Better than Bleach
OCTOBER 22, 2020
The transfiguration is one of the most supernatural moments of Jesus’s pre-cross ministry.
Not only are his clothes transfigured into whiter-than-white versions of what they were before, but Moses and Elijah, though deceased for centuries, appear for a quick convo right before the audible voice of God itself calls out, “This is my son! Listen to him!” Feels like some pretty other worldly stuff, doesn’t it? But more than simply serving as a go-to “Jesus is God!” passage, this story has much to tell us about the nature of the gospel, the flow of redemptive history, and what Christian sanctification looks like on a daily basis.
Let’s start by reading Mark 9:2-8.
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, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus. 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.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.
Mark begins with the phrase “after six days” which clues us into the fact that it might have some sabbath-rest-like truth for us. And although it doesn’t necessarily seem like a restful experience on the mountain, what transpires theologically is the epitome of spiritual rest and certainly worthy of our restless soul’s consideration.
Immediately after Jesus, Peter, James, and John ascend the mountain, Jesus’s clothes are transfigured, and they “became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” This is an interesting description, but I think Mark elaborates here for more than descriptive reasons. Why include “as no one on earth could bleach them”? Isn’t it enough to say intensely white? When we apply the gospel, however, to our understanding of what’s going on here, Mark’s words become more clear. It’s important as readers to understand that Jesus’s clothes were not just white, but also that people’s hands could not bleach clothing any whiter. It’s as if his clothing is saying to us, “You can’t do this!” (Ouch, Mark!) But there’s a lot of love here, and it reminds us of two very important things: 1) that Jesus came to make hopelessly stained things like us pure, and 2) that purification would happen by the works of his hands, not our attempts at bleaching sins away on our own.
Already Mark 9 teaches us so much about grace and we haven’t even gotten to the heart of the passage yet. The b-level characters have much to teach us as well.
Moses and Elijah are present because they represent the law and the prophets, respectively. So it makes sense that we would see them disappear and give way to Jesus alone, because Jesus comes after them to fulfill them. But the point here is not simply chronological, it’s theological. Elijah disappears because there is no more need for prophetic witness. Everything the prophets said had come true in Jesus. Moses, the man of the law, disappears for a slightly different reason: the epoch he represents gives way to something much better. Jesus came to replace him on a covenantal level, establishing a New Testament built on grace, not the works of the flesh.
In a lot of ways the disciples’ experience here mimics Moses’ time on Sinai from earlier in the story, where God gave him the law. Both stories have mountain-descending elements to them, but whereas Moses came down with the law in tow, the disciples now descend with “Jesus only” (v. 8), a new type of mediator. This is wonderfully descriptive of what life is like for Christians every day: justified by Jesus’s blood only, not our moral effort. Justified as sinners like Peter, James, and John who — in the story — were full of fear and who “didn’t know what to say.”
Isn’t that an encouraging thought? God isn’t looking for us to know what to say before him, as if he’s waiting for a type of courtroom-like self-defense that will convince him of our worthiness. But instead, he saves us in love, in spite of our foot-in-mouth-spirituality and sin; and we simply stand in awe.
“Listen to him!”
Similarly, it’s interesting that God says, “Listen to my son!” here and not “Listen to Moses!” Still, we might be left with the question: listen to what part of Jesus’s teachings? He said a lot of things. And in one sense, I think we should take this to mean listen to everything he says. But in another sense, it’s significant that right after God said this Jesus speaks by saying, “the Son of Man should suffer many things and be treated with contempt” (v. 12). I don’t want to assume the disciples were connecting all the dots here, but it seems like if they were to ever listen well to Jesus it would be now — right after God himself audibly said, “Listen to him!” As readers, we should follow suit. A big part of listening to Jesus in the Gospels is listening to him predict his impending death. That’s the most important part, because wrapped up with “the Son of Man must suffer” is “I must suffer for you.” And close behind that is “I love you.”
So, listen to Jesus! And when you listen, listen to how his teachings have much more to do with him and his intent to make our souls spot-free — even at great cost — than it does with us. Smile at the abrupt disappearance of Moses and the related fruitlessness of law-centered spirituality. And let the “unbleachable whiteness” of Jesus’s clothing lead you to stop striving and to instead start resting in his steadfast love — a love that bridges the gap between fearful sinners and the voice that calls out to us from the cloud.
Chris Wachter (@pastorwachter) is the Lead Pastor at Hiawatha Church in Minneapolis, MN (www.hiawathachurch.com).