1 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. 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. 4 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. 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.”
9 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. 10 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. – John 12:1-11 ESV
The public ministry of Jesus has come to a spectacular close, culminating with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. And while John indicates that many who witnessed this miracle ended up believing in Jesus, their conversions only intensified the hatred of the Sanhedrin for Jesus. These men had threatened any who expressed belief in Jesus as the Messiah (John 9:22) with ex-communication from the synagogue and yet, Jesus’ popularity continued to spread.
Jesus would perform no more miracles or deliver any more messages. His focus had shifted from demonstrating His divine power and authority to accomplishing His God-given mission. John reveals that it is only six days until the Passover celebration begins and Jesus, knowing that the day of His sacrificial death is drawing closer, has the end in mind. Luke records that as “the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 ESV). Jesus was resolute and determined to carry out the will of His Heavenly Father. Nothing would distract or deter Him. And everything that John records in his gospel from this point forward is intended to prepare his readers for the final phase of Jesus’ life: His death, burial, and resurrection.
Just days before His own death, Jesus returned to the scene of His greatest miracle: the town of Bethany where He had restored Lazarus to life. This was a risky move on Jesus’ part because “the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (John 11:57 ESV). But Jesus was walking in perfect obedience to His Father’s will and there was nothing the Sanhedrin could do to prevent God’s redemptive plan from unfolding just as He had sovereignly ordained it.
According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was invited as the guest of honor at dinner hosted by a man named, Simon, whom John describes as a leper. The New Living Translation describes Simon as “a man who had previously had leprosy” because it would have been unlikely that any guests would have shown up to a party in his home if his disease was still active. He would have been considered ceremonially unclean and unapproachable. We know nothing about this man, but it seems likely that Jesus must have healed from his leprosy and the party was his way of expressing his gratitude.
Among the guests are Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. By this time, Lazarus had become somewhat of a celebrity. The news of his death-to-life transformation had spread rapidly and it likely that his home and former grave had become local tourist attractions. No doubt, some enterprising entrepreneur had begun giving tours of the very spot where Lazarus had walked out of the tomb – alive.
It is no coincidence that Lazarus, the man who was formerly dead but was now alive, was reclining at the same table with Jesus, the man who was alive but would soon be dead. The very one who had restored Lazarus to life was preparing to experience death so that others might live.
The entire tone of this party, hosted by Simon as an expression of gratitude to Jesus and intended as a time of celebration, was about to change. As Jesus and the other guests reclined at Simon’s table, Mary, one of the sisters of Lazarus, took the opportunity to express her sincere gratitude to Jesus for what He had done for her brother. In a premeditated display of humble and costly devotion to Jesus, Mary “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3 ESV).
John, having been an eyewitness to this event, recalls how the smell of the nard immediately permeated the room. As soon as Mary opened the jar containing the aromatic oil and began pouring it on Jesus’ head and feet, everyone’s attention was riveted on this unexpected and somewhat unorthodox scene. And when Mary began to dry Jesus’ feet with her own hair, everyone in the room would have been shocked and filled with indignation. In fact, in his gospel account, Matthew records that even Jesus’ disciples were surprised by Mary’s actions.
…when the disciples saw it, they were indignant. – Matthew 26:8 ESV
Matthew even indicates that the disciples were appalled by what they considered to be Mary’s overly extravagant and wasteful use expensive perfume to anoint Jesus.
“Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” – Matthew 26:8-9 ESV
But John reveals the true source of this seemingly frugal-minded outburst from the disciples. It had been Judas who expressed righteous indignation at Mary’s wastefulness.
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?” – John 12:4-5 ESV
And with this insight, John sets the stage for what is to come. Judas is going to play a major role in the unfolding drama surrounding Jesus’ last days on this earth. And his comments provide a stark contrast to the selfless, humble, and sacrificial actions of Mary. Judas had no real love for Jesus. He had entered into his relationship with Jesus solely for what he could get out of it. It was not that Judas was totally unbelieving. He likely considered Jesus to be the Messiah, but his expectations were selfish in nature. Judas probably harbored strong hopes that Jesus would prove to be the next King of Israel and, as one of His disciples, he would stand to benefit. Judas was an opportunist. And, as John makes clear, Judas had taken advantage of his role as treasurer to line his own pockets.
…he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. – John 12:6 ESV
Judas had no sense of what was really going on. All he saw was a missed opportunity to make a profit without any cost to himself. But Mary had sacrificed greatly, having spent what was the equivalent of an entire year’s wages to purchase the nard that she poured on the head and feet of Jesus. But to her, it had all been worth it. What price could she put on the life of her brother? He had been dead but was now alive. She had lost him but, thanks to Jesus, had received him back.
And Jesus reveals that there was more to Mary’s actions than even she was able to grasp. Her anointing had a far greater significance than she had originally intended. Matthew provides us with Jesus’ response to His indignant and ignorant disciples.
“Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.” – Matthew 26:10-12 ESV
Unbeknownst to Mary, she had actually prepared the body of Jesus for His coming burial. And Jesus warns the disciples to allow her to keep whatever nard remained so that she might keep it for the day of HIs death. But all of this escaped their understanding. He was headed to Jerusalem in order to sacrifice His life on their behalf, but they had been overwhelmed by the smell of perfume and the apparent waste of resources. Little did they know that their Master was about to pour out His life for them. In just a matter of days, His costly blood would pour from the wounds on His back, brow, hands, feet, and sides. Later on, in the upper room, Jesus would use a cup of wine as a symbol, stating “my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you” (Luke 22:20 NLT).
Jesus was headed to the cross. But the disciples’ minds were elsewhere. And years later, as John penned the words of his gospel, he must have wondered how they could have been so blind. It all made sense this side of the crucifixion, but at the time, they had been oblivious to all the signs that pointed to His coming death.
And John brings the sobering reality of the circumstances back into focus as he reveals the crowds gathering outside Simon’s home, anxious for a glimpse of Jesus and Lazarus. And these crowds will play a vital role in all that happens in the days ahead. But there is another group of individuals who will play an even more significant and sinister part in Jesus’ last days: The religious leaders of Israel. When they discover that Lazarus’ so-called resurrection has made him a virtual calling card for Jesus, they decide to put him to death as well. While Caiaphas had originally said that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (John 11:50 ESV), he was now willing to up the ante. If Jesus and Lazarus had to die to save the nation of Israel, so be it.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.