Matthew 17:1-3 Six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up on a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them… And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him.
Some read this passage and assume that Moses and Elijah, who both died hundreds of years before Jesus was born, are nevertheless alive now since they seemingly just appeared before Jesus bodily. How might we understand what this passage is trying to convey to its readers? Here are a few thoughts:
- This passage is generally taken out of its proper context. First of all, one must remember that this event comes a few days after Jesus stated that “there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28). The very next verse (17:1) states that it was only six days later that Jesus took some of those who heard those very words, namely Peter, James, and John. Therefore, in some sense, the reader should expect what follows to be an expression of the coming of the Son of Man in his kingdom.
- Jesus, after coming down from the mountain, commands the three disciples that they are to not tell of this ‘vision’ to anyone until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. Clearly here, Jesus calls the event which they just witnessed a vision. Readers of the Bible should be familiar with visions, such as the ones that Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel had and recorded. These visions were pictures of what the future would look like, and very often depicted what the kingdom of God would look like and entail. Unfortunately, the NIV obscures the Greek here in Matt. 17:9 and removes the notion of a vision in favor of something the three simply “saw”. The act of seeing something, unspecified, is not the same as seeing a ‘vision’ of the future. The NIV therefore obscures what the passage is attempting to convey.
- If we are correct in discerning that this is a vision of the coming kingdom, then other elements of the story start to make sense. First of all. Jesus is depicted in the Transfiguration as one whose face shone like the sun. This metaphor is also spoken about in Dan. 12:3, the verse immediately following the famous resurrection passage (12:2). This is the resurrection of the dead which occurs when the Son of Man returns with his kingdom, this fits rather well. Matthew has already spoken of this metaphor in 13:43 when he writes that “then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Again, the act of shining is one connected with the kingdom time period, something clearly in the future.
- 2 Peter 1:16-18 makes mention of the Transfiguration event by commenting that:
For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to Him by the Majestic Glory, “This is My beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased “– and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
Peter here states that this event was in reference to the power and coming of Jesus, where the word for “coming” is parousia, a Greek word used throughout the New Testament to denote the return of Jesus to establish the kingdom upon this earth.
In short, the account of the Transfiguration does not indicate that Moses and Elijah, who died hundred of years before Christ was born, are actually alive (presumably in heaven). Rather, the Transfiguration was a vision of the coming kingdom in its glory, where Jesus shone brightly and communicated with two of the (then) resurrected saints.
Here is a word search for the kids: