Often in connection with their belief that Elijah is in heaven, people reference the transfiguration when Elijah and Moses appeared to be speaking with Yeshua. They claim that this event proves that Elijah and Moses are actually in heaven, and that they were able to communicate with Yeshua. Let’s examine the verses in question, and see what the Bible actually says.
Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their faces and were greatly afraid. But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” (Matthew 17:1-9)
This is one of those events that seems so fantastic that it is often difficult for people believe as a true event. Dead people appearing to be alive, a voice coming from the clouds, and a man who’s face became bright like the sun. It sounds like something straight out of a science fiction novel.
How should we understand this event? Should we conclude that two men who had been dead for hundreds of years were now talking to Yeshua? Or, was it something else?
I often tell people that we must let the Bible interpret itself. We cannot let our opinions, or the opinions of others cloud our understanding of certain verses. When we let the Bible interpret itself, we don’t have to worry about having the wrong interpretation.
So, what does the Bible tell us about this event?
Many people overlook verse 9, but it is actually the key verse in understanding what happened at the transfiguration. Yeshua explains that what happened on the mountain was only a “vision”.
Now as they came down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.” (Matthew 17:9)
We can also see from verse 3 when it says, “Moses and Elijah appeared to them”, that the vision was given for the three disciples who were present. The word used here that is translated “appeared” is the Greek word ὤφθη (ōphthē), which means to see or experience, but often with metaphorical implication, “to see with the mind” or perceive without eyes.
The dictionary defines a vision as:
“something seen in a dream, trance, or ecstasy; especially a supernatural appearance that conveys a revelation; a thought, concept, or object formed by the imagination; a manifestation to the senses of something immaterial.”
We see many examples of visions throughout the Bible, and we understand that when someone has a vision, they are seeing something with their mind. The things that they perceive are not physically present, but are in a sense imagined. Visions are sometimes about real people or events, but the person having the vision is only having a dream-like experience, and is not actually seeing the physical person or event.
For example, in Acts 10, when Peter had the vision of the animals on the sheet, we understand that there were not really a bunch of animals floating in the sky on a giant sheet. It is obvious that Peter was seeing those things with his mind. It would be absurd for us to conclude that a blanket full of wild animals was floating in the sky above Peter’s house. Likewise, when Yeshua explains that it was only a vision of Moses and Elijah, we can rest assured that Moses and Elijah were not actually present on the mountain.
Moses and Elijah appeared to Peter, James, and John in a vision, and the vision was given to the disciples to reveal something to them about the Messiah. Moses represents the Torah and Elijah represents the prophets. Both the Law and the Prophets were standing in approval of Yeshua as a voice from heaven says, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”
It is no coincidence that this event took place only a few days after Peter’s confession, when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) It was as if God was confirming Peter’s confession, so that there was no doubt who Yeshua really was. First, Yeshua asked, “who do men say that I am”, next He asked, “Who do you say that I am”, and shortly after, His Father also echoed the same answer that was given through Peter. Yeshua is the Son of God, and the Law and Prophets confirm it! That is why Moses and Elijah appeared in a vision, because they represent the Law and Prophets which point to Yeshua as the Messiah.
It is actually vital that this event be understood as only a vision, because if Yeshua was actually speaking to Moses and Elijah, then He would have been breaking the commandment which forbids consulting with the dead. This single act of necromancy would have disqualified Him from being the Messiah. We obviously cannot conclude that our Messiah was participating in necromancy or functioning as some sort of medium who communicates with the dead. Therefore, the only option we have is to conclude that it was simply a vision, in accordance with what Yeshua already said.
We should also realize that Yeshua had no reason to speak with Moses and Elijah, because He was able to speak directly to His Heavenly Father. The appearance of Moses and Elijah was not for His sake, but for the sake of the disciples who were present. It was for the purpose of spiritual revelation, not (as some think) to prove that Elijah and Moses are actually in heaven.
Furthermore, even if this was not a vision, and Moses and Elijah had actually come to life and spoken with Yeshua, that still would not prove that they are in heaven. All it would prove is that God can raise the dead. However, the Bible clearly explains that this was a vision, and we do not need to add our own assumptions and speculations to the text.