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The Anointing at Bethany

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Introduction and Background

Palm Sunday is the day we traditionally remember the Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem--the Sunday before His passion and resurrection. The triumphal entry was a formal presentation of Jesus as Israel’s King. Relentlessly the events of the Savior’s life had moved toward His death on the cross. Following Peter’s confession of Christ as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus “began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.” As He left Galilee for the final time to go up to Jerusalem, Luke tells us, “And it came about, when the days were approaching for His ascension, that He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He was committed to the cross.

However, a number of events occurred the week before which were preparatory for the momentous event of Christ’s death for us on the cross. Jesus reached Bethany (only two miles from Jerusalem) six days before the Passover (John 12:1). Each morning He would journey to Jerusalem and then return in the evening to Bethany. He did this all week until His arrest.

Let’s briefly review the events of this week.

Sunday: This was a day of Messianic Presentation, the day of Christ’s entry when, in accord with Old Testament prophecy, He openly declared Himself as the Son of David, the King, but not the regal King the Jews were looking for or wanted. He came as a lowly and suffering King riding of the foal of a ass as foretold by the prophet Zechariah (Zech. 9:9).

Monday: This was a day of Messianic Power. Two things occurred that demonstrated His authority and power as King. In one He cursed a fig tree and in the other He cleansed the temple for a second time.

As the Lord made the two-mile journey, He cursed a fig tree that was full of leaves. It gave the appearance of fruitfulness, but it was barren of figs and basically useless. The fig tree served as an emblem of the Jewish nation and this act of cursing the tree served as a symbol of Christ’s rejection of barren Israel. It was a fit emblem of religious hypocrisy where external semblance is a delusion and a sham, a fit picture of the nation with all her ostentatiousness, yet lacking in real spiritual fruit. (The Words and Works of Jesus Christ, Pentecost, p. 378).

On this day “the Lord then proceeded to the city and entered the temple. Some three years before He had cleansed the temple (John 2:13-16) from its corruption because of Annas’s bazaar. That corruption had now returned and the temple again was a place of merchandise” (Pentecost, p. 378). So again, Jesus drove out the money changers. In this act the Lord was demonstrating His authority over the temple and the religious life of the nation.

Tuesday: This was a day of Messianic Polemic, a day of challenge and controversy from the religious crowds who reacted to His authority. On this day He taught in parables, He solemnly denounced the religious leaders as blind guides and hypocrites. After leaving that afternoon, Christ sat on the Mount of Olives and gave the Olivet Discourse concerning the destruction of Jerusalem and end time events. On this day also, the rulers were plotting His death.

Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday: These were days of Messianic Preparation. Our Lord’s public ministry was over and He was further preparing His disciples for His death and for carrying on in His absence.

  • Wednesday was probably a day of rest in Bethany.
  • Thursday He sent two disciples into the city to prepare for the Passover.
  • Friday at sunset He ate the Passover with His disciples, instituted the Lord’s supper, washed the disciples feet, gave the upper room discourses of John 13 and 14, gave the discourses on the way to Gethsemene, John 15-16, prayed the high priestly prayer of John 17, and agonized in the Garden. Later that evening, He would be betrayed with a kiss, apprehended, tried before the Jews and the Romans, before Annas, Caiaphas, before Pilate, Herod, and the before Pilate again. He was then condemned and crucified.

But before all these events began, an event occurs that sets the stage for what was to follow. It is an event that has a great lesson for us by way of our insight and response to the Savior. I am speaking of the anointing of Jesus by Mary in the house of Simon the leper. This act of Mary’s is recorded for us in Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; and John 12:2-9.

Scriptural Passages

Matthew 26:6-13 Now when Jesus was in Bethany, at the home of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it upon His head as He reclined at the table. 8 But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, “Why this waste? 9 “For this perfume might have been sold for a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you bother the woman? For she has done a good deed to Me. 11 “For the poor you have with you always; but you do not always have Me. 12 “For when she poured this perfume upon My body, she did it to prepare Me for burial. 13 “Truly I say to you, wherever this Gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done shall also be spoken of in memory of her.” (NASB)

Mark 14:3-9 And while He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head. 4 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. 7 “For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me. 8 “She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial. 9 “And truly I say to you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her.”

John 12:2-9 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?” 6 Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. 7 Jesus therefore said, “Let her alone, in order 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.” The great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. (NASB)

The Insight and Response of Mary

The unnamed woman is identified for us in John 12 as Mary. She was the sister of Martha and the woman who sat at His feet to hear the Word (Lk. 10:38f).

The anointing of the Jesus brings out an important contrast, a contrast of the insight and devotion of Mary, and the indifference and deadened responses of the disciples.

The “alabaster vial” refers to a cruise or flask made of white, semi-transparent stone which was used as a container for precious perfumes and ointments. It was full of “very costly perfume of pure nard.” This was a highly perfumed ointment used for (1) cosmetic use for hot climates, (2) for anointing the dead for burial, (3) for ritual uses for anointing priests and kings, and (4) was considered a wonderful gift for a king because of its value.

“Nard,” which defines the kind of ointment in the vial, was a plant found in the Himalayan Mountains. It was hard to get and very expensive. According to verse 5, it was worth 300 denarii and the daily wage of the average working man was only one denarii. What she poured on the Lord Jesus was worth an entire year’s wages!

We read that “she broke the vial.” This may refer to the small neck of the vial which she broke that she might pour it freely. “The breaking of the flask was perhaps an expression of the whole-heartedness of her devotion. Having served its purpose, it would never be used again” (Cranfield, p. 415). She then “poured it over His head.” John 12 adds that she anointed His feet and wiped His feet with her hair.”

Her actions obviously demonstrated her deep devotion and love for the Savior, but it also demonstrated her keen insight into His true identity and purpose. This is made clear by Christ’s own interpretation of her actions. What did she understand that the others had been insensitive and blind to?

This act revealed she knew Christ as:

    1. King: Such an extravagant gift was only lavished on a king. This was very appropriate in view of the fact that on the next day He would proclaim Himself the King of Israel through his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

    2. Priest: John 12:3 and Mark 14:8 define this as an anointing. As priests were anointed, this is in keeping with the fact that Christ was a Royal Priest and was about to make atonement for His people.

    3. The Savior Who Must Die: As He had told the disciples that He must die, so He must have also told her. While they were unable to grasp this, Mary did. She undoubtedly recognized her sin and need of a suffering Savior and did this as an act of faith and devotion. She understood the reason for His death (her sin), and the significance of His death (her salvation).

John 12:3b tells us “and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” As a result of her insight and actions, the fragrance of Christ’s person filled the house. This did not call attention to Mary or religion, but to the Savior as the King-Priest who must die for the sin of the world.

The Insensitivity and
Reactions of the Disciples

Mark 14:4-5 But some were indignantly remarking to one another, “Why has this perfume been wasted? 5 “For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they were scolding her.

John 12:4-6 But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii, and given to poor people?” 6 Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it.

All three of the Gospel accounts begin the next section with the word “but.” What follows stands in contrast and demonstrates the typical attitude of the mere religious or of those who lack Mary’s insight into the person and work of the Lord Jesus or who have failed to truly listen to the Savior’s Word. Is there not an important message here for each of us?

When we compare all three accounts, we find that all the disciples were indignant over this act of Mary and saw it as wasteful, but Judas, the betrayer, treasurer for the group, and thief, was their spokesman.

Summary of Contrasts

First Contrast:

  • Mary turned all attention upon the Lord and His person. She gave witness to truth about the person and work Jesus Christ.
  • Judas and the disciples turned the issue away from Christ and on the poor. Though important, this was not the primary issue or responsibility.

Second Contrast:

  • Mary was motivated by devotion and sacrificed for the Savior. This was produced by spiritual insight because she had ears to hear.
  • Judas and the disciples were motivated by greed and jealousy caused by their callousness toward His Word.

Third Contrast:

  • Mary was quietly pointing people to the Savior. She was occupied with Him. Though the text does not say so, we can be sure she was not filled with evil thoughts of jealousy, resentment, or bitterness. There was surely sadness, but also spiritual joy.
  • The disciples, on the other hand, had their eyes on others, and were all filled with resentment which erupted in ugliness to Mary. The result was, they scolded her (vs. 5). The word here, embrimaomai, was used of a snorting horse. Men often snort at a person’s devotion to the Lord and often, as here, they do it in the name of religion or some humanitarian cause.

Devotion to a hobby or a sport is seen as merely enthusiasm, but devotion to the Savior is viewed as fanaticism. Why? Because that kind of devotion manifests the lack of devotion of others toward God and spiritual priorities. The plain truth is that such devotion is terribly convicting. True devotion and proper evaluation of the Lord, who is Himself the manifestation of light, often brings out the hatred and true condition of the heart such as a heart of unbelief, or hardness, or one lacking in commitment.

Scripture teaches us “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2Tim. 3:12). When believers make a stand for Christ in such a way that it manifest the sweet aroma of His person and work, it becomes a threat to Satan’s kingdom and these believers often become the immediate object of Satan’s attack (cf. 2 Cor. 2:14-17 with 4:6-18).

Mary’s understanding of Christ’s person and work, along with her trust in Christ, became the force behind her act of devotion and testimony to the Savior. She was trusting Christ for her life--for her significance and her security.

On the other hand, in the lives of the disciples, dependence on the world and its riches, and occupation with the temporal and the transient promoted two things: (1) it promoted a failure to truly listen intently to the Savior’s Word, and (2) it occasioned the murmuring against Mary, and (3) Christ’s betrayal. This very act of devotion and the consequent rebuke by the Lord, occasioned the treachery and betrayal of Judas (vs. 10).

Christ’s Rebuke of the Disciples

Mark 14:6-7 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to Me. 7 “For the poor you always have with you, and whenever you wish, you can do them good; but you do not always have Me.

John 12:7-8 Jesus therefore said, “Let her alone, in order 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.”

“Let her alone.” This was a sharp rebuke. It is an aorist imperative of command and gives this a note of urgency.

“Why do you bother her?” This phrase challenged their motives. The Savior quickly saw below the surface of their reactions. It was not really concern for the poor. It was their own jealousy and greed. Their overt actions manifested their hidden agendas.

He then declared the nature of her actions, “She has done a good deed to Me,” and explained why her actions were good.

Christ addresses their concern over the poor

The “Me” at the end of verse 7 is emphatic. “But Me, you do not always have.” This strongly attests to the uniqueness of His person and what was about to happen. He was the unique Son of God who was about to die for our sin, be raised, and ascend into heaven, leaving His disciples to proclaim the Gospel message. He was anticipating His resurrection and victory from the grave.

This also shows the spiritual always takes precedence over the social. Social work and reform may alleviate certain forms of suffering and injustices, but they are only temporary and can never cure the torment of men’s souls nor bring them into an eternal relationship with the living God. Social reform, as here, can and is often used as a substitute for faith in the Savior. It is often made the issue while faith in Christ as a suffering Savior for our sin is ignored or rejected.

Social work and reform are temporal concerns that can never lasts due to the condition of fallen man. Without Christ societies always degenerate and eventually experience greater and greater social turmoil.

Social concerns for the needy are important and need to be the concerns of the church as expressions of the love of Christ for the hurts of humanity. The church has often failed to reach out to the orphan and widow and the down trodden. But to turn the Gospel of the Savior into just a social Gospel is to pervert the message of the cross. We need to reach out to the needs of people, but ultimately, if we do not lead them to Christ as the one who died for their sin, we have not ministered to their greatest need.

Christ explains her actions

Mark 14:8 “She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for the burial.

Literally, “what she had, she did.”

  • Mary took advantage of the opportunity to serve the Savior.
  • She did according to her capacity and ability.
  • Again, she did what she did, out of insight and devotion.

God does not give us all the same ability and capacity, nor does He give us all the same degree of wealth and health. But we all have at least one spiritual gift. We all have talents, and resources, and opportunities to express our love, gratitude, and devotion to the Lord Jesus.

God never holds us responsible for what we do not have. The issue and need is (1) to spend time getting to know the Savior so our hearts can be filled with Him and His love, and then (2) out of our fellowship with Him, to take what we have and make it available to manifest the sweet aroma of Christ.

Christ then explained “she has anointed my body before hand for burial.” She had evidently grasped what the others had not.

Mary Rewarded for her Sacrifice

Mark 14:9 “And truly I say to you, wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world, that also which this woman has done shall be spoken of in memory of her.” (NASB)

Conclusion

The account of these incidences of that evening identify several types of people. As we look at these, see if you can identify what category (or categories) you may fit into.

The Mary Category

Luke 10:39 tells us why Mary was able to have such devotion and insight. She did that which was primary. “And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet.”

The Disciples Category

These men were close physically, had seen the Lord’s miracles, and heard His teaching. Though they had seen and heard the works and words of Jesus, they had failed to really sit with open ears and open hearts at the feet of Jesus. Why? Perhaps because they were so occupied with the physical kingdom and were seeking things like position and praise for themselves (cf. Mk. 6:52; 8:17-18; Lk. 22:24f).

The Martha Category

Luke 10:38-42 also describes Martha for us.

“Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed Him into her home. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet. 40 But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him, and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; 42 but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her. “

Martha, it appears, was seeking to find her significance and meet her inner needs through her service (or her works). In doing so she was distracted from Christ and she was failing to trust Him for her inner life. The result--Martha was full of frustration, bitterness, and complaining.

The Multitude Category

These were the sensation seekers. They didn’t come to Christ to know Him or because they were seeking truth. They were there to seek Lazarus (a miracle and proof of the Savior’s person and power) but they were blind to the person and work of the Savior.

There are others like Simon the leper whom the Lord healed and who opened his home up to the Christ. There was Lazarus whom the Lord brought back from the dead and who was a living testimony of Christ as the resurrection and the life. There were also the chief priests who, being full of jealousy, wanted to kill Lazarus. And there was Judas who was full of greed and betrayed the Lord.

Into which category do we fit? Are we like Mary, Martha, the disciples, Judas, or the multitudes?

Two very important lessons come out of this passage.

(1) We can be close to the Word physically, involved in religious activity and works, and still be far, far away spiritually. We can be in the church, but lost. We can be in the Word, but indifferent and closed.

(2) We are and do according to what we think and believe. People act out of their true beliefs which are often subconscious. We often hold contradictory beliefs, but one set of those beliefs will dominate the other.

  • If I believe that Christ’s person and work is the foundation of my security, significance, and abundance of life, I will act sacrificially and with love to Christ and others.
  • On the other hand (even though I believe in Christ) if subconsciously or consciously I am trusting in other things for my happiness or security like money, position, praise, power, or success, and believe I need to depend on my strategies to protect those things, I will act in selfish and unloving ways toward the Lord and toward those I see as a threat to my needs and wants.

May we each examine ourselves in view of the principles and the truth of the insight and ministry of Mary.

Related Topics: Christology, Easter