted allowing them to see the dazzling white
of the glory of the divine Jesus. They were allowed to see Jesus as he will be once he ascended
to heaven. Jesus is described in a similar way in the Book of Revelation (eg. Rev 1:13-16), and
this is the glorified Jesus of the age to come at the time of the consummation of the kingdom.
Elijah and Moses then appeared and were talking with Jesus (v4). Moses is the representative of
the Old Covenant, the giver of the law. Elijah is the representative prophet who will come before
the day of the Lord (Mal 4:5). Their appearance is a sign of the coming of the end of the age.
Peter makes a rather impetuous response to their appearance, wanting to make three dwellings
(tents, Gk ‘skene’) for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (v5). It is interesting to consider why he said this.
He probably thought that the appearance of Moses and Elijah was the sign that the end of the age
had come now, the time of the second exodus and the eternal Sabbath rest. He assumed that God
would now need another tabernacle where he could dwell in his glory and communicate with
human beings. Again Peter’s thought was of glory now. He had not accepted and had filtered out
of his mind what Jesus had predicted about his suffering and death only a few days earlier.
A cloud then overshadowed them (v7), and from this cloud God spoke. On the OT, God often
spoke from a cloud, as on Sinai (Ex 24). A cloud was often part of the theophany. As at his
baptism (1:11), God again affirmed that Jesus was truly his Son, both in glory and in suffering.
The disciples are urged to ‘Listen to him!’. They are to listen to his prediction of glory, and his
prediction of his suffering which must come first. Jesus has come as the divine Son of God,
God’s anointed Messiah, but also as the suffering servant of Isaiah (Is 52-53).
Moses and Elijah then disappear, leaving the focus solely on Jesus (v8). Again Jesus then orders
them not to tell anyone about what they had seen on the mountain until after he had risen from
the dead (v9).
On their way down the mountain, they ask Jesus about the relationship between Elijah and John the Baptist (9:12-13). This is a controversial topic and is discussed in more detail on another page on the website.
Over the following chapters, Jesus repeats the predictions of his suffering, but it is clear that the
disciples had serious problems in accepting or understanding what he said. Their focus remained
on the expectation of glory for Jesus and themselves. Later Jesus challenged them when they
had been arguing over which of them was the greatest (9:33-34). James and John were rebuked
for asking for the best seats to the right and left of Jesus in glory (10:37), and the other ten were
angry with James and John - perhaps because they wanted the best places but James and John asked first.
The predictions really only became clear to them after the cross and resurrection, but particularly
following the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Peter's speech (Acts 2).
In conclusion, for Jesus the cross comes before the glory, but this is also true for his disciples and
those who follow him through history, including today.
Message of the Kingdom
It is important for us to understand the nature of the coming of the kingdom of God. The expectation of the disciples was of the glory of the kingdom now, without the suffering. They expected Israel to become great and powerful, the hated Romans and other foreign powers overthrown, and the Messiah ruling in Jerusalem like King David.
However the kingdom came in a completely different way. Jesus came as the anointed Messiah, fulfilling the predictions of the prophets. He demonstrated the coming of the kingdom through miraculous signs, healings and casting out of demons. However he brought the kingdom through his suffering and death. The problem of sin had to be dealt with. Jesus was lifted up on the cross and came under God’s curse. In this way he took the penalty for all sin and rebellion past, present and future. He was the atoning sacrifice of Is 53, giving his life so those who believe in him can be forgiven and experience the blessings of the kingdom.
He was raised, showing that the power of death has been broken, and that new life has come. However, we still wait for the consummation of the kingdom. We are still waiting for him to come in his glory at his second coming. In this life, we can experience the blessings of the Gospel, including salvation, forgiveness and reconciliation with God and each other. However we are still living in a fallen world in fallen human bodies subject to sin and suffering. We need to keep the tension between the ‘Now’ and the ‘Not yet’.
One day Jesus will come in glory, as previewed in his transfiguration, when we will also be glorified with him.