Gethsemane - Home Away From Home
Updated: May 3, 2019
Anyone who has visited Israel knows that the most breathtaking view of the old city of Jerusalem is from the Mount of Olives. From the top, looking across the Kidron Valley is a panoramic view of the city as well as the entire Temple Mount. The Garden of Gethsemane is located on the west slope of the Mount of Olives and is familiar from the gospel narratives.
The Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane were special places to Jesus. The gospel of Luke explains that when he was in Jerusalem, it was his custom to go there in the evening:
And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. -- Luke 22:39 (ESV)
And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. -- Mark 14:26 (ESV)
It was also his custom to sleep there when he was visiting the city:
And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. -- Luke 21:37 (ESV)
They went each to his own house, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. -- John 7:53 - 8:1 (ESV)
He had many followers in the city, so it was not an issue of having no place to stay. Jesus went to the Mount of Olives by choice. It was a place that he preferred and a place where he found peace.
Jesus famous “Olivet Discourse” probably took place in the Garden of Gethsemane. This was where he met with his disciples and taught them privately. It is the likely location for Jesus’ meeting with Nicodemus in John 3. It was a quiet place close to the city, but away from the crowds who must have constantly begged for his attention.
The area known as the Garden of Gethsemane today is on the western slope of the Mount of Olives, facing the old city. It is a walled and well-tended area with a small grove of eight olive trees. These trees are not from Jesus’ time, but it is likely that they grew from the roots of those tress. Olive trees are very hardy and have been known to re-sprout from older roots. The current trees are over 900 years old.
Gethsemane was directly on the main route from the Temple Mount to Bethany, where Jesus’ friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha lived. It was also the place that he passed on the day of his Triumphal Entry. (Luke 19:37)
During Jesus’ time, this was not a garden for walking and contemplation as it is today, it was a large agricultural operation to produce olive oil. Since the olive groves likely covered most of the western slope, Gethsemane refers to a specific location where the press was located. The word Gethsemane means “the place of the olive press”. There is a cave on the site that contained the press in Jesus’ day. It is highly likely that this cave and the adjoining olive grove were the exact place that Jesus knew. This is where Jesus chose to go when he was experiencing his greatest emotional suffering:
And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” -- Luke 22:39-46 (ESV)
Why was the area of Gethsemane so special to Jesus? We know from Luke 2:41 that Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem for Passover every year. They were observant Jews and wanted their children to understand and appreciate the beauty and importance of this celebration.
Historical records claim that in the first century, there were so many people going to Jerusalem for Passover that entire villages in outlying areas would be deserted. Groups of people from the same community would travel together. The excitement and festive atmosphere can be imagined. Most people of the time did not travel beyond their own village except for Passover. It was a chance to leave their daily routines behind, feast and celebrate. For children it was likely the highlight of the year.
After a journey of several days, people from Nazareth would set up camp outside the city. The old city of Jerusalem encompassed about one square mile so there were limits on how many people it could hold. Most of those who camped outside the walls returned to the same campsites annually and would stay near their friends and family. The traditional camp site for the people of Nazareth was on the Mount of Olives near the olive press. Gethsemane was a home away from home for Jesus, and a place very familiar from his childhood.
The Mount of Olives will also be an important place when Jesus returns:
On that day his 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, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. -- Zechariah 14:4 (ESV)