“Mountaintop experiences,” are something of a marvel. We tend to hear about them connected to things like conferences, camps, and conflicts.
“I didn’t even want to go,” someone might say about a conference. Or, “I had to beg him to go to camp,” the mom says of her teenage son. Or, “it took my life falling apart during a hurricane…”
The Bible is filled with experiences like these – God meeting people where they are, giving them the strength or affirmation they need to carry on. But more important than the experiences are the reasons for them.
God takes us to the mountaintop for a purpose.
In one of the most memorable mountaintop experiences in history, the Bible gives us a front row seat to what these moments are for, and how to respond to them.
The story goes like this:
Jesus takes three of his followers, Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. It doesn’t seem like anything too extraordinary, right? I mean, no matter which account you’re reading (the story is recorded in Matthew 17, Mark 9, and Luke 9), in the chapters leading up to this moment, Jesus has been asserting himself in the public’s eye. He’s been casting out demons, healing diseases, performing miracles, ticking off religious leaders, miraculously feeding thousands of people, walking on water, and telling stories that most people don’t understand.
That’s the crazy stuff. What’s so wild about a prayer meeting on a mountain?
Well, on that mountain, as Jesus is praying, something really crazy happens. He is suddenly transfigured!
The disciples look and they see Jesus, the same person they ventured up the mountain with. But now his facing is shining like the sun and he’s wearing “dazzling white” clothes. (I don’t know about you, but when I hear a grown man say “dazzling” I just assume things are getting serious.)
But, on top of all that, it’s not only Jesus standing there.
Jesus (probably with a grin) says something like, “Oh guys I’m glad you’ve joined us. Peter, James, John, this is Moses and Elijah.”
The disciples are likely thoroughly shocked and confused. I mean these guys are their legends. They’ve been dead for hundreds of years and yet are standing right in front of them. Crazy!
Why are Moses and Elijah there on the mountain? Why are any of them up there? And why did Matthew, Mark, and Luke record it for us?
The Bible doesn’t ever really spell it out for us, but all signs point to them being there as witnesses to Jesus’ glory. During Jesus’ day, the whole of Scripture was often referred to as “the Law and the Prophets.”
So, is it a coincidence that God sends two of the most prominent figures (Moses representing the Law and Elijah representing the Prophets) to bear witness about the Messiah to some of the very people who would later have to go and bear witness about him in the world? These five men are some of the greatest the Bible ever introduces us to, and they all pale in comparison to a glimpse – merely a sliver – of Jesus’ true glory revealed.
“And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” (Mark 9:5-6).
It’s such an incredible, unbelievable, shocking sight that Peter suggests they do… something… anything! He wants to commemorate this moment.
But that’s not what this is about.
“As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’ And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone,” (Luke 9:34-36a).
The sky goes back to a normal blue. The glowing figures have gone. The booming voice has ceased. And there is nothing but a gentle breeze blowing at the top of the mountain. Jesus stands alone, his eyes toward the sky. Slowly he lowers his head until his focus lies once again on his followers. A smile flashes onto his face as if to say, “I told you, you wouldn’t want to miss this.”
Still amazed, and perhaps frozen in shock, I’m willing to bet the disciples wanted to stay up there and ask Jesus a lot of questions. And Jesus could have sat back and taken in their admiration and then let them run off and tell everyone what had just happened.
Instead, they descended down the mountain, and were immediately met by a large crowd amongst who was a demon-possessed boy.
Jesus took his disciples and went right back to work.
It was as if he looked into his disciples eyes – the same eyes that had just had the glory and majesty of their leader revealed to them – and said, “Come friends, there is still work to be done.”
There are times in our own lives where we have some big questions about Jesus or his purpose for us. We have doubts. Maybe our faith wavers and we wonder if we even still believe. We’re in a valley.
But then God invites us to come up the mountain with him, and we have no idea what that means or what’s in store for us. “Why don’t you go this conference?” or “go to this camp,” or “talk to this person,” or “join this small group,” or “just go to church this week.”
We say “yes,” we go, we hear great teaching, or are moved by a song, or have a meaningful conversation. It’s clear that God is giving us exactly what we need whether or not we knew we needed it. Suddenly we find ourselves at the peak. We’re standing on top of this mountain and we feel so incredibly close to God.
We look out around us and we can see down into the dark valleys we came out of and many more mountain peaks and valleys ahead. We get a sliver of perspective on all of life’s craziness. And we are filled with the hope and peace that everything is going to be alright in the grand scheme of it all. Jesus is who he says he is and there is a glorious destination that awaits us somewhere beyond the horizon.
On our mountaintop we feel safe and comfortable, hopeful and excited, joyful and alive.
And we want to stay up there.
But, just like it was with Jesus and his disciples, there are tasks that await us down the mountain – life to be lived. This glimpse of glory was never meant to be the end of the journey.
If Jesus and the disciples stayed on the mountaintop, then the little boy doesn’t get healed and the disciples don’t go on to help carry Christianity, in its infancy, to the world.
Jesus came down from the mountain that day knowing that one day he would climb another mountain called Calvary. And he knew that when he died to save all of mankind, his disciples would be scared. He knew that when he asked them to go forward, carrying the good news of salvation to the nations, they would be wading into the darkness. He needed them to know exactly what it was they would be giving their lives for.
There are dark days still to come – maybe some of yours are here now.
But God is with us.
He doesn’t bring us up the mountain just to send us on our merry way and hope everything works out. He brings us up the mountain to engage us, encourage us, and reveal his glory to us, so that when we find ourselves in the darkest valley, we can be reminded that he is exactly who he said he is, and that all he has promised will one day come to pass.
Come friends, there is work to be done.