One of the most memorable moments of any tour to Israel is standing on the Mount of Olives and looking across the valley at the Eastern Gate of the Temple Mount. One can’t help but imagine the magnificent Temple of King Herod standing there, or Jesus walking through the Eastern Gate as He most assuredly did and, according to scripture, will most likely do again.
But, any casual observer will notice that the Eastern Gate has been sealed shut! Almost 500 years ago, when the Turks conquered Jerusalem under the leadership of Suleiman the Magnificent, he commanded that the city's ancient walls be rebuilt, and in the midst of this rebuilding project he decided to put an end to Jewish Messianic hopes by ordering the Eastern Gate sealed. He also put a Muslim cemetery in front of the Gate, believing that no Jewish holy man would defile himself by walking through a Muslim cemetery.
This biblical, historical, and future significance of the Temple Mount makes it the most hotly contested piece of real estate in the entire world. An example of the extreme sensitivity over ownership of the site is that Jews and Christians are not allowed to pray on the Temple Mount which is under strict Muslim control. Jewish prayer is held below the Temple Mount facing the remains of the western retaining wall.
Jesus had this same breathtaking view when, during His triumphal entry, as he rode a donkey from the Mount of Olives, He wept over Jerusalem. Despite the crowds shouting Hosanna and hailing Him as King, His heart was in agony for Jerusalem.
He understood the significance of Jerusalem, and what awaited Him there. He also knew of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and prophesied that no stone would be left that was not thrown down. Archeological excavations of the southern area around the Temple Mount have exposed stones that were thrown from the walls of the Temple just as Jesus had predicted. They have also uncovered the southern steps that ascended to the Temple Mount; stairs Jesus most likely walked on.
After his triumphal entry to Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the Temple, reasoned with the religious leaders, and later retreated back over the Mount of Olives to Bethany, where He remained for two days until Passover. It was in a large upper room in an affluent part of Jerusalem that Jesus ate the Passover meal with His disciples and predicted His impending death. Tour groups can visit an upstairs room in the probable vicinity of the real upper room which is a nice place to visualize the Passover story.
From the upper room, the biblical account tells us that Jesus retreated back to the Mount of Olives which was His custom. The Mount of Olives was named as such because it was covered by a large olive grove, and Gethsemane, the place where Jesus went to pray, meant “olive press.” In today’s garden of Gethsemane, housing the Church of all Nations, one can see olive trees that are almost 1,000 years old and may in fact have roots from the time of Jesus.
Jesus prayed in Gethsemane three times under increasing pressure, reminiscent of the incremental weight of an olive press extracting oil from olives. It was also there He was betrayed by Judas, arrested, and taken to the High Priest.
The story continues in the house of Caiaphas, the High Priest, which was back in that same affluent neighborhood in Jerusalem. Today, tourists can view in that vicinity archeological remains of a very nice home with cisterns dug underneath indicating the affluence of its owner. It also has a prison cell dug into the bedrock below. Whether this is the place where Jesus was held overnight is not known but the visitor is able to see how He may have spent that night in a pitch black cavern.
The next morning Jesus was taken to Pontius Pilate and we have the story of His conviction, scourging and His agonizing walk to Golgotha where He was crucified. The most likely site of Golgotha is today under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is a crusader building encompassing several older chapels built over a different sites, such as Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. Because the original sites are many feet below ground level, and all the visitor is able to see is an ornate Orthodox or Catholic altar with perhaps a small view of stone below ground, it is not a popular site for Protestants.
The other site preferred by most Protestant groups is a lovely garden, conducive to prayer and worship, at the foot of a stone hill physically resembling a skull, just as the gospel writers described Golgotha. In the side of that hill is a hewn tomb like the one Jesus would have been buried in. The door to the tomb carries the good news that “He is Risen!”
To relive the final days of Jesus on a visit to Jerusalem makes the story come alive! Most importantly, we find that the tomb is empty. We do not go to Jerusalem to find Jesus, because He is wherever hearts have welcomed Him. But, a trip to Jerusalem does help us appreciate His final days and the authenticity of the biblical account.
Susan Michael is the US Director of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem and leads tours to Israel www.icejusa.org/tours. This article is the third in a series to introduce Israel and various biblical sites of interest to the Christian reader.