Who appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration? What was the purpose of their appearance?

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    Larry E. Dahl, associate professor of Church history and doctrine, Brigham Young University. Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and perhaps others appeared to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, where the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19) were conferred upon them. There is evidence that they also were endowed with power from on high and instructed in the affairs of the kingdom of God.

    Matthew (Matt. 17:1–13), Mark (Mark 9:2–13), and Luke (Luke 9:28–36) all give an account of the event. From their accounts in the King James Version of the Bible we learn:

    1. Approximately one week after Peter had been told that he would be given the keys of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19), Jesus took Peter, James, and John “up into a high mountain apart.” (Mark 9:2.)

    2. There Jesus was transfigured before them—his face shone as the sun and his raiment became “white as light.” (Matt. 17:2.)

    3. Peter, James, and John saw Moses and Elijah (“Elias” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Elijah; see Luke 4:25–26; 1 Kgs. 17) talking with Christ. Luke tells us that Moses and Elijah spoke of the Savior’s “decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:31.)

    4. A bright cloud “overshadowed them” and “they feared as they entered into the cloud.”

    5. The Father spoke “out of the cloud” saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.”

    6. As they came down from the mountain, the Savior charged them to tell no one of the experience until after his resurrection. In response to the disciples’ question about Elias that “must first come,” Jesus confirmed that “Elias truly shall first come and restore all things.” He also confirmed that John the Baptist, in his role as an Elias, had already come and had been killed at the hands of those who would yet kill the Son of Man. (See JST, Matt. 17:14 to confirm that Christ had reference to John the Baptist, “and also of another who should come.”)

    Adding to and clarifying the gospel writers’ accounts, we have Peter’s reference to the transfiguration in his second epistle (2 Pet. 1:16–18), the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired translation of the Bible, testimony from the Doctrine and Covenants, and commentary by Joseph Smith and other modern prophets.

    In the Prophet’s inspired translation of Mark’s record, we learn that John the Baptist was also present on the Mount of Transfiguration. JST, Mark 9:3 reads:

    “And there appeared unto them Elias with Moses, or in other words, John the Baptist and Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.”

    Robert J. Matthews, who has done extensive work with the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible comments upon this verse:

    “Considerable discussion has been stimulated by this comment, since the presence of the Baptist at the Mount has never before been suggested. Furthermore, it is certain that Elijah the Prophet was present at the Mount, and the term Elias (the Greek form the Hebrew name Elijah) has generally been understood to have reference to him. For this reason many have wondered if this passage has somehow been printed erroneously. However, NT 2, folio 2, page 24, reads exactly as the printed Inspired Version for this passage. Likewise, the Bernhisel copy, page 74, reads with precisely the same wording, thus corroborating the present text of the printed Inspired Version. This discussion is not intended to be a doctrinal explanation of the matter, but simply a presentation of evidence that the published account gives the text in the original manuscript. …

    “There can be no mistake that the Elias at the Mount of Transfiguration was Elijah the prophet. What role John the Baptist might have had there is not known.” (Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible, Provo: BYU Press, 1975, pp. 180, 367.)

    Elder Bruce R. McConkie gives us the following explanation about John the Baptist being on the Mount of Transfiguration:

    “It is not to be understand that John the Baptist was the Elias who appeared with Moses to confer keys and authority upon those who then held the Melchizedek Priesthood, which higher priesthood already embraced and included all of the authority and power John had held and exercised during his ministry. Rather, for some reason that remains unknown—because of the partial record of the proceedings—John played some other part in the glorious manifestations then vouchsafed to mortals. Perhaps he was there, as the last legal administrator under the Old Covenant, to symbolize that the law was fulfilled and all old things were done away, thus contrasting his position with that of Peter, James, and John who were then becoming the first legal administrators of the New Kingdom.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965, 1:404.)

    The Elias on the Mount of Transfiguration, then, was Elijah, although John the Baptist was also present. Elijah was the last prophet to “hold the key of … the fulness of the Melchizedek Priesthood.” He restored this authority so that the ordinances of the Melchizedek Priesthood could be administered properly. (See History of the Church, 6:251–52.)

    The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that Peter, James, and John were not only observers on the Mount, but were important participants. He said, “The Savior, Moses, and Elias, gave the keys to Peter, James, and John, on the mount, when they were transfigured.” (History of the Church, 3:387.) The Prophet’s statement that the disciples were also transfigured is, perhaps, an explanation of Luke’s saying, “they entered into the cloud.” (Luke 9:34.)

    The Father speaking from the cloud, and Peter’s statement that Jesus “received from God the Father honour and glory when there came such a voice” (2 Pet. 1:17), evidences that the Father may also have been present. We have Moses’ testimony that, to stand in the presence of God, mortals require transfiguration. (See Moses 1:11.)

    Many of our questions about the Mount of Transfiguration might be answered if we had a complete record. Doctrine and Covenants 7 is part of John’s record, “translated from parchment, written and hid up by himself.” [D&C 7] (History of the Church, 1:35–36.) What else John has to say in his record about his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration is unavailable to us, for the record is “hid up.” Elder Joseph Fielding Smith shared his belief that Peter, James, and John “received their endowments on the mount” (see Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56, 2:165) and Elder Bruce R. McConkie has suggested that “while on the Mount. … they received the more sure word of prophecy.” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–73, 1:400.) Indeed, there must have been much happen of which we are ignorant.

    This, in fact, is affirmed by the Lord in Doctrine and Covenants 63:21: “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.” [D&C 63:21] This verse not only affirms but demonstrates that our New Testament record of the experiences on the Mount of Transfiguration is incomplete—by revealing that the Apostles there saw the future transfiguration of the earth.

    When we are privileged to receive the full account, we may find that several other personages, in addition to those thus far mentioned, were present, and that much more was said and done than we currently know about. In the meantime, we can be anxiously engaged in stretching our minds toward understanding and our souls in worthy application of that which we have already received.