1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” 2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.”
Take a moment and think back to somebody you love who is no longer with you. Perhaps you are thinking of a grandparent or a parent. Perhaps you are thinking about somebody else. Now think about the most precious memories you have of your life with that person. I would be willing to bet that two or three memories come immediately to mind. Those memories you just recalled are important. They are likely your mountaintop moments with that person.
Would you like to know something amazing? In the two letters that Peter wrote (1 and 2 Peter) he only mentions one specific episode from all of his time with Jesus. Of all that Peter saw and experienced when he walked with Jesus, he only recalls for us one moment, and it is, literally, a mountaintop experience. He recounts it in the first chapter of 2 Peter.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.
“We were with him on the holy mountain.” What is Peter talking about? He is talking about the scene that Mark describes in Mark 9:1-13. The fact that this is the one episode Peter recounts means it was very important to him. This means it should also be important to us.
As we approach the significance of this passage, we will do so from the angle of Peter’s reaction at the time to what he saw and, specifically, the mistakes that Peter’s reaction reveals. That is, we will start in the valley of error and work up to the mountaintop of transfiguration.
The mistake of religious noise and ritual instead of real growth.
The first mistake that Peter’s response reveals is the mistake of elevating religious noise and ritual instead of seeking real growth.
1 And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” 2 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.
We begin with Jesus’ provocative statement, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.” Jesus has therefore hinted that something powerful is about to happen, something having to do with the coming of the kingdom in power, and that some standing there would see it. Six days later, He took Peter, James, and John with him on top of a mountain. While there, Jesus is transfigured: his clothes become an unearthly white and then, amazingly, Elijah and Moses appear and begin talking to Jesus!
We must try to come to terms with this utterly shocking turn of events…though we will fail in trying. How to comprehend this? It is astonishing and it is shocking. Elijah and Moses, long dead, appear and start talking with Jesus! Jesus is emanating a dazzling and resplendent white!
The reaction of Peter, James, and John is therefore not surprising: “they were terrified.” We would be too! Not only were they terrified, but Mark also tells us that Peter “did not know what to say.”
Peter is terrified.
Peter does not know what to say.
So Peter speaks.
This is rarely a good idea when one is terrified and does not know what to say.
There is something about preachers that makes them think they must say something at all times! So Peter speaks: “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.” This is a flabbergasting statement considering what is happening. The Lord Jesus has been revealed in power and glory, He is emanating the light of Almighty God, and two long-dead heroes of the faith, Elijah and Moses, have miraculously appeared to talk with him. What an unbelievably awesome turn of events! And all that Peter can muster is, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here”?
I like to imagine that Peter’s outburst interrupted the conversation between Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. I like to imagine him fumbling nervously on the outside of that sacred circle and then loudly interjecting his ill-timed comment. I further like to imagine Elijah and Moses turning slowly to look at Peter and then them looking back at Jesus curiously. I then like to imagine Jesus take a deep breath and saying, “Sorry. He is with me.”
Talk about misreading a moment! “Rabbi, it is good that we are here”? Peter feels that he must speak. Then Peter makes a proposal: “Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” What on earth is happening here? Besides Peter’s continuing efforts to outdo himself in saying silly things, he is perhaps frantically latching onto the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, also called Sukkot, also called the Feast of Booths. This was a Jewish ritual remembrance of Israel’s deliverance from bondage in Egypt. In the Feast of Booths, Jews would gather in Jerusalem and make little booths, huts essentially, and live in them during the feast to remember the wandering of the people and to remember the faithfulness of God. Or perhaps Peter is thinking somehow of the Tabernacle itself, the wilderness place of worship in which the Jews would offer sacrifice to God and in which the priest would stand before God.
Peter, in his nervousness and sense of insufficiency, instinctively appeals to the one thing he knows can help him begin to make sense of the divine presence: religious noise and religious ritual. “Let us build something! Let us do something! Something should be done!”
It might be argued that religion is what human beings lapse into when they know they are in the presence of a holy God but when they have no idea what to do in that presence! It is understandable, but it is also woefully inadequate. In nervously appealing to religious busyness, Peter was missing the point in profound ways: he was in the presence of the glory of God! He eventually understood this, of course, as his later reference to this episode in his letters reveals, but here he missed it.
Adela Collins believes that “Peter is proposing that the triple epiphany be commemorated at least by the building of a shrine and perhaps by some regular ritual observance.” And there you have it: the building of a shrine the creation of a ritual observance. Human religion. Peter was faced with an amazing opportunity to see, to experience, to be in the presence of God Himself, and all he could do was conjure up a nonsensical religious proposal.
It strikes me that I am Peter, that we are Peter. We too throw ourselves into the ritual of religion when God is calling us to the adventure of a relationship and to actual and real growth. We too feel like we must say something and do something to honor the divine presence. But what if God does not want our religious busyness. What if God wants us instead? Beware the danger of religious language and religious busyness that blinds us to the presence of God!
The mistake of religious ecstaticism instead of cross-carrying discipleship.
That is not all. To get at what is happening in the beginning of Mark 9 we need to recall what happened at the end of Mark 8. Listen:
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” 34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Here is where the chapter/verse divisions are unfortunate. If you do not let the end of Mark 8 flow unhindered into Mark 9 you miss a key point: immediately preceding the mount of transfiguration, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying that he had to go to Jerusalem to be killed and to rise again. Immediately before the mount of transfiguration, Jesus rebuked Peter with “Get behind me, Satan!” for his earthly thinking and for trying to dissuade Jesus from the cross. So immediately before the mount of transfiguration, Peter was trying to stop Jesus from moving forward. So Jesus tells the disciples that to follow Him means to carry a cross and to follow Him is to let go of the frantic need for safety and survival. To follow Jesus means to trust Him and to embrace His path to Calvary.
All of that is still fresh on Peter’s mind when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John onto the mountain. Jesus is transfigured. Elijah and Moses appear. Peter, James, and John suddenly find themselves in the midst of the most powerfully ecstatic scene they have ever witnessed: the unveiling of Christ’s glory and power. They are being given a glimpse of the glorified Christ, a glimpse of what Christ will look like after His resurrection. They are seeing something beautiful.
Just before this Jesus had said something terrifying. Now Jesus shows them something beautiful.
Is it any surprise then that Peter’s proposal was a proposal that would have kept them on the mountain? Is it any surprise then that Peter wants to stay in that moment? With this in mind, read Peter’s comment again with the following emphasis:
5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.”
Ah, yes! It is as if Peter is saying, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here…because if we are here, then we are not there. If we are here on the mountain of religious ecstaticism then we are not there on Calvary! If we can stay here in this beautiful moment, then we do not have to go there to that ugly cross! Let us stay here! Let us stay in this moment! I know: we will build three tents, one for each of you. In that way, you can all stay here and we will stay here with you. Let us stay on top of this mountain! May it never end! It is good that we are here!”
We get further evidence that the cross might is behind Peter’s statement from Luke. Only Luke tells us what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were discussing. We read this in Luke 9:
28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.30 And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, 31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
Amazing! They were discussing what was about to happen in Jerusalem: the cross, the resurrection, and then the ascension. If they were discussing this and if Luke knew about it, that means that one or all of the three on the mountain heard it. That means that Peter’s interruption was an interruption of a conversation about the coming crucifixion! Peter does not like talk about the cross. He does not care for this. So he interrupts and proposes that they build tents, that they stay on the mountain.
Danny Akin sees in Peter’s suggestion the proposal “that this mountaintop summit should be continued…” That is perfectly reasonable. Joel Marcus put it like this:
[Peter’s] exclamation might suggest a reprehensible desire to linger on the Edenic mountain with Jesus. Such a desire might be construed as conflicting with the divine command, “Listen to him” (9:7). Listening to Jesus means hearkening to his exhortation to take up one’s cross and follow (8:34), and that means descending with Jesus from the Mount of Transfiguration into the valley of huma weakness, need, and pain (cf. 9:14-29)—the valley in which Jesus himself will soon lose his life…
Yes, there is something within us all that wants to “linger on the Edenic mountain with Jesus.” Give us religious ecstaticism over cross-carrying discipleship and we will be happy. Give us the glory of the mountaintop over the pain of Jerusalem. Give us the thrill of the shining light over the agony of the whips and nails. Give us transfiguration but keep us from cross-carrying transformation.
But here is the truth: the path of Christ leads to the cross and empty tomb. We should praise God for the moments of splendor but we should not avoid the moments of pain when we are called to them, for the God of the mountaintop is likewise the God of the cross. We cannot have one without the other on this side of heaven. We must be willing to take up our cross!
The mistake of seeing Jesus as one among many instead of the one and only.
Finally, Peter appears to be also misunderstanding the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only. 9 And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.
Peter is awestruck at seeing Jesus, Moses, and Elijah together. But he seems not to realize that Moses and Elijah appear not to create a trinity of praise but rather to lift up, to exalt, to magnify the one that is above them all: Jesus. Michael Card observes that Moses and Elijah are “the only two prophets who ascended Sinai and met with God (Ex 19:1-3; 1 Kings 19:8-18—Sinai is referred to as ‘Horeb’ in the 1 Kings passage).” So once again, Moses and Elijah come to the mountain to meet with God. His name is Jesus!
But Peter seems to be caught in the moment to the extent that he misses the point. We can see this in a few ways. First, Peter’s reference to Jesus as “Rabbi” is curious, as R.T. France explains:
The vocative [Rabbi], occurring here for the first time, means the same as [teacher]…but in this context, where Jesus has been revealed to be so much more than merely a human “teacher”, it seems even more inadequate. It appropriately conveys Peter’s total failure to grasp the significance of the occasion, and fits well with his bizarre proposal to erect shelters on the mountain for each of the august “teachers.”…Peter is simply doing the best he can to rise to the occasion, caught up in a unique and incomprehensible situation
Is Peter viewing Jesus as simply one of three great personages? It would appear so. Perhaps, as Ben Witherington proposes, we can see Peter’s adventure in missing the point even in the fact that he proposes to build three booths:
The point here is not to rank Jesus with such company but to distinguish him from them, for only he is left standing after the transfiguration and the divine voice points the disciples’ attention squarely to him. The disciples clearly enough, as represented by Peter, are still in the mode of ranking Jesus with the prophets, for the proposal is to build three booths, not one throne.
Understanding this, we can now understand the voice from heaven more fully. Note the emphases:
5 And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” 8 And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
The Lord appears to be saying, “Peter, you misunderstand: Elijah and Moses are great men, but Jesus is my Son! He is so much more! You do not need three booths, for my Son is not merely one among three! So shhhhhhhhhh! Peter, stop talking and listen. And listen to Jesus!” Then Moses and Elijah disappear! They are gone! Why? Because they are not intended to be the object of our awe, only Jesus is!
Beware of allowing your religious excitement to blind you to truth. There are many wonderful and varied people and things in God’s creation, but Jesus is Lord of all! There have been many wonderful holy people through the ages, but Jesus is Lord of all!
The mount of transfiguration carries with it certain temptations, but it also carries with it the opportunity to see God in His glory and power…and all of that glory and power is situated in Jesus! Come and see King Jesus! Here is there on the mountaintop in glory and He was there also on the cross of Calvary. And now He is here and He is at the right hand of the Father.
The King has come.
The King is coming.
Call upon His name.
 Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark. Hermeneia. Ed., Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p.424.
 Daniel L. Akin, Mark. Christ-Centered Exposition. (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2014), p.181.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.639.
 Michael Card, Mark. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), p.115-116.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Gen. Eds., I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.353-354.
 Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001), p.260.