I've always loved mountains. I've lived in the Blue Ridge mountains, hiked the Sangre de Christo mountains, travelled through the German Alps, skied the French Alps and marveled as I've gazed at the seemingly endless Alaskan mountain ranges. There is something mystical and majestic about these natural structures which tower over the rest of creation. It was commonplace in the 1980s and 1990s to hear Christians speak of "mountaintop experiences"--when referring to some moment of spiritual revival or restoration. However favorably or suspiciously one may receive such language, it is important for us to understand that the Scriptures actually have quite a lot to say about mountains and their theological significance.
Mountains are used as an illustrative measurement by which man may better understand the attributes of God. The grandiosity of mountains is used to describe the mercy of God. The Psalmist described the righteousness of God in terms that the reader could understand: "Your righteousness is like the great mountains" (Ps. 36:6). He described the LORD's power in creation by pointing to the mountains--the greatest objects in creation: "Who established the mountains by His strength, being clothed with power" (Ps. 65:6). In addition, the Psalmist noted the all-encompassing power of God over creation by recounting the details concerning the deluge, namely, the way in which "the waters stood above the mountains" (Ps. 104:6). Though the Scriptures make frequent illustrative or comparative use of mountains to explain the nature of God's attributes, power, presence and protection, there is a biblico-theological development in the history of redemption. This is first seen by way of deduction, then by way of explicit reference.
The first three chapters of Genesis do not tell us anything about mountains, therefore it might be tempting to pass over any significance they might have in protology (i.e. the study of the first things). However, when we come to the book of Ezekiel, there are allusions to the idea that the Garden of Eden was on a mountain. G.K. Beale notes, "Just as the entrance to Israel's later temple was to face east and be on a mountain (Zion, Exod 15:17), and just as the end-time temple of Ezekiel was to face east (Ezek 40:6) and be on a mountain (Ezek 40:2; 43:12), so the entrance to Eden faced east (Gen 3:24) and was situated on a mountain (Ezek 28:14, 16).1 Michael Morales further explains what it meant for Adam and Eve to be exiled from the Garden on the Mountain of Eden:
The paradise atop Eden’s mount is described in Genesis 2-3 as a well-watered Garden with an abundance of fruit trees, a place where humanity and animals lived in harmony. These physical blessings, however, were but tokens (and small ones at that) of the greater delight of their Source: the very life-giving Presence of God. After Adam and Eve’s sin, and consequent descent from the mountain of the LORD, the biblical narrative continues to deal with the dilemma: How shall we abide in the divine Presence — who shall ascend?2
The fact that Eden was a Temple set on a mountain prepares us for all the all the other significant mountains in redemptive-history. Abraham was called to offer up Isaac on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22:2)--the very place where Solomon would build the Temple and the Kings house. God met Moses at Mt. Horeb. It was, in many respects, the archetype of the Temple. It was there that the LORD told Moses to take his sandals off his feet, "for the place where you stand is holy ground." Wherever the presence of the LORD was manifested, there was the Holy Place. When Moses brought Israel out to Mt. Sinai, he led the people to the foot of the mountain. He then took some of the elders of Israel and went up the mountain to a second location. Being instructed by God, Moses left the elders there and went up by himself into the presence of God. When the LORD came down to meet Moses, there was smoke and fire and lightening. It was a prelude to the threefold division of the Temple and the smoke of the presence of God coming down and filling the Most Holy Place. Mt. Sinai was also an archetype of the heavenly Temple.
Our Lord Jesus went up on the Mount of Olives and gave the law, just as Moses had at Sinai. Jesus was the greater Moses, because He was the One who had given that same law to Moses on the Mount. Jesus came to recapitulate all that Israel typified. He went down into Egypt, out of Egypt, through the waters, into the wilderness, and up on the mountain. When it came time for God to reveal the glory of His Son in visible form to His disciples, Jesus took them up on a high mountain and was transfigured before them. It was on the mountain that the glory of God was seen in the face of Jesus Christ. Moses' face had shone from the reflected glory of God when he was in His presence on the mountain; the Son of God's face shown with His own Divine glory.
It is of no small significance that the LORD ordained the King's house and the Temple to be built on a mountain in Jerusalem. This act symbolized the exalted nature of God's heavenly dwelling. The earthly king of Israel was to be typical of the heavenly King--Jesus. In the most Holy Place of the Temple sat the Ark of the Covenant, a type of the throne of God. The presence of the Lord was manifested between the cherubim overshadowing the mercy seat of the Ark. This was a picture of the angels in heaven, who stand before the throne of God and the Lamb and who cry out day and night before Him, "Holy, Holy Holy" is the Lord God Almighty. Whenever Israelites went up the Temple mount to worship God they were to understand something of the return to paradise through the shedding of the blood of the sacrifice at the Temple on top of the Mountain. The Temple was, of course, a picture of the Eden-Mount. Phil Ryken notes:
[the Temple] really was like the gates of Paradise. And for many people the way of access was still denied. Unless they were priests they would never see the golden wonders inside. Only the High Priests would enter that most holy place. Yet however limited it was there was access. You see God was opening back up the way to Paradise. You might think of Solomon’s temple as a kind of spiritual portal. The paradise lost could be regained.
In the New Covenant era, the mountains of great significance are (1) the Mount of Transfiguration, (2) Mount Calvary and (3) Mt. Zion. The Mount of Transfiguration was the mount where the eternal exalted glories of Christ were prefigured prior to His atoning death on the cross. Mount Calvary was the place of His shameful humiliation and death leading to the eternal glory prefigured at the Transfiguration. Mt. Zion is the eternal anti-type of all the mountains in Scripture, and the place of eschatological consummation. In one sense, it can be said that everything in the Old Testament was preparing us for Mt. Zion--the eternal dwelling place of Christ, His heavenly host and the multitude of His redeemed.
Jonathan Edwards explained the spiritual nature of the heavenly "Jerusalem" (which is given the title "Mt. Zion" in Hebrews 12:24, and "the Jerusalem above" in Gal. 4:21-31) when he wrote:
Here are two Jerusalems spoken of. One is the literal Jerusalem, or the people of the Jews. And the spiritual Jerusalem, or the true church of God, this is called "Jerusalem which is above," for heaven is the proper city and dwelling place of the church. Here they have no abiding place, no city of their own, but are strangers and pilgrims. See Hebrews 12:22–24; Philippians 3:20, in the original; Hebrews 13:14; Ephesians 2:19.3
The writer of Hebrews goes to great lengths to draw out the contrast between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion when he explains the spiritual and heavenly nature of the New Covenant. The mountain of mountains, so to speak, is "Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" where "an innumerable company of angels...the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven...God the Judge of all...the spirits of just men made perfect...Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and...the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel" are all assembled in glory and splendor. It is the realm in which the visible church on earth now joins to worship when we gather. It is the goal of redemption for the sons that Christ died to bring to glory.
The first Adam forfeited the Garden-mountain paradise through his disobedience; the second Adam, by His obedience and death, has secured something higher and far more glorious than what the first Adam forfeited. Creation and in Redemption are the two great mountains on which Protology and Eschatology rest. It's no wonder then that the Scriptures are full of references and allusions to these most majestic and purposeful objects in creation. There may or may not be an appropriate place for believers to speak of "mountaintop experiences," but, of this much we may be sure, the Scriptures are full of "mountaintop theology" that is meant to build our faith in Christ and cause us to long to ascend the mountain of the Lord and dwell with Him forever in the heavenly Temple on Mount Zion.
1. Beale, G.K. (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Volume: JETS 48:1 , Mar 2005)"Eden, the Temple and the Church's Mission in the New Creation."
2. An excerpt from Michael Morales's Ligonier blog post series, "Who May Ascend the Hill of the LORD" (part 1, part 2 and part 3) .
3. Jonathan Edwards , The "Blank Bible" (WJE Online Vol. 24) , (Ed. Stephen J. Stein) p. 1084