Light to the World

Light To The World

Israel was called "an olive tree, leafy and fair," because they shed light on all. Ancient Jewish Commentary on Jer. 11:16

Olive trees and the abundance of oil they produce were significant in the lives of the people of the Bible. A leading agricultural product, an important part of the diet, and a regular element of religious practices, the olive naturally became part of the imagery the Bible used to describe God and his people in relationship. Knowledge of the beautiful olive tree and its uses can enrich our understanding of God so that we may be as the olive tree was believed to be a "light to the world."


The olive tree is one of the plants most frequently mentioned in the Bible. God called the land of Israel "a land with...olive oil and honey" (Deut. 8:8). The importance of the olive tree was noted in Jotham's parable:other trees chose the olive tree to be king over them (Judg. 9:8-9). As the Bible often notes, the olive tree is beautiful (Jer. 11:16; Hosea 14:6). The faithful followers of God are compared to vigorous olive trees (Ps. 52:8), and their children are said to be like the shoots that appear at the tree's roots, guaranteeing its survival (Ps. 128:3).

Olive trees have extensive root systems, spreading far beyond the reach of the leaves, to provide adequate moisture for them. Because their roots travel so far, these trees often stand alone, which accents their beauty. Olive leaves are gracefully narrow, light green on one side and an even lighter green on the other, and they shimmer beautifully in the wind.

The olive tree thrives throughout Israel. The ability of this tree to grow on rocky hills makes it well suited to the terrain of Israel, a land "with oil from the flinty crag" (Deut. 32:18). The tree grows exceptionally well on the cultivated hillside terraces of Judea and Samaria. Many of the hills of Upper and Lower Galilee are covered with olive trees to this day. They grow especially well in western Galilee, where the tribe of Asher lived.

Olive trees begin to produce olives when they are between six and 10 years old, and they reach their peak at about 40 to 50 years. Many continue to produce an abundance of olives even when they are hundreds of years old. When the trunk becomes large and old, the branches are trimmed off, leaving what appears to be a dead stump. But the next year, fresh shoots spring from the old stump, and soon a new and vigorous growth of branches again produces an abundance of olives.

This phenomenon provided some of the rich imagery of the Bible. Job compared human beings to the olive tree and noted that the olive tree did not die when cut down but sprang again to life, unlike people, who die and are gone (Job 14:7-9). The children of God's people are compared to the many small shoots that spring continually from the root system of the tree, ensuring the continued existence of the fruitful family (Ps. 128:3).

God used the metaphor of an olive tree (and sometimes other trees and vines) to describe his relationship to his people. He planted them as a farmer would plant a beautiful olive tree (Jer. 11:16-17; Ps. 52:8), but he said he would cut them down because the fruit they bore was the worship of Baal (Jer. 11:17). (Also see Matt. 3:10, 7:19; and Isa. 5:1-7 the vineyard was the picture for the same point.) After God allowed his people to be "cut down," they appeared to be nothing but a dead stump. But God and faithful Israelites knew better: Out of that stump came new shoots.

The shoot of Jesse's stump was a special one because God's Spirit rested on him (Isa. 11:1-2). That shoot was Jesus, who was a citizen of Nazareth (meaning "branch" ' Matt. 2:21-23). Many other prophecies also described the Messiah as a branch or a shoot, probably drawing on the image of the olive tree (Jer. 23:5, 33:15; Zech. 3:8, 6:12). Jesus is the shoot from a stump in the olive grove of Israel. His fruit is obedience and fulfillment.

This beautiful picture of God's people and the Messiah as an olive tree was completed by Paul. Paul reversed the image of the Jewish farmer who grafted a cultivated olive shoot onto the root system of a wild tree to take advantage of its ability to withstand a harsher climate. Israel, God's cultivated tree, had had some of its branches removed. In their place, God has grafted the branches of believing Gentiles. This provides the basis for Paul to remind the Gentiles of their Jewish roots, affirm God's continued love and concern for his Jewish tree, and warn people that since God had removed natural branches for not bearing fruit, how easy it would be for him to remove ones that had been grafted on (Rom. 11:11-24).

The olive tree provides an excellent lesson for the Christian who is not Jewish. As Christians, we have Jewish roots, and Jesus is our Jewish Branch. When God broke down the wall separating Jews and Gentiles, he did not invite the Jews to become Gentiles; he invited the Gentiles to join the Jews, his people. The olive tree can be a constant reminder that Jesus is our source of life?he is our Branch. He sprang from Jewish roots, and so do we. The beautiful olive tree reminds us of God's love and his expectation that all his branches bear fruit in abundance.


The olives of Israel had an unusually high oil content, but some were used as part of the daily diet of the people. Olive trees blossomed in the spring and bore fruit throughout the fall (October through November). Olives were harvested either by beating the branches with poles or by stripping the fruit by hand. Often the olives that were to be eaten were handpicked to prevent bruising. Some olives were picked while they were green (unripe), pickled in vinegar and salt, then eaten fresh, as were some of the ripe olives. Some green fruit was boiled, then dried and used throughout the year. The black (ripe) olives were the best for oil, often containing over 50 percent oil by volume.

During Old Testament times, the ripe olives were pounded to a pulp in pestles (Isa. 17:6) or under people's feet (Micah 6:15). The pulp was collected in reed baskets, and the oil was allowed to drain off. This first oil, the finest, was called "beaten oil" (Lev. 24:2; Ex. 29:40; 1 Kings 5:11). The people then extracted more oil by heating and pressing the pulp again.

During the time of Jesus, new olive-pressing systems were in use. In one system, the olives were placed in a large circular basin in which a great wheel-shaped millstone rolled in a circle. The stone was turned by an animal (e.g., a donkey) or by people. The pulp was then collected in baskets, which were stacked several layers high in (or over) stone pits. A stone weight was placed on top of the baskets, and a heavy wooden beam, with one end in a hole in the wall nearby (often these presses were found in caves) was placed across the pile of baskets. Stone weights were hung from the beam, applying enormous pressure to the olives and squeezing the oil from the pulp. In a similar method, a great stone pillar was placed directly on the olives to press the oil from the pulp. The oil ran through the baskets and into the pit below. The smell of the olive oil spread for miles during the fall of the year, when the oil was being pressed. The oil was collected in jars and placed in a cool place. It was sold or stored for use during the coming year.

Jesus spent the last few hours before his arrest in an olive grove (John 18:1) at a place called Gethsemane (Matt. 26:36). It is likely that this was a cave somewhere on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39) where the olives of the nearby groves were pressed. As Jesus reflected on the work he was about to do, he, too, was pressed. The great weight of the sin of the world and the coming rejection by His Father led Him to sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44). The image of the great weight of a gethsemane on the precious olives can help us imagine the pressure Jesus felt as He contemplated the burden he was to bear. His blood became the symbol for the anointing he provides for those who love him.


Olive oil had a great variety of practical uses in the Bible, including the following:

An element in food: 1 Kings 17:12Fuel for lamps: Matthew 25:1-13

Medicine:James 5:14; Luke 10:34; Isaiah 1:6

Cosmetics:Ecclesiastes 9:7-8; Esther 2:12

Temple (Tabernacle) menorah:Exodus 27:20

Sacrifices:Exodus 29:40

Olive oil also had great symbolic value. It could indicate honor (Judg. 9:9) and joy. Pouring oil on someone's head was to wish that person happiness (Ps. 23:5, 92:11, 45:7,104:15). It was also a symbol of life. The recovered leper had to place oil on his or her right ear, right thumb, and right big toe after placing blood on those places. Oil was then poured on the leper's head, making "atonement for him before the Lord" (Lev. 14:15-18). Jewish tradition indicates that the oil was a symbol of the leper coming back to life because he or she had been considered dead. Oil was also a symbol of divine blessing (Deut. 7:13; Jer. 31:12; Joel 2:19), which God denied to people who were unfaithful (Micah 6:15; Joel 1:10).

Oil was linked symbolically to the coming of God's Spirit. God's Spirit bestows the "oil of gladness" on those who mourn (Isa. 61:1-6). This image is probably also linked to the use of oil for anointing people for special tasks and appointments. Pouring oil on the chosen one symbolized God's equipping him or her with authority and his calling that person to a specific responsibility. Kings were anointed (1 Sam. 10:1; 1 Kings 1:39), as were priests (Lev. 8:12; Ex. 30:30), holy things (Ex. 30:22-33), and places where God had acted (Gen. 28:18, 35:14). As God put his Spirit on the person called to serve him, the oil used for the outward anointing increasingly came to symbolize the Spirit that accompanied that anointing (1 Sam. 16:13; Isa. 61:1). By New Testament times, anointing had come to be seen primarily as the inner work of the Spirit on Jesus (Acts 10:38) and on His followers (1 John 2:20).

The Hebrew word for "anointed" is mashiach, from which we get our English word Messiah. Though many were anointed (messiahs) in the Old Testament and the believer is anointed by God's Spirit today, there is only one Messiah: Jesus, God's Anointed.


Probably the most common use of olive oil was for lighting small household lamps. In this sense, olives and the oil they produced were the source of light for the people. The temple menorah, the eternal flame, was lit by the oil of olives that were specially prepared for this sacred role. The light of this flame symbolized God's presence, which enlightened the world: The olive tree, which produced the oil for anointing, also produced the light that would light the world. It was only natural that Jesus, the Anointed One, would call Himself the "light of the world" (John 8:12). It is not surprising that those who have experienced his anointing should be called the "light of the world" as well (Matt. 5:14).


1. There were other types of oil used in Bible times, but scholars normally understand the references to oil to mean olive oil.