When we read the Gospels we learn, among many things, the story of Christ’s earthly ministry. We read about crowds of people following him everywhere he went, even in the remotest of locations. In Matthew 14:13 we read of Jesus’ reaction after his disciples told him about the death of John the Baptist:
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Certainly after hearing the news of John’s death he was seeking some time away from the crowds, time alone with his disciples to mourn, and time to go to his Father in prayer. The account of these same events in Mark 6:30-32 goes even further, telling us Christ’s intentions in his own words:
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.“ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
Although Jesus does not escape the crowds on this particular occasion—this is, after all, where he performs the miracle of feeding the five thousand with only five loaves and two fishes—his purpose is clear. He and his disciples had been very busy in their ministry efforts, so busy they barely had time to eat. Christ was being deliberate with his disciples; he knew they were weary and needed rest, and in his loving kindness he wanted to do something about it.
When our head pastor gave a sermon on Mark 6:30-32 a few years ago, I was inspired. I had been talking to my wife off-and-on about how we might use our love of hiking and the outdoors as a tool for ministry. Here was a great example from Christ’s own earthly ministry that retreat and fellowship are important needs in our lives and in our ministries. What struck me most on this occasion was not just that Christ wanted to escape the crowds, but that he wanted to get away to a “desolate place,” proposing not only a time of rest, but also a remote setting. I learned much later, consulting Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, that the word “desolate,” (ref. #2048) used in the ESV, can also be translated as desert, solitary, or wilderness, adding emphasis to this notion of a remote setting.
After hearing the sermon I rushed home, grabbed my concordance, and began searching Scripture for more examples of Jesus and his disciples “getting away from it all.” I quickly discovered a number of passages, starting with Christ’s forty day retreat into the wilderness after being baptized by John—though, I would not advocate any attempts to replicate the trials and temptations that Jesus endured, even if you are as adept at wilderness survival as Bear Grylls—and concluding with his retreat to the garden at Gethsemane to go to his Father in prayer on the night he was betrayed. In all I found twenty-four passages (see the end of this post for the full list) that suggested Jesus, either alone, or with his disciples taking time away. While several of these are parallel accounts from more than one Gospel, and others do not exactly fit the definition of a wilderness retreat, I do believe they all serve as a solid, biblical basis for what I call a theology of Christian retreat.
It became clear to me at this point that I needed to start a hiking fellowship ministry. I had considered the idea on several occasions, but never went forward with it because of a mistaken impression that any fun or relaxing activity could not possibly be a serious ministry. After all, I wasn’t feeding the poor, or teaching some great theological truth to a classroom full of people, so how could I be doing “real” ministry. Thankfully this passage in Mark, our pastor’s sermon, and my subsequent searching of scripture, helped me overcome this mistaken impression, and see more clearly where this ministry fits into the overall ministry landscape (pun fully intended) of Christian fellowship and retreat. Since that time, my wife and I have been blessed on many occasions to share the amazing beauty of God’s creation with others, and I have often been encouraged by the feedback and thanks I have received from those who have taken to the trails with us on our hikes.
In Matthew 11:28 Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Those who know Jesus as their Lord and Savior have been set free. We cannot earn salvation through our works! But, as redeemed followers of Christ, we do have an obligation to honor him through diligent labor in our daily jobs and obedient service in the ministries to which we have been called. Yet, for those who labor, he does promise that he will give us rest. Personally, the best way I know of to find that promised rest is getting away from the hustle-and-bustle of daily life and going hiking in the vast and beautiful wilderness, the “desolate places,” that our awesome God has created and given us to enjoy!
Yours in Christ,
Todd the Hiker
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2013.
Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness:
Matthew 4:1-2 – 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.
Mark 1:12-13 – 12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
Luke 4:1-2 – 1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry.
After Jesus cleanses a Leper:
Mark 1:45 – But he [the leper] went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.
Luke 5:15-16 – 15 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
Jesus Seeks Retreat after Learning of John the Baptist’s Death:
Matthew 14:13 – Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Mark 6:30-32 – The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.“ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
Luke 9:10 – On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida.
John 6:1 – After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.
After Feeding the Five Thousand (Just before Jesus Walks on Water):
Matthew 14:22-23 – 22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone.
Mark 6:45-47 – 45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.
John 6:15 – Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Matthew 17:1-2 – 1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.
Mark 9:2 – And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them
Luke 9:28-29 – 28 Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.
Jesus Prays in the Garden at Gethsemane on the Night He is Betrayed
Matthew 26:36 – Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.”
Mark 14:32 – And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
Luke 22:39-41 – 39 And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” 41 And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed
Mark 1:35 – And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
Mark 4:10 – And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.
Luke 4:42-43 – 42 And when it was day, he departed and went into a desolate place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them, 43 but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”
Luke 6:12-13 – 12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles.
Luke 9:18-20 – 18 Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” 20 Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”
John 11:54 – Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.