John 12:1-8 – Worship is Costly and Fragrant

John has shown us in John 11 that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin had already determined to kill Jesus.
• And John 11:55-57 makes it clear that the Passover will be the context for this action.
• In fact, John tells us in verse 57 that the Sanhedrin gave orders to the Jews to turn Jesus in “so that they might arrest him”.
• As we have seen previously in John, to disobey the Jewish leadership could result in excommunication from Temple life, not something a Jew would welcome.

It is within this context that John begins the last 6 days of Jesus’ life.
• This last week begins with a scene from Simon the lepers home just outside of Jerusalem, in the village of Bethany.


John 12:1–3 (ESV) — 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.

John tells us that Jesus had come to Bethany because Passover was near.
• Bethany, as we saw in John 11, was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem.
• This was a convenient stopover for Jesus as He made His way to Jerusalem.

And apparently, in honor of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead, a meal was held with Mary, Martha and Lazarus in attendance.
• And at this meal, Mary did something remarkable.
• To understand just how remarkable, we need to get some background on the use of ointments at the time.

Background on Ointments/Spices/Fragrances:
There were several uses of ointments/spices/fragrances for the Jew at this time.
• Anointing Oil (Exodus 30:23-25)
• An incense, “for the exclusive use of priests” (Exodus 30:34-38; 2 Chr 2:4) – AYBD.
• A freshener for the home or bed
• As presents or a peace offering gift (Gen 43:11).
• And “they were widely used in connection with funerals” – AYBD.
    o Most of the time to mask odors or for ceremonial purposes.

A couple of examples of their use in connection with funerals:
• Jeremiah 34:5 (ESV) — 5 You [Zedekiah] shall die in peace. And as spices were burned for your fathers, the former kings who were before you, so people shall burn spices for you and lament for you, saying, “Alas, lord!” ’ For I have spoken the word, declares the LORD.”
• 2 Chronicles 16:14 (ESV) — 14 They buried him [Asa] in the tomb that he had cut for himself in the city of David. They laid him on a bier that had been filled with various kinds of spices prepared by the perfumer’s art, and they made a very great fire in his honor.
• Mark 16:1 (ESV) — 1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.

Background on Mary’s nard:
• Mary’s nard was made from the spikenard plant.
• This plant was only found in the Himalayan mountain's of India.
• This Indian spikenard plant is actually extremely difficult to get now.
• It was all the more difficult to get 2000 years ago.
• We also know that this type of nard was typically transported and stored in an alabaster jar (Mark 14:3).
• Beasley-Murray tells us that an “expensive perfume in an alabaster jar might be released only through breaking its long neck” (Mark 14:3).
• So when Mary broke the neck and began to anoint Jesus’ feet, there was no turning back.

So why was Mary’s act remarkable?
• We will get to the significance of her act shortly.
• For now, let’s look at Judas’ and Jesus’ response to Mary’s act.


Judas thought it a waste:
John 12:4–6 (ESV) — 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.

Like so much they experienced, the disciples could use hindsight to look back with clarity.
• And John did so here by contrasting the sacrifice of Mary with the selfishness of Judas.
• Judas had apparently been stealing from Jesus’ ministry for some time, whereas Mary was serving.

Interestingly, however, it didn’t appear that at the time they suspected Judas’ motives.
• Even at the Last Supper they seemed surprised to learn that Judas would betray Jesus.
• John 13:22 (ESV) — 22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.
• John 13:28–29 (ESV) — 28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him [Judas]. 29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.

Moreover, we learn from Mark’s account that it wasn’t just Judas that had a problem with Mary’s actions.
• Mark 14:4 (ESV) — 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that?

So what of the substance of his words?
What was the worth of Mary’s alabaster jar of nard?
And was it wasted?

Judas tells us that the nard was worth 300 denarii.
• As we have seen, the nard was very hard to get.
• And its rarity and point of origin were reasons why it was so valuable.

How valuable?
• 300 denarii was equivalent to a worker’s pay for a year (a denarii a day – excluding Sabbath and other holy days).
• Inflation makes that 300 denarii equal to about $50,000 today (2006 median annual household income).
• This is why, referring to rare ointments like Mary’s nard, we are told that “only the Kings and the very wealthy could afford to use them lavishly” – AYBD.

This means that Mary, Martha and Lazarus household must have been either fairly well off or had been the recipient of the nard as an heirloom passed down through the family.
• So whether or not this was a huge financial sacrifice for the Mary, Martha and Lazarus household we just don’t know.
• But in a broader context, the value of this nard was enormous.
• So Mary’s actions would have been seen as wasteful no matter how wealthy they were.

And so Judas’ question is no doubt one that we all would have been thinking.
Was this a waste as some thought?
• Leave it to Jesus to give us some perspective.

Jesus thought it…:
John 12:7–8 (ESV) — 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.”

To get at Jesus’ take, we have to answer this question.
What does Jesus mean when He says, “so that she may keep it for the day of my burial”?

First, “the day of my burial” was obviously not literally referring to the day itself – that was still days away.
• Kostenberger addresses the “day of my burial” this way, “[It] refers not so much to the event itself as to the laying out of the corpse in preparation for burial”.

Secondly, scholars agree that Jesus’ words in verse 7 “most likely…involve[d] some kind of ellipsis” – Kostenberger.
• The ellipsis would have been something to the effect of, “[she did not sell it]” – Kostenberger.
• So the text is to be understood as, “Leave her alone, [she did not sell it prior to today] so that she may keep it for [the preparation] of my burial”.

This would mean, then, that Mary perhaps understood that Jesus’ time had come and that He had to die.
• “Jesus was symbolically set apart for burial by the only one who really understood what was happening” – Boice.
• However, many argue that, “There is no clear evidence that Mary or anyone else understood before the cross that Jesus had to die. She meant this to be an act of costly, humble devotion, but like Caiaphas (11:49–52) she signaled more than she knew” – D.A. Carson.
• Yet, even if Mary didn’t know what was coming, Jesus at the very least was saying that Mary had kept the nard, “in the providence of God—for just this purpose: the anointing of Jesus’ body in anticipation of his burial” – Kostenberger.
• And, whether knowingly or not, she had begun what Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea would complete later (John 19:38-42).
    o John 19:40 (ESV) — 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
    o This was in preparation for Jesus’ burial.

The answer to our question about Jesus’ view:
• Whatever the extent of Mary’s knowledge, it is clear that Jesus approved of Mary’s use of the nard.
• He did not think it was wasted.
• And in so doing, He was also suggesting that He and His death were worthy of this lavish and extravagant honor.

But what of Judas’ claim that Mary’s use of the nard was at the expense of the poor?
Surely Jesus loved the poor more than some extravagant symbolism?

To this question, Jesus simply says the poor will always be with us, but He will not.
What does this mean?
• Scholars agree that Jesus was quoting The Pentateuch.
• Deuteronomy 15:11 (ESV) — 11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’
• You will notice that there is a command here to be generous with the poor.
• And, of course, this is echoed in NT teachings as well.

Therefore, scholars agree that Jesus is in no way justifying the neglect of aid to the needy for His sake.
• Jesus is not to be used to neglect the poor.
• This is not a justification, for example, to spend 12 million dollars on a new sanctuary at the expense of meeting the needs of the community.
• In fact, Kostenberger says that Jesus, “indirectly concedes that under normal circumstances Judas may have had a point” – Kostenberger.

But what Jesus is pointing out is that, in fact, current circumstances are not “normal circumstances”.
So what is it that is not a normal circumstance?

The Incarnation – Not a Normal Circumstance:
The abnormal circumstance is the physical presence of the incarnate Son of God that will soon come to an end.
• Jesus speaks of the significance of this elsewhere.
• Mark 2:18–20 (ESV) — 18 Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. And people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” 19 And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. 20 The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.
    o Matt 6:18 tells us that the Father rewards those who fast.
    o Many argue that one of these rewards is a sense of the presence of God.
    o What need is there to fast when God is Jesus and walks with you?
    o What need is there to seek His presence?

How does Jesus pointing this out help us?
• Jesus is not justifying poverty, He is warning against not placing proper value in His incarnation and mission.
• The Gospel necessitates the incarnation, the physical presence of God in human form.
• We give Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection its due when we speak of the Gospel.
• But understanding the incarnation, the “Word in Sandals”, is as necessary and is just as worthy of our time and study.

Now back to a topic we skipped.
What was the significance of Mary’s act?


We have already seen that she was symbolically preparing Jesus’ body for His coming burial.
But was there more going on?
• Well answer a few questions to figure this out.

Additionally, John’s account seems to differ a great deal from Mark’s.
• How does John’s account harmonize with Mark’s where they differ?
• Understanding the symbolism behind Mary’s act will shed light will help us harmonize the two.

Meaning of Mary’s Act – what else was going on:
(1) What Her Behavior Tells Us.
• Interestingly, the fact that Mary let down her hair and used it to wipe Jesus’ feet was almost as shocking as applying a year’s salary worth of nard.
• This is because Jewish women simply did not let their hair down in public.
• To do this was to portray oneself as very loose morally and so to lose respect in the community.
• Additionally, because Jesus was single and a rabbi, her act would have been seen all the more as inappropriately suggestive in a relational context.
• In other words, this act was “sure to raise some eyebrows” – Kostenberger.

So from Mary’s behavior we see that to honor and worship Jesus is more important than our worldly reputation.
• We should desire to worship Jesus as He deserves and not concern ourselves with our reputation in the process.

(2) What the Perfume Tells Us
• John tells us, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (vs. 3).
• This speaks to and symbolizes the lavishness of Mary’s act.
• In fact Carson calls it an act of “extravagant love”.

So what?
• When we are lavish and extravagant in our worship and honor of Jesus, our act can have far reaching affects.
• “The fragrance of the act will extend far beyond the event itself” – D.A. Carson.
• We know this because Jesus said of Mary’s anointing:
    o Mark 14:9 (ESV) — 9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
• And Paul says of the Christian:
    o 2 Corinthians 2:14–15 (ESV) — 14 But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15 For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing,

So from the perfume we see the power and fragrance of worship.
And its power is far more “fragrant” than we previously considered (both before God and the world).
• Of Noah’s sacrifice, God said:
    o Genesis 8:21 (ESV) — 21 And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.
• Of the consequence of Israel’s idolatry, God said:
    o Deuteronomy 4:28 (ESV) — 28 And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell.

And finally, the lavishness of Mary’s act can be seen in what it symbolically said about Jesus.

(3) What the Anointing Tells Us
• To get at the symbolism, we need to take a look at what the anointing can signify.
• 1 Samuel 10:1 (ESV) — 1 Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his [Saul] head and kissed him and said, “Has not the LORD anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the LORD and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies. And this shall be the sign to you that the LORD has anointed you to be prince over his heritage.
• 1 Samuel 16:13 (ESV) — 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah.
• Psalm 89:20 (ESV) — 20 I have found David, my servant; with my holy oil I have anointed him,
• 2 Kings 9:1–3 (ESV) — 1 Then Elisha the prophet called one of the sons of the prophets and said to him, “Tie up your garments, and take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. 2 And when you arrive, look there for Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi. And go in and have him rise from among his fellows, and lead him to an inner chamber. 3 Then take the flask of oil and pour it on his head and say, ‘Thus says the LORD, I anoint you king over Israel.’ Then open the door and flee; do not linger.”
In each case, who has been anointed?

So given the context and extravagance of Mary’s anointing, it is clear that the anointing of Jesus was, “a consecration of Jesus to royal service” – Beasley-Murray.
• In fact, the symbolic expansion of this royal service is further clarified with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.
    o John 12:13 (ESV) — 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!”

So from the anointing, whether she knew it or not (as discussed earlier), Mary was anointing Jesus as Messiah and King.
• And Messiah, of course, means “Anointed One”.

Now that we have seen the deeper meanings behind Mary’s act, we need to address why it helps us harmonize John’s version with Mark’s version.

Harmonizing Mark and John:
First, what differences are we concerned with here?
• 1) John names Mary – In Mark she is anonymous and referred to as “a woman” (Mark 14:3).
• 2) John says Mary anointed Jesus’ feet – Mark says she, “poured it over his head” (Mark 14:3); and has Jesus saying she, “anointed my body” (Mark 13:8).

Now we will see how the symbolism behind Mary’s act helps explain the seeming contradictions between John and Mark.
• We will deal with the Mary’s anonymity in Mark first.

Mary’s Anonymity:
Given the fact that Jesus says in Mark 14:9 that the woman’s act will be “proclaimed in the whole world”, her anonymity in Mark is “quite extraordinary” – Bauckham.
How is an anonymous woman’s act told “in memory of her” (Mark 14:9)?
• And if John knew her name, certainly Mark’s source for his Passion narrative did too.
• It doesn’t seem to make any sense.

So how do scholars account for her anonymity?
• Bauckham and Theissen do so via a literary convention called “protection anonymity”.
• This can be best understood by knowing both (1) how early Mark’s Passion narrative was (as in its nearness in time to the actual event) and, (2) it geographical source (where it originated).

With respect to (1) above – nearness in time:
• We know that John was probably written in the late 80’s or 90’s A.D.
• But scholars argue that, “parts of [Mark’s] Passion account would have to have been composed within the generation of the eyewitnesses and their contemporaries” – Gerd Theissen.
• This would put the source for Mark’s Passion narrative as early as the mid 30’s A.D. – Theissen.

With respect to (2) above – geographical source:
• “Only in Jerusalem was there reason to draw a cloak of anonymity over followers of Jesus” – Gerd Theissen.
• If Mary’s name was left out on purpose, as B&T claim, this would only have been necessary if the source for the narrative was Jerusalem – ground zero the Passion narrative.
• In other words the geographical source of Mark’s Passion narrative was Jerusalem.

So all this means is that:
• At the time and place the source of Mark’s Passion narrative “took shape”, “this woman would have been in danger were she identified as having been complicit in Jesus’ politically subversive claim to messianic kingship” – Richard Bauckham.
• Otherwise, there would be no need for anonymity and protection.

So, Mary’s anonymity in Mark actually speaks to just how fragrant and powerful the Kingly symbolism we just discussed actually was.
• Mary’s act put all involved in danger.
• And remember, the Jewish leadership’s case to Pilate was that Jesus had claimed to be “King of the Jews”.
• Mary was part of that “inauguration” and so was part of the “uprising” and thus in danger.
    o BTW – another example of this “protection anonymity” is Mark 14:47.
    o “one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant”

So now we have an explanation as to why Mary is anonymous in Mark and not in John.
What about the differences in where on His body Jesus was anointed?

The Anointing:
As we have seen, Mark has Mary anointing Jesus’ head, and Jesus’ body, whereas John has Mary anointing Jesus’ feet.
How do we account for this?
• The simplest explanation is that Mary anointed all of the above, and Mark and John differ only in their focus and emphasis.
• This certainly fits with burial preparation attributed to Mary by Jesus since “a body for burial required covering the entire corpse” – Apologetics Bible.

However, there is another explanation.
• As discussed earlier, it is possible (as James Boice suggested) that Mary knew what Jesus was about to face.
• This knowledge would have been a revelation from God similar to the following.
• 1 Samuel 16:2–3 (ESV) — 2b And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 3 And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.”

If this were the case, the only question is how much did she know?
• In other words, if Mary knew how Jesus was ordained to die, as He had hinted at Himself (His “lifted up” language), it seems reasonable that she anointed as follows:
• Jesus’ Head – the place the Kings crown of thorns would be placed.
• Jesus’ Body – perhaps His side (the spear) or wrists (the nails)
• Jesus’ Feet – the nails

So the difference in the anointing in John and Mark is probably just a difference in emphasis.
• However, if Mary knew of the nature of Jesus’ coming death, her anointing was recognition that Jesus’ Kingship and Messiah status were to be fulfilled through the cross.

Lesson for Us:
Mary’s example demonstrates for us the extent to which Jesus is worthy of our honor and worship.
• She shows us that proper worship of Jesus can be humiliating and costly.
• But that its impact in our lives can be pervasive.
• We are still living under the repercussions of Mary’s act of anointing the King Messiah.
The question, then, is do we worship Jesus as we should?

Judas’ attitude and John’s commentary, on the other hand, demonstrate that denying Jesus His due honor and worship is tantamount to stealing from Jesus.
• It is denying Jesus what He is due.
• It is to live life out of balance.
Do you have a fragrant and costly life of worship like Mary, or do you count the cost like Judas?