When I was at university in Edinburgh, training for the ministry, the New Testament professor would choose difficult verses for us to exegete or to interpret for our homework. One such verse was John 1:51 where the Lord said to Nathanael that you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. And if you picked up a commentary or if you went through the academic journals in a university library, you’d discover that scholars have written thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words on that one verse to try to figure out exactly what the Lord meant when he said those words to Nathanael. Another of those difficult verses which were were assigned was Mark 9:1 where the Lord said to his disciples:
I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.
As an indication of how difficult this verse is to interpret, just notice where it’s placed in the NIV version of the Bible. Although it’s verse 1 of chapter 9, modern English Bibles often put it at the end of chapter 8 as if it concludes the previous section where the Lord was talking about how he would suffer many things and be rejected by the religious authorities and be killed before rising from the dead. All of that will happen to him; nevertheless, despite his suffering and death, some of his disciples will see God’s kingdom coming with power. But then other scholars believe this verse belongs with what follows and with the account of the Transfiguration. The fact that we’re not entirely sure where this verse belongs shows the trouble we have in interpreting it.
So, what makes this verse so hard to interpret? Well, when the Lord refers to God’s kingdom coming with power, it sounds as if he’s talking about his second coming, when he will come with the clouds and with all of God’s angels and with power and authority to judge the living and the dead. He seems to be talking about his second coming. But then he says some of his disciples will not die before that day. Well, all of his disciples have now died and he hasn’t yet returned. So, was he mistaken? Did he expect the second coming to happen sooner? Well, that can’t be right, because we believe he’s the Son of God who does not make mistakes and whose word is always true. So, he can’t be referring to his second coming.
So, what does he mean when he says they will see the kingdom of God come with power? There are a number of different options, including: firstly, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came on his people and filled them with power to bear witness to him and thus to extend his kingdom throughout the world; secondly, the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 when God’s judgment fell on the Jews for their unbelief; thirdly, experiencing Christ’s power personally in their own lives; fourthly, his resurrection from the dead; and fifthly, his Transfiguration on the high mountain. No doubt there have been other suggestions as well, but those are the main ones. My own view is that he’s referring to both the Transfiguration and to his resurrection from the dead. Or more precisely: he’s referring to the Transfiguration which only some of them saw — Peter, James, and John — but the Transfiguration was a preview of the glorious power he will possess after his resurrection from the dead. So, some of them — Peter, James and John — will receive a foretaste of the power he will possess whenever he was raised from the dead and installed as king over all at God’s right hand in heaven.
‘Now, hang on!’, some of you might be thinking. All through the gospel the Lord has been demonstrating his power and authority. Every time he healed the sick, every time he cast out demons, every time he taught the people, he was revealing that he’s God’s Anointed King with the power and authority to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom. He’s been doing that all along. All along he’s possessed power. Now you’re saying that God’s kingdom has not yet come with power and the disciples have to wait for his resurrection before they will see the kingdom of God come with power? That can’t be right! Can it?
We’ve seen something of his power and authority. Every time he healed the sick, every time he cast out demons, every time he taught the people, he revealed something of his power and authority. But the power and authority he exercised before his resurrection was nothing compared to the power and authority and the glory he exercised after his resurrection. Let me quote from our church’s Shorter Catechism to explain what I mean. First of all, question 27 of the Shorter Catechism asks:
In what did Christ’s humiliation consist?
You see, the writers of the Catechism divide the Lord’s work into two phases or two states: the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. He’s the Eternal Son of God who humbled himself and became a man. However, after he humbled himself, he was exalted to God’s right hand in heaven. So, in what did his humiliation consist? Here’s the answer:
Christ’s humiliation consisted in being born, and that in poor circumstances; in being subject to God’s law; in undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God and the curse of death on the cross; in being buried; and in continuing under the power of death for a time.
So, he’s the Eternal Son of God, equal to the Father and the Spirit in glory and power for ever and for ever. And yet, the Eternal Son of God was born in a stable. And though he’s the Son of God who rules over all, he had to submit himself to God’s law and to follow all those commandments which we read about in the Old Testament. And though all things were made through him, he was often hungry and thirsty and tired. And though he deserves our worship and praise, he was rejected by men and killed on the cross and buried in the ground. His life on earth was not a glorious life, but it was a hard life, a life of suffering and troubles and trial. It was a time of weakness and death and humiliation, despite the many miracles he performed.
But all of that changed whenever he was raised from the dead. Listen again to the Catechism. Question 28:
In what did Christ’s exaltation consist?
And here’s the answer:
Christ’s exaltation consists in his rising again from the dead on the third day; in ascending into heaven; in sitting at the right hand of God the Father; and in coming to judge the world at the last day.
So, after the humiliation phase of his work, there came the exaltation phase of his work when he was raised from the dead and exalted to God’s right hand in heaven, where he now rules and reigns as king over all, extending his kingdom throughout the world. And he will continue to rule like that — powerfully and gloriously — until he comes again to judge the living and the dead. During his earthly ministry, he experienced suffering and weakness and troubles and trials. After his resurrection, he was installed as king over all and he rules powerfully over all. And his Transfiguration on the mountain was a preview of the glorious power he was going to possess after his resurrection from the dead.
Some interpreters say the Transfiguration was a revelation of Christ’s deity. You know, his true nature as the Son of God was revealed for a brief moment to Peter, James and John. But it wasn’t so much a revelation of his deity, but a revelation of the glory that he would possess as the resurrected Saviour of the world.
Verses 2 to 3
So, that’s verse 1 where the Lord refers to his Transfiguration which only some of his disciples saw; and the Transfiguration was a preview of the glory he was going to possess after his resurrection from the dead.
And so, let’s turn to the account of the Transfiguration. And we read in verse 2 how he took Peter, James and John with him to a high mountain, where they were all alone and there he was transfigured before them. What exactly does that mean? Well, it refers to a transformation in his appearance; Mark tells us his clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. Matthew, in his account of the Transfiguration, tells us as well that his face shone like the sun. So, his face was shining and his clothes were shining.
Does that remind you of anything?
What about in Acts when Saul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the believers. And suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him and he heard a voice. It was the voice of the Lord Jesus Christ, who had been raised from the dead, and exalted to heaven and who now appeared to Saul, with a bright shining light, displaying his glorious power and his powerful glory.
And what about John’s vision of the risen Lord Jesus in Revelation 1 where he describes how the Lord’s head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were like blazing fire; and his face was like the sun, shining in all its brilliance. When John saw him looking like this, he fell down as though dead.
Do you see? Both Paul and John saw what Peter, James and John saw on the mountain when the Lord was transfigured and for a brief moment they were given a preview of the glorious power the Lord was going to possess after his resurrection from the dead, when his days of humiliation and sorrow and suffering were over.
Verses 4 to 7
In verses 4 to 7 we read how Elijah and Moses appeared on the mountain and talked with the Lord Jesus. What did this mean? Well, the whole of the Old Testament is made up of the law and the prophets. The law — or the first five books of the Old Testament — was written by Moses. The rest of the Bible was written by the prophets and Elijah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. So, Moses represents the law; Elijah represents the prophets; and through Moses and Elijah — through the law and the prophets — God used to speak to his people. He revealed himself to his people through the law and the prophets; and all of God’s people were commanded to listen to them: listen to Moses and his law; listen to Elijah and the prophets. But now, on the mountain, the voice of God the Father was heard saying about the Lord Jesus:
This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!
In other words, once I spoke to you through Moses and the law; and once I spoke to you through Elijah and the prophets; or — to paraphrase the book of Hebrews — once I used to speak to you through the prophets at many times and in various ways; but now, in these last days, I have spoken to you by my Son. So listen to him.
God the Father said: ‘Listen to him!’ And that’s what we’re all called to do. We’re all called to listen to the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the one who is uniquely qualified to make known to us the way of salvation, because he alone is God’s Beloved Son; he’s the one who came from God, and he’s the one who has returned to God, and he’s the one who promises everlasting life with God to all who listen to him and who believe in him. So, listen to him and believe in him, because there is no other way to have everlasting life in God’s everlasting kingdom except by listening to and believing in Jesus Christ.
And, of course, if you want proof that there is life after death for those who believe, consider this: Moses and Elijah were there, on the mountain, talking with the Lord Jesus. Elijah, the prophet, never died, but hundreds of years earlier had been taken up from earth to heaven to be with the Lord and to live with him. Moses died hundreds of years before this time and was buried somewhere in Moab. But though his body was buried in the ground, his spirit returned to God who made him. And so, here they were — Moses and Elijah, these two Old Testament saints — alive and talking with their Saviour. And all who believe in the Saviour — as Moses and Elijah did — will live, even though they die, because though we die and our bodies are buried in the ground, the spirits of those who believe return to God who made us and who loved us and who sent his Son to save us so that we might have everlasting life.
Verses 8 to 13
In the rest of the passage, we read how Elijah and Moses vanished from sight. And as the Lord Jesus and Peter, James and John made their way down the mountain, the Lord gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. Do you see that in verse 9? So, since the Transfiguration was a preview of the resurrection, he told them not to say anything about it until after the resurrection.
And we read in verse 10 how they did what the Lord said and they kept it to themselves. However, Mark tells us they used to discuss among themselves what ‘rising from the dead’ meant. So, we can imagine them, when the other disciples were out of earshot, turning to one another to try to figure out what he meant by those words.
Now, why didn’t they understand what he meant? Well, it was presumably because, while the Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead, they thought it would happen at the end of time. Think for a moment of what Martha said to the Lord Jesus in John 11 whenever her brother Lazarus had died. The Lord said to Martha:
Your brother will rise again.
And Martha said:
I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.
At the last day. They believed the resurrection of the dead will happen at the last day. But here was the Lord Jesus, talking about his own resurrection as if it was going to happen sooner than that. So, what did he mean?
They did not yet understand that the Lord Jesus was going to be raised immediately as the firstfruits of those who die. They did not yet understand that the Lord Jesus was going to be raised three days after his crucifixion as the first to rise from the dead. He was going to be the first to rise; and after his resurrection, he was exalted to heaven and glorified, and given the power and authority to give eternal life to his people, so that though we die and our bodies are laid in the ground, our bodies will one day be raised from the grave and we will live with the Lord — in body and soul — for ever and for ever. At the last day — when the Lord comes again — all who believe will be raised to live with the Lord for ever. But the reason we have that hope is because our Saviour died to pay for our sins and he was raised from the dead to give us life.
But what has Elijah got to do with this? Do you see that in verses 11 to 13? They asked him why the teachers of the law said that Elijah must come first, before the resurrection. Well, the teachers of the law said that because God’s word says it. In the very last chapter of the Old Testament, God promised that before the day of the Lord — before God comes to set up his everlasting kingdom — Elijah will come. So, the coming of Elijah will be a sign that the end is near and that God is coming to save his people and to destroy his enemies. And in verse 13, the Lord tells his disciples that Elijah has already come. And by saying that, he was referring to John the Baptist. That’s what Matthew tells us in his account of the Transfiguration. Elijah has come in the form of John the Baptist. And they did to him everything they wished, because King Herod had him killed.
So, according to the last chapter of the Old Testament, the coming of Elijah will be a sign that the end is near and that God is coming to save his people and to destroy his enemies. And according to the Lord Jesus, Elijah has already come in the form of John the Baptist. That means the end is near: we’re living in the last days, waiting for the time when the Lord will come to save his people — all who have trusted in Jesus Christ — and to destroy his enemies — all who have not trusted in Jesus Christ, and who have lived sinful, unbelieving lives. We’re living in the last days.
Now, we don’t know how long the last days will last, and we don’t know when the Lord will come again. But he’s coming; and when he comes, we’ll stand before his judgment seat and whoever has not believed in the Son will be condemned and punished for their sins; whereas all who have believed will be pardoned and brought in to enjoy everlasting life with God. So, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to him, God’s Beloved Son, and you will be saved from the wrath to come.
And when the Lord Jesus comes again, he will raise his people from their graves and we will be glorified in his presence. Peter, James and John received a preview of the Lord’s resurrection glory whenever he was transfigured before them; but it was also a preview of the glory we will receive when he comes again. The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
In Mark 8 the Lord spoke about his own suffering and the suffering his people can expect on the earth in this life. There’s the suffering of persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world. There’s the suffering we experience because of our struggle against sin and temptation. There’s the suffering we experience as part of the miseries of this life, because we live in a fallen world and our daily lives are filled with sorrow and sadness and troubles and trials. Everyone knows what I mean, because we all suffer in many ways.
But despite our present sufferings, we’re to persevere; and we’re to fight the good fight; and we’re to fight against every temptation to give up the faith. We’re to persevere and stand firm, because God has promised that our present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us whenever Jesus Christ returns. When the Lord was transfigured, it was a preview of his resurrected glory; but it was also a preview of our resurrected glory. And so, we’re to stand firm and we’re to encourage ourselves with these words and with this great hope that Christ has given to all who believe in him. Whatever we suffer now, in this life, is nothing compared to the glory that is awaiting us in the presence of our Saviour. So, don’t give up the faith and don’t turn away from the narrow path, because the narrow path — which is often filled with troubles — leads eventually to everlasting life and everlasting glory in the presence of our God.