“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: 6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.” (Mal. 4:5-6)
“And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, 2 And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. 3 And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. 4 Then answered Peter, and said unto Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here: if thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias. 5 While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him. 6 And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. 7 And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. 8 And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. 9 And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them, saying, Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead. 10 And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? 11 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. 12 But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them. 13 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matt. 17:1-13)
While at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus made a promise to His disciples. “Verily I say unto you, There be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom”. In all probability, Jesus was making an ultimate reference to His glorious resurrection, His return to Earth in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, and the spread of His kingdom, as recorded in the book of Acts. And yet, as a pre-view of things to come, six days after Jesus made His promise. He took three disciples—Peter, James, and John—and went up into a high mountain.
Tradition identifies the mountain as TABOR, but it is unlikely, for at the top of Tabor was an armed fortress, and a great castle. Fourteen miles from Caesarea Philippi was Mt. Hermon, 9, 400 feet high. Perhaps it was here that Jesus took His disciples. According to Luke 9:28, the purpose of Jesus, in going to the mountain was to pray. Jesus was a man of much prayer. Sometimes He would spend a whole night in this sacred activity.
As Jesus prayed far into the night, the Bible says that He was transfigured. The word used here is a word that generally denotes essential form. There are some Bible scholars who are of the opinion that an actual metamorphosis took place in the same sense that Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt. Most authorities do not go that far, but recognize that the countenance of Jesus was changed so that His face did shine as the sun, and His clothing was white as the light. Peter, James, and John, who had been sleeping, awoke to this dazzling display of Divine manifestation of glory. Fighting for a conscience understanding of the situation, that both amazed, and terrified them, the disciples beheld that Moses and Elijah was talking with Jesus.
How the disciples recognized them is not certain. But they knew. Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets. They had written of Jesus, and now they came to minister to Him. The Bible tells us the topic of the conversation, for Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and spake [to Jesus] of His decease, which He should accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah came to Christ to discuss with Him the details of His crucifixion. The word used for “decease,” in Luke 9:31, is the word “exodus”. Jesus was going to go to Jerusalem to accomplish His exodus from life.
An exodus, in Biblical terminology, describes the act of going from the known, to the unknown, by faith. The word is used this way in Hebrew history. Led by Moses, the children of Israel left the known land of Egypt, for the unknown experience of the desert, on the way to the Land of Promise.
In like manner, Jesus was going to go from a known environment, into an unknown experience of bloodshed, and violence, pain, and suffering, and death. He needed encouragement to proceed. The Lord also needed strength, and He found it in prayer, in the testimony of the Law and the prophets, and in the voice of God the Father. Matthew records what happened next.
As Peter saw Moses and Elijah, he felt a compulsion to talk. No one had spoken to him, but Peter was not one to be silent simply because he was not asked a question. Suddenly, Peter called out unto Jesus, and said “Lord, it is good for us to be here!” Peter was right. It is always good when God’s people get a glimpse of glory. Who would not rejoice at the opportunity to see Moses and Elijah, and the glory of eternity? It was good for Peter, James, and John. Later, John would write that “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). Peter also would never forget the goodness of that moment, and would tell the world how he was an eyewitness of the majesty of Jesus. “For He received from God the Father honor and glory, when there came such a voice to Him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (2 Peter 1:17).
Had Peter just made his first statement all would have been well, but Peter had a thought. His thought was rooted in religious emotion, not rational spiritual understanding. It was Peter’s desire that this experience should not end. Lord, said Peter, if thou wilt, let us make here three sacred tents; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah.
It is commendable that Peter submitted his impulsive suggestion to the Lord. It is instructive that the Lord did not respond to Peter. Some years ago, Charles Spurgeon advised his ministerial students to have one blind eye and one deaf ear. Not all that goes on in life is worthy of comment and response. While Peter was still lingering over the possibilities of making the moment permanent, a bright cloud suddenly appeared and engulfed everyone. And a voice came out of the cloud saying, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him” (17:5).
Suddenly, the scene shifted. Moses and Elijah were gone. They returned to heaven with the speed of thought. The bright cloud was gone. The majestic voice was silent. Men who had been in the presence of Almighty God were shaken and afraid. With matchless grace, Jesus came and touched His disciples and spoke kindly to them. “Arise,” He said, “and be not afraid.”
Slowly the disciples began to lift up their head and they looked around. They saw only Jesus. It was quiet on the mountain. It was time to leave. Peter would not be able to build his house on the hill, but he could always keep the scene in his heart.
As Peter, James, and John came down from the mountain with the Lord, Jesus gave them a specific order. Tell what has been seen to no man, until the Son of Man be risen again from the dead. The disciples were disturbed at these words, for once more they were clearly being taught that Jesus must die. But why must Jesus die? And how could that be, since prophecy had not yet been fulfilled?
As students of the Scripture, the disciples knew that in the book of Malachi it was predicted that Elijah must come before the Messiah. The disciples had already confessed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Where then was Elijah? How was the prophecy to be fulfilled? The question was vital, and essential to the situation. It was appropriate. It was good that the disciples took their concerns to Christ, for questions will arise.
There are difficulties in the Scriptures. There are always answers. The Lord begins His response, first by acknowledging that what the scribes taught on this matter was correct. Usually the scribes and the Pharisees spoke incorrectly, but on this issue they were right. Elijah must come and restore all things before the Messiah.
Then the Lord startled the disciples, by stating plainly that Elijah had already come. With these words, Jesus provides a very important principle of Biblical interpretation, and that is the spiritual, when plainly stated by the Holy Spirit, is to be preferred to the literal.
When this concept is understood, there is no reason to believe the popular idea which teaches that Elijah shall still one day come back to earth, prior to the second coming of Christ. It is an interesting thought, and widely taught, but the clear words of Christ challenges the thought. Jesus said, “Elijah is come already”.
Old Testament prophecy then does not have to be fulfilled, according to materialistic expectations. Letting the New Testament interpret the Old, we find that prophecy has been fulfilled along a more spiritual line. As Elijah called upon a nation to repent, so did John the Baptist. As Elijah preached righteousness, and the judgment to come, so did John. As Elijah had a tremendous impact upon his generation, so did John. Therefore, it could be said, as Jesus did say, that Elijah had come. The power, and zeal, that John displayed, preparing the hearts of people for Jesus, fulfills the prophetic expectations of Malachi.
It is tragic, but the people did not see in John, the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy. Some of the people saw in John only a prophetic voice. Others saw a madman. Herod saw in John a threat to his immoral conduct. So John was killed. What happened to John shall happen to the Son of Man, for the Son of Man must suffer. He must die. These are sad words, both then and now. Sin had made life so bad, that only the Son of God could redeem the situation. Sin had captured the heart of man, so that only death could set it free.
The amazing thing, is that Jesus, knowing full well the tremendous sufferings that He must endure, did not shrink from going forward to Jerusalem. Jesus knew He would be hated. He knew that He would be falsely accused, and lied about. The Lord understood that rough hands would arrest Him. He would be stripped of His natural dignity. His back would bleed with the beatings He would receive. Jesus knew all that was going to happen to Him, and still He came down off the mountain, and headed for Jerusalem. Here then, is the heartbeat of the gospel. It can be summarized in two words, and those are sacrificial love.
This marvelous scene ends with the observation that the disciples understood the spiritual dimension Jesus gave to Old Testament prophecies. We would do well to understand the same as we study the Scriptures. And as we study, as we spend time with Christ, maybe, just maybe, we too shall have a glimpse of glory.