By Allon Maxwell
This event is often advanced as a "proof" of the "Immortality of the Soul". The speculative claim is that if Moses and Elijah were literally present to speak with Jesus, then they must be "alive" now (in heaven).
However that is faulty logic. It contradicts the great weight of Scriptural evidence that the dead are "asleep in the dust of the earth" (Daniel 12:2) and without conscious existence (Eccl 9:5, Psalm 87:10-12, Isaiah 38: 18-19). And Paul tells us that we shall not be "with Jesus" until AFTER the resurrection. (1 Thess 4:17) It would therefore be much more logical to speculate (as some do) that Moses and Elijah were raised from the dead temporarily for the event. But, we shall see below that this is not the case either.
A further alternative, proposed by some, is that they had never died. However, for Elijah that suggestion is open to question, and for Moses, it is certainly not true.
In Elijah's case, this assumption is based on the OT story (2 Kings 2:1-17) in which he was taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. A 3 day search failed to find his body. Did he die? Or is he still alive? The evidence is not there to conclude definitely either way. However it does seem likely that Elijah is included (obliquely) amongst the "prophets" mentioned in Heb 11:32-38. If so, then he is also amongst those others who wait for the future resurrection of their bodies, and for their "perfection" and inheritance at the same time as all the rest of us. (Heb 11:39-40)
In the case of Moses it is recorded in plain words, that he died and that God buried him in an unknown place. (Deut 34:5-8) Moses is listed by name amongst the faithful dead who have not yet received their inheritance. (Heb 11:24-28)
The story is told in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In all three, the story is prefaced by Jesus referring to the future Day of Judgement, when He would return from Heaven, in the glory (1) of His Father, and with His angels. In the immediate context, Jesus then said that some of His disciples would not die before they saw this future coming, and the appearance of the Kingdom of God in power.
Matthew 16:27 (2)
Jesus spoke of His coming in glory , with the holy angels to judge the world. (Implying, of course that the Resurrection will also occur at that time.)
Jesus said that some of those listening, would "SEE" the Kingdom come WITH POWER, before they died.
A few days later, Peter, James, and John SAW (a vision of) the "KINGDOM COME WITH POWER"
Note carefully that it was a vision . It was NOT a real event in their own time.
A vision is something seen, which is of supernatural origin, but not actually present in the place or time in which it is seen.
The event portrayed in the vision has not literally happened yet. Even today, the coming of the Kingdom in power, is still a future event.
2 Peter 1:16-21
Peter says that the vision confirmed for him, the OT prophecies about the (future) coming of the Kingdom in power, and the resurrection of the dead.
They "saw" Jesus in His (future) Kingdom !
MOSES AND ELIJAH
Moses and Elijah cannot actually appear in glory until AFTER the return of Jesus!
The vision of the coming of the "Kingdom with power" foreshadowed a time when Moses and Elijah would be raised from the dead to be present with Jesus in the Kingdom, after He returns in glory.
At that time they will appear in the glory in which they were seen in the vision. They will receive glorious new resurrection bodies, like that which Jesus now has. This will be done by the power which accompanies the coming of the Kingdom. (Phillippians 3:21)
Since Matthew tells us clearly that this event was a vision . (Matt 17:9) we understand that Moses and Elijah were NOT literally there, either physically in the body, or as "spirits". They were merely seen as part of the vision.
Thus this passage CANNOT be used as "proof" that Moses and Elijah have "immortal souls" that are presently alive in Heaven.
THE EVENT IS NOT A SEANCE!
The Old Testament unequivocally forbids all attempts at communication with the dead. It is a sin punishable by death. If the transfiguration is a real conversation with two dead parties, then it is a sin which God calls abomination . (Deut 18:10-12)
Does God break His own Laws? Does Jesus speak to the dead? Do Peter and John and James receive information of any kind from the dead? NEVER!
Moses and Elijah were not present as "spirits of the dead". Instead, this is a legitimate vision of a future time AFTER the resurrection.
THE OT PROPHETIC WORD MADE MORE SURE!
Peter tells us this in 2 Pet 1:16-21. Earlier in this chapter he listed the things needed to confirm our call and election, so that we can enter the eternal kingdom of Jesus. (verses 3-10) Then he says that his message about the power and (future) coming of Jesus (to establish the kingdom) is NOT a myth.
The Gospel of the Kingdom, he says, is securely founded in the (OT) prophetic word. It is "made more sure" (confirmed) by Peter's personal prophetic vision of the glory in which Jesus will return to establish the Kingdom. (1)
WHAT DOES THE VISION REALLY SAY?
In addition to confirming the certainty of the return of Jesus in glory, this vision also says something else VERY important. Luke tells us that Peter, overwhelmed by what they had seen, proposed the construction of three tabernacles, (3) one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.
Moses and Elijah were regarded by the Jews as the two most important persons in the history of Israel. In his time, Moses had been God's spokesman to Israel. And in a later time, Elijah had been the prophet who spoke for God. In making this suggestion, Peter was elevating Jesus to equality with Moses and Elijah! Of course he thought he was paying Jesus a big compliment!
But God had something even bigger in view. A voice spoke from Heaven. God said "This is my Son, My Chosen; listen to HIM." (Luke 9:35 RSV) If you want to know what God really says, LISTEN TO JESUS!" (not Moses ..... and not Elijah!)
Especially, don't ever attempt to use what either Moses or Elijah said, to contradict Jesus!
God was saying that i n the Kingdom Age to Come, while Moses and Elijah will certainly be there (in glory) Jesus will rank far higher that either of them. For all eternity, Jesus will occupy a position second only to God Himself. (See 1 Cor 15:27-28)
WHAT WAS DISCUSSED?
Luke tells us that in the vision Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus about His " departure , which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem". (Luke 9:31 RSV)
The actual Greek word used here is "exodos" . It is a word with more than one meaning, and there is some degree of uncertainty about what it might mean in the context of the vision.
It appears only three times in the NT Greek text.
In the LXX it occurs in over 70 verses, sometimes for a way out, then for leaving, departing, exporting, and often for the exodus from Egypt. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament)
It is of course possible that the word does refer to the death of Jesus. However given the immediate context, it is also more than possible that it refers to the "exodus" from sin and death, which Jesus has begun in Jerusalem, and will complete in Jerusalem, when He returns to raise the dead.
Whichever meaning we assign to the word in Luke, it does not change the future time frame of the events portrayed. It is a vision of a discussion AFTER the Kingdom has come in glory and power.
The transfiguration was a vision. As such, it cannot be used to support the doctrine of the "Immortality of the Soul".
It was a vision of the coming of the Kingdom in power (Mark 9:1) when Moses and Elijah will be raised to appear with Jesus, in glory.
And for Peter it reaffirmed the certainty of the OT prophecies about the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Second Coming of Jesus to Jerusalem, to establish The Kingdom of God on Earth .
It is meant to do the same for us!
(1) Another passage which refers to the timing of Jesus return in glory is Matt 25:31.
(2) Compare Mark 9:1 with Matthew 24:30 & Luke 21:27
(3) "Tabernacle" is from the Greek "skene". It seems that the disciples were suggesting the construction of three movable temples like that made by Moses in the wilderness.