It is to my shame that I’ve only lately uncovered the vast theological, devotional and pastoral depths plumbed by the writings of prominent Protestant churchman John Henry Jowett. Jowett’s insatiable passion for the ministry is evident on nearly every page of every book ever published with his name on it. He possessed a fervor for souls, articulating incessantly the only news that ever had a chance of saving, i.e., the good news of God’s reconciliation in Christ. It was my dad who first introduced me to him through one of his compendiums of lectures. From there, I’ve tried to devour Jowett’s oeuvre, (1) steeping in his oracular verve which oozes the evangel of the crucified Christ. The latest work of Jowett’s that I’ve finished, entitled, God—Our Contemporary, which is a collection of devotions on an array of topics and texts, contains one of the most affecting biblical patterns revealing the redemptive work of God.
While I would hasten to say there are no such things as “Bible codes” with which “good disciples” are duty-bound to “decipher” — there are, however, certain biblical patterns which, when identified and rightly considered, prove indispensable to one’s understanding of the Scriptures. The notion of being a “line-by-line” expositor or student of the word of God, while well-meaning, has its downsides, chief of which is the way such a reading incapacitates the reader. By this, I mean what that old familiar adage portends, “Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
The same holds true, I’d say, when studying God’s word. We are sometimes so given to being “verse-by-verse” disciples that we do ourselves a disservice when it comes to upholding and understanding the metanarrative of the Bible. “To read any part of the Bible,” writes theologian Chad Bird, “without constantly bearing in mind its deep and purposeful ties to other parts makes as much as sense as trying to understand an elephant by focusing only on the tip of its tail or examining its left nostril.” (2) We parse Scripture in such a way it almost becomes serialized, as though it’s a digest of divinely-inspired moral lessons from which we’re taught the manner and means of obtaining superior spirituality. That is decidedly not what the Bible says. That’s what Aesop’s Fables says. The Bible, you see, has an altogether different message — namely, the revelation of God’s masterplan to re-create and redeem our world through the passion and death of his only begotten Son. That’s what the Bible is all about.
All of Scripture is fundamentally concerned with him, with Christ. “He is the key, and he is the content,” Chad continues. “In one way or another, every narrative, every prophet, every psalm, whispers his name and winks about his mission.” (3) Or, to re-use one of my favorite quips from Martin Luther, “All of Scripture is pure Christ.” (4) Jesus himself makes this evident to his followers in the aftermath of his resurrection, where “beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27, 44–45). Despite being a literary work comprised of over 30,000 verses, 1,189 chapters, and 66 individual books penned by an array of authors over numerous centuries, God’s providence preserved the purity of his word to singularly reveal the divine plot to rectify all the world’s sins by making the One “who knew no sin,” sin for us, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). All of Scripture, then, not merely the New Testament, not even just the four Gospels, are meant to reveal “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16).
Which brings us back to the notion of biblical patterns. There are descriptions, moments, and events that are repeatedly woven into the fabric of Scripture. We have the pattern of Adam representing all of humanity in the Garden and Jesus, the Second Adam, representing all of humanity on the cross (Gen. 1—3; Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:22). St. Matthew makes a point to note the biblical pattern fulfilled in Jesus’s escape to Egypt in the early days after his birth (Matt. 2:13–15; cf. Hos. 11:1; Exod. 4:22; Num. 24:8). We might also consider the pattern of Israel’s wilderness wandering finding its resolution in Jesus’s own wilderness journey (Num. 14:28–35; Matt. 4:1–11). And there are, indeed, countless other examples we might do well to cite. (5) One particular pattern worthy of consideration is God’s propensity to reveal himself on mountaintops. Jowett’s sermon on this idea is immediately resonant, (6) serving as indubitable inspiration for my own consideration of the biblical pattern of the help that comes from the hills (Ps. 121:1), a.k.a., the mountainous gospel of God.
Sinai, the Mountain of Perfection.
The first mountain we are obliged to visit is, perhaps, the most famous one — or, at the very least, the one you most remember from Sunday school: Mount Sinai. Moses tells us that “when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came when they went into the wilderness of Sinai,” where they “camped before the mount” (Exod. 19:1–2). After the dramatic circumstances of Israel’s exodus from Egyptian bondage, complete with cataclysmic plagues and pursuing chariots, they now find themselves pitching their tents in the hill country of the Sinai peninsula. Little did they know that they would be spending the better part of two years encamped on those slopes. It is here that Moses is called by Yahweh “up to the top of the mount” to receive the details of his covenant with them (Exod. 19:3, 20).
The ensuing chapters of Exodus record God’s revelation of perfection and what he expects of his covenant people, with the Ten Commandments being the foremost expression of God’s intrinsic holiness (Exod. 20:3–17). The assortment of laws and systems Moses was summoned to transcribe were not the means by which they became God’s people. Rather, they were to be the manner and method by which Israel communicated to the world that they were God’s people of promise. The ordinances and directives were merely the visible expression of who it was that was with them. “And they shall know,” declares the Lord, “that I am the Lord their God, that brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them: I am the Lord their God” (Exod. 29:46; cf. 19:2).
But, of course, the events of Mt. Sinai are memorable and significant not only for their articulation of God’s perfect holiness but also for the unsurprising demonstration of mankind’s desperate wretchedness. As Moses sits in audience with Jehovah, the people of Israel become restless by his apparent absence, complaining to Moses’s brother Aaron that they require tangible gods as testaments of their deliverance (Exod. 32:1). Aaron notoriously obliges and proceeds to hold Israel’s hand as they happily dispense with severing the very first commandment in the waking moments of its establishment (Exod. 32:2–6; cf. 20:3–6). Therefore, at Sinai, the mountain of perfection, we are given the best illustration of the depths of mankind’s sin. We are never able to live up to God’s standard of perfection. We blow it the first chance we get. Eden and Sinai are proof positive that man’s heart is “only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5; cf. 3:1–7).
Calvary, the Mountain of Pardon.
Which leads us to the second mountain worth noting, and one whose resonance permeates all of Christendom: Mount Calvary. “When they were come to the place, which is called Calvary,” writes Luke, “There they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand, and the other on the left” (Luke 23:33). “Calvary” is a Latin term meaning “cranium” or “skull,” which corresponds to the Gospels’ description of the place of Jesus’s crucifixion as that of “a place of a skull” (Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22; John 19:17). “Golgotha” is the Aramaic expression of the same meaning, designating a site of execution so called because of its resemblance to a skull. And it is on this mount where God’s truest heart is violently revealed.
That’s what Golgotha is, you know, the revelation of God’s love, not its procurement. Yes, indeed, Jesus bought our pardon by hanging as our representative on the cross — but this was so not as a means of “buying off” God. Golgotha isn’t the place where the hypothetical hope of God’s love is finally secured. No, it’s the place where his eternal love is proven and demonstrated in the fact of the Son’s death, in all its graphic glory. “It is not at Bethlehem, but at Golgotha, that we get the full interpretation of God’s character,” Horatius Bonar comments. “‘Unto us a child is born’ is the dawn; ‘It is finished’ is the noon. The cross carries out and completes what the cradle began.” (7) Such is why Jesus is referred to as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8) — precisely because it was the plan all along to demonstrate Yahweh’s love in this way. “But God,” St. Paul affirms, “commendeth [proves, exhibits] his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Permit, if you please, this extended excerpt from Jowett:
“I think it is quite impossible to express the amazing difference between Sinai and Calvary, for human speech can no more hold the wonder than a cockle shell can hold the Atlantic floods . . . He who gave the law on Sinai is on the Cross at Calvary. On Sinai God speaks in words. On Calvary God speaks in stupendous act . . . On Sinai we see God’s holy will; on Calvary we see the sacred heart. On Sinai law is enthroned; on Calvary grace comes down our souls to meet, and glory crowns the mercy seat. I do not take the burden of my sin to Sinai. I do not know the way. I have not heard of its healing springs. And indeed I am not invited to take my burden to Sinai; the invitation comes from Calvary where the veil is lifted upon infinite love. On Calvary we have the amazing spectacle of a suffering God, and in His sufferings we find the springs of our forgiveness. We ought never to grow coldly accustomed to this wonderful news. Calvary ought to throw us into new surprises every time we see it, and every time we hear its story. God weeping is infinitely more wonderful than God speaking. God suffering is infinitely more awful than God punishing. God on the Cross is infinitely more amazing than God on the throne . . . on the hill called Calvary . . . our God unveils our sin, and there He unveils the love which forgives the sin and can redeem the sinner. Sinai has no place for sinners, Calvary has no place for anybody else.” (8)
Calvary, therefore, is our mountain of pardon. It is the place which reveals most definitively God’s plan to redeem and reconcile sinners to himself (2 Cor. 5:18–20). For all the ways man fails to live up to God’s standard of perfection, God in Christ meets that standard on their behalf, living perfectly, righteously for those who can’t help but keep on sinning. The crimson red pardon of Golgotha’s cross assures you and me and this whole world full of sinners that for however much we don’t measure up and fall short of his glory (Rom. 3:23), Jesus stands as the one and only faultless, blameless Substitute.
Olivet, the Mountain of Promise.
Which brings us to the last mountain on this brief excursion through God’s redemptive mountains: Mount Olivet, a.k.a., the Mount of Olives. After his resurrection, Jesus wasn’t immediately taken up into glory. In fact, he spends forty days attesting through “many infallible proofs” the fact of his passion and death, and “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3; 1 Cor. 15:5–6). Before he ascended and was “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51), Jesus delivers one final sermon to his disciples: “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:18–20).
I’ve always loved to imagine the apostles’ faces in that moment. As they stood there on Olivet, with their beloved Teacher rising above the clouds, I picture their eyes wide and mouths agape in shellshocked bewilderment (Acts 1:10–12). The collective “deer-in-the-headlights” expression of The Twelve betrayed their discombobulated faith. So much had been riding on Jesus up to that point. His talk of heavenly kingdoms got everyone around him earnestly anticipating an imminent Roman overthrow. Then the cross happened and everyone’s Messianic assumptions were dashed upon the rocks, shattered into unfindable bits and strewn across Golgotha’s mud. And then the resurrection happened, once again transmogrifying everyone’s Messianic expectations. The literal skin and bone body of Jesus recast the lives of these bumbling apostles into fearless evangelists.
As they stepped into ministry, tasked with the assignment to turn the world right-side-up through proclamation of the upside-down news of the gospel (Acts 17:6), they did so with this mountainous promise in their heads and their hearts. Jesus’s words to them assured them of his interminable presence and peace, “even unto the end of the world.” Such is why those same apostles who scattered in Master’s moment of gravest need were then so willing to die if it be for the sake of Christ’s glory and name and purpose being expounded. In like manner, these parting words have served those in the church for centuries, ministering to them the untold comfort and direction offered in the gospel. The words which emanate from Olivet give us purpose and hope and promise. On this mountain, Christ assures us that our Heavenly Father has already orchestrated the end of all things (Acts 1:6–8). The End Times are well-ordered under the sovereign movement of the Creator’s hand. We need not fret, therefore, as the end approaches. Despite however tenuous the days may seem, an omnipotent God is with us, “always.”
You and I need each of these mountains and what they represent, for on the summit of each we are told the story of a God who saves, protects, and preserves his own. “On Sinai,” notes Jowett, “I see the conquest of anarchy. On Calvary I see the conquest of sin. On Olivet I see the conquest of death.” (9) This trio of hills forms the mountainous gospel of God that works all things together for good, according to his glorious purposes (Rom. 8:28).