Present when he told them were Peter and James and John, whom he had chosen to have with him when he raised Jairus’ dead daughter to life, and whom he would choose to have nearest to him in Gethsemane. We tend to think of them as principals at the Transfiguration, almost as though the whole incident had been staged for their sake. Strengthened and comforted by it they certainly were; but they were not principals. Jesus conversed with Moses and Elijah: the three apostles were asleep part of the time and contributed nothing. Only one of them said anything at all: Peter said that it was a good thing they were there—they could make three shelters, one for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah; but he himself tells us, through Mark (9:5), that he was too frightened to know what he was saying.
Let us glance quickly at what happened as told in the opening verses of Mark’s ninth chapter and Matthew’s seventeenth. Read especially Luke (9:28-36). He gives the most detailed account, and we wonder who was his informant. Of the three who were there, Peter tells us what happened through Mark (and find it again in 2 Peter 1:17-18—be sure to read it); James was long dead; could it have been John? Apart from “we saw his glory, he glory as of the only begotten of the Father”, he says nothing of the Transfiguration in his own Gospel. It may be that Luke had a ready told all that John had to tell.
As at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus had climbed some way up a mountain to pray. As he prayed he was “transfigured”—the Greek word is “metamorphosed”—his face shining like the sun, his garments dazzling white, like snow. It is not clear at what point the three apostles went to sleep, but when they were fully awake they saw their Lord “in his glory”, and Moses and Elijah standing with him, they too in glory. The three were speaking of the death that he would die in Jerusalem.
Moses was Israel’s law giver, dead these fifteen hundred years. Elijah, greatest of prophets, had been whirled up into the sky eight hundred years before; and the prophet Malachi had said (4:5) that God would send him “before the coming of the great and awe-filled day of the Lord”. Where had they come from?
Of Elijah the destiny is wholly mysterious. About Moses there is no such mystery. He was simply one of the greatest of those who had died at peace with God. Heaven was closed to these until Calvary should expiate the sin of the race. The soul of Moses, and the souls of all of them, were in a place of waiting—limbo, the border region, we most often call it. Abraham’s bosom, Jesus called it in the parable of Dives and Lazarus; paradise, he called it to the thief who appealed to him on the Cross.
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