Dear Radio Friends,
It was six days before the final Passover feast. Jesus had now traveled dangerously close to the city of Jerusalem. I say dangerously because it was well known that the Pharisees were out to kill Jesus. But Jesus had steadfastly turned His face to Jerusalem because He knew His time to die was soon at hand. Jesus’ disciples seemed oblivious to this because they did not understand the necessity of Jesus’ death. They only saw His death as the end of the Messiah in whom they believed. But as we will find in today’s broadcast, there was one person who was not oblivious to the coming death of Christ. This was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Jesus was in Bethany, only a couple of miles down the road from Jerusalem. As was His custom, He was now staying at the home of Lazarus and his sisters before going to Jerusalem. He would remain there for a few days.
Here in Bethany the account we consider today took place. We read in John 12:1-8, “Then Jesus six days before the Passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.”
In this account we meet several different people. First of all, there is a man named Simon the leper. John does not mention his name to us. The other gospel accounts do. A supper was made in honor of Jesus in Simon’s house. Simon was a follower of Jesus, probably because Jesus had healed him of his leprosy. A second person in this account was Martha. We read only briefly of her. She was one of the sisters of Lazarus. We are told in verse 2 of our text that she served the men who sat around the table at supper. This was in keeping with Martha’s nature. Martha was always busy seeing to it that the physical needs of Jesus and His disciples were taken care of. So we see her here serving those who sat at supper in Simon’s house. A third person in this account is Martha’s brother, Lazarus, sitting with Jesus at supper. This was the man whom Jesus had, just a few weeks earlier, raised from the dead. John informs us of this in verse 1 of our text. He too was a man of honor at Simon’s table because of the miracle Jesus had performed on him. He must have reclined somewhere near Jesus at the table. The fourth person in this account is Judas Iscariot the son of Simon. Judas’ father was not the Simon that sat here at this supper. Judas was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He was the treasurer of the band. We know him well because his name has gone down in infamy in the church because he betrayed Jesus. We will say more of him in our broadcast today because he is prominent in the account before us.
Finally, there is the godly woman that is the focus of our broadcast: Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While her sister Martha was busy caring for the earthly needs of Jesus, Mary was often found at the feet of Jesus listening to Him as He taught His disciples. This detail is of great importance in connection with the Word of God that we consider. Mary is the focus of the event we consider, and Judas Iscariot is the supporting character.
I. True Discipleship
Jesus was a popular man in Bethany. Despite the ban on Jesus by the Sanhedrin, many came to see and hear Him while in Bethany. In fact, Lazarus himself had become a bit of a local celebrity ever since Jesus raised him from the dead. For that reason, the chief priests even sought to kill Lazarus. The supper to which Jesus was invited was a private affair, although there were plenty of people in attendance. Simon, an avid follower of Jesus, set his table for Jesus, his twelve disciples, Lazarus, and himself. Martha, we learn, was busy with serving the meal. This does not mean that she did not have help. In fact, it does not mean that Mary herself was not helping her sister. Sometime during the course of the meal, Mary set aside her labors and entered the room with a pound of ointment of spikenard. Spikenard was not an oil. It was a perfume of sorts extracted from the nard plant, the finest of which came from India. The reason the scriptural account calls it spikenard is to emphasize that this particular bottle of perfume was pure nard—not an adulterated version of it that would cheapen the product. It was not a small vial of spikenard. It was a pound, or about twelve ounces of liquid. Very costly! All the gospel accounts remark on the value of this vial of perfume. It was not cheap! Mary paid a large price for it. Where she came by the money is unknown, but for a woman of lesser means to purchase such precious ointment took much of her savings, I’m sure.
John informs us that she poured the spikenard on Jesus’ feet. We learn in the other accounts that she first of all anointed Jesus’ head with this perfume. It certainly was a large enough bottle that she could easily have done both. She poured the perfume first into the hair of Jesus, then emptied the remainder on His feet. Seeing it run off His feet, she loosed her hair and dried His feet using her hair. Now, we must realize that at that time a woman’s hair was considered her crown. Jewish women kept their hair wrapped in a tightly styled “bun.” Seldom were they ever seen in public with their hair let down. That Mary let her hair down and wiped the feet of Jesus was a sign of humility and submission to her Lord and Master.
Mary was overwhelmed with her love for her Lord. She knew who He was, and now by anointing Jesus’ feet humbled herself as a true disciple. From this we learn of our place as members of the body of Christ. Christ is our Head. He is Lord, and we are His servants to do His will. The calling of a disciple, therefore, is to deny himself, that is, to set aside all self-seeking, all motivation to satisfy one’s own desires, and to follow Jesus Christ. Wherever He chooses to lead us, we follow Him. Even when this requires us to take up our cross, that is, to share in the sufferings of our Savior. In humble submission at Jesus’ feet, we will serve our Lord with faithfulness and cheerfulness even when we are persecuted for His name’s sake. A disciple follows his Lord. But at times this requires of the disciples of Christ the paying of a high price, perhaps even that of our lives. Yet, we with Mary take our place at the feet of our Savior.
I mentioned that Judas Iscariot was a supporting character in the account before us. I said this because of his reaction to Mary’s anointing Jesus’ feet. Judas was offended by what Mary did. He did not wait to hear Christ’s assessment of her actions. He was offended not only that Mary did this, but also that Jesus allowed her to do it. What she had done was far too extravagant to show honor to Jesus. Had not Jesus Himself said, “they that wear soft clothing live in king’s houses”?
This was not befitting the life and goals of a prophet or those who follow him. Judas therefore took exception to what Mary had done. This spikenard could have been sold for a couple of hundred of dollars! The money then could have been given to the poor! That would be a much more appropriate use of the money that Mary spent on this extravagant luxury! The words of Judas sounded good. They certainly had the ring of truth. For that reason, some of the other disciples agreed with him. They quickly followed the lead of Judas and they, together with Judas, began to complain about this abuse of money. Ah, how quickly Judas and these disciples judged the motives of Mary’s heart without seeing the sincerity of her actions. They judged her in an evil way, ascribing sin to her without even considering that maybe there was a good motive for what she was doing. That is the character of our sinful flesh. That came out here too.
But John immediately reveals the motivation behind Judas’ accusation against Mary. John tells us that although Judas belonged to the number of the twelve disciples, he was not a true disciple of Christ. He was a hypocrite. He looked polished and good on the outside to all the disciples and others, but he was full of unbelief and sin within. John tells us that Judas was the treasurer of the band of disciples. He carried the bag. In other words, he saw to it that there were supplies for Jesus and the others. Plus, he was given the job of distributing any extra to the poor. But Judas had been skimming. He was stealing and keeping some of the money back for himself. John also reminds us that Judas was the one who would betray Jesus. So, John calls our attention to Judas’ hypocrisy. The actions of Judas in this account therefore stand in stark contrast to those of Mary. His words and motives serve to highlight to us what truly makes up a disciple of Jesus Christ. Mary is an example of humility and of devoted service to the Lord. She is willing to bow before His feet and humble herself by drying His feet with her hair! Judas is proud, worrying about money, because his heart was far from serving Jesus as his Lord and King. In the church of Jesus Christ, there are true followers of Christ, and there are those who only feign following after Him. Those in whom God works by His grace bow before the rule of Christ and humbly submit to God’s Word.
Those who are members of the church for various other reasons than that of faith in Christ are willing to follow Christ as long as He does not interfere with their desires. Outwardly to men they are exemplary. They might even shine as Judas did among the disciples of Christ. But dip into their personal lives in the home and family and you will see that they live a life of unbelief and sin. When they are away from the church where no one can see them, they indulge in all the lusts of the flesh that the wicked world does. Such was Judas. He collected money and took care of the needs of the disciples, but when alone he stole some of the money to horde to himself. Later Judas would betray Jesus for 30 pieces of silver because of his greed. Judas is truly an example that stands in contrast to the true disciple that Mary portrays.
II. Earnest Faith
Jesus’ reproof of Judas reveals the motives of Mary’s heart. We read in verses 7, 8, “Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.” “Let her alone! Quit picking on her! Quit scolding Mary for something that she did not do wrong!” What was Judas thinking? Jesus, who knows the thoughts and intents of a person’s heart, had allowed Mary to do this. Judas, then, impetuously accused Mary when Jesus Himself had allowed her to do this. Jesus now explains. “Mary did this against the day of my burying! She anoints my body now in preparation for my burial.” As Mark puts it in his gospel account, “she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.”
You see, it was Jewish custom that, when a dead body would be laid to rest in a sepulcher, the body would be wrapped in long linen cloth, and with each layer spices would be added in order to offset the stench of death. This was done, of course, not in order to allay the death process but in order to give honor to and express one’s love toward the one being buried. This was done to Jesus’ body in a hurried fashion on Friday, late afternoon, by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. Later a few women, on the first day of the week, when Jesus arose, were on their way to the sepulcher to anoint Jesus’ body too. This was to show honor to their Lord. As we well know, they never had a chance to do this. But now Jesus explains that Mary was anointing Him before the fact, before His burial, to give honor to Him while he yet lived.
Many explain that Mary simply anointed Jesus out of her love for Jesus, and that Jesus uses this as an opportunity to instruct concerning His coming death and burial. I do not agree with this explanation. Jesus comes to Mary’s defense. He knows what is in the heart of this believing woman. She comes in faith, having understood what Jesus had all along been teaching His disciples. Mary, in contrast to her older sister Martha, sat at the feet of Jesus and listened carefully to His instruction. Jesus had explained more than once that He was going to Jerusalem to die at the hands of the Pharisees and chief priests. It was well known that the rulers sought to kill Jesus. The disciples were aware of these threats against Jesus’ life too but were yet confident that He would escape with His life. He was the Messiah, after all! He had to live in order to deliver Israel from her enemies and restore the kingdom of David. Somehow Jesus would rise triumphant above His enemies. The people were on His side. They would rise up with Him. Even Judas yet had this hope in his evil heart. He still had visions of a grand and glorious kingdom where he would have a chief seat. The disciples were oblivious to the constant warnings Jesus had given them that He was going to die by the hands of the chief priests and elders. But Mary believed Jesus when He told her of these things that must happen. In faith she was now anointing Jesus for His burial.
But there is a greater reason Mary anointed the feet of her Lord. She, with the eyes of faith, saw Him as her Savior! Mary had listened to Christ with the ears of one who saw the need of a Messiah who would deliver from sin—not from some earthly enemies. Jesus taught this. Mary had been an eyewitness of the fantastic miracle of raising her brother Lazarus from the dead. She had heard Jesus say, “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me shall never die.” In faith Mary had put the pieces of the puzzle together at this point. Where all the disciples were dull-witted in the face of all the facts, Mary had by God’s grace figured it out. We do not see her here mourning and weeping for fear of Christ’s life. She stood humbly and submissively before the truth that Jesus must die and be buried. He must die to suffer God’s wrath for her sins and the sins of God’s people. In this way He would conquer the foes of the church. He must pay the price of sin, and the only way this was possible was for Him to die.
But then, why fear, because this Jesus was also the resurrection and the life! Men might kill His body, but Jesus had the power to raise Himself from the dead too. She knew that. She saw that and heard it from the lips of our Savior. That is why Mary now stood silently at the feet of Jesus and anointed Him in preparation for His burial. What Jesus would pay for sin was more priceless than a bottle of expensive spikenard—it was worth more than all the silver and gold in this world! In faith we say “Amen” to what Mary believed. May we be given the eyes of faith to see what Mary saw. Jesus Christ is come to save sinners. He is not come to make this world a better place. He is not come to establish an earthly kingdom. He is come to save from sin. This He has accomplished for you and me. He has saved us from impending death. And He has done so through His death.
III. Impending Death
Jesus used this incident of Mary also to teach His disciples something that they again needed to hear. He says in verse 8, “For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.” The poor are always with the church—no matter what the age in history. They were present in the church of the Old Testament. They were present in the church of Jesus’ day, and they are yet in the church today. There is always opportunity to give to the cause of the poor, as well we should. But Jesus’ point to His disciples was this: you will have little opportunity to be with me. I am going to die soon and be buried. You will see me no longer. Take the opportunity now to hear my words and understand why I must die! I do not think the disciples understood what Jesus was teaching them here. They did not understand until later. Blinded eyes.
John does not record a few other words that Jesus spoke. It is a good thing to mention them. Jesus added what we read in Matthew 26:13: “Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.” Today we remember Mary and the faith she exhibited when others did not understand. Her token of love toward her Savior remains as a memorial. She was indeed a true disciple of Jesus Christ. A true believer—with no mere outward show, but in the deepest recesses of her heart. God give to me that faith!