Main Idea: Jesus receives a gift of great significance and promises it will never be forgotten.
- Mary’s Gift Is a Reminder of His Impending Death.
- Mary’s Gift Is a Picture of Extravagant Love.
- Mary’s Gift Is an Illustration of Humble Service.
- Mary’s Gift Is a Rebuke to Self-Centered Religion.
If you were to take a minute and think about what gifts meant a lot to you, I bet you’d discover the most meaningful gifts were personal and sacrificial. When a person gladly sacrifices for your benefit, it shows the depth of his or her love for you. The gift is greater than the materials it’s made from. It’s a tangible demonstration of love.
In John 12 we find a gift of great significance. Jesus promises this gift will never be forgotten; wherever the gospel is preached, the story of this gift will be shared. In the previous chapter Jesus received a message that a good friend was sick, and because of his love for his friend, he waited to visit him until he was dead. Jesus arrives and interrupts the funeral by bringing his dead friend back to life, but the chapter doesn’t end with the big celebration you might expect. If you were at a friend’s funeral, what would you do if he rose from the dead? Once you picked your jaw up off the floor, you’d throw a party. You’d feast on all the casseroles intended for the postfuneral meal. The scene that follows the resurrection of Lazarus is not a party but a secret meeting where the self-righteous religious leaders decide Jesus needs to die. It’s not until this meeting ends with a signed death warrant that we visit the small celebration for Lazarus.
Look who’s sitting at the table with Jesus: Lazarus himself. What was Lazarus doing in the previous days? He was lying dead in the grave. What do you think the conversation was like at dinner? What would you say to Lazarus?
Lazarus is a picture of everyone who is a Christian. We find him, after his death, feasting in the presence of Jesus. That’s our destiny. As with Lazarus, death holds no finality for us. Death is the appetizer for a feast with Jesus. The main focus of this account is not Lazarus but the gift Mary gives to Jesus. What is the significance of her gift?
Mary’s Gift Is a Reminder of His Impending Death
John includes many markers in his retelling of these events that force us to see this act against the background of the sacrificial death of Jesus, including the accounts on either side of this story. Before we read about this gift, we’re told of the secret meeting where the religious leaders decide to kill Jesus (11:53). Immediately following this gift, we discover that the chief priests have issued a death warrant for Lazarus as well (12:10).
The next clue is the mention of Passover (12:1). Passover was when each Jewish man brought a lamb into Jerusalem to be offered in his place. Jesus is the Lamb of God: he’s our Passover Lamb, whose death will take away our sins.
Next, the description of Lazarus is “the one Jesus had raised from the dead.” One of the main purposes of the account of Lazarus’s resurrection was to give us confidence in Jesus’s victory over the grave. Jesus has the power to defeat his own death.
What about the gift itself? The gift is ointment that normally serves as a burial spice. After a person died, perfumes and spices would be placed on his body to prepare it for burial. As Mary prepares Jesus’s body for the coming grave, her gift prepares us for his death.
In verse 4 we’re introduced to Judas Iscariot. He’s called the one “who was about to betray” Jesus. That description points us to a night less than a week away when Judas will lead a group of soldiers and religious leaders to the garden of Gethsemane. There he will give Jesus a kiss of betrayal, starting a chain of events that ends fewer than twenty-four hours later with Jesus’s corpse being taken off the cross.
Finally, the last recorded words from dinner are Jesus’s own reminder (v. 8): “But you do not always have me.” He reminds them he came into the world to lay down his life as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of mankind.
This gift offered by Mary serves a similar function to the gifts we give at Christmas. Christmas isn’t a celebration of our generosity. The gifts we give point to the greatest gift ever given: a Savior.
Mary’s Gift Is a Picture of Extravagant Love
The gift amounted to a Roman pound, which converts to between eleven and twelve ounces—about the size of a can of soda. John describes it as “expensive” (v. 3). It was equivalent to three hundred denarii (v. 5)—one denarius was equal to a day’s wage for the average worker. The cost was approximately one year’s salary. The gift is “pure”—it’s not an imitation, not a cheap knockoff. Her gift reminds us of the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Mary realizes it’s worth it to give all to Jesus. She doesn’t pick the cheap perfume. She doesn’t dab a little bit on the inside of his wrists. She brings out the best, most extravagant, most expensive ointment of the day, and she pours every ounce on him. Her gift is her way of yelling from the top of a mountain, “Jesus is worth it!”
The example of Mary forces us to consider what a right response to Jesus looks like. If we really see Jesus for who he is—the almighty, infinite God of the universe who condescended to take on human form so that he could die a brutal death in the place of his rebellious creatures—if we understand his beauty—that he is the all-satisfying, wondrous, joyful God who promises to give peace, blessing, and satisfaction in himself to those who come to him—if we get this, how can we possibly withhold anything from him?
When was the last time you demonstrated extravagant love for him? What does extravagant love for Christ look like now? He’s not physically present. We can’t copy Mary’s act by giving him tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of perfume. There’s not a simple, one-size-fits-all answer. Her extravagant love was revealed in the fact she didn’t robotically respond to someone’s command. She knew him and loved him so much she did the hard work of thinking about what he would love and how she could demonstrate her love to him.
Mary’s Gift Is an Illustration of Humble Service
In verse 3 Mary pours this perfume on Jesus’s feet. Twice John mentions it, and then he states that she wiped his feet with her hair—an act of great humility. In spite of her extravagant love, Mary never lost sight of the glory of Jesus. Her act of love was carried out with deep reverence. What a contrast to the arrogance of the religious leaders in chapter 11, who think they have the right to kill an innocent man.
The emphasis on the washing of Jesus’s feet points us ahead to the next chapter where Jesus humbles himself and washes the feet of his disciples; then he commands them to go and do likewise. Mary exhibits the rare combination of generosity and humility. She gives a tremendous gift with no desire for the spotlight. How easily our most sacrificial acts of love can turn into a platform for self-promotion. Like Mary, may we give extravagantly, all the while directing the glory and praise to Jesus.
Mary’s Gift Is a Rebuke to Self-Centered Religion
John intends for us to see a contrast between Mary and Judas. John often portrays the truth by using contrasts. His favorite is the contrast between light and darkness.
For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed. But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.(3:20-21)
We see this perfectly illustrated by two who attended the banquet. Judas does wicked things and hates (even condemns and then betrays) the light. Mary has come to the light, and it’s clear her works have been carried out by the grace and power of God. Mary’s love rings authentic. Judas is a hypocrite. His cold, faithless heart is masked by a cloak of self-righteous piety.
Judas serves as a warning. He looked and spoke the part of a disciple. He could have supported his suggestion to give the money to the poor with hundreds of Old Testament verses. However, his motive was self-centered. He was only concerned about what he could get from Jesus. Judas looks good on the outside. At a glance he seems moral, but money and possessions are more important to him than Jesus. What did he do when faced with the decision to give up his stuff or give up Jesus? Stuff wins. Sorry, Jesus. Mary, on the other hand, viewed possessions as an opportunity to bless Jesus. How do you view possessions?
In verse 3 John says, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Love has an undeniable fragrance, and when you smell it, you want to linger there. You can’t get enough. Mary’s gift helps us catch the faint whiff of love and leaves us longing for more. We wait for the day when the fragrance of love fills the whole world.
Reflect and Discuss
- Picture Lazarus at the festival. How might all of Jesus’s followers one day resemble Lazarus?
- How should the reader understand the significance of John’s mention of the Passover as this story starts?
- How might Mary’s gift remind us of Christmas?
- Why was Mary’s gift itself so significant? How was it foreshadowing the cross?
- Why is Mary’s gift a picture of extravagant love?
- How does Mary’s example help us consider what a right response to Jesus looks like?
- What might extravagant love for Christ look like now?
- When was the last time you demonstrated extravagant love for Jesus?
- How does John contrast Mary and Judas?
- Take inventory of your life. How do you view your possessions? If Jesus asked you to give up everything, would it be easy or hard? Why?