John 12

Bill McFarland

March 20, 2005


We have sung together this morning some very beautiful songs about loving the Lord: “O How I Love Jesus,” “I Love the Lord,” and “My Jesus I Love Thee.”  Songs like that stir us and move us.  But in order to learn what those songs mean, we want to turn, not to a beautiful song, but to a beautiful deed done to the Lord.  It is a story recorded for us here in John 12, but also in Mark 14:3 and following and Matthew 26:6 and following. 

The Bible says, “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  So they gave a dinner for him there.  Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table.  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.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’  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.  Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.  The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.’”

The Noble Act

That passage describes a noble act, and one which needs to make an impression on us.  Recorded here is the first event of what we call the “Passion Week,” or what someone has referred to as “The eight days that changed the world.”  Beginning with the Saturday before the Lord’s death and going through the Sunday morning when he was raised up, this is the first of those events that are narrated by John.  The Bible says that Jesus came to Bethany six days before the Passover.  The best we can figure it, that means that the event we are about to study happened on the Saturday evening.  The Sabbath has finished at sundown and on that Saturday evening this episode occurs.  The following day the triumphal entry into Jerusalem is going to happen.  And then a week like no other will begin to unfold.

This passage refers to what happens at Bethany.  John 11:18 tells us that Bethany was a village about two miles out from Jerusalem, and apparently, as the passages will go ahead to show, this is where Jesus would return to spend the night during this week in which he teaches at Jerusalem.  This is the place where Lazarus was, the one who had been recently been raised from the dead by the power of the Lord.  That was a deed or a work of Jesus that so stirred things that his enemies were saying, “Everybody is going to be following him if we don’t do something.”  So they had an interest, not only in getting rid of Jesus but also in getting rid of Lazarus, as verse 10 of John 12 shows. 

Here at Bethany that night, the Bible says they gave a dinner for Jesus.  His disciples were present.  It must have been quite a sizable gathering.  It is no wonder, when you think about it, that this scene produced something that is to be remembered by all of us.  Mix in the characters who are noted in this passage.  One fellow sitting there with Jesus has been raised up from the dead.  This is the only passage in the Bible where we find any of the subsequent deeds of people who have been raised from the dead by God, other than Jesus himself.

Notice that this occurs at the house of Simon the leper (Matthew and Mark both tell us).  There have been all kinds of speculations about who this man is.  He is apparently a man who has been healed from his leprosy, probably by Jesus himself.  I am of the persuasion myself that Simon the leper was most likely the father of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, those who were such dear friends of Jesus.  I believe that because while this dinner was made at Simon’s house, Martha is the one who is serving, and that would suggest some reason for it.  Also present are the Lord’s disciples, and notable among them in this passage, Judas, because Judas is the one who does the talking for the group here.  He is the one who is about to do the ugliest deed ever done.  He is going to betray the Son of God for a few pieces of useless silver.  He is going to do it with a kiss in a prearranged way to deliver him to his enemies.

Then there is Mary, a gentle, spiritually-minded woman who has been perhaps the best listener that Jesus has ever had, and someone who had already shown her ability to choose the good part, as Jesus described it in Luke 10.  Mary is the one who did the thing that was unexpected that night, unexpected and wonderful, and the thing that became the point of discussion.  While they are there around the table (apparently they ate around a low, kind of inverted U-shape table usually and they would recline on their left elbow with their feet out), Mary comes up, and she has a pound of very expensive oil or perfume.  It is kept in an expensive little jar.  She breaks the seal on that jar, and apparently the vessel itself, and pours that oil over Jesus’ head.  Matthew indicates it was over his whole body.  John here says it was on his feet.  And without any thought for herself, she unbinds her hair and begins to dry the excess ointment from his feet.  While that is going on, the fragrance of this oil fills the whole house and everywhere Mary looks, she is met with disapproving glances, maybe angry glances. 

Jesus hears the grumbling that is going on.  Judas and the others are complaining about the wastefulness of this act.  Jesus immediately comes to Mary’s side, and he says to them that they are not to interfere with her, but that she has done what he calls in Matthew and Mark a good work on him or “a beautiful deed,” and “she has done what she could,” Matthew and Mark indicate that Jesus said that night, “Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” 

The Rich Meaning

Along with what we have done today to remember Jesus, we need to have in our minds the fixed memory of this woman’s loving act.  Mary becomes a model for all worshipers.  She teaches us what it means to love the Lord.  We learn from this woman what Jesus considers to be an act of beautiful devotion to him.  And here we learn how to do what we have been singing about this morning.  What does it mean, after all, to love the Lord?  When we talk about loving our wives or husbands or loving our children or loving our friends, we may be talking about something that is meaningful to us, but it could be different from what the concept of loving the Lord is all about.  We don’t see him.  He is not here physically in our presence.  Loving him involves other things than how we normally speak. 

Let’s learn then from Mary, first, that loving the Lord means being so deeply grateful to him that you want more than anything to express it openly, for it to be seen, for him to know how much you love him.  Mary is doing something here that was not demanded or commanded of her.  No one forced her to go get her expensive perfume and bring it and pour it on Jesus.  Why did she do it then?  John 12:3 offers an interesting clue.  They are all gathered at the table.  Lazarus is also one of those reclining with him at the table.  “Mary therefore…” it says.  What does “therefore” mean?  Does it mean that she was moved by gratitude for the fact that Jesus had raised up her brother and given him back to her?  If Simon the leper does happen to have been the father of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, had Jesus healed and given her father back to her?  Was she remembering the times when she had sat at the Lord’s feet and heard the great truths of eternity which she treasured in her heart?  Was it “therefore” because of her love and her gratitude and her devotion that this dear lady wanted to complete the circle of love to show her love for him?  Was she loving him who first loved her?  Was Mary the kind of a person who knew that when heaven extends its love and mercy and might that it is only reasonable that that love ought to be returned?  Was she better than some of us who want to soak in the blessings and never want to express a “thank you” or to show any appreciation or any gratitude for what God has done for us?  Mary was of the spirit which says, “Someone has blessed me so richly.  I want to let them know that I appreciate it.”  Love has to be returned, and Mary was the kind of person who saw that.

Sometimes in the church today we allow ourselves to develop the attitude that unless we are commanded to do it, we are not going to do it, and that unless the Lord demanded that we not do it, that we don’t have to not do it.  The idea that develops in our minds if we are not careful is expressed in what I hear some of our brethren say, “only whether it is a salvation issue or not.”  And it is almost as if to say that unless you are going to tell me that I am going to go to hell if I do it or if I don’t do it, then I really don’t care what pleases the Lord and what honors him.  I noted recently that Bro. Cecil May wrote, “This idea “is it a salvation issue” is the wrong question.  Whether it is asked about instrumental music in worship or social drinking or attendance at Wednesday night services, it is the wrong question.  God’s love for us leads us to love him.  Grace produces gratitude.  People who are redeemed should be more interested in learning and doing what is pleasing to our Savior than in trying to determine just what we have to do to keep from going to hell.”  I believe that is well said.  You see it in the spirit of Mary.

Secondly, loving the Lord means to commit you very best to him in devotion and service.  There are details in this story that are fascinating when you stop to think about it.  “Nard” was the product of a very rare plant which grew in the high pasture land of the Himalayas between India and Tibet.  It was far off from where Mary lived, and that may be one reason why this rare substance that she possesses here is said by John, Mark and Matthew to have been “costly” or “expensive” or “very expensive,” as one of the writers puts it.  And then it was kept in an alabaster vase or jar.  Alabaster was made of a rare white marble that was imported from west of Egypt in Africa.  Notice that this woman had a pound of this substance.  Have you ever noticed how powerful just a little drop of perfume is?  The pound talked about here is probably the Roman measurement, which in our weights would be about 11 ½ or 12 ounces instead of our 16.  But that is a whole lot of perfume.  Normally this was saved for the rarest of occasions, and probably for the death of someone beloved to a family, and the body would be anointed in this way.  If not for that, then it would be used for anointing special people like kings and such.  But this woman brings that precious container of even more precious ointment or perfume, and Mark says that she breaks the container and she pours it all on Jesus, not just on his head which might ordinarily have been done, but even on his feet like John says in this passage.  It was such an expensive, extravagant, lavish gift that she was offering that Judas, not moved by love, began to complain about the wastefulness of it.  This could have been sold for enough for a year’s wages for a working man.  It would have taken only 200 denarii to have fed the 5,000 back in John 6.  That is how much the ointment could have been sold for.  To Judas this just did not make any sense.  But he didn’t understand Mary’s love for the Lord.

One time I was at a wedding.  It meant a lot to the young couple, obviously.  They were deeply in love with each other.  It meant a lot to their families.  They were moved by the love they saw in that couple and what they hoped and dreamed for that couple’s future.  They had provided as nicely as they could for the wedding.  I heard someone who attended the wedding says, “I could have lived six months on this!”  That person didn’t understand the love that was taking place there.

The main difference between the kind of discipleship practiced by Mary and that practiced by Judas was love, or the lack of it.  Which is yours more like today?  Are you more likely to let it run over in lavish extravagance, or are you more likely to say that would be wasteful and how little can I get by with?

Third, love for the Lord involves humbling yourself before him in self-forgetful submission.  Here is Mary at the feet of Jesus.  Wiping the feet was usually the work of a slave.  In the next chapter of John you are going to find Jesus putting a towel around his waist and starting to wash feet.  Mary is showing that she completely humbles herself, to be not only at his feet doing the work of a slave, but unbinding her hair which an upright Jewish woman did not do in public, and then drying his feet with her hair.  Don’t confuse this with the sinful woman in Luke 7.  Her using her hair to dry his feet shows how completely she is thinking of him and not herself.  When others begin to murmur, it shows that she hasn’t stopped to think of what others are going to think or say.  She has not thought of herself at all in this.  Her mind is upon him, and she is thinking about honoring him. 

There is a lesson again for us.  Judas apparently had his mind set on some kind of gain that he was going to get from Jesus.  Loving the Lord for Mary meant, though, that she would humble herself before him, and she is giving to him.  She is not demanding to get something back from it for herself.  We can’t even come to worship without thinking of what we are going to get out of it instead of what we are going to express to him.

Fourth, loving the Lord means paying attention to him to the point that you develop a sympathetic insight into his own mind.  Luis said something as we observed the Lord’s Supper which I believe is important.  That is that Jesus had predicted what was going to happen to him at Jerusalem to his disciples.  He had told them, “The Son of man is going to be delivered into the hands of sinners.”  He had tried to tell them that he was going to be suffering, and he was going to be killed.  But they had not understood it.  Here is Mary, though, according to Jesus, anointing his body before hand for burial.  That is the way Mark and Matthew record it.  I believe that has to mean that at least to some degree Mary saw what she was doing.  The disciples may have listened and missed the point.  But this dear lady apparently saw enough of what was going to happen.  She knew that because of the resurrection of her brother the enemies had determined to do something.  She had heard the people grumbling.  She had listened to Jesus’ predictions.  She saw what lay ahead, at least to some degree.  She, being in tune with what Jesus was thinking and what Jesus knew, anointed him beforehand for his burial.  That is how thoughtful she had become.

Stop and think of this.  The other women went out early on the first day of the week to that tomb with a bunch of spices intending to finish the burial process for Jesus.  But the body wasn’t there.  Mary had done the anointing beforehand.  I know that Joseph and Nicodemus did some preparation, too, but Mary shows the loving deed here that is so impressive and important.

Next, to love the Lord is to seize the opportunity to do him honor while he is there.  They complained about caring for the poor.  Jesus point was, “The poor need to be cared for alright, but just for now for this point anointing me is more important than caring for the poor.”  One day not long ago some people came wanting some food.  There was a fellow and a lady that he was not married to.  They told me they were living together and had a child or two, and there was another lady also living with them.  One of the ladies was trying to thank us for helping them, and the boy commented, “Well, that’s what churches are supposed to do.”  I didn’t argue with him.  But I want to tell you, what churches are supposed to do is to fix their eyes on Jesus and to do what they do for him.  We are not merely a social service organization.  Whatever we do as a church we do for him, and we want to be careful not to forget that.  Mary is seizing that opportunity to honor him while it is there. 

Someone wrote, “If he earns your praise, bestow it.  If you like him let him know it.  Let the words of true encouragement be said.  If you think some credit’s due him, now’s the time to slip it to him for he cannot read his tombstone when he is dead.”  We learn from Mary that some things can only be done right now.

And then, love for the Lord involves doing what you can for him.  In Mark 13:8, Mark says, “She has done what she could.”  Isn’t it a wonderful thing that that is all the Lord ever has required from any of us.  Love does not say, “When I get, then I will; or if I had, I would.”  Love simply does what it can right then.  That is what makes it so meaningful.  Someone said, “I am only one, but I am one.  I cannot do everything, but I can do something; what I can do, I ought to do; what I ought to do, I will do; so help me God.”  In II Cor. 8:12, Paul said if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has.

And then I want to mention that loving the Lord means being able to think long term – to see the ultimate things – to see and to measure in terms of what somebody called the ultimate economy.  Mary’s investment and use of her precious nard that day made no sense to some of the people.  She could have used a little of it.  Maybe that would have made more sense.  But we wouldn’t be talking about her today and Jesus wouldn’t have said, “Wherever the gospel is preached, this will be told as a memorial for her.”  She could see the good part as the Lord honored her with saying in Luke 10.

Loving the Lord means for us to see so clearly who he is that we give ourselves to him right now and do what we can in his service because we are looking to eternity.  Mary expressed her faith in Jesus and offered him a gift worthy of a king.  There is no possible way for you and I to do that now without simply giving ourselves. 

I wonder today if you are a person who is interested in doing that.  If you would confess your faith in the Lord and be baptized into him, live for him, and if we can help you in doing that in some way, would you please indicate so right now while we stand and sing together?