Passage: Mark 9:2–9
Pastor Ray Lorthioir
Trinity Lutheran Church
W. Hempstead, NY
Based on the Gospel Lesson for The Transfiguration of Our Lord, Mark 9:2-9
The mountain upon which Jesus was transfigured is not named in Scripture. It’s simply called “a high mountain” in Mark 9:2. However, there are some hints in Scripture. First of all we learn in Mark 8:27 that Jesus and His disciples traveled to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi is a very ancient city that lies in ruins at the present time. The site is located on the Golan Heights and is currently ruled by Israel.
Just next door are the ruins of the ancient Israelite city of Dan. After King Solomon died, his successor, Rehoboam, alienated the ten northern tribes of Israel so that they rebelled against him and broke away from the house of David. A man named Jeroboam, son of Nebat led the rebellion and became the first king of the breakaway northern kingdom of Israel. But he had a problem. Thus, we read in 1 Kings 12:26-30, “26 Jeroboam thought to himself, ‘The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. 27 If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.’ 28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, ‘It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. 30 And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there.”
So, by remaking a golden calf, Jeroboam caused Israel to sin against Yahweh just like they had during the time of Moses with the golden calf episode. Jeroboam even repeated the same language found in Exodus — “Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” This was idolatry and a very great sin. And that golden calf remained in Dan for hundreds of years until, as punishment, the nation of Israel was destroyed by Assyria in 721B.C. Dan was located right next to Caesarea Philippi.
In Roman times Caesarea Philippi became a popular pagan religious pilgrimage site. People from all over the Roman world would go there to worship the god, Pan. In the cliff wall behind the city location, there’s a deep cave. The primary headwater for the Jordan River used to flow out of this cave. An earthquake in 1,000A.D. redirected the powerful flow of the spring to a location below the cave where it remains to this day. The cave was known as the Gates of Hades or as we would know it, the Gates of Hell. In Roman times and earlier, people would sacrifice their children to the gods by throwing them into the cave and the strong surging river that came out of it. So Caesarea Philippi from times much more ancient than the time of Jesus was a place known for pagan worship and child sacrifice.
But, there’s more. From Caesarea Philippi a road leads northward to the highest mountain peak in the area, Mount Hermon. This mountain is steeped in religious lore. There’s an apocryphal book known as 1 Enoch. The more liberal scholars think it was written somewhere between 500 and 200B.C. Nevertheless, it attributes itself to the Enoch of Genesis chapter 5 who lived before the flood of Noah. This book didn’t make it into the list of books formally recognized as being the inspired Word of God. Thus, you won’t find it in your Bible. However, its contents were well known in the time of Jesus. In fact, both the second letter of Peter and the letter of Jude mention an event from the book of 1 Enoch. Also, 1 Enoch explains the very puzzling verse Genesis 6:4, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days — and also afterward — when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.”
It’s long been a controversy who these “sons of God” are who could marry the “daughters of men.” If 1 Enoch is to be believed, the sons of God are mighty, created spiritual beings who are also mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. We classify them as angels. However, these sons of God are likely of higher origin in creation than mere angels.
1 Enoch tells us that 200 of them were sent down to watch over the earth. They set up shop on the top of Mount Hermon. However, the beauty of the women of earth got to them. Knowing that they were rebelling against Yahweh by doing so, these 200 sons of God took an oath that together they would take human females as wives. Somehow they were able to impregnate their wives. The offspring of these women are known as the Nephilim. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament into Greek done about 300B.C. uses the Greek word for giant to translate the Hebrew word, Nephilim. And 1 Enoch confirms this. It also tells us that these giants were a scourge on the earth; and one of the reasons the great flood came was to eliminate them and their gene pool. In addition, 1 Enoch tells us that when these giants died, their spirits became the evil spirits that have afflicted humanity down to the present.
1 Enoch tells us that the 200 rebellious sons of God taught their wives mystical knowledge and what we would call sorcery. They also taught humanity war. They were known for spiritually and carnally corrupting humanity. For this, they were punished. We read in Jude 6-7, “6 And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. 7 In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Notice. The sins of Sodom and Gomorrah seem to be related to these rebellious sons of God.
Therefore, both Caesarea Philippi and Mount Hermon are associated with deep rebellion against Yahweh. Both are strongly associated with idolatry and sin. Therefore, why did Jesus take His disciples to Caesarea Philippi? And then, why did Jesus go up a nearby high mountain — probably Mount Hermon — there to be transfigured in the sight of Peter, James and John? And why did He do this within only weeks or months of His crucifixion and resurrection?
By going to these locations it’s clear that the Son of God had come to challenge the principalities and powers that ruled in that area. He had come to take back what belongs to Him. He had come to liberate and redeem humanity from the corruption brought by these disobedient ones. His disciples were aware of all this and wrote about it.
In the eighth chapter of Mark we read how at Caesarea Philippi Jesus challenged His disciples by asking them, “who do you say I am?” But it’s in Matthew that we get the Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession. Matthew 16:15-20, “15 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’ 16 Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ 17 Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.”
There’s two things about Jesus’ response that apply directly to Caesarea Philippi. First is the rock. In front of the cliff where the cave is there’s a huge flat solid rock platform on which pagan worship and sacrifices took place. That’s the rock. The second is the “Gates of Hades.” That was the name of the cave itself. The belief was that the cave opening led to the underworld. Hence the name. So, notice. Jesus appropriated the rock and gave that name to Simon. From then on he was called Peter. As I’ve said before, we could actually call Peter, Rocky.
Second, Jesus appropriated the Gates of Hades. He said that the underworld — the realm of the demonic — would not be able to withstand the assault His Church would make against it. Indeed, the only thing the demonic powers can try to do is persecute the Church and try to destroy it. The principalities and powers haven’t succeeded yet. And they won’t. No matter how severe the persecution, a remnant of true believers will always remain. And they will continue to rob souls from the kingdom of darkness. That’s how the Church will prevail.
Now, we get to the Transfiguration itself. Because Peter’s confession of faith happened at Caesarea Philippi, the nearest high mountain from there is Mount Hermon. It’s the highest peak in the region. There are ancient ruins on the flanks of the mountain. And as we saw from 1 Enoch, it’s the place where the 200 Watchers had settled down and later decided to corrupt humanity. Therefore, if Hermon is the mountain that Jesus climbed with Peter, James and John, it was quite significant. It was the Son of God declaring to the rebel hosts of heaven and earth that He had come to end their reign and dominance over earth.
Peter confirms this basic idea in his letters. First, we read in 2 Peter 1:16-18, “16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” Peter’s statement about that mountain being holy is important. We’ll come back to that in a minute. But Peter wants us to know that he and his companions heard the very voice of Yahweh on that mountain.
As we saw in today’s Gospel lesson, Elijah and Moses appeared with Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. As we usually note on the Sunday of the Transfiguration, these two Old Testament figures were with Jesus for two reasons. First, they are the only two men of the Old Testament who climbed Mount Sinai — the mountain of God — to the top. Second, they were the only two who heard the voice of Yahweh and dialogued with Him at the top of Sinai.
There’s a second confirmation in Peter’s letters. 2 Peter 2:4 and 9, “4 For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment . . .9. . . then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.” Verse 4 is specifically speaking of the Watchers who came down on Mount Hermon. 1 Enoch declares that Yahweh punished them by imprisoning them.
Finally, there’s a third confirmation in 1 Peter 3:18-20, “18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, 19 through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison 20 who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.” Lutherans understand these verses to mean that the first appearance Jesus made in His resurrection was to the Watchers who had been imprisoned in the days of Noah. He went into Hades to show Himself as their conqueror, for Jesus had just gained victory over them and Satan on the cross.
Since Jesus’ Transfiguration occurred shortly before He went to the cross, it’s clear that by being transfigured on the very mountain from which rebellion had spread throughout humanity, He was Yahweh Almighty taking back that mountain, that ground. And when in His resurrected body, Jesus went first to the spiritual dungeons where the Watchers were imprisoned, He confirmed to them that He had obediently died for the sins of humanity and had triumphed over what the Watchers had done. They would remain in prison forever.
Because of Jesus’ triumph Peter could then call the very mountain from which wicked rebellion had once flowed a “sacred mountain.” The Greek makes it clear that the translation can also be “holy mountain.” Now, throughout the Old Testament, the term “holy mountain” refers to Jerusalem, the city of the temple of Yahweh and His resting place on earth in the Holy of Holies. Therefore, by declaring Hermon a sacred mountain, Peter declared that from Jerusalem Yahweh had won. He had recaptured what belonged to Him. Hermon would no longer be holy to idolaters. Instead, it would be sacred to Christians.
So as Peter, James and John climbed down with Jesus from the vantage point of Mount Hermon, they had no idea that they were going to Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection. Nevertheless, they were heading toward Yahweh’s victory over sin, death and the power of the devil (which is the power of rebellion). Therefore, from the vantage point of the Transfiguration, we’re now headed with them in the same direction — into the season of Lent, the season of the Passion and the season of the Resurrection. The difference is that we know how it all ended — in victory — Messiah’s victory. And vicariously, this is our victory — your victory, my victory.
We read in Mark 9:9, “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them [the disciples] orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” Therefore, the three disciples had been given a glimpse of the magnificent victory God the Son, incarnate in human flesh, would win for Himself and us. However, the victory would have to be won in the flesh, in rejection, in hideous pain, blood and death. This the disciples could not yet understand. They would have to go through it with Jesus in order to be able to proclaim it to us.
So, what are we being told by the Apostles and the Evangelists? Yahweh, the Son, had to come to do what we could not do for ourselves. There is no way the human race can restore itself to the righteousness of God that Adam and Eve were created in. There is no way we can save ourselves from the curse of death and all the other judgments their rebellion brought upon us. There is no way we can save ourselves from eternal damnation for our rebellion. There is no way to save ourselves from the very great corruption of this present world. For, in one way or another we all participate in it.
All the righteous commands of God, whether they’re in the Old Testament or the New Testament, stand against us to our condemnation and ruin. For we have violated many of them at one time or another in thought, word and deed. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t murdered anyone. Jesus said in Matthew 5:21-22, “21 ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” [a term of utter vilification] is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell.’” Well, that settles that. All us non-murderers are really murderers headed for hell. This is serious business. None of us can save ourselves.
Yet, we read in 2 Peter 1:2-4, “2 Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. 3 His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”
Promises are things that must be believed. Only the one who made the promise can do the thing promised. Therefore, only Yahweh can perform the promises He has made to us in Messiah Jesus. We can’t do a thing.
The only thing Yahweh requires of us is faith that His promises in Messiah Jesus are real and that He’s as good as His promises. And even this faith the Holy Spirit must perform in us because by nature we cannot believe God and His Word. That’s been the way with us ever since Adam and Eve doubted Yahweh’s Word about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Nevertheless, Lord Holy Spirit causes the Gospel to be preached. And as we’re told in Romans 10:17, Lord Holy Spirit works saving faith in us through hearing the good news of Messiah’s triumphant righteousness for us. And as we just read in 2Peter 1:4, through Yahweh’s Gospel promises we forgiven sinners can actually participate in His righteous divine nature. That’s beyond amazing. We can also escape the damnation the corruption of this world and our own evil desires bring us. That’s also beyond amazing. But such is the victory that Messiah has won for us. Let us believe it and enter into the Kingdom of God. Amen.
All Bible quotes are from the NIV.