What and where is your favorite mountain? What is it that makes it so special or important to you? For most of us, mountains create a sense of awe and wonder and I think that is why they take such an important role in the Bible. Mountains dotted the landscape of where the biblical stories took place, they were a physical reality. As a result, mountains and hills are mentioned over 500 times in the Bible. They become characters in some of the most spectacular happenings in the biblical narrative. Who can name me a mountain in the Bible and what happened there?
I like top 10 lists, so I’ve compiled my top 10 mountains in the Bible and what makes them significant:
10) Mount Ararat-after the global flood, the Noah’s ark came to rest here until the waters receded and the animals and people then went and filled the earth.
9) Mount Moriah-this is the place that Abraham offered up Isaac as a sacrifice and then God provides an alternate sacrifice when he sees Abraham’s deep faith.
8) Mount Sinai-this is where Moses encountered the burning bush and where God gave the 10 commandments to Moses. It is also the mountain that the prophet Elijah fled to when Queen Jezebel threatened his life after he had just been on the next mountain.
7) Mount Carmel-this is the mountain that Elijah had his show down with the prophets of Baal.
6) Mount Zion-this is the mountain that Jerusalem is built upon. Everywhere in scripture where you read, “I lift my eyes to Zion,” or “they went up to Jerusalem,” it was because Jerusalem was built on a mountain. In the psalm we just read, the psalmist wants to direct everyone’s attendtion to this beautiful mountain of God. This was also where the temple was built.
The rest of my list is tied to the life of Jesus:
5) The mount of the Beatitudes. We are not exactly sure where this mountain is, probably near the Sea of Galilee close to Capernaum. Also, the significance of its location is that Jesus giving this sermon on a mountain puts him on par with Moses. Jesus is the new Moses, new lawgiver.
4) Another un-named mountain, the mountain the Jesus is tempted on by the devil when he goes into the wilderness after his baptism and lives into his identity as God’s Beloved Son.
3) Yet another un-named mountain, but the mountain that Jesus was transfigured on. Many scholars think it is Mount Tabor near Jerusalem, but the Bible doesn’t say specifically. This is the mountain that Jesus went to the top with Peter, James, and John and Jesus becomes radiantly white when he encounters Moses and Elijah and a booming voice comes from heaven saying, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.”
2) Calvary, also called Golgotha or the place of the skull. It is where Jesus was crucified.
1) The Mount of Olives. Mentioned several times in the Old Testament, the Mount of Olives was very significant during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He went there several times with his disciples to pray. It is where he was arrested. But I listed it as my number one mountain in scripture because it was where Jesus had his last meeting with his disciples before he ascended into heaven.
So, why mountains? Why does God use mountains that they become such a part of the biblical narrative? Why is it on a mountain top that God chooses to give the law to Moses? Why is it that mountains play such a significant role in Jesus’ ministry? I think it is because of who we are more than who God is. In primal cultures, the idea of a holy mountain, a cosmic mountain was often understood not only as the home of the gods, but also as a kind of cosmic umbilical cord that joined the heavens and the earth. Since they are “closer to God,” people through history believed this is where the gods dwelt and were drawn there to be closer to the gods. Think about Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. Now, much of this mythic aura of a cosmic-mountain theme hasn’t disappeared in our modern era. It is still with us. We look up to heaven to see God. What do you look up? The mountain.
So, in the Biblical narrative, God uses mountains because we have this natural inclination to be drawn to God and the holy in the mountain. It is just who we are. And God takes advantage of that. For every single person that goes up a mountain in the Bible, a change takes place. That change not only happens to the person doing the climbing, the change flows out into the world because of their encounter with the Holy on the mountain. Even though we know geologically change is taking place, when you look at a mountain, you usually think “unchanging, unmovable, solid rock.” But it is there that God has brought about some of the greatest changes to humanity.
When Abraham went up on the mountain with Isaac, his faith was changed. He learned that God was a provider and was given the promise that his offspring should be more numerous than the stars in heaven or the sand that is on the seashore.
Every time Moses was on the mountain, he changed and so did his people. The first time he climbed the mountain was to look upon a burning bush. And from that burning bush he became the liberator of his people. When he came off the mountain after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people couldn’t even look at him. They were afraid of him because his face shown so brightly. He didn’t even know the change had taken place but he had been purified. And in his hands was the covenant of what it meant to be the people of God, how to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. And the last mountain he was on was Mount Nebo. From its heights he looked out over the Promised Land before the people of Israel entered it. And he died on that mountain.
Now it is hard to begin talking about the numerous changes that took place when Jesus stepped on a mountain. Many times he was changed as he called the nation of Israel to change. His Sermon on the Mount reinterpreted for the people the law, with a refocusing on what it meant to be in relationship with God and each other. When he was on that mountain where he was transfigured, it wasn’t Jesus’ physical appearance that was the most important thing that happened that day. God was calling for a change in the hearts and minds of his disciples. God was making that clear when he called them to listen to his son. Don’t fight about who is greatest, don’t seek seats of power, but listen to Jesus’ teaching about being a servant to one another.
Later, Jesus climbed a mountain called Golgotha while carrying a cross. The events that happened there changed the world, so much so we celebrate them during Holy Week and Easter. They defiantly changed us. We wouldn’t be sitting here this morning if that climb hadn’t have happened. His death and resurrection changed the world and our lives. God’s love poured from the top of that mountain upon the entire world. Christ opened up the promise of the peaceable kingdom Isaiah foretold. And he invites us to the climb the same hill that he did. It means we will die, but it also means we live. Paul reminds us in Romans that “we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”
So, what should you do next time you are in view of an awe inspiring mountain? Take a hike. It doesn’t have to be a long one, and the nice thing about modern conveniences, no matter your physical condition, you can get to some pretty awe-inspiring views. And as the psalmist invites us to walk around Mount Zion, I’d invite you to walk around the mountain that is before you if you can. Consider its grandeur, consider the cliffs and slopes the reach to the peak. Think about the rock solid mountain and meditate on how that points to God’s unfailing, unchanging love for you. And contemplate that it was on a mountain that God changed the world in and through Moses, through Elijah, through Jesus. And pray about how God, in his infinite love, can change you and use you to change the world.