Memories of Olivet: Bethany on the Mount

The neighboring villages, Bethphage and Bethany, are twice mentioned together in a single verse (Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29).

The Scene and its Location

Nestling on the farther slope of Olivet, they are both hidden from the bustle of Jerusalem. They are close to, and yet remote from, the noisy city. Bethphage may not be so well known or so familiar as Bethany, for the name occurs only three times in Scripture (Matt 21:1; Mark 11;1; Luke 19;29), but its associations with the Savior are equally precious. It was to Bethany however, that the Lord Jesus resorted so often, and His presence there has assured for Bethany an abiding place in history and in the hearts of those who love Him.

There is nothing spectacular or imposing about the village of Bethany either naturally or materially. It is never mentioned in the Old Testament and has no place at all in the early history of the nation. It is in itself a rather insignificant village with just a dusty street or two and a few simple houses. But it has a large place in the affections of the saints and it now appears on almost every map of Israel. What has given it this prominence? It is just the fact that the Lord was there. There they made room for the Savior when so many others had rejected Him. They gave Him a place in their homes and in their hearts and they have not been forgotten. What lessons are here for believers today. We are, in ourselves, completely insignificant, but we too have the privilege of making room for the rejected Lord, in our hearts, in our homes, and in our assemblies.

The Suggested Meanings of Its Name

There are six places in our New Testament whose names begin with “Beth.” There is Bethlehem, Bethabara, Bethesda, and Bethsaida, and of course Bethphage and Bethany. “Beth” always means “The house of,” so that Bethlehem means, as is well known, “The house of bread,” and with another four of these names there is no problem. There is a difficulty however, with Bethany, and in Commentaries and Bible Dictionaries there are actually four suggested meanings of the name. Some say “The house of sweetness” and others say “The house of sorrow.” A few say “The house of singing,” and others say “The house of the poor.”

Although among its Arab residents Bethany is more generally known as El Azariyeh, “The town of Lazarus,” yet to many it is indeed “Betania,” but what is the true meaning of the name? Perhaps there is a sense in which all of the suggested meanings have at times been true of the village, but local people will assure us quite definitely that Bethany means “The house of the poor,” or “The house of poverty.”

How much this must have appealed to Him of whom Paul wrote, “For your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich.” Born in lowly circumstances in an outside place, He then lived for thirty years in the relative obscurity of Nazareth. For three years and more our Lord Jesus preached the glad tidings to the poor, and while many others rejected Him, the common people heard Him gladly (Luke 4:16, 18: Mark 12:37).

The Spiritual Lessons

The Savior’s first recorded word of public ministry was “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3). He did not, of course, mean “poor spirited!” Poor in spirit is the opposite of pride. It means one who has no wealthy opinion of self. The man who is poor in spirit makes no high claims but is characterized by lowliness and humility. Pride is mentioned more than fifty times in our Bible and is always obnoxious to God, Who “resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5). Our Lord associated pride with moral evils of every kind and Paul reminded Timothy that pride was the sin of the devil (Mark 7:21-23; 1 Tim 3:6). What, after all, has any man anything of which he may be proud?

Bethany was the house of the poor. The simple appeal of the village is legendary and they rejoiced to share their poverty with the lowly Man from Galilee. Poverty and wealth are mentioned twice in the letters to the Asian assemblies in the early chapters of Revelation. Of the assembly in Smyrna the Savior said, “I know thy poverty,” adding, “But thou art rich!” Of the assembly in Laodicea He said, “Thou sayest ‘I am rich’ . . . and knowest not that thou art . . . poor.” It has been so aptly said that at Smyrna they were rich poor men and at Laodicea they were poor rich men!

In the house of the poor on the Mount of Olives they spread a table for the Savior. He accepted and appreciated their hospitality, so much so that during His last week on earth He resorted every night to Bethany. There is no record of His spending even one night inside the walls of Jerusalem except on that last night as a willing prisoner of the Jewish Sanhedrin.

The earliest mention of Bethany is in Matthew 21:17 and it is so significant: “He went out of the city into Bethany, and He lodged there.” “Out of the city . . . into Bethany!” He left the pomp and splendor, the religion and ritual and ceremonialism of great Jerusalem to lodge in the house of the poor on the farther slope of Olivet.

What an example is this for every assembly of His people. There is still a noisy society all around us. There is still much ritual and empty ceremony. May we be content to be a “house of the poor,” humbly welcoming Him into our midst and giving Him that place of honor which is His by right.

Bethany, house of the poor, did indeed become the house of sorrow, but out of the sorrow was born the sweetness which filled the house in John 12, and made it a house of singing and joy. But these belong to further “Memories of Olivet.”