God told Peter, James, and John to listen to Jesus when they saw Him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2–8). This was a call not only to pay attention to our Lord but also to believe and obey Him. Today’s passage helps us understand why God’s words to them were necessary, for we see that the disciples remained perplexed about the identity and work of Christ.
We see their confusion in Mark 9:9–10. After the transfiguration, as they journeyed down the mountain, Jesus told His disciples not to tell anyone what had happened until after His resurrection (v. 9). Again, we note that this was due to the propensity of the wider population of first-century Galilee to look for a conquering Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. If the people heard about the transfiguration, they might acclaim Him as Messiah and call for an uprising against the Roman authorities, which would invite Roman reprisals that could cut short Jesus’ ministry. But we see that confusion regarding the actual work of the Messiah was not limited to the wider Galilean society. It was also evident among the Messiah’s closest followers. Verse 10 says that the disciples were questioning what the rising of Jesus from the dead meant. Belief in the resurrection of the dead was widespread among the Jews of the day, so commentators note that the real issue for the disciples was the Messiah’s impending death (see 8:31–33). Resurrection can happen only after a death, so the disciples continued to be perplexed. They could not understand that their Master would have to die.
This news of suffering, in turn, along with the recent appearance of Elijah at the transfiguration, prompted the disciples to ask about how Elijah’s coming related to news of the Messiah’s death (v. 11). The disciples undoubtedly had Malachi 4:5 in mind, which in first-century Jewish scribal interpretation had reference to a day of glory for the day of the Lord. How is the glory of Elijah related to suffering and death? was the implicit question. Jesus’ response was to affirm that Elijah would come—that yes, the final day of salvation would be glorious—but that this day would be preceded by suffering (v. 12). Christ was alluding to John the Baptist as a fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy of the coming of Elijah before the day of the Lord. As the second Elijah went to death, so would the Son of Man go (v. 13). John, who came in the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:18), died—and so would the Messiah.