Devotion to Jesus | John 12:1-8
Brian Hedges | February 23, 2020
[Due to technical difficulties, we were unable to record the first couple of minutes of this message. Audio begins here] ...during this last Passover season of his earthly life and ministry. So Passover’s drawing near, and Jesus has been in Bethany, he’s withdrawn for some times, but now as Passover draws near he comes back, and people are on the hunt. The authorities are on the hunt. They’re wondering if Jesus is going to come back, the end of John 11 tells us, because they want to kill him. They’re planning to arrest him and to kill him as soon as possible, if they can find him. That’s where we are in John 12, and we have this vignette in John 12 of a woman who does this amazingly extravagant thing for Jesus. That’s what this story is about, and it has a lot to teach us about worship and about devotion to Christ.
Let’s read the text, John 12:1-8. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But 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. Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.’”
This is God’s word.
What I want you to see in this passage is that Mary, the sister of Lazarus and of Martha (you have all three of these characters here in the story), Mary is a model of discipleship, she is a model of devotion to Jesus, she is a model of worship. There’s a lot that we can learn from Mary about genuine worship or devotion to Jesus. So what I want to do is point out five things from the text about devotion to Jesus that we see from the example of Mary. Okay?
1. Devotion to Jesus is humble and self-forgetful
Here’s number one: devotion to Jesus is humble and self-forgetful. You see that in verse 3. This is where you have the actual act of devotion. “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair.”
Now, any commentator’s going to tell you that what she did was almost scandalous. It was extravagant (we’re going to look at that in a minute) to pour out this expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet; but to do it in this public setting and then to let down her hair in this public setting, it was just not something that was done. She was breaking decorum.
Even today, if you visit most countries in the Middle East, women still will wear a burqa or keep their hair up or not let their hair down in public. It’s considered indecent to do that, and certainly that was the case here.
Yet she did this, and she did it in a setting where it obviously brought attention. People noticed. In fact, what she did was so noticeable that the perfume fills the whole room. This story, then, becomes a testament to her worship of Jesus. As Jesus says, she’s preparing his body for the day of burial. In a few minutes we’re going to see just what that means and what that teaches us; but this story shows up in three of the four Gospels, so it’s something that was well-known, it was seen, and yet it was scandalous at the time.
Some people probably thought not only that it was somewhat scandalous, but they probably thought she was being showy in this demonstration of worship to Jesus. You can imagine that when she began to do this that people in the room probably got really quiet. Have you ever been in a setting where somebody does something that’s slightly socially unacceptable, and then there’s this embarrassed silence in the room? That’s probably what was going on. That’s probably what it was like.
Finally, one person pipes up, Judas Iscariot, but the other Gospels tell us that a number of the disciples were grumbling about this. Nobody was really pleased with what was going on here, and yet Jesus defends her.
So, you see here something about the nature of devotion to Jesus. It was humble in that she fell down at Jesus’ feet, and it was self-forgetful because she didn’t really care what anybody else thought. That’s right at the heart of worship. It is to be so absorbed and so consumed with Christ that you forget about yourself and others.
About ten years ago, I read a play by a man named Peter Shaffer. Some of you maybe have seen the play Amadeus. Did you ever see Amadeus, or the movie Amadeus? He wrote another play called Equus. It’s not as well-known, but it’s an interesting—it’s actually kind of a troubling play—but it’s an interesting play, because it’s about a boy who loves horses, and in fact, he thinks that horses are god. He thinks that horses are divine. He literally worships horses.
This passion he has to worship horses is such a consuming passion in his life that it basically makes him insane, and it leads him to commit a terrible crime. But he’s consumed with this love for horses. So he’s institutionalized, and a psychiatrist named Martin Dysart is examining him. Martin Dysart is fascinated by this boy, but not so much by the psychosis, not so much by the crime that he’s committed; he’s fascinated by this unbridled passion in this boy’s life, and he actually becomes jealous of the boy, because the boy seems so alive, and the psychiatrist, Martin, in contrast feels so clinical, so dead on the inside. He’s so detached from everything.
There’s actually a statement in the play that goes like this (this is the psychiatrist talking). He says, “That boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life. Let me tell you something: I envy it. I’m jealous. That’s what his stare has been saying to me all the time. ‘At least I galloped. What did you do?’” He’s jealous.
That contrast of characters shows us two ways that people live when they’re not devoted to Jesus. They either end up with this all-consuming passion for something else, but it’s self-destructive; or they kind of wither up and die on the inside, and there’s no passion, there’s just detachment.
In Mary we see the only safe way to truly lose ourselves without destroying ourselves, the only safe way to be completely and utterly self-forgetful without it becoming absolutely destructive in one’s life. It’s when we self-forgetful in devotion to Jesus. The only safe kind of worship.
Madame Guyon, who was a French mystic—I don’t hold with everything mystics taught, but I love this quotation—this was a woman who was Catholic in the 17th-18th century. She was a very grace-oriented Catholic; she was one of those Catholics that believe that salvation is by grace alone; and she was considered a heretic by the Catholic church, so she was imprisoned for a large portion of her life. She wrote these things about prayer and about devotion to Jesus. Here’s one of the things that she said.
She said, “To give your whole heart to God is to have all the energy of your soul always centered on him.” That’s devotion. To have all the energy of your soul always centered on him.
That’s what Mary was like. In fact, every time you see Mary in the Gospels, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. Every single time. To have all the energy of your soul wholly devoted to God. Does that describe you? Does that describe your worship, so that your worship, your devotion to Jesus leads you to become a humble and self-forgetful person? We see that in her life.
2. Devotion to Jesus is costly and extravagant
Here’s the second thing: devotion to Jesus is costly and extravagant. Again, you see it in verse 3, where she takes this “pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard,” or spikenard. This was an aromatic perfume from India. It was exotic, it was expensive, and the amount that she used to anoint Jesus was so much that people thought it was wasteful. Judas, when he comments in verses 5-6, he says in verse 6 that this is worth three hundred denarii!
Now, we know from other passages in Scripture that, basically, the wage of a day laborer, a worker in that time period, was one denarius a day. This was three hundred days’ wages! Of course, they observed the Sabbath, so they weren’t making money on Sunday. So this is essentially a year’s worth of income. That’s how much this is. This is an extravagant gift. It’s absolutely extravagant. It’s so extravagant that Judas and the other disciples are saying, “Why isn’t this sold to give to the poor? Let’s be practical here! Let’s be pragmatic! This is wasteful, to spend all of this on one singular act of devotion.”
Of course, Jesus says in verse 8, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Some people might misread that and think that Jesus didn’t have concern for the poor. The fact is, when you look at Jesus’s ministry, he’s constantly ministering to the poor. He sometimes tells people to sell your possessions and give your money to the poor. Jesus loved the poor; he ministered to the poor. But what kind of person is it who is able to say something like this? Only someone who claims to be God in the flesh. So he receives this act of worship. He receives this because she is giving extravagantly, she is giving out of the love of her heart this costly gift.
Listen, this is always how genuine love expresses itself. If genuine love—in any kind of relationship—if it wants to give something to someone else, it will sometimes want to do it in extravagant ways. This is why we have such grand overtures in our romantic relationships, right? I mean, tell me a woman is going to feel flattered when her fiancé proposes and hands her costume jewelry instead of a diamond ring. No woman’s going to want that. She’s not going to feel special. There has to be expense. Not because she wants the big rock, but because it shows her value to him.
Or guys, when you’re taking your wife on an anniversary date, are you going to take her to McDonalds? No, you’re going to go to a nice restaurant, you’re going to do an overnighter, you’re going to treat her to the roses and the flowers and the steak dinner and so on, because the expense shows the extravagance of your love and it shows her worth and her value.
Well, that’s what’s going on here with Mary. She perceives so much worth and so much value in Jesus that she gives a costly gift, and extravagant gift, a lavish gift.
3. Devotion to Jesus does not remain hidden
Devotion to Jesus is humble and self-forgetful, it is costly and extravagant; and then notice this, quickly, number three: devotion to Jesus doesn’t remain hidden.
At the end of verse 3, after she’s anointed Jesus’ feet, it says, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” In fact, the filling of the house with the fragrance of this perfume is almost a symbol of the memorial that this will be to her, and the other Gospels make this crystal clear.
In Mark 14:8-9, Mark’s record of this, Jesus says, “She has done what she could. She has anointed my body beforehand for burial, and 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.”
Now, listen. She didn’t do this in order to be noticed by other people. So we do have to careful about motives here, don’t we, when we’re thinking about worship. We do have Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6, where he says when you’re doing your works of piety, your praying, your fasting, and your giving alms to the poor, don’t do it to be seen of men. Go to your closet, do it in private.
So we have to put these two things together in Scripture. The fact is that Mary did worship Jesus in private. You see that in other passages, such as Luke 10, where she is at the feet of Jesus, in presumably a somewhat more private setting.
The point that I want us to get here is that when you really are devoted to Jesus, it’s eventually going to get out and people are going to see it. There are going to be some results of this, there’s going to be some impact of this. You don’t do it in order to be seen by others, but if you’re devoted to Jesus, if you love him with this humble and self-forgetful, reckless, costly, extravagant love, people are going to find out.
So here’s a question. If no one thinks of you as a reckless lover of Jesus, could it be that it’s because you’re not? Shouldn’t there be some evidence in our lives, some evidence in the ways that we give, the ways that we serve, the ways that we worship, the way that we live, that Jesus is our all-consuming passion, our magnificent obsession?
It was so for Mary, and it should be so for us. Devotion to Jesus never can remain hidden for long.
4. Devotion to Jesus stands in sharp contrast with religious counterfeits
Number four, devotion to Jesus stands in sharp contrast to religious counterfeits. One of the things you see in this passage is that Mary is a foil to the other characters around her.
For example, this story is framed by the plot of the chief priests and the Pharisees, the Jewish counsel, framed by their plot to kill Jesus and then to kill Lazarus. You see that in verses 55-57, the end of John 11. I’m not going to read it, but you can read it. They’re drawing near to Passover and they’re plotting the death of Jesus. Then, in verses 9-10, they’re seeking out Lazarus, they want to kill Lazarus.
Now, remember who these people are: the chief priests, the Pharisees, they are the most religious people of the day. They are the churchgoers. They are the deacons and the elders in the church, right? They’re the priests! They’re the ones that have the sacred charge of guarding the traditions and guarding the Scriptures and interpreting the Scriptures and offering the sacrifices. They are the religious professionals, and yet what a contrast between them and Mary. Mary is something of an outsider, Mary a woman. They’re all men. Yet she shows them up by her worship of Jesus.
Not only that, you also have a contrast with Judas. Look at verses 4-6. I’ll read this again. “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one 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.”
This is only the second time that Judas is mentioned in the Gospel of John, and it’s the first time, chronologically speaking, that we have words out of Judas’s mouth. The words reveal his character. Listen to what the Puritan Matthew Henry said. (I love the Puritans for their theology—not their hairstyles, but for their theology!) Listen to what Matthew Henry said:
“It is possible for the worst of men to lurk under the disguise of the best profession, and there are many who pretend to stand in relation to Christ who really have no kindness for him. Judas was an apostle, a preacher of the gospel, and yet one that discouraged and checked this instance of pious affection and devotion.”
Why is it that sometimes religious people are the people who are most critical of exuberant love for Jesus? I remember in my first pastorate—this is my second pastorate. For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been here a long time now; I’ve been here 17 years, almost. My first pastorate was in a small church in west Texas.
I remember that in this small church there was a man who started visiting our church. He was a great brother and became a dear friend of mine, but he was from a different tradition. This was a little Baptist church, and he was from a very different tradition, and he was more demonstrative in his worship. He would show up on Sunday morning for worship, and he would raise his hands up. Now, there’s only 45 people in the room, and when there’s only 45 people in the room and nobody else raises their hands, it was very obvious.
It made people uncomfortable, and someone actually asked me to ask him to stop. I said, “No, no. We’re not going to do that. We’re not going to ask him to stop.” I remember the lady said to me, “Well, this just doesn’t feel like my church anymore.”
Now, I’m not accusing her of being Judas. I’m not accusing her of being a hypocrite. I think she probably loved the Lord and loves the Lord today. But there was something off about the comment, wasn’t there? There was something off about her concern for preserving a certain atmosphere and a certain culture of the church, in opposition to someone who was showing his love for Christ in a demonstrable way.
Be careful about criticizing worshippers, because your criticism can mask a hypocritical, judgmental heart. That was certainly the case here.
5. Devotion to Jesus flows from attention to his words and worth
Then number five. Maybe this is the most important thing of all. Devotion to Jesus flows from attention to his words and his worth. We see this example of Mary: the humility of her sacrifice, the self-forgetfulness of her worship, the extravagance of her worship. She’s so absorbed in worshipping Jesus.
You read a story like that, and what we should be thinking is, “How can I be like that?” I mean, what has to happen in someone’s heart that gets them to the place where they don’t really care, they’re not thinking anymore, they’re worshipping? Whether it’s in public or in private, but they’re so consumed with worshipping Jesus that they’re not concerned about other people. How do you get there?
Here’s how. I said a few minutes ago that every time you see Mary in the Gospels (there are only three times) she’s at the feet of Jesus. You see that in John 11:32, when Jesus comes, right, after Lazarus has died and before he raises Lazarus from the dead. As soon as Mary hears that Jesus is there, she comes. She comes straight to him and immediately she falls at his feet.
You know the other passage, but I want to read it, Luke 10:38-42. This is the other setting where you have Mary and Martha together. These are the three; here’s the other one. This is what the passage says, Luke 10:38-42.
“Now as they went on their way Jesus entered a village, and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. She had a sister called Mary who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. She went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’” People are always criticizing Mary! They’re always criticizing Mary, and again the Lord defends her.
“But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’”
The secret to her devotion to Jesus in this instance, this lavish, extravagant, costly gift, the secret to that is that she had been devoted to Jesus, she had been communing with Jesus, she had been sitting at Jesus’s feet. Every time she’s around him, as far as we know, she falls down at the feet of Jesus.
(1) Notice this: and she listened to his teaching. That’s why I say devotion to Jesus flows from attention, attentive perception, attention to his words. She listened to his teaching.
The last thing I want is for you to show up on a Sunday morning and just try to work yourself up into a lather, you know, get all emotionally excited, without any cognitive content behind your worship. That’s the last thing I want. It’s fine with me if you raise your hands, it’s fine if you don’t raise your hands. That’s not the issue here, okay? Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. The issue is not what’s going on externally; the issue is what’s going on internally.
What I do want is a congregation of people who are so absorbed with the word and the worth of Jesus that it just can’t help but get out somehow. That comes from listening to Jesus’ teaching. It comes from attentiveness to his word.
Listen to Spurgeon—you knew it was coming sometime! Spurgeon said, “The Holy Spirit’s way to train men and women who shall greatly serve Christ is the lead them to deep thought and quiet contemplation. Thence they obtain the knowledge and vital principle which are the fuel of true zeal. You cannot leap into high devotion, neither can you be preached into it, nor dream yourself into it, or be electrified into it by revivalism. It must, through the divine energy of the Holy Spirit, arise out of hard, stern dealing with your soul and near and dear communion with your Savior. You must sit at his feet, or you will never anoint them. He must pour his divine teaching to you, or you will never pour out a precious ointment on him.”
Attentiveness to his word, sitting at the feet of Jesus. I’ll just confess it, okay; as I was working on this week, kind of meditating, and doing that, really, with all kinds of other distractions (good things going in life, but a busy life), I started thinking through this and started praying through this, and I just felt like what Jesus says to Martha. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needful.”
I just started thinking, “Brian, you are anxious and troubled about many things,” and I could list off ten things. A lot of them are church things. “But one thing is needful.” What I needed was to get back at Jesus’s feet.
Maybe that’s where you are this morning. You’re not going to have this kind of devotion to Jesus unless you’re sitting at Jesus’s feet with attentiveness to his words.
(2) But also (I’m almost done) attentiveness to his worth, to his value; his value as a person, but also the value of his sacrifice. Look at what Jesus says in response to Judas. This is in verse 7.
Judas complains because of his covetous heart, and Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” The wording of that could be debated, but essentially what Jesus is saying is, “This anointing and this extravagant gift that she is making is for my burial.” “Leave her alone, that she may keep it for the day of my burial,” or, in Matthew 26:12, “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.”
The scholars are divided on whether Mary knew what was about to happen to Jesus or not. Some of them say no, she didn’t know. She was acting in a way that conveyed a reality that she didn’t yet understand, sort of like Caiaphas the high priest in chapter 11 makes this prophetic statement. He didn’t even realize what he was saying, but he was saying truth.
But some of the commentators say, no, Mary had discerned something. She had picked up on something. She had picked up on something about Jesus’ destiny, about Jesus’ love, about where it was taking him, about how in this great miracle, this act of raising her brother from the dead, it was actually leading Jesus straight to the cross.
We don’t know exactly how much she perceived, but certainly, in light of the cross, you and I who live after the cross, certainly for us when we look at the cross, when we meditate not just on the teaching of Jesus but on the work of Jesus and on the worth of Jesus as displayed in his work on the cross; certainly for us the response of our hearts should be,
“Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
It’s the only right response. When you see the cross, when you see the heart of what Jesus did on the cross, the only right response to his lavish love—because he was lavish, he was extravagant in his love for us; he was humble, he was self-forgetful in his love for us. I mean, he devoted himself to us! The only appropriate response to that kind of love is to devote ourselves in turn to him. Genuine devotion to Christ, in other words, is cross-centered devotion. It’s rooted in the gospel. It is rooted, it flows out of an attentiveness to his teaching, but also an attentiveness to what he has done, his work on the cross and the worth of Jesus that we see in that.
Let me just end with one more quotation. This is from John Stott. This one’s not on the screen. John Stott one time said that “the cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough for its sparks to fall on us.”
Are you devoted to Jesus? Does that describe you? The humility of it, the self-forgetfulness of it, the extravagance of it? Are you so devoted to Jesus that you’re not doing it for show, but people notice, and maybe even sometimes criticize, persecute, or oppose. They think you’re a fanatic because you love Jesus so much, you’re so consumed with loving, knowing, and following Jesus.
The only way to get there is to sit at Jesus’ feet, to listen to his teaching, and to contemplate his death. That’s what we’re going to do as we come to the table here in a few minutes. Let’s bow together in prayer.
Gracious Father, we thank you this morning for the gift that you have given to us in giving your Son, and we thank you for Jesus’ death and resurrection, his gift for us on the cross. We are not worthy of it, and so often we act in ways that betray our lack of gratitude, our lack of appreciation, our lack of understanding what it is that you’ve done and how worthy you are of our worship.
We pray that you would work by your Holy Spirit to, first of all, just open our eyes to see the reality that perhaps we’ve missed or we’ve taken for granted, and then to bring our hearts into alignment with it. Lord, we can see the teaching, we can understand the teaching, but for this to really change us we need your Spirit, so we pray for that work in our hearts and in our lives.
As we come to the table in a few minutes, may we come as people who are gathering around the cross, remembering that the table points us to the sacrifice that Jesus has made, and may we catch the spark, so that our hearts are all aflame with love for Christ. So draw near to us now, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.