Episode 44: Mountains
When Americans living on the Midwestern Great Plains envision mountains, the Rocky Mountain range frequently comes to mind. These tall mountains extending well over 10,000 feet above sea level are striking, even mesmerizing, to those driving through or visiting that region. In the Eastern half of the country many will think of the Appalachian Mountains which extend from Alabama northward through Maine and into Canada. Extending up to 6600 feet above sea level, these mountains provide a circuitous drive through the beauty of this region. When one reads that Jesus went up on a mountain, it can be quite easy to imagine Jesus taking a hike up a mountain peak in either of these areas. It is equally easy for our mental image to be totally mistaken! What does the Gospel of John communicate when it indicates Jesus went up a mountain?
In the Old Testament
Mountains play a significant role in the Old Testament. A mountain, Ararat, serves as the first place of refuge following the flood. (Genesis 8:4) A mountain near Bethel serves as a place of worship for Abram when he leaves his family in the mountains near Haran and goes to the land God will show him. (Genesis 12:8) A mountain in the land of Moriah serves as a key geographical feature where Abraham and Isaac will follow God’s direction to find a place for worship. (Genesis 22:2)
In Exodus a singular mountain takes on a highly significant role. At the “mountain of God,” Moses encounters the God of his ancestors. He is told to fetch the people out of Egypt and bring them back to worship at this mountain. (Exodus 3:1, 12) Later, on this mountain, the people receive the 10 Commandments and experience the presence of the LORD their God. (Exodus 19:16–18, 20:1–17) In each of these cases the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is associated with a mountain.
Elsewhere in the New Testament
Mountains play a significant role in the other Gospels as well. Jesus is taken up on a mountain during his temptation (Matthew 4:8), he delivers the Sermon on the Mountain (Matthew 5–8), he goes up on a mountain to pray (Matthew 14:23, Mark 6:46, Luke 6;12), and he takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain where he is transfigured before them (Matthew 17:1, Mark 9:2, Luke 9:28). Later in Revelation, John is taken up on a mountain where he is given a vision of the Holy (and Heavenly) city of Jerusalem descending (Revelation 21:10). In these cases, a mountain is associated with God’s teaching and communication.
In the Gospel of John
Mountains rarely appear in the Gospel of John. The first mention comes in Jesus’ discussion with the woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. She wants to know why Jews don’t approve of her people’s worship on the nearby mountain of Gerizim. Jesus informs her (as well as those reading this Gospel) that one day worship will not be restricted to religious sites like mountains and temples. (John 4:20–21) We then come to a mountain in John 6 located on the eastern side of, and near to, the Sea of Galilee. What significance does this geographical location hold for us in this account?
Certain aspects of the passage provide clues to frame the mountain setting. First, we have Jesus and a large crowd who are “on the other side” of the Sea, in other words they are no longer in the land of Canaan but are situated in the Transjordan region. Since it is the time for Passover, memories of Moses leading the Children of Israel into the wilderness and away for Egyptian (or Roman) bondage may be in the back of someone’s mind.
Signs are also mentioned, specifically that Jesus has been healing the sick. The crowd could be anticipating further miracles and demonstrations of God’s mighty and miraculous power.
Then, Jesus sits down with his disciples. The English translations indicate Jesus and the disciples sat down, but the Greek could mean that only Jesus was sitting. Sitting is the normal position for the teacher. These textual clues could indicate that a teaching session is about to follow (based on other NT appearances).
Some of you may remember being told to ask the question, “what is the therefore there for?” when studying the Bible. Jesus’ next action is to lift up his eyes and see the crowd. Until now the focus has been on Jesus traveling, and many others following Jesus for a variety of reasons. Now, on the mountain Jesus shifts the focus to his followers. Have they learned from his teaching? Have they caught a vision of his identity as God’s Beloved Son? Or, are they following Jesus expecting to see one miracle after another miracle?
What to do with Mountains?
I recently took a cable car up to a peak on a mountain. I then hiked up to the higher peak over rough terrain and narrow paths, while the terrain around me was at an altitude where the plants eked out a fragile existence. Indeed, some areas were fenced off to keep unknowing hikers from damaging and destroying their growth. Yet, at the top of the mountain I could see from a new perspective. The powerful castle which overlooked the city and river plain was rather small and far less daunting. The hills and terrain were more apparent to my eye. I could see small towns divided from other small towns by mountainous terrain. Yet to see these things, my head needed to lift from where my feet were treading to the horizon. The only secure way to do so was to stop walking, to stop moving. Indeed, the best way to look was to sit down.
When Jesus goes up this mountain, does he have a purpose in his travels? Those around him were not fully aware of his purpose. Likely, they each had their own selfish purpose and reason for being there. The Mountain reminds us that walking through life on even ground lends itself to a mindless, mind-numbed trudging where we fail to see what lies around us. The Mountain reminds us to stop, to lift our eyes and see what Jesus is teaching us about himself, his purpose, and his glory – “a glory associated only with one uniquely with the father, glory filled with grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
Where is your mountain? Where will you stop and lift up your eyes?