Q: How did Moses appear with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration?

It’s rather sad and wistful to read, at the very close of Deuteronomy, how Moses quietly and willingly went up into the hidden hills of Mount Nebo and there lay down to sleep. After a lifetime of service, we wonder why God wouldn’t allow this faithful saint and leader to go into the Promised Land. (Readers must assume that someone else, perhaps Joshua, wrote this final chapter of Moses’ book as a poignant P.S.)

But if Moses is dead, how, then, do the gospels picture him standing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17, Mark 9, Luke 9)? There appeared before them [Peter, James, John] Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Some students assume that perhaps this entire story is simply a vision, or if true, that it provides biblical proof that man has an immortal soul.

The late F. D. Nichol points out that if the transfiguration is a supernatural vision experienced by the three disciples, then the issue of Moses being present is irrelevant. All of us have dreams where someone who is dead is part of the scene.

However, all three gospel writers give this account as a true and tangible experience for Jesus and his three disciples. And since both Jesus and Elijah are there in bodily presence, it’s safest to assume that Moses is equally present in real, physical form. Peter and the others clearly see him; ghosts and spirits are generally invisible.

What’s more, Peter blurts out in his confused joy: Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Luke and Mark both drily observe: (He did not know what he was saying.) As Nichol concludes, “tabernacles are not built for immaterial spirits.”

What are we to conclude, then? The vast majority of the Christian church has come to embrace the strong likelihood that God chose to bodily resurrect his sleeping saint and friend Moses and take him to heaven. Jude 9 makes a cryptic reference to a confrontation between heaven’s ambassador (see related question on the identity of “Michael”) and Lucifer, found in Jude verse 9. This hypothesis is commonly referred to as “The Assumption of Moses.”

For millions of believers, then, Elijah has come to represent the hope of living to see Christ return and be translated without seeing death. Moses, on the other hand, is a biblical representative of the Old Testament covenant; his restoration to eternal life gives encouragement and confidence to a host of others who can trust in the Lord to raise them from the dead “at the last trump,” as promised in I Thessalonians 4.

NIV scholars point out a wonderful parallel where Moses’ work on earth is finished by Joshua . . . Elijah’s ministry is continued by Elisha (whose name is a variation of Joshua) . . . and here on the mountain both men come together to glorify the real Jesus – whose name is also based on Joshua.