Understanding the message of the Old Testament and applying it today is a lot like watching the film “Fight Club.” Only at the end of the movie does the viewer discover that the two main characters are (spoiler alert!) one and the same. Moreover, a second watch is in many ways more exciting than the first as a different story begins to unfold – one told from a different angle than where your intuition led during your first time through.
In a similar fashion, anyone seeking to comprehend the story of the Bible must return to the Old Testament and re-watch the story with New Testament eyes. The reader is sure to discover a story that has been present the entire time — we simply lacked the ability to see. It’s worth noting this shift in reading is not the routine Sunday School answer “Jesus” to every question that gets asked but is instead a mosaic of how the gospel is typified, contrasted, compared, revealed, sharpened, and longed for as a result of the story being told in each passage, narrative, and theme.
To bring this down from the land of theory and into practice, let’s consider the topic of “mountains” in both testaments.
The Loud Thunder of the Law
Connecting a number of important concepts in the Old Testament such as holiness and eternity, mountains are not unfamiliar to the story of God. When you pull on the thread of the mountain motif, a number of locations along the storyline respond.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
– Exodus 20:18-19 –
In one of the most significant, watershed moments of biblical history, God reveals Himself to Moses on a mountain through a loud, dark, unapproachable storm. Here on Mount Sinai, God famously inscribes the Law on two stone tablets — a national covenant between himself and the Israelites: they are promised security and prosperity, but given the conditions of unswerving obedience to its moral code. If you obey the Law, the expectation was reward and blessing. However, if you break the Law, the Law will break you. In this aspect it was a legal covenant saying, “do this and live.”
The first mountain is awesome in its ability to reveal. On the one hand, we see that this mountain communicates the character of God as one who does not shrug off evil, nor is he a judge that can be bribed; therefore, if we are to come into proximity with this Holy God, moral perfection is a non-negotiable.
But on the other hand, there is much to revisit within this narrative while wearing New Testament lenses. Far from being a to-do list to achieve said perfection, this mountain serves as a cosmic mirror, exposing the spiritual blemishes of those who stare into its reflective glass. God’s grace is present in the giving of the Law to the extent that it reveals our human inability to do good and resist evil (and, in fact, increases disobedience to bring about greater awareness of everyone’s death sentence under law). Sinai shows how Israel’s physical deliverance from the Egyptians did not rescue them from their ultimate threat: sin and death. In the grand scheme of things, leaving Egypt’s rule can be likened to an alcoholic having their keys taken away — the underlying issue has neither been touched nor considered, just a temporary band-aid applied to an unseen, always-present problem.
A Quiet Hope of Something More
But the story advances and throughout the Old Testament, there is always a present whisper or hint of something new ahead; something better than what has been given in the past. Early in Isaiah, this hope takes the shape of another mountain, one bigger than Sinai – one that initiates an invitation to all nations (not just one) under an unbreakable bond of peace (not a list of requirements):
In the last days the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”
– Isaiah 2:2-3 –
The seeds of comparison between the old and the new mountain are sown by the prophets throughout their letters which describe how the second mountain will be a place of great celebration, where glad hearts will be so full they can’t help but sing. More than this, the new mountain will be a place of salvation where blind eyes are opened and deaf ears begin to hear — a place where the lame will not only walk but leap and desert lands will flow with rich, satisfying water!
The New Mountain Made Clear
These seeds thrown about by the prophets are later harvested by the authors of the New Testament who desire to make sense of the God-given contrast between Old and New. In the same way that Paul compares Hagar and Sarah as Old and New Covenants, likening Hagar to Sinai, slavery, and death — so too, the author of the book of Hebrews considers two mountains, not one, showing that life does not come through what was given at Sinai, but a better mountain altogether: Calvary (aka Zion). The contrast is beautiful, stark, and clear:
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
– Hebrews 12:18-24 –
Although lacking full clarity, the message of the prophets were ultimately pointing ahead to Jesus who came to rectify the human problem and teach us about God. But far from being inscribed on tablets of stone, his instruction is alive and active, felt when seeing him shoulder our sin and simultaneously climb both a mountain and a wooden cross in our place. Jesus teaches us his gospel, which silences the shouting threats of the law, and throws Sinai into the sea.
The New Covenant first promised to Abraham is whispered about in the prophets and fulfilled on top of Mount Calvary. On this hilltop, Jesus demonstrates with perfect clarity, his unrelenting devotion to rescue us from our unseen, always-present problem of sin and coldness to God. Jesus does not wait for us to find a way to him; instead, he comes down from the mountain of heaven to pull us out of our fear, mourning, and disturbed thoughts — to place us in a choir of joy with thousands upon thousands of angels worshipping the only one worthy of endless song.