The Crushing Weight of the Gethsemane

By Ray Vander Laan


    The culture and land of Israel offer great evidence and testimony to God’s truths in Scripture.  That’s one reason I’ve never tired of leading numerous study tours there.  By examining the customs of ancient times, we in the 21st Century are able to glean more knowledge and insight into the life of Christ and His teachings.

    The scene of Christ’s passion in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He died is a familiar story – one of supreme sorrow and blood-wrenching anguish.  And yet there’s much about the significance of the setting that we in the modern world have missed.

    With Easter upon us, let’s revisit the Garden of Gethsemane to explore the cultural elements that would have been so well understood in Christ’s time.



    The word gethsemane means ‘olive press’ and symbolizes the weight that Jesus carried as He went to the cross.  The gethsemane was symbolic of a human burden in Christ’s time, too, but it was on the shoulders of the Jewish people.  The gethsemane was an economic leash, tying the lower classes of society to the purse strings of the wealthy who owned the olive presses.  The masses looked to the promised Messiah, who would come from the ‘stump’ - understood to be an olive tree - of Jesse, to release them from their burdens.


A Valuable Commodity

    When considering the symbolic meaning of the gethsemane, it’s important to understand both the economic and religious importance of the olive and its oil in biblical times.  Much of Israel was, and still is today, olive producing.  The olive was much more than food.  Its oil was burned in lamps and served as a preserving agent and a lubricant for skin care.  It had great value in daily life.

    The process used to extract olive oil was a laborious one.  Whole olives were put into a circular stone basin in which a millstone sat.  A donkey or other animal was then harnessed to the millstone and walked in a circle, rolling the stone over the olives and cracking them.

    The cracked olives were scooped up into burlap bags, which were then stacked beneath a large stone column - a gethsemane.  The enormous weight forced the precious oil to drip from the fruit into a groove and on into a pit at the base of the gethsemane, from which it was collected.

    The gethsemane and mill were large and expensive tools, and private citizens could rarely afford to own them.  Whoever controlled the equipment, the wealthy elite or government officials, had economic power over the local population.  People had to pay steep fees in order to process their olives.  The gethsemane and mill were a burden born by many, because olives were an economic mainstay of society.


Deeper Meaning

    The olive tree and its oil had even greater cultural importance as religious elements.  The word ‘mashach’ - from the same root word for ‘messiah’ in Hebrew-means ‘to be anointed with olive oil.’  Priests, kings and prophets were anointed with olive oil, indicating that they were gifted and called by God.  So it was understood that the anticipated Messiah would be specially anointed with olive oil. 

    The tree also represented the purpose of the promised Messiah - to renew Israel.  When an olive tree gets old, it is cut down because there’s too much trunk for the leaves to nourish.  The following year, a new shoot comes out of the old tree, eventually producing new fruit and lots of healthy branches.

    In Isaiah 5, God says to the unbelieving nation of Israel (paraphrased), “You didn’t produce any fruit.  But I was patient.  I dug around you.  I fertilized you.  I kept you growing.  And after a while, I looked.  There was still no fruit, so I cut you down.”  And then He says in chapter 11, “Behold, a new shoot will come out of the stump of Jesse and will become a new tree with new fruit.”

    The Jews believed that the new shoot, which was going to renew, restore and revitalize the nation of Israel, was the Messiah.  The Messiah is the shoot or branch out of Jesse.  If Jesus is the branch or stem, then we, as Gentiles, have been grafted in, according to the apostle Paul.  That means our roots are the Jewish people.  That’s our stump.  We can’t exist and bear fruit without the Jewish roots.  Second, it means Jesus is where we get life and energy.

    But the key is the olives we produce.  Paul says in Romans 11:21 (paraphrased), “If God cut down the natural tree, what do you think He would do to you who have been grafted in if you don’t bear fruit?”  Jesus came to be the new shoot for what reason?  So we would have life to bear fruit.

    The word for shoot or branch in Hebrew is of the same root as the word ‘Nazareth’: ‘netser’.  The Bible says Jesus’ parents went back to Nazareth in order that prophecy might be fulfilled: “He will be called a Nazarene.”  Therefore, a Nazarene is someone from ‘shoot town’ or ‘branch town.’  Jesus came from Nazareth to indicate to us that He (Jesus) is the branch.  And while on Earth, Jesus gave lessons and examples of how to be grafted into His Tree of Life.


Greatly Pressed

    Near the end of His life, while in northern Israel, Jesus said to His disciples, “Now, you go take on the gates of Hell.”  And then, as a great teacher, He said, “Let me show you how.”  Down He walked to Jerusalem, past little cities and towns, past all the crowds that had followed Him around.  He got to Jerusalem and, after a week’s ministry there, had His last supper.  Then He went out to the garden of the olive press - the Garden of Gethsemane.

    He got down on His knees and began to experience the weight of what was going to be laid on Him.  That weight was so incredibly heavy that it squeezed out of Him His own blood.  He was heavily pressed.  This Jesus, who taught and preached and performed miracles and was raised from the dead, went to the Garden of Gethsemane.  Laid on Him was the sin of the entire world.


    Ray Vander Laan, founder of That the World May Know Ministries, is the author of Focus on the Family’s award-winning video series That the World May Know from which this article was excerpted.  The videos chronicle the prophecies of the Old Testament and the life of Christ in the New Testament, focusing on the significance that culture played in understanding Scripture and Jesus’ teaching.  For more information visit his web site at