The mountain has a long and illustrious place in the history of the Hebrew faith. Mountains were mysterious to people of antiquity. Often insurmountable, many cultures believed that the mountain was the dwelling place of the gods – the place where no foot should tread. They believed that the gods ruled the affairs of humans from the tops of mountains.
THE MOUNTAIN AND THE HEBREW FAITH
Most cultures viewed the spiritual forces of good as emanating from the skies above, while the forces of evil dwelled somewhere below. Therefore, the closer a person could get to the sky, the closer they would be to the gods. The tower of Babel story from Genesis is a clear example of this belief system (Gen. 11:1-9). The Hebrew people eventually translated this idea of space to their particular brand of monotheism. God was everywhere present. However, nowhere was he more present than on the mountaintop.
The mountains and rolling hills of the Promised Land were critical for Israel’s survival against her enemies. In fact, on one occasion, when a Syrian invasion had been defeated, “the ministers of the King of Syria said to him, ‘The Israelites’ gods are gods of the mountains, therefore the Israelites defeated us; so now let us fight them in the plain, we shall certainly defeat them’” (1 Kings 20:23–24). 1
The Mountain in the Old Testament
It is no surprise then, that in the Old Testament, God appeared most real and present in mountaintop experiences. When Abraham first settled in the Promised Land it was on a mountainside between Bethel and Ai that he first established worship (Gen. 12:8). God tested Abraham on the mountain calling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Gen. 22:14). Moses found his true calling when he experienced God in a burning bush located on a mountain (Ex. 3:1). Later, when God wanted to speak to Moses, he called him to the Mountain (Ex. 19:20). Moses received the Law from God on the mountain (Ex. 20). And when Moses descended from the mountain his face radiated, revealing that he had been in the presence of the glory of God (Ex. 34:20).
“These descriptions clearly locate Moses’ encounter with God on the mountaintop. Not only has Moses gone up, but God has come down: They meet on Mt. Sinai.” 2
The stories of Abraham and Moses and their personal encounters with God were formative for the Hebrew faith. But, it didn’t end there. Elijah experienced God on the mountain (1 Kings 19:11) and battled the prophets of Baal on the mountain (1 Kings 18:19). Jerusalem, the city of God, was built on a mountain (Psalm 87:1). The sacred temple was referred to as God’s holy mountain (Isaiah 66:20). The Psalmist sang, “I call out to the LORD, and he answers me from his holy mountain” (Psalm 3:4).
CONCLUSIONS: THE MOUNTAIN AND THE HEBREWS
- A place to worship God.
- A place to encounter God.
- A place to hear God.
- A place to wrestle with God.
- A place to feel God’s presence.
THE MOUNTAIN AND THE NEW TESTAMENT
It is no wonder then that Jesus would be drawn to the mountain. He would have heard the stories from infancy. The greatest prophets and sages had visions and heard the voice of God on the mountain. The mountain would have been a natural place for Jesus to go.
There were three mountains that would have played a role in the imagination of Jesus (and may have been a part of his pilgrimages): Mt. Hermon, Mt. Tabor, and Mt. of Olives.
The most northerly regions of Galilee were dominated by Mt. Hermon, which reaches to over 8000 feet. Mt. Hermon was considered sacred by the Canaanite, Hebrew, and Greek populations that surrounded it over the centuries. Baal worship thrived for centuries at the base of Mt. Hermon. The worship of the Greek-god Pan had been associated with a cave at the foothills of Mt. Hermon for at least two hundred years before Jesus. However, for the Jews of Jesus’ day Mt. Hermon was revered primarily because it was the source of Galilee’s most important natural resource: water. 3 Jesus made at least one trip to the regions near Mt. Hermon (Mt.15:21-28). It is speculated that he may have delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount there. Some scholars think that Hermon may have been the Mount of Transfiguration.
Mt. Tabor was Mt. Hermon’s counterpart in southern Galilee. Mt. Tabor was the scene of great battles and a gathering place for the leaders of Israel (Judges 4:6). It was a looming landmark that separated four tribes of Israel, was strategically located off the most important road of commerce (Via Maris), and overlooked the Valley of Jezreel, one of the most important battlefields in the ancient Mediterranean world. Mt. Tabor was very close to where Jesus grew up. It is also a candidate for the Mount of Transfiguration.
Mt. of Olives
The Mt. of Olives is a mountain ridge east of and adjacent to Jerusalem. It was named for the olive groves that once covered its slopes. The Mount has been used as a Jewish cemetery for over 3,000 years. 4 It loomed large in the imaginations of the first century Jews in that it was expected that Messiah would appear from this mountain. It was Jesus’ favorite mountain and the place where he last spoke to his disciples before ascending into heaven (Acts 1:12).
Jesus and the Mountain
We know that Jesus went up the mountain regularly to pray (Matt. 14:23; Mark 6:46). His time alone on the mountain is a mystery. However, if we assume that Jesus was modeling the work of the greatest prophets, rabbis, and sages he was there to receive his marching orders from the Father.
Jesus also went up the mountain to make critical decisions. He climbed the mountain with Peter, James, and John as he contemplates his final journey to Jerusalem. He climbed the mountain to confront his final decision to take up his cross. It was on the mountain that he chose and called The Twelve who would be his closest disciples (Luke 12:12-13). Jesus often found wisdom, insight, and discernment on the mountain.
Jesus went up the mountain to deliver his most important lesson – the Sermon on the Mount. Since the Gospel of Matthew is divided into five speeches (books) and the Sermon on the Mount was the first of these – it may be that Matthew wanted to portray Jesus as a new Moses who was leading the people out of slavery (to sin), delivering a new Law (Matt. 5:1). 5
Perhaps Jesus’ most famous and detailed mountain experience was the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8). In this mountaintop scene, Jesus experienced his truest identity. He met with Moses and Elijah (two mountaintop prophets from the Old Testament). In the end, however, it is made clear that the answer is not to be found in Moses or Elijah. They disappear and Jesus alone is revealed as the true and glorious Son of God. Both Tabor and Hermon have been offered as the potential site of the Transfiguration.
However, the mountain experience was not an end in itself. Moses went up the mountain, experienced God, and came down with the Law. The mountain experience was always for the sake of bringing something back to the world. The mountain alone had no meaning if not experienced for the sake of the people. Whatever Jesus experienced on the mountain, it always propelled him toward the village.
CONCLUSIONS: JESUS AND THE MOUNTAIN
- A place to make important decisions.
- A place to talk honestly with his Father.
- A place to be alone with God.
- A place to get away from the world.
- A place to receive and impart important information from God.
- A place to experience the glory of God.
- A place to reveal his own glory to his disciples.
THE MOUNTAIN BLOG CATEGORIES
I’ll be writing about the mountain under two main categories, with five sub-categories under each.
Category #1 – Encountering God.
This category focuses on the way we see, hear, and feel God in the wilderness experience. This is how God speaks into our lives so that we can come down the mountain and make a difference in the world. Sub-categories I might address are:
Category #2 – The Spirit Life
This category focuses on the things that God teaches us on the mountain. We take his word to us and begin to apply it to our lives. We are filled with his Spirit on the mountain so that we can pour that same Christ-Spirit into the lives of others. Sub-categories I might address are:
- Word of God
- The Fruits of the Spirit
These are simply starting places as we seek to grow stronger in Christ through our own mountaintop experiences!
- What have been your “mountaintop” and how have they shaped your life?
- What is your general attitude toward the “mountaintop experience?”
- How can you carve out time to get alone with God? What would that time look like?