Bible Study on Mark Lesson 12: The Transfiguration, Faith, and Unbelief Mark 9:1–29

On January 3, 2010, newscaster Brit Hume made a public appeal to golfer Tiger Woods to “turn to the Christian faith.” In response, columnist Tom Shales spitefully compared Hume with “Mary Poppins on the joys of a tidy room, or Ron Popeil on the glories of some amazing potato peeler.”1 For many people, the idea of trusting in Christ is insignificant—at best.

In Mark 9, Jesus’ disciples caught a brief glimpse of His heavenly glory—and saw just how life-changing Christ can be. Considering the weighty trials that we face, we need to experience the glory of God shining in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

“Glory” is one of the most powerful words that the Bible uses to describe God. “Glory” means “significance” or “weightiness.” Glory is the opposite of trivial or unimportant. Christian disciples need to know that God is glorious. Clearly, Jesus’ original disciples needed to hear this. They had been faithfully following Him for some time. They believed He was the Christ, but they had just heard some sobering words about discipleship and cross bearing (Mark 8:34). Perhaps some of them had considered quitting. Was following God worth it? Was the cost too high? The disciples needed an impression of the glory of God to conquer their doubts.

Jesus explained, at the beginning of this chapter, that some of the people in His audience would see the kingdom of God present with power before they died (9:1). Many people probably thought Jesus was talking about an earthly political kingdom. Instead, Jesus was taking about the kingdom of righteousness that He brought through His words and works. Six days after making this mysterious statement Jesus led Peter, James, and John to a secluded mountainside and revealed the kingdom of God present with power. As He showed His glory the disciples were powerfully convinced that Christ is worth following regardless of the cost.

Christ’s timing couldn’t have been better, for as the disciples descended from the mountain they immediately faced their helplessness and their utter need for God’s power.

A Mountaintop Experience (9:1–13)

The humble form Christ assumed at His birth can be misleading. Isaiah sums it up: “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from him” (Isa. 53:2b-3a). But mystically united to this humble frame is a divine nature of pure glory which was briefly revealed to three disciples.

“Jesus Was Transfigured” (9:2)

The verb Mark uses to describe Jesus’ transfiguration is metamorphao, the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” In an instant, His whole form changed. The glory of God, which had been veiled by Christ’s flesh, was temporarily revealed. He shone brighter than the reflection of the snow on a sunny winter day (cf. Matt. 17:2).

Jesus’ transfiguration reminds us that on the night of His birth, heaven opened, “and the glory of the Lord shone” around the shepherds (Luke 2:9). The song of the heavenly hosts began with this word, “Glory!” Not only does Christ’s shining form remind us of His first arrival from heaven, but also it reminds us of His second coming. The last verse of the previous chapter (8:38) says that the Son of Man is coming in the glory of His father. Do not be deceived by Christ’s humility. He is meek. But He is also a glorious king. He suffered at the hands of sinful men, but He was not dragged to His death. He went willingly to pay the price for the sins of His beloved people. On this mountain the disciples briefly glimpsed beyond the humanity of Christ, and they were delightfully terrified (9:6). They learned firsthand that Jesus is not to be trifled with.

Jesus Entertained Visitors

Christ’s transfiguration was marked by the appearance of Moses and Elijah, two prominent Old Testament figures who, significantly, are both referenced in the last verses of the last book of the Old Testament (Mal. 4:4–6). God commanded His people to “Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (Mal. 4:4). At the transfiguration God caused Moses to be engulfed in Christ’s glory on the mountain. The great law giver Moses paid homage to the great law keeper, Christ, confirming that Christ is the prophet like unto Moses predicted more than a millennium earlier (Deut. 18:15, 18–19). Moses’ visitation makes clear that law is important, but until you submit to Christ you cannot be a law keeper.

Joining Moses on the mountain was Elijah. Malachi said that he would come first and restore all things (Mal. 4:5–6). Elijah would turn the hearts of God’s people through repentance. Although Elijah had already come, so to speak, in John the Baptist (Mark 9:13; Matt. 17:13), he now stood face to face with the one to whom repentant sinners must turn to find restoration.

The last word Malachi wrote after mentioning Moses and Elijah, the last word of the Old Testament, is “curse.” Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about His “exodus” (9:31) by which He would remove the curse of His people.

Not surprisingly, Peter didn’t know how to handle the situation—so he decided to open his mouth just wide enough for his foot to fit. “Let us make three tabernacles” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, respectively (9:5). Did Peter seriously think that these three needed the protection of chintzy man-made shelters? Jesus’ body was effusing divine glory. Moses and Elijah had been transported from before the throne of God for this special meeting. And Peter talks about building them booths? Peter often reminds us of the spiritual discipline of silence. Solomon writes: “Do not be quick with your mouth . . . let your words be few” (Eccles. 5:2, NIV). With due respect to Peter, because he didn’t know what to say (9:6) he should have said nothing or asked a simple question like “Master, what shall we do?” Mark records no answer to Peter’s ridiculous statement. Instead, God the Father takes center stage.

Jesus Was Recognized by God

The Father’s statement, “This is my beloved Son, hear Him!” is similar to the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism. But there are significant differences. This time the mountain was engulfed by a cloud, reminiscent of God’s glory which led the people from Egypt to Horeb (Exod. 13:21; 24:15). God’s voice forcefully complements the theme of glory and power communicated by the transfiguration. “Hear Him!” Jesus was the prophet Moses and Elijah anticipated. His words carry the absolute authority of God. The Father explicitly refocuses attention from Moses and Elijah to His Son: “This is my Son!” Whatever glory belongs to Moses or the Law, or Elijah and the prophets, must bow to Christ (cf. Matt. 5:17). After God’s speech, and with symbolic importance, Moses and Elijah disappear (9:8).

“Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (9:9). If the disciples hadn’t understood what had just happened, why would anyone else? Christ’s transfiguration would later be a powerful testimony to the apostolic witness: Even in the midst of His humiliation they had been “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2 Peter 1:16–18). God often teaches us things that we’ll understand only later. His perfect patience and timing are a great comfort to God’s children in times of discouragement. Christians serve a God of infinite glory. In the present age Christ’s glory is somewhat veiled but nonetheless real.

The glory of God represents our hope for positive change. The word for “transfigured” is used only twice outside of this event. In both instances the word refers not to the transfiguration of Christ but to the transfiguration of the Christian. The first instance is Romans 12:2. We are to be transfigured, or transformed, by the renewing of our minds. We study the Word of God so that the Spirit of the glorified Christ will change us from the inside out.

The second passage is even more striking. “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). As we see the absolute brilliance of God in Christ, as we are struck by the sheer significance of our God, we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory. Do you want to be changed into something new? God wants us to know that change comes not by implementing a few tips or strategies but by beholding His glory.

This is a lesson some of the disciples were about to learn in the face of personal inability.

I Think I Can’t, I Think You Can (9:14–29)

One of the most famous moralistic tales elevating the power of positive thinking is The Little Engine That Could. In the story a little blue engine is the only one willing to attempt to pull a stranded train over difficult terrain to its destination. The little blue engine accomplishes the seemingly impossible task by repeating the mantra “I think I can, I think I can.” As cute as this little story might be, all of us know (or will know soon enough) that thinking positively about our own abilities cannot guarantee success.

But if we change that little train’s motto just a bit we have a fairly simple summary of Mark’s message in the second half of Mark 9. The father in this story faces the great burden of finding relief for his demon-possessed son. But he doesn’t say, “I think I can, I think I can.” Instead he says to Jesus, “I think I can’t, I think you can.” Remembering the glorious God we serve, this should be our attitude as we face the problems in our life.

The Problem (9:14–22, 28–29)

The healing of this boy begins with a problem. Actually, Mark interacts with several layers of problems. This is a great way to tell a story because it is suggestive of the great story of mankind as well as the story each of us experience every day.

First, there was the child’s problem of the demon (9:17–18a, 21–22). This poor boy was frequently seized by a spirit that sought to destroy him by casting him into the fire and into the water. It had probably left him with few, if any, friends. His life was ruined. As such he paints a very good picture of natural man with no way to deliver himself.

Second, there was the disciples’ inability to exorcise the spirit which apparently prompted a dispute with the scribes (9:14–16). The scribes were thrilled to point out the disciples’ failure. They may have taunted the disciples by asking, “Where are your powers now!” The disciples were befuddled by this very question (9:28). According to Jesus, the disciples couldn’t cast out the spirit because of their little faith (Matt. 17:20; Luke 17:6). As evidence of their little faith the disciples had approached this problem apart from prayer and fasting (9:29). We may wonder that the disciples tried to solve a problem that was obviously beyond their control without seeking God’s help. But maybe the disciples had been thinking the way we often do. “This isn’t really beyond my control. I know what to do.” But all human effort is impotent without the God’s energizing power (John 15:5). Through fasting we humble ourselves before God while making requests through prayer. Fasting stimulates prayer by exposing personal weakness. Calvin paraphrases Christ’s response to the disciples’ inability: “You seem as if you were engaged in a mock-battle got up for amusement; but you have to deal with a powerful adversary, who will not yield till the battle has been fought out.”2 Are we really so different from the faithless disciples? Do we approach great need with prayer and fasting or without?

Third, there was the general problem of unbelief. Jesus used this occasion to get at the most pervasive problem of all. In denouncing the “faithless generation” (9:19) Jesus seems to be speaking most specifically, though not exclusively, against the scribes. They had seen so many signs, but here they capitalize on one failure to justify their unbelief. Like the scribes we tend to focus on life’s problems often forgetting all the powerful signs of God’s grace we have seen. Unbelief enlarges problems and minimizes God’s power and provision.

The Heart of the Matter: Faith (9:23–24)

In the face of this great problem the father of the demon-possessed boy asked for two things: compassion and help (9:22). But he prefaced these two requests with a bit of skepticism. He didn’t say, “You can do anything!” but, “If you can do anything.” He did believe that Christ can help (otherwise he wouldn’t have asked), but he did have his lingering doubts. Unbelief is severely debilitating. In response Jesus explained that faith in God swings open the door of possibilities: “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes” (9:23).

This needy father answered with one of the simplest expressions of humble faith found in the Bible. He demonstrated faith without arrogance or presumption. It is a saying that every child of God can resonate with: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (9:24). This father’s profession helps us to combat unbelief by honestly examining ourselves and resolutely committing ourselves to Christ’s care. When we take a careful look at our faith we must admit weakness. In general, believers believe. But there are specific areas in which we are prone to doubt. This man had doubts that his son could be healed. For years he had seen him ravaged by this spirit. He had lost hope that anything could help. There might be areas in your life in which you have relinquished hope in God. Have you become content with your anger or rudeness, suspecting that God cannot provide a solution? Do you doubt that God could improve your marriage? Identify your areas of unbelief and ask for God’s help.

The Resolution (9:25–27)

On many occasions God had used the disciples to cast out similar demons. But on this occasion they could do nothing. In fact, their inability to resolve the problem drew a huge crowd and sharp disagreement. The disciples’ failure put Jesus on center stage (9:25). When Jesus cast out the unclean spirit, the child fell down as if dead; so powerful is the strength with which Satan clings to the souls of those he is seeking to ruin. Christ’s power is greater. Calvin said that “Christ has come to bridle [the] rage [of Satan].”3

The Gospel writer Luke provides a powerful connection between the two narratives in this story; Jesus healed this boy the day after the transfiguration (Luke 9:37). It seems that the disciples who failed to cast out the demon were not with Christ on the mountain.4 They lacked an overwhelming sense of His power and glory. What an advantage we have in the full panorama of revelation. Because of His glory Christ is more than able to give us victory over sin and Satan.
            
1. Accessed on January 26, 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/04/AR2010010403101.html.
2. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989), 2:327.
3. Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists, 323.
4. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 345.


Rev. William Boekestein is the pastor of Covenant Reformed Church in Carbondale, PA (URCNA).

Points to Ponder and Discuss

1. Reflect on the following: Something like Christ’s transfiguration takes place every time a person is converted.
2. In what way are the Father’s words in Mark 9:7 a missionary charge to His disciples in every age?
3. How might Christ have been strengthened by His Father’s words?
4. Why do you suppose Jesus asked the question recorded in Mark 9:21?
5. What do you think about the father of the demon-possessed boy confessing his faith and unbelief in public, with a loud voice and tears?
6. Identify areas in your own life where unbelief is stronger than faith.
7. Why do you suppose Christ took the boy by the hand and lifted him up after the demon was driven from him? What does this teach us about Jesus?
8. Has fasting become the forgotten discipline of the confessing church? If so, how should it be recovered?

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