Crossing through the Waters
2 Kings 2:1-2 and Mark 9:2-9
Jesus took three of his especially close disciples, Peter, James and John, and ascended a mountain. While there, he was transfigured before them. Moses and Elijah appeared in order to have a conversation with Jesus. Then God spoke, saying “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Then Jesus and his disciples went down the mountain while warning his disciples to keep the messianic secret.
There is so much here! The verb used for transfigured means a permanent change, not something that can be reversed (that’s a different Greek verb [Strongs 3339 and 3345]). Think of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, not like a pufferfish swelling up and then letting out the water again. In what ways was Jesus different after that mountaintop experience? Why did God announce to the three disciples that Jesus was God’s beloved son, and that he should be listened to?
The question that is most interesting to me, though, is what were Jesus, Moses and Elijah talking about? Obviously, we can’t say anything with certainty. But I would expect that when three people who haven’t met each other before start a conversation, frequently their talk turns toward common experiences. Moses, Elijah and Jesus certainly had several of experiences in common to discuss.
In the Hebrew Bible passage this week, Elijah, Elisha and multiple companies of prophets all know that Elijah is about to be taken away. Elisha spent those last moments with Elijah, and literally took up his mantle after Elijah was taken away. Like Elijah, Moses also knew that his time on earth was short, and so he consecrated Joshua to lead in his stead and proclaimed his own replacement (Deut 31). In Mark’s gospel, the pericope immediately before the disciples climb the mountain has Jesus foretelling his own death and resurrection. Moses, Elijah and Jesus all knew with certainty that the end of their time on earth was coming because the Lord had told them.
Immanent death is a difficult concept to grasp even after a long illness provides plenty of foresight about the end. But the ends of these men were atypical, to say the least. God told Moses that he would die outside the promised land because of a sin while carrying out a miracle, but then God buried Moses Godself, as one does for an especially close friend. Elijah was said not to die, but was taken in a whirlwind. Jesus, as we know, suffered an excruciating death as a criminal and also some sort of estrangement from God (Matt 27:46). Contra the experience of Moses and Elijah, the end of Jesus’ natural life on earth was not an affirmation of their special relationship, but the very opposite. The men might have been discussing how the most beloved son was to suffer the most alienating death. God’s affirmation of Jesus after the transfiguration might have been a kind of reassurance of their relationship in the face of his impending death.
Moses, Elijah and Jesus all took on the dual burdens of leadership and mentoring. They each led the people of Israel, or at least significant portions of people. They also had a close inner circle as well. Moses discipled Joshua, Elijah discipled Elisha and Jesus discipled Simon-Peter & Andrew, James & John, Phillip & Nathanael-Bar-Talemai, Thaddeus/Judas & Simon the Zealot, Thomas, Matthew & James and Judas Iscariot. I’m sure that as professional leaders of the people as well as individual people the three men could probably have commiserated about the difficulties of leading or discipling, or trying to do both at once. It should go without saying that leading a nation and mentoring a small group are different tasks that compete for time, attention and energy. These men did them both. I talk with other parents for less than thirty seconds before we start comparing childrearing difficulties and how we are not able to be as devoted to our vocations as we were prior to also devoting ourselves to children. It is easy to imagine the same sort of conversation between Jesus and the prophets.
I think the most likely topic of conversation, however, was entering and emerging from water. Moses’ participation in the redemption of Israel was being used by God for the parting of the Sea of Reeds. His disciple, Joshua, imitated his master and was seen by the people as God’s means of crossing the Jordan River on dry ground (Joshua 3:7). Likewise, when Elijah crossed the Jordan, he stuck it with his outer garment to separate the waters (2 Kings 2:8). On his way back after Elijah was taken up, Elisha used his master’s garment to do the same (2 Kings 2:14).
In what way, then, did Jesus enter the water and come out on the other side? Jesus, like Joshua, Elijah and Elisha entered the Jordan river. But when he did, he got all wet because of the baptism of his relative, John. The water was not split for him, but he entered it on purpose. Jesus pursued God and blessed the people not by crossing a dry water course, but by being baptized to fulfill all righteousness (Matt 3:15).
Just as Moses’ and Elijah’s disciples imitated their masters in passing through the waters, so too do we have the honor to emulate our master. Jesus’ last commandments in the gospel of Matthew were to 1) make disciples of all peoples, 2) baptize them and 3) teach them to obey all Jesus’ commandments. Being partisans of Jesus – Christians – means that we cannot neglect any of these three tasks, making disciples (not just converts), baptizing disciples and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments.
I feel quite certain that Moses, Elijah and Jesus had much to talk about. Maybe one of the similarities they discussed was how they made a way through the waters for their people, and their disciples learned to do the same.