Virtually everyone has seen a backlit portrait of Jesus praying the night He was betrayed. But this Easter, as I read about His last week of His earthly life, something jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. “Every day Jesus taught at the temple, but every evening He went out to spend the night on the Mount of Olives” (Luke 21:37, BSB, emphasis mine).
He taught every day until nightfall then lodged in the open, on the Mount of Olives, a high a ridge overlooking the eastern side of Jerusalem—and the Temple.
A chapter later, Luke says, “Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives” (Luke 22:39). In other words, His disciples knew where He was.
Maybe Jesus retreated to the Mount of Olives to hide from the priests. After all, His teaching reinforced their resolve to get rid of Him. Jesus could have blended in with the pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem for Passover, as many of them camped on the Mount.
But His choice was more deliberate than that.
Jesus picked the clearest, best view of the Temple. He wanted to keep it in His sights as He prayed.
The Mount of Olives is a soaring ridge east of the Temple. To this day, it remains the best vantage point to look down on that area of Jerusalem.
Prayers of preparation and regeneration
Luke 21:37 indicates Jesus was alone. (Luke must have gotten that detail from one of Jesus’ disciples.) And He prayed. Did He pray through the whole night without sleep? We don’t know for sure, but it seems inferred. Other Bible verses say He prayed through the night before big decisions and after big events.
- Jesus prayed all night before He picked His twelve apostles (Luke 6:12-13).
- Jesus withdrew to pray all night after He fed the 5,000 (Matthew 14:23)—an intense day of teaching and ministry.
(How He did that, I do not know. Jesus had just gotten word that Herod Antipas had beheaded His cousin John.)
Those examples indicate Jesus’ prayer life was a constant cycle of preparation and regeneration.
Near, yet far away
Jesus’ behavior, especially after He resolutely “set His face” toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) must have baffled His disciples. They thought He would gain a greater following. Instead, He said things to purposely “thin the herd.” The public clamored to see a reigning Messiah while Jesus spoke privately to His disciples about His death. Every day that Jesus taught in the Temple ratcheted up the tension between Him and the priests.
After the Last Supper, the night Jesus was betrayed, the disciples followed Jesus up the ridge. He stopped at a spot on a lower slope called the Garden of Gethsemane. Although His disciples were with Him, Jesus withdrew a “stone’s throw” from them.
Hear the tension in those words. Jesus needed to talk with His Father, but He also desired to be with His closest companions.
During your worst times, do you long for your friends’ support and understanding but get neither—and ultimately face a trial alone?
Nothing was turning out the way the disciples had thought it would. No wonder their sorrow exhausted them to the point where they fell asleep in the Garden. But their sorrow was all about them. Their feelings. Their perceptions. Their disappointments.
At that moment, the measurable distance between them and Jesus was an immeasurable chasm emotionally and spiritually. No wonder Jesus admonished them to “Get up and pray so that you will not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:46, BSB).
Praying in the midst of life and death
The disciples’ shortcomings aside, let’s return to why Jesus was on the Mount of Olives for a whole week. The Mount was a site of both life and death. Throughout history, Jews celebrated many religious festivals there. But it was also a place of death. Then, as now, it harbored a huge Jewish graveyard.
Jesus settled to pray in a spot that straddled life and death. A spot that personified what He would soon do in the flesh. At that spot, Jerusalem’s Temple was always in Jesus’ line of sight. With mankind’s idea of His end game ever before Him, Jesus prayed God’s long game that surpassed human understanding.
He prayed with a sole focus, His eyes fixed on the Temple. Even in the dark, it gleamed brightly, its bronze doors and gold roof spikes reflecting Jerusalem’s torch light. When you can see only one thing before you, it lasers your focus. May it be the light of what truly matters!
How does Jesus’ last week of praying apply to you and me? It raises four questions:
- How much distance is between me and Jesus?
- How attentive am I to Him?
- What does my pattern of prayer look like?
(What do I go to God in prayer for most often? To ask for things or to get in tune with Him?)
- What can I do to close the distance between Jesus and me, to sharpen my focus so I have the best perspective on what matters most to Him?
Jesus went to the Cross then rose from the grave so there wouldn’t be any distance between Him and you anymore. His resurrection blew away the Jews’ hope of a reigning Messiah by conquering something infinitely more important: sin and death. The tomb is empty so the Gospel isn’t! Hallelujah!
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