One of my favorite TV shows is The Beverly Hillbillies. If you’ve never seen an episode, the premise of the show is that the backwoods Clampett family from Tennessee discovers oil on their property, gets rich, and moves to Beverly Hills in California. There, they are befuddled by modern culture. In an early episode, a young man promises the beautiful Elly May Clampett that he will “give her a ring,” meaning that he will call her on the phone later. Of course, the Clampetts take it for a promise of marriage, which leads to a series of misunderstandings and eventually a brief yet colorful feud with the man’s extended family.
Chronic misunderstandings can be hilarious when they’re happening on TV, but when you’re trying to communicate a message of vital importance to your friends, they bring nothing but frustration. It should be no surprise that Jesus’ disciples are once again going to play the role of the Clampett family—convinced they understand what’s going on, but in reality hopelessly confused.
In recounting the event of Jesus’ transfiguration, Mark connects it with the message Jesus had spoken just six days prior. He has promised that his kingdom will soon come in power, and now he’s going to give his “inner inner circle” of disciples (Peter, James, and John) a sneak peek of this future glory. They ascend a high mountain together, and there, the layers of Jesus’ humble earthiness are peeled away; his glory as the Son of God breaks through, and he shines bright like the sun. Even his clothes glow “intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” And to top it off, two of the most pivotal figures in Israelite history, Moses and Elijah, appear out of nowhere and begin holding a conversation with Jesus.
I’m not sure what Jesus’ three disciples were expecting to happen on that mountain, but this definitely exceeds it. They are unable to comprehend what is going on; it has overwhelmed their senses and they are petrified at first. Finally, Peter shouts at 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.” Mark tells us what’s going on in his head: “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” Apparently, James and John are shocked into silence, but that’s not the way Peter handles the unimaginable. When he is flabbergasted, Peter responds by blurting out the first thing that pops into his mind. I guess he just wants to be useful.
Now at this point, the purpose of the transfiguration is revealed. A cloud envelops the mountaintop, and a divine voice speaks to them, saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” The cloud lifts, and the glory vanishes; only Jesus remains with them, as he was before. He leads them down the mountain and warns them not to speak of this event until he has “risen from the dead.” Until then, any announcement of Jesus’ glory is premature. This is the main reason why Jesus orders people to keep quiet about him—his glory is not to be fully revealed until he has died and risen again.
Once again, his disciples miss the point. When they caught a glimpse of his glory, and it was announced that he was the “beloved Son” of God, they should have understood that this was a wake-up call for them, intended to shock them out of their spiritual dullness. The transfiguration ended with the words, “Listen to him!” But they aren’t. They’re “questioning what this rising from the dead might mean” even though Jesus had said plainly what it means—that he will have to suffer first before his glorious kingdom comes (8:31).
Yes, Jesus’ disciples have misinterpreted the transfiguration. They’re high on what they’ve just seen; they’re convinced that the Messiah has come in glory, about to usher in a holy and righteous Jewish empire. Jesus’ predictions that the Messiah will suffer, die, and rise from the dead are just anomalous data points that his disciples have chosen to ignore. They only have one nagging doubt, which they bring up to Jesus: “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” They’d just caught a glimpse of Elijah, but he hasn’t been traveling around Judea to prepare the people for the coming Messiah.
Jesus affirms what the Jewish teachers have been saying: “Elijah does come first to restore all things”—just as the prophet Malachi said (Malachi 3:5–6). But then he redirects the conversation, asking, “How is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” That’s what the disciples are choosing to ignore, refusing to listen to Jesus. “But I tell you that Elijah has come,” Jesus says, “and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” With this curveball, Jesus shatters any last hope of a glorious political Messiah. In the Old Testament, Elijah suffered greatly, and the next “Elijah” suffered as well; he was John the Baptist, and he was beheaded by Herod. And the same will happen to the Son of Man, the Messiah.
This is the death knell for the “glory story” of those who promise prosperity and success in this life to you and me. If you are a disciple of Jesus, “Your Best Life Now” will not happen, not yet; anyone who promises it to you is deaf to what Jesus says. Jesus came to suffer, and to follow him (8:34) means that we will, too. Until we are raised to life again in glory, we will share the pain and hardship of our Lord. Expect nothing less.