Life is lived amidst mountains and valleys. And it was meant to be lived that way.
What I mean is that we should not only stand on mountain tops, for if we remain there then we will grow light-headed and dizzy from lack of oxygen. But we should also not merely trudge through the depths of the valleys, for there our feet will become stuck in the mud. We will lose perspective and everything will seem much bigger than it really is. As Tozer wrote, “It is wonderful how small things look when you are up high enough. You always know you are losing altitude when things begin to get big.”
What I’m trying to get at is something in the nature of God. The psalmist wrote about it when he asked,
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
It is seen in the praise of Psalm 95, “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also.” (Psalm 95:4)
We are made for mountains and valleys. Because that is where God is.
Psalm 99 has this refrain that carries it along. “Holy is he!” And we must begin here because finding God in the depths will not seem so wondrous if we are not first in awe of his holiness in the heights. This psalm insists and declares that our God is holy!
Three times this declaration is made. First, after reflecting on the character of God as one who is enthroned, exalted, great, and awesome. Second, after the exhortation, “Worship at his footstool.” And third, after the exhortation, “Worship at his holy mountain.”
The holiness of God is seen in who he is and where he is. The worship of God is present on the top of a mountain and on the ground at his feet. His holiness is revealed in the truth that he is not only enthroned and exalted far above his people, but also in that he speaks to and answers his people.
The holiness of God is seen, yet again, in the story from Exodus. Moses is atop the mountain with God. When Moses comes down from the mountain his face reflects the holiness of God. So much that the people were afraid of him, so he put a veil over his face. But that would not do. God desires for his holiness to be among the people. God desires for his Spirit to dwell in and amidst his people. Not only on the heights of the mountaintop, but in the depths giving hope to the hopeless and light to those in darkness. That’s why Paul writes, “Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face…we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” (2 Corinthians 3:12,18)
This is how God meant for it to be. So, we turn to the odd story of Jesus on the top of a mountain.
The story of the Transfiguration has always confused me. I’ve never really understood why it’s in the gospels or what it means or why it happens. It shows up in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Honestly, I still don’t know why it happened. But I can tell you what I think it says about God and his character; about Jesus and his mission.
“About eight days after saying these things…” The transfiguration happens right after Jesus told his disciples about his death for the first time. He tells them, pretty straightforward, that he came to be killed (Luke 9:22). I think this context is important for the story to really make sense. Because Jesus’ disciples (namely Peter) don’t get it. In fact, in Mark Peter actually rebukes Jesus for saying such a thing. Peter makes the same mistake in this story.
So, what happens is Jesus takes a few of his disciples up onto the mountain to pray with him. And while they were praying something crazy happens: Jesus’ clothes and face start glowing, Moses and Elijah (the law and the prophets) appear, and the disciples are pretty much dumbfounded. I want to take a moment to say that this did not happen every time Jesus prayed. Even Jesus’ devotional life wasn’t always mountaintop experiences. We don’t get a glimpse into every time that Jesus prays, but I know of another time Jesus was praying on a mountain. He prayed, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” And instead of a glowing transformation he was trembling with drops of sweat like blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:42-44). Jesus’ prayer was not only on the mountaintops, but also in the valleys of the soul.
When Peter and the other disciples see this wild and glorious transformation, he says “It is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah!” (Luke 9:33) In other words, “Being up here is awesome! Let’s set up camp and stay.” In saying this, he makes two mistakes: First, in wanting to set up three tents he places Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah. Peter wants to worship the law, the prophets, and the christ. He hasn’t yet grasped at who all Jesus is. Second, Peter wants to stay on the mountain. He wants to set up camp, build a castle, establish a kingdom, and stay in the place of spiritual high. The passage actually affirms that Peter is a fool for saying this: “…not knowing what he had said.” After this, two things happen that correct Peter.
First, a voice speaks to them out of the cloud, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35) In other words, God says, “Jesus is not equal with Moses and Elijah—the law and the prophets—he’s my son! In him the law and the prophets are fulfilled!”
Second, the cloud departs, Moses and Elijah disappear, Jesus stops glowing, and they come down from the mountain. Jesus doesn’t stay on the mountaintop of spiritual high. He doesn’t stay in the glorious place of transcendance. Jesus comes down from the mountain. Ultimately, to go to the cross like he just told them.
You see, Jesus could have stayed in the place of glory. He could have stayed all shiny and in the warm and fuzzy presence of God. But he didn’t. Jesus came down from the mountain. He came down from the mountain in order to enter the valley of the shadow of death—the cross.
God is the same way. In John’s vision of the restoration of all things, the new creation, he writes, “I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.'” (Revelation 21:2-3) God does not desire to stay in heaven on the mountaintop. His ultimate desire is not even to take all of us to heaven to be with him. He wants to come down from the mountain. He wants heaven to come down. He wants his dwelling place to be with us! “The dwelling place of God is with man”—not the dwelling place of man is with God. God is coming to us.
He is coming down from heaven. He came down from the mountain. We should do the same.