A while back we commented on the exchange Jesus had with his disciples in Matthew 24:15“So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel.” This is part of a shocking account of the events that will usher in the end of the age. Here’s the comment we made back then:
“One of the most horrific events he describes is what he alludes to in vs.15 as, ‘the sacrilegious object that causes desolation.’ (NLT) standing in the Holy Place. It’s as if he’s warning them that something would come against his people that would deceive them and defile them by taking up residence in the place that’s reserved only for him. To fast-forward that into the church age it implies that there could even be false Christs in the church itself; and that we could even see endorsements of the antichrist in the church. That’s why we need fresh vision for our season in the church - and it might not look like anything we’ve seen thus far!”
The other week we were reviewing this passage again and verse 16 came strikingly to our attention as we looked again at what Jesus said. “. . . then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.”
Is there anything behind the idea of “fleeing to the mountains” other than the practical advice about departing to a “safe place”? If we look at the times the Scriptures refer to mountains, we often find that people who ascended a mountain had some kind of powerful experience of God’s presence. This is what theologians call a ‘theophany’ - it refers to the manifestation of God to man; the tangible sign by which the presence of God is revealed.
There are many instances of this kind of occurrence in the Bible – prime examples would be Moses and Elijah who had powerful encounters with the Lord; David also referred to the mountain being linked with the presence of God. The one most often quoted is in Psalm 24 -
Psalm 24:3-4 “Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? 4 The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god.”
But he also referred to it in Psalm 15 –
Psalm 15:1-5 “LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? 2 The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; 3 whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others; 4 who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the LORD; who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind; 5 who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.”
David’s goal in life was always to be found in God’s presence. He expresses this heart-felt desire many times in the Psalms – it seems it was his life-long aim to be in a ‘higher place’ to experience God’s presence. Nowhere is this clearer than in Psalm 27 -
Psalm 27:4-5 “One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple. 5 For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.”
In the biblical story, we see various people going to the mountains, from Moses to Elijah to Jesus, and there upon the mountains God is encountered, and lives are changed. With Moses we see him going into the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, with Elijah there is a powerful outpouring of God’s presence against his enemies and with Jesus we see him ascend the mountain where he is transfigured before the disciples’ eyes and God speaks to him from the cloud of presence.
We begin with the story of Moses in Exodus 24:12-18, who receives a call from God to go to the mountain and receive the tablets of the law, which God has written for their instruction. And so he takes Joshua, and after leaving Aaron and Hur in charge, heads for the mountain. As Moses climbs the mountain, a cloud begins to envelop it, so that the “Glory of the Lord settled upon Mount Sinai.” They wait, presumably on the edge of the cloud, for six days. On the seventh day, with the Glory of the Lord sitting on the mountain having the appearance of a consuming fire, God invites Moses to enter the cloud. You can imagine the feeling of the people down below. Moses and Joshua have gone up the mountain, which is now engulfed in flame. Will they ever return? What will happen to us? Yes, we can only imagine. But then, Moses went up into the cloud and ascended the mountain, and there he spent forty days and forty nights. With this the passage ends – though if you continue reading you discover that it is in this forty-day period that God reveals to Moses his desires for the people of Israel. All the directions for the creation of the Tabernacle and ordination of priests and more are revealed, as Moses is with God on the mountain.
Moses is forever transformed by this encounter with God, though we later learn that when Moses emerges from the cloud his face shines so much that he must keep himself veiled. Paul suggests that over time the glow faded, but Moses kept the veil so as to cover up the loss of this sign of God’s presence.
Next we come to Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-6. Note that Jesus goes up the mountain after six days – is this reflective of Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai? Of course, we need to go back a chapter to see that according to Matthew, it was six days earlier that Peter made the Confession, declaring that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah and Son of God (Mt. 16:16). Even as Moses took Joshua with him, Jesus took three of his closest associates – Peter, James, and John – with him up the mountain. There he was “transfigured” or transformed before their eyes so that his face shone like the sun and his clothes became a dazzling white. There is similarity to Moses’ encounter, but here, the transformation seems to be less a reflection of the encounter, but it emerges from within. It is, one could say, an unveiling of the glory of the Lord that is already present in Jesus. Then and only then do Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear and are seen talking with Jesus. It has been suggested that Moses and Elijah are seen here as transcendent beings, people who were caught up into heaven without dying.
Peter sees all this and being something of an impulsive sort (the reason we like him so much) decides he has to do something. So, he offers to set up tents for the three conversation partners – or perhaps these are designed to be shrines. He recognizes that something powerful is happening and that Jesus must be someone of transcendent importance if he is standing in the presence of Moses and Elijah.
It is at this moment that a cloud overshadows them – as on the Mountain of Sinai – and from the cloud comes a voice that states: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Words we have encountered earlier in Matthew at the baptism of Jesus, but now they are repeated to fuller effect. At this the three disciples fall on their faces in fear. Jesus sees them, touches them (I find this to be a most poignant statement) and picks them up and tells them not to be afraid. Jesus does that a lot – telling his followers not to fear. It is at this point that they discover that Jesus is alone. Having had this encounter they head back down the mountain – not with stone tablets, but with a new sense of wonder and awe at the person they are called to accompany. For his part, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about what happened on the mountain until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.
2 Peter is one of those interesting texts. It was written by Peter, one of Jesus’ closest friends and colleagues – and the same Peter who encountered God’s glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. In this letter Peter writes that he was an eyewitness of God’s majesty and that of Jesus. We were there, he says, when God spoke: “This is my son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Yes, we were with him on the mountain. So, listen to our testimony. Listen to our interpretation – for “no scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” Prophecies come not by human will, but by people moved by the Holy Spirit to speak for God. Peter, quite rightly, is pulling something of a power play – I was there when God spoke to Jesus, therefore, listen to my interpretation of Scripture, for Scriptures aren’t the matter of one’s own interpretation. Still, despite this almost unseemly display, we hear in it a word of witness to the encounters the people of God have on the mountain, encounters that can be life changing.
As we reflect on these passages that depict powerful encounters with God, encounters that are transformative, it is appropriate for us to ask of ourselves – in what way are we transformed by our encounters with the transcendent God? What are our mountain top experiences? From the looks of the rest of Matthew’s narrative, the disciples still don’t understand, even after their mountain top experiences. Are we any different? Does the wonder begin to wear off once we're back into the thick of things? Do we forget with whom we walk? May we be thankful for God’s patience and encouraged by what the writer to the Hebrews instructs us:
Hebrews 4:16 “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”