Scripture: Mark 14:1-11 (NKJV)
Sometimes we may think that what we do for the Lord doesn’t really matter. What we do may not be appreciated by some people, and it may be misunderstood by others. It is possible to be weary in well-doing, and if that is you today, I have an encouraging word for you. What really counts in our daily lives is what Jesus thinks about what we are doing, as we will see. On the other hand, it is possible for our devotion to Christ to lose its passion, its fire, its focus. There is also a lesson here from the Word of God for those who may need the fire of devotion rekindled.
A meal is being served in a home. A simple and yet sacrificial act of devotion takes place — an anointing with oil. This was not uncommon in those days. But, as we will see, this act of appreciation and love took on a very special significance. It became part of a much bigger story with a message to be proclaimed.
Jesus will soon be arrested, He will be tried, He will suffer and be crucified (before His glorious resurrection.) All four gospels paint the picture for us. Verses 1-2 of this chapter in Mark’s gospel reveal that the conspiracy to do away with Jesus is well underway. After this event in Bethany (3-9), Judas betrays Jesus. Then the final events of Jesus’ earthly life unfold – the preparation for the supper, the prediction of betrayal, the last supper, Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, the prayer and agony of Gethsemane, the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, the fleeing of the disciples, and all of the tragic events leading up to the cross. These were dark days, but significant days as our Lord Jesus prepares to “give His life as a ransom for many” (10:45).
The gospel writer is moving us towards the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man and the Servant is fulfilling His mission. It didn’t take long for conflict to start in Jesus’ ministry and mission, but now it is about to come to a head. Soon on the cross he would cry out, breathe His last breath, and the veil of the temple would be torn from top to bottom. And framed between the recorded conspiracy in Mark 14:1-2 and the betrayal of Judas 14:9-11 is the scene that we want to view.
Bethany was near Jerusalem. It was a place of friendship and warmth for Jesus. It was the town of Lazarus, and Mary and Martha. But, it was also the town of someone we only know as Simon the Leper. What a name, what a way to be known: Simon the Leper. We can only guess who this man was. It is likely that Jesus had ministered to this man. Jesus spent time with people like Simon the Leper, and they usually left His presence changed. Maybe someday we’ll learn his story, but now we need to focus on someone else’s story in the text before us.
The scene is a time of eating and fellowship. The table must have been prepared, and Jesus, at least, is at the table, probably reclining. Then, it happens.
I. AN ACT OF DEVOTION - DISPLAYED. 14:3
True and pure devotion is displayed:
1.) Personally — “a woman came…” There is no indication that this woman came when the program said, “time for an anointing.” She did not do this because there was a group of anointers. She acted personally. It was her isolated act that made it more noticeable and visible for criticism. “A woman came…” This action on the part of the woman does not seem to be on anyone’s order of worship. She came personally and:
2.) Humbly — No name is given to this lady in Mark’s gospel. (I believe that John’s gospel recounts the same event, and identifies the lady as Mary.) But, here the name is not given. The attention is on the act, and not on the person. No name in lights. No special fanfare. No sense of self or pride. And the very act of anointing with oil on the head in this setting indicates humility towards the one being anointed.
No, this action was not about her, it was about Jesus.
But, this act of devotion was displayed:
3.) Sacrificially — “…an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head” (3)
The costly nature of this act is emphasized in this Scripture, and that is actually what bothered those who witnessed what was taking place. An alabaster jar or flask was broken, pure nard was poured out, and the text says – “very costly.”
The sacrificial nature of this act is seen in the cost, and, also, in the fact that the act was done fully and completely. What do I mean? I mean that once broken, the jar or flask was not to be used again. I mean that the nard, the perfume, was not going to be retrieved. As far as we know, it was poured on Jesus, every drop. This was an extravagant act seen as a waste to some observing the scene.
Before we move on, but maybe we need to think about our own devotion to the Lord. How extravagant is it? The New Testament clearly presents all of life as the arena for sacrifice and devotion.
True devotion and sacrifice involve:
What does such sacrifice look like in your life and mine?
Hold that question. As we go back to our text of Scripture, we notice that this act was done and displayed:
4.) Meaningfully — This was not just an emotional act for a moment. It was not just a meaningless extravagance. This was a purposeful act. How do we know? Because of what Jesus said about it, and we will give specific attention to Jesus’ words in a moment. But, as we think about the display of this devotion, there is a sense in which all devotion must be purposeful. Mindless, heartless, purposeless religion is just that: mindless, heartless, purposeless. It has no real meaning. It does not please the Lord
You may ask, what makes an act of devotion meaningful? That’s a great question, and the ultimate answer is that it is meaningful if it is meaningful to Jesus! This act was incredibly meaningful and important as far as Jesus was concerned. And even if anointings with oil may have been quite common, this act takes on a whole higher level of significance because of who was anointed and when He was anointed. We’ll come back to these issues of meaning and purpose, but what makes this account in the Scriptures so powerful is what happens next. Because at the center of this picture is the criticism that was voiced concerning this act and how Jesus responded.
II. AN ACT OF DEVOTION - CRITICIZED. (4-5)
How are we to view these words of criticism? At first hearing we might be thinking, “Well, they have a point, don’t they?” Think of all the needy people who could have been helped with the money involved in this act.
We need to consider Jesus’ answer to this criticism, but first of all, we need to put these critical words in context and face the issue of criticism itself. Notice that this criticism was not coming from those outside looking in. No, the criticism seems to have come from those participating in the meal and the occasion.
No, we are dealing here with “Church people” you might say, disciple and followers. And believe it or not, criticism occasionally rears its head within the fellowship of the friends of Jesus! But, let’s view these critical words for what they are:
1.) The words of criticism — viewed in the light of the anger expressed.
The text indicates that these words were not shared graciously or helpfully. These words of rebuke were voiced with anger. This in and of itself gives us caution in evaluating this criticism. By the way, the track record of the disciple’s criticism was not good. Peter rebuked Christ, disciples had harsh words for children wanting to see Jesus, and disciples were upset with each other about wanting to be the greatest. Not a good track record, but so true to life.
2.) The words of criticism — viewed in the light of future actions.
Consider the events that are about to unfold as you look at this scene.
John’s gospel indicates that Judas voiced this criticism and that he had little concern for the poor. We might want to add that he is about to betray Jesus.
Peter is about to deny Jesus. They all slept in the garden as Jesus prayed, and they all forsook him when he was arrested (14:40). So, we must look at these words as words of fallible people whose devotion to the Lord was not perfect, to say the least.
3.) The words of criticism — viewed in the light of Jesus’ words.
What is interesting is that it seems that this criticism was voiced without consulting Jesus. These people were speaking to one another. Then, they spoke to the woman, harshly. Just as a simple observation, it might be good to find out what Jesus thinks first, then to formulate an informed opinion. Jesus was the one who needed to respond to this lady’s act. It was done for him and to him. I think that Jesus was fully capable of assessing the value of what this lady did! It may have been wise to wait on Jesus’ words, or to ask Jesus what He thought about this extravagant act before offering criticism. Think about it!
What is sad is that this could have been a beautiful scene! This could have been a time to join in and say, “Jesus, you are worthy!” This could have been a time to let the devotion of someone else be the catalyst for personal devotion and worship right there and then. Somehow the predicted crisis ahead for Jesus was a distant reality or was misunderstood, and criticism filled the air. “Why this waste?” “Why this waste?” It is probably best that the recorded words of criticism were not as follows, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted on you, Jesus?” That would have taken the bite of the criticism off the woman and placed it on Jesus. But, even though the question and criticism did not directly challenge Jesus’ evident acceptance of this anointing, it did call for a response of some kind. And a response came!
Criticism was and is not unique to that occasion. It can happen almost anytime people get together, even with “Jesus in their midst.” As a matter of fact, people are good at it, especially religious people. So, the important question to ask is, are we willing to accept criticism for our devotion to Jesus, even from those who are close to us? Such questioning and critical comments can challenge the youngest believer and the oldest alike. Ultimately, there is only One Person’s opinion that must reign at such times, and we need to hear from Him.
III. AN ACT OF DEVOTION - DEFENDED. (6-8)
Jesus defends and commends this act of devotion. The woman’s detractors are rebuked and questioned by the Lord for their words. Jesus makes it clear that what the woman did was good. It was “beautiful” as some translations render the text. We do not know how much of what Jesus said was fully understood by the woman, but she seemed to understand the heart of the Savior, as opposed to the clueless crowd enjoying the meal!
He commended what she did and explained her act as:
Before we see the importance of this for us, let’s look at Jesus' words concerning the poor. First of all, Jesus is actually telling those present (and us today) that they should help the poor. Jesus himself came to minister to the poor. He had a heart for the poor. Jesus was poor. (2 Cor. 8:9.) The opportunity to help the poor remained for those present and it remains to this day.
But, the important point to realize is that Jesus is not comparing himself to the poor. What he is emphasizing is the ALWAYS of the poor and the NOT ALWAYS of his situation. What does this mean? Remember, Jesus is heading to the cross. He is about to celebrate the last supper, He is about to be betrayed, arrested, tried and crucified and buried. His days were numbered. What this woman did was done right on time. She did what she could. She did what she could when she could do it. She did what she could when she could do it for Jesus.
The significance of what she did is not measured by its extravagance but in relation to who received the act and when it was done. This was an act “for me,” Jesus said. It was good. It was what she could do, and it was for Jesus Himself. It was an act of appreciation and devotion for the one on His way to the cross. But, it was also an act of preparation done “beforehand” for Jesus. We cannot know exactly what was in the mind of this woman as she did this humble act. Did she have a sense of the events about to take place? Or was Jesus interpreting her act prophetically because of her devotion? What we can say is that the heart of this woman was “in sync” with her Lord. And what she did became a part of the great gospel story. Think of what this deed meant to Jesus at that time. Her deed touched his heart and became a part of the gospel itself. In terms of understanding the significance of the event, we have to take Jesus’ word as the “last word” in understanding what was actually taking place. (If this was Mary, maybe that sitting at Jesus’ feet did give her special sensitivity to her Lord.)
But, in any case, what do we learn from all this? Are there appropriate implications in the light of the Scriptures as a whole?
1.) The priority of all devotion should be the Lord Himself. Ministry or service for the Lord needs to be ministry or service to the Lord. It is worth asking the question, what is my priority concern in my service and devotion? What really counts in my mind? What really matters to me? Ultimately “Jesus” needs to be the answer to those questions. It may sound simplistic, but our focus needs to be Him.
2.) What counts in life is what counts to Jesus. What matters is what matters to Jesus. In other words, what counts or matters is what Jesus thinks of anything we do. So, it is not just “what would Jesus do,” its “what does Jesus think of this?” We want to hear his commendation, that’s all we need. Imagine how this woman felt as she received the words of Jesus on that occasion. The criticism must have cut her deeply, since Jesus strongly said, “Let her alone.” Then, Jesus not only explains what the woman has done, but he also pronounces it as “a good work for Me.” Of course, He says much more, but this in and of itself would be enough to begin to heal the wound of criticism.
3.) There is such a thing as “timing” in our walk with God. There are windows of opportunity to act or to serve. There is such a thing as “now” in our service and in our worship of the Lord. This woman did what she did at the right time, the necessary time. Timing can be important, and we can miss the moment by not responding to the Lord in love and action when it is needed. Today would be a great day to say “yes” to the Lord if He has laid it upon your heart to respond or obey Him in some specific area of your life? What are you waiting for? So, I ask you to ask yourself before the Lord:
Is there something that I can do in devotion to Jesus that will be in step with God and His will? When must I act? Why not NOW?
As we conclude, we need to note that this is:
IV. AN ACT OF DEVOTION - REMEMBERED. (9)
These words of Jesus are amazing. First of all, they represent the fact that this act:
How remarkable? Do you think the woman had a clue that any of this was going to happen? Do you think she knew ahead of time that her deed was going to be in the Scripture and preached all over the world? I don’t think so. But, sometimes the act takes on a greater significance. A simple act, done for the right reasons, at the right time, to the right person – Jesus, may mean a whole lot more than anyone could imagine. And I want us to reflect on this as we close.
True acts of devotion have ultimate and eternal significance. I believe that true devotion to the Lord is known by the Lord and will be commended by the Lord. Heb. 6:10 tells us that “God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him …” In other words, what we do for the Lord and to the Lord matters, it really matters. What matters ultimately is not what we see in the headlines or what receives applause on the world scene, what matters is service and sacrifice unto the Lord –
The person in the market place that offers their work and witness to the Lord daily – putting Christ first on the job.
The parent that offers the sacrifice of time and energy for their children as an offering to the Lord, seeking the Lord’s pleasure in all things.
The young person choosing Christ and choosing to follow Him when others are cold or indifferent to spiritual things.
Those leading in worship who offer their voices or accompaniment to the Lord with a pure heart.
The Sunday School teacher who shares his/her life and the scriptures with restless children for years, the hospital visitor who visits for Jesus, the unknown Christian worker who counts it all joy to serve the Lord without much appreciation.
It matters, it matters, it matters – offer everything you do to Him from your heart. One day, one day, you will receive His commendation, “well done, good and faithful servant.” What matters is what matters to Jesus.
For some here today, this message may present a problem. You might not be sure you really want to “give it all to Jesus.” Others may sense potential criticism around the corner. But, if you really see your life as part of His bigger story, it will help you live out your story as a part of His story. Such a perspective will help you be a surrendered devoted follower of Christ, willing to stand alone if necessary with extravagant commitment.
Many years ago, when my father was a student, he was in a motorcycle accident. He developed double-pneumonia and was very ill. While at home in Wales, he received a letter from his father Frederick Ernest Samuel Olford, who was in (what is now) Angola, West Africa. Fred Olford knew nothing of his son’s physical crisis, which actually occurred at a time of spiritual crisis as well. In the letter were words written directly to Stephen – “Only one life “twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”
These words pierced young Olford’s heart. He surrendered afresh to God, prayed for healing, and God graciously wrote the rest of the story.
These words have a message for us all. It is really true that what is done for Christ and to Christ will last. It will be remembered. It will last, it counts, it matters. Praise the Lord! Recognized significance can be short-lived in our culture. Few great moments, great acts, great events and even great people are remembered for long. Time is ruthless, and the heroes of today are the good old guys or gals of yesteryear. If a person passionately lives for temporary significance here, it will be just that, temporary. Oh, it will be remembered in a record book, a hall of fame, a plaque somewhere, or a book. In the arenas of politics, war, sports, and social change there will often be a bigger memorial built. But, very few people or acts are really proclaimed throughout the whole world. Jesus predicted that this is exactly what would happen for this woman’s act. And it would be done as a memorial to her. What a statement! This woman’s act would be part of a gospel proclamation that was to focus on Jesus Himself, and yet she would be remembered.
This special commendation from the Lord indicates how incredibly appropriate this act was as the death of Jesus was approaching. It indicates that this death was not a surprise to Jesus, indeed it was part of his mission. And evidently this mission would not end at the cross, because the proclamation of the gospel to the whole world is viewed as a certain future event. This is just another example of the Son of God understanding the bigger picture. In just a few verses He is going to speak of His own blood as that of the New Covenant. Then, he willingly meets His betrayer and is arrested.
While we remember all of the events of our Lord’s humiliation, His betrayal, His denial, His arrest, trial, His sufferings and crucifixion, don’t forget one beautiful flower in a marsh of mystery and tragedy. Let’s remember this devotion in the darkness, a simple sacrificial act that touched the heart of God!
It is time to surrender our all to Him to be part of His story.
May the Holy Spirit use His Word to move us towards more meaningful acts of devotion to the Lord. Amen.