John 11:38-44, “Then Jesus, again groaning in Himself, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.’
Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?’ Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.’
Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Loose him, and let him go.’”
Following verse 44 John swiftly turns our attention away from this “bound” Lazarus needing to be “loosed” and onto the reaction of those who were present to witness his resurrection.
John 11:45-46, “Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary (these were the professional mourners), and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did.”
In response to the most unexpected resurrection of Lazarus John tells us there was a group who “believed in Him” and another who went and tattled on Jesus to the religious leaders. How amazing that in the presence of such a miracle as the resurrection of a man who’d been dead for four days any unbelievers would remain!
What this illustrates is the fact belief is ultimately a matter of the heart and not the mind! Here was a group of people who knew the truth — they’d seen Jesus for who He was with their own eyes — He was “the Resurrection and the Life” — Lazarus resurrected after four days was undeniable — They saw him walk out of the tomb; and yet, they still rejected Him!
I have found more often than not — and this is a point we all need to keep in mind — Jesus is rejected not for a lack of evidence, but an unwillingness to accept the implications of what this fact would mean for one’s life. The truth is there are often no limitations to the lengths the unwilling heart will go to justify a rejection of Jesus!
The sad reality is what Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:19 remains as true today as it did when the statement was first uttered, “This is the condemnation, the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
John 11:47-48, “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this Man works many signs (most notably the healing of the man born blind and resurrection of Lazarus). If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.’”
First, John tells us that, following news of Lazarus’ resurrection, “the chief priests (Caiaphas and Annas) and the Pharisees (the predominate political party in Israel) gathered a council.”
In the Greek this word “council” is “synedrion” which can be translated as Sanhedrin. Though the Roman’s were undoubtedly in charge, they did allow the Jewish people a measure of autonomy concerning local affairs. As such the Sanhedrin was a 71 member council that functioned as this ruling body. They could adjudicate everything but capital punishment.
At this particular “gathering” the agenda focused on the growing popularity of Jesus and what they should do about it. The concern was that the people rallying around Jesus as their Messiah would foster some kind of revolt the Roman’s would be forced to deal with.
Their fear — and it wasn’t without reason or cause — was that if the people started hailing Jesus as their King and a riot ensued “the Romans would” have no other choice but to “come and take away both their place” of power “and the nation” as a whole would be destroyed.
These men are so convinced the ground-swell had reached a tipping point they believed they had no choice left but to intervene. They even concluded, “If we leave Jesus alone everyone will believe in Him!” What a testimony to the effects Jesus was having on the masses.
John 11:49-50, “And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for (instead of) the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.’”
Caiaphas — who is going to become a significant player in the second half of this Gospel — sought to justify killing Jesus as being moral — even “expedient” — in light of the greater good of preserving the people and the nation as a whole. If fact, it was their responsibility!
What makes this particular statement so interesting is that, writing years later with the benefits of hindsight, John adds that this declaration of Caiaphas had come to be seen by those who were present as prophetic for reasons the high priest could never have imagined.
John 11:51-53, “Now this he did not say on his own authority (Caiaphas); but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death.”
This statement “that is was expedient for one man to die for the people” was truer than Caiaphas knew or was even aware. It would absolutely be necessary that “Jesus die” not just for the Jewish people, but for the entire world… That none “should perish!” John adds this to be clear — while the intents of these men were wicked, God was still pulling the strings.
Though John has already recorded two attempts on Jesus’ life, he wants his audience to know, in response to the resurrection of Lazarus, the religious leaders hatched a scheme. John writes that “from that day on” this group of powerful men “plotted” how they might “put Jesus to death.” Note: It would only take a few weeks for this plot to come to fruition.
John 11:54, “Therefore (because of the plot against Him) Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim (15 miles northeast of Jerusalem), and there remained with His disciples (this retreat would last for approximately a month or so until the Feast of Passover).”
John 11:55-56, “And the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went from the country up to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves (this purification took place the week before). Then they sought Jesus, and spoke among themselves as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think — that He will not come to the feast?’”
As the Passover neared and the pilgrims begin making their way to Jerusalem “to purify themselves,” the atmosphere is on edge. Sensing things were coming to a head between Jesus and the religious establishment, people wanted to know if Jesus would be coming to celebrate Passover at all. According to John, the general consensus was that He wasn’t.
John 11:57, “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a command, that if anyone knew where Jesus was, he should report it, that they might seize Him.”
Knowing the real political volatility associated with the massive crowds that would ascend on the city of Jerusalem for the Feast of Passover — which keep in mind was a patriotic celebration of God providing a deliverer to liberate them from Egyptian captivity and oppression — the religious leaders feared what Jesus might do when or if He arrived.
In order to be proactive to this threat, John says these men “gave a command that if anyone knew where Jesus was, he should report it” so “they might seize Him!” This word “command” implies the Sanhedrin actually issued an official public statement — a formal declaration.
Posters went up throughout Jerusalem! Jesus was officially a wanted man with a bounty set. The obvious challenge would be finding someone willing to turn Jesus in and finding a perfect opportunity to seize Jesus away from the mob who’d likely revolt to defended Him.
John 12:1-2, “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom He had raised from the dead. There they made Him a supper; and Martha served, but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with Him.”
While John is not interested in presenting a chronological record of Jesus’ life like Matthew, Mark, or Luke — choosing instead to write with a more thematic bent, he does establish a clear timeframe for this event and those to follow. John opens chapter 12 telling us that “six days before the Passover Jesus came” back “to Bethany” from “Ephraim.”
What make this detail significant is that we’re on the precipice of the final week of Jesus’ life. A week that will begin with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and reach a low point on Passover (Good Friday) with His crucifixion. Since John opens the chapter saying we’re “six days before Passover” we know it’s the Saturday beforehand.
One of the interesting aspects to John’s narrative is that while Luke dedicated roughly 25% of his Gospel to this final week of Jesus’ life, Matthew 33%, and Mark approximately 40% — about one half (50%) of John’s Gospel focuses on these seven final days!
When John closes his Gospel saying that (John 21:25) “and there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” in light of the fact half of his narrative centers on just seven specific days of Jesus’ life — his point is profoundly honest.
While Jesus came into the region specifically to celebrate the Feast of Passover in the city Jerusalem, as was His custom, He lodged in a suburb known as Bethany — at the home of Simon the Leper. As I noted a few weeks ago it’s likely Simon — who it seems was a man of considerable means — had been healed of his leprosy at some point by Jesus.
Because of the relationship that resulted, Simon’s home was always open to Jesus and His disciples whenever they were visiting Jerusalem. What ends up resulting from the incredible amount of time Jesus spent residing in Simon’s home (and this is substantiated by the church fathers) was that over the years He grew to become dear friends with Simon’s three children: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha who we encountered in the previous chapter.
As we spend the rest of our time in John’s Gospel focused on this final week connected with Passover, keep in mind each day Jesus would make the two mile walk from Bethany, west over the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and up into the Temple precincts. Then — on each of these days at sunset — Jesus would return to lodge at Simon’s home.
Upon Jesus’ initial return to Bethany from the city of Ephraim, John tells us “they made Him a supper.” Imagine the characters at this particular table: Obviously you have the guest of honor Jesus, Simon the Leper, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Peter, James, John, Matthew, Andrew, Philip, Judas, the rest of the Twelve, Blind Bartimaeus, possibly even Zacchaeus.
At some point during this “supper” proceeding we read… John 12:3, “Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.”
What a scene! Before we get into the particulars of John’s account, it should be mentioned that this story is also recorded in both Matthew 26 and Mark 14. Furthermore, please note — while similar in some details — this is not the same account recorded in Luke 7.
In the Luke narrative the story positions Jesus is in Galilee — not Bethany, He’s at the home of a skeptical Pharisees name Simon and not with dear friends like Simon the Leper, and the woman is a known sinner — clearly not this Godly woman named Mary.
John begins his account remembering how “Mary took a pound (or about 12 fluid ounces) of very costly oil of spikenard.” While there is much we don’t know about “spikenard” we do know it was a potent, reddish, sweet smelling oil that was yielded by crushing the head or literally “spike” of a “nard” — a nard was a plant native to Eastern Indian.
Not only was this oil very difficult to come by, but in the very next verse we’re going to learn “a pound of spikenard” would have been worth approximately “three hundred denarii” or what scholars estimate to be roughly a years wage for a working man. The one thing clear about this passage is that Mary is offering to Jesus what is likely her most valuable possession.
As I play this scene out in my mind I can see Mary quietly enter the room and make her way to Jesus as He’s sitting at the place of honor enjoying this meal with friends. At some point the conversation ceases and everyone quiets as they notice Mary making her way to Jesus. Everyone can’t help but notice this very ornate “alabaster flask” in her hands.
Not sure what’s about to happen… Mary stoops down onto the floor in front of Jesus. Then to everyone’s surprise she breaks the seal on the flask. Instantly the sweet smell of the ointment overwhelms the room. Matthew and Mark note that Mary pours the oil on Jesus’ head. Once it reaches the floor she begins “anointing” His feet by wiping them with her hair.
This word “anointing” implies a deliberate, almost ceremonial act on the part of Mary. In Hebrew culture kings and priests were anointed — It was a physical ceremony aimed at recognizing God’s spiritual anointing and calling for a specific task or position.
While we have no idea what Mary is saying, the act of “anointing” Jesus’ feet with this oil only to then “wipe” them off “with her hair” was powerfully intimate and deeply personal.
In order to fully grasp what Mary’s doing you need to understand her motivation. In verse 7 Jesus will say, “She has kept this for the day of My burial.” The irony of this statement is that Mary made a decision to use this oil prematurely for Jesus hadn’t died.
The case can be made that Mary, unlike so many of the others, actually knew why Jesus had come for the Feast of Passover. She recognized Jesus had come to die. She understood the significance of the moment and what would follow. So instead of using this spikenard in the actual burial process, Mary decided to honor Jesus while He was still living. For Mary this was an offering looking forward to the work she knew Jesus had come to accomplish.
Again, the imagery of the scene would have been powerful and moving. As she goes through this anointing process Jesus’ head down to His feet would have become stained with a deep blood red by the oil itself. Then, as she wiped His feet with her hair, the oil would have no doubt covered Mary, her head, hands, and face with the same potent reddish hue. There is no question the scene foreshadowed what would happen in just a weeks time.
Though I can imagine everyone was a bit taken back, not so with Jesus. Mary had come before her Savior in worship. She took her most valuable possession and sought to honor Jesus with it. She gave Him her all - herself! In a way I believe this act of anointing Jesus with this spikenard was Mary’s way of thanking Him for the sacrifice He’d come to offer.
The first lesson we should take from Mary’s example is what it says about the true essence of worship. Fundamentally, worship is all about blessing Jesus, not moving me. True worship centers exclusively on His experience in the moment, not mine. In a sense, worship — or the attributing of worth — should be Christ-centric and Jesus focused.
That is not to say we don’t receive a reciprocal blessing in the act of worshipping. It’s true that an offering designed to foster an experience for Jesus tends to boomerang back an experience for the worshipper. And yet, the experience for self cannot be the chief pursuit of one’s worship. Mary came not for what she’d get in return, but what she’d give.
To make my point… May I ask, what makes a good worship service? Sad to say, the answers often reveal a warped and twisted perspective. Tragically, we live in an age whereby the modern Christian worship experience expected by the majority of church attenders which is enhanced with professional musicians, charismatic leaders, high-end technology — lights, sound, with immersive visuals and catchy sing-alongs is often completely me-centered!
And while I’m not knocking technology or professionalism, the sad truth is that if a person doesn’t experience a euphoric, spiritual high they conclude the “worship wasn’t any good!” Even more disturbing — if they do experience this they believe the worship was awesome.
In researching this epidemic in today’s self-indulged Christianity, George Barna writes, “We found that a common obstacle to facilitating real worship is that the church’s leaders do not understand what worship is and isn’t. Despite seminary education and denominational guidance, a shockingly high number of church leaders have no real understanding or philosophy of worship… For most Americans worship is to satisfy or please them, not to honor or please God. Amazingly, few worship-service regulars argue that worship is something they do primarily for God; a substantially larger percentage of attenders claim that attending worship services is something that they do for personal benefit and pleasure.”
Author Paul Tripp once tweeted a truth to this point, “Corporate worship is a regular gracious reminder that it’s not about you. You've been born into a life that is a celebration of another.” Mainly it’s an opportunity to exalt Jesus and glorify Him for who He is and what He’s done.
Mary came before Jesus to give Him her all expecting nothing in return. Her worship was costly. And yet, in Matthew 26:10, Jesus said of Mary and her act of worship, “She has done a good work for Me... Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.” Consider… What is the only thing you can give the God who’s given all? Your praise and worship!
John 12:4-8, “But one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son (“Judas” is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Judah and according to Luke 22:3 “Iscariot” was a surname likely implying he was from the town of Kerioth — also note this is a different Simon than the Leper who’s home they were in), who would betray Him (still future tense), said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’”
John then adds… “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take (was constantly taking) what was put in it. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial. For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.’”
Amazingly, Jesus’ rebuke of Judas when He says, “Leave her alone” implies that this man had the audacity to voice his objection while Mary was still in the very act of anointing His feet! Judas is not only challenging Mary’s offering, but Jesus’ willingness to accept it! Note: Matthew and Mark tell us the other disciples were in agreement with Judas’ sentiment.
As Mary is still wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair, Judas — for reasons John would come to fully understand much later — points out that her offering could have been so much more useful if the spikenard had been sold and the money used to care for “the poor!” His argument is that this was a poor utilization of ministry resources. “What about the poor?”
Though on the surface Judas sounds spiritual and his objection carrying some merit, Jesus not only tells him to back off, but He counters with a most interesting idea. Jesus justifies Mary’s offering by saying, “For the poor you have with you always, but Me you do not have always.” I know this might sound strange, but this verse ended up having a profound influence on my life many years ago. Recount the Bible College moment.
One of the important realities Jesus’ statement to Judas illustrates is that earthly ministry is ultimately evaluated based upon how the work seeks to honor and glorify Jesus and not what it tangibly accomplishes. This is why Jesus is more interested in the way ministry is conducted than what results from the ministry itself. Never forget… Jesus always prioritizes faithfulness over accomplishments.
We live in a Christian culture whereby we excuse away so many unBiblical church strategies under the guise the “ends justify the means!” I have a dear friend who attends a large seeker-friendly church who knows the model isn’t Biblical; and yet, he justifies things by pointing to large conversion rates, reaching the lost, and huge attendance numbers.
The question we need to consider is… Does the ends justify the means to Jesus? Do we get a pass as long as we’re productive? Honestly, I think Jesus find how a church conducts ministry to be of much more importance than the tangible results yielded from the ministry. Sure, it’s true healthy sheep reproduce, but if allowed so do unhealthy sheep.
You know the other interesting concept Jesus’ is establishing is that — regardless of our efforts — there is a limitation to what can be redeemed in a fallen world. Again, this statement “the poor you have with you always” intends to keep our ministry focus more on making citizens of heaven than on bettering conditions on earth.
There is an old saying that you can become so heavenly minded that you’re no earthly good. Though some hate this saying I get the point. That said… I think the greater danger for todays church is becoming so earthly minded we are no heavenly good!
Though this selfless act of Mary’s worship was worthy of recording for a third time in the Gospel accounts, John repeats this story to deepen the growing plot against Jesus.
As mentioned earlier, Jesus was a wanted man. There was a bounty on His head. And yet, the religious leaders need someone to hand Jesus over — specifically in a time and place when He was separated from the crowds. According to both Matthew and Luke — and implied here by John, following this rebuke Judas decides to join the conspiracy.
John 12:9-11, “Now a great many of the Jews knew that He was there (at Simon the Leper’s home); and they came (they crashed the party), not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He had raised from the dead. But the chief priests plotted to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.”
As John forwards the narrative he again mentions Lazarus and the impact his resurrection had on the current political climate heading into Passover. Though a few weeks had passed, what Jesus had done had sent shock waves throughout Jerusalem. The city was buzzing and people flocked to see the man who’d been dead for four days!
Because of these things, John tells us “the chief priests” also hatched a “plot to put Lazarus to death.” The reason for this is while most of the Sanhedrin was comprised of Pharisees, Caiaphas was a member of the more liberal party known as the Sadducess.
Claiming to be the more progressive wing within Israelis politics these men didn’t believe in angels, the supernatural, or the resurrection. Simply put and you can understand their problem, a living Lazarus proved to be very difficult to reconcile with their present theology.
As we close there is a final point of application we can pull from this text… Lazarus became a target of persecution because of the testimony his life communicated about Jesus! Preacher Charles Spurgeon famously said, “When men hate Christ, they also hate those whom He has blessed, and will go to any lengths in seeking to silence their testimony.”
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