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Why Drown a Mountain?

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This is part two of our two part series looking at Jesus’ only destructive miracle – the cursing of the fig tree.

In part one we saw that by cursing the fig tree Jesus was pronouncing a judgment on the leadership of the Temple. The leadership of the Temple was likened to a fully leafed out tree that had no fruit. They promised much, but only held out a false promise and an empty hope.

As the disciples marvelled at the sudden destruction of the fig tree Jesus gave a curious answer. In Matthew 21:21 He says:

“Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen…”

Matthew 21:21

Now this is a somewhat curious statement. To me this seems to indicate that we, as the followers of Christ today, are to be capable of doing the two things stated in His answer.

In part one of this series I explained how the Church today has largely failed in providing leadership in what has arguably been the greatest evangelism opportunity of our day as we have needed to confront COVID-19 as a community. Whilst on the outside she promises much, proclaiming the saving power of the risen Christ, when push came to shove she folded. She had no belief, she bore no fruit. This is our cursing of the fig tree moment – where we need to hold the Church, the body, to account, and to remind ourselves that our faith rests in God, not in the institution.

But what are we to make of the second part of Jesus’ statement? What are we to make of this strange business of throwing a mountain into the sea?

I have been pondering on what this could mean and in this talk I would like to address four things:

  • Firstly, what mountain is Jesus referring to?
  • Secondly, what does this mountain represent?
  • Thirdly, what is the significance of throwing something into the sea?
  • And finally, what does this mean for us today?

What Mountain?

In my research I have found that the main consensus seems to be that the mountain being referred to by Jesus is either the Temple Mount specifically, or the Mount of Olives more generally. By doing so the mountain becomes another metaphor for the Temple and its leadership.

But that doesn’t sit well with me as Jesus says

“…you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen…”

Matthew 21:21

This indicates to me that the fig tree and the mountain must be metaphors for two different things – as there are two things the disciples are told that they could do – do what Jesus did to the fig tree (that is pronounce judgement on the Temple leadership), and throw a mountain into the sea. So the mountain must be a metaphor for something other than the Temple and its leadership.

The mountain Jesus referred to wasn’t just any mountain, it was a specific mountain as He says:

“if you say to this mountain,”

Matthew 21:21

This is where we need to look through our geography lens. If we were to take ourselves to the location where this account occurred we would find ourselves on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Looking around we would see the rolling barren hills of the Judean wilderness – each hill looking very much like the next one. But out in the distance our eye would be drawn to a rather odd looking feature in the landscape, the highest peak in the Judean Desert… the desert fortress known as the Herodium, built by Herod the Great.

John Beck provides three compelling reasons why the Herodium is the mountain that Jesus referred to in our passage:

  • The Herodium is in view from the slopes of the Mount of Olives. The desert fortress is 7.5 miles (12 kilometres) from Jerusalem, but due to its imposing stature it remains in view from the Mount of Olives even today.
  • The Herodium is distinctive in appearance. Many mountains are in view from the Mount of Olives, however the Herodium has a distinct shape, an elegant symmetry representing a volcanic cinder cone. This was an intentional design – Herod had refashioned the natural appearance of the terrain to make it stand out.
  • The Herodium is the only mountain in view that had a history of being moved. Herod had directed his builders to remove part of an adjacent mountain in order to provide the material to create its artificial slope.

What does the Mountain Represent?

The Herodium was a large mountain fortress that was built by Herod the Great. The structure was an engineering marvel. It was grand and opulent and is likely to have been Herod’s residence. It is believed that this structure is also Herod’s tomb – an enduring symbol of his dynasty.

So while the fig tree can be said to be a metaphor for the Temple and its leadership, by identifying the Herodium as the mountain we see that the mountain is a metaphor for the compromised governmental power structures of the day.

Places have connotations. When we think about certain locations, and when we hear their name, we feel a certain way.

For the disciples, the Herodium would have generated a negative response. It represented Roman occupation and the corruption of the Promised Land. It, together with the compromised Temple Inc., represented everything that was wrong with the land.

Why throw the mountain into the Sea?

So having identified the mountain and what it represents, why throw this into the sea – and what sea would it be thrown into?

By keeping our geography lens on, as we stand on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives looking out into the wilderness towards the Herodium, continuing our gaze eastwards we would see the highly saline waters of the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is highly saline and therefore unable to support aquatic life.

In a body of traditional Rabbinic writings, known as the Mishnah, we come across a directive where the rabbis give instruction that any unholy object – whether they be items inscribed with pagan figures, or any item that is associated with idol worship is to be destroyed by being thrown into the Dead Sea. Interestingly this directive also appears to include items which were associated with Roman Emperors and Roman rule.

So by throwing pagan objects into the sea, and specifically the Dead Sea, the land would be purified and cleansed.

What are we to do?

So how do we apply this today?

When we look around us the problems that we see seem insurmountable. The power of evil appears to be getting stronger and is tightening its grip. Our society is set on a path which leads further away from God resulting in the corruption of relationships, the breakdown of families, the rejection of life whilst embracing death. Freedoms are lost and governments become more totalitarian in their power.

In the midst of this, the beacon that was once the centre of our hope and the source of strength for our nation has gone out. Many are turned off by the hypocrisy of the Church, who whilst professing to possess life does not believe in its power and as a result has corrupted itself through compromise and as a result is now no longer considered relevant by those who need her most.

But Jesus gives us a clear instruction. We have the power to remove these obstacles. He says:

“if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”

Matthew 21:21

Perhaps the biggest obstacle that we face today in manifesting the Kingdom of God is not an external one. The obstacles are not the hypocrisy of the Church or the corruption of State power. The greatest obstacle that we face is an internal one. When we underestimate the power of faith filled prayer we leave the Herodiums standing in our midst.

Whilst we see the problems in our world today manifesting themselves in the physical, at the root the cause of the problem is spiritual. When we, as believers, grasp the reality of the power of life that has been given to us by the risen Christ, and submit ourselves to that in prayer, those structures that are being raised up against us in order to prevent the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, will crumble.