John 11:55-12:8 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
121 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
What does it look like to be genuinely overcome with gratitude and love for someone in a manner pleasing to the LORD? Have you ever thought about that? If someone did something for you that was extraordinarily kind, generous, or helpful, what might you do that would truly honor them and God?
It’s astounding how thoroughly ungodly nearly every example we’re given in books, TV, and movies is today. Recklessness, selfishness, isolation, and sexual immorality are the typical marks of deep love according to the world around us. So where do we look to find a healthy example? We can look to these few verses for sure.
In this passage we find a remarkable example of God’s funneling all things to a particular time, place, and person for His divine purposes. And within that, we find an example of one of the more spectacular expressions of godly gratitude, love, and devotion anywhere in the Bible.
With that, there are two main aspects of this passage and sermon. The first is the convergence of God’s providence toward this city, this Passover, this time, and this Man. EVERYTHING was coming together to bring the Son of God to His appointed hour. The second main aspect of this passage is the extravagant act of worship we see in 12:3 and its significance for Jesus’ imminent sacrifice. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is an example of what happens when we truly have eyes to see Jesus for who He is. It is a counter-cultural, holy response to the Son of God and His marvelous work.
The two big ideas of this passage are that God’s sovereign purposes were funneling all things to the cross and that getting even a small glimpse of that amazing grace leads to extravagant, holy praise. And the main takeaways are to trust in God through every circumstance and praise Him first and most.
CONVERGENCE OF PROVIDENCE
The setting of this passage is exceptionally important. After raising Lazarus from the dead, the Pharisees began issuing murderous threats regarding Jesus. For that reason, Jesus made his way to the calmer northern countryside, to a town called Ephraim. That area was around 12 miles from Jerusalem and 10 miles from Bethany, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s hometown.
11:55 tells us that as Passover drew near, “many went up from the country to Jerusalem”. That is, people from around the nation of Israel began to make their way towards Jerusalem—at that time, upwards of 150,000 people each year. The aim of many of them was to arrive in time to “purify themselves” of any “ceremonial defilement” (Carson, PLNT, 424) they’d incurred in obedience to God’s command (found in Numbers 9 and 2 Chronicles 30).
“The ceremonial cleansing for which many came early to Jerusalem was…required of lay people at Passover because the men had to enter the court of priests to bring their lambs to be sacrificed. Those requiring ritual cleansing needed to undergo this seven days before Passover” (Cruise, TNTC, 256).
With word having spread concerning Lazarus, many of the Jews who’d arrived early “56 were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?’”
Certainly, some were wondering because they were amazed by the stories and wanted to see (and maybe believe) for themselves. Likewise, there were certainly others who simply loved a controversy and wanted to see what their leaders would do in light of the fact that “57 the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”
Either way, the fact of the matter is that there was a great buzz in Jerusalem as people arrived early for purification and were waiting to find out if Jesus would come and what would happen to Him if He did.
Well, 12:1 tells us that Jesus was among the masses who were descending on Jerusalem, most certainly as a part of a larger group. It also tells us that Jesus arrived at Bethany six days before the Passover. That would have been a Friday (with the Passover being the following Thursday). As we saw in 11:18, Bethany was around two miles from Jerusalem. That is not a great distance, but it is more than a Sabbath day’s journey. For that reason, most of the people traveling with Jesus would have continued on to Jerusalem because if they didn’t, they would have had to stay there until Sunday.
The fact that Jesus didn’t continue on meant two important things. First, it meant, as we just saw, that Jesus would have to stay in Bethany on Saturday and not arrive in Jerusalem until Sunday. Second, it meant that those who had been traveling with Him would have arrived two days before Jesus and told everyone that Jesus was coming indeed. That’s largely what accounts for the fever pitch that had developed by the time Jesus arrived, fueling the Triumphal Entry on Sunday.
The main takeaway for us here is to see and trust in the awesome providence of God.
Michael Zvonar is an administrative wiz. Frequently, over the past many months I’ve watched him juggle tens of things at once. He’s able to take our ideas and make them happen by directing all kinds of people, food, copies, rooms, resources, etc. to a common end. It really is impressive. It often makes my head spin.
And yet, what Michael does well for a single event at a single place among a relatively small number of people, God is always doing for all things in perfect goodness. All things…always…perfect goodness. It’s impossible to overstate the wisdom and power required to even comprehend such a thing (I can barely get my mind around how Michael does it). How much more to accomplish it?! The more you think on it, the more staggering it really is.
This passage helps us to see that what’s always true in all things is particularly true of these events in Jesus’ life and ministry. God designed an entire covenant people group with a cosmic funnel, directing all of them to one place, at one time, to fulfill promises He’d made over millennia, in one man. Can you even begin to fathom what it would take to accomplish that?! Can you even begin to grasp the glory this is?!
What’s more, that which is generally true at all times and places, and is true for this particular passage in crystal clear ways, is also true for you and me. Grace, God really is working all things together for good for all who love Him (Romans 8:28).
Your trials are not in vain. They are not arbitrary. They are never wasted. If God could use something as tragic as the Son of God being hunted and executed for greatest good and glory, He can use your struggling relationship, your past sin, your present loneliness, your busted plans, your sickness, your demotion at work, your failed assignment, your school bully, and every other challenge in your life to give you a greater glimpse into His infinite glory.
In helping me process some of the hard things we’ve been through together over the past decade, Kyle reminded me of very specific ways that we are now significantly stronger and healthier in the Lord on the other side of the trials than we were before.
Similarly, your joys and victories and answered prayers are the working of the Lord for good and glory as well. In some ways it’s easier to see that God is working in those areas, and in some ways it’s harder, but God is working in and through them all regardless of our level of consciousness.
And, Grace Church, God is working all things for greatest good and glory in the mundane as well. Most days for most of us are spent folding laundry, watching a show, performing menial tasks, whipping noses, grocery shopping, working an ordinary job, changing the oil, getting the house ready for winter, doing homework, or some other ordinary thing. Most moments for most of us are spent apart from any real thought about anything other than that which is right in front of us.
A right understanding of one of the implications of this passage, however, compels us to think differently. Grace, God has just as much goodness and glory in each of those unconscious moments as He does during the highest highs and lowest lows. Our perception of God’s working is often a poor indicator of the actual reality—He is always perfectly orchestrating all things for the greatest good of all His people.
Constantly and consciously trust in Jesus, Grace Church, at all times and in all things, for He is working for your good at all times and in all things. Look to God’s remarkable orchestration of the events of this passage and remember that He’s working in the exact same way in your every high, low, and ordinary experience. And as you do, you’ll find a kind of freedom and peace and courage and rest that you’ve never known.
That leads us to the second main thrust of this passage—the extravagant praise of Mary. The divinely orchestrated, cosmic funnel has let Jesus to a reunion with Lazarus and his sisters. With this glimpse back into the life of this family, we find out that they are still filled to overflowing with love and gratitude for Jesus’ miraculous work in their lives.
12 1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there.
I love the beginning of verse two. Is it the most disproportionate earthly response ever? As I invited you in the beginning, I invite you again to think about this. What does it look like to honor God and a person who blessed you? It seems obvious that whatever the answer, the response must be at least somewhat proportional to the gift, right?
Thanks for the stick of gum yesterday, here’s a Jolly Rancher. That seems about right, right?
As the gift gets bigger, generally, the expression of gratitude gets somewhat proportionately bigger along with it.
Thanks for helping me move out of the dorm, here’s a gift certificate for Chipotle. That makes sense.
Thanks for pulling my son out of the burning car. We could never repay you, but my husband is a woodworker and he made you this one-of-a-kind, hand carved, coffee table out of an exotic wood. Something like that, right?
When we come to this passage, however, things don’t quite follow that pattern. Hey, remember when you raised my brother from the dead after four days of being all-dead? Yeah? Well, we thought we’d have you over for some burgers to say thanks. It’ll get a bit better by v.3, but how do you actually thank someone proportionately for a resurrection? Of course, you can’t. That’s the heart of the gospel and that’s why we need God’s Word to know how to respond to God’s amazing mercy and grace.
John continues by describing what each of the three siblings were doing. Martha, consistent with her now-millennia-old reputation, was hard at work (“Martha served’). And Lazarus was just hanging out with Jesus (“Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him at table”). But Mary had something else in mind.
Mary’s Extravagant Praise
Look at v.3.
3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Mary poured an entire pound of “ointment” on Jesus’ feet. A pound is a shockingly large amount of perfume. But it was not merely the amount that made her act border on absurd. It was also the quality and cost. That it was made from “pure nard” meant that it was extracted from a plan that had to be imported from a great distance away. And John’s commentary on Judas’s response explains just how expensive it was. V.5 indicates that it was worth more than what an ordinary worker would make in an entire year. Further, the fact that the fragrance filled the entire house testified to it’s high quality.
But she wasn’t done. Not only did she poor it on Jesus’ feet, but she also wiped Jesus’ perfumed feet with her hair. Women wouldn’t have let down their hair like this, much less used it in such an intimate way, much less at a public dinner. This too was a remarkable, almost unprecedented, act.
The question, of course, is what this meant. Why did Mary do such a thing? I read a good deal about this, this week. There are all kinds of ideas about what Mary was thinking. Some suggest it was her way of anointing Jesus as king. Others believe it to be an astounding act of one who saw herself as the lowest servant of the greatest master. Perhaps it was spontaneous; the only thing she could think of in light of Jesus’ unmatchable gift.
In the end, however, there are two things that all agree on. First, whatever else Mary might have meant, she meant it to be an extravagant act of affection and devotion. And second, as we’ll see in just a bit, it was ultimately, though unknown to Mary at the time, an anointing of Jesus body for His burial.
Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and He would be worshiped as such, but He’d come first to die and rise from the dead. In the end, Mary’s act of humble love, extravagant as it was in earthly terms, couldn’t begin to touch what Jesus was about to give (His own life). What looks, therefore, on the surface to be an absurdly over-the-top gesture, ends up being absurdly inadequate both for what Jesus had already brought her (Lazarus back from the dead) and, more significantly, what He’d come to bring her (forgiveness and reconciliation).
Be amazed by this, Grace. Be amazed by the unparalleled love of God in Jesus Christ. There is no proportionate response. We offer ourselves, therefore, as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to the Lord. This is the essence of faith and Christian discipleship. We offer all that we have to gain more than we could ever imagine. No sacrifice that we might make or gift we might give could possibly compare to that which Jesus soon would. What’s more, God’s grace is such that every sacrifice we might make in faith will be repaid one billion-fold in the life to come. Mary gave everything she had, which certainly seemed nuts to those present, because she had eyes to see that Jesus is infinitely greater. O, that we might have her eyes! What would it look like in your life if you truly knew the amazingness of the grace of God? Don’t be afraid to consider it.
Even though (as Jesus will soon confirm) Mary’s action was entirely appropriate, not everyone was happy about it. In a foreshadowing of what’s to come,
4 … Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Obviously, for reasons John makes clear, Judas’s response was sinful and wrong. But the thing that kept coming to my mind and heart as I tried to wrestle with this text this week was concern over what my own response would have been.
I don’t think stealing from Jesus and the ministry would have been my temptation. But I do think I’d have been a bit too rational. Instead of the poor, I probably would have been thinking about how the money would have made sure our important ministry was able to continue without the stress of not knowing where the next few days’ expenses would come from.
How about you? What is your first thought when you hear of someone acting in some way that only works if God is real? How do you respond when someone does something in obedience to Jesus that looks foolish by ordinary standards?
What if you had a friend who actually sold everything they had—every last possession and asset—to support a church planting effort and orphanage among an unreached people group? Are you more likely to be genuinely inspired by their faith or believe them to be nuts?
What comes to your mind when you hear of someone moving to a third world country with six young kids to live among the locals in the name of Jesus? “How irresponsible” or “Jesus is worth it”?
How about someone who, as a means of communicating the love of God, always has their home open to and filled with strangers who need a meal and a relationship?
How about the person handing out sandwiches, blankets, and gospel tracks to the homeless?
Of course, not all of us are called to do all of these things, all the time. But I’m afraid that not only do many of us do them none of the time, but we also often look down on those who do (probably as a defense mechanism to keep us from having to acknowledge our own fear and faithlessness). May we learn from Mary and Judas that extravagant praise and costly obedience are right whenever we’re following Jesus.
Finally, then, consider Jesus’ response with me.
7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
There are three keys to these two verses. First, Jesus shut down Judas’s reasoning, both because He knew Judas’s true motives and because his logic was wrong even on the surface. Jesus affirmed the rightness of Mary’s action in the face of Judas’s verbal protestation and, more than likely, the unspoken protests of some of the rest. In essence, Jesus said, “Judas, I know your real motives. Quit pretending to care about the poor. However, even if you weren’t a thief and your concern really was for the poor, you’d still be wrong in your priorities at this hour.
Second, Jesus revealed the fuller meaning of Mary’s act. An alternative translation helps us better understand what Jesus meant. “Leave her alone; it was intended to be kept for the day of my preparation.” In other words, Jesus was most likely revealing that the perfume Mary had just poured on Him had been set aside by God for this exact purpose. It’s possible that this perfume had been passed down for generations. Mary might have thought of it as her inheritance or insurance or something else, but Jesus reveals here that the Father had bigger and better plans. It was intended by God to be kept for this day, for this reason: to prepare Jesus for the death He was about to die, in love, for the world. That’s amazing to consider, isn’t it?
And third, Jesus is always first. This is in line with the first point, and the reason Judas was wrong even if he was thinking about the poor. We can only really help the poor when we love Jesus first and most. This is because what the poor (and everyone else) needs most is not only physical food, but food that satisfies eternally.
Grace, the urgency of the things of earth combined with the wisdom of this world will always conspire to keep us from having our quiet times before jumping into the day’s demands. Slowing down to be still before God will never feel as urgent as crying kids or work/school deadlines or car repairs. The to-do list will always yell louder than our Fighter Verse time if we let it.
Grace, we should help the poor (and tend to our kids, work, school, projects, duties, etc.) according to Jesus’ command and example, but we should do so having drunk fully from the cup of God’s grace in Jesus. Jesus is always first if we want to love others best.
I said at the beginning that the two big ideas of this passage are that God’s sovereign purposes were funneling all people, promises, and history to a single place, time, and Man and that getting even a small glimpse of that leads to extravagant, holy praise. And the main takeaways are to trust in God through every circumstance and praise Him in the highest. May we do so today in ever-increasing measure, in the power of the Spirit, having been cleansed and freed by the One for whom no praise is too extravagant. And as we do, we will become an even greater blessing to those around us.