Conversations: Jesus and Moses, Elijah, Peter, James and John
Text: Mark 9:2-13
Speaker: Pastor Paul McPheeters
We are continuing in our series of sermons on “Conversations with Jesus.” And today I’d like to take you to mountaintop conversation Jesus has which included all kinds of interesting people: heavenly figures like Moses and Elijah, along with three very earthly guys like Peter, James, and John.
It’s the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus up on the mountain top. That day when Peter, James, and John saw Jesus take on a radiant appearance, and when they heard the voice of God himself in the conversation, proclaiming Jesus to be His beloved Son.
It’s quite a conversation. Let’s listen in ourselves and see what we might hear and learn today.
So Peter, James, and John got an eye-full that day, didn’t they? Jesus all aglow and having a conversation with Moses and Elijah, and with God the Father Himself!
I mean, this was probably the kind of moment the disciples had been hoping for all through Jesus’ ministry. A day when Jesus would really look like the glorious Messiah, all radiant and powerful. I mean, that’s the kind of Messiah we’d all like to see, right?
And then the voice of God the Father speaking from the cloud and pronouncing loudly that Jesus is the beloved son. My friends, this was a ‘Messiah moment’ if there ever was one. The funny thing is, seeing all of this and being privy to this heavenly conversation didn’t seem to have helped the disciples figure Jesus out any more than they could before.
First, seeing Jesus all aglow scared them to death. Mark says in v. 6 that they didn’t even know what to say because they are all so frightened.
But secondly, as soon as the conversation ended, and the glow was gone, and Moses and Elijah had departed, the upshot of the conversation was the news that Jesus was going to go to Jerusalem to suffer much and be rejected and killed.
And you see, that was not the conclusion that a major-Messiah moment like this was supposed to lead to. That was not what the disciples wanted to hear in this conversation. They wanted to hear that Jesus would go to Jerusalem and glow like that, and wow the crowds, and be acclaimed as Messiah by everyone.
But Jesus tells his disciples that that was not the plan. And he goes on to tell them that they were not to even mention they had just seen up on that mountain to anybody. Not a word about it until after he had been “raised from the dead.” And Mark says they didn’t know what ‘rising from the dead’ even meant.
So you see, this amazing mountaintop experience with a conversation with Moses and Elijah doesn’t leave the disciples excited about the mission, and assured of Jesus identity, and ready to take on the world. This whole experience leaves them bewildered and confused. It’s a conundrum. They have finally seen Jesus look like the kind of Messiah they had expected, And they’re not allowed to even tell anyone about it. Instead Jesus says, “I’m going to Jerusalem to die.”
None of it makes any sense to Peter, James, and John. They’re left discussing what “rising from the dead” could mean. So what do we make of this whole event, and of a conversation that Jesus has on a mountaintop with two Old Testament figures, Moses and Elijah, who had been dead for over 1000 years at that point? Is it a conundrum for us?
Well, yes it is. So, let’s take first let’s just look at the setting of the whole event; and all the symbolism wrapped up in it.
The scene takes place up on a high mountain. Mountains are places of divine revelation all over the Old Testament, especially with Moses and Elijah. You may remember that it was at Mt. Sinai that Moses saw the burning bush, and then later received the 10 Commandments. And it was on Mt. Carmel that Elijah defeated all the prophets of Baal, and then later it was on Mt. Horeb that Elijah heard God speaking to him in the still, small voice.
And maybe you remember with Moses that when he was up on Mt. Sinai receiving the 10 Commandments, God descended on the mountain in a cloud, just like happens here with Jesus. And when Moses came back down the mountain to the people, his face was radiant with the glory of God, just like happens here with Jesus.
So all of these elements in this story: the mountain, the cloud of God’s presence, the radiant appearance of Jesus, Moses and Elijah; everything that happens in this passage is all full of Old Testament imagery and meaning.
And these two figures, Moses and Elijah, represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses was the one who brought the law of God down the mountain on the two tablets of stone. And Elijah, was the great prophet of Israel, who represents all the prophets, and who was to be the fore-runner of the Messiah.
Elijah was the prophet who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and every Jew expected that it was Elijah who would return just before the coming of the Messiah to usher in the coming Kingdom of God.
And so there they are, Moses and Elijah themselves, speaking in this conversation with Jesus. And the disciples are naturally stunned. But the cloud of God’s glory descends and envelopes them, too. And then the voice of God speaks, just like He did with Moses at Mt. Sinai; just like He did with Elijah at Mt. Horeb. And just like He had done with Jesus at his baptism. And again the Father says of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him.”
And you know, there is a funny little sense here that God might be speaking directly to Peter after his little outburst about the tents, and saying, “Peter, just be quiet for a bit and listen to Jesus, will ya?”
But I believe there really is far more than that going on here. Here are Moses and Elijah of all people standing with Jesus on the top of a mountain. Moses representing the Torah, the law of God. And Elijah representing all of the prophets of God. But the disciples are not asked to sit down and listen to them. No. They are asked to listen to Jesus, because he is God’s own beloved Son.
And Moses and Elijah are also being addressed by the voice of God from the cloud. They, too, are supposed to listen to Jesus. Jesus is their superior. And they are not offended by that. They know it full well already. They are here on the mountain for him! And their lives were lived in the hope and expectation of Jesus’ coming. The law and the prophets speak of Jesus: they proclaim him, they point to him, they teach him.
And so when the Messiah comes, Moses and Elijah and the law and the prophets, all bow down to him. Jesus is their fulfillment.
But now comes the conundrum. Jesus, the Son, whom all are to listen to, his message is that in order to fulfill the Scriptures, in order to fulfill the law and the prophets, he must go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the Jewish leaders, suffer and die. And then on the third day be raised again.
Moses and Elijah presumably already know this. But the disciples do not. And to them, this does not sound like a fulfillment of the Scriptures concerning the Messiah. It is certainly not a fulfillment of their expectations concerning the Messiah. They come down the mountain scratching their heads and trying to figure out what they have just seen and heard.
And what they end up asking is about Elijah, and their expectations of him. Here they have just seen Elijah, but wasn’t Elijah supposed to come just before the coming of the Messiah? Wasn’t he supposed to usher in the Kingdom of God?
And Jesus replies, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things….and I tell you, Elijah has come and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.”
And what Jesus means here, is that it was John the Baptist, who came in the spirit of Elijah, preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah, calling God’s people to repentance and faith. But what happened to John, was that the authorities arrested him, and jailed him, and King Herod ultimately had his head cut off and brought to him on a platter.
My friends, Jesus is strongly implying to his disciples that what happened to John the Baptist, was also PART OF John’s preparation for the coming of the Messiah. What happened to John was actually setting the pattern of what would also happen to the Messiah. He, too, would be rejected, suffer, and die.
My friends, no one expected that this was the way Elijah would be received when he came in fulfillment of the Scriptures to prepare the way for the Messiah. And no one expected that this would be the way the Messiah would be received when he came in fulfillment of the Scriptures. But Jesus says here, even this is all a fulfillment of the Scriptures. The Messiah’s coming was not to be a mountaintop experience of glory like the disciples had just tasted. It was not to be a radiant and heavenly joy.
It was rather to be a death on a cross, and a resurrection. That was the plan of the Father. That was the fulfillment of the Scriptures. That was what Jesus the Son was fully committed to accomplishing. The disciples were to simply listen to him, and for the moment to keep their own mouths shut about it all.
As we make our own way through this season of Lent, heading towards that cross of Good Friday, and towards the resurrection of Easter Sunday, we need to know that the fulfillment of God’s plan for our own lives may well involve a good bit of conundrum. Our expectation of the way God should fulfill his plan for our lives, and for our church may not match up at all with the reality of the way God will work it out.
And conversations with God in prayer, even really “good” prayer times where we sense God’s presence and words from the Bible jump off the page to us and seem to speak right to our hearts, they may not leave us feeling clear-minded and comforted. God’s word to us might be that things are going to get worse before they get better. That’s what the path of death and resurrection is all about. Things will get worse before they get better.
And this isn’t what we want to hear from God. What we want to hear are the great Scriptural promises like from Jeremiah 29: where God says to Israel,
“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.”
And that’s a great promise, and it’s one I am hanging onto in this whole time of transition we are in the midst of. But the problem is, God gave this promise to his people when they had been carted off into exile in Babylon. They were walking through a time of death as a nation, when all hell had broken loose and they were in misery. God spoke to them of a future and a hope, but it lay on the other side of the time of exile.
You see, we want God to give us mountaintop experiences of radiant glory. But then God takes us to a valley of dry bones. He takes us through death experiences, and He asks us, ‘Can these bones live?’ And we know they can’t. And dry bones aren’t what we expected. And we feel so let down. We feel forsaken. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. God has disappointed us. Our hopes are dashed. Our expectations of his goodness are crushed. And God says, “It’s about resurrection. I make dead bones live.”
The problem is, you don’t get to resurrection except by dying. For God, that is the path to life. That is the fulfillment of His plan. That is the way He works. We want it some other way. But the voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son. Listen to Him.”
Listen to His words. Listen to his life. Listen to his death and resurrection. Listen to my Son. Walk with him. Die with him. Rise with him. Follow him.
Let us pray.