Prayer and Mountaintop Experiences

Part 7 in a series on Prayer by Tim Bias

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Luke, Chapter 9, we see a critical turning point in the life of Jesus. He is struggling. He is seeking direction. As we have seen, he is involved in significant ministry. He retreats by himself to pray, deals with the misunderstanding of his popularity, and retreats again to pray. He now goes up on the mountain to seek the power of God to get him through this struggle.

Need Direction?

We have been looking at how Luke uses the prayer life of Jesus to emphasize the critical points of his ministry. We have experienced Jesus praying at his baptism, when tempted, before making a major decision, when engaging in mission, when facing public opinion, and now, when he needs direction.

This is serious.

So, he takes three of his closest friends and followers to the mountain to pray. As he is praying something happens. What does prayer have to do with it?

The Mountaintop

This scripture comes immediately after Simon Peter’s confession and Jesus’ declaration of his death in Jerusalem.

About eight days after Jesus said these things, he took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him. They were clothed with heavenly splendor and spoke about Jesus’ departure, which he would achieve in Jerusalem.

Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep, but they managed to stay awake and saw his glory as well as the two men with him. As the two men were about to leave Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—but he didn’t know what he was saying. Peter was still speaking when a cloud overshadowed them.

As they entered the cloud, they were overcome with awe. Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” Even as the voice spoke, Jesus was found alone. They were speechless and at the time told no one what they had seen. – Luke 9:28-36

Just as Moses and Elijah encountered God on the mountain, Luke has Jesus going up on the mountain to pray. He brings with him his three closest friends, Peter, James, and John.

An Incredible Experience

It must have been at night because “Peter and those with him were almost overcome by sleep…” But they “managed to stay awake” long enough to have this extraordinary religious experience. There was a cloud, a voice, people in “heavenly splendor.” It was breathtaking and the disciples are speechless.

This is an incredible experience. But I want you to consider something here. In the bible, extraordinary religious experiences are given in such a way that if you want to doubt them, you can. God never paints you in a corner. God never coerces you to the place you have to believe. There is always another way to explain it. God is not going to force you to believe anything that you don’t want or have heart and mind to experience.

Drowsy Disciples, Shrines, and Awe

Now, back to the story. The disciples are drowsy. They wake up and see the sight, the “appearance of his face changed and his clothes flashed white like lightning,” and to hear the conversation, “Two men, Moses and Elijah, were talking with him.” Simon Peter, who is almost overcome with sleep, attempts to capture the moment, “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

As Simon Peter is talking, a cloud overshadows him and the others. They are terrified, “overcome with awe.” Then they hear a voice from the cloud, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” As the cloud leaves, Jesus is there alone. Peter, James, and John are speechless and “at the time told no one what they had seen.” As far as we know, they did not talk about this experience until after the Resurrection. Jesus went on the mountain to pray. While he was praying, he was transfigured.

Did you notice that the only active person in the story is God? Jesus is praying and God gives him the gift of this extraordinary moment, this mountaintop experience.

Missing the Mountaintop Experience

Peter, James, and John are on the mountain with Jesus. They are drowsy, yawning, and dosing. The disciples see and hear what is happening, but they don’t get it. They are the midst of this mountaintop experience, but they miss the experience.

Simon Peter does have an idea he shares with Jesus. “Master, it’s good that we’re here. We should construct three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah…” He tries to capture the moment. Although he has been shown who Jesus is, he has not yet understood its meaning. In this story, he wants to capture this mountaintop experience rather than follow Jesus to the crucifixion in Jerusalem.

What did this mean for Jesus?

My question is, “What did this mean for Jesus?” He has been introducing the subject of death to his disciples. On their way to Jerusalem, Jesus says, “This is what is going to happen to me when we get to Jerusalem.” He brings up the subject in relation to Simon Peter’s confession. He takes them up on the mountain and they have this experience. He brings the subject of death up again after they come down the mountain.

So, in this story, while Jesus was praying, he has this experience with Moses and Elijah, a Lawgiver and a prophet. Jesus talks to them about his death. The word used is “departure” which literally means “exodus.” The heavenly world confirms Jesus’ decision to go to the cross.

The Law and Prophets

Throughout Luke’s gospel, we read that all that is written in the Law of Moses and the prophets was fulfilled in Jesus. For Luke, the Law, the prophets, and Jesus are all one story. What was written about Jesus has come true.

This experience for Jesus is a confirmation of who he is. Death is not a contradiction of his being Messiah but is the fulfillment of his being Messiah. This is an experience God gives to Jesus to confirm the path he was taking.

So, as Simon Peter has confessed Jesus to be God’s Messiah, here on the mountain, God confesses Jesus to his Son.

Identity and Purpose

For Jesus, this mountaintop experience is an affirmation of his identity and purpose. From that perspective, that is what mountaintop experiences are for any one of us. Experiences of affirmation who we are and why we exist.

In this story, Luke has Jesus praying because his identity and purpose as suffering Messiah do not match the images of the people who love him and who are following him. The subject of his experience is death and crucifixion.

That is not the subject of most mountaintop experiences.

I confess, that if I had been there and someone said to me, “Jesus will be executed in a few weeks,” I don’t know if I would have continued. It just might be that I would have looked for someone else. I might have asked, “Are you the One…?”

Does the image fit?

You and I have the advantage of looking back. Yes, you are the Messiah the Christ. But when Jesus talked of his death, it did not fit the image of Messiah. The Cross is the central image of the Christian Faith.

But we have to remember that the cross was a symbol of disgrace in time of this story. It is written, “cursed is anyone hanging on a tree.” The cross was a sign of capital punishment. Yet, for Jesus, this mountaintop experience was one of affirmation of moving toward the cross.

A Special Moment of Affirmation

Mountaintop experiences are special moments of affirmation. They are meant to strengthen you in your journey into a meaningful connection with God and with others.

These are moments of spiritual intimacy with God. They are a source of spiritual affirmation that shapes you and makes you available to God’s purposes. These experiences are reminders of who you are in relationship to God and what you are to be doing in relation to the people God has given you to love and to serve.

In other words, mountaintop experiences as not be captured in buildings or to be relived in manufactured and superficial events. If you want to relive your mountaintop experiences then be who God created you to be. And, love as God in Christ has loved you. Your actions might not be the most popular, but you will be faithful.

What does prayer have to do with it?

Through prayer, you will continue to receive the affirmations needed to be who God created you to be. It will be in moments of private personal prayer when you are seeking and reflecting. You’ll experience it in moments of gathering trusted friends and colleagues around you, of becoming transparent and vulnerable. It will be in those moments, that you will receive the affirmation of God’s plan and purpose for your life.

Although you will be tempted to capture the moment and to relive the moment, by putting your prayer into action, seeking direction to be who God has created you to be, you will find your way through, whatever the struggles, whatever the direction, even in the valleys.