We associate the Mount of Olives with Jesus. It’s where, immediately after the last supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed to his Father and was later arrested. He went there regularly with his disciples, and often spent the night there (John 18:2; Luke 21:37). But why the Mount of Olives? It wasn’t just because it was conveniently located a few hundred metres east of Jerusalem. Jesus knew its history, and he knew the lessons it taught.
David’s darkest day
One thousand years before his greater son made the same journey, King David was forced out of Jerusalem, rejected as king. When he realised what was happening, he said to his followers ‘Arise!’ (2 Samuel 15:14; John 14:31). He left Jerusalem, crossed the Kidron valley (2 Samuel 15:23; John 18:1), and made his way up the Mount of Olives (2 Samuel 15:30; Mark 14:26). Like Jesus, David made the journey because he had been betrayed by a friend (2 Samuel 15:31; Luke 22:47-48) who would later commit suicide by hanging himself (2 Samuel 17:23; Matthew 27:5). Later, David would write, ‘Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.’ (Psalm 41:9; John 13:18)
David’s rejection meant he took with him only his most loyal friends (2 Samuel 15:13-14; John 1:11), whom he protected from his enemies (2 Samuel 15:20; John 18:8). Later he would also protect his enemies from his friends (2 Samuel 16:10-12; Matthew 26:51-54).
As David ascended the Mount, he told his companions he would soon be returning to God’s dwelling place (2 Samuel 15:25). He didn’t pray for his own desires, but that God would do what he willed (2 Samuel 15:26; Luke 22:42). Near the summit, the place where God was worshipped, he received sustenance for the ordeal ahead of him (2 Samuel 15:32; 16:1, Luke 22:43).
It’s there the comparisons end. As David ascended the mountain, he wept and mourned for himself and his sin (2 Samuel 15:30), but as Jesus descended the mountain on a slightly earlier occasion, he wept and mourned for Jerusalem (Luke 19:29, 41). Whereas David’s companions were faithful and stuck with him (2 Samuel 15:15), Jesus’ companions deserted him and denied him (Matthew 26:31). David suffered for his own sin (2 Samuel 12:10) which contributed to his temporary downfall (2 Samuel 15:30), but Jesus suffered for our sins (1 Peter 3:18). Both experiences show us God’s mercy: by God’s grace, David escaped from his persecutors, just as God had promised (2 Samuel 12:13). Equally by God’s grace, Jesus submitted to his oppressors to suffer in our place, again, just as God had promised (Isaiah 53:6-7).
After David’s sin with Bathsheba, Nathan had told him, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.’ It was only 1,000 years later, as Jesus retraced the route of David’s darkest day, than we would discover just how God would accomplish this. Jesus would die to atone for David’s guilt, and for ours.
The glory of the Lord
The Mount of Olives isn’t just associated with David, however. During Judah’s exile in Babylon, through the prophet Ezekiel, God promised he would ‘gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered’ (Ezekiel 11:17), where they will be given a new heart and a new spirit. They shall be God’s people, and he will be their God (Ezekiel 11:19-20).
God revealed those words to Ezekiel along with a vision. ‘The glory of the Lord went up from the midst of [Jerusalem] and stood on the mountain that is on the east side of the city’ – in other words, on the Mount of Olives. What does he mean by ‘the glory of the Lord’? In the Old Testament, the glory of the Lord is God’s tangible presence on earth, where ‘a likeness with a human appearance’ can be seen seated on a throne (Ezekiel 1:26-29). Yet Ezekiel’s prophecy of the glory of the Lord going east to the Mount of Olives does not bring about the glorious end of days. Instead, there’s a long delay until Ezekiel 43:1-5, when the glory of the Lord finally returns triumphantly from the east to the new Jerusalem.
That’s why Jesus’ presence on the Mount of Olives didn’t end with Gethsemane. Around 40 days later he took the disciples back to the mountain, and it was from there that he ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9-12). In Ezekiel, the visible presence of God on the mountain to the east of Jerusalem was a sign that God is doing a new thing – that he is about to regather his people together, and give them a new heart and a new spirit. In Acts, the presence of the incarnate God on the same mountain showed that the fulfilment was now coming as his people began to be regathered at Pentecost to be given new hearts and new spirits.
And the delay? We too are experiencing it – symbolically of 20 years, in reality 2,000 years and counting. But Jesus will return triumphantly. His return will be ‘in the same way as you saw him go up into heaven’ at the Mount of Olives, but also (symbolically, at least) to the same place. Speaking of the final battle on the Day of the Lord, Zechariah tells us that the Lord’s ‘feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley’ (Zechariah 14:4, see also Isaiah 40:3-4).
It’s for that reason the Mount of Olives has been a prime burial spot for observant Jews for nearly three thousand years. More than 100,000 are buried there, hoping to be first in line when the Messiah comes. They may already have missed out – it’s likely that those who came ‘out of the tombs after his resurrection [and] went into the holy city’ (Matthew 27:53) were buried on the Mount.
Jesus, of course, knew of this link between the Mount of Olives and the end of days. He triumphally entered Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives quoting from Zechariah as he did so (Matthew 21:1-11). Later he would sit on the Mount of Olives to explain to his disciples what would happen in the last days (Matthew 24:3f).
But triumphal as that entry may have been, it only partially fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy about the day of the Lord, and it leaves us wanting – and expecting – more. It leaves us yearning for his return.
The Jews knew that the mountain was associated with the Messiah and his return. But that’s only half the story. Why did Jesus spend so much time on the Mount of Olives? Not just became it was associated with the olive oil used to anoint the Anointed King, the Messiah. But even more to show us that only in him could there a fulfilment of all the Old Testament shadows – not only the glory of the Messiah’s coming to earth, but the delayed return, the rejection of the Davidic King, and the Lord’s judgment on Jerusalem.
Christians tend to association the Mount of Olives with the Messiah’s suffering. Jews tend to associate it with the Messiah’s glory. When we dig deeper, we see both, together.