"Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them, His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as the light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, 'Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, let us make here three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (Matt. 17:1-4).
Chronologically, it is believed that the transfiguration occurred one year before Jesus' ascension into heaven.
In addition to this occasion, there were other times in which these three apostles shared special privileges (e.g., Luke 8:51; Mark 14:33). The mountain they went to was likely Hermon. It is the highest mountain in Palestine with an elevation of over 9000 feet. One of their purposes in ascending the mountain was prayer (cf. Luke 9:28).
While on the mountain, Jesus "was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light" (Matt. 17:2). Jesus was transformed or changed in His appearance, yet He did not lose His recognizable features. It is unknown how the apostles were able to determine that the men who appeared were Moses and Elijah. Certainly they were not able to identify them by sight, but evidently the dialogue revealed their identities.
Moses and Elijah "appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (Luke 9:31). Moses had died nearly 1500 years before this (cf. Deut. 34:5-7). Elijah had departed from Earth approximately 900 years earlier (cf. II Kings 2:11). Nevertheless, they both continued in existence in another place--an unearthly one. Ironically, they were more knowledgeable about Jesus' immediate future than the apostles were! Moses and Elijah knew about Jesus' upcoming departure (i.e., His death, burial, resurrection, and ascension).
It seems certain that Jesus knew the transfiguration was going to take place and that He wanted these three apostles to witness it in order to testify of it at a later time. A secondary purpose of the transfiguration may have been to encourage and strengthen Jesus for the trials and sufferings He would endure. Undoubtedly Moses the great lawgiver and Elijah the great prophet would have been a wonderful encouragement to Christ.
Luke 9:32 makes it clear that this was not a dream of the apostles. The wording seems to indicate that they had not seen the beginning of the transfiguration due to their sleeping. 9:37 reveals that they were on the mountain all night. Thus, they probably ascended the mountain late in the day. The transfiguration itself probably took place after sunset, which would explain the sleepiness of Peter, James, and John. It would also enhance the magnificent brightness of that which they witnessed.
"Then it happened, as they were departing from Him, that Peter said to Jesus, 'Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles: one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah' - not knowing what he said" (Luke 9:33). Seeing Moses, Elijah, and Jesus in their glorified forms would have been intimidating to say the least. Peter felt compelled to say something in order to attempt to prevent the departure of Moses and Elijah. The idea that came to his mind was to offer to build three tabernacles (i.e., tents) to accommodate them. It is obvious that Peter didn't know what to say in this situation; he didn't realize the inappropriateness of suggesting that they build a shelter for Moses and Elijah. Peter also didn't realize the implication of his statement. He had previously confessed that Jesus was the Christ (cf. Matt. 16:16), but his words here seem to place Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. The apostles still lack a full understanding of Jesus' identity and mission.
We will continue studying this fascinating narrative in our next lesson.