The Transfiguration comes at the climax of Jesus' public ministry. Just after speaking to his disciples about his coming death at the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem, Jesus led the inner core of the Twelve — Peter, James, and John — from the town of Caesarea Philippi (miles to the north from the Lake of Galilee) up a high mountain. And there he was transfigured before their eyes; his facial look changed, he literally glowed with white light, and his clothes turned as white as snow. Moses, representing the Law, and Elijah (“Elias” in Greek), representing the Prophets, joined him. The disciples could hear the three discussing Jesus' impending arrest and suffering.
And while Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were speaking, a dark cloud settled down over the mountaintop, and a voice thundered from the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; hear him.” Mark says that the disciples were terrified by the transcendent vision, and Peter characteristically offered to build tabernacles over the spots where the three men had sat glowing. Matthew and Mark say that after the cloud dispersed, Moses and Elijah were gone as suddenly as they appeared.
As they started down the mountain, Jesus commanded that they speak nothing about this “until the Son of Man has risen from the dead,” a new conception to the disciples that they speculated about. After they regained their courage, the disciples asked Jesus specifically, “Why do the Scribes say that Elijah would come before the Messiah and declare his coming?”
John the Baptist Was Elijah
Jesus said Elijah, in fact, was to come first, and restore all things written about the Son of man, and that Jesus must suffer many things, and be put to death. “But I say to you, Elijah did indeed come, and they did to him whatever they liked, as it was written of him” (Mark 9:12–13). Matthew, only, adds, “Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist” (Matthew 17:13).
Matthew also says earlier in his Gospel, quoting Jesus: “Truly I say to you, among those born of women not a greater one has come than John the Baptist, notwithstanding he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Jesus continued, “For all the prophets and the law prophesied before John. And if you will receive it, this is Elijah, who was to come. Let him who has ears to hear, hear” (Matthew 11:13–15).
What does Jesus say about the use of violence?
Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This “violence” refers to forcing oneself to do the right thing, to keep the faith despite all opposition. It is a spiritual, not physical, violence.
John the Baptist Was Not Elijah
But elsewhere the Apostle John, one of the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration and participated in the discussion with Jesus while they descended the mountain, says of John the Baptist: “this is the record of what John [the Baptist] did when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ And he did not deny; but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘Then who? Are you Elijah?’ And he said, ‘I am not.’” And when they pressed him, John the Baptist said, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Elijah’” (see John 1:19–21).
The explanation of the apparent contradiction between Jesus' words and John the Baptist's is found in the angel's appearance to the father of John the Baptist, as recorded in Luke's Gospel: “your wife Elisabeth shall bear a son who you shall name John. … And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to get the people ready for the Lord” (see Luke 1:13–17).
Jesus' Transfiguration to a being of light reconfirmed his divinity claims — as “true light of true light,” as the Nicene Creed puts it. It also revealed John the Baptist was at a higher level than Jesus' disciples, for he now says no prophet ever surpassed him, and that all the prophets formed a succession that led to his appearance.
The Disciples' Wondering
Those who asked John if he “was” Elijah were trying to see if he would claim to be a reincarnation, something the Old Testament prohibits believing in. He was not Elijah reincarnated, but he was Elijah come back “in spirit and power.” This is what Jesus meant when he qualified his affirmation of John as Elijah with “if you will receive it, this is Elijah.” Jesus' cryptic statement about taking the kingdom of heaven by violence “and the violent take it by force,” has been interpreted traditionally as referring to John's heroic asceticism, “neither eating or drinking” (fasting and abstaining from strong drink).