37. Mark 9:9-13: The Question of Elijah
We always have to come down from the mountain. That’s an inescapable truth in following Jesus. In fact, having the mountain-top experience of all mountain-top experiences has only confused and complicated James’, Peter’s, and John’s sense of following him. And these kinds of experiences often have the same effect on us. We want to stay there and freeze the moment making it our spiritual experience all the time.
At least our trio has the excuse of going through this before the resurrection of Jesus, which he intimates will help clarify what this mountain-top moment really means (v.9). And this time Jesus’ injunction to silence is kept. Probably because they knew they did not know what he meant by “rising from the dead,” so they had nothing to tell anyone (v.10)!
If we don’t understand the source, we can always consult the interpreters. Jesus’ inner three turn to the “scribes” to raise the matter with him. “Why must Elijah come first?” they ask. Jesus answers “to restore all things” (v.12). Then he adds “and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?”
“The Son of Man,” again. That’s our clue that Jesus is taking another run at redefining messiahship. David Garland explains:
“One can punctuate Jesus’ answer in 9:12 as a question, which then gives his response a quite different slant. Jesus replies, “Is it true that, when Elijah comes before the Messiah, he will restore all things? How then has it been written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be rejected…?” This response implies that the heart of this generation is too hard; the powers that be, too entrenched; the wiles of Satan, too keen. Besides, God’s plan, hidden in the Scriptures, calls for humiliation first, then vindication. John, as Elijah, has been imprisoned because of a grudge and beheaded on a whim, and he lies dead and buried. Eschatological expectations have been fulfilled in totally unanticipated ways. Elijah does come first and has already come, but they did to him whatever they wished. The disciples, however, still question if Jesus has got it right. How can the Messiah be rejected and suffer? Jesus answers that their expectations are all wrong. Elijah goes before the Messiah in the way of suffering and death.”
With his assertion that Elijah has come (John the Baptist) and been mistreated and murdered with contempt (6:14ff.), treating 9:12 as a question seems justified. As well as the reminder that God’s plan moves from humiliation to vindication. This I suspect, is one reason why Elijah appears with Moses in the transfiguration. If the historical Elijah, a type of John the Baptist, is vindicated and exalted, how much more will the Baptist himself receive such treatment?
Coming down the mountain to rejoin the regular patterns and rhythms of life, the humdrum, the holy, and sometimes the horrible, our intrepid trio learn (or maybe not) that life on the mountain-top is a life to come. Life today is lived in the valleys and villages of injustice, foreign oppression, demon possession, excessive taxation, poverty, and the like. As we follow Jesus through those valleys and villages of pain and need we enact that suffering servanthood that he enacted in that divinely redemptive pattern of humiliation followed by vindication. Or at least we should. And it is Mark’s burden to persuade us to do just that.