[John 12 Part 1:] Jesus at Bethany: Several days before Passover, Jesus makes His presence known again near the city of Jerusalem at the house of Simon the Leper. Lazarus is there with his sisters, and Mary commits an act of deep piety and worship that offends Judas and even the rest of the disciples. In the scandal that follows, the city of Jerusalem is set ablaze with controversy as the stage is set for Jesus’ final days before His crucifixion.
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[Jhn 12:1-19 KJV] 1 Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. 3 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. 4 Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s [son], which should betray him, 5 Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? 6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. 7 Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. 8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always. 9 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. 10 But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; 11 Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus. 12 On the next day much people that were come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 Took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, Hosanna: Blessed [is] the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord. 14 And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written, 15 Fear not, daughter of Sion: behold, thy King cometh, sitting on an ass’s colt. 16 These things understood not his disciples at the first: but when Jesus was glorified, then remembered they that these things were written of him, and [that] they had done these things unto him. 17 The people therefore that was with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead, bare record. 18 For this cause the people also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle. 19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.
In chapter 11, Jesus is threatened with death several times by the Pharisees and the priesthood, and at the end of the chapter withdraws to a city called Ephraim. The Passover is drawing near, and the high priests are combing the city of Jerusalem to arrest Jesus and bring an end to His ministry. Rather than remain in the comparative safety of Ephraim, Jesus takes His disciples and moves back toward Jerusalem and the temple mount, stopping at Bethany, about two miles from the city to the southeast of the mount of Olives. Other gospel accounts tell us that in Bethany, He is the guest of Simon the leper and meeting Jesus there as guests in Simon’s house are Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Both Simon the Leper and Lazarus are beneficiaries of the miracle ministry of Jesus (Simon being cleansed of leprosy and Lazarus being raised from the dead).
In our religious traditions, we place great store on signs, miracles, and wonders as being instrumental in convincing unbelievers. The fact of the matter is, Jesus performed radical miracles for many years in the sight and hearing of His most virulent critics, and they were not convinced. I have seen this in my own ministry. In the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in my early ministry, we saw significant miracles, people coming out of wheelchairs, cancers disappearing, and even a resurrection from the dead in front of dozens of witnesses, but the people of the city were unfazed and unimpressed. The fact of the matter is signs and miracles; while they do happen are unconvincing. What is the problem? Jesus said in John 6:44 that no man comes to the Father except the Spirit draw Him. We have all felt the convicting power of the Holy Ghost on our lives, and having experienced it, we also know that our will was very much involved in either yielding and bending our knee, or resisting and going on our way. In this case, the notable miracles of Jesus only inflamed the elders of Jerusalem at this point to murderous intent.
At the supper, we see Martha serving as was her custom which tells us that Simon the Leper was not necessarily a man of means having his own servants or even a wife to assist in matters of hospitality with his house guests Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Jesus and the 12 disciples. Martha is serving, but Mary is otherwise occupied. Can you imagine whether or not Martha was again frustrated with Mary? Here is Martha serving in a strange house, in a kitchen not her own, taking care of at least 15 house guests, perhaps more. We also see in this passage a picture of the spiritual fellowship that must have been compelling to the early church. For over three hundred years, the church met in homes and domestic settings in spite of being a part of a culture that gathered at the temple and in the synagogue for over six centuries. The early believers notably shunned the idea of meeting in buildings and places of public gathering. The change from house churches to special meeting houses only came about under Constantine when he threatened under pain of death that house churches had to be discontinued, and all believers were required to gather in compulsory gatherings at the houses of the bishops that the emperor had specifically appointed. One can question whether the end of the practice of meeting in homes around meals of fellowship was a good thing for the cause of Christ. In the three centuries they gathered in such settings, the might of Rome was brought to its knees at the foot of the cross. In the centuries after the end of the practice of gathering in homes the church and the world was plunged into the dark ages that were only broken by the dawning of the Reformation.
In our narrative, Martha is still preparing the meal when Mary disappears from the kitchen (as it were) and comes to Jesus in front of all the guests to anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair. Can you imagine the scene so dramatically charged by this sacrificial and very personal act of Mary on the person of Jesus? The ointment she lavished upon Jesus was worth a year’s wages at the time. The fact that Mary, being a woman acting publicly upon Jesus in this fashion, would have no doubt seemed inappropriate on several levels to those present, not to mention the financial loss of the waste of the ointment. It would be like taking a year’s wages from the bank and burning it in a fireplace.
The waste of the ointment had a significant effect upon Judas, who was responsible for managing the finances of Jesus’ ministry. In other gospel accounts, Judas wasn’t the only one who was upset. The other disciples were likewise offended, but for Judas, the handling of this matter was a tipping point, solidifying his intent to betray Jesus to the Jews. How many times does this play out in ministry situations? Have you ever been offended by how spiritual leaders handle finances? It wasn’t just Judas who was in jeopardy here. All of the disciples were offended. The enemy was working to turn every one of them into betrayers of Christ, and the occasion was the worshipful generosity of this unique and rare woman called Mary, the sister of Lazarus.
How will Jesus handle the crisis brought on by Mary’s act of worship? Will he commission an outside auditor to go over the books to show His followers that the money is being properly handled? Will He pay back the cost of Mary’s gift so that the 501c3 status of the ministry will remain intact? We really need to pause and learn from this incident. Jesus’ ministry was not an impoverished institution that had nothing wherewith the sustain itself. It is known that Jesus did not wear rags. It is also known that Jesus’ ministry not only supported himself but 12 men and their families, many of whom had been wealthy businessmen when they left all and followed him. Did Jesus leave the wives and children of these men who followed Him to fend for themselves? Certainly not.
When Jesus answers the offended people around Him, He doesn’t tamp down the controversy. He commands them sharply to leave Mary alone. Can you see her cowering at Jesus’ feet, her hair sodden with the ointment, still glistening on Jesus’ feet, looking over her should at the glaring disciples, offended at what they saw as a wanton and injudicious act? Jesus doesn’t yield to their criticism but defends Mary, insisting that the top priority is not caring for the poor in this instance because the poor He maintains are always with us – but He would not always be with them. How sobering. It should change our thinking about our own giving habits and our own attitudes toward the liberality, or lack thereof in ourselves and others.
In verse 9, we see the scandal provoked by Mary spreads like wildfire through Bethany and reaches the city of Jerusalem. If you want to be on the evening news, just let something come to light about the finances of a ministry that the general population doesn’t approve of. It exposes the idolatry of a people in the counting houses of their greed. The critics and naysayers were coming to find Jesus, the chief priests were solidifying their plans now to put Jesus to death now that they knew He was back in the area, and others were coming out to see Lazarus who was raised from the dead. Simon, the Leper’s house, has turned into a veritable sideshow, but in the midst of all the chaos, verse 11 says many believed on Jesus who had previously been unconvinced. Can you imagine a scandal being the occasion of winning many to Christ in our own culture? The incident was such a conflagration that those supporting Jesus were eclipsed in their praises by the shouts of anger and protest even among Jesus’ own followers.
The next day Jesus leaves Bethany and enters the city at the mount of Olives. In the route He would have taken, He would have come over the rise of the mount of Olives and seen the temple shining bright in the sun, looking directly at the eastern gate. He would have ascended down the eastern slope of Olivet, and people met Him with palm branches and praises, crying Hosanna, Hosanna to the King of kings as He came down off the mountain and passed by Gethsemane toward the temple mount. It was here He mounted the young ass spoken of in greater detail in other gospel accounts in fulfillment of the scripture concerning His triumphal entrance into the city. Verse 16 tells us that His disciples didn’t understand everything that was going on, but later after the resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, all things became clear.
The people worshipped and extolled Jesus as He entered the city, while the Pharisees, in concert with the high priests, are frustrated beyond words. In spite of all their criticisms and denunciations of Christ, they face the fact they are prevailing nothing against Jesus. In their eyes, the whole world was going after Him. Were it not for the necessity of the cross and Jesus sacrifice for the sins of the world, all of Judaism and their corrupt religious system was poised at the brink of its own destruction. Can you imagine the upheaval and controversy of this hour? Jesus is moving toward the temple, and crowds are pressing around to touch Him, laying palm fronds before Him in veneration and worship. Many of them, no doubt, would catch the lingering odor of the spikenard Mary poured out upon Him still on His feet and clothes. Judas has disappeared, making His way around the temple mount to the house of the high priest to demand his awful ransom for Jesus life – and all the world and creation takes a deep breath in a definitive pause before the horrific and final act of Jesus to give Himself for the sins of man in order to open the door of salvation for you and me.
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