An Ezra Moment: Returning to Our Story During COVID-19

Around 538 B.C., the nation of Israel limped home. After seventy years of Babylonian captivity, they returned to Judah to find Jerusalem in ruins. The wall was torn down, the gates destroyed. The Temple was little more than a pile of rubble. Nehemiah weeps when he learns of the condition of the city.

The people are disoriented. The glory days of David and Solomon are long gone and their once world-class city is a shell of its former self. They rebuild the temple, and those old enough to remember the glory of the first temple weep tears of mourning. Nehemiah rebuilds the walls and gates surrounding the city, but reality bites. The once-proud superpower has been reduced to a third-rate nation with no king, no army, and no treasury.

Then something amazing happens. Once the basic infrastructure is set up, the people come to Ezra, their chief priest, with a request.

 “In October, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled with a unified purpose at the square just inside the Water Gate. They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given for Israel to obey.”

Although the walls and the temple were standing again, the people sensed that something was still broken: themselves. They believed that healing would come through re-immersion in their Story. Ezra responded immediately by organizing corporate day of Scripture reading.

“He faced the square just inside the Water Gate from early morning until noon and read aloud to everyone who could understand. All the people listened closely to the Book of the Law.”

Church in the Age of Coronavirus

The COVID-19 virus hardly needs an introduction. Over the last few weeks our lives and habits have been upended. Words like “crisis” and “pandemic” flood our thoughts and our imaginations. We’re isolated, cut off from our friends and loved ones, unable to even gather on Sundays to worship.

Our pastors are scrambling to create infrastructure with which to “do church” during these strange and unsettling times. We can be grateful for their leadership and creativity, and for online platforms like Zoom that allow us to see the faces of our church family, if only in pixels and bytes.

Even with technology helping us piece together a vague sense of community, we are still entering a difficult season. Infectious disease specialist Michael Osterholm has said that while many are viewing the crisis as a “blizzard” that must be waited out with extreme measures for a short period of time, the more appropriate response is to view it as the “beginning of winter.” While the ultimate severity and longevity are unknown, many indicators point toward a likely scenario: things are going to be different for a while.

In their moment of uncertainty and disorientation, the nation of Israel turned to their Scriptures to remember their identity, to recount God’s promises and his rescue, and to be reminded of the kind of people they were called to be. During the winter of coronavirus, could the Body of Christ do something similar?

Returning to our Story

Shaken from our usual routines and frenetic pace, the virus has given the church an opportunity to evaluate. What can “church” look like during this time? Like Israel we’re faced with a bit of a blank slate. Like Israel we can choose to return and re-focus on our founding story told in the Scriptures. A modern-day Ezra Moment, if you will.

To help, we’ve created Immerse From Home, a completely free downloadable resource that includes everything you need to (virtually) gather in community for a two-week book club reading of Luke-Acts.

  • The full digital text of Luke-Acts in the Immerse reader-friendly format
  • A two-week reading plan
  • Four open-ended conversation starters for your group
  • Accompanying resources including audio, video, and Family Guide
  • A step-by-step guide on setting up and running video meetings through Zoom

Originally intended as Volume 1 and Volume 2 of the same combined story, Luke-Acts comprises a quarter of the New Testament. In a period of uncertainty and anxiety, what could be more orienting and grounding than the story of Jesus and the story of the early church?

If you and your group enjoy the Luke-Acts experience, you can continue reading the New Testament together using Tyndale House Publishers’ 20% discount off of Immerse: Messiah.

The Beginning of Something New

In his wisdom, Ezra understood that an emotional one-off event wasn’t sufficient and that he needed to create a comprehensive plan for sustainable rhythms of immersion in the sacred texts. The Scripture Reading Marathon became a turning point for the nation, but only because it was a starting point.

Nehemiah goes on to tell us:

“On October 9, the family leaders of all the people, together with the priests and Levites, met with Ezra the scribe to go over the law in greater detail.”

In the same month, during the Festival of Trumpets, “Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God on each of the seven days of the festival.”

“On October 31, the people assembled again…They remained in place for three hours while the Book of the Law of the Lord was read to them.”

For the first time in their history, the Scriptures became central to Israel’s way of life. Synagogues, created expressly for the public reading of Scripture, started throughout Israel. Scattered song lyrics from David, Moses, Asaph, and others were compiled for the first time into the Psalms. By the first century AD, young boys between the ages of 6 and 10 were expected to memorize the Torah.

So we ask again: could the COVID-19 virus instigate an Ezra Moment? Could we take this opportunity to re-immerse ourselves in our Story?

We invite you to take action. To try something new – and ancient – during this strange time. Pastors, call your congregations into this experience. Small group and Bible study leaders, challenge your groups to a two-week commitment. Regular “Joes” and “Janes,” try this with your spouse or your kids (use the Family Guide for younger kids) or invite some family and friends to weekly Zoom calls. Invite that one co-worker or neighbor whom you’ve never felt comfortable inviting to a Bible Study.

As the Scriptures washed over the nation on that first day of reading, the people began to weep. It’s unclear why – perhaps because they hadn’t heard the Word in so long, or perhaps because they’d never heard it at all. Perhaps because they were overwhelmed by guilt as they realized just how far they had strayed from their calling. Regardless, guilt and shame would not have the final say. Nehemiah jumps up and addresses the people:

“Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God…go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

“So the people went away to eat and drink at a festive meal, to share gifts of food, and to celebrate with great joy because they had heard God’s words and understood them.”

Immerse From Home >>>

Fasting and Feasting: The Bible’s Story Told by Food

The stuff of earth is the stuff of life—and also the stuff of the biblical story. Trees, mountains, water, and food all figure prominently in the slowly unfolding drama of the Holy Scriptures. Now the fact is, there are lots of prisms for viewing the storyline of the Bible, many built from big theological concepts like covenant and kingdom. But it’s also possible to over-theorize the Bible, turning it into a collection of abstractions. But the Bible itself doesn’t do this. The Bible keeps its story close to the ground, making sure we remember it’s fundamentally a down-to-earth saga.

So, following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, we’ve given you some takes on the big story from the perspective of four earthly elements of redemption. These windows into the Bible’s narrative of renewal are all the stuff of life. We’ve already looked at the story of trees, mountains, and water. And just as with those earlier elements, today we’ll see how food threads the whole story of the Bible. From beginning to end God is talking to us about what we’re eating.

Eating Our Way to Eternal Life

The Bible opens with a poem-like presentation (maybe even a song?) of the creation of the world, complete with refrains of goodness and day counting. Right here at the beginning the Lord is already accounting for food. “Here, see all these plants and produce-laden trees? Those are meals for you, and for all the birds and animals too.” He built food-producing machines right into the fabric of our home.

God didn’t just want us to be. He wanted us to eat to be.

“He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.”

Then, in the very next entry in the Bible, food is right there at the center of the story again. This time it’s the trees specifically, but the description is enticing. “Look at them! Overflowing with fresh fruit. Luscious, right? Yes, they’re good for food, so help yourself.”

Adam and Eve, in God’s garden, and the eatin’s good in their new neighborhood.

But there’s also this: “That tree over there, I insist you stay away from it. Don’t eat that, it’s not for you.”

Sadly they ate, and so do we. We seek wisdom apart from God. We try so hard to go our own way. What, exactly, did God really say anyway? It’s unclear, so we’d better decide for ourselves. We have an awful lot of faith in our own perspective, our independent take on things. We’ve assumed a stance of superiority. Aspiring to be God-like, you might say.

And we’ve paid.

The good earth that was meant to be a place that was easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to harvest—this place became dry, hard, sun-baked ground. The gift turned into back-breaking, painful work, all for a little food which was there for the taking at first. So blessing became curse, fruit turned foul, and when we reach for it now, so often it’s only thorns and thistles we come up with.

In the biblical tale this is the ongoing struggle of the present evil age. We need food—real bodily sustenance and solid spiritual nourishment. We’re not necessarily good at getting either on our own, and the creation itself sometimes seems to be working against us.

It’s no accident that eating is at the heart of the biblical story of both creation and fall. Food is so central to life you might even say it is life. In all kinds of ways, we really are what we eat. We are hungry beings—both our hearts and our bodies are longing for everything they need to thrive.

God knows this, of course, so his great, long term restoration project comes with a food plan.

Within the heart of Israel’s sacrificial system is the invitation to feast with God. Bring a food offering to God’s home, light the fire on his altar, and he says repeatedly that the aroma pleases him. At Israel’s birth he invites Moses, Aaron, and the elders to climb the mountain and, believe it or not, to see God and eat and drink. It is a vision, a foretaste, a promise of all that God is working for in this story.

“Come on, let’s eat together,” he says. It’s a way of saying, “Let’s do life together.”

This is why God is so adamant in his Torah instructions that it’s crucial to make sure the poor are fed. Don’t you dare try to sell them food at a profit, or have you forgotten that I’m the one who helped you when you were scraping the bottom of the barrel for leftovers in Egypt? I brought you into this land and gifted you life, so you in turn give your fields a year off and let whoever wants to, grow whatever they want to. Being holy as he is holy includes being generous as he is generous. God himself is the Defender of the fatherless, the widow, the foreigner—so welcome them to share all the gifts of life he’s shared with you.

In the Bible, celebrations of life and God’s good gifts are always times of feasting. God’s gifts are always about building more and better life into his creation. Deep gratitude and joy are the right responses to these gifts, and God tells us the way to express this is in feasting well and good. Scrooginess at feast times is definitely disobedience.

But the flip side of this is equally true. And this is why when things go terribly wrong, the response of God’s people is fasting. To fast is to deny oneself the food of life. It is a way of heightening our own awareness of what’s gone wrong—both in us and around us—and identifying it with dying. The mini-death of fasting is a kind of prayer meant to demonstrate strongly to God the seriousness of both our confession and our supplication. We want the world to change and we want ourselves to change.

Therefore feasting and fasting are both essential to our life in this in-between time the Bible describes. Again and again as the narrative moves on we look to see if a table has been set. Is it time to eat? Or time to refrain?

God joins us in this dual approach to eating. At more than one point he says, “Enough with these sacrifices!” The way we’re acting makes him doubt we really want to share a meal with him. Then again, he always eventually comes back to the dining room, and he’s always rewriting those invitations. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” He is downright determined to eat with us, and he’ll even dress us up when we need it. He tells us straight up that the only attire for a proper meal with God is the robe of righteousness, the garment of justice. He’ll provide them, but it’s still up to us to credibly wear them.

There’s no question his desire to eat with us runs strong, and we get the feeling as we read along that the banquet is going to win out over the deprivation. Even if we’re unfit for the meal, if we’re found to be less-than-worthy guests, he will overcome even that obstacle.

Whatever it takes, whenever there’s a decent reason, someone’s calling for food.

The ark of God brought to Jerusalem? David shares loaves of bread, and cakes of dates and raisins with the entire assembly. Torah read out loud to the people for the first time in a generation or more? Nehemiah exclaims, “Don’t weep, celebrate! Go enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and be sure to share with those who don’t have any.”

But even as we read of all these festivities and giant spreads, we know that they are at best temporary reprieves from the daily grind of life in the ancient world, the frequent misery, the devastating destitution. Is this story going to be an ever-revolving tale of feast and famine?


It turns out these earlier refreshments are mere appetizers, foretastes of the real deal meal that’s coming. That greater fare is introduced by a wild man wearing leather and camel hair, surviving on locusts and a little bit o’ honey.

The main course is a Messiah. He says “Yes, you’ve had some manna from heaven before, but I have food you know nothing about, have never experienced. I am here to give you myself, for I am the true bread from heaven. I am the author of life, and I’ve come to be both host and meal for you. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and not have to worry about famine and fasting ever again.”

The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they called him a glutton and a winebibber, not to mention a friend of all the wrong kind of people. The kind of people who know they are starving, and will welcome a square meal, some fellowship, and a fruit dessert from the tree of life anytime.

This is the wedding supper of the Lamb himself. A feast not just for his people Israel, but for everyone from east and west, north and south, taking their places in the kingdom of God. Those who are last will be first, and the first will be last, and the fast will become feast, forever. Meanwhile, all those who’ve been stuffing their own faces while ignoring the poor will be thrown out.

Wealthy, self-serving Babylon will fall, its prosperous merchants now weeping. But there’s another city, a new city, the Jerusalem of God. It will come down out of heaven to an earth renewed. It’s a city on a hill, with the river of the water of life running right through it. And there, right on this new world beach, someone is cooking for his friends, saying, “Come, have some breakfast with me.” When he takes the bread, gives thanks, and breaks it for us, we’ll know exactly who he is.

Christmas: The Good News of God’s Reign

Advent is about questions, and it turns out they are the same questions the entire biblical narrative has before the arrival of the big news of the New Testament.

We can get three quarters through the Bible and still we don’t know:

  • Will God’s first intentions ever be realized?
  • Will there be faithful God-imagers on earth?
  • Will life flourish the way God wants it to?
  • Will God’s plan to bring goodness and life to all peoples through Israel really work?
  • When, exactly, will it work?

When we read our Bibles big and whole these questions are unavoidable. And that’s good, because screening out the longing stories, the waiting stories, the stories of struggle—that deflates the strength and impact of the climax of the story when it comes.

What I like about the Bible is that it’s like real life. Some wins, but also devastating losses. Genuine advances, then horrible setbacks. Real life is about waiting. Real life is about watching the world fall apart on my news feed. Real life is about wandering on the journey and trying so hard to discern a point, or maybe even a destination.

Then the New Testament opens with the bold announcement that the ending the entire story has been waiting for has arrived (or at least the beginning of that ending). This is the good news (euangelion). The reign of God, and the concomitant unreigning of the dark lord, is commencing.

Yes, this really is good news. The best ever, actually. We needed this news more than anything else in the whole world.

All that waiting, enduring, and longing was not an end in itself. Advent without Christmas is merely an empty articulation of our pain. The point of exile, and the suffering that goes with it, is to take us somewhere else. The story of the Bible is all about getting to this somewhere else.

So when we read of joyous songs filling the night skies over the Judean countryside, our joy is all the greater because we’ve already been honest about the real need for Christmas. We’ve been reading the Scriptures to get the whole story. We’ve been living in the pain of the world. We’re deeply attentive both to what is broken and what we’re longing for. We’re doing what theologian Karl Barth told us to do: we read both the newspapers and our Bible, but we interpret the events of the day in light of the biblical narrative.*

Christmas then becomes more than baby Jesus, meek and mild. The bold announcement of the Gospels becomes so much bigger and better because it’s so much more real.

The amazement of shepherds. The songs of angels. The treasures of Mary’s heart. The desperate fear of ruling tyrants. The comfort of God with us. All of this conveys so much more when we’ve been immersed in the entire narrative of the Bible.

And then, once this grand announcement has been made, we must continue to read the story of Jesus in detail. How exactly will Jesus take on the twisted powers and principalities that are running the world? What is the surprising wisdom of God that will rout the thrones and dominions that have had their way with things? How will God overcome the hardness of human hearts? What will enable a renewed, cleansed, and restored people of God to be born?

Christmas tells us God is in it with us for the long-haul. He has genuinely and completely become one of us, joined with us in the struggle. But the only way to understand the depth and truth of this is to know his whole story. This Christmas, read the Bible for life, and keep reading. Then its good news can become your good news too.

* See his quote in TIME Magazine, May 1, 1966

Waters of Chaos and Rivers of Life: The Bible’s Story Told by Water

The stuff of earth is the stuff of life—and also the stuff of the biblical story. Trees, mountains, water, and food all figure prominently in the slowly unfolding drama of the Holy Scriptures. Now the fact is, there are lots of prisms for viewing the storyline of the Bible, many built from big theological concepts like covenant and kingdom. But it’s also possible to over-theorize the Bible, turning it into a collection of abstractions. But the Bible itself doesn’t do this. The Bible keeps its story close to the ground, making sure we remember it’s fundamentally a down-to-earth saga.

So, following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, we want to give you some takes on the big story from the perspective of four earthly elements of redemption. These windows into the Bible’s narrative of renewal are all the stuff of life. We’ve already looked at the story of trees and mountains. Today we’re diving into the deeps, to see how the Bible’s drama flows like an unstoppable river toward the ocean of God’s redemption. In the next and final entry, we’ll explore how the bread of heaven nourishes this narrative.

A Sacred Story in Search of Living Water

In the beginning, the water under the darkness was wild and uncontrollable. But the Spirit was hovering there, contemplating a different and better future. Then God went to work in a series of good, good days. The essence of it was to bring order, consistency, and beauty out of the chaos.

This meant putting unruly water in its place, first creating a vault to hold the water up high away from the water down low. Next he told the water down low to settle in and stay within its proper bounds. Water, left to its own devices, tends run roughshod over everything, which only begets bedlam.

Bedlam is not what God intends for his new world.

So God separated what was all run together, and then he filled those newly created spaces with all kinds of living, flying, running, swimming, growing things. Life. When it’s working like it’s supposed to, life operates with a simplicity on the other side of complexity. Living things working together for mutual benefit. This is the flourishing vitality God wants. He wants rich, strong, ongoing life in all the spaces and places of his creation.

And in the water, now duly tamed, he generated the great creatures of the deep and all manner of living, teeming things and in an inordinate number of shapes and sizes and colors.

And about this thing called life God stepped back and said, “This is of an exceptional quality—marvelous actually—and I fully approve.” God loved life. The story of the Bible is really nothing more than the outworking of this great love of God’s, despite all the obstacles that will arise.

The thing about life is, it’s always tied closely to water. All the creatures, not just the sea creatures, need water. This is why in God’s garden, even before there was rain, God was watering everything with surface streams bubbling up from the waters under the earth. It’s why the garden was the epicenter of fertility, the source of life flowing out to the wider world.

In the Bible’s founding story, the Garden of Eden was the equivalent of the Most Holy Place in the Temple, that is, God’s throne room. (Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say the Most Holy Place is the equivalent of the Garden of Eden, which is the first temple in the narrative.) As in other ancient near eastern stories, life-giving water flows from the deity’s throne spreading health and vivacity wherever it goes. Eden’s four rivers—the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates—could all just as well be named Life.

So there you have it. The two big ideas about water that run through the entire narrative focus on the threat of chaotic, uncontrolled water and the absolute necessity of the running, streaming, flowing water of life. The struggle between these two opposing expressions of water is the battle at the center of the Bible.

Tragically, evil grew in the human heart—all the human hearts—so that the inclination toward wrongdoing became pervasive. And all that good, good life that God loved is now constantly threatened. God sees and knows and his own heart becomes more troubled than he can take. What will he do?

Remember, it was God himself who made the water stand down at the beginning of the story. But when Adam’s children go from bad to worse, not long after that glorious beginning, he decides to un-create the world by letting loose the wild water once again. He opens the vault and the crazy waters fall and flood and destroy his world.

What is this? God regrets that he even made the human race in the first place? Really? Regrets the whole thing? Is this biblical drama to be merely a short story about a very temporary world? Yes, yes, and yes, but then thankfully, no.

God preserves a precious few representatives of life on earth, seeds of a second chance. The story lives to see another day. As a sign that God will at least not flood the stage again, he makes a firm promise and hangs his bow (the same Hebrew word as is used in bow and arrow) in the sky as a reminder of his pledge.

The next major water event in the Bible is another ark story. The life of Israel’s still-tiny first liberator is preserved in an also tiny papyrus boat. Providentially, it is royalty that recovers the basket and is immediately enamored with the baby boy. The saga of Moses, as it turns out, will be about water at several key moments. In his face-off with Pharaoh water will figure in three of the plagues to fall on Egypt—water turns to blood, swarms of frogs come up out of the Nile, and finally hard water shreds the land in a vicious hail storm.

The plagues finally work and Pharaoh decides to free the Israelites, but then reverses course and chases them. Moses and the Israelites are trapped between the troops and the sea. But the Lord who put water in its place at the start of the story can do it again. He drives the waves back and creates a path for his people. When they are stuck in the desert, thirsty and despairing, he brings them to the springs and palm trees of Elim, and even squeezes water from a rock. One way or another, God is going to provide for his people.

From this point on we see water flowing alongside the story at every turn. It’s in the great basin in the Tabernacle, cleansing those who will enter into the presence of God. The Psalms celebrate God’s Spirit going forth to renew the face of the earth, bringing water with him for the beasts of the field and the plants on the ground. Sometimes, though, the water comes in the form of tears, signs of longing and pain. Exiled people sit by a river in Babylon and add to its volume with their weeping.

In the end, he will lead his children beside quiet waters

God’s goal is always life and renewal. He pushes water aside when he needs to, for he is Lord over the deep. But in the end, he will lead his children beside quiet waters. It is the more gentle gift of the water of life that will settle things once and for all.

This is precisely what the prophets foresee: a coming time when streams will run in the desert of Israel’s life, in the wilderness of its discontent. The Lord’s word is like rain and snow that fall from heaven, watering the hope of healing and restoration.

The Messiah enters the drama by joining in a baptism of repentance for Israel. Just as the nation crossed the Jordan River when they first entered the land, so now Israel launches the time of renewal in the Jordan with John the Baptizer. Jesus, too, came up out of that water, the agent of Israel’s rebirth. The Spirit descends on him like a dove, and the Father speaks his approval. The time has surely come, and we know because of what’s happening in the water.

Jesus too is Lord of the waters, acting like Yahweh, walking on seas and calming fierce tempests with a word. He even turns water into wine, signaling that the promised time of plenty exists wherever Jesus is. But the best word he ever spoke—best and most essential—he actually spoke twice.


First he said it to a foreign, ostracized woman at a well, and then again on the last and greatest day of the Festival of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. “Thirsty?” Thirsty for something more, something lasting, something deeply transformative? Then come to me. Come and drink and truly, I’m telling you, rivers of living water will now flow within you. The Spirit who renews life will renew your life.

This Jesus-river will grow and flow from the Temple of God, freely and far and wide, covering the whole earth with the knowledge and love of God. It will heal all things, grow all things, restore all things. It will be like the Garden of Eden all over again, but now a garden in a city, the New Jerusalem. This is the future the story of the Bible yearns for, this story which is really an invitation.


Part 4: The Bible’s Story Told by Food >>>

From Sinai to Zion: The Story of the Bible, Told by Mountains

The stuff of earth is the stuff of life—and also the stuff of the biblical story. Trees, mountains, water, and food all figure prominently in the slowly unfolding drama of the Holy Scriptures. Now the fact is, there are lots of prisms for viewing the storyline of the Bible, many built from big theological concepts like covenant and kingdom. But it’s also possible to over-theorize the Bible, turning it into a collection of abstractions. But the Bible itself doesn’t do this. The Bible keeps its story close to the ground, making sure we remember it’s fundamentally a down-to-earth saga.

So, following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, we want to give you some takes on the big story from the perspective of four earthly elements of redemption. These windows into the Bible’s narrative of renewal are all the stuff of life. We’ve already looked at the story of trees. Today we’re scaling the heights, to see what mountains can tell us about the ever-advancing drama of the Scriptures. Next, we’ll explore how living water and the bread of heaven also play their parts.

The Story of the Bible, Told by Mountains

At over 4,300 miles in length, the Andes mountains are the western spine of all of South America and together constitute the longest continental mountain range in the world. The average height of its peaks is close to 13,000 ft. above sea level. I’ve climbed some mountains, and 13,000 is no small feet, or feat. The Andes, in a word, are imposing. They are a force, a dominating presence across seven countries.

By comparison, the mountains in my immediate neighborhood are modest. I suppose I could claim to live at the base of the mighty Rocky Mountains, a not-insignificant range of 1,900 miles running from the top of British Columbia well into New Mexico. But really, it’s more accurate to say that the rising ground out my back door makes up the foothills of the Rampart Range, which is itself merely the introduction to the Front Range, which is a small section of the Colorado Rockies.

Even so, I have to say that wandering around these unassuming hills is still awe-inspiring. There’s just something about mountains. Something about rising above everything else. Something about seeing over things. Something that’s difficult to communicate exactly. Peoples all over the world have always associated high places with heightened spirituality. Things feel different up there, especially when summits are reached. It’s the same in the Bible. Mountains, in fact, are right there at the heart of the story

God himself seems to have his favorites. “My mountain” he will say more than once, or “my holy mountain” or “the mountain of God.” He identifies with mountains. People in the story climb mountains to encounter the presence of God. Sometimes they’re met with thunder, lightning, and a certain terror, but other times it’s a soft, gentle whisper. Either way, God is there.

The biblical pattern with mountains fits into the broader setting of the ancient Near East. All across old world Mesopotamia numerous nations built ziggurats—hand-made, terraced temple-mountains with shrines and altars on top. This worldview saw the cosmos as a three-part structure: the heavens, the earth, and the dark places under the earth. The gods were believed to live in the heavens, above the high, domed shell that held back the great waters and created the open space above the ground. So mountains would be natural places to ascend closer to the gods and interact with them.

In the Bible, the biggest and best things happen on mountains. But also, as we’ll see, the hardest things. Mountains figure large in this saga.

At first, it seems all good. The ark of safety, surviving the great flood which covered the world, comes to rest on the mountains of Ararat. The first signs of earth’s renewed life come from the slopes of those peaks. And when old Jacob knew it was time to speak a good word over his sons, he told his beloved Joseph that all the blessings and gifts of the age-old mountains would surely rest on the head of this prince among his brothers.

The Bible’s poetry delights in going into great detail on God and the mountains. Eagles make their homes on rocky crags, perched there scanning far and wide for food. But birds of prey are not the only ones watching. God has his eye on the high places too, and he sees the mountain goats give birth, and the doe bearing her fawn. He knows every bird across the ranges, and even the insects are his. He is working always to make sure all of it—land, sky, peaks, clouds, rain, plants, and yes, the insects—works together for the flourishing of life.

So far, so good. But there’s more. The Bible has bigger mountains to scale, because not everything is well in the creation.

In a series of moments that will determine the redemptive pattern of the entire narrative, Moses comes to the mountain of God and meets the Holy One. The purpose of the encounter is for Moses to learn that God has surely seen the suffering slavery of his people. The Creator is the one who made the stage of history. He knows and cares about everything that happens there. He is determined that this suffering turn to singing.

The people need a new place, so he has a plan to bring them to a good and spacious land of their own, and also to a new mountain. He has a plan for bringing salvation into their story.

So Moses is enlisted in the effort, because this is a God of history and he does his work within history, through the regular means of history. God is an actor in the drama. So as soon as the new nation of Israel is marching out of Egypt, they march straight to the very same mountain of God.

Mountain climbing, however, is not for everyone. As the mountain was bellowing with smoke and fire and even trumpet blasts, God warns them, “Don’t touch it!” It’s going to take some work before the people are ready to meet God. But in a startling sign of things to come, Moses, Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, along with seventy of Israel’s elders, are invited up Sinai’s sacred hill to eat and drink with God.

Yes, to eat and drink with God.

This is exactly where God is taking the story—he wants all the people, people from everywhere, streaming to the great world-mountain of God so he can be their Rabbi. They need help. They need instruction. They need the Creator who made the world to teach them wisdom to live in the world. Then they too will feast with him.

History moves at the pace of real human lives. So God starts with Abraham’s family and one mountain.

But God isn’t doing everything all at once in this story, because that’s not how history works. History moves at the pace of real human lives. So God starts with Abraham’s family and one mountain. He brings Moses up for a time of extended teaching. He gives Moses all kinds of plans and instructions, including the design for something called a tabernacle. This is a kind of miniature model of the entire universe, a symbol of the whole creation, and it’s going to be God’s new home right in the midst of his people.

Turns out mountains are not only for people going up, but also for God coming down.

Next, God brings his people to that promised land of valleys and mountains, and it drinks in rain from heaven. It is a good place, set apart just for Israel. So God makes his home here with them, founding his holy Temple on a holy mountain. He rules over all the earth, but he rules from Zion.

Israel, however, quickly goes wrong in this would-be paradise. The people are climbing mountains now, but rather than meeting God they’re making idol-places on the hills and under every spreading tree. Those gods-that-aren’t-really-gods have captured their attention and their hearts. God has committed himself to Israel in a covenant bond, but he can’t have this.

So he pleads with the people, urges them, warns them—but to no avail. So the Lord has to prophesy against the mountains: “I will make the land a desolate waste, and her proud strength will come to an end, and the mountains of Israel will become desolate so that no one will cross them. Then they will know that I am the Lord.”

After devastation, the question still looms: Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place? What of God’s longtime plan to save all peoples by saving Israel?

The answer is that God sends another mountain climber.

Many of the most significant events in the life of Jesus take place in the high places. First we read of Jesus regularly going up into the mountains, alone, when he needs to get away from the crowds and even his friends. Mountains are rest and sanctuary for him, and he prays there.

It is from a mountainside that Jesus appoints the Twelve to be his core group of followers. Moses-like, Jesus scales a mountain to deliver his own instructions for the renewing of Israel. He climbs again to actually meet with Moses and Elijah (representing the Law and the Prophets) about the culmination of his mission in Jerusalem.

Then, in three great mountain scenes, we see the anguish of Jesus on the Mount of Olives as he anticipates his suffering and death, followed by his brutal execution on a hill just outside of Jerusalem (the historian Eusebius identifies Golgotha as being just north of Mount Zion and the Temple), and then the joy of reunion when the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain in Galilee.

Jesus has walked through the time of trial on behalf of Israel, on behalf of the world. Now he has emerged from the other side of exile into the life of the age to come. A new covenant is established. And it all happens on mountains!

When Jesus then travels back to the Mount of Olives with his disciples for the last time, he commissions them to extend his own mission. They are to be his witnesses. For Jesus the Messiah has descended from the highest heaven in order that he would ascend again and fill all things. He is the rock that smashes the world’s idols and calls all people to himself. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and the good news must be announced from the mountaintops.

Finally, John of Patmos shows us a vision of a day yet to come. An angel carries him away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and he sees the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. And in this new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness, there will undoubtedly be mountains, for God loves them—heights for us to climb, to rest, to worship.

Part 3: The Story of the Bible Told by Water >>>