We have a partial account in the Gospel of Matthew of what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration, but we are clearly missing some things that happened here.
Elder McConkie stated:
“Our Synoptic authors make brief mention of-in reality it is scarcely more than an allusion to-what happened on the [Mount of Transfiguration] when they and Jesus spent a sacred night enwrapped in the visions of eternity. This blessed night was one of those seeric periods when the mysteries of the kingdom, ‘which surpass all understanding,’ are shown forth to souls who are in tune with the Infinite. So marvelous are such revealed truths that it is ‘not lawful for man to utter’ them, ‘Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit.’ They are reserved by the Lord for those prophets and seers who, ‘while in the flesh,’ are yet able ‘to bear his presence in the world of glory.’ (D&C 76: 114-18.)
“In the providence of the Lord the saints know some things that the world does not know about the spiritual outpouring of divine grace that fell on the Mount of Transfiguration. But even latter-day revelation does not set forth the full account, and until men attain a higher state of spiritual understanding than they now enjoy, they will continue to see through a glass darkly and to know only in part the visionary experiences of the presiding officers of the meridian Church. That which is known, however, singles out this night as one of the most important and glorious in the lives of those who saw within the veil and who heard the voices of the heavenly participants.” 1
Matthew 17:2 Jesus was transfigured before them – so also were Peter, James, and John
Transfiguration is the process of temporary glorification by which mortals can withstand the presence of God without being destroyed. Moses said, ‘Mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him’ (Moses 1:11). That Christ was transfigured merely means that he received again that glory which he enjoyed as the pre-mortal Jehovah. For Peter, James, and John, it meant the same thing as for Moses-that the power and glory of God came upon them so that they could withstand the presence of God. The fact that they survived the experience and saw what they saw is evidence that all three were transfigured.
These three men were protected
Spencer W. Kimball said: “The glory of the contact was more than they could bear and they collapsed, falling on their faces. While in this state unprintable, unspeakable, unutterable things were said and done. The three mortals thus protected survived even this withering fiery experience.” 2
It seems from the comments by Joseph Fielding Smith that the reason why Elijah and Moses were translated and that they appeared at this location and time had something to do with their mission. Perhaps they had keys that were necessary to be given to these men at this time. Joseph Fielding Smith says:
Why Moses and Elijah were translated: From that we understand why Elijah and Moses were preserved from death: because they had a mission to perform, and it had to be performed before the crucifixion of the Son of God, and it could not be done in the spirit.
“They had to have tangible bodies. Christ is the first fruits of the resurrection; therefore if any former prophets had a work to perform preparatory to the mission of the Son of God, or to the dispensation of the meridian of times, it was essential that they be preserved to fulfill that mission in the flesh. For that reason Moses disappeared from among the people and was taken up into the mountain, and the people thought he was buried by the Lord. The Lord preserved him, so that he could come at the proper time and restore his keys, on the heads of Peter, James, and John, who stood at the head of the dispensation of the meridian of time. He reserved Elijah from death that he might also come and bestow his keys upon the heads of Peter, James, and John and prepare them for their ministry.
“But, one says, the Lord could have waited until after his resurrection, and then they could have done it. It is quite evident, due to the fact that it did so occur, that it had to be done before; and there was a reason. There may have been other reasons, but that is one reason why Moses and Elijah did not suffer death in the flesh, like other men do.” 3
Joseph Fielding Smith also stated that these men received their endowment at this time:
“I am convinced in my own mind that when the Savior took the three disciples up on the mount, which is spoken of as the ‘Mount of Transfiguration,’ he there gave unto them the ordinances that pertain to the house of the Lord and that they were endowed. That was the only place they could go. That place became holy and sacred for the rites of salvation which were performed on that occasion.” 4
The JST helps us to see who was present at this time
10 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things, as the prophets have written.
11 And again I say unto you that Elias has come already, concerning whom it is written, Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me; and they knew him not, and have done unto him, whatsoever they listed.
12 Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them.
13 But I say unto you, Who is Elias? Behold, this is Elias, whom I send to prepare the way before me.
14 Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist, and also of another who should come and restore all things, as it is written by the prophets. (JST Matthew 17:10-14)
Who were the messengers that appeared at the Mount of Transfiguration?
From the records that we now have, we can ascertain that the following were present at the Mount:
- Heavenly Father – Matthew 17:5.
- Jesus, in a glorified state – Matthew 17:2.
- Moses – Matthew 17:3.
- Elijah – Matthew 17:3b.
- The Holy Ghost
- John the Baptist – Matthew 17:3, Joseph Smith Translation – Matthew 17:14. 5
- Another Elias who should come and restore all things – Joseph Smith Translation – Matthew 17:14.
- Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah: From Bethlehem to Calvary, 3: 54.
- Spencer W. Kimball, Conference Report, April 1964, Afternoon Meeting 97.
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:110-11.
- Doctrines of Salvation, 2: 169.
- Bruce R. McConkie, Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965, 1:404. He gave 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.”