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Lesson 64: Wasting Your Life on Jesus (John 12:1-11)

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August 17, 2014

This story of Mary anointing our Lord shortly before His death has had a profound influence on my walk with the Lord for over 45 years now because of a sermon I read and have re-read many times by the late Chinese preacher, Watchman Nee. It’s the last chapter of his book, The Normal Christian Life [Christian Literature Crusade], titled, “The Goal of the Gospel.” It’s also in a pamphlet titled, “Why This Waste” (you can find it online).

Nee points out that in the parallel accounts in Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9; Luke 7:37-39 is a different incident), all the disciples joined Judas in scolding Mary for wasting this expensive perfume on Jesus when it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus defends Mary by replying (Matt. 26:13), “Truly I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her.” Nee says (p. 186) that Jesus “intends that the preaching of the Gospel should issue in something along the very lines of the action of Mary here, namely, that people should come to Him and waste themselves on Him.” Or, to state it another way (p. 187), the gospel is “to bring each one of us to a true estimate of His worth.” If Jesus is the pearl of great price and the treasure hidden in the field, then it’s not a waste to sell everything you have to buy that pearl or buy that field. Jesus is worthy for you to devote all you are and all you have to Him.

So this is a story about how not to waste your life. It’s also a story about motivation: why do you do what you do for the Lord? Do you serve Him for the satisfaction you get when you see results? It is satisfying to see Him use you, but that’s the wrong motivation. Do you serve Him because it helps others? Again, it’s gratifying to see others helped, but that’s the wrong motivation for serving Him. The true motive for serving Christ is because He is worthy of everything you can do for Him and because you love Him and want to please Him because He gave Himself for you on the cross. We learn this from Mary’s act of devotion.

But John contrasts Mary’s act of devotion with Judas’ self-centered focus and with the evil plans of the chief priests, who now not only want to kill Jesus, but also Lazarus, whose resurrection was resulting in many believing in Jesus. So the story’s lesson is:

A life spent in selfless devotion to Jesus is not wasted, but a life spent on self is totally wasted.

This story illustrates Jesus’ words in Mark 8:35-36:

“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

Jesus repeats this idea (John 12:25), “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal.” Mary denied herself and “hated her life” for Jesus’ sake by her extravagant act of devotion to Him, and she gained that which would not be taken from her (Luke 10:42). Judas greedily wished that he could have pocketed some of Mary’s gift. In a few days, he would sell Jesus for a paltry sum. But he forfeited his soul.

1. You will not waste your life if you spend it in selfless devotion to Jesus.

To put it another way, to “waste” your life on Jesus is to save your life. Mary’s act reflects four components of selfless devotion:

A. Selfless devotion is costly.

Mary’s anointing Jesus with this perfume was costly in at least three ways:

1) Selfless devotion costs you financially: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my stuff?”

Pure nard was a spice that came from the Himalaya Mountains in the far north of India. It had to be imported to Israel at great cost. We don’t know where Mary got this 12-ounce jar of perfume. Perhaps it was a family heirloom. Judas estimates that it could have been sold for 300 denarii, which was equivalent to about 300 days’ pay for a working man (Matt. 20:2). Figuring $10 an hour, 300 eight-hour days adds up to $24,000! Any way you figure it, Mary’s action was extravagantly costly! Judas and the disciples, who according to the other Gospels joined him in scolding Mary, were only being sensible: She could have sold this jar of perfume, given 90 percent of the money to help a lot of poor people, and still had a sizeable amount to give to the Lord. But were they really sensible?

The Lord rebukes them (John 12:8), “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” He was not saying that we should not help the poor, but He was saying, “I am more worthy of your unselfish devotion than all the world’s poor put together!” He was accepting the worship that Mary gave Him because she rightly saw that He is worthy of all that we can give Him and even more. As Isaac Watts put it (“When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”):

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small:
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

The point is, devotion to Christ will cost you financially. If He bought you with His blood, you don’t own anything. It’s all His and He can direct you to give some or all of it for His kingdom purposes. Probably, most of us would have sold the perfume, given ten percent to the Lord, and pocketed the rest to spend on getting a later model mule! But Mary gave it all because she knew that Jesus is worth it.

Many years ago, a pastor went down from the pulpit one Sunday and watched what each person put in or didn’t put in the offering plate as it was passed. Some of his people were angry, others were embarrassed, but all were surprised. Then he went back to the pulpit and preached on the Lord standing near the treasury in the temple and watching what each person put in, including the widow and her two mites. He reminded them that the Lord watches the collection every Sunday to see what His people give.

So let me ask: Is your devotion to the Lord costing you financially? If others looked at how you spend your money, would they conclude that you must love Jesus a lot?

2) Selfless devotion costs you socially: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my pride?”

Matthew and Mark say that Mary anointed Jesus’ head, but John says that she anointed His feet. There is no contradiction if she anointed both. Matthew and Mark mention Jesus’ head because anointing the head signified kingship. John mentioned her anointing Jesus’ feet because it was the lowly task of a servant to wash a guest’s feet. In the next chapter John tells how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as an act of great humility that we should follow.

But Mary didn’t use a towel. Rather, she wiped the Lord’s feet with her hair. Respectable Jewish women never let down their hair in public. In fact, it was considered a mark of a woman of loose morals (Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 577). But Mary was so caught up with her devotion to Christ that she didn’t stop to consider what others might think about her. Like David dancing before the Lord wearing only an ephod (2 Sam. 6:14-23), Mary cast public opinion to the wind, let her hair down, and wiped Jesus’ feet. David’s fervent devotion embarrassed his wife, but the Lord stood with David. Mary’s action made the apostles uncomfortable, but Jesus sided with Mary.

So ask yourself, “Do I treasure Jesus more than my pride?” Or, am I more concerned about what others think about me? People may think you’re a zealot or a religious fanatic. But what matters is what Jesus thinks about your selfless devotion to Him.

3) Selfless devotion costs you some criticism: “Do I treasure Jesus more than my reputation?”

Judas led the attack, but the other disciples echoed his criticism. Matthew 26:8 reports, “But the disciples were indignant when they saw this, and said, ‘Why this waste?’” They were only being pragmatic and sensible. The money could have benefitted many poor families. But instead, it was all wasted on Jesus. Or, was it wasted?

Count on it: If you give yourself without reserve to Jesus, you will be criticized and the loudest criticism will come from some church members who will say that they’re only using common sense in how the Lord’s resources are spent. When Jim Elliot set his sights on going to the unreached tribes of Ecuador, his Christian parents asked him to consider whether his gifts could be better used among young people in the United States. He replied with a scathing denunciation of the lukewarm American church (Shadow of the Almighty [Zondervan], p. 132). He went to South America, where he and four others were murdered trying to tell a lost, savage tribe about the love of Jesus. They “wasted” their lives for Jesus!

When John Paton let it be known that he planned to move with his new bride to take the gospel to the cannibals in the South Sea Islands, an old man in his church would say, “You’ll be eaten by cannibals!” Finally, Paton grew exasperated and replied (modified from John G. Paton Autobiography [Banner of Truth], ed. by his brother James Paton, p. 56), “My dear sir, you’re getting up in years and soon will be laid in the grave and eaten by worms. If I can but live and die honoring the Lord Jesus, it doesn’t matter to me whether I’m eaten by cannibals or by worms, and on resurrection day, my body will arise as fair as yours!” Selfless devotion to Christ involves personal cost.

B. Selfless devotion stems from personal love and gratitude.

Although the text doesn’t state it directly, Mary’s action obviously stemmed from her love for Jesus and her gratitude for His raising her brother from the dead. Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5) and they loved Jesus.

Love for Christ should be the motive in all that we do for Him. Judas postured himself as being concerned for the poor, but even if he had given some of the money to the poor, he would not have been motivated by love for Christ. People can give great sums of money to the Lord’s work, but their real motive may be that they want others to know how generous they are. Some Christian organizations cater to this by naming a building after a generous donor, or telling potential donors that they will have a plaque put on the wall letting everyone know that they donated this room.

But the Lord looks on the hidden motives of our hearts, not on our outward actions. As Watchman Nee points out (ibid., pp. 189, 190), the first question we must ask in all we do is, “Has the Lord been satisfied?” Did I do what I did because I love Him and I wanted to please Him?

We’ve seen that selfless devotion is costly; it stems from love and gratitude toward Jesus.

C. Selfless devotion flows from knowing Jesus personally.

John 12:7 is difficult to interpret: “Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial.’” Mary had just poured out the precious perfume, so she couldn’t keep it to anoint Jesus after He died. And, how much did she understand about Jesus’ impending death when none of the disciples saw it coming? The meaning may be that Mary had not sold this perfume, as Judas and the disciples had proposed, so that she could keep it for this anointing of Jesus’ body in anticipation of His death. Perhaps from her time of sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary had some sense that Jesus was about to die. Or, in the providence of God, she may have anointed Him unwittingly.

But in either case, Mary knew more about the infinite worth of Jesus than even the apostles did at this point. Her personal knowledge of Jesus, gained by sitting at His feet, led her to this act of selfless devotion.

If you want to follow Mary’s example of devotion to Jesus, you have to follow her example of sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to His word (Luke 10:39). Every time we encounter Mary in the Gospels, she is at Jesus’ feet—first, learning from Him; then, pouring out her sorrow to Him; and now, expressing her love and devotion to Him. You won’t love the Lord as you should unless you’ve spent much time at His feet. You do that by spending consistent time in the Word and in prayer.

D. Selfless devotion results in action.

Mary didn’t just think about this radical display of love, but then allow reason to prevail and not do it. Rather, she did it! Good intentions are nice, but it takes good actions to produce results. This story highlights three results that flow from selfless devotion: one from Mary, one from Martha, and one from Lazarus:

1) Action results in the fragrance of Christ surrounding your life.

John 12:3 says, “And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” If you had walked in the door or stood outside near an open window, you would have smelled the wonderful fragrance of that expensive perfume. It was in Mary’s hair, so that everywhere she went, the fragrance went with her.

Can people smell the fragrance of Christ on you? You ask, “What does it smell like?” It smells like the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22, 23): Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Does your home smell like that? Do others sense from the fragrance of your life that you spend much time at Jesus’ feet, worshiping Him in selfless devotion? Do your relationships at church smell like the fragrance of Christ? I am often saddened when I hear about strained or broken relationships between believers. People who come into this church should smell the sweet fragrance of our Savior on us.

2) Action results in service for Christ.

Here we’re looking at the simple statement in John 12:2, “and Martha was serving.” In Luke 10:38-42, Martha was serving, but she was hassled by trying to do it all herself and she complained to Jesus because her sister wouldn’t help. Also, as G. Campbell Morgan observes (The Gospel According to John [Revell], p. 207), in Luke she was fixing dinner for four people and was hassled by her work, but here she is fixing dinner for at least 17 people and there is no word about her being hassled. Martha had learned from the previous incident to serve out of selfless devotion to Christ. If you love Him, you serve others for His sake without complaining.

3) Action results in witness for Christ.

Here, we’re looking at Lazarus. The text tells us three things about him: First, Jesus had raised him from the dead (John 12:1). Second, he was reclining at the table in fellowship with the Lord who had raised him from the dead (John 12:2). Third, his resurrected life resulted in many coming to see him and believing in Jesus as a result (John 12:9-11). Some scholars say that these were just curiosity seekers and not genuine converts. But John doesn’t say that. He just says (John 12:11), “on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.”

In this, Lazarus is an example for our witness: First, Christ has to give you new life before you can be a witness for Him. Granted, our transformation is probably not as dramatic as a physical resurrection from the dead! But people should see a definite change in your life after you’re born again. Second, you must spend time in fellowship with Jesus, learning from Him. Then, because our Savior came to seek and to save the lost, as you grow to be like Him, pray that God will use you to seek and save the lost. Wouldn’t it be great if we all could put our names in verse 11 and say, “On account of [Steve] many were going away and believing in Jesus”?

But this story isn’t only about how to “waste” your life by giving it in selfless devotion to Christ. The other side is here, too:

2. You will totally waste your life if you spend it on yourself.

Judas and the Jewish leaders who sought to kill both Jesus and Lazarus were acting out of selfish interests. Judas thought that more money would bring him more happiness. The Jewish leaders wanted to hang onto their power. But both parties wasted their lives because they spent them on themselves.

John tells us about Judas’ greed in verse 6: He really wasn’t concerned about the poor, but he was a thief. He had the money box and used to help himself to the funds. If Mary had given her perfume to sell and give to the poor, some of that money would have ended up in Judas’ pocket! Perhaps Judas had joined the apostolic band because he thought that if Jesus became the King of Israel, he would enjoy a nice position in Jesus’ kingdom.

But now the future looked dim. Jesus kept talking about His death, not His reign. This incident pushed Judas over the top. When Jesus came to Mary’s defense with more talk about His death, Judas decided to go to the authorities and betray Jesus. (Both Matthew and Mark place this event out of chronological sequence to connect it with Judas’ betrayal.) So for a measly thirty pieces of silver, Judas sold his soul. And, the chief priests irrationally wanted to kill both the author of life and the man who was raised from the dead because they both threatened their hold on power. Judas and the Jewish leaders wasted their lives because they spent them on themselves. As Jesus states (John 12:25), “He who loves his life loses it ….”


Mary’s action reveals the proper basis for evaluating your actions: Did you do what you did because you love and treasure Jesus? She didn’t do this out of duty or pragmatism, but out of sheer devotion for Christ. Mary did what she did because she had a perception of Christ that even the apostles at this point lacked. She knew that He was worthy of extravagant love. She gained this knowledge of Christ by sitting at His feet. When Jesus is your treasure, you will spend your life in selfless devotion to Him.

At a pastors’ conference, Bill Mills told about a time when he was speaking to a group of Wycliffe missionaries in South America. On the last evening as he ate dinner with the director and his wife, she told him how years before they had been assigned to translate the Bible into one of the Indian tribal languages. This is a lengthy and tedious process. Before computers, it often took as long as twenty years.

During the process, the translators were teaching the Scriptures and seeing a new church emerging among the tribe. But as they came toward the end of the translation project, the tribal people were becoming more and more involved in selling their crops for the drug trade and less and less interested in the Scriptures. When they finally finished the translation of the New Testament and scheduled a dedication service, not even one person came!

This missionary wife was angry and bitter. She had given twenty years of her life so that these people could have the Scriptures, but they didn’t even want it! Then with regard to Bill’s ministry of the Word that week, she said (in, Finishing Well in Life and Ministry [Leadership Resources International], p. 190.):

It is as though God has been washing His Word over my soul and healing me, and He has opened my eyes to see this all from His perspective. I am just beginning to realize now that we did it for Him! That is the only thing that makes any sense in all of this. We did it for God!

Mills concludes, “That is the only thing that makes any sense in ministry. We do it for Him.” The world may scorn us and reject our message. Other believers may criticize us and not appreciate what we’re doing. But we aren’t wasting our lives if we spend them in selfless devotion for Jesus.

Application Questions

  1. Where does common sense (or wisdom) fit in with extravagant devotion to Christ? Shouldn’t good stewards be sensible?
  2. What does treasuring Jesus more than our stuff look like in practical terms? Is it wrong to have a savings account? To save for retirement? To take good care of possessions?
  3. Why is your motive for serving Christ primary? How can you keep the right motive in focus?
  4. How practically can you keep alive and deepen your love and devotion for Jesus?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Discipline, Failure, Sacrifice, Spiritual Life

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