There are weights that only Christians carry. I talked to a friend whose daughter was angry with him, a feeling many parents know. But my friend was not only concerned about reconciling with his daughter; he was also scouring his heart before God to see if he had sinned. Who but Christians feel that weight? I know a man who watched some of the Grammy's—the music awards—last Sunday night and was sickened by the vulgarity and sacrilege. I'm sure many people were, but this man groaned over the lostness of people who know nothing about Jesus. His heart was heavy over their blindness. Who but Christians feel that weight?
There is a Christian who serves two beggars, and does so often. When others are exasperated with them, he feels the ache of their need, he makes his time theirs, he defends them, he cries over them, and he does it all for Jesus. Who but Christians feel that weight? There are Christians who having professed Christ have lost much, if not all. Whose families reject them, or who lose credibility in their work, who are mocked or dismissed as fools. Who but Christians feel that weight? There is a woman who has borne depression and lost love and a heartbreaking child, and rather than being angry with God, she is resolved to rejoice in the Lord. Who but Christians feel that weight? There are Christians who ponder the death of Christ till their hearts hurt, who believe deeply that Jesus suffered for them. Who but Christians feel that weight?
We're studying the Gospel of Mark. In this book, as soon as Jesus' disciples realize that he is the Messiah, the Christ, he introduces them to the heavy lifting. He told them, to their horror, that he would suffer, be rejected, die, and finally rise again. It would only be later that they'd realize the even heavier news that his dying was for them, for their sins and for ours, that "in my place condemned he stood." Then Jesus shocked them again by saying in 8:34, "If anyone would follow me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and [then] follow me." Those are heavy duties indeed, weights only Christians carry.
Then, just when the weighty prospect of Jesus' cross and our own seems heaviest, an astonishing thing happened. Mark 9:2-10:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what "rising from the dead" meant.
The three disciples saw something no mortal eyes had ever before seen, yet this is a story with a kind of history. It is a déjà vu story. It felt familiar, especially to those three Jewish disciples. Exodus 24 tells how Moses took his aide, Joshua, up a high mountain, Mt. Sinai, to worship the Lord and confirm Israel's covenant with God. God came down upon Moses, shrouding him in a cloud of glory, and Moses had fellowship there with the Lord Almighty. So this has a déjà vu feel about it. But this scene is also a kind of preview of coming attractions. This transfiguration story carries a promise in its pocket, a glimpse of our future. You can almost hear a trumpet warming up in the background.
These two stories must go together. We dare not have one without the other. We are not meant to carry the weight of Christ's cross or our own without also seeing Christ's glory. Christians who do not make room to contemplate the glory of Christ walk with a limp, they're off balance.
Seeing Christ in his glory
To bear the cross, Christians must see the glory of Christ. Mark reports three stunning aspects of this scene. In verses 2-3, the Greek word behind "transfigured" is metamorphed. Jesus morphed. It is hard to wrap our heads around what those disciples saw. Matthew writes, "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light" (17:2). Luke says, "His clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning." Be sure you understand that Jesus didn't morph out of humanity into something else. It's more that he morphed out of mortality and into the undisguised glory of God which was always his. Also, this light of God didn't descend upon Jesus the way it had upon the Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. It shone out from within him. He is the glory of God! He is alive with light. Revelation says that in heaven there will be no need of sun or moon because "the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp." John wrote, "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all." For two thousand years, God's people had been blessed by the words, "May his face shine upon you," and there on that mountain, it literally did!
Luke adds that Moses and Elijah also "appeared in glorious splendor," which gives you a glimpse at our own future appearance. Luke also says, "They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem." Out of all the Old Testament greats, why these two? Turn to Malachi 4:4-6, the very last words of the Old Testament, God's last words to his people before he fell silent for four hundred years. Verse 4: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel." God did not tell Israel to "remember the law of Moses" simply so they'd be moral, upright, religious people through those silent centuries. He told them so that they would be ready for the coming of Christ, so that the symbols and ceremonies Moses taught would be fresh in their hearts when Jesus came to fulfill and personify them, so that their hearts would be restless and ready to leave the long wilderness of waiting and enter the promised land of life under the Messiah. In Deuteronomy 18:15, Moses told Israel, some 1,500 years before Jesus, "The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." Now there on that mountain, Moses, aglow himself with eternal life, met that great Prophet and heard God himself say, "Listen to him!" Moses had set before Israel all these powerful symbols of the coming Christ, and now there he was, talking with their Passover Lamb and their Sabbath Rest; he was talking with the one who would part the waters of death for God's people. Here was Moses, who had received God's stone-carved law on Mt. Sinai, now talking with the living Word of God.
Elijah was the quintessential "voice crying in the wilderness." All the Old Testament prophets called God's people back to God. They called them to prepare the way for the Lord, warning them to repent, promising them God's grace if they did. And Elijah was their captain, their pattern. He worked miracles that were miniatures of what Jesus himself would do. He called down fire on the 400 toxic prophets of Baal. He was rejected and alone. He himself did not die, but was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire, as if he was called out of town and would come back to finish things up. So in the very last words of the Old Testament, Malachi wrote in Malachi 4:5-6, "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."
God left his people peering into the future for the second coming of another Elijah, the patron prophet of preparation. And now, here he was on that mountain talking with Jesus. Talking, I suppose, about the long wait and all the promises of the prophets. I wonder if they talked about Isaiah's prophecies of a great Servant who would die as a lamb for the sins of us all; if they talked about Daniel's vision of "one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven," whose "kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." Elijah and Moses displayed to the disciples and us that all the plans and promises of God across all the centuries of the Old Testament came down to Jesus Christ.
Mark 9:5-7: More about Peter's tent idea in a moment, but it is almost as if God Almighty said, "If anyone is going to build a shelter for Jesus, it will be me," and he drew down the draperies of his own glory around them. God's declaration sounds familiar to us. At Jesus' baptism "a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased'" (1:11). Why was it important for the disciples to hear God say it again, here at this time: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!"? It is because Jesus had begun teaching them about the coming cross, because they would watch Jesus be rejected and suffer. Soon it would seem that no one claimed Jesus as God's Messiah, and they would hear Jesus cry in the agony of his death throes, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" But there on that mountain it was as if God were saying, "You're going to see and hear all kinds of profoundly confusing things in the days ahead, but do not doubt this for a minute: This is the Son I love, and he is the one you are to listen to. He is the Messiah, and the living Word, no matter what it will look like. Trust me."
Seeing Christ's glory in his death and resurrection
Embedded in this story are three somewhat clumsy responses of the disciples. But their questions are important. Why couldn't they build shelters for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus? Why couldn't they say anything about this amazing experience till after Jesus rose from the dead? And why does the Bible say Elijah has to come before the Messiah? All those questions lead to this: To bear the cross, Christians must see the glory of Christ in his death and resurrection.
Verses 5-6: When Peter saw Moses, Elijah, and Jesus all revealed in glory, he thought this was the big ending, and the credits would soon roll. It didn't occur to him that this was a temporary situation. He wanted to start a base camp for worship in God's new kingdom, but it wasn't time yet. The big ending—actually, the big beginning—was yet to come.
Verses 9-10: You can imagine that having just seen Jesus in all this glory, along with two long-gone men who were gloriously alive, it was a little hard for those three disciples to find a context for Jesus' words about "rising from the dead." How could this Jesus, so blindingly alive, possibly die? How could he die in any normal sense of the word when the God who loved him as his Son had just told them to listen to him? It just didn't add up. And it wouldn't until after Jesus died and rose again and began to teach them how all the pieces fit together. That's why Jesus told them not to talk about it.
Verses 11-13: They were thinking about that passage from Malachi, which we've already looked at. They had just seen Elijah, of course, so they're just trying to put the pieces together. Jesus' answer was strange: first, because he doesn't point to the Elijah they had just seen (Let's call him Elijah the First). Jesus pointed to John the Baptist, whom Jesus is telling them, to their confusion, was Elijah the Second. Revelation tells us that near the end there will be an Elijah the Third. But the other strange thing about Jesus' answer is its dark tone: "They have done to him everything they wished." John the Baptist had been beheaded by King Herod. Anyone waiting for Elijah as the forerunner of the Messiah would have expected someone a lot more like the Elijah with Jesus on the mountain than the Elijah decapitated by Herod. But Jesus is saying that the Elijah who prepared the way for him suffered and died at the hands of the faithless. This was ominous preparation for the Messiah who would follow.
So no tents or talking yet because neither the glory of Christ, nor the prophecies of the Old Testament, nor the full extent of God's love for his Son would be clear until Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. Then they would understand. Then they could tell what they'd seen. Then they could worship with new eyes and new hearts.
There are weights that only Christians carry: the weight of Jesus' awful death, that he died for you and me; the weight of repentance practiced with burdensome regularity; the weight of carrying the gospel into a dark world; the weight of living holy lives when all the while our old nature complains and drags us backward; the weight of living in this dying world when we long for a better home; the weight of dying to self, of serving thanklessly.
So lest we walk with a limp from all that weight—heavy hearted Christians, burdened and bent—we need to see the glory of Christ. It is the blessed counterbalance. Do not fix your eyes on the crucifix, on the dying, suffering Jesus. Rather, look in your prayers to Jesus shining like the sun, to Jesus alive with light, to Jesus who reigns in glory. Look to Jesus breaking from the grave, to Jesus rising into the heavens, to Jesus seated at the right hand of God, to Jesus, the Lamb upon the throne, the Rider on the White Horse, to Jesus the Shining Victor.
When life seems tangled, when nothing seems to work out, when there seems to be no answer for terrible losses or cruelty or power, remember Moses and Elijah there talking with Jesus, putting all the pieces together, seeing how God worked all things together for good, even through the rejection, suffering, and death of his glorious Son. There is nothing in this terrible world that will not bow to Jesus. There is no crime or catastrophe that will not be brought under his scepter. When the weights are heavy upon you, remember how deep the Father's love for his Son is, and how great their sacrifice for us is.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.