Last week, I taught on the Mount of Transfiguration in Mark 9. And in my studies I discovered just how much this passage depends on the events of Sinai. In what follows, I will try to show a few of the connections and why reading these passages together is so fruitful for understanding the revelation of God’s glory in Christ’s transfiguration.
Comparing Mount Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration
|Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:15–18)||Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–9)|
|15 Then MOSES [and Joshua, LXX] went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.||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.
From a side-by-side comparison, we can see numerous parallels between Exodus 24 and Mark 9. Here are eight points of similarity that I see. (If you see more, feel free to share in the comments.)
- Mountains. Both events are situated on high mountains—the Mount of Sinai and a high mountain in Northern Israel.
- Moses. Both events involve Moses, and more specifically they involve God speaking to Moses. Curiously, the LXX puts Ἰησοῦς (Joshua or Jesus) on the mountain with Moses. Does this prefigure the conversation between Moses and Jesus? Let’s just say it’s interesting.
- Glory cloud. Both events reveal the glory of God in the form of a cloud. This also harkens back to Eden, another mountain of God (Ezek 28:13–14), where the Lord descended to walk in the “cool [lit. wind] of the day” (Genesis 3:8).
- Six days. Both events transpire with respect to six days. In light of the connection between the tabernacle and creation, this may link the Mount of Transfiguration to the creation as well. If so, is the revelation of God’s glory in Christ related to a new creation? It is suggestive, especially if we consider God spoke on the seventh day (Exodus 24:16). Is he here also, after six days (i.e., on the seventh day), also speaking about his son—the one who will bring rest and reunion between God and man?
- A Voice. Both divine encounters include God speaking from the cloud. The Lord’s voice in Exodus 24 leads to instructions about the tabernacle (25:1ff), and the Father’s voice in Mark conjoins Psalm 2:7 and Deuteronomy 18:15, identifying Jesus as the son of David and the prophet like Moses.
- Assistant(s). Both events place the leading “mountain-climber” with an assistant(s). Moses ascends the mountain with Joshua (Exodus 24:13; 25:15 LXX); Jesus ascends with Peter, James, and John (Mark 9:2). In both instances, the witnesses of this glory are meant to share it with others. This is not an exclusive revelation, but one meant to lead people to know the God of glory.
- The Tabernacle. Both events lead to discussion about a dwelling place for God. In Exodus, Moses is given instructions about God’s tabernacle. In Mark Peter attempts to build a dwelling place for Jesus (Moses and Elijah), but like David’s initiative to build a temple, it is denied (cf. 2 Samuel 7). God alone takes initiative in his temple-building—he did so in Exodus and in the Incarnation, he has also taken initiative to build a new temple.
- The People. Both events are followed by chaos in the valley below. After receiving the stone tablets and the instructions for the tabernacle, Moses returns to the golden calf. Similarly, Jesus returns from the mountain to find his disciples arguing with the scribes (Mark 9:14). Comparatively, the golden calf is worse, but in both instances chaos erupts below the mountain.
From these eight points of contact, we learn how the Mount of Transfiguration “copies” the events of Sinai. Or better, we might say the events of Sinai prepare the way for the Mount of Transfiguration, and the abiding presence of God dwelling with man. In fact, it is here in this comparison, that we discover at least two points of discontinuity that deserve consideration, and that help us understand what Mark is reporting and why this event is so important.
What the Transfiguration Means
By contrasting Exodus with Mark, we see two ways Christ’s Incarnation excels the dwelling of God on Sinai (and then the tabernacle).
1. Jesus returns from the mountain to remain with his people.
In Exodus the Lord descends from heaven to dwell on Sinai, but he doesn’t enter the camp. Moses puts it this way: “the glory of the LORD dwelt on Sinai” (Exodus 24:16). In the chapters leading up and following this glorious revelation, Moses constantly ascends and descends the hill of the Lord. By contrast, with the Incarnation, God does not simply come down to the mountain, and he doesn’t send a human mediator, he becomes the human mediator so that he can go into the valley.
Jesus dwells among men, and thus by reading Mark 9 next to Exodus 24, we discover how God comes from the people and returns to the people as Jesus walks down the path to the valley. Whereas before, the Lord’s mediator came up to meet God, and departed from God when he went back to the people; now, because the mediator is God Incarnate we see how God has come to dwell with us. Though Immanuel is not used in Mark’s Gospel, the contrast between Exodus 24 and Mark 9 reveals the same truth.
2. Jesus is the new and better temple.
In both instances, the revelation of God’s glory leads to discussion about God’s dwelling. In Exodus, the Lord spoke out of the cloud to give Moses specific instructions about the tabernacle (Exodus 25–31). This earthly tent would become Yahweh’s home, and Exodus 40 records how the same glory cloud seen on Sinai would descend to fill this moveable throne.
Perhaps informed by Exodus, Peter suggests building three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, respectively. The Lord, graciously, interrupts Peter’s words and instead identifies the true reason for this revelation. Instead of repeating the construction project of the Old Testament, God has sent his Son to be a new kind of dwelling place.
Citing the words of Psalm 2:7 (“this my beloved son”) and Deuteronomy 18:15 (“listen to him”), the Father identifies Jesus as the Son of David and the long-expected prophet like Moses (cf. Acts 3:22). In this way, the Father turns the disciples attention away from temple-building to the one who is the dwelling place of God—Jesus Christ. There is no need to repeat the events of Sinai, because Jesus has brought God’s people to a greater mountain.
Without reading Mark 9 with Exodus 24 we might miss this contrast. Sure, Peter was bone-headed for suggesting that he build three “tabernacles,” but why did he offer to build tents instead of making a meal or providing lodging? Maybe he was closer to the truth than we often admit.
Surely, we can see better the merits of Peter’s tent-making idea when we compare these two passages. Whereas the revelation of God’s glory at Sinai led to the tent of meeting, the centerpiece of the old covenant; now in the coming of the new covenant, we learn how Christ is himself the place God meets with his people (John 1:14). As Jesus says to Nathanael: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”(cf. John 1:51).
The Benefit of Reading the Transfiguration at Sinai
By reading these passages together we learn to see what is being revealed on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus does not just make a way to God’s glory; he is God’s glory veiled in humble flesh. Amazingly, this greater mediator is also a new temple, who will bring the grace and glory of God to the people who follow him.
Indeed, this is exactly what we see occurring as Jesus returns from the mountain. Unlike Moses, who breaks the stone tablets due to the people’s inability to wait for him and trust in God (cp. Exodus 24:14 and Exodus 32:1), Jesus patiently leads people from faith to faith (Mark 9:23–24). He does not demand men to only come to him; he goes to them, expressing compassion and granting life. All of these traits find expression in Jesus greater ministry, that comes from the fact that he is God Incarnate, and not just a man pointing to God.
Such is the good news of the Mount of Transfiguration, a revelation of God’s glory that is best seen when we read it side-by-side with Mount Sinai.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Photo credit: Stained Glass Inc