After viewing Jesus' transfiguration, the disciples still had doubts and questions about the purpose of His ministry. Jesus once again explained who He was and how His coming was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Alistair Begg reminds us that, like the disciples, our understanding of God is often limited. Realizing this should cause us to humbly seek more of Jesus, who is a kind and patient teacher.
We’re going to read again the same passage, or at least part of the same passage, from this morning, from Mark chapter 9. As I said this morning in one of the services, the great advantage in working systematically and consecutively through the Bible is that you don’t skip any parts. And so, when you come to sections of the Bible that are not the easiest to expound, you still have to do your best. And here we are this evening, once again asking for God’s help to do our best with this passage of Scripture. And once I’ve read these few verses, I’m going to pray again, and then we’ll look at them, and then we will proceed to gather around the Lord’s Table.
We’ll read from verse 9. Mark 9:9:
“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.
“And they asked him, ‘Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’
“Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected? But I tell you, Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.’”
Perfectly clear to each of you, right? How’d you like to just sit on a Monday morning and stare at these verses?
Let us pray:
Our God and Father, we thank you for the Bible. We thank you for the promise of the work of the Spirit of God to help us understand its truth and live in the light of it. And for this help we humbly pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Well, what we have here, as some of us saw this morning, is Mark’s account of the transfiguration—an account which also comes in Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 17 and in the Gospel of Luke in chapter 9. We have already, some of us, looked at the scene that is described in verses 2–4, where, with the accommodation to our finite minds, the Holy Spirit has given us some kind of insight into this unveiling, this disclosure of Jesus—something of his glory—in a way that was so markedly different that even the disciples themselves found it hard to understand and to explain. We then sought to listen in on the dialog which takes place as Mark gives it to us between verses 5–8. And now, having looked and listened, we seek to learn as we consider the conversation that takes place on the way down the mountain.
If your mind works like mine, you read up until the first comma, and you find yourself singing, “They’ll be coming down the mountain when they come.” If your mind doesn’t work that way, then I apologize for having sown such a silly and tangential thought, but it just let you see how I read my Bible. “As they were coming down the mountain,” conversation ensued, and Jesus gives to them very specific instructions. This is familiar territory. Jesus has been doing this again and again in a variety of contexts, but now he “gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” That includes the fellow disciples, the other nine that were not present with them on this occasion. It’s quite a tall order, I think you would agree, to have been exposed to something as dramatic as this, something as life-changing as this; you would want immediately to hurry down the mountainside and let everybody know what you had enjoyed, what you had experienced.
And we discover that they were obedient to the command of Jesus, and rightly so. Because they clearly had not grasped the significance of what had taken place. Peter has made that clear by his suggestion that they might erect these shelters, and he is quickly swallowed up by a cloud, as we saw this morning. No, it’s not going to be good for them to go out and tell anyone about this. It will be time enough for them to tell the story to others once they themselves have understood it. But since they as yet do not understand it, it is quite understandable to recognize that Jesus gives the order that he does. They’re not going to be able to make sense of this until after the resurrection.
And so, they had to abide by what he says, and as the journey continues, we discover that they had a question about the future which they decided not to ask, and they had a question about the past which they decided to ask. And if your gaze is on the text, you will see exactly what I mean. Verse 10: “They kept the matter to themselves,” doing as they were told, “discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant.” In other words, they had a question about what Jesus meant when he said they weren’t to tell anyone until they had seen “the Son of Man … risen from the dead.” That raised a question in their minds, which they chose not to ask but decided to discuss with each other.
Now, this may strike us as strange, because we know that Jewish people believed in the resurrection of the dead. They believed in the resurrection at the last day. And so, the disciples clearly were part and parcel of that. If you wanted a cross-reference that makes that perfectly plain, then you could turn at your leisure to John 11, and you will discover what I’m going to read to you now. In the context of the death of Lazarus, you will remember that Martha remonstrates with Jesus. “If you[’d] been here,” she says in John 11:21, “my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” John 11:23: “Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha answered, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,’” when finally there will be the end of all things. And that was the Jewish conception of resurrection. The resurrection at the last day would ring the bell for final judgment. But they had no category, any more than Martha had a category, for a personal resurrection on the part of the Son of Man which preceded this general resurrection at the last day. And so, consequently, it was a matter of confusion to them for Jesus to say, “You need to keep this under wraps until the Son of Man has been raised,” and they must have said to one another, “Do we have to wait until we get to the very end of the age? Do we have to wait until the new age is ushered in? Or what does he mean by this?”
And what they were really having a tough time doing is a tough time that some of us have, and that is figuring out the time frame of things. And so, the question that they didn’t ask, which was the basis of their discussion, gives rise to the question that they do ask. And this is a question, actually, about the past more than it is a question about the future. And verse 11: “And they asked him, ‘Why do the teachers of the law [or the scribes] say that Elijah must come first?’”
Now, if you turn to Malachi, which is not far away from where you are, just back into the Old Testament, and indeed to the last page of your Old Testament—so, you can go back through Matthew, to the beginning of Matthew, and then back a couple of pages, and you will find yourself at Malachi chapter 4—and Malachi says in verse 5, the final two verses of his prophecy, “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” So, the prophet Elijah is going to come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord arrives. “He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” So, not only did the Jewish people anticipate a resurrection at the last day, but they anticipated the appearance of Elijah before the appearing of the Messiah.
Now, if you put this together in your mind in relationship to what we’ve just been reading in Mark chapter 8, you can see just why it is that when Jesus asked the question “Who do people say that I am,” one of the answers was Elijah. They weren’t just picking this out of the air. They weren’t just saying, “Oh, maybe he’s Elijah.” It’s interesting who they say: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah.” That in itself is interesting, as we’re about to see. “And … others [say], one of the prophets.” Now, why would they say that? Because they anticipated the appearance of Elijah before the arrival of the Messiah. And there was enough about the words and the works of Jesus to speak concerning the power and majesty of the coming kingdom that caused people to say, “Well, maybe this is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Malachi. Maybe now we’re experiencing what we’ve been anticipating for all these hundreds of years.”
But as the disciples now try and put all of this together as a result of what they have seen, and particularly as a result of this encounter on the Mount of Transfiguration with both Moses and Elijah, they have an immediate and an obvious problem. And it’s raised again in their question: “Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Why do the teachers of the law maintain something that can’t be true? Because the Messiah has already come. You see, they already believe that Jesus is the Messiah. So they’re really stuck now: “If you are the Messiah and you have come, what’s this stuff about Elijah coming before the Messiah? Because you’re already here!” It’s a good question, isn’t it? It shows that they’re thinking.
“Why do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus answers them in verse 12. He says, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things.” And I think verse 12b is best understood as a statement rather than a question. It is better declarative rather than interrogative. I’m not fiddling with the Bible in saying that, but when you read that—“Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?”—it is a rhetorical question, but if you read it as a declarative statement, it will help you to understand it: “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things, and it is written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected.” And therein is the problem: How do we put the suffering and rejection in line with the triumph and the glory? Where does it all fit?
Now, I am so glad that in Matthew we have the answer to this dilemma. Because if we were stuck only with Mark, we would be here for a very long time this evening, and we would be getting more and more confused as the evening shadows fell. But let’s turn to Matthew chapter 11, to begin with, and then we’ll go to chapter 17, and by the time we’ve got back to Mark, you will just be sitting there with a great smile on your faces. And if you’re smiling, I will be rejoicing.
Matthew chapter 11. And we could actually begin—well, we could read the whole of Matthew 11, but I don’t think we should do that. Well, let’s just read from verse 11. In the King James Version, it would be, “Verily, verily, I say unto you…”: “I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” This is Jesus speaking. “Yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears [to hear], let him hear.”
Now go to Matthew 17 and to the account of the transfiguration as Matthew records it for us. Matthew 17:10: “[Then] the disciples asked him, ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’ Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come’”—oh, he’s already come?—“‘and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’” Verse 13: “Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist,” that these enigmatic statements concerning the prophet Elijah find their fulfillment in the ministry of John the Baptist.
And the ministry of John the Baptist was not a palatable ministry. It was not the ministry that they hoped for. Because they hoped that the restoration which they anticipated in the prophetic role of Elijah would be the restoration of all of their supremacy as Jewish people—the restoration of the triumph over the Roman authorities, the restoration of the reestablishment of the temple, the restoration of all things the way they would like them to be. But here he comes, and what does he speak to them about? He speaks to them about repentance. He speaks to them about the need for forgiveness. He speaks to them about the absolute essential nature of them being baptized as an outward sign of the fact that they know their hearts are sinful and need to be renewed. They need to be restored not in the way they had hoped for or anticipated, but in the restoration which is brought about by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, admittedly, his approach was fairly brusque. When they came out to see him in the wilderness, you’ll remember, many of the religious authorities were probably sitting up on the front row as they like to do—because, after all, they were the ones who understood the Law and the Prophets. And you’ll remember he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Quite an opening statement, I think you would agree! They didn’t like that. They detested that. And eventually, he died on account of it.
“And so,” says Jesus, “John the Baptist, fulfilling the prophetic role of Elijah, suffered at the hands of those to whom he told this story, and in that respect, he is a forerunner of the Son of Man. Because, I tell you, Elijah has come, and they’ve done to him everything they wished, just as is written about him, and actually, that is what is going to happen to the Son of Man.” What he’s saying is, “That’s what’s going to happen to me. They did it to John, and they’re going to do it to me. They didn’t recognize John, or the parts that they recognized they didn’t like, and they don’t recognize me, and the parts that they do recognize they don’t like either. And so you need to understand that this is what is going to happen. As John suffered and died for his message, so his death points forward to the suffering and death of the Messiah.”
Now, this is where, in the little part of your Bible that has a little blank part before you go into the heading that says, if you have an NIV, “The Healing of a Boy with an Evil Spirit,” you say to yourself, “My, there must be a whole wealth of information and discussion that ensues before they’re immediately caught up in the busyness of the crowd and so on.” And I want to end this study by asking you if you feel any sympathy for these disciples. I want to ask you if you’re like me and you believe you can identify with these disciples, in this respect: that the disciples clearly believed that Jesus was the Messiah. Otherwise, their question doesn’t make sense. It is only on the strength of their conviction that the Messiah has come that they would be faced with the timing dilemma, which is, “If the Messiah has come, how can Elijah come first?” So, it is on the strength of their conviction that Jesus is the Messiah that they ask the question.
But the sincerity of their belief in him as Messiah is not matched by their understanding of what it means for him to be the Messiah. They’ve got part one right, in terms of the healing of the blind man. Remember, he took the blind man by the hand and he touched him, and he said, “Can you see anything?” and he said, “Well, I can see men, but they look like trees walking.” And he touched him a second time, and he saw everything perfectly. And you remember, when we studied that, we said, “This is actually an acted parable of what needed to happen in the lives of the disciples. For they had got to the point where they could see that Jesus was the Messiah, but their view of Christ as a Messiah was blurred, and was indistinct, and it wasn’t rounded out, and there was so much of it that they didn’t get ahold of. And as a result of that, confusion filled their minds.”
Eventually, they were going to—post-Pentecost, at least—have clarity in a way that would change everything. But if you’re open at chapter 9, just look down to verse 30, and we’ll see how this happens again and again. After the healing of the boy with an evil spirit, “they left that place and passed through Galilee,” and “Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples.” And what was he teaching them? Well, he’s teaching them the same thing again and again, now, in prospect of going to Jerusalem: “He said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.’” We’re back at that resurrection question again. Now, here we’ve got it: “But they did not understand what he meant and [they] were afraid to ask him.” That’s the worst of all dilemmas, isn’t it? You’re sitting in the class, they put the formula up on the board, you look at it, it’s complete gibberish to you, and you’re afraid to put up your hand. You’re completely stuck. That’s exactly where they are. I feel sorry for them. Because I can identify with them.
Do you ever think your pastor’s supposed to know everything? I think some of you think that’s the deal. There are people that come around this building on a daily basis, and I think they just go home and try and think up some of the hardest and most bizarre questions that exist in the entire universe. And I’m not going to ask anyone to stand up and admit to it, but I can guarantee you that it happens. And I have a wonderful answer for all of those questions: I don’t know. I don’t know. “Who is the angel of death?” Figure it out for yourself. All these kinds of things.
This was going to be the experience all the way through. These disciples, living in the company of Jesus, listening to the explanations given by Jesus, imbibing the instruction of Jesus, seeing the miraculous deeds of Jesus, and even after the resurrection itself, they’re still really no further forward. And you will remember, classically, at the end of Luke, Jesus, in encountering a couple of these disciples, he says to them, “‘You know, you’re really quite foolish and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Didn’t the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” He had to take them back through and give them a Bible study—the whole panorama of the Bible—in order that they might at least be able to put the bits and pieces together.
And you say, “Well, then they must have it by now.” You turn to Acts chapter 1, and when they met together—as Jesus had told them to wait for them in Jerusalem—when they all got together, they said, “Jesus, you’ll be delighted to know that we have now entered into all truth and we’ve got the whole thing sorted out. We understand it perfectly.” No. “When they met together”—Acts 1:6—“they asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’”
Now, some of you are school teachers, and you spend your life and your energy and your endeavors to try and make sure that your children are prepared for their examinations. And there can be nothing more daunting than having one of them come up to you after the examination is over, and they have clearly made a royal hash of it, and asking you a question which reveals just how little they have understood of your instruction.
No, they still didn’t get it. And “[Jesus] said to them: ‘[Listen], it[’s] not for you to know the times or [the] dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you[’ll] be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” He says, “In other words, the way this is going to happen is not by the reestablishment of the temple in Jerusalem, for I am the temple. Don’t you remember, I said, ‘If you destroy this temple, I will raise it again in three days’? If you’re starting again to think about temples, and about Jerusalem, and about all this stuff, we’re going to have to go back through the Bible study. No, the way the kingdom of God is going to advance is by you being filled with the Holy Spirit and by you going out into all the world and telling people this amazing story about what has happened in my death and in my resurrection.”
And eventually, the penny drops. How good that Jesus is such a kind and patient teacher—so kind and patient with his disciples, so kind and patient with you, and kind and patient with me. James, who was the brother of Jesus, remember, he says, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask God. You can go and ask God, and he gives to everyone who asks generously, and he does so without finding fault.” He doesn’t say, “Are you back again with that same question? How many times…?” No. He doesn’t do that.
I hope you can identify with these disciples. Paul certainly could. Remember, when he writes that great chapter in 1 Corinthians 13, he gets to verse 12 and he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” This is not an invitation to biblical and theological cluelessness. This is a reminder of the necessity of biblical and theological humility. Beware of the person who knows the answer to everything.
Let us pray:
Sometimes my eyes are blind,
I cannot read your Word,
The light I need I cannot find,
Nor can I see my Lord.
Remove the veil of sin,
That I may truly see,
Then, Holy Spirit, shine within,
Reveal your truth to me.
Lord, open wide my eyes
And teach me more and more;
Show me those things that make me wise,
The wonders of your law.
Gracious God, we thank you for your patience and kindness towards us. We thank you for the fact that your Word is absolutely clear and that all the cloudiness is on our part. But we thank you, too, that there are parts of it that are harder than others. Even Peter said of Paul that some of his stuff was hard to understand. So, we should not be surprised. Save us, Lord, from the smugness which looks down on these poor disciples, which secures for ourselves the high road, which essentially says, “You know, if we’d been there, we would have had it all figured out.” How foolish. And forgive us, Lord, when in our presumption we seek to provide answers that are left unanswered in the mystery of your purposes.
Remind us that when we are sharing the good news of the gospel, our responsibility is to do that—is to explain who Jesus is, what it meant and cost for him to be a substitute for sin, what it meant for him to rise from the dead, victorious over sin and death and the Evil One. Help us to make very clear those things which are so clear, and set us free from feeling the burden to explain the unexplainable. Keep us, Lord, in that happy tension between knowing and not knowing, between learning and longing to learn more. Help us to look forward to the day when we will know fully, even as we are known fully. And may we work this out in the way we live our lives, teach our children, speak to our friends and neighbors. For Christ is the one who is the answer to all of our questions, and in his name we pray. Amen.
 Mark 8:28 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 8:22–25 (paraphrased).
 Luke 24:25–27 (paraphrased).
 Acts 1:7–8 (NIV 1984).
 John 2:19 (paraphrased).
 James 1:5 (paraphrased).
 Source unknown.
 See 2 Peter 3:16.