This story of the Transfiguration is very important, and when you see it in context with the rest of the book of Mark it begins to make more sense than when it is read alone. Previous to this Jesus is frustrated with the blindness of the scribes, Pharisees and his disciples. They are missing all the signs. They can’t figure him out. He has shown himself to be the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Lord who provides for his people, the Good Shepherd and the Master of Creation. Still they don’t get it.
Then Peter’s eyes are opened right after a blind man is healed. He acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah and this is the turning point. Jesus then prophecies his passion, death and resurrection. Immediately after that he says some standing here will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power. This is the meaning of the Transfiguration. It cannot be separated from Jesus’ prediction of his death. His Transfiguration into glory is paradoxically the other side of his death. Both the Transfiguration and his crucifixion reveal who he is and reveal his great power and glory. The Transfiguration shows his heavenly glory and power. The crucifixion shows how that glory and power is revealed on earth.
The Transfiguration story is itself full of meaning and purpose. Notice that this event takes place “after six days”. What happens after the six days of creation? The Sabbath. The Sabbath day for the Jews was not simply a day of rest. It was also a foretaste of the heavenly rest–the new creation–the eternal Sabbath. So when this takes place on the “seventh day” the meaning is that the disciples are getting a glimpse of heaven.
Only Peter, James and John were taken up the mountain. The glory of the Lord will be seen by Peter on whom the church is built, James, who was to become the leader of the church in Jerusalem and John–who would write the most profound of the gospels and eventually be given the final vision of heaven which he records in the Book of Revelation.
The detail of Jesus clothes being radiant with bright light refer back to the prophecy in Daniel 7 of the Son of Man. The Ancient of Days was also dazzling white and from his throne comes the Son of Man who is the ruler of the Nations. Moses and Elijah being there represent the Law and the Prophets–Jesus came to fulfill the law and the prophets. According to Jewish tradition and the Old Testament both Moses and Elijah had been assumed body and soul into heaven. They therefore also represent the perfected human being who is caught up completely into heaven as the Blessed Virgin will be.
The detail about Peter’s embarrassing idea is likely to have originated with Peter because once again he is showing his humility and acknowledging his lack of understanding. The “tents” he wants to build are little tabernacles that the Jews used during their special feast of tabernacles as little prayer tents. These were reminders of the tent of meeting in the wilderness where God descended to speak with Moses. The cloud that descends is also a reference to this tent of meeting–where God came to dwell in the midst of his people. When God’s presence came to the tent of meeting a cloud also descended and overshadowed the tent of meeting. As at the Lord’s baptism a voice from heaven affirms his identity.
Then suddenly the vision is over. Jesus is back with them as usual. But now they are beginning to understand more. They still do not know what he means about death and resurrect and they learn from him that the old prophecy that Elijah would return was fulfilled in John the Baptist. The story will progress now and pick up pace as Jesus moves forward to Jerusalem and his final destiny.