The olive tree is synonymous with the land of the Bible. The ‘promised land’ is described in Deuteronomy 8:8 as ‘a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey’.
The olive harvest was integral to the economy in Bible times. At a basic level, olives provided both food and light: they were a staple of Israel’s diet, and olive oil was the normal fuel for lamps.
Olive oil was also used medicinally, being employed as a soothing lotion for the skin. And it was used in religious ceremonies: prophets, priests and kings were all anointed with oil at the outset of their ministries. Oil was symbolic of the Holy Spirit.
The ceremonial anointing with oil symbolised being set apart by God for a specific ministry and being equipped with God’s Holy Spirit to fulfil that ministry. Interestingly, the word ‘Christ’ (or Hebrew, ‘Messiah’) is not a name but a title. It means ‘the anointed one’.
The Bible records the Lord Jesus being especially anointed with the Holy Spirit at the outset of his ministry; at his baptism, ‘the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form as a dove’ (Luke 3:21-22).
As the ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’, the Lord Jesus combines the threefold roles of prophet, priest and king in his one person.
On the east of Jerusalem there stands the Mount of Olives. During the time of Christ, this mount was covered with olive groves. On the Mount of Olives, even today, the Garden of Gethsemane can be visited.
The name ‘Gethsemane’ means ‘olive press’. The olive press was used to extract olive oil from olives. It was in Gethsemane’s garden that the Lord Jesus prayed before going to the cross of Calvary. As he contemplated the cross and what it meant being ‘made sin’ (2 Corinthians 5:21), he was ‘greatly distressed and troubled’ (Mark 14:33) — ‘pressed in’, we might say. Yet he submitted to the will of God, saying, ‘Not what I will, but what thou wilt’ (Mark 14:31). And, the cost notwithstanding, he went ahead to fulfil God’s plan of redemption, being ‘obedient unto death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2:8).
Olives were harvested in the autumn. The average tree contained some 10-15 gallons of oil when processed. The fruit was gathered by climbing the tree and shaking or beating it with rods. Touchingly, the Mosaic law stipulated here: ‘When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow’ (Deuteronomy 24:20).
The olives that fell on the ground were put into a circular, stone olive press. An animal was then tethered to a large millstone, put into the olive press and made to walk blindfold in circles. In doing so, the olives were crushed and the oil ran out through channels and was tapped in vats. This was considered to be the best olive oil.
The remaining pulp in the olive mill was not discarded. It was put into a wooden olive press and crushed further, extracting the very last drop of oil. This oil was not of the finest quality, but was perfectly useable for lighting the characteristic, clay oil lamps of Bible times.
Olives thus provided food, light and medicine. The process in obtaining this though involved beating, bruising and crushing. And here we are given insight into a powerful metaphor illuminating the death of Jesus and the resultant blessing of salvation.
First of all, we note that the olive tree was beaten. At his mock trial the Lord Jesus was also beaten. The soldiers of the Roman governor mocked him with a scarlet robe, crown of thorns and reed for a royal sceptre. Matthew records that ‘they spat upon him and took the reed and struck him on the head’ (Matthew 27:30).
The olives which fell from the beating were next put into the olive press for crushing. After his beating, the Lord Jesus was crucified. Here, it was as though he was put into the ‘olive press’, crushed by the load of human sin which was transferred to him, and by the fearsome wrath of God upon that load of sin.
Just as olives were crushed and bruised to achieve the desired result, likewise the Lord Jesus ‘was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed’ (Isaiah 53:5).
The bruising and crushing of olives, however, was not pointless but purposeful. A good, pleasant and wholesome effect resulted. Olives brought vital food, light and healing.
Jesus is our spiritual food. He said, ‘I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst’ (John 6:35). Jesus is our light. He said, ‘I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life’ (John 8:12).
Jesus is our healing. He said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Mark 2:17). Sin is a sick state. Our sin alienates us from God our Maker. Through Christ’s death on the cross for our sins, however, our relationship with God is healed and our fellowship with the Lord restored.
The olive tree was central to the economy in Bible times. And it is the Lord Jesus who is central to the Christian life, and the tree of Calvary that is indispensable for our eternal salvation. Christians are a saved people, and continue to be a saved people. The Bible holds out the thrilling prospect of living in redeemed bodies on a redeemed earth, for all who belong to Jesus. For the believer, the best is yet to be.
The olive tree in full bloom is a beautiful sight to behold. Through Hosea the prophet, God used this familiar sight to depict the future glory of God’s people. He said, ‘I will be as the dew to Israel; he shall blossom as the lily, he shall strike root as the poplar; his shoots shall be like the olive, and his fragrance like Lebanon’ (Hosea 14:5-6).
The author has written many Christian books and articles and has an honorary doctorate from Christian Bible College, Rocky Mount, NC.