Please read John 12: 1-11 and then pray; Lord, as I bow before you and seek to listen and respond to your Word, give me grace to understand the importance of your sacrificial death and your glorious resurrection, in Jesus’ name. Amen
We are now only a week away from Palm Sunday and remembering Jesus’s historic entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey to the loud acclaim of large crowds gathered for Passover. Today we consider a really important incident which took place the evening before Palm Sunday, at a special Saturday evening meal Jesus shared with close friends in Bethany just a couple of miles away from Jerusalem.
Jesus returned to Bethany to share precious time and moments with a family he dearly loved and who dearly loved him. He was back at the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. The family were preparing a special meal in his honour which Martha served. This is not the first time we hear of Martha’s enthusiasm for preparing and serving meals for the Lord. (Luke 10:38-42). The Christian scholar Bruce Milne makes the following observation;
Jesus’ public ministry, which began for John (the gospel writer) at the wedding feast in Cana moves to its close with another social occasion at Bethany.
Although the meal was indeed special, and Jesus was no doubt blessed by the good food and excellent company, the meal itself was not the highlight of the evening. Mary, the sister of Martha, is once again going to do something for which Jesus blesses and commends her. Mary’s bold action and her loving devotion is the reason this story is included in the gospels. (Matthew 26:12, Mark 14:8) Feeding Jesus was a kindness and a blessing – but the anointing of Jesus by Mary far surpassed the warmth and cheer of the hospitality on offer that night.
What we cannot help noticing as we read this passage carefully is that three individuals are given special prominence besides Jesus. Jesus is the main actor here – as he usually is in any of the gospel stories. But three others come in for special mention – and they are; Lazarus, Mary and Judas.
Not only are the three mentioned – the gospel writer John wants to make clear their significance by adding another descriptive to their Christian names.
On two occasions in this passage Lazarus is referred to as the one whom Jesus had raised from the dead. (v1 and v9). Judas is referred to as the one who was later to betray Jesus. (v4) And although Mary does not receive such a qualifying description like the ones attributed to Lazarus and Judas, she is Mary who was always sat at Jesus’ feet. (v3 and Luke 10:39). We therefore have the following connections with these 3 people;
Lazarus = resurrection
Judas = betrayal
Mary = humility (Please note that in the bible – the one who is humble will be lifted up high)
Let me now open up to you the challenges that emerge as we consider these 3 characters and their relationship to Jesus, and their influence on this dramatic and significant Saturday evening.
Let’s begin with Lazarus, who out of the three characters mentioned, is actually the one who is much more in the background on this occasion.
Lazarus’s story dominates the previous chapter in John’s gospel – the whole of chapter 11 – and it is a very long and deliberately detailed chapter. The most likely explanation for this Saturday evening supper was that it was a great opportunity for the family to thank and bless Jesus for raising Lazarus from death. Lazarus was back with the family and everyone was happy and feeling blessed.
Lazarus’s resurrection from death was the seventh and final sign (miraculous sign) which John highlights in his gospel – it is also the most spectacular. The signs or miracles that John shares in his gospel have a specific purpose. Toward the end of his gospel John writes;
Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
All the signs in John’s gospel were included to convince people that Jesus was the Christ and by believing that fact, to then experience eternal life through him. The signs were also accompanied by seven great “I am” sayings. In the story of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, Jesus revealed this startling truth to Martha:
I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. (John 11 :25-26)
Jesus then asks Martha (and all readers of this gospel) a direct question.
Do you believe this? (11:26)
Martha’s response and confession is so significant.
Yes Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world (11:27)
Now go back again to hear why John wrote his gospel and included the seven signs. (see above). Martha has come to place her faith/belief and deep trust in Jesus even before he raises Lazarus. Jesus now proceeds to prove that He is who he says He is – the Resurrection and the Life. He raises Lazarus from death. What is particularly remarkable about this amazing miracle is that Jesus intentionally delayed his return to this family after he had heard that Lazarus was seriously ill. (11:3-6) It was God’s plan and Jesus’s will for Lazarus to die and then to be raised up again. At the point when Jesus raised Lazarus from death, Lazarus had already been in tomb for 4 days. (11:39) Jesus therefore, not only raised a dead man to life, but a dead man whose body was already seriously beginning to decompose.
Everybody knew Lazarus had died. Mourners had come to visit in recent days; mourners were there at the time Jesus arrived to console the two sisters. Lazarus had been a very popular and highly respected member of the local community and he was well-known in Jerusalem. When Jesus raised Lazarus who had been buried for 4 days from death, news of this miracle spread like wild fire.
The reaction to this was two-fold. Many Jews now put their faith in Jesus. (11:45, 12:9-11) They had to. This was an outstanding, undeniable miracle – a clear sign that Jesus was Messiah and the Son of God. Only God could have done this awesome deed of power with such authority. But others were aroused to great anger, concern and jealously and wanted to find a way to kill Jesus as quickly as possible. They were desperate to get rid of him. Too many people were now following Jesus. Too many were placing their trust in him. In fact, the Lazarus resurrection story had gained such an appeal and attraction, that the same ones who wanted Jesus dead, now also wanted Lazarus dead. They wanted to get of all the evidence that pointed out that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Better to get rid of the One claiming and proving himself to be the Resurrection and the Life, and the one he raised from dead – who had become the living evidence of Jesus’ unique power and authority. Better to get rid of them both. Desperate times call for desperate measures – however perverse and evil.
It is amazing just how deadly and poisonous unbelief can become. It is amazing to see the lengths to which unbelieving and callous hearts will go to attempt to get rid of Jesus/God. Atheistic Communism is one of the greatest examples. Today, we now have what is referred to as cancel culture. People want to cancel things and people they don’t like or feel threatened by. Today people are still vainly and ridiculously trying to cancel Jesus and Christianity. How on earth can puny men and women hope to succeed in cancelling God? How can you attempt to remove the Lord of history from history? It is utter madness. And yet you get people trying to do this. Let’s take the Christ out of Christmas. You have people actually attempting to fight against God. This is like an ant attempting to topple an elephant. Fighting against God is a bad idea. There will only be one winner. (read Psalm 2) Put Jesus on a cross. Crucify him! Humiliate him and mock him as he hangs naked and bleeding before the world. But then, as he gives up his spirit to his Father in heaven, the precious curtain is torn in two from top to bottom – and then on the third day – this Jesus – who really is the Resurrection and Life, conquers the grave and destroys death’s power. Death could not hold him. He conquered the grave!
Lazarus is important because his resurrection personally ratified the fact that Jesus is Lord! Jesus is Lord over life and death. He holds the keys! (Revelation 1: 18) He is The Resurrection and The Life – The Eternal Life. (1 John 5:20) And anyone who is in him, anyone who trusts in him, will also live forever. Two weeks from now, we will be celebrating the fact that Jesus conquered the grave! Our joy and hope and eternal life know no bounds in Jesus Christ who is Lord.
So why is Mary, Lazarus’s dear sister, important? Her actions at this Saturday supper were astonishing. When the meal was finished, she felt strongly stirred in her spirit to take out a very expensive alabaster jar of ointment which was perfumed and break it over Jesus’s body and feet, which she then continued to wipe with her hair.
The perfume she used was described as “pure nard”. It was the genuine article; a highly prized and very expensive perfumed ointment that came from northern India, extracted from the root and spike of the nard plant. As one commentator puts it; this was definitely not one of the lower-quality brands sold at the Bethany supermarket.
Jesus resolutely defends her actions, both the anointing and the wiping, insisting that that a divine purpose lies behind this incredible action. Leave her alone! Jesus stresses that it was INTENDED that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. In Jesus’ mind this inspirational action was an anointing which was done both in anticipation of and preparation for his own death and burial.
This expensive ointment had been saved by Mary for a purpose – for a very special occasion on a very special day. She hadn’t known which occasion, until that evening, when she suddenly felt moved and compelled to break open the flask and pour all its contents over Jesus. Mary was doing this out of her love and thankfulness for Jesus. She was eternally grateful for all Jesus had done, and especially for raising her dear brother from death to life. She wanted to express her deep love and devotion to Jesus. But Jesus saw this as an act that was ultimately overseen by God as provision and preparation for the events that would follow at the end of the next week during Passover.
In exactly one week’s time Jesus’s body would be in a stone-cold tomb. It would be hurriedly placed in there by two wealthy secret Jewish disciples – one a Pharisee (Nicodemus) and the other a member of the Sanhedrin (Joseph of Arimathea). The tomb belonged to Joseph. The two of them would hurriedly wrap Jesus’s body with spices before placing it into the tomb before the start of the Sabbath. Such was the speed of their actions, that female disciples of Jesus, who saw where Jesus was buried, wanted to return as soon as the Sabbath was over and further anoint his body. That would be their final act of worship, love and devotion.
But what Mary’s action reveals, and this amazing story reveals, is that Jesus’s body was actually specially anointed several days before he died and was buried. Through Mary’s action, Jesus was now prepared to face all that would he would come up against in the next few days. His body and soul were being prepared. He had been anointed – made ready for burial.
This is why Mary’s action is so critically important to Jesus. This was the beginning of the end for him. The raising of Lazarus by Jesus was ironically to act as another crucial nail in the coffin of his fate. Dear Mary, who Jesus had once commended for her love of listening to Jesus, is now commended for her love and obedience and the part she plays in preparing Jesus for the cross and the grave. Never forget that the burial of the dead body of Jesus is a crucial part of the gospel message, the gospel on which we take our stand and in which we place our hope. Paul stresses this in his famous 1 Corinthians 15 teaching about the great significance of the resurrection.
Now brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he then appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
There is often “a but” at the end of a beautiful story, and this one is no exception. And the “but” comes through the figure of Judas Iscariot. (v4) He objected to Mary’s reckless action feeling that the perfume should not have been used in this carefree manner, but should rather have been sold and the money given to the poor.
It is interesting to note that whenever the disciples, whether it be Judas or any of the others, express indignation in the gospels, they are always portrayed as being in the wrong. Judas is in the wrong here and is rebuked by Jesus, in a similar way to which the disciples were rebuked when in their anger they started telling children to go away when they came forward for blessing from Jesus. (Mark 10:13f)
Judas is wrong – not because God’s people should not be generous to the poor – they should, but because he failed to understand what was really important to Jesus at this time and what really mattered the most. Blessing the poor is important – and Jesus showed and taught this on numerous occasions. But on this occasion – what matters most is preparation for a saving sacrificial death and burial. Ironically Judas will be the one who betrays Jesus into the hands of his enemies, the ones who hate the evidence of Lazarus’s resurrection, and want to get rid of Jesus and Lazarus.
The gospel writer John also points out a further irony and a piece of hypocrisy relating to Judas. He wasn’t actually ever interested in the poor. He was only really concerned with what went into the common purse which he managed for the group, and from which he regularly pilfered from. There was deep hypocrisy lying in the heart of Judas, as there often is in those who love to virtue signal. There are those today who love to tell the world how much they care for the poor, or for the climate, but their actual actions betray their words. Virtue signalling is obnoxious to God – just remember that!
This leads me on to say one final but very significant point about Lent – and particularly these final two weeks of Lent. Lent is not primarily for Christians to get involved in doing some good deeds. Christians should do them any way whatever time of year. Lent is not primarily about promoting a favourite social justice issue or cause. It is not about giving up chocolate and giving an extra few pounds to a charity or going on protest march. At this stage, only one week before Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, and only two weeks before his burial, it is about pouring out the oil of our love and gratitude for the cross. That’s what Lent is for. This is the first priority.
Lent is about humbling ourselves, as Mary did, at the feet of Jesus and at the foot of his cross. We are now to focus on the cross which is the centre point of God’s love for the world. God so loved the world than he gave his one and only Son to die on a cross for our sins. This is why the Church’s two sacraments – baptism and holy communion both take us to the heart of our faith which is the cross, and then the burial and resurrection of Jesus. We are buried with Him in baptism. We remember his death through broken bread and poured out wine. He raises us to new life and hope.
It is now time to soberly reflect with deep love and gratitude upon the One who gave up himself for our sins and for our salvation. The worship that we offer to Christ should be total, wholehearted, everything we are, and all that we have. Mary poured out the entire bottle of expensive perfume, not saving any for herself or family to use at a later date. This was the date and this was the time that actually mattered in the divine plan. Helping the poor, which we must do as Christ’s followers, can come later – and we should never feel the silly urge to virtue signal about it. Right now, at this point in Lent, we should pour out the whole of our hearts in worship, thankfulness and praise of Christ, who died for us, and who then rose again to give us a blessed and eternal hope. Friends, use the next two weeks wisely; use them to reflect deeply upon the love of God in the cross of Christ, who is the blessed Saviour and only Lord, and who Mary, Martha and Lazarus knew to be The Resurrection and The Life.