Yet, soon he finds himself unexpectedly hosting a party of twelve dwarves along with the wizard Gandalf in his home as they plan for their next adventure. And then suddenly, he is rushing out of his house — very reluctantly and completely unprepared — to join these strangers on their journey to recover lost gold from a far-away dragon.
As we have seen so far on our journey through the Gospels, this first stage as presented by Matthew centers around being shaken unexpectedly awake to a new reality and being thrust — usually unwillingly — onto a new trajectory. Matthew’s original audience, the Messianic Jews (that is, Jewish followers of Jesus) in Syrian Antioch, have had their lives turned upside-down by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. But rather than adopting the Pharisees’ program of strict adherence to the Jewish Law to hasten the redemption of Israel as a nation, Matthew promotes a new way revealed by Jesus.
Climbing the Mountain of Faith
However following Jesus on this new way may feel arduous — like climbing a mountain — since it presents unfamiliar and even unwanted, obstacles. Naturally, we find ourselves resisting such an undertaking, just as Bilbo does when Gandalf shows up uninvited on his doorstep and whisks him off on an adventure. Climbing a mountain thus serves as a very apt metaphor for this first stage of the faith journey.
Mountains play a key role in Jewish history. Moses goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God, solidifying the covenant between Yahweh and Israel (Ex 34). Elijah faces off against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). David conquers Mount Zion and sets up Jerusalem as the capital of the nation of Israel (2 Sam 5). Solomon builds his Temple on Mount Moriah (2 Chron 3).
Similarly, pivotal moments of Matthew’s Gospel take place on mountaintops. At the beginning of his account, Matthew features Jesus on a mountain like a new Moses, delivering a new Torah to his people in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7). Later, after Peter declares “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16), Jesus leads some of his disciples “up a high mountain” where his glory is revealed to them in the transfiguration (Matt 17:1–8). Jesus delivers his final discourse before his death (Matt 24–25) while “sitting on the Mount of Olives” (Matt 24:3). As we reach the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we find ourselves once again atop a mountain (Matt 28).
But before we get to the final mountaintop scene, Matthew reveals some unexpected, but important twists. At the end of his Gospel, Matthew highlights two significant incidents that none of the other Gospel writers report. At two of the most important moments in his Gospel, Matthew records a pair of earthquakes. The first of these earthquakes occur precisely when Jesus dies upon the cross. At the moment of Jesus’ death, Matthew reports that “the earth shook, the rocks split” (Matt 27:51).
Here Matthew seems to say to his original audience that he understands what they are experiencing. Just as the destruction of the Temple feels like an earthquake to his original Jewish readers, he reminds them that Jesus’ death feels like an earthquake in the lives of his original disciples. Both of these groups find their lives unexpectedly turned upside-down as their very connection to God seems to be ripped away from them. Their hopes for the future are suddenly in shambles. Moments of significant change in our lives might very well feel like earthquakes that upend everything that we’ve counted on.
Yet, here Matthew presents his first unexpected twist: at the very moment when we think our lives have been permanently disrupted, God is mysteriously at work. As Matthew points out, this first earthquake that happens exactly when Jesus dies actually produces a very unexpected result. “At that moment,” Matthew says, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt 27:51). Of course, the symbolism here is both unmistakable and critical to informing how we navigate change.
First, let’s understand the significance of this for Matthew’s first readers. Remember that the Messianic Jews of Syrian Antioch faced strong opposition from the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed God’s presence was concentrated within the Temple in the Holy of Holies. Consequently, the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD meant that they no longer had direct access to God’s presence. Moreover, the massacre of the Jewish priests meant they didn’t even have mediated access to God. Thus, the destruction of the Temple presented them with an existential crisis.
While the destruction of the Temple certainly felt calamitous even for the Messianic Jews, Matthew asserts that the more significant event was Jesus’ death on the cross. Like the destruction of the Temple, this seemed like a monumental defeat that disrupted everything in their lives. Yet, here Matthew reveals that what it actually accomplished was unleashing access to God in a way that they had not previously understood or experienced. He affirms that Jesus’ death in fact makes God’s presence accessible in a new way that is not restricted to a specific location.
The way forward for the Messianic Jews, then, is not to go back to Jerusalem to try to rebuild the Temple, as the Pharisees advocated. Rather, the way forward involves embracing God’s invitation to a new purpose and a new future, as we’ll see momentarily.
Matthew’s message here is instructive for us as well. When faced with change, we naturally try to hold onto our old ways of doing things that are tried and true. But clinging too tightly to our past experience of God may actually hold us back from experiencing God in a new way and accepting his invitation to join him in the new work that he is doing.
But Matthew isn’t done yet. He goes on to recount a second earthquake — this one occurring at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection. The other Gospels note that the stone had been rolled away from Jesus’ tomb, but don’t explain how. However, in Matthew’s account, “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it” (Matt 28:2). This angel proclaims: “He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him” (Matt 28:6a, 7b).
While the first earthquake shakes our world until it seems that everything we hold dear has been destroyed, this second earthquake paradoxically reveals our path forward. For this second earthquake heralds the resurrection — God’s new beginning for us as he conquers all the chaos and death we experienced in the first earthquake.
When we face significant change in our lives, we may naturally fixate on the first earthquake — the one that feels like it disrupts and creates havoc in our lives. Yet, Matthew prods us to move forward past the first earthquake, so that we can experience the second, and more significant earthquake — the one that wakes us to the new reality of the resurrection.
Invitation to a New Purpose
And it is this second earthquake that propels us forward to the final scene of Matthew’s account. Once again we find ourselves atop a mountain — a signal that what is happening carries particular significance. The disciples gather on this mountain in Galilee “where Jesus had told them to go” (Matt 28:16). Awakened to the power of the resurrection, Jesus now invites his disciples, including us, to embrace a bold new future as he commissions us with a new purpose — not to return to our previous lives, but to move forward as ambassadors of his new way (Matt 28:19–20).
What Jesus gives us when our lives feel completely disrupted by change is an invitation to go out into a bold new future where he has a purpose far bigger than what we could have previously imagined. As Matthew makes evident in the first stage of our journey, we must let go of our old lives in order to embrace a new vision of what God has for us.
Yet the road ahead may still seem full of uncertainty. But Jesus gives us the one thing we most need in order to embrace this invitation to a new journey. He provides us with the one thing we need to counteract all our fears and reluctance: the promise of his presence. Just as Matthew opened his Gospel with the proclamation that Jesus would be called Emmanuel — God with us (Matt 1:23), here on the mountain as Jesus sends us out into an unknown future, he promises “I am with you even until the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
This promise of his presence is the very thing we need to equip us for the next stage of our journey. Now that we have awakened to a new reality and embraced Jesus’ invitation to go forward with a new purpose, we turn our attention to the second stage of our journey as we set off to cross Mark’s stormy sea.
QUESTIONS + PRACTICES
- In what area(s) of your life are you currently experiencing significant change or transition?
- What is Jesus asking you to let go of in order to embrace his invitation to a new journey?
- In what way are you clinging tightly to your past experience of God and how might it be holding you back from experiencing God in a new way?
- Where in your life do you most need to experience Jesus’ presence?
AUTHORING + DESIGN CREDITS
✍️ Credit :: Matt Rhodes
📸 Credit :: Matt Rhodes
🎨 Credit :: Matt Rhodes