Jesus begins his Palm Sunday march into Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (Matt. 21:1), which stands east of the city across the Kidron Valley. It’s the first time in the synoptic gospels that we see Jesus on Olivet, but it becomes his base of operations during the final week of his life. He spends his days in the temple teaching, healing, and wrangling with scribes and Pharisees, then retreats for the night to Bethany, on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives (Matt. 21:17).
He prophesies Jerusalem’s destruction from Olivet (Matt. 24). Presumably that’s where he is when he sends disciples into the city to find a place to celebrate Passover (Lk. 22:7-13), and after the meal he goes back to the Mount of Olives to pray in the garden of Gethsemane, the “garden of the oil press” (Matt. 26). Some scholars believe that Jesus was crucified and entombed somewhere on this mountain.
Why the sudden attention to the Mount of Olives?
We get a clue when we reflect on the two environments where Jesus spends most of his last week—the temple and the mountain. All the temple furnishings were consecrated with olive oil. Anointed with oil, the temple was a “light on a hill” to illumine the world and a type of the Messiah, the “Anointed One.” The doors of the Most Holy Place in Solomon’s temple were made of “oil wood,” and so were the guardian cherubim that flanked the Ark of the Covenant (1 Kings 6:23, 31-33). Yahweh’s glory was enthroned at the heart of an architectural olive grove.
During the final week of his life, Jesus turns the Mount of Olives into an alternative sanctuary. He sits (enthroned) to pronounce judgment against Jerusalem (Matt. 24:3), and he enters the olive grove to plead with his Father. Olivet is Jesus’s Most Holy Place, his throne room outside the city gates.
That inversion begins when he leaves the temple for the last time (Matt. 24:1). In a vision, the prophet Ezekiel watches Yahweh’s glory-cloud abandon the Most Holy Place and move across the temple’s threshold, out of Jerusalem across the Kidron, east toward Babylon. Jesus, the incarnate glory, follows the same path of withdrawal.
Then, in his triumphal entry, he retraces his steps. Jesus’s movements on Palm Sunday are like a procession through the temple. Literally, Jesus moves from east to west; in the symbolic geography of the sanctuary, Jesus moves from the inner sanctuary (west) to the outer courts (east). He begins from the oil wood mountain sanctuary, a new Most Holy Place. Palm trees were carved on the cedar walls in the Holy Place of Solomon’s temple, and Jesus rides through a “nave” of crowds waving palm branches. When he reaches Jerusalem, he enters the temple court and overturns the tables of the moneychangers. The glory withdraws; the glory returns, in judgment.
Judgment frequently begins from the inner sanctuary. As soon as the tabernacle is completed, the priests Nadab and Abihu offer strange fire, provoking Yahweh to burst out with fire of his own (Lev. 10). When Korah rebels against Moses, pestilence spreads from the tabernacle to destroy Korah and his supporters (Num. 16). King Yahweh sends out prophets to speak words of fire against unfaithful priests and people. Jesus replicates this pattern in reverse. He comes out of the olive grove as the messenger predicted by Malachi, who appears suddenly in the temple like a refiner’s fire to purge Pharisees and scribes. And “who can endure the day of his coming?” (Mal. 3:1-3).
An observer on Palm Sunday would have seen Jesus moving outside in. But Jesus scrambles the map, turning the world inside out. East is west, and west is east. Inside becomes outside. God moves outside the gate. In the most sacred sanctuary, where there was once an ark-throne of gold, there is now a cross and an empty tomb.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.