The Journal of Biblical Accuracy

Moses and Elias in the Lord's transfiguration  (PDF) PDF version

Moses and Elias in the Lord's transfiguration

(Note: This article is part of the study with title: Resurrection or life immediately after death ? The reader is advised to also read the other articles of this study.)

One other record that is sometimes a source of confusion on the topic of whether the dead are actually living today or not is the record of the Lord’s transfiguration. In this record we have Moses and Elias appearing together with the Lord and from this sometimes people conclude that these prophets must have been alive in order to appear in the scene of the transfiguration. As we will see from a careful examination of the text this needs not to be the case. The record of transfiguration is given in the gospel of Matthew from verses 1 to 9 (we can also find it in the gospels of Mark and Luke). There we read:

Matthew 17:1-9
“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.”

In this passage it appears that Moses and Elijah had a conversation with Jesus and the question is: does this mean that these two prophets were alive, though at least for Moses we read explicitly in Deuteronomy 34:5-6

Deuteronomy 34:5-6
“So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Bethpeor”

And in Joshua 1:2 God said:
Moses my servant is dead

According to what we have seen in the main article the dead are NOT alive now. They are all sleeping waiting for the resurrection. The only one that was dead and is alive now is the Lord Jesus Christ, whom God raised from the dead. Therefore Moses could not be alive and physically speak with Jesus on the day of transfiguration. The resurrections had not happened and thus Moses was not alive on that day. What then happened in the transfiguration? The key word to understand this is the word “vision” in Matthew 17:9, where Jesus told the disciples to “tell the vision to no man”. When Moses and Elias spoke to Jesus this was a supernatural vision and therefore didn’t require nor it meant that these two prophets were alive at that time. We can understand this even better by looking at the New Testament occurrences of the Greek word that is translated as vision here. This Greek word is the word “όραμα” (horama).

Occurrences of the word “horama” - vision in the New Testament


The case of the Paul and Ananias

In Acts 9:10-12 we read:
“Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and to him the Lord said in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." So the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying. "And in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and putting his hand on him, so that he might receive his sight.”

Paul had seen Ananias in a vision, without Ananias even knowing it! The Lord told this to Ananias afterwards. In other words the fact that a person appears in a vision does not mean that this person is there physically. God can use his image to communicate a message to somebody. But this does not mean that this person is there at the time of the vision. In turn, the fact that Moses and Elias appeared in the transfiguration vision does not mean that they were there physically nor it means that they were alive at the time of the vision.

The case of Peter and the sheet with the various animals

Acts 11:5-10 (see also Acts 10:17 and Acts 10:19)
“I [Peter] was in the city of Joppa praying; and in a trance I saw a vision, an object descending like a great sheet, let down from heaven by four corners; and it came to me. “When I observed it intently and considered, I saw four–footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air. "And I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Rise, Peter; kill and eat.’ "But I said, ‘Not so, Lord! For nothing common or unclean has at any time entered my mouth.’ "But the voice answered me again from heaven, ‘What God has cleansed you must not call common.’ "Now this was done three times, and all were drawn up again into heaven.

The great sheet, led down from heaven and its content was shown to Peter in a VISION. We all understand reading this passage that God didn’t have to physically get all these animals, put them in a table and present them to Peter. We understand reading the word “vision” that what Peter saw was something that God showed to him and didn’t require the physical presence of these animals. The conclusion is the same as previously with Ananias: the fact that something or somebody is shown in a vision does not require its physical presence in the vision. It is a picture that God gives to communicate a message to the one to whom He shows the vision.

In the same way we need to understand that the fact that Moses and Elias appeared in the transfiguration vision, does not mean that these two prophets were alive or physically present in the vision.

The case of Peter and his deliverance from the prison

Acts 12:6-10
“And when Herod was about to bring him out, that night Peter was sleeping, bound with two chains between two soldiers; and the guards before the door were keeping the prison. Now behold, an angel of the Lord stood by him, and a light shone in the prison; and he struck Peter on the side and raised him up, saying, "Arise quickly!" And his chains fell off his hands. Then the angel said to him, "Gird yourself and tie on your sandals"; and so he did. And he said to him, "Put on your garment and follow me." And he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. When they were past the first and the second guard posts, they came to the iron gate that leads to the city, which opened to them of its own accord; and they went out and went down one street, and immediately the angel departed from him.”

Now this is NOT a vision. An angel came and literally woke up Peter and delivered him from the prison. This did require physical presence of the angel and it was a physical presence. Look now what Peter thought initially:

And he went out and followed him, and did not know that what was done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.

Peter thought initially that what was happening was NOT TRUE BUT IT WAS A VISION. This makes a contrast between a vision and reality: Had this incidence been a vision it would not be physically real. If it was physically real then it wouldn’t be a vision. When Paul saw Ananias healing him in a vision, it was not physically real i.e. Ananias was not there nor he actually healed Paul at the time of the vision. When however Ananias went, knocked Paul’s door, put his hands on Paul’s eyes and healed him it was no longer a vision but it was physically real.

Applying this to what happened in the Lord’s transfiguration we are told that this was a vision i.e. it was something that God showed, a message that God wanted to convey, and it was important for this message to have Elias and Moses appearing there. But God didn’t have to make these prophets physically alive in order to have them in the vision. Their appearance in this vision didn’t require their physical presence there.

The case of Paul and the man of Macedonia

Acts 16:9-10
“And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Now did this man of Macedonia come all the way from Macedonia and stood there literally? Nobody of us thinks so. Right? We all understand that since the text says that he appeared in a vision it was not there literally, physically. In the same way, and though we may be repetitive, it is again obvious that Elias and Moses didn’t have to be physically there to be shown in the vision of the transfiguration. God can present whatever and whoever He desires in a vision in order to convey His message. What is presented in a vision does not have in any way to be physically there.

The case of the Lord speaking to Paul

Acts 18:9-11
“Now the Lord spoke to Paul in the night by a vision, "Do not be afraid, but speak, and do not keep silent; "for I am with you, and no one will attack you to hurt you; for I have many people in this city." And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.”


Now the person speaking here is very important, because it is the Lord Jesus Christ. This person IS ALIVE for God raised Him from the dead. He is the only dead that is alive now and he appeared to Paul in a vision telling him to continue preaching the gospel in Corinth. I have no reason whatsoever to argue whether Jesus was physically there or not, for Jesus is ALIVE and has a spiritual body with supernatural abilities. This is a case much different than any other one.

The case of Moses and the burning bush

Acts 7:31
“When Moses saw it [the burning bush], he wondered at the sight [Greek: horama]: and as he drew near to observe, the voice of the Lord came to him,”

This is the only case where the word “horama” is translated “sight” and not “vision”. Reading the detailed record of this incident in Exodus we see that “God called unto him [Moses] out of the midst of the bush” (Exodus 3:4) and a whole conversation took place between God and Moses there (see Exodus chapters 3 and 4). Some visions are shown in the night, may be in the sleep, as in the case of the Lord speaking to Paul to continue his preaching in Corinth and in the case of the Macedonian through whom the Lord told Paul to go and preach the gospel there. Others again happen with the eyes wide open, as in the case of Peter and the sheet with the various animals. What is important to understand is that a vision is a supernatural way which God can choose to communicate a message to His people. The fact that something appears in a vision does not mean that it is physically there. What appears in a vision is important in relationship to the message that God wants to convey. It is part of this message. Visions can also be shown to me and you. As it says in Acts 2:17:

Acts 2:17
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions[Greek: horaseis, from the same root as horama] and your old men shall dream dreams: ”

We understand that these visions, are supernatural messages that God can show to us and whatever is involved there does not have to be physically there not to physically exist at all for us to see it.

We could go on and examine the usage of the word vision in the Old Testament but I think we have exhausted the subject. We know from the Scripture that Moses and Elias appeared in the transfiguration in what was a vision. From what we have seen, it is I believe obvious that the fact that they appeared in this vision does not mean require nor it means that they were alive during the time of the vision.

Anastasios Kioulachoglou