When Jesus ascended the mountain of Transfiguration with his disciples, “there appeared to them Moses and Elijah” (Matt 17:3 cf. Mk 9:4; Lk 9:30). There are several reasons for why these two biblical figures speak with Jesus. For instance, both Moses and Elijah meet with God on Mount Horeb (aka Sinai), so it is fitting that they also meet with God’s Son on a mountain. Alternatively, since Moses is the giver of the Torah and Elijah gives a double portion of his spirit to Elisha, the Gospel writers may be alluding to Yeshua as someone who also offers these gifts. Yet another (more interesting) possibility, found in both Scripture and later Jewish tradition, is that neither Moses or Elijah died natural deaths, but rather remained alive with God before meeting with the Messiah.

Elijah does not suffer an earthly death; instead, “Elijah went up by a whirlwind (סער; sa’ar) into the heavens (השׁמים; ha’shamayim)” (2 Kgs 2:11). Since Elisha sees this happen, he is imbued with Elijah’s spirit, so that the other prophets say, “The spirit (רוּח; ruach) of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kgs 2:15). In a similar way, Moses imparts his divinely-given spirit to Joshua (see Deut 34:9), which provides a parallel to Elijah and, by extension, invites comparison between Elijah’s ascension and the obscurity of Moses’ death. Since both Eljiah and Moses impart a spirit to their successors, might Moses, like Elijah, have remained alive with God until the advent of the Messiah?

On a plain reading of Scripture, it would seem not: “Moses the servant of the Lord died” (Deut 34:5). However, Moses’ death is shrouded in some mystery, since “the Lord… buried him” so that “no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (34:6). Although Deuteronomy explicates that God “buried him,” some rabbis read the Hebrew for “him” (אתו; oto) to mean that Moses buried “himself” (!), which points to some kind of life after death (cf. Sifre Naso 32; Num. R. 10:17; Rashi on Deut 34:6). Others asserted that God did not bury Moses in the ground, but rather “hid him away for life in the World to Come” (Sifre Deut 301), which is why no one can find his earthly burial site.

The Gospel writers may well have shared rabbinic views about the obscure circumstances of Moses’ death and his continued presence with God. Thus, it is fitting for Moses and Elijah to meet with Jesus at his Transfiguration: just as Jesus’ metamorphosis on the mountain foreshadows his continued life through resurrection, Moses and Elijah’s presence undergird God’s ability to confer eternal life upon the righteous.

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  1. Well, “Yes, but.” The traditional assignment of Moses = Law and Elijah = Prophets, even though there is obviously no “book” of Elijah, still seems to me to make more sense.

    • Thanks, John. Yes, this may well be another reason why Moses and Elijah appeared on the mountain. Since many such reasons are plausible (and likely working in concert), your judicious response constitutes a case of “yes, and…” — and it is well taken.

      • But there is a third biblical figure that did not die in a natural way, before Moses and Elijah: Henoc. Why did not he appear in the Transfiguration?

        • Great question, George. There are several possibilities. Here are two: (1) Moses and Elijah may also represent the Torah and the Prophets, respectively, so that these biblical categories undergird Jesus’ glorification during his Transfiguration (cf. Matt 5:17). Granted, Enoch would have worked as a representative for either of these categories, since (like Moses) he appears in the Torah, and (like Elijah) he is understood to be a prophet in Second Temple and New Testament tradition (see Jude 1:14, quoting 1 Enoch); (2) It may be that the Gospels are upholding the Torah principle of “two or three witnesses” (cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15). Thus, both bases are covered during the Transfiguration: Moses and Elijah are two heavenly witnesses, and Jesus’ disciples constitute three earthly witnesses — so that adding Enoch to the group would have been one too many.

      • There is to much hypothetical exegesis in these explanations. I do not have one of my own and I am willing to leave it as it is until explained more clearly in the Kingdom of God.

  2. I disagree. Moses “died” to me means death for what it is. Elijah was taken by a whirlwind, but Enoch walked with Adonai and was no more. Moses, giver of Torah, I believe met with Yeshua to help Him in time of distress and encourage Him with Elijah

    • Thanks for your comment, Silvia. I agree with you that Moses died according to the biblical text, but later Jewish tradition reads the text in a way that allows for Moses’ ongoing (after)life and the Gospel writers may have drawn on this tradition. Since Jesus is not in “distress” during the Transfiguration, we should probably look for another reason for why Moses and Elijah appear to him.

  3. Reading Joshua 1, we find the language quite clear in the first 2 verses:
    Joshua 1:1 “After the death of Moses” the servant of the Lord, the Lord said to Joshua the son
    of Nun, Moses’ assistant, 2 “Moses my servant is dead.” … ESV

    If Moses was still physically alive, (but not in our mortal realm and in the presence of the LORD), I don’t think the LORD would have told Joshua, “Moses my servant DEAD.” just sayin.

  4. There is yet another explanation: Elijah as well as Moses desired to see the “glory” of God, but they were not allowed to (No one who sees God ….). But here in the person of Jesus they were granted their desire.
    It seems also possible that these two will be the two witnesses of Rev 11: the three may be talking about the death of Jesus and the coming time of “Jacob’s trials” and their involvement in the time. Therefore it seems possible that Moses did not die the physical death.

  5. The Bible says at the witness of two or three people must a matter be established.
    So I believed that both Men of YEHOWAH come to encourage or came to witness or to confirm and support Jesus since he wanted the cup to pass over him.

    • Thanks, David. It certainly seems that Moses and Elijah are acting as two heavenly witnesses (cf. Deut 17:6; 19:15). While I’m not seeing a need for “encouragement” at the Transfiguration (this would be more appropriate at Gethsemane), I think you’re right that Moses and Elijah are confirming the event in heaven and Jesus’ three disciples are confirming the event on earth. Thanks again for contributing to our discussion!

  6. Maybe, these two were God’s most faithful and best prophets/preachers, and Jesus wanted to tell them to get all the dead saints ready, because He was about to “lead captivity, captive!”

    • The prophetic status of both figures may well be at play, Mitch. Thanks for contributing to our discussion!

  7. When Jesus transfigured appearing with Moses and Elijah, God has shown of His Work for man’s salvation as He told them witnesses to only listen to His beloved Son Jesus. Why Moses and Elijah?, both of them were entrusted by God of the Word, with Moses the 10Commandments and Elijah in John the Baptist, the Word that became flesh. They both cater to men the eternal Word of God, Christ Jesus our Lord. Man should live by this Word for his salvation.

  8. How can there be people who have not died? Hebrews 9:27 says it is appointed for men to die, and that Jesus is the first to live after death (1 Cor. 15:20-23). Didn’t God provide a vision for Jesus and the apostles on the mount, not a physical reality, to point toward the future realization of the Messianic kingdom?

    • Thanks for your question, Terri. Peter seems to think that Moses’ and Elijah’s appearance is a physical reality, since he offers to build booths for them. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 15 is true as a generalization, but the biblical text includes exceptions (e.g., Elijah and Enoch).

  9. If we look at it in terms of Moses and Elijah alone we may not get it. There are three men here: Moses, Elijah who must come and has already come (John the baptist) for the preparation of the future and Jesus the Future. Three disciples who were with Jesus saw a complete picture of the plan of God for salvation: Moses law which falls short to impart righteousness – transition/Preparation by Elijah (or John if you like) – Future redemption promise which is Jesus. LAW – PREPARATION – NEW DISPENSATION

  10. I tend to believe Moses was a representation of the Torah (law) era. Elijah represents the prophetic era (a transition with a call to draw closer to God despite rebellion) while Christ comes in to (as prophesied) as a representation of Grace after we had failed on the law.

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree with your reading of Moses and Elijah as representatives of Torah and Prophets, though the juxtaposition of law and grace comes from John’s Gospel (1:17), which doesn’t contain a Transfiguration.

  11. All of this is new to me, but the voice in the cloud (This is my beloved Son hear him) seems similar to the baptism of Jesus in 3:17. Would this be a type of death experienced by the disciples? Sorry, I am not sure what baptism represents in Jewish history (only church history).

    • Thanks for your question, Kat. The Transfiguration is likely a foretaste of Jesus’ resurrection, rather than the disciples’ death (or metaphorical baptism). God repeats the “beloved son” language in order to underscore the divine appointment that Jesus first received at his baptism.

  12. Moses and Elijah were “era changers” who left their missions unfinished, necessitating spirit-filled successors. Jesus would fulfill their missions: Moses to fulfill the promises to the Fathers, even to Abraham’s resurrection (Genesis 15:7-16,18:19,50:24-26; Exodus 3:8,6:8), Elijah to bring Israel from Baal and Golden Calves back to GOD, with eschatological connotations. Neither Joshua nor Elisha completed those missions. Jesus would. The presence of these two reassured that the promised Kingdom really was at hand (Matthew 16:28, Mark 9:1). Elijah was Jesus’ “forerunner.” Jesus was the prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18-19). Righteous Israel must obey Him, not sit and wait (2Peter 1:9-19).

  13. Very interesting comments! My understanding is that, Jesus was the final revelation of God’s plan (Gen 3: 15); righteousness and restoration of humanity to Himself. Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) had messages pointing to Jesus, who is the true Love of God revealed to humanity. So, the law is summed up in Love (Matthew 22:34-40) and the Prophets pointed to this Love to be revealed, as proclaimed by Elijah (John the Baptist). So, the transfiguration showed Jesus pointing to Himself as; culmination of the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Nothing else would come after Him, God’s Redemption/Love revealed.

    • Thanks for your addition to our discussion, George. I agree with you that Moses and Elijah probably represent that Torah and the Prophets, respectively. The only adjustment I’d want to make to what you’ve said is that it might be better to say that Jesus *underscores* and *expresses most fully* the love that God had always revealed to humanity. That is, humanity was not waiting for God’s true love to *finally* be revealed in Jesus (which connotes that God’s love wasn’t there before Jesus), but rather Jesus “recapitulates” and, in some ways, “intensifies” the love that God expresses throughout the Tanakh/Old Testament. Thanks again for your thoughts!

      • Dr. Schaser, I beg to differ from your comments of my comments. I don’t believe that Jesus “underscores” or “intensifies” God’s love as you expressed it. Jesus was the true love of God revealed for humanity to embrace so that humanity would be reconciled back to God. Every expression then was a shadow leading to Jesus, the perfection. So, in Hebrews 11, the writer can say all those people of faith received that which was not “perfect”. Simply, Genesis 1/2 humanity in Adam was perfect; from 3, sin/imperfection reigned till Jesus came. Those in Jesus, perfection will return Revelation 21/22.

        • George, when Hebrews says of the Old Testament figures that “apart from us they should not be made perfect” (11:40), the writer does not mean that the whole of the Old Testament was deficient in comparison to Christ, or that God’s love didn’t *really* come around until Jesus. Rather, Hebrews refers to Jesus’ self-sacrifice as a “perfect” sacrifice to atone for sin (cf. Heb 11:4; 12:24) — something that the Levitical animal sacrifices couldn’t fully do (see Heb 10:4). Yours is a common Christian distillation of salvation history, but nothing in the Bible suggests that we should bypass God’s love for Israel after Genesis 3, or that such love only “truly” surfaces in the New Testament. Instead, the biblical text explicates that God shows *true* love for Israel throughout the Old Testament, and Jesus reiterates that love in the Gospels.

  14. Jesus is the son of God (Elohim)and he was the only begotten. Cannot liken him unto Moses, he fulfilled the law of Moses.

  15. Another thought would be when Jesus asked Peter what people were saying about who He was,
    Peter answered Elijah, Moses and John the Baptist. They may have met John but they never met Elijah or Moses. So He was showing that He was not them. Just a thought.

  16. My view is that it is a picture of His 2nd coming. Before Jesus comes down as the Mighty King, the dead will rise up first (picture of Moses) and then the ones remaining in earth, the church (picture of Elijah) taken up into the sky to meet the Lord.

  17. What is more interesting is what they talk about. King James says they discuss his “decease” but the Greek word is “Exodos” (Exodus!)!

  18. the Lord rendezvous ( 2nd time) with Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai, because the Torah foreshadows Christ ,and the Prophets with the exception of John the Baptist predicts the coming of Christ. Jesus in his own words explains the Transfiguration in Luke 16:16 when he says ” The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the Kingdom of God is being preached..”. Moses and Elijah in Mount Sinai together with Jesus signifies the fulfillment of the two books but more importantly the imminent arrival of God’s kingdom on Earth.

    • Good question, Larry. I think we’d have to ask what we mean by “fulfill.” Since Jesus equates Elijah with John the Baptist, it seems that the latter would be fulfilling Elijah’s role, rather than Jesus. Yeshua certainly recapitulates the life of Moses, though (esp. in Matt 1-5).

      • I’m still trying to understand the good-part in Larry’s question..Yes there was always a “word of the day” from God to the backsliding children of Israel to rebuke them and put them inline. But rather than that,everything in the Old Testament (Torah & Prophets) points to the incarnation of Christ Jesus. Dr Nicholas if both books point us to the incarnation of Christ,then Christ Jesus walking on Earth is the ‘fulfillment’ of both books and by extension both ministries of the Law and the Prophets..again check Luke 16:16

        • I agree that Jesus “fulfills” the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17), but just to clarify, “fulfillment” does not mean “discontinuation” or “cessation.” You cite Lk 16:16; here’s Lk 16:17: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the Law to be dropped” (cf. Matt 5:18-19).

  19. The Bible is complete with three parts. The TORA which was given to Moses. This is the LAW of the existance of this earth. This is the mannual for the survival of the human race on this earth. The Prophet Elijah represents the prophets, the next books. Yahshua represents the Gospel. The three has to meet for the Word of God to be complete and fulfilled.

  20. What happened to Moses and Elijah, and being with Jesus in the transfiguration, tells of the reward to be given to The Chosen Ones who will remain true to God. On Judgment Day, the dead (like Moses) will rise first from their graves; & those who are alive (in Elijah’s case before) shall be caught up together in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1Thessalonians 4:14-17).

  21. many thanks for such an interesting conversation, providing a great deal of insight to this chapter on the mount which always fascinates me. My main question however remains: how did the disciples recognise Mose and Elijah since they never met them before?

  22. Shalom. I agree with Dr. Schaser that Yeshua recapitulates the love that God expresses throughout the Tanakh. God shows true love for Israel throughout the O.T. and Yeshua reiterates that love.

  23. I would suggest we not forget to Understand” THE WORD MADE FLESH ” DOES NOT DO AWAY WITH ITSELF He is the TORWAH\INSTRUCTION\PERFECTION these are all I e in the same as water can be ice or steam or liquid. We must understand in Wisdom by SPIRIT as He stated ” I WILL TEACH YOU ALL MATTERS Inaccessible treasures beyond your THOUGHTS” WHEN IT COMES down to it, SIMPLE IS THE DRINK BY THE WELL OF LIFE don’t complicate matters….LIVE LOVE BY GIVING SEED TO THE POWER AND BREAD TO THE HUNGRY LOVE BY PROXY JUST DO LOVINGLY IN ALL

  24. Great discussion but no one suggested that the disciples were the beneficiaries of this experience. After all, Jesus told them to come with him to the mountain for a reason and I think it was to remove doubts in their minds about His Devine Authority. And it worked! Peter was still remembering it 30 years later when he wrote “We were eyewitnesses to His majesty” 2 Pe1:17

  25. Jude verse 9 says that Michael the archangel was arguing with de devil about the body of Moses. So Moses was not alive anymore.


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