“How did Peter, James, and John recognize Moses and Elijah on the mount of Transfiguration?”
The account of the transfiguration is found in all three synoptic gospels (Matt. 17:1-13; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36). Peter also references it in his epistle (2 Peter 1:16-21).
Jesus had taken Peter, James and John up a high mountain, “to pray,” Luke adds. As Jesus prayed, his disciples witnessed his face and clothes shine brilliantly “As the sun,” says Matthew, “as bright as a flash of lightning,” describes Luke. Then, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah appeared, “in glorious splendor,” he adds. They talked with Jesus. [They] “were speaking of His departure [from earthly life], which He was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31, AMP).
Other events transpired: Peter’s unthinking suggestion to build three shelters, the brilliant cloud which covered them, the divine announcement, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and their subsequent terror. But our question has to do with how Moses and Elijah were known to these disciples.
No one in the first century could possibly have seen Moses or Elijah, and there were no portraits of them. So, how were they recognized?
It does make some logical senses that these particular two men would appear: Moses representative of the Law, and Elijah representative of the Prophets. Also, the circumstances of the departures of both these men from this earth were somewhat mysterious. Of Moses it is recorded that God Himself buried him in Moab “but to this day no one knows where his grave is.” (Deut. 34:5,6). And in 2 Kings 2 we have the account of Elijah not seeing death at all, but of being caught up to heaven in “a chariot of fire and horses of fire… in a whirlwind.” (2 Kings 2:11).
It could have been that as Moses and Elijah talked with Jesus things were said which revealed their identities to the three disciples. Or it could have been made known to them by revelation or intuition given them in this holy setting. We see this already in Peter when he replies “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16). And what is Jesus’s reply? “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (v.17).
To me, this seems the more likely, and as Paul reminds us, this will one day be our experience of knowing also,
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Cor. 13:9-12).
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