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Worship or Waste – John 12:1-11

Mary's worship pointed to the cross. How does the cross affect your worship?
Why did Mary spend her entire savings on a person whom the nation’s leaders considered as “persona non grata?”


Jerusalem was bursting with activity as the Passover, the most important festival in the Jewish calendar, was just six days away. In Bethany, a village in Judea, just about two miles east of Jerusalem, some people gathered for dinner. Amongst others, Jesus’ disciples were there, and so were Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Martha served, Lazarus sat, but Mary was silent. Just as the sisters were celebrating the life of her brother, Lazarus, Mary sensed that her friend Jesus’ death was fast approaching. The sweet aroma of expensive perfume filled the bustling house, and there was Mary, with a broken perfume jar. She was preparing the Lamb for the Passover with an extravagant sacrifice.

Background & Context

According to Warren Wiersbe, John 12 records the second major crisis in the ministry of our Lord as seen by John, the apostle. The first occurred when many of His disciples would no longer walk with Him (John 6:66), even though He is “the way” (John 14:6). In this chapter, John tells us that many would not believe in Him (John 12:37ff.), even though He is “the truth.” The third crisis will come in John 19: Even though He is “the life,” the leaders crucified Him”

Before we exegete this passage, let us remind ourselves of the reason why John wrote this book. We read John’s purpose statement in John 20:31 (KJV)

But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.

John reports seven signs or miracles that Jesus did to validate his purpose statement. We saw the last of the seven signs in John 11 when Jesus raised Lazarus. In many Bible versions, the word ‘then’ or ‘therefore’ is not there at the start of chapter 12. KJV and the NET Bible has it. In Greek, chapter 12 starts with the conjunction’ οὖν’ (oun), meaning ‘therefore’ or ‘then.’ That means that this passage is directly related to the previous passage in John 11. John is not just narrating a random sequence of events in Jesus’ life for information. John wants his readers to now respond to who Jesus is, given these seven signs, as he leads us into the narrative in John 12. In this passage, John highlights the response of 3 sets of characters, and he is inviting his readers to respond rightly to Jesus, to believe in him so that they might have life.

John paints this narrative in 4 movements. The DEVOTION of Mary. The DECEIT of Judas. The DISDAIN of the Chief Priests and the DEFENCE of Jesus Christ.

DEVOTION: The response of Mary

Let us read John 12:1-3: (KJV)

Then Jesus, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper, and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

In these three verses, we see DEVOTION MODELLED. John introduces us to this passage with a contrasting theme of death and life, and by mentioning six days before Passover, John is heightening the narrative’s tension, just as in the creation week, which will culminate on the 7th day when God rested. If we extrapolate this narrative, we know that the 7th day would be the Passover when Jesus, the Passover Lamb, would be crucified.

Passover was the most important Jewish festival. A specifically selected lamb was sacrificed to remind them that this innocent lamb’s blood on their doorpost, 1500 years ago, made the Angel of Death pass over their house while the eldest son in the Egyptian’s house died. This dark and deadly event in Egypt contrasts with Bethany, identified as the place where Lazarus was. He was dead but raised to life.

If we go back a bit and read the last verse in chapter 11 (John 11:57), we can see that the Pharisees had just declared Jesus as “persona non grata.” Knowing this, hosting a dinner party was a very courageous thing to do. We do not see a guest list here, but it included the disciples, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Martha is serving, Lazarus was sitting, and the main character in this narrative, Mary, was silent. Still, she caused a stir when she opened a jar of expensive perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and a sweet aroma filled the house.

If you freeze this frame, the three characters exhibit a model of devotion. Martha gives us a picture of work, Lazarus, witness, and Mary of worship of their friend, Jesus. They all wanted to express their love and gratitude to Jesus, but the writer focuses on Mary as she steps up her expression of love. Now soak in this picture of all the three silent characters as you smell that sweet aroma that permeates the room. Just some time ago, Martha alluded to a “stinking smell” (John 11:35) as she referred to the dead body of brother Lazarus in the grave. John, in some way, is preparing his readers to understand that there is a distinct difference between the ‘stink’ of Lazarus’ death, where ‘sin’ is operative and the ‘sweet aroma’ of Jesus’ death, where redemption is operative.

Three elements are evident in Mary’s worship. Firstly, Mary’s posture. She is sitting at Jesus’ feet that shows her humility in her worship. It is interesting to note that every time you encounter Mary, the sister of Lazarus, you find her at the feet of Jesus. In Luke 10:39, she sat at Jesus’ feet to hear the words of her Lord. In John 11:32,she fell at Jesus’ feet to experience the works of her Lord, and in John 12:3, she anoints Jesus’ feet to declare the worth of her Lord. Secondly, her presentation. John goes out of his way to mention that the spikenard was pure and very expensive. By saying that, John is communicating the value of Jesus in Mary’s eyes. Her worship was an extravagant sacrifice. It cost her dearly. Thirdly, her preparedness. Like the wise men, Mary came prepared to worship her master. The feet are the most unclean part of the body, but Mary is anointing this unceremonious body part with a woman’s glory, her hair. John the Baptist once said he was unworthy even to untie the sandals on Jesus’ feet (John 1:27). It was Mary’s way of saying the same thing.

Mary’s response was humble, extravagant, and intentional. Considering the circumstances, it was also risky. She put her life and self-esteem on the line and made herself vulnerable in her worship. Mary was gladly willing to not only freely give to Him what was very costly to her, but she was also keen to do the lowliest of tasks for the sake of her master. Is Jesus worth the same to you? Mary’s response is the only proper response to our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Mary’s servitude and humility are commendable, and probably Jesus took a leaf out of Mary’s posture when he wipes the feet of his disciples in the very next chapter (John 13:4, 5)

DECEIT: The response of Judas

Mary’s devotion resulted in a pleasant aroma that filled the house. But as we move on to the next portion, we see that not everyone was as pleased as Mary.

John 12:4-6 (CSB)

Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the moneybag and would steal part of what was put in it.

Judas’ DECEIT challenges Mary’s DEVOTION. Judas Iscariot breaches the distinct silence of the first three characters as he enters the scene with his dismissive retort of Mary’s action. John gives us three clear markers so that we do not mistake this person for another. Firstly, he is Judas Iscariot, the thief. Secondly, he is one of the disciples and thirdly, he is the one who will betray Jesus. This angry tirade is the first time we hear Judas in the Gospels. ‘Why was not this ointment or spikenard not sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor? One denarius was the money earned for a day’s labour. So, 300 denarii are almost a year’s earnings. Instead of putting a value to it, think of your earnings for a month and multiply it by twelve. You will immediately comprehend the extravagance of this sacrifice and why Judas may be probably justified in his thinking. On the surface of things, we could interpret this as a good question, one that shows a genuine heart to care and provide for the poor in their community. But John has already painted a dark picture of Judas in verse 4, and hence whatever Judas says is suspect.

Judas is not upset about the money wasted that could have gone to the poor, but what could have gone into his own pockets. He, being the treasurer of the disciples, often helped himself from what was collected. John wants us to contrast Judas’ response to Mary’s. To Mary, Jesus was an end to itself, but to Judas, Jesus was a means to wealth. Mary gave an extravagant gift to Jesus, but Judas wanted to have that luxurious gift for himself. Mary’s worship posed a threat to Judas’ love of money. Does Jesus pose a threat to your love for money?

We read in 1Timothy 6:10 (KJV)

For the love of money is the root of all evil.

The problem with money is that the things it can buy seem to be things that we need the most. There is never an end to the things we need, whether it is the latest iPhone or Android or the latest car model. But money can’t buy Jesus. The thing that valued most to Mary was in the room, but for Judas, it was in the jar! The only thing you can do that brings value to your money is to give it away. The proper response to Jesus regarding your money is sacrificial giving. That is worship.

We saw the DEVOTION of Mary and the DECEIT of Judas, and what Mary considered worship was construed as waste by Judas. Before we look at Jesus’ response in his DEFENCE of Mary in verses 7 & 8, let us see the response of the Chief priests in verses 10 &11.

DISDAIN – The response of the Chief Priests

Let us read John 12:9-11 (KJV):

Much people of the Jews therefore knew that he was there: and they came not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead. But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away and believed on Jesus.

Even though Mary is the main character, Lazarus is mentioned four times in this narrative. The resurrected or resuscitated life of Lazarus caused a division in the crowd that followed Jesus. Lazarus’ life caused many to believe in Jesus while at the same time, for some, Lazarus’ life meant death to them. We saw earlier the two responses to Jesus. The DEVOTION of Mary (vs 1-4) and the DECEIT of Judas, the thief (vs 4-6). Verses 9-11 introduce the readers to the 3rd response, that of the Chief priests.

They DESPISED Jesus so much that they wanted to kill him. Why did Jesus evoke such a blood-thirsty reaction in them? We need to rewind a bit and read John 11:47-48 (KJV):

Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, what do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe in him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.

If the Chief priests could not control the crowds’ affinity to Jesus, the Romans would change the leadership, meaning these Chief priests would lose their power and their position. That was unacceptable to them, and hence they wanted to kill Jesus. At this point, you think that you may not be as good as Mary, but definitely, you are not as bad as the Chief Priests, who wanted Jesus killed to protect their power and position.

But let me probe a little deeper into your lives. The question you need to ask is whether Jesus is worth you giving up whatever power or control you have over your life and your set of circumstances? In other words, how does Jesus pose a threat to the power and control that you currently possess? You and I are more like the Chief priests than we would ever like to admit. It becomes hard to worship Jesus if that means I must give him a majority voice in my life concerning everything I do. That would include which church I attend. Which school I place my children? Which establishment I should work? What kind of company I should keep? My career, my spouse, my money, the entertainment that I consume etc., will all come under the arena of Jesus’ authority.

Following this path, where Jesus controls all the above, may pose a threat to you, just like the Chief priests. Is Jesus worthy of that kind of sacrificial worship to you? If so, your worship calls to surrender control over all areas of your life to Jesus, and if you are not willing to do that, all these things will become a threat to you. The Chief priest found a solution to this threat by killing an innocent man who came to save them. Is that your solution this morning? Is Jesus a threat to your freedom? Your power, your position? Anything more important than Jesus has the potential to destroy you. Let us heed God’s warning to Cain: Sin crouches at the door, and its desire is against you.

Let us quickly recap the three responses to Jesus in this narrative. We saw the response of Mary. Her worship marked by the DEVOTION she modelled. We saw the response of Judas. His DECEIT marked by his love for money, his possessions and we also saw the response of the Chief priests. They DESPISED Jesus as he was a threat to their power and position. We will now look at Jesus’ response. His DEFENCE of Mary’s worship.

DEFENCE: The response of Jesus

Let us read John 12:7-8 (KJV)

Then said Jesus, let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.

Jesus comes to Mary’s DEFENCE against Judas DECEIT. “Leave her alone,” ( Ἄφες (aphes) αὐτήν (autēn)). That is a conjugate of the same word Jesus used in the raising of Lazarus narrative in John 11:44. “Loose him, let him go.” Jesus rebukes Judas and points out that Mary’s extravagant display of devotion is entirely appropriate as she has used the perfume to prepare him for his death symbolically. Mary may have somehow understood more what was to become of Jesus than his twelve disciples. She had a premonition that Jesus’ death was fast approaching. Jesus continues to say that she can serve the poor every day for the rest of her life, but she will not always be able to serve and anoint me for burial in the way she’s done here. In effect, Jesus is telling Judas to leave Mary alone, free her, release her, let her go. TAKE ME INSTEAD!

What does Jesus’ response to Judas mean to you as he defends Mary? Jesus is calling you to respond to him freely in worship. What is tempting in your worship to make Jesus of less value? Is it your possessions? Is it your power and position? Does Jesus pose a threat to your freedom in using your possessions, position, and power? Are you willing to lay it all down for Jesus? You need to let it GO.

Let me summarize and then see how we can apply it in our lives. John, in his first eleven chapters of his Gospel, focused on seven signs or miracles of Jesus to evoke a response from his readers to believe in Jesus so that they would have life. John then gives an application of his thesis in chapter 12. He categorizes the possible responses of his readers by considering the responses of three sets of people. Mary modelled the proper response of worship by her DEVOTION to her Lord. The two wrong responses to Jesus are by Judas, whose DECEIT marked the love for his possessions, and the Chief Priests, who DESPISED Jesus due to their love for power and position. And finally, we saw the response of Jesus in his DEFENCE of Mary for her intentional, selfless, extravagant worship.

Mary’s devotion is commendable, but we read in Luke 9:51 (KJV)

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.

The prospect of the Cross overwhelmed Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, but that did not shake him from his devotion to save you and me.

We read in Heb 12:2 (KJV)

Who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross, despising the shame.

Judas betrayed Jesus for a mere 30 pieces of silver. He was a victim of unfair trials, unjustly mocked, scourged, and nailed to a cross.

We read in Is 53:7 (CSB)

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, he did not open his mouth

We read Ps 22 (KJV)

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

Unlike Mary, there was no one to defend him. We see darkness as he lay on the Cross, even as heaven went silent. I want you to picture the scene of Lazarus and Jesus together. Here was a dead man whom Jesus gave life, but for Lazarus to live, Jesus must die. That is a commentary about you and me. For us to live, Jesus had to die.

Let me leave you with two applications. Firstly, Mary’s worship pointed to the Cross. How does the Cross affect your worship? I am not talking about worship on Sundays alone. On Sundays, you wear the right clothes; you say the right words and do the right things. But how does the Cross affect the way you do your tax returns? How does the Cross affect your thought life, what you think of your spouse or the brother or sister that disagree or trouble you? How does the Cross affect the way you work? Do you display excellence despite trying circumstances? How does the Cross affect how you deal with the boss that mistreats you, the co-worker who lies about you? How does the Cross affect the way you spend your time and your money? How does the Cross with the fact that you are not being appreciated enough by your family, by your church member, by your co-workers? Is pride diluting your worship? The songwriter says, “Nothing to the Cross I bring, simply to the Cross I cling!”

Do you see all the above through the eyes of devoted Mary or the eyes of the deceitful Judas? Mary came prepared to worship. She was intentional. Mary’s worship pointed to the Cross. Is your worship, your life, lived in the shadow of the Cross? Is your worship extravagant, or do you consider it a waste like Judas? Is your worship, your life, lived in humility? Mary’s gift represents a rebuke to self-centred worship. Does your worship, your life, revolve around only you, what you feel, what you want? How intentional are you in your devotion to Jesus?

I call you to look to Jesus. He is your defender and rescuer. Jesus said, I will not leave you as orphans as you fight sin, the world and Satan, but I will send you “another” comforter, the Holy Spirit. That is the Gospel, my dear brothers and sisters. The Gospel is not just for unbelievers but also believers like you and me. It is the good news that you are not alone in your fight for purity, as you fight sin. God is in you. The scripture reminds us to walk in the Spirit, to live a life controlled by the Spirit so that your flesh will not overtake you.

Secondly and finally, remember that a resurrected life will cause divisions and distress in your life, but unlike Judas and the Chief Priests, do not let anything take the place of Jesus, not your possession, position, or power. Your resurrected life will polarize people; otherwise, you will end up as men-pleasers. When you take a stance for Jesus, you will have dissenters, who will challenge you like Judas and the Chief Priests. Change brings conflict. But remember, just as he defended Mary, Jesus is your DEFENDER, not the world, not your church, not your family.

Jesus said in John 16:33 that in this world you will have tribulations but be not troubled, for I have overcome the world.

We read in 2Cor 4:7 (CSB)

Now we have this treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us

What is this treasure? It is the Gospel of Christ. God has placed this treasure in our earthen vessels, our body. Yes, your body will break when there is no money in your bank; when life is not fair to you and presses so hard against you; when your body is weak as disease takes hold of you; when a loved one passes away. Yes, your body will break, and when your body breaks, this treasure will leak, the Gospel will leak, Christ will leak. Will it stink like Lazarus’ dead body, or will it be like Mary’s broken alabaster? A sweet aroma that fills the room.

Paul reminds us in 2Cor 2:14-16 (CSB)

But thanks be to God, who always leads us in Christ’s triumphal procession and through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him in every place. For to God we are the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To some we are an aroma of death leading to death, but to others, an aroma of life leading to life.

This is the Word for you today. Mary’s worship pointed to the Cross, may the Cross affect your worship, to be intentional and extravagant, that your life, maybe a sweet-smelling aroma to the world around. Also, remember that your resurrected life will cause divisions and distress. There will be people like Judas and the Chief Priests that will break your body. But when your body breaks, let it leak the treasure of the Gospel of Christ, your defender, so that you can be a balm in Gilead, to heal this broken world. Let your WORSHIP matter because you will WASTE your life if you spend all your possession, power, and position on yourself.

This is the Word for you today. Mary’s worship pointed to the Cross, may the Cross affect your worship, to be intentional and extravagant, that your life, maybe a sweet-smelling aroma to the world around. Also, remember that your resurrected life will cause divisions and distress. There will be people like Judas and the Chief Priests that will break your body. But when your body breaks, let it leak the treasure of the Gospel of Christ, your defender, so that you can be a balm in Gilead, to heal this broken world. Let your WORSHIP matter because you will WASTE your life if you spend all your possession, power, and position on yourself.

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