The Transfiguration of Jesus by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1872, Frederiksborg Palace, Denmark
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson April 10-16: Matthew 15–17; Mark 7–9
Today, to celebrate Easter, we had fish and honey as part of our dinner to remember Christ’s meal after His resurrection – of broiled fish and honeycomb (Luke 24:42). I couldn’t find honeycomb in our regular grocery store, so we had thick honey, not melted. Apparently Tilapia were the main fish in the Sea of Galilee. We had salmon, which I much prefer. I was surprised at how well fish and honey go together – give it a try. Next time I may try Tilapia with honey. Now to next week’s discussion.
We read of Jesus’ Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-13, “And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him. 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. 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. And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid. And Jesus came and touched them, and said, Arise, and be not afraid. And when they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no man, save Jesus only. 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. And his disciples asked him, saying, Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come? And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. 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. Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.”
The Transfiguration is also given in Mark 9:2-13 with very little difference from that of Matthew. Luke 9:28-36 describes the same event, but states that it occurred, “…about an eight days after these sayings…” and Luke leaves off the discussion of who was Elias, but mentions that the apostles fell asleep during the event. Six days or eight days after what sayings? We can read of the events just before the Transfiguration in Matthew 16:13-16, “When Jesus came into the coasts of Cæsarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of man am? And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Apparently six or eight days after this conversation is when the Transfiguration occurred.
Of the four Gospel writers, only John was an eyewitness to those events, yet his is the only Gospel that does not mention the Transfiguration. John quoted Peter in John 6:69, as saying, “…we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.” But then in his next chapter, chapter 7, John discusses the Feast of the Tabernacles, which none of the other Gospel writers cover, without even mentioning the Transfiguration. I have speculated in my mind about why John didn’t discuss the Transfiguration, but I am uncomfortable with any explanation I have considered, so I will simply say I don’t know.
What happened on the Mount of Transfiguration and what was the significance of Moses and Elias appearing there with Jesus? The New Testament provides no answers to those questions. We can read the following in the Bible Dictionary under the heading, Transfiguration, Mount of:1 “This very important event in the New Testament occurred about a week after the promise made to Peter that he would receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:13–19; 17:1–9). On the mount, the Savior, Moses, and Elias (Elijah) gave the promised keys of the priesthood to Peter, James, and John (HC 3:387), which enabled these brethren to carry forth the work of the kingdom on the earth after the departure of Jesus. These keys were later given to all of the Twelve.” Here is insight into the Transfiguration not given in the New Testament. Peter, James, and John were not just witnesses of the Transfiguration, they were participants, receiving critical, necessary Priesthood keys. It is not clear, at least to me, why Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not mention this transference of keys – and John, who was there, was silent on the whole event.
The Bible Dictionary continues: “The Transfiguration occurred in about October, some six months before the death of Jesus. The brethren saw the Lord in a glorified and transfigured state. They also saw a vision of the earth as it will appear in its future glorified condition (D&C 63:20–21; HC 1:283); saw and conversed with Moses and Elijah, two translated beings; and heard the voice of the Father bearing witness that Jesus is His beloved Son, in whom the Father is pleased, and commanding the brethren to hear (obey) Him. See also Mark 9:2–10; Luke 9:28–36; 2 Pet. 1:16–18.” Doctrine and Covenants 63:21 states, “When the earth shall be transfigured, even according to the pattern which was shown unto mine apostles upon the mount; of which account the fulness ye have not yet received.”
The Bible Dictionary again, “The event is important in many ways: Necessary priesthood authority was conferred upon Peter, James, and John; the significance of the Savior’s work was emphasized; and the unity of various dispensations and the close relationship of Jesus and His prophets was demonstrated. Few events in the Bible equal it in importance. A similar event occurred on April 3, 1836, in the temple at Kirtland, Ohio, where the same heavenly messengers conferred priesthood keys upon the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery (D&C 110).”
The Bible Dictionary also explains who Elias was:2 “There are several uses of this word in the scriptures. (1) It is the New Testament (Greek) form of Elijah (Hebrew), as in Luke 4:25–26, James 5:17, and Matt. 17:1–4. Elias in these instances can only be the ancient prophet Elijah whose ministry is recorded in 1 and 2 Kings. The curious wording of JST Mark 9:3 does not imply that the Elias at the Transfiguration was John the Baptist, but that in addition to Elijah the prophet, John the Baptist was present (see Mark 9:4 note a). (2) Elias is also a title for one who is a forerunner; for example, John the Baptist, as in JST Matt. 11:13–15, JST Matt. 17:10–14, and JST John 1:20–28 (Appendix)…” The Bible Dictionary continues: “(4) A man called Elias apparently lived in mortality in the days of Abraham, who committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland (Ohio) Temple on April 3, 1836 (D&C 110:12). We have no specific information as to the details of his mortal life or ministry.”
We learn from the Old Testament that Elijah was taken into Heaven without tasting death: 2 Kings 2:11, “And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Furthermore, we learn the following about Moses and Elijah from the Bible Dictionary: “As was the case with many of the ancient prophets, Moses’ ministry extended beyond the limits of his own mortal lifetime. In company with Elijah, he came to the Mount of Transfiguration and bestowed keys of the priesthood upon Peter, James, and John (Matt. 17:3–4; Mark 9:4–9; Luke 9:30; D&C 63:21; HC 3:387). From this event, which occurred before the Resurrection of Jesus, we understand that Moses was a translated being and had not died as reported in Deut. 34 (Alma 45:19). It was necessary that he be translated, in order to have a body of flesh and bones at the time of the Transfiguration, since the Resurrection had not yet taken place. Had he been a spirit only, he could not have performed the work on the mount of giving the keys to the mortal Peter, James, and John [by the laying on of hands] (see D&C 129).”3 John the Baptist apparently also was at the Transfiguration, but as a person of spirit only, he did not participate in the laying on of hands to confer priesthood keys and was not mentioned as a third heavenly messenger at the event. Perhaps that is why he was discussed somewhat after the fact and his title of Elias was a bit confused in later translations with the presence of Elijah (Elias in the Hebrew).
We now know more of the details of what transpired on the Mount of Transfiguration because of parallel events that occurred some 1800 years later. The heading to Doctrine and Covenants section 110 states, “Visions manifested to Joseph Smith the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery in the temple at Kirtland, Ohio, April 3, 1836. The occasion was that of a Sabbath day meeting. Joseph Smith’s history states: ‘In the afternoon, I assisted the other Presidents in distributing the Lord’s Supper to the Church, receiving it from the Twelve, whose privilege it was to officiate at the sacred desk this day. After having performed this service to my brethren, I retired to the pulpit, the veils being dropped, and bowed myself, with Oliver Cowdery, in solemn and silent prayer. After rising from prayer, the following vision was opened to both of us.’”
We are then told in Doctrine and Covenants 110:1-10, “The veil was taken from our minds, and the eyes of our understanding were opened. We saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit, before us; and under his feet was a paved work of pure gold, in color like amber. His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah, saying: ‘I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father. Behold, your sins are forgiven you; you are clean before me; therefore, lift up your heads and rejoice. Let the hearts of your brethren rejoice, and let the hearts of all my people rejoice, who have, with their might, built this house to my name. For behold, I have accepted this house, and my name shall be here; and I will manifest myself to my people in mercy in this house. Yea, I will appear unto my servants, and speak unto them with mine own voice, if my people will keep my commandments, and do not pollute this holy house. Yea the hearts of thousands and tens of thousands shall greatly rejoice in consequence of the blessings which shall be poured out, and the endowment with which my servants have been endowed in this house. And the fame of this house shall spread to foreign lands; and this is the beginning of the blessing which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people. Even so. Amen.’”
Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16 then continues, “After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north. After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed. After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said: Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.”
So here are the keys given to Peter, James, and John at the Mount of Transfiguration: Moses conferred “the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.” Elias “committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham… [so that] all generations after us should be blessed.” Elijah committed the keys, “…To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse...” It is not clear why the actual person Elias did not appear at the Mount of Transfiguration to “commit… the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham” to Peter, James, and John (the Elias in the New Testament account was actually Elijah). Perhaps it was that the apostles’ mission in the meridian of time was primarily to the Jews, who were already direct heirs of the original Abrahamic covenant. On the other hand, the last dispensation, ushered in in large part on 3 April 1836, was largely to go to the Gentiles, who were not direct heirs of the Abrahamic covenant.
Why Elias came to the Kirtland Temple and not Abraham himself has always been a question over which I have puzzled for years. It has been proposed that the Elias referred to in Doctrine and Covenants 110 was Noah, who was the presiding patriarch in the days of Abraham. Elias is discussed in a very nice and thorough article by Jan Francisco in a recent issue of the Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship.4 Even if Elias was Noah, the Abrahamic covenant was given to Abraham, so why didn’t Abraham confer that covenant in these latter days? Sister Francisco did a marvelous and I believe thorough job of discussing Elias in her essay, but she did not actually address that question. Therefore, I didn’t see that the question has ever been addressed – my independent research has identified no discussion of this subject. Talmage, in Jesus the Christ, does not even address the question. Apparently no one knows the answer to that question. I will put that on my bucket list of questions to ask when I die and can enroll as a student at the University of Kolob.
Luke 9:32 states, “But Peter and they that were with him were heavy with sleep: and when they were awake, they saw his glory, and the two men that stood with him.” Is it possible that Luke was referring to the exhaustion that occurs after such an intense heavenly manifestation? We read in Moses 1: 9-10, “And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” Joseph Smith recounted in his History 1:48, “I shortly after [the three visits from Moroni] arose from my bed, and, as usual, went to the necessary labors of the day; but, in attempting to work as at other times, I found my strength so exhausted as to render me entirely unable. My father, who was laboring along with me, discovered something to be wrong with me, and told me to go home. I started with the intention of going to the house; but, in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength entirely failed me, and I fell helpless on the ground, and for a time was quite unconscious of anything.”
There is another part of the account, found in all three Gospels that cover the event, which seems very odd, as given in Luke 9:33, “And it came to pass, as they departed from him, Peter said unto Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here: and let us make three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elias: not knowing what he said.” In his marvelous book, Jesus the Christ, James Talmage stated, “Undoubtedly Peter and his fellow apostles were bewildered, ‘sore afraid’ indeed; and this condition may explain the suggestion respecting the three tabernacles. ‘He wist not what to say’; yet, though his remark appears confused and obscure, it becomes somewhat plainer when we remember that, at the annual feast of Tabernacles [which was close at hand], it was customary to erect a little bower, or booth of wattled boughs, for each individual worshiper, into which he might retire for devotion. So far as there was a purpose in Peter’s proposition, it seems to have been that of delaying the departure of the visitants.”5
The Transfiguration was one (actually two) of the most pivotal events in all of human history, yet many questions remain unanswered concerning the event that occurred in roughly 32 AD and even the parallel event that occurred in 1836. Those questions remain unanswered, at least in part because we are told in Doctrine and Covenants 63:21 “…of which account the fulness ye have not yet received.”
There will be no Where Science Meets Religion class this coming week as I will be out of town.
Trent Dee Stephens
1. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/transfiguration-mount-of?lang=eng; retrieved 31 March 2023
2. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/elias?lang=eng; retrieved 31 March 2023
3. churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bd/moses?lang=eng; retrieved 31 March 2023
4. Francisco, Jan, Elias: Prophet of the Restoration, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 55 (2023): 197-218, journal.interpreterfoundation.org/elias-prophet-of-the-restoration; retrieved 31 March 2023
5. Talmage, James E., Jesus the Christ, chapter 23, churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/jesus-the-christ/chapter-23?lang=eng; retrieved 7 April 2023.