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Among English-speaking Christians there is this phrase called “mountaintop experience.” It means a memorable and high moment in a person’s spiritual life. Usually, it’s an event that caused you to feel unusually close to God. Or receive a significant insight from God.
Today’s passage in Mark 9 is about a mountaintop experience for three of Jesus’ closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. They had already seen amazing miracles, but what they see here is another level. Besides thinking about this event through their eyes, I want to think about the question, “Why doesn’t God let us have more mountaintop experiences or see more miracles?” Let’s pray.
[Read Mark 9:1-13]
Six days before this mountaintop experience, Jesus was telling them that he would be killed but then raised back to life (this is in Mark chapter 8). This whole conversation had revolved around Jesus’ identity. Jesus had asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” The conversation ended with Jesus saying: he will one day return in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (Mark 8:38). Now, on that mountain, Peter, James and John were given a small glimpse of that future glory.
In English, this story is called “the Transfiguration.” The disciples saw a bright light, a cloud, and they heard a voice. They also saw Moses and Elijah, who had died hundreds of years ago.
At that time, the disciples were shocked and frightened. But later, after they had time to think about this event, they may have recalled Old Testament stories where God’s presence was shown through a bright light and a cloud.
The light, the cloud, and the voice
Here are examples, from Exodus, Daniel, and the Psalms. For the sake of time, I won’t go into detail; I’m showing this just to name a few examples.
– Exodus 34:39 Moses’ face glowed brightly after talking to God
– Daniel 7:9 Prophecy about the Ancient of Days, dressed as white as snow
– Psalm 104:2 Poetic description of God wrapping himself with light
Not only did the disciples see a light but also a cloud covering them. Later they may have recalled how God showed his presence through a cloud in Old Testament stories like in Exodus and 1 Kings.
– Exodus 19:9 God’s presence on Mount Sinai
– 1 Kings 8:10 God’s presence filling Solomon’s temple
On top of that, the disciples heard a voice coming from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
– Mark 1:11 Jesus’ baptism (“You are my Son”)
– Psalm 2:7 Prophecy of Messiah and future king (“You are my son”)
– Deuteronomy 18:15 A future prophet (“You must listen to him”)
“This is my Son” echoes the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, where at Jesus’ baptism there was a voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love.” The phrasing is also similar to Psalm 2, a song that many people considered to be a prophecy of the Messiah, the promised king of Israel.
The voice also said, “Listen to him!” In Deuteronomy 18, Moses once promised a future prophet: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him” (Deut 18:15).
What do these signs mean?
All these signs—the light, the cloud, the voice—later impressed on the disciples that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God.
Many years later, Peter wrote about the Transfiguration in one of his letters. In 2 Peter 1:16-18, he writes, “For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” Peter was recalling that day on the mountain.
Moses and Elijah
By the way, what about the appearance of Moses and Elijah?
They were two men that symbolized the Old Testament Scriptures. Moses represents one half, which we call “the Law”. He was first one to communicate God’s laws to the people of Israel. Elijah represents the other half of Scripture, which we call “the Prophets.” He was one of many prophets God sent to help people return to the Law and to give people hope that God would restore a world gone wrong. Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. But Luke’s Gospel includes this detail. Luke 9:31 says, “They spoke about [Jesus’] departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” The word “departure” here is the Greek word for “exodus.” In other words, Jesus was going to do something at Jerusalem similar to Moses’ exodus from Egypt. But Jesus’ exodus was not to free people from physical slavery; rather, from spiritual slavery to sin, death, and the devil.
As they were leaving the mountain, the disciples had many questions. What does Jesus mean by saying he will rise from the dead? Perhaps they also wondered, why does he even need to suffer and die in the first place? They also asked, why do our scholars say that Elijah must come before the Messiah comes?
Jesus replied in verse 13, “Elijah has come, and they have done to him everything they wished, just as it is written about him.” Jesus was speaking of his cousin, John the Baptist. John’s mission as a prophet was to come ahead of Jesus and prepare people’s hearts to return to God. John did that, and then he was killed by King Herod. It foreshadowed Jesus’ own suffering and death. Jesus’ victory and glory would only come after he suffered.
Why doesn’t God give us more mountaintop experiences?
It was not easy for Peter, James, and John to embrace this plan. As human beings, we want to avoid pain as much as possible. We want to be on top of the mountain, not down in a dark valley. We may wonder, why doesn’t God give us more mountaintop experiences?
Why is so much of the Christian life so ordinary? Why doesn’t God show us his presence more clearly and more often? And, if he were to show more miracles, surely that would help more people believe in Jesus. Why does God give these special experiences to only some people, such as the 3 disciples instead of all Jesus’ disciples?
In response to these questions, I have two thoughts to share.
Mountaintop experiences are not enough for faith
The first thought is this: While miracles and special moments of closeness with God are valuable, alone they cannot make us believe or keep our faith in God.
For example, a friend of mine heard God speak to him in an audible voice, encouraging him to be baptized. After he heard the voice, he wept uncontrollably. So he was convinced it was God’s voice. He also experienced a strong feeling of God’s love for him. But some time after baptism, he left the church and became distant from his Christian friends. I’m not completely sure why, but I suspect that one reason was because he chose to be in a serious relationship with a non-Christian who didn’t really support his faith. It takes more than a mountaintop experience to keep us believing.
Jesus himself addressed this question of miracles. In Luke 16, Jesus told a story we call “Lazarus and the rich man.” After the rich man died, in the afterlife he found himself in a place of torment, separated from the people of God. He begged, “Please send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let [Lazarus] warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment . . . If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Sadly, the rich man was told, “If your brothers do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
In the Bible itself we see examples of people who witnessed miracles but still did not believe God’s words. Or, they believed at first but only temporarily. Look at Jesus’ own disciples. Many of them, in John chapter 6, stopped following Jesus because some of his words were hard to accept. Even his closest, most faithful disciples ran away when soldiers came to arrest him.
Faith is both a choice and a gift. Faith is something we choose, using the free will God has given us. At the same time, faith is a gift—something that we must be given rather than earned or manufactured by ourselves. It’s a paradox: faith is both a choice and a gift.
Faith is anchored in spiritual disciplines
So what can we do to choose faith? Belief in God is not a one-time event or one-time decision. It is chosen again and again. For example, we choose faith when we practice the disciplines of regular Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, and service.
This leads me to my second thought: Mountaintop experiences like miracles and emotional highs cannot replace these spiritual disciplines.
Special encounters with God are an exception rather than the norm. Peter, James, and John eventually had to come down from the mountain and return to their ordinary lives. Throughout church history, there are well-known Christians who had amazing experiences with God, like visions and feelings of ecstasy. However, their faith was anchored not in these special moments but in mundane disciplines like prayer.
I was reading about a 3rd century man called St Anthony of Egypt. He’s known as one of the fathers of Christian monasticism. Initially he lived in solitude like an ascetic, focusing his whole life on prayer. He was given visions of God, of heaven, and battles with demonic forces. But eventually, God led him out of isolation to form Christian communities. He became a mentor and teacher.
In monastic communities like the ones St Anthony founded, the members focused on the practices I mentioned: Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, service. These are ways we can grow closer to God and maintain that relationship.
It’s like our health. Sometimes we get inspired to start exercising and eat more healthily. But that inspiration dies out unless we have a good system to keep those good habits going. Likewise, the Christian faith cannot be sustained by moments of inspiration. We need certain habits to keep our faith going.
Let me end by saying: God works in each of our lives differently. Whether you experience him in a dramatic way or not, he will provide what you need.
The Transfiguration was a special glimpse of God given to three of Jesus’ disciples. It helped them realize even more that Jesus was the Son of God who came to bring freedom from sin and death.
How wonderful if we could have more experiences like this. But mountaintop experiences, however helpful, are not what will sustain our faith in the long term. Rather, what sustains and grows us are practices like Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, and service. These practices are often ordinary and mundane. But even if they are not dramatic, they are still ways that we draw near to God and hear from him.
O God, who on the holy mount revealed to chosen witnesses your well-beloved Son, wonderfully transfigured, in raiment white and glistening: Mercifully grant that we, being delivered from the disquietude of this world, may by faith behold the King in his beauty; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.