Why was Elijah present at the transfiguration? How did he contribute to the message of the event when the spotlight fell on Jesus and heaven declared, “Listen to him!”
Elijah had a definitive role in God’s nation. Sure, there were prophets before him, such as Abraham, Miriam, Moses, Deborah, and Samuel. Saul and David also prophesied: serving as God’s representative (his anointed), they both needed to hear and implement the heavenly sovereign’s decrees for the nation. But after Solomon, the kingdom split. All the kings of Israel and many kings of Judah misused their power, leading the people away from the heavenly king. So, God sent prophets to challenge the kings and call his people back to himself.
Elijah was the paradigm of the prophet confronting the rulers of God’s people. He is the voice of God in 1 Kings, with his successor as God’s spokesman in 2 Kings. We treat these books as history, but the Hebrew Bible treats them as prophets: Joshua – Kings are the Former Prophets, with Isaiah – Malachi as the Latter Prophets.
Remember Mount Carmel? Elijah confronted the king who led the people away from God. The people responded by recognizing YHWH’s sovereignty (1 Kings 18:39), so the rulers determined to kill Elijah to keep their power (19:1-2). Elijah threw in the towel, and God gave him a chariot-ride home. Elisha picked up the unfinished task, in the spirit of Elijah (2 Kings 2:15).
God kept sending prophets to Israel and Judah, calling them back to their covenant sovereign. Eventually God removed the kings who kept misrepresenting him. In exile, God sent more prophets to call his people back. After the exile, God still sent prophets to continue Elijah’s ministry — calling his people back to himself.
So, our Old Testament closes with a promise that God would send another “Elijah”:
Malachi 4 5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” (NIV)
So when the disciples saw Elijah at the transfiguration, they recognized the prophetic voice of the ages, the voice challenging Israel’s leaders to turn back to God. God had revealed Jesus as his anointed (Matthew 16:16), the Son coming to power with his Father’s glory (16:27). Elijah stood as a witness to God’s command, Listen to him! (17:5).
Jesus expected the Jerusalem leaders to reject God’s authority and kill his anointed (16:21). That made no sense to the disciples. They’d heard the Jerusalem scholars say that Elijah would prepare the way so Israel would be ready to receive YHWH’s reign (17:10).
Surely if Elijah had prepared the people, God’s anointed would not be killed? If Elijah’s ministry was finally successful, wouldn’t that end the animosity that plagued Israel since Jacob and Esau? If Elijah turned the hearts of the children towards their parents, wouldn’t God’s people honour their heavenly Father’s authority and accept his Son?
And yet, Jesus still said it was too dangerous to tell anyone of his royal appointment:
Matthew 17:9-13 (my translation, compare NIV)
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one what you saw until the son of man is raised from the dead.”
10 His followers asked, “Then why do the Bible scholars say that Elijah must come first?”
11 He replied, “Elijah does come and will restore everything. 12 But I’m telling you that Elijah already came, and instead of recognizing him, they did whatever they wanted to him — the same as the son of man is about to suffer from them.” 13 Then his followers realized he was referring to John the Baptizer.
Elijah’s ministry aimed to restore all things, to reconstitute what had fallen, namely Israel as a nation under God’s covenant sovereignty. But the current leaders were no better than their predecessors. God had confronted them with an Elijah prophet: John the Baptist announcing the restoration of the kingdom, calling them to turn back to their heavenly sovereign. And once again, Jerusalem had rejected his authority, treating him shamefully (23:37). If they rejected God’s Elijah prophet, they would certainly reject his Son as well (21:33-39).
John the Baptist was not literally Elijah, as if he caught a chariot back to earth to complete what he failed to do the first time. Jesus’ point was that the ministry of Elijah remained unfinished, despite God sending them yet another “Elijah.”
John himself laid no claim to being a new Moses or the promised Elijah (John 1:21-27). In an honour-shame culture, it is someone else who gives you recognition.
So, the new “Elijah” had come to prepare the way, but the way was not safe. The danger remained, exactly as Jesus had told them a week earlier (16:21). His disciples needed to listen to him (17:5). That included keeping their mouths shut about what they had just seen (17:9).
No “Elijah” had succeeded in removing violence from Israel, turning the hearts of the children to their parents, turning the people back to their covenant sovereign. The impossible task would fall on the shoulders of God’s anointed. It would crush him.
The restoration of all things would require a resurrection — God raising his Son out of death, into his Father’s glory. Jesus staked his life on it. He asked his followers to do the same (16:21-28).
Ultimately, the world would see what the disciples had glimpsed, what the Law and the Prophets had been saying. It was all pointing to Jesus being transfigured through resurrection, heaven declaring his authority to the earth, “This is my Son. … Listen to him!”
Open Matthew 17:2-13.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 652:
This brief dialogue [17:9-13] unpacks something of the meaning of the vision on the mountain. … The return to the theme of persecution and suffering, both that of John the Baptist and that of the Son of Man, brings us back to the subject which had occupied the disciples before their experience on the mountain, and forces them to integrate this unwelcome concept somehow with the glory they have just witnessed. The resplendent Son of God of the mountain is the same as the suffering Son of Man. The death and resurrection which he has so recently predicted remains his paradoxical destiny.
- See a glorious king? (Mt 17:1-8)
- Jesus’ paradoxical path to power (Mt 16:27-28)
- The Moses connection (Mt 17:2-8)
Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added. instead of NIV.