Shortly before Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, the Gospel writers tell us of an encounter that is at once strikingly intimate and profoundly strange. As John records it, Mary the sister of Lazarus—the man Jesus had raised from the dead not long before—came to Jesus while He was eating with Lazarus and other guests, “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3).
In the first century, it was customary for a host or hostess to wash a visitor’s feet on account of the open sandals and the dusty roads (Luke 7:44). It was also relatively common to sprinkle guests with a few drops of inexpensive perfume. Yet even in such a context, Mary’s gesture was still strange, as Judas’s hostile response implies (John 12:4–5). She takes the accepted custom to another dimension altogether, moving beyond common courtesy to greet Jesus with the unfettered adoration of one whose heart is overflowing with worship.
As we meditate on the strangeness of this encounter, we can walk away with the reminder of what ought to mark worship at all times and in all places: not that we would pour perfume on one another’s feet but that we would embrace the strangeness of such devotion to Jesus Christ.
Mary is an example to us of what unbridled devotion to the Lord Jesus looks like. Her act of worship in this story has three qualities that ought to mark our worship as well.
First of all, Mary’s devotion was the result of thoughtful preparation. We’d be wrong to assume that Mary, in a sudden rush of enthusiasm, reached into her handbag and pulled out a pound of the most expensive perfume that could be found in her day. Nobody carried a pound of perfume on their person, and certainly not of this sort. In the home of a lady, perfume of this kind and quantity was reserved for one of two things: either as an offering for her dowry in marriage or to be used to anoint her body at the time of her death. To give it to Jesus, she had to deliberately retrieve it from its place of safekeeping and carry it to the dinner party.
Worship is not something that happens as a result of the pressing of a button. It is not, ultimately, a result of a surge of emotion. If worship is to be entered into in all of its fullness and usefulness, it almost certainly will require premeditation and preparation. Many of us are tempted to wait until extravagant feelings arrive to engage in extravagant worship, the result being that we treat worship as the last priority on our to-do list rather than the very thing we were made for.
In Psalm 89, the psalmist begins, “I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.” This is a volitional response. It is a thoughtful, intentional act of the will—not a feeling but a commitment. We ought to ask ourselves, as Mary presumably did, “What has God given to me freely? What act of gratitude does that gift merit in return?” And then we ought to proceed accordingly.
Secondly, Mary’s devotion was an expression of personal consecration. Her ambitions and aspirations were wrapped up in that perfume. Her social acceptability was implicated in what she did with it. She laid herself open to severe criticism from those around her. Yet she did it freely, even eagerly, because she recognized—when her brother walked out of the tomb, if never before—that Christ was the Messiah who fulfilled the Old Testament expectations. When Jesus said, “She may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7), He was suggesting that Mary had understood in some capacity that He was on the final journey to His death for the sins of men and women. In light of that recognition, she offered her greatest material treasure—not to mention her very self—in worship.
If worship is to be entered into in all of its fullness and usefulness, it almost certainly will require premeditation and preparation.
If our own worship is to be genuine, we must, like Mary, bear the cost. Anybody can mouth words to a song. Anybody can sing along. Anybody can engage in liturgy. But what is being described here is something far deeper than that. Mary saw that the Lord deserved everything she could give and more. Like the widow who gave her last penny (Mark 12:41–44; Luke 21:1–4), she handed over to the Lord the material wealth that represented her future prosperity, recognizing that He deserved her whole heart and worshipping him despite the social stigma it would bring.
Christ is worthy of all that we have. Nothing less than the consecration of our hearts to Him is worthy of Him—and we can hardly hand our hearts over to Him without making Him the Lord of our pocketbooks as well! If our hearts are hard and stony, if we are clinging still to our worldly treasures, we will never know reality or worship. An encounter with the living Christ demands the sort of extravagant devotion that Mary displayed. For most of us, that will not mean pouring out our worldly wealth at Jesus’ feet before a hostile audience, as she did. But when we are consecrated worshippers, we will hand our thoughts, our desires, our hopes and dreams over to the Lord, and then we will glorify Him with those things we treasure most in this world, as our transformed hearts desire to do (2 Cor. 9:7).
Thirdly, Mary’s devotion was a picture of her transformation. “The house,” we read, “was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). It would have permeated the place and everyone in it. When those people went out from there following the meal, there must have been question after question: “Where have you been? Why do you smell like that?”
In 2 Corinthians 2:14–16, Paul uses a similar metaphor to describe the knowledge of Christ:
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. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things?
Knowing God leaves God’s fragrance on us. If we can be involved in public, corporate worship, then walk out, and nobody says, “Where in the world have you been?” then it’s a distinct possibility is that we weren’t involved in worship in the first place. Paul speaks elsewhere of the presenting of our bodies as “a living sacrifice”—of personal consecration—in the same breath as “the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:1–2). We must ask ourselves: “Is worshipping God transforming me?” If our lives don’t exude something of Jesus’ fragrance, then we need to ponder longer on the example of Mary’s devotion.
In reaction to Mary’s unbridled devotion, Judas responded with bitterness:
Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 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. (John 12:4–6)
The contrast between Mary’s generosity and Judas’s selfishness is striking. The selfish person can’t understand the unselfish person. Judas objected because he was a deceptive, self-seeking individual, and Mary’s act of generosity highlighted where he really stood.
In our sinful nature, we like people to stay down at our level. Often, our reaction to seeing unbridled worship can be like Judas’s: bitter resentment. We don’t want fanatics. We don’t want anyone getting really expressive. We don’t want any hearts overspilling in praise. Such honest displays of gratitude to God come as an indictment to our own hard hearts.
But when Judas objected, Jesus came to Mary’s defense: “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7). Mark’s Gospel even records that He said, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Mark 14:6). He explained that Mary had entered into the events that were taking place with an understanding which nobody else possessed. He explained to the people around Him that there can be no such thing as waste and extravagance when it comes to the outpouring of the soul in the worship of God.
Such honest displays of gratitude to God come as an indictment to our own hard hearts.
The truth of Jesus Christ had gripped Mary’s heart, but Judas’s heart remained hard. A hard heart will always resent a heart that has been truly transformed by Jesus Christ. If we find our hearts hardened at the thought of unbridled devotion in worship, then we stand in need of genuine repentance.
On which side of this contrast do we rest today? As we examine our own hearts, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we come to God with unbridled devotion or with bitter resentment. Are we coming to worship purposefully, consecrating our very selves to God, and experiencing transformation? Or are we resenting those who do?
There can be no such thing as waste and extravagance when it comes to the outpouring of the soul in the worship of God.
Mark’s Gospel records a promise that Jesus made about Mary: “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” (Mark 14:9). When our hearts are gripped by the truth of Christ as Mary’s was and drawn into unbridled worship of God, we are laying down a sure foundation and storing up lasting treasure (Matt. 6:19–21). Just as Mary has been memorialized forever in the Scriptures, so we may look forward to eternal life spent worshipping God in all we do.
But if we find our hearts bristling at the thought of offering worship to God, then repentance is necessary. We must ask God to open our eyes to the same knowledge of Him in Jesus Christ that Mary had so that we may be given over to the devotion that she had, worshipping purposefully, consecrating ourselves, and being transformed day by day into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Surely, He who “give[s] good things to those who ask him” (Matt. 7:11) will be pleased to answer such a prayer.
This article was adapted from the sermons “A Striking Contrast” and “Learning How to Worship: An Illustration” by Alistair Begg.