Hints at the Divinity of Jesus in the gospel of Mark
This paper is a summary of a book that was published in French in 2020. In this book, over against an abundance of literature emphasizing the humanity of Jesus, the author wants to bring out the divinity of Jesus. This is not to say that he denies the humanity of Jesus. But he does want to present arguments to show that that does not fully explain the mystery of Jesus’ existence.
Daniel Bourguet is a biblical scholar who, after a period of ministering in local churches, was teaching Old Testament at the protestant institute of theology in Montpellier, France. He felt called to the monastic life and he withdrew in 1991 into the hills of the Cevennes, the region of his birth. He founded a retreat centre in 1996, which is run by volunteers. Many came to pour out their hearts to him and reflect and pray in the imposed silence of the centre. For approximately twenty years,
Bourguet would lead retreats for pastors and members of a prayer network called ‘Les Veilleurs’. He published his lectures in a non-academic style even though they were rooted in a thorough study of the biblical text and the commentaries of the early church fathers. Like them, he would use the Septuagint as the foundational text, comparing the meaning of words across the Old and New Testaments. As his sources dated back to before the schism of the Eastern and Western Christian church around AD 1000, he related to monastic traditions of both East and West and incorporated these into his own thought and practice. Bourguet just recently retired from active duty to devote himself more fully to prayer and writing. A number of his books were translated into English and more biographical details can be found in the foreword to each of these translations.
The gospel of Mark
Mark wrote his gospel in Rome between 64 and 69 AD. After the death of Peter there in 64 and possibly after the death of Paul in 67 but before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The church in Rome was grieving the loss of these apostles and under great pressure from the persecution that followed the fires in Rome under emperor Nero. The church began to realize that the first generation of Christians was about to be lost and that it was important to record their stories and messages.
Mark was a Jewish Christian. This is clear from his use of Aramaic words (5:41, 7:34, 14:36). He wrote for a Latin audience, which is evident from the way he explains Jewish customs (e.g. Mark 7:3- 4) and translates the occasional Aramaic words for Latin readers (e.g. the coin in the widow’s mite, 12:42). Mark saw the apostle Peter as his spiritual father (1 Pt 5:13) and Paul mentions him as one of his collaborators (Phlm 24). The fact that Matthew and Luke used this gospel as their primary source when they wrote about the life of Jesus, demonstrates that the early church considered the gospel of Mark as authentic and trustworthy and recognized its authority.
Mark writes succinctly. He wants to be faithful to the eye witness accounts without adding anything. Bourguet takes the view that Mark is saying as much if not more through what he does not say or write than through what he does. He wants to leave space for the reader to contemplate the mystery that he is hinting at. The divinity of Jesus cannot be proven. Where Paul writes a whole chapter presenting arguments for the reality and significance of the resurrection of Jesus, he does not present a similar discourse for his divinity. In fact, the unspeakable mystery of how Jesus could be fully human and fully divine cannot be communicated in words of any human language. It can be received in faith, it can be contemplated, but not rationally argued. Bourguet argues that the divinity of Jesus is an idea that underlies the gospel account as a whole and is communicated in indirect ways. He identifies many of these ‘hints’ in the summary that follows.
The Paralytic – Mark 2:1-12
Mark does not mention Jesus’ name until verse 5. The first words of Jesus are thus given extra emphasis. Those first four verses are setting the scene – the four men, their paralytic friend, the crowd, the roof. Now the story really begins. This is also where the story transitions from the visible to the invisible. We are told that Jesus saw ‘their faith.’
It is a unique expression in this gospel and in the New Testament. Other passages speak of people who bring to Jesus the sick and the demon-possessed (1:32), of the mothers who bring their children to Jesus (10:13) – using the same verb ‘bring’ (prosphérô) that is used here. But only here do we read that Jesus sees their faith. Matthew does not even give all the detail about the crowd and the roof, yet he also says that Jesus ‘saw their faith’ (Mt 9:3). All this suggests that Jesus saw not just the actions but the hearts of these five men.
Mark does not specify in whom these men had faith. In God, in Jesus, in both? In chapter 11, Jesus encourages his disciples to have faith in God (Mk 11:22). But elsewhere in the gospel of Mark the same lack of specificity occurs (4:40, 5:34, 10: 52). Clearly, when the paralytic is brought down on his stretcher before the feet of Jesus, his friends have great expectations from both Jesus and God.
Bourguet then cites the apostle Paul, whom Mark had known well, who tells us that faith is a grace given by God (Php 1:29), a gift of the Holy Spirit (1Cor 12:9). By implication, when Jesus sees the faith of these men, he recognizes the work of God the Father and of the Spirit in them. This interpretation views the three persons of the Trinity as present at this scene.
In the context in which Jesus moved, forgiveness could be declared by a priest after appropriate rituals had been performed. In some situations prophets could extend forgiveness if God had commissioned them to do so. An example is Nathan who declares forgiveness to David (2 Sam 12:13). But Jesus does not use the typical prophetic formula ‘Thus says the Lord’ and he is not a priest. He simply says: Your sins are forgiven you. This passive form of the verb implies, as everyone present understood, that Jesus was saying that God had forgiven him. It referred to God without explicitly mentioning him, which would have been irreverent. It is a classic example of the divine passive – a form frequently used in the New Testament. Of course, the forgiveness that is declared is not visible to the human eye. But for the paralytic it is clear that God has forgiven him his sins.
Just as Jesus saw into the heart of the paralytic, he senses what the teachers of the law were saying to themselves. He addresses their concern but in a very delicate way. He puts their thoughts out in the open but evades their accusation of blasphemy. Jesus avoided saying directly that he was God. It would have resulted in his death and he was not ready for that yet. Later, when he stands before the Sanhedrin does he directly claim his divinity (Mk 14:61). At that point he knows he is going to die and thus even facilitates his own condemnation.
|Jesus receives the paralytic by saying to him: ‘My child’. It is a warm welcome, full of tenderness. He is expressing the love of God the Father to this man, affirming him and accepting him. Elsewhere Jesus calls his disciples ‘my children’ (10:24), which was an apt description of their intimate relationship. He calls the daughter of Jairus ‘little girl’ reflecting the fact that she was only 12 years old. But here is an adult man, for carried by four friends, whom Jesus has never seen before and He calls him ‘My child’.Many translations replace this word by other terms such as ‘friend’, ‘young man’, ‘son’. But the Greek word teknon really means child and refers to an intimate relationship. Many French translations therefore use ‘my child’. The only other situation where something similar happens in Mark’s gospel is with the woman who suffered from bleeding to whom Jesus says at the end of their encounter: ‘my daughter’ (Mk 5:34). Note that Jesus is not suggesting that the paralytic should become his disciple. In fact, he sends him home later (2:11).|
But here Jesus veils his identity by the use of this special term the Son of Man. It refers to Daniel 7:13 where in a vision, Daniel sees someone ‘like a son of man’ approach the throne of God, coming into his presence and being given authority and power. Although the term son of man occurred often in the Old Testament as referring to any human being (e.g. in Ezekiel), the definite article Jesus used meant he referred to that special human figure in Daniel 7, who could enter
God’s presence. Bourguet refers to the book of Enoch and 4 Esdras to show that this term was widely understood at the time of Jesus. Jesus does not say ‘I am the Son of Man’ but when one considers the whole course of events, this conclusion strongly suggests itself. And he speaks about the authority the Son of Man has to forgive sins, which he just exercised.
Jesus then takes the next step and cures the paralytic. He says: ‘I say to you, rise’. Jesus does not invoke any authority outside himself. Jesus’ disciples will later perform similar miracles by referring to the name of Jesus (e.g. Acts 3:6). But Jesus’ word is enough in itself. It produces immediate result, just like the words of God at creation (Ps 33:9). Jesus does not touch the man, or pull him to his feet.
Most English translations will say that the paralytic got up or rose (2:12), using an active form of verb. In the Greek, however, the form of the verb is passive and refers again to the intervention of God. It really says: He was raised. There is a hint here of the resurrection of Jesus where the same Greek verb is used, again in the passive form (Mk 16:6,14).
Two miracles are happening here. The sins that are forgiven and the paralytic that is raised up. Bourguet emphasizes how the three persons of the Trinity are present and act in perfect harmony. The Son recognizes the work of the Father in the paralytic’s heart. He declares forgiveness and healing and the Father and the Spirit make both of these things happen without manifesting their presence in any other way. The Son uses the passive forms of verb effacing himself to point to the Father. The Father responds to Jesus’ words without drawing further attention to himself – effacing himself to let people’s attention remain on the Son. Each person of the Trinity exercising humility in relation to the other. When Jesus says ‘your sins are forgiven’, he refers to the Father but when he says that ‘the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ he shows the unity between the Father and the Son who act with one will in perfect harmony.
The end of the story is that the paralytic walks out the door and the people praise God. Having said that, Jesus is still at the centre of the scene. He is the one they have just seen giving a new beginning to the life of the paralytic. Mark leaves us to contemplate Jesus, to contemplate what just happened and to ponder the implications.
Restoring a Demon-possessed man – Mark 5:1-20
The Gerasene man had un unclean spirit – a multitude of them. He was a man created in the image of God but dark forces dominated him. His crying out among the tombs and his auto-mutilation were expressions of that. But his crying out on the mountains, continually, night and day, was a cry for help to God, a prayer. For mountains are the dwelling places of the gods. The God of Israel lived on the mountain of Zion, had revealed himself in the Sinai and on the Carmel. In his deepest darkness, this man desperately sought a way out. For Bourguet, he stands for all of humanity, that is controlled by destructive forces, while at the same time desiring for integrity and identity and meaning.
However deep we may fall, nothing and no one can keep a human being from praying. This prayer is what drives the Gerasene to come to Jesus and kneel before him.
Jesus crossed the lake and weathered a storm to come to the aid of this man and answer his prayer. Just like God sent Moses to Egypt because he had heard the cry of his people (Ex 3:7). When Jesus tells the unclean spirit: Come out of the man, there is a parallel with Moses, who demands freedom for the children of Israel who have been enslaved. It is as if Jesus demands freedom for all of humanity. But where Moses invokes the name of God as he speaks to the Pharaoh (Ex 5:1), Jesus refers to no other authority outside himself. As the pigs drown in the water of the lake, there is a parallel with the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Sea of Reeds. The enemy has been overcome and there is freedom.
As people ‘came to see what it was that had happened (5:14), they came to Jesus and saw the man who had been possessed ‘sitting there, clothed and in his right mind’. There are two different verbs for seeing here. The first is orao in the past tense – they came to see. The second is heoreo, which is the word to contemplate and it is in the present tense as an ongoing activity. ‘They came to see and they contemplate’ would be the literal translation. It is as if Mark invites us to consider the scene he describes and take all our time to do it. The scene is that of this totally degraded man who is now sitting by Jesus’ side, a normal human being – restored to dignity. It is a miracle too great for words. It is something too big for any human being to have done. We read that the people who considered this were afraid. They realized they were in the presence of something they could not grasp or control, a reality that was way beyond their human categories.
The discussion that ensues contrasts starkly with this contemplation. It is about the pigs and all the upset caused by Jesus’ intervention. Neither Jesus nor the man who had been possessed are asked to give their opinion on any of this. The end result is Jesus’ departure. He accepts this community decision, knowing something has irreversibly changed through the liberation of this one man. He asks the restored man to go home and renew the relationship with his family, telling them what the Lord has done for him. As always, Jesus does not draw attention to himself but gives all honour to God.
Mark then describes how the man goes around his entire region, proclaiming ‘how much Jesus had done for him’. The subtle change from ‘the Lord’ to ‘Jesus’ is another of Mark’s hints to the divinity of Jesus. The man who cried out to God in his enslavement, encounters a man who comes from afar to meet him and set him free. In the Psalms it is God who answers our cries for help (e.g. Ps 4:4, 18:7, 34:5). In the gospel it is Jesus who is sent by God to bring salvation.
Feeding the multitudes – Mark 6:30-44
Jesus wanted his disciples to have a break. They went with the boat to a quiet spot on the shore of the lake of Galilee. But when they got out of the boat, a large crowd of people were waiting for them there, eager for Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. Mark describes how, on seeing the crowd,
Jesus is ‘moved with compassion’ for they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. Both these expressions are hints at the divinity of Jesus.
First, the Greek verb for ‘moved with compassion’ (splagchnizomai) is only used in the synoptic gospels and almost always with Jesus as the subject1. The only exceptions are 1) Mt 18:27 – where it is used in a parable speaking of the compassion of God; 2) Luke 10:33 – another parable, where the subject is the good Samaritan which is seen by many as an image of Jesus; 3) Luke 15:20, where the subject is the father in the parable of the prodigal son in 15:20 – again an image of God.
This Greek verb corresponds to the Hebrew verb racham. Both words refer to the organs in the belly, where the deepest emotions are felt; the Hebrew refers more specifically to the womb. Racham is used of God in 32 of the 40 occurrences in the Old Testament. The Septuagint does not translate these words with splagchnizomai, probably because it was felt to be inappropriate to use words for God that refer to the human anatomy. The conclusion seems obvious that by using this Greek verb for Jesus, the gospels hint at a correspondence between the emotions of Jesus and of God himself.
Second, Mark speaks of how the crowd seemed to Jesus like sheep without a shepherd. The image of the shepherd has significant echoes in the Old Testament, where God is often in the role of a shepherd who cares for his sheep, his people, over against the human shepherds who fail in their task (Ps 23, 77, 100, Jer 23, Ez 34). When Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with compassion for the sheep, he suggests that Jesus is in tune with God, seeing the people of Israel as God sees them. It suggests that Jesus is the good shepherd promised in Jer 23: 5 and Ez 34:23 and it hints that he is fulfilling the role God had chosen for himself from early on.
Past and Future
This gospel account of Jesus feeding the multitude links to the past as well as to the future. Concerning the past, it has precedents in the story of how God fed the people of Israel in the desert with the heavenly bread they called Manna14 (Exod 16) and in the story of how the prophet Elisha fed 100 people with 20 loaves of bread5 (2Ki 4). In these cases, however, both Moses and Elisha referred to God as the source of the bread (Ex 16:15, 2 Ki 4:43). Here in the gospel it is Jesus who is the source and he does not refer to God as providing it. He does pray over the bread, however, before he breaks it. In fact, we read that he looked up to heaven – a Jewish euphemism for looking up to God. But Jesus did not utter the kind of formula Elisha had used: ‘This is what the Lord says’.
Concerning the future, Bourguet cites early church fathers who all agree that this moment of giving bread to the crowd is intimately related to the Last Supper, where Jesus gave bread and wine to his disciples saying, this is my body, this is my blood. In the gospel of John this connection to the crucifixion was made explicit so many years later (John 6). However, many early exegetes were convinced that Jesus had already in mind what would happen to him at the time he fed the crowds. Thus for him, this giving out of bread was loaded with meaning as he prepared to give himself for the salvation of many (Mk 10:45). It was part of a process in which he would eventually give his body to be broken, ultimately bringing blessing to millions. Mark emphasizes that the disciples did not understand this at the time (6:52, 8:17).
The essential verbs describing this miracle of multiplication are that Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to his disciples to be distributed. It is no accident that these same verbs are used in exactly the same order in the account of the Last Supper (Mk 14:22). In fact, they were taken from the oldest source Mark had available to him, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which pre-dates his gospel. In 1 Cor 11:22-24 it is stated: the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” [ESV]
So here in Mark 6, Jesus performs the same actions. There is no consensus between commentators whether the actual multiplication happened as Jesus continued breaking off more chunks of bread or whether it happened as the disciples were distributing the pieces of bread among the people.
Bourguet follows Chrysostom in favouring this last explanation, which gives a greater role to the disciples, in whose hands the change takes place. Bourguet sees it as an empowering object lesson for the disciples of how they would offer Jesus’ message and power to thousands of people after his death and resurrection. That is in his view the meaning of the twelve baskets of left-overs, one for each disciple to take into the world. Thus Jesus does not claim any particular credit or fame. He recedes to the background and gives the disciples the experience of working a miracle even though they do not fully understand it. Bourguet emphasizes the self-effacing, humble love of God for Jesus, who in turn exercises humble, self- effacing love for his disciples.
Jesus announces his death and resurrection three times
First announcement – Mark 8:27-33
We witness in this passage a conversation about who Jesus really is. At Jesus’ question, the disciples put forward a number of answers that they have heard people give. When we carefully evaluate these answers, the conclusion must be that his disciples saw Jesus at this point as a prophet, one of the greatest – on a par with Elijah, but not as God. They could not grasp the mystery of Jesus’ divinity so easily. The declaration of Peter: ‘You are the Messiah’ refers to a long awaited figure who, however, neither in Judaism nor in the Old Testament is described as divine.
Jesus then introduces a new theme into his conversation with them. A theme that is difficult to bring up both for Jesus himself and for his disciples. It is difficult to speak of one’s own death. It is difficult to receive the words of someone who speaks about the end of their life. To alleviate this embarrassment, he speaks about it in the third person singular. He says that the Son of Man must suffer. It is presented as a destiny, fate. This was a concept well known to Latin readers. But it is not a Biblical concept. In fact, the Greek word for fate (heimarménè) does not occur in the Septuagint or in the New Testament at all. The Greek gods were subject to fate, but the God who created the world is not subject to fate. So how should we understand this word ‘must’?
If we say, God wanted Jesus to suffer, we make God a sadistic being. One that enjoys seeing pain in others. If we say, Jesus himself wanted to suffer, we make Jesus into someone who enjoys inflicting pain on himself – a masochist. Both answers are unacceptable. Then was it Satan who wanted Jesus to suffer? That is unlikely. In the scene that follows, Jesus perceives Satan behind the refusal of Peter to accept that Jesus might be killed. Satan surely wanted Jesus to die but not to rise again from the dead. Yet that was part of the announcement as well: ‘..and after three days rise again’. Anyway, Jesus was not subject to the demands of Satan and he was not driven by an unhealthy death wish.
The ‘must’ in this passage does not come from outside. It is a desire from within. Jesus was so in tune with God’s love for his creation and for humanity, that he himself wanted to go through the pain and suffering he announced to break the evil spell under which creation was bound. The ‘must’ represents a joint decision taken by God and Jesus together, in which either was free. It is only when we acknowledge the divinity of Jesus, which makes him an equal partner with God, that we can see here a choice on which both freely agreed. Only when we see God and Jesus in perfect communion with each other through the Holy Spirit can we make sense of this decision taken in unity. Any other solution makes God a pervert or Jesus a psychiatric patient.
The implication of this unity is that Jesus will not be the only one to suffer. God the Father also absorbs the pain and suffering that Jesus is submitted to. Many find the idea that God could suffer shocking. God is above creation and above our reach. How can God die? How can God suffer? A perfect God cannot be subject to the imperfection of suffering. In the logic of the Graeco-Roman philosophers, God could not suffer and many theologians have held this view. Bourguet makes the point that the Syriac fathers (he mentions Romanos and Makarios) were not influenced by Greek logic in the same way and held the view that God shared in the suffering of Jesus. God the Father
does not suffer physically, but feels the pain of his love being rejected. It is the logical consequence of love and of the unity between the Father and the Son.
Concerning the announcement of the resurrection, note that this verb is in an active form. The idea that someone was raised from the dead was known from the Old Testament and Jesus himself had on a few occasions brought people back from the dead. In all those situations, the dead person played no role at all. But Jesus uses here an active form, suggesting that he himself will, without outside help, rise up after his death and live again. The same turn of phrase is used in Mark 9:9 and it is not surprising that the disciples then ask each other what this rising up might mean (Mark 9:10). By contrast, later in the gospel of Mark, another verb is used and in the passive form: ‘after I am raised up’ (14:28) and ‘He has been raised’ (16:6). These passive forms, although they are often translated in active form in English, point to the intervention of God in the resurrection. Of course, we do not know what really happened during the resurrection as there were no witnesses. At any rate, no human observer could have made sense of it – it is beyond words. This paradox, where both expressions must be assumed to be true, suggests that there was a perfect harmony between the actions of the Father and of the Son at the time of Jesus’ return from the dead.
Second announcement – Mark 9:31-32
A similar paradox is found in the second announcement of the crucifixion. Here Jesus uses the term ‘delivered’: ‘The Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of men..’ (YLT) It is a passive form in the present tense. It suggests that God is delivering him into the hands of men. That is also what the apostle Paul had written before Mark in his letter to the Romans, that God ‘did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all’. Yet on at least two other occasions, Paul also wrote that Jesus gave himself up for us, using the same Greek word again (Gal 2:20, Eph 5:2). Both are true. There are simply no words to adequately express what happened here. The Father has delivered his son, who is also God, into suffering and the Son, in perfect harmony with the Father, has delivered himself into suffering as the further gospel account of Jesus’ passion clearly shows.
Third announcement – Mark 10:32-34, 45.
Bourguet links verse 45 to the third announcement of the crucifixion. The intervening episode (vs 35- 44) is just an interruption, another conversation where the disciples clearly showed that they had not understood the plan Jesus had been unfolding for them. Bourguet’s focus is on this last verse 45. It reveals Jesus as a servant, something he had never said before, and presents the idea of his death as a ransom.
First of all, Jesus says that his coming death is the reason why he has come. It was the purpose of his life on earth, the mission he had to accomplish. On the surface, his death was the result of an evil conspiracy against him. But Jesus decided to embrace this threat against him and came to accept it as the way to set people free. Many questions can be asked about this word ‘ransom’ that is only used here in the New Testament and in the parallel verse in Matthew. Bourguet follows Gregory of Nazianzus saying that the only important questions here are 1) for whom the ransom was paid and 2) what enslavement these beneficiaries were set free from.
Many had expected that Jesus would bring a political freedom. This seems to be the meaning of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:21): ‘we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel’ (where ‘redeem’ links to the concept of ransom). There was enough precedent in the Old Testament for this idea. Moses, Cyrus, the Messiah were all presented as people who would bring freedom from oppression. But Jesus had arrived at a different interpretation of the scriptures, discerning his mission in different terms. His interpretation of Psalms 118, 22, 35 and Isaiah 53 was for a Messiah who must suffer and bring freedom on a completely different set of terms. Hosea 13:14 speaks of God bringing freedom from death. Psalm 130:8 speaks of God freeing his people from all their sins. The Septuagint uses in both these verses the word ‘redeem’, which is linked to the concept of ransom. The apostle Paul quotes Psalm 130 when he says that we await the future appearance of ‘the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2:14, NIV). This verse brings together the notion that Jesus gave himself over into death, that he paid the ransom for us to free us from the power of sin and, by implication, death. Paul is also explicit here about the divinity of Jesus. It is clear in Paul’s mind that no ordinary human being could have achieved this freedom for us.
Transfiguration – Mark 9:2-8
Bourguet begins his exegesis of this passage by emphasizing the context of prayer in which this extraordinary event takes place. When Jesus leads these three disciples up the mountain, the word used is one for carrying them up, bearing them up. The Septuagint uses the same word when Abraham lifts his son unto the altar he has prepared to sacrifice him. It is not just a physical meaning, but a spiritual one: lifting towards God. Jesus lifts his disciples to God. The mountain is a place to be alone and to pray.
Jesus was transfigured – another example of a divine passive. Jesus was transformed by God, who is present at this scene all along, even if this is never made explicit. The word for transfigured is not used anywhere in the Septuagint. In the NT, Paul uses this verb when he writes about how we are transformed as we live in fellowship with Jesus and this is clearly an interior change, not visible from the outside. This use of the word metamorphoô is unique, intended to convey the uniqueness of what the disciples saw.
Mark speaks of how Jesus’ clothes are changed into a radiant white. He does not describe his face. This is significant. Isaiah does the same thing in his temple vision (Is 6). He describes how the robes of the Lord filled the temple but says nothing about his face. Psalm 104 says that God covers himself with light like a garment, again mentioning his clothes but not his face. Daniel comes closer and describes how he sees God in a vision as someone dressed in clothes white as snow and with hair like pure wool, sitting on a throne of fiery flames. Again the face is not described. No one can see the face of God and live (Ex 34). Matthew approaches this by adding that Jesus’ face on this occasion shone like the sun i.e. that the disciples could not look directly into it.
Bourguet splits the verb metamorphoô into meta which means ‘with’ or ‘in communion with’ and morphè, which means ‘form’ or ‘nature’. What the disciples see here is the other nature of Jesus that is in perfect communion with his human nature but that is not normally visible to them. Even now, we must assume that his appearance was modulated so they could bear to look at it.
We should not make the mistake of saying that Jesus, who was a man, at this point became a heavenly being, divine. The apostle Paul recites to the Philippians the common confession of the church of his day that Jesus was with God first but accepted for that divine nature to become invisible to the human beings of his day (Phil 2:5-8). The transfiguration is a moment where the disciples see the true nature of Jesus, which was hidden from their view in normal life. Seeing this puts the suffering and death of Jesus in another perspective for them. It is not just the torture and death of a loved one. It is also the victory of one stronger than death who breaks its spell forever.
The heavenly nature of Jesus relates to other heavenly beings i.e. Moses and Elijah. They had both spoken with God face-to-face during their life time (Ex 33, 1 Ki 19). Bourguet asks the question whether they had not, in fact, been speaking to Jesus at the time? They were now speaking with Jesus as if no time had passed between the earthly life of Jesus and theirs.
Confronted with this revelation from ‘the other side’, the disciples are gripped by an immense fear – for which Mark uses a stronger than usual word and which in the Septuagint is used to describe Moses’ fear for God’s wrath (Dt 9:19). When Peter speaks, his words can be understood as an attempt to hold on to the earthly aspects of reality and the human nature of Jesus. But then there is the cloud that overshadows them, enveloping them, protecting them. The early church fathers were unanimous that the cloud represented the presence of the Spirit of God. The word ‘overshadow’ here is the same word that the angel Gabriel used when he explained to Mary how she will become pregnant: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ (Lk 1:35 ESV). It is a presence that takes away fear.
The cloud unites Jesus with Elijah and Moses, and the disciples are included in the same covering. It is an amazing image of continuity between the old and the new, with the living and the dead part of the same reality under the Lordship of Jesus, who holds the future in his hands. The transfigured Jesus, the cloud and the voice that the disciples hear together, form a unique scene where the three persons of the trinity are together in a way that they can perceive.
The voice is not qualified in any way. Peter, who described this scene to Mark, could not find words for it. He just knew it was God speaking and he knew what was said. But how, he could not tell. God speaks to the disciples and focuses all their attention on Jesus. So many things could have been said, so many words could have been used – but no. The Father effaces himself to put the Son in focus.
Jesus is mentioned four times in these eight verses which, for Mark, is a whole lot and bound to be intentional. Just like Jesus effaces himself and always honours God the Father, so the Father effaces himself and honours the Son. Truly the Son is the image of his Father.
All through Mark’s gospel, the disciples have asked themselves: Who is this? Who is this man who forgives sins (2:7)? Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (4:41)? Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary (6:3)? The disciples had many different suggestions when Jesus asked them who people thought he was (8:27-29). When Peter had said: You are the Messiah, Jesus had not confirmed this answer (Mark 8:30). Now God himself speaks to them about Jesus: This is my beloved son. It is the answer to all the questions that have been lingering all through the gospel up to this point.
When in ancient times, God had spoken to his people, it was a terrifying thing to behold. The people of Israel asked Moses to mediate for them since they were too afraid (Ex 20:18-19). None of that is here. Here, God reveals himself as a God who is near, who is present with Jesus, covering his disciples by his Spirit, speaking of love.
For Bourguet, the gospel of Mark speaks loud and clear of the divinity of Jesus. But it is a humble divinity, one that is self-effacing. A voice that can only be heard by those who humbly listen to what Jesus is saying by his gestures, even more than by his words; those who perceive the divine love that is expressed by raising up the humble, while refusing to exercise power and refusing the cheering of the crowds; love that is willing to suffer rather than rule, to achieve a freedom beyond human horizons.
Since God is beyond human understanding, beyond human words or human categories of thought, the divinity of Jesus cannot be explained or argued. If it is real, it is inexpressible and can only be hinted at. It can only confront us with the question again and again: Who is this?
This summary was prepared by Johan Velema in October 2020 and approved by Daniel Bourguet in January 2021.