Scripture Reference: John 12
Jesus And Mary Of BethanyDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 30, 2004
Selected highlights from this sermon
Every time we see Mary of Bethany in the Scriptures, she is at the feet of Jesus. She listened to Him, wept before Him, and poured out perfume on His head and feet. She prepared our Savior for burial with an extravagant love.
Jesus, lover of a woman’s soul! That’s what we’re speaking about in this series of messages. Jesus, lover of a woman’s soul! What we’ve been learning is that Jesus not only respected women, but Jesus was willing to break the taboos in order to be with them in the proper holy way, and to use them and to communicate with them, and to encourage them in the proclamation of the Gospel and in their ministry.
Last time we noticed Jesus there not only talking to a woman, but talking to a Samaritan woman, talking to an immoral Samaritan woman. Today we come to a story of Mary of Bethany and how she anointed Jesus. Now this is not Mary Magdalene, as some people suppose, nor is it the unnamed woman of Luke 7. There are some similarities. Both women anointed Jesus. Both were in the home of a man whose name was Simon, but that Simon was a Pharisee, wanting to criticize Jesus. This is Simon, the leper. This is in a context in Bethany, just on the other side of the Mount of Olives where Jesus came to.
And the text of Scripture is found in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John, John chapter 12. There are three references to this story in the New Testament. There is one in the Gospel of Matthew, Mark and John, and we’re going to look at the one in the Gospel of John.
The Mary about whom we speak today is the Mary who was at the feet of Jesus three times. There are three references to her, and each time she is at the feet of her Lord. For example, Luke 10! This is the Mary who sat at the feet of Jesus while Martha, the activist, was taking time to prepare dinner. And Martha became upset with her sister and said, “Jesus, bid her help me.” And Jesus said, “She has chosen the good part that will not be taken away from her.” At the feet of Jesus!
Then in John 11 their brother, Lazarus, dies. And do you remember it says that as Jesus was coming to Bethany, Mary ran and fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died?”
And now here again we see this same Mary of Bethany at the feet of Jesus. This is a good time for us to actually read what happened. I’m going to begin at verse 2 in John 12. This is six days now before the Passover. “So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served (same story actually, but what would we do without the Martha’s in the church?), 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.”
Here she comes with this alabaster box, this box of perfume, of ointment, of pure nard. Nard was actually from a plant that was grown in India. Nard was very expensive to these people, and so Jesus is there reclining. He may have been actually reclining on the floor, as they often did, feet extended, and He’s around a low table, maybe a foot high. And Mary comes and she anoints Him. She anoints both His head and His feet, as the other texts clearly show. And what I want to submit to you today is that here is a woman who changed her world. The world is different because Mary of Bethany was in love with Jesus and anointed Him.
How did she change her world? I’d like to suggest three ways. First of all, by the example that she set! Later on when Judas becomes upset, it says in verse 4, “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?’” A denarii was about a day’s wage. About what a man would make in a day was a denarii. Three hundred! We’re talking about one year’s worth of work.
I’ll tell you what the people did in those days. If they had something this expensive, they put it in a flask, and this flask had a long neck. And this ointment was in that flask. And they would put it there, and then they would hide it because it was a hedge against inflation. No matter how bad things got, if you had something as expensive as this perfume, you knew that you could trade it in a little bit at a time at some point and you’d be able to live. This was very probably her retirement fund, all wrapped up in this one pound of nard, this expensive perfume.
And so Jesus is reclining there on the couch, and Mary gives us an example by lavishly–some would say foolishly– expending it all on Him. And you can just imagine as this runs onto Jesus Christ’s head and onto His feet, and drips onto the floor, that it appeared to those who were watching to be a waste. What a tremendous example of somebody who loves Jesus. And in that love is extravagance and in that love throws away that which is precious, because it is for Him. David said, “I will not offer sacrifices to the Lord of that which cost me nothing.”
Earlier today we received an offering. My wife and I contributed in that offering, and you contributed in that offering. And I have to ask you, even as I ask myself, was this just something thrown in? Have you ever done something very extravagant for Jesus? Have you ever taken a risk and simply said, “If it’s for Jesus, let’s do it even if it costs?” Mary set an example of lavish love.
I think that she also changed her world because of the fragrance that it produced. You’ll notice that the text says (and we’re still in verse 3): “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” What caused the fragrance? Well, as I understand it, this plant is taken and it is crushed. In fact, is that not how perfumes are made? If you have something like roses or other kinds of plants that are grown specifically to be perfume, to receive its essence you need to crush it. And that’s how the fragrance filled the room. And not only that, I believe that the top of the flask of the bottle was broken. There’s no way she could have simply poured it out unless that would have taken a long time. This was not something like our perfume. This was ointment. And so I can imagine her taking that flask and breaking the long neck off and just taking it and pouring it on His head, and pouring it on His feet, and the house is filled with the fragrance of the ointment. And it’s a reminder of the fact that it is God who uses broken things. It is God who uses crushed things.
You and I in our experience, if we’d never been broken, if we’d never been humbled, if the sense of pride and self-will has never been taken out of us, we will not have the fragrance of Jesus. You and I have met Christians (Have we not?) and as we get to know them we see nothing of Jesus in them, or very little of Jesus. I can tell you one thing about people like that. They’ve never been crushed by God. Never been crushed by God!
But it is in this process of humble obedience that God takes us through. I think of Jacob who was humbled in the area of his strength. Remember he was going to be reconciled with his brother, Esau. They had been estranged for 20 years, and so the night before he does this, he is there at the Brook of Jabbok, and as he is there, he is wrestling with God, and God touches the hollow of his thigh and he has to limp to see Esau. (chuckles) God says, “I’m going to weaken you,” because he was thinking there was going to be a fight. God says, “I want to make sure that you’re not going to depend on your own strength in case things go bad in this experience.”
And God loves to weaken us in the very area in which we are strong. We think to ourselves, “This is the area in which I excel,” and then we go through and God takes us through failure, and He takes us through disappointment, and He takes us through an experience where we are released from our responsibilities, and we begin to have all those self-doubts. “This was an area in which I have strength,” and God says, “I weaken you at the very point where you are strong,” because Paul says, “When I am weak, then am I strong.”
Now I like to think of these people leaving this home, and they are all carrying with them the fragrance of the room. I think they had to, so they are on their way home, and somebody says, “Hm, where did you get that?” It was Mary who opened her flask and anointed Jesus’ head and His feet,” and the fragrance, I think, that evening probably got beyond the house to most of the little town of Bethany.
Many years ago there was a Bible teacher in California–Pasadena, California. And during the afternoon he went through the rose garden, and when he came to the service in the evening people said, “Well, did you enjoy the roses?” And he thought he had been seen. But they said, “No, no, you’ve brought the fragrance of the rose garden with you.”
And isn’t that the way we should be? I think, by the way… I wasn’t able to verify it but I think that’s the basis of the song “I come to the garden alone when the dew is still on the roses.” It is there in the presence. There is a fragrance that we can take to others, the fragrance of forgiveness and acceptance and grace, even as we heard this morning.
And Mary changed her world. She changed her world because of the example that she set, and she changed her world because of the fragrance that her commitment produced. Always remember that before God uses people mightily, He crushes them. And He has a hundred different ways to do it. And we rebel against it and God says, “I’m not yet able to discern the fragrance, the real depth of the fragrance, the essence that I seek.”
I think she also changed her world because of the message she preached. In the Gospel of Mark, which is a parallel passage, and you really have to read all three accounts to get the full story, Jesus goes on to make a very interesting statement: “She has done what she could. She has anointed my body beforehand for burial, and truly I say to you that wherever the Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” And so what Jesus is saying is, “You are preaching the Gospel.”
Now Judas, who spoke not just for himself… Here again, if we took time to read all three accounts, we’d discover that some of the disciples, too, were indignant in saying, “Why this waste?” But Judas speaks for them. He’s a politician who wants to run on a “Let’s help the poor” platform. So what he does is he says, “Could not this have been sold and given to the poor?”
Now I think it’s wonderful to run on a “Let’s help the poor” platform. That’s not my point. My point is that Judas, the Bible goes on to say, said this not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief and he had the bag. He had their kitty of money, and he pilfered from it. And what he was thinking was, “Think of what I could do if I had that money, and think of how much of it I could steal.” That’s where his heart was.
Parenthesis: Is it possible for somebody to be on a “Let’s help the poor” program, who himself has hoarded hundreds of millions of dollars? I don’t know the answer to that. I’m only throwing it out for an interesting question. Sometimes you find those who are interested in helping the poor, and I’m saying, you know, there would be another way that you could really help the poor. But here in the case of Judas, what he’s doing is he is criticizing the way in which she was using her money. “What a stupid thing to do with money.”
Here at The Moody Church I think it’s been ten years at least since I’ve heard any criticism as to how we use our money. And that’s because we have an elder board and a finance committee, and all of our decisions are carefully and prayerfully made. But we as pastors sometimes get together at conferences, and we talk with other pastors, and one of the observations that some pastors have made is that sometimes the people who criticize the most are the ones who give the least, which is very interesting. Judas here represents somebody who said, “I don’t like what’s happening to that money,” but he had actually a very greedy self-serving heart.
Now, Jesus then says, “Wherever the Gospel is preached.” You know, you may say, “Isn’t it interesting that there are only two instances in the New Testament where women did this?” There’s the Luke 7 that I referred to, and then there’s this story. We may look and say, “Why only two women? Why not all of them? Why not the men?” I mean, this is, after all, Jesus the Savior, the only one qualified to forgive us. Why not just give Him anything? Why not just be extravagant and lavish? And so Jesus, the wonderful man that He is, He defends her. I love the Word that says, “Just let her alone.”
Shame on any man who is listening to this message who has never intervened for his wife or for another woman, and said to some other man, “Just leave her alone.” Leave her alone. Why are you troubled about how she’s using her ointment?
And then Jesus says this. He says, “Wherever the Gospel is preached, this story is going to be told.” And today I’m fulfilling the words of Jesus. This story is being told two thousand years later. And it’s been told many, many times between.
What is the Gospel that she preached? We need to look at this very carefully. It was the Gospel of Resurrection. Jesus said, “She’s done this for my burial.” In fact, you say, “Well, did she really know that Jesus was going to be crucified and buried?” Listen to the words of Matthew’s account. He was even clearer. “She did it to prepare me for burial,” he quotes Jesus as saying. Wow! This woman had insight that the disciples did not have. Jesus would tell the disciples, “I’m going to Jerusalem to die,” and Peter took Him aside and said, “No, Lord, don’t do that. It can’t happen to You,” because the disciples were looking for the kind of Messiah who was going to be a political leader. And here Jesus is teaching this woman, and three times at least we know she was at His feet. And she was absorbing what He was saying, and she knew that He was about to die. And she said, “I’m not going to wait until He dies before I give Him this ointment. I’m going to do it while He’s alive.” And Jesus said, “You’re doing it right now for my burial.” Wow! What insight!
But there’s something else in the text that I find interesting. The Bible says that when she anointed Him she wiped his feet with her hair. Now in those days usually a virtuous woman did not have her hair unbound. It was usually tied up, and was not allowed to simply fall freely.
Do you know what I think is going on here? There was another custom among the Jews that when you were in grief, when you were in mourning, it was at that time that you allowed your hair to fall and you looked unkempt to show your grief. And I like to think of Mary here, seeing that Jesus is about to die, and knowing that He’s about to die, and in light of the resurrection, most assuredly, she has her hair unbound and she is in grief because she knows that her master is going to pass through that iron gate, and she’s preparing Him already in advance for burial.
Isn’t it interesting that on Easter morning when the disciples and when the women go with spices so that they can better embalm the body of Jesus (That’s why they brought those spices.) that we have no record that this Mary went with them? What she was saying was, “I’ve already anointed Him when He was alive. I don’t have to bring spices after He is dead,” which is a good reminder for all of us. If you love somebody tell them while they are alive. Don’t do like one man did here in Chicago when his son died. He wrote a note and put it in the boy’s hand in the coffin. “I loved you.” I suggest you tell your boy that while he is living and not wait until he is dead. Give your wife flowers before she dies, gentlemen. A great idea! A great idea! (laughter) Amen! (applause)
And so here’s this woman who is willing to show her devotion. Now, of course, the women that did go on Resurrection Sunday loved Jesus too, I’m quick to say. Very, very much! And among them was Mary Magdalene. But this Mary, bless her, was having more insight, and saying, “I’m going to anoint Him now.”
She preached a message of resurrection. She also preached a message of grace to the whole world. First of all, we have in the text a broken vessel. Then we have a broken body. In a few days Jesus is going to say to the disciples, “This is my body which was broken for you.” And now suddenly we’re introduced to a broken world. Wherever the Gospel is preached this story is going to be told. It’s a story of love. It’s a story of grace. It’s a story of devotion.
I think that there are some concluding lessons that we can learn. First of all, love does not count the cost. Love does not count the cost! Love doesn’t look into that flask and say, “It’s worth 300 denarii,” or maybe it’s worth 320 denarii or 400 denarii, or 250 denarii. Love says, “It’s for Jesus. Just do it.” That’s the way love is. It takes risks. In the eyes of the world it does foolish things. The practical thing to do is to not give. The practical thing to do is not to throw your life away as a missionary. Do the practical thing. That’s the way the world looks at it, but love says, “I’ll go to the mission field.” Love says, “I’ll give.” Love says, “I’ll lay down my life.” Love says, “If it’s for Jesus, we do it.” That’s what love says. (applause)
There’s something in this text that just takes my breath away. In the Gospel of Mark, it says that Judas said these words: “Why this waste?” Do you want to know about somewhere else in the Bible where that word waste occurs? It occurs in John 17 where Jesus said, “Those whom you have given me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition…” It’s translated perdition. We could translate it, “None of them is lost but the son of waste.” Wow! Here is Judas criticizing this woman because he’s saying she wasted her money, and Judas wastes his whole life. He wastes his whole life. Son of perdition! The Greek word is the son of waste. We sometimes use the word in a different context. We say, “He got wasted.”
My wife and I attended the funeral of a young person who overdosed on drugs, a teenager in high school, and we thought to ourselves, “What a waste! What a waste!” My dear friend, listen to me carefully today. Jesus said that if you hang on to your life, you will waste it. You will lose it, but he who is willing to lay down his life, he who is willing to (and I am interpreting here) waste his life for me shall find it. So waste your life for Jesus. Give it away. Go! Commit! Give! Pray! Yield for Jesus! And what a way to live, and what a way to die! What a way to die!
So the first lesson is that love does not count the cost. And may I say that as we increase our capacity to love, we increase our capacity to be hurt? You know that, don’t you? The more you love, the more you might end up being hurt. But love doesn’t count that cost. Love loves, and it loves and it loves, taking the risk of hurt.
There’s a second lesson, and that is that nothing done for Christ is wasted. Nothing done for Christ is wasted! It’s like that little jingle goes:
Only one life twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ shall last.
Let’s go back to Bethany. Someday, maybe in heaven, we’ll have videos of some of these events. I’m sure that… I would think that God had a video camera before SONY. I would think that. And we go back there and we are visualizing what is happening. Here Jesus is going to be eating with these people. His disciples are present. He’s with people whom He loves, even though He happens to be in the home of Simon the Leper. He’s there reclining and Mary comes and she breaks the neck of the bottle. She pours it on His head. She pours it on His feet, and she wipes His feet with her hair.
Do you think for one moment she thought to herself, “You know, the world is going to be talking about this for an awful long time?” (chuckles) Oh no! It never dawned on her. She would have been shocked if she had been told that someday twenty centuries later a preacher in Chicago was going to set her up as an example of devotion and commitment, and that that message was going to go out through the Internet and through radio, and hopefully thousands of people were going to hear about Mary of Bethany two millennia later. She would not have believed it. All that mattered to her was that moment of time. “This is for Jesus.”
It is Jesus who takes what we do, and like a stone that is thrown into the pond, it has repercussions throughout all of eternity, and that’s why the Bible says, “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord, for their works do follow them.” The reason that the Judgment Seat has to be well after a person dies (probably at the rapture) is because the good that they have done keeps having repercussions in the lives of others, and it keeps being carried on, and there’s a sequence there that the human eye doesn’t see. And it goes on throughout all of eternity. And that’s why their works do follow them. Jesus takes what we do and gives it eternal permanence because it’s done for Him. Why this waste? (chuckles)
There is a story that’s been often told, but I need to tell it one more time, about a little seven-year-old boy who had a sister with a rare blood disease. And they decided that the only way that the sister could live was if she received blood from her seven-year-old brother. And so they explained to him that he would be giving his blood to his sister. And the boy was terrified but he went through with it. But while he was there and the needle was in his body, and the blood was draining, he said to the nurse, “When do I die?” He thought that giving blood for his sister meant that he would die. He had no idea that the plan was that he live too.
“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Greater love has no man than this, than that a man or woman can take what they have earned and just lavish it and say, “It’s for Jesus we do it.” Greater love has no man than that.
In this series we have always been singing, as we conclude, a song written by a woman. And today I am thinking of the words of Frances Havergal. Now she was brought up in England in the 1800s. She was a poetess, and she wrote many different poems. And by the way, when she was told she was going to die, do you know what she said? She said, “Really? That’s too good to be true.” I love that! I love that! I mean that’s the way Christians die. “I’m going to die? That’s too good to be true. Imagine being able to go with Jesus.” So she wrote the hymn 453.
I gave my life for Thee,
My precious blood I shed,
That thou might ransomed be,
And quickened from the dead.
I gave, I gave my life for thee,
What hast thou given for Me?
Have you given Him your flask, your alabaster box, your precious ointment and said, “Here, Jesus, it’s Yours?”