My brother Martin was slowly climbing the hill. He had been running for nearly 40 kilometers (25 miles) and was now facing the final 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). Because the Riebeek West Berg (South Africa) marathon was to be run on a Sabbath, a group of Adventist runners had worked out a deal with the organizers to run the race “officially” on Friday. I was to be the entire support team, driving ahead of the runners, handing them needed liquids and energy bars, shouting encouragement to them as they reached another hill (this was a mountain marathon!), and even running with them for half a kilometer or so in order to encourage them or give them a needed break from the winds coming head on.
It was Martin’s first marathon, and he had trained hard. But now the crisis had hit. As I stopped the car and looked at him coming up at a snail’s pace, I knew he was in trouble. I started downhill to run with him on the final leg. “Come on, you’ve come this far, you’ve done a great job—you can do it!” Slowly but surely, we climbed that hill together. “Look at the top. After this only the stadium and no more hills. The end is in sight. Come on, don’t give up now!”
Jesus’ final race
This account with my brother has given me an important spiritual lesson. As was my brother, though in a totally different context, Jesus was also entering the final and decisive leg of His ministry.
For more than three years He had ministered to the people, although it would seem that even His closest friends, the disciples, did not want to know it. Jesus was aware of what awaited Him, and He told His disciples on at least three occasions what was to happen.1 However, the disciples (as well as the larger following of Jesus) did not get it. This did not fi t their expectations and their mental map of things to come. They weren’t really listening, for they were preoccupied with arguing about who should get the best seat in the kingdom (Mark 10:35–40) or arguing with the crowds about the authority to drive out demons (Mark 9:14–18).2
But while the disciples did not understand, the Father knew the signs of the times and had prepared a special booster for Jesus. Jesus took Peter, James, and John into a high mountain (Mark 9:2). The Septuagint uses the same phrase—high mountain—several times, sometimes in connection with the proclamation of good news and a future hope (Isa. 40:9; Ezek. 17:22), and sometimes to indicate the depravity of the Israelites’ idolatrous worship (Isa. 57:7; Jer.3:6). In the religious perception of the nations surrounding Israel, mountains played a major role as the point where the gods were thought to reside.
The mountains of Moses and Elijah
Mountains are also important in the Old Testament. God revealed Himself to Moses and the Israelite leaders on Mount Sinai and gave the law tablets to Israel (Exod. 24; 31). Elijah had two distinct mountain experiences: the encounter with the Baal prophets on Mount Carmel with the fi rework display of the Lord’s presence and then the fleeing of this frightened and discouraged prophet to Horeb, the mountain of the Lord. He seemingly retraced Israel’s route of the Exodus, and then Elijah encountered the presence of the Lord. He was not in the mighty wind, nor in the earthquake that shook the rocks. He also could not be found in the roaring fi re, but rather, He was in the gentle breeze (1 Kings 19:1–12).
The mountain of Jesus and the disciples
Jesus was on the high mountain, and suddenly the glory of the Father broke through—right in front of the disciples, Jesus was “transformed” (Mark 9:2). The Greek word for transformed is the basis for the English word metamorphosis. Paul admonishes us in Romans 12:2 not to be conformed to this world, but rather to be transformed (or changed by a metamorphosis) through the renewing of our spirit, a transformation done by the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:18). At the transformation of Jesus, He didn’t look the same to the disciples—even the white of His clothing seemed so different from the bleaching that could be done at that time.
When Peter, James, and John looked again, they saw two more people close to Jesus: Moses and Elijah. Scripture does not tell us what they looked like and how the disciples were able to identify them. We are just told that they were talking to Jesus. It is interesting to see that in Exodus 34:35 the same Greek term is employed by the Greek translators of the Old Testament to describe the communication between Moses and God after his return from the mountain of God. As always it is Peter who makes himself the spokesperson of the disciples: “Rabbi, let’s build three tabernacles for you, Moses, and Elijah” (Mark 9:5).
But this mountain experience was designed at that time for Jesus, not for Peter, James, and John. The Father was there to run the last leg of the terrible journey to the cross with His Son. Similar to the Exodus experience, a cloud appeared and a voice boomed from the cloud: “ ‘This is my beloved son; listen to him’ ” (Mark 9:7, RSV). The last time this happened was right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, during His baptism, on the banks of the Jordan River (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). And now, toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, after the Father has encouraged and sustained Him, God speaks again: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!”
At this time, the disciples were climbing their own mountains. Did they heed this advice? Did they begin to really listen to their Master? Did they shelve for a moment their own ideas, ideals, and dreams and pay attention to God’s perspective? Unlikely, considering the fact that, as in Mark 9:45 for example, Christ explained to them in great detail a concept they did not understand.
Do we really listen to God’s whisperings through our personal devotions and prayer time—our time for getting ready for the race? Can we put aside our own agenda when it comes to the things of God? As we contemplate Jesus on the high mountain, on the last leg of His journey, talking to Moses and Elijah, imagine the Godhead united for the fi nal push into the enemy’s territory. As my brother needed encouragement when he neared the end of the race, so Jesus needed affirmation and the Father’s presence. Of course, the Father had always been there, right beside Him—in the mornings when He sought strength and guidance through prayer and the study of the Word. He had been there when the crowds pressed around Jesus and when Jesus had preached the kingdom and showed the principles of the kingdom in His healing ministry. He had been there when Jesus had spent quieter times with His disciples. But now He manifests Himself visibly and audibly to strengthen Jesus for the final uphill push.
While Peter, James, and John did not appear to have grasped the meaning and importance of the event at this particular moment, years later as they climbed their own high mountains and refl ected on Jesus’ race to the fi nish, as they remembered the Resurrection morning, they must have heard that powerful Voice from the cloud over and over: “This is My beloved Son. Listen to Him!” And we can be sure that every time they encountered an uphill struggle, they would say: “Thank You, Lord, for being here with us. Yes, we are listening.”
What about us? Can we say when we face our mountains, when we run the race with Him in this final leg of earth’s journey, “Yes, Lord Jesus, I’m listening. What do You want me to hear?”
1 The first announcement of the Passion of Jesus can be found in Matt. 16:21–23; Mark 8:31–33; and Luke 9:22. The second Passion announcement follows in Matt. 17:22, 23; Mark 9:30–32; and Luke 9:43b–45. The third prediction of Jesus’ Passion is included in Matt. 20:17–19; Mark 10:32–34; and Luke 18:31.
2 The Greek word that Mark uses here can be translated as “argue,” “discuss,” but also appears often in the context of challenging someone aggressively as can be seen in the Pharisees’ challenge of Jesus’ authority (Mark 8:11) or a good theological fight between different factions, as seen in Mark 12:28.