Study Notes 6-9-13: Jesus Anointed at Bethany

John Chapter 12

This chapter begins the final week of the life of Christ.  James Boice has a great summary of what we’re about to read:

The events of this week contain the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the cursing of the fig tree, the Olivet discourse recorded by the Synoptics, the final discourses with the disciples recorded by John, the Last Supper, the arrest, trials, and crucifixion of Jesus, and the embalming and burial of the body by Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus. After three more days the events of this week are climaxed by the resurrection.

12:1-2 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.

It’s perhaps helpful to read Mark’s Gospel as well, to add more context to the passage:

And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. [4] There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? [5] For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. [6] But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. [7] For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. [8] She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. [9] And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” [10] Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. (Mark 14:3-10 ESV)

We first notice that it is only a short time before the Passover, and Jesus is in Bethany once again. He was dangerously close to Jerusalem, and even though He could have taken a more direct root into the city from Ephraim, He chose instead to go this route and stop here in Bethany. Everything He does has meaning and a reason. He knows fully what is going to happen, and yet He takes His time, and does all things in His own timing.

It reminds me of how He waited for two days before going to raise Lazarus, and we’ll see that as the Pharisees mocked Him on the cross, yet He stayed up there. They saw that as a sign of Him not being in control, but it was actually a sign of Him having full control!  He did all things in His time, for time is God’s doulos!

A Reminder of the Resurrection and Power of Christ

In their midst was a sign of inaugurated eschatology and the great hope for the future that Christ provides. Lazarus, who was raised from the dead, was a preview of the power that Christ held over death, not only for His own resurrection, but ours as well.

We need to understand what vital importance the concept of resurrection is to the Christian. Paul says this:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. [20] But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. [21] For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. [22] For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:19-22 ESV)

J.C. Ryle celebrates this reality well:

If we believe that Jesus rose again, we need not doubt the truth of His Messiahship, the reality of His acceptance as our Mediator, and the certainty of our own resurrection. Christ has risen indeed, and wicked men may well tremble. Christ has risen from the dead, and believers may well rejoice.

It is a beautiful truth to cherish that Jesus has the power over death and hell. It gives us great comfort.  The fact that death will not have the final word allows us to live a life with no fear of the one thing that all men fear. We have not only been set free from our slavery to sin, but also from the end game of all sin (death).

Not only this, but we have been given the keys to loose others from death by the spread of the gospel! We have this mission from Christ who has all authority and is the real power behind our work:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. [19] Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, [20] teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

Here sitting in their midst was a living picture of the work of Christ. The works of His ministry could be summed up by looking around this room: men raised from the dead, sinners forgiven, His kingship exalted, His servants learning at His feet.

12:3 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.

NOTE: “nard” or “spikenard” is an oil extracted from the root and spike of the nard plant, grown in India according to D.A. Carson.  The amount of the nard seems to have been 11 ounces.

To Mary, who gave her expensive “nard” (perfume) to anoint Christ, this was not worthy to be compared to the value of Jesus.

This precious ointment was worth about one year’s salary for people at that time, but Mary used it all in seconds. This was extravagant love. There are times for extravagance, and it is always time for an extravagant manifestation of adoration to Christ. What could you and I possibly do that would be too extravagant in honoring Jesus, too extravagant in praising Him, too extravagant in giving Him glory? – R.C. Sproul

She would have given everything to honor Jesus.  This was the Resurrection and The Life. This was the man who raised her brother from the dead. The great majestic King of kings was reclining at her table and it was not lost on her!  She cast her all before the throne.

J.C. Ryle Comments:

At this very moment she saw Lazarus, alive and well, sitting by her Master’s side, – her own brother Lazarus, whom He had brought back to her from the grave. Greatly loved, she thought she could not show too much love in return. Having freely received, she freely gave.

But more than simply give Him the gift, she served Him in a most self-abasing manner. She took what was the glory of women (her hair) and used it to clean the dirtiest part of man in those days (their feet).  It was an act of humility as well as an act of giving.

Morris comments, “The act is more striking in that a Jewish lady never unbound her hair in public. This was apparently seen as a mark of loose morals. But Mary did not stop to calculate public reaction. Her heart went out to her Lord, and she gave expression to her feelings in this beautiful and touching act.”

I believe that Mary’s sense of her own indebtedness were a strong motivation for these actions.  Those who have a great sense of debt, have a greater sense of gratitude!  This reminds us of the of a similar incident in Luke’s gospel where another woman had anointed Jesus at the house of a Pharisee. This woman was described as a sinner, and after her anointing of Jesus with her tears, the reaction was not a positive one by some of those near Jesus.  But what is Jesus’ reaction?  Listen to this:

“A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. [42] When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” [43] Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” [44] Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. [45] You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. [46] You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. [47] Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:41-47 ESV)

Because we have been forgiven SO much, we also ought to love much. Mary had nothing to give that would equal the way she felt about Jesus. Christian, do you feel that way?  Do you act this way?  Do you lavish upon Christ the honor he is due? Are your prayers ornamented with rich adoration and thanksgiving for what he has done for you?

In truth, there is nothing that we can do apart from Christ that would please Him, but the fact that what Mary’s actions did please Christ tells us something, it tells us that she was led be the Spirit to do this and it pleased Christ.

12:4-6 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.

The Reaction of Judas is the Reaction of the World

Judas was a thief, so of course he was angry at this display of selfless giving. Why didn’t this gift come into his wise stewardship first? “It could have been given to the poor!” He protests.  Judas reminds me in many ways of a television evangelist in that he’s stealing the gifts of those who want to see the kingdom expanded. The only difference is that many televangelists are much more open about their thievery: “I need you to give right now, the jet I’ve been flying around on needs to be upgraded!” Judas at least kept it private. This was the man who Jesus says would have been better off never having been born!  How can you trump that?  And yet the Joel Olsteens of the world are even more blatant!

I mention this because it is a modern day plague we face in America – false teachers who value their own success and financial health over the health of the church and the success of the Gospel.

The Great Contrast

Judas’ words smack of dishonesty, but more than that they betray a truth that we need to take note of going forward, namely that what we prize most of all is what is made manifest in this passage.   The world and all those under the control of Satan prize money, success, and luxuries in this life. What do they all have in common?  They are finite.

Ryle’s comments can’t be easily overlooked:

A day is soon coming when a wondering world will see that every cup of cold water given for Christ’s sake, as well as every box of precious ointment, was recorded in heaven, and has its rewards. In that great day those who thought that any one could give too much to Christ will find they had better never have been born.

Compare this to Mary who prized that which is of infinite value: peace with God, eternal life, eternal rewards, forgiveness of sin, and of course our Lord Jesus who is the giver of all these things.

12:7 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.”

It is impossible to see this as some kind of slight to the poor, for Christ had already given much to the poor and the sick during His ministry. Rather this was His way to once again helping the disciples realize that this was a special time in history. This was the short blip on history’s timeline when the timeless One had come to usher in His kingdom and forever change the paradigm of this world. There would be plenty of time for fasting (Matt. 9:14-15) and serving once He was gone. Now was the time to listen, to watch and to learn.

James Boice makes an interesting point about the perspective of Mary.  For some time now Jesus had been telling His disciples that He was going to die in Jerusalem – on the road from Ephraim to Jerusalem He told them this, and yet they didn’t seem to understand His words:

And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, [33] saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. [34] And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”(Mark 10:32-34)

Yet Mary seemed to understand exactly what was going on, and Boice says that the reason for this was likely the fact that she spent her time learning from Jesus and listening to Him.  She was at His feet learning and listening.  When I digest this for myself it makes me want to be like Mary. Am I learning at the feet of Christ? In other words, am I in the Word?  Am I devouring His words with the same hunger and eagerness that Mary did? Once I have heard my Lord’s words, do I turn and serve Him the way that Mary did?

12:9-11 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, [11] because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.

The Courage of Jesus’ Friends

The first thing that’s apparent here is that this dinner in honor of Jesus was not a private affair, but had become public knowledge.  James Boice comments on how must courage it must have taken for the friends’ of Jesus to hold a public celebration in His honor less than two miles from the heart of Jerusalem at a time when the religious elite were seeking to kill Him.

The Desperation of the Pharisees

The second thing that’s apparent here is just how desperate, and how foolish these religious leaders were. In their desperation they had tried time after time to silence Jesus, to arrest Him, to kill Him, and now they wanted to kill not only Jesus but Lazarus as well. I don’t know about you, but I got a chuckle out of this. The more I thought about it the more I thought, “these guys think it’s a good idea to try and kill the guy who was just raised from the grave? …Ya, that will work!”  But you can see into their demented minds, can you not?  The same motivation that caused the religious leader to ask the Romans to guard the tomb of Christ is the same thing motivating them to want Lazarus killed: if they can expunge these men from the earth, and they go away without any hope of return, then they will be able to confidently mock their power (as they did to Christ on the cross), and triumph over them.  They will be able to repaint the narrative to the people in their own words, and have the last word on the ministry of Christ.

But what happened? They would indeed succeed in mocking Christ, in killing Christ, in guarding His tomb, in beginning to repaint the narrative, and then they would themselves be crushed as their schemes imploded around them. They killed the Author of life (Acts 3:15) but Christ would burst through the power of death and conquer the grave! Did these mere mortals think their scheming would be a strong enough net to cast around the creator the time, space, and all of mankind?  What arrogant fools. Read what Peter said shortly after Christ rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven:

…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. [24] God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:23-24)

This same Jesus who has conquered the grave has crushed death to death and will one day loose you from the pangs of death and sickness.  He will wipe away every tear from your eyes. We must live in light of this reality, and give Him the honor He is due, just as Mary did 2000 years ago.

The Attractiveness of a Life Changed by Christ

The last thing we notice here is that Lazarus was a sort of attraction. People were coming to see him – not because of something he’d done, but what had been done to him by the Lord Jesus. James Boice challenges us to ask if the same can be said of us. Primarily it is the Lord who is in us that makes us attractive. It is not anything inhering in me, but the work of Jesus in me that makes me attractive, different, and, in short, like Jesus. I hope the same can be said of you.  Ironically, the firs step to being like Jesus is to surrender and stop trying but rather submit to His will and Lordship. Believe, that is what He wants. Humble yourselves under the might arm of God and allow Him to create in you a new and clean heart.

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