When Jesus was transfigured before His disciples Peter, James, and John, those followers of Christ received a glimpse of His heavenly glory. Yet Peter, James, and John also saw two other men standing with Jesus during the transfiguration. Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with our Savior (Mark 9:1–3).
Traditionally, Christian interpreters have seen Moses and Elijah as representatives of the Law and the Prophets, respectively. This makes good sense, for Moses is known in Scripture as the great lawgiver and Elijah is one of the most prominent old covenant prophets. Moreover, Jesus said that He fulfilled the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), so it is unsurprising that Moses and Elijah would appear in the transfiguration as witnesses to Him. As Augustine of Hippo writes in his sermon on the transfiguration account in Matthew 17, “The grace of the Gospel receives witness from the Law and the Prophets.”
Elijah’s appearance is also significant in light of what Jesus says about the prophet in Mark 9:12a: “Elijah does come first to restore all things.” Our Lord’s statement is in keeping with God’s promise in Malachi 4:5 to send “Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Elijah was to appear in order to announce the beginning of God’s restoration of all things, the start of the final day of salvation. His presence at the transfiguration revealed that in Jesus, the day of restoration and salvation had dawned at last.
The Old Testament prophets frequently tie the day of restoration and salvation to a new exodus. God would rescue His people from the bondage of sin that led to the Israelites’ breaking of the old covenant and loss of their homeland (2 Kings 17:7–23). Isaiah 40:3 and Hosea 2:14–23 speak of the Lord’s coming to His people in the wilderness, a way of saying that He would again, as in the days of Moses, visit His people with redemption. After all, God liberated Israel from Egyptian slavery and brought them into the wilderness to worship Him.
Peter recognized this new exodus had come, as he asked to build tents, or booths (tabernacles), for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Those were the same structures in which the Israelites lived during the period immediately after the exodus (Lev. 23:33–43). But Peter at that point spoke out of fear and not because he fully understood what a new exodus would mean (Mark 9:6). So, God spoke and called him and the other disciples to listen to Jesus, who would reveal to them the right understanding of the event (vv. 7–8).