The Mount of Olives

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

East of the city of Jerusalem are three (or perhaps four) limestone hills that form a mile-long ridge stretching in a north-south direction. Collectively, they are known as “the Mount of Olives”; yet popularly, that nomenclature refers only to the central pair of the hills directly east of the Temple Mount, a site that has tremendous significance for all three monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. 

The prophet Zechariah referred to “the Mount of Olives” as “in front of Jerusalem on the east” (14:4). The Mount of Olives dominates the eastern horizon of Jerusalem just across the Kidron Valley, and one simply cannot miss its impressive outline. The mountain is mentioned in many biblical events and narratives; its archaeology is intriguing, the history is plenteous, and religious enthusiasm for the site is unending.

Mount Scopus is the northernmost of the hills; it is the site of the city of Nob, where David ate the holy bread (1 Sam 21:1-9). The Mount of Offense (or Corruption) is the southernmost hill; it is the place where Solomon built three pagan temples to the gods of Ammon, Edom, and Moab (1 Kgs 11:7-8; 2 Kgs 23:13), which Josiah later destroyed in his reforms (2 Kgs 23:13-14). The two principal hills have a slight dip between them and reach a height of 2,723 feet above the Mediterranean. Based upon the name, Mount of Olives, it is inferred that the slopes were thickly wooded in Jesus’ time and abundant in the olives that determined its name, which would have provided oil for the Temple. The slopes are presently eroded and rocky, having been denuded of trees from the siege of Jerusalem by Titus and the Roman armies, in addition to two world wars that also led to massive deforestation.

The majority of those who presently live on the Mount of Olives are of Arab descent (whether Christian or Muslim), yet the largest and oldest Jewish cemetery extends across the eastern, southern, and western slopes of the mountain. It is estimated that more than 120,000 people are buried there, including the traditional tombs of Haggai and Zechariah (and possibly Malachi also), and modern graves such as that of Menachem Begin (sixth prime minister of Israel). Centuries prior to the Lord’s first coming, the Jewish people believed that the final resurrection would begin at the Mount of Olives, based upon their interpretation of Zechariah 14:4. The glory of the Lord departed from Israel at the Mount of Olives (Ezek 10:18; 11:23), and thus the Jewish people believed Messiah would enter Jerusalem by way of the mountain. Certainly, it was significant that Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Matt 21:1-11).

The Mount of Olives in the Old Testament
The Old Testament does not reference the Mount of Olives with any degree of frequency. The first mention is in relation to David’s flight from Absalom. David’s son had wrested control of the holy city, so David and “his servants who were with him at Jerusalem” (2 Sam 15:14) fled by means of an eastern route: “And David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot. Then all the people who were with him each covered his head and went up weeping as they went” (2 Sam 15:30).

As already mentioned, Solomon used the Mount of Olives for idolatry: “Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon” (1 Kgs 11:7). This is very likely the reason why one summit was named the Mount of Offense. Prior to Jerusalem becoming the capital city, the Mount of Olives served as the eastern border, thus creating a natural barrier between it and the Judean desert. This may explain why the name Zion is used in reference to Jerusalem. The name Zion is interpreted as the city on the edge of the wilderness (the Judean desert), because it is derived from the Hebrew ziya, meaning “parched desert.” Throughout the first and second Temple periods, Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were the focus of Israel’s cultural, religious, and social life, and thus considerably influenced the prominence of the Mount of Olives. With the mountain close in proximity to the Temple Mount, it was given much religious significance and was important for celebration of the High Holidays, for the coronation of Israel’s kings during the united kingdom, and those of the southern kingdom when the nation was divided.

The Jewish calendar regulated the religious life of the Jewish people. Every aspect of their worship is based upon the timetable beginning on the correct day. Consequently, the Jewish calendar is based upon a series of monthly lunar cycles. This means the Feasts of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh in Exod 12:1-2), Passover (Heb. Korban Pesach), and the High Holidays are based upon the beginning of each month. The appearance of each new moon was fundamental to the religious life of the nation, and the rabbinical court (beit din, “house of law”) was responsible for announcing it with a fire signal from the Mount of Olives in times of antiquity. Prior to astronomical calculations being mathematically precise, the Jewish people watched the sky for the advent of the new moon. In ancient times, the Jewish court announced the new moon only after two credible witnesses testified. The New Moon is now determined by a preset calendar.

The proclamation to “go out to the hills, and bring olive branches and wild olive branches, myrtle branches, palm branches and branches of other leafy trees” (Neh 8:15) indicates that the mountain, in addition to the valley at its base, was plenteous in various kinds of trees. The prophet Ezekiel saw the departure of God’s presence from Jerusalem and how it “stood over the mountain which is east of the city” (Ezek 11:23). In the future, Jesus will return to the Mount of Olives at the time of His second coming and the campaign of Armageddon, thereby splitting the mountain in two as He stands on it (Zech 14:1-5).

The Mount of Olives in the New Testament
Jesus frequently traversed across the Mount of Olives as He entered and exited the city of Jerusalem. The Lord often visited Lazarus, Mary, and Martha—whose home was on the Mount of Olives—because the village of Bethany was located on the eastern slope. The trees were still plenteous in Jesus’ time (Matt 21:8). Jesus regularly visited the Mount of Olives, often as a place of retreat, in addition to the olive grove (Garden of Gethsemane) on the western slope of the mountain. One can easily see the city of Jerusalem from the mountain, and as Jesus did so, He denounced the hypocrisy of the religious leaders, who had the appearance of good yet lacked authentic spirituality (Matt 23:1—24:2). Jesus expressed indignation and grief for Jerusalem; and then, in His Olivet Discourse (24:3—25:46; Mark 13:3-37; Luke 21:5-36), pronounced impending judgment upon the city for its rejection of Him.

Scripture records three visits by Jesus to the Mount of Olives during the last week of His earthly life. The first was the triumphal entry, on the road winding around the south of the highest part of the Mount of Olives, from Bethany to Jerusalem (Matt 21:1). Jesus “approached Bethphage and Bethany, near the mount that is called Olivet” (Luke 19:29). He wept as “He approached Jerusalem” and pronounced its judgment (vv. 41-44).

Jesus’ second visit during the week of His Passion was to deliver His Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:3—25:46), which was His response to the disciples’ question, “When will these things happen, and what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” The content of His teaching is the prophesied destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, and events related to the eschatological Tribulation, culminating in His second coming (24:4-41; 25:31-46). The Discourse also includes parables that exhort readiness for the Lord’s return, such as the faithful and sensible slave (24:42-51), the five wise virgins (25:1-13), and the good and faithful slave (vv. 14-30). The Lord’s final visit was on the evening He was betrayed. The night began with the institution of the Lord’s Supper in Jerusalem, from which Jesus “went forth with His disciples over the ravine of the Kidron” (John 18:1), “out to the Mount of Olives” (Matt 26:30), and then to the garden called Gethsemane.

Jesus ascended into heaven at the Mount of Olives, where He will return (Acts 1:6-12; cf. Zech 14:4). The significance of His ascension from that location is due to it being the place where the Jewish court signaled God’s people for worship. God has signaled all people worldwide to faith and repentance in Jesus, the Light of the world. For this reason, the two angels asked and declared, “‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:11). In other words, the angels urged the disciples (and now, with application to the church today) to signal the good news that Jesus Christ has ascended and will return again.

Midnight Call - 05/2023

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