I was thinking back to the days of growing up at home. My father would bake cinnamon rolls. In the late Spring, we would get off the school bus and could smell the sweet aroma of those rolls wafting in the breeze amidst the dandilions. It didn’t matter what kind of day we had, that sweet aroma made it all better.
Certain scents evoke memories don’t they? Whether good or bad, aromas evoke an awareness of the presence of someone we know or once knew.
The sweet aroma we’re going to talk about in this post is a mixture of joy and sorrow, pain and healing. The anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany is included in the sequence of events leading up to what would be the Lord’s Table, Gethsemane, His arrest, the trials, His flogging, His crucifixion, His resurrection. We find it in Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-11; and John 12:1-8, with our focus being on Mark and John's accounts.
The scent of the presence of the Son of God would waft its way in this scene once that alabaster vial was broken. For some, like Mary, it will evoke the reminder that here is her Savior. For others, like Judas, it will expose his treachery. That scent would accompany our Lord through His arrest, trials, flogging, and crucifixion. Let’s explore what I’m calling “The Sweet Aroma of His presence”.
Release of the sweet aroma from a broken vessel. Mark 14:3
We begin by noting Mark's words in Mark 14:3
"While He was in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper, and reclining at the table, there came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over His head."
John Gospel records the same event in John 12:1-3
"Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. 3 Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
As we study these two chapters, we need not worry of any conflict in the accounts. Mark 14:1-2 tells us the events to follow occured two days before Passover. In John's account, we are told he arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover. The great commentators Alexander MacClaren and John Calvin identify Mark 14:3-11 and John 12:1-8 as the same event, reporting different details. Calvin states that we are not told of the day of the anointing by Mary in John, only that he arrived in Bethany a week before His crucifixion. Mark's narrative gives us the day of the anointing event itself, quite likely Jesus' final day in Bethany (on a Wednesday) before proceeding to Jerusalem to observe the Passover on Thursday evening of His final week.
So back to the account. Mark and John record that the perfume Mary poured out on Jesus' head was of "pure nard". It is interesting how the Greek word for “pure” is closely related to the word "faith". The perfume was such as to draw all those who smelled it to its source.
Faith is that firm persuasion of the Spirit to draw to Jesus in trust. Mary had to take the alabaster jar or vial and physically break its seal. The little alabaster jar itself was in the form of a slender vase, with the contents released upon the snapping of its neck from the base of the vessel. Mary's action illustrates the principle that the sweet aroma of Christ's presence is apprehended in the life of a believer who has yielded in brokeness to Him.
The motives behind why Mary anointed our Lord.
We've observed how the anointing of Jesus required Mary of Bethany to break the alabaster vessel wherein the perfume was housed. The next question we want to explore is why she did it? Below we will enumerate the motive, meaning, and message of the anointing of Jesus.
A. The Motive of the anointing: Celebration.
The setting and circumstances of Mark 14:3-11 and John 12:1-6 enable insight into this first motive of celebration. For one thing, the town of "Bethany"itself meant “house of affliction”. Jesus approached Jerusalem (which was scarcely but a few miles from Bethany) with the understanding He was to undergo the severest affliction of the cross. No doubt the Lord had prepared where He would be anointed. He understood the time was coming for Him to be ready for the cross and His death.
Secondly, the alabaster box itself, as mentioned, required breakage to release the perfume. Alabaster boxes or vessels were expensive to make. As we read in the text, upon Mary's action, Judas and others comment that what she did was a waste - costing a year's wages. This sweet perform was not native to Israel. It may had derived from India or the Orient. All we know is that due to its expense, the aroma from it would accompany the one who wore its scent. Nevertheless, the perfume inside was worth more than the container holding it. Furthermore, its intended object - Christ Himself - was worth more than anything, or anyone.
Thirdly, MacClaren, Calvin, and other commentators have noted that this meal was to celebrate the raising of Lazarus. John 12:1-2 states
"Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him."
In as much as the meal's occasion is to celebrate the miracle wrought by Jesus in the rescucitation of Lazarus from the dead (John 11), it is Jesus Himself that becomes the focus of celebration - at least by Mary. Her anointing demonstrates that the presence of her Lord supercedes even the attendance by her once deceased brother - a point sadly lost on most attending.
B. The meaning of the sweet aroma – propitiation.
When we speak of "propitiation", we refer to how God's wrath is satisfied by ther substitutionary death of an innocent sacrifice on behalf of the sinner. This idea lies at the heart of the Bible's teaching on "atonement", literally, God's act of enabling believing sinners to be "at-one" with Him.
This detail on the anointing of Jesus reminds us of how often the Old Testament would speak of acceptable sacrifices as being a “soothing aroma” before our God. Over 40x we see this, with first mention in Genesis 8:21, with Noah after the flood. Moses writes in Genesis 8:20-21
"Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 The Lord smelled the soothing aroma; and the Lord said to Himself, “I will never again curse the ground on account of man, for the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth; and I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done."
The wrath of God, expressed in the sending of the worldwide Flood, was proven satisfied in the form of these offerings made by Noah. God then stated His covenant with Noah and all of human history to never destroy the world with a deluge. Quite literally, that "soothing aroma" speaks of "propitiation" or satisfaction of Divine wrath.
Number 28:7-10 elaborates on the morning and evening lambs offered daily by the priest, how they were to emit a “pleasing aroma, soothing before the Lord”. God’s wrath, the expression of His holiness in opposition to sin, was required when sin was done.
Amazingly, in propitiation, the same God who is holy delivers the provision for propitating that wrath - the revelation about the various sacrifices. Why rehearse these Old Testament examples? Because the Old Testament sacrifices, in all their forms, pictures and pointed to what Jesus would perform on Clavary's cross.
You see, Jesus came to be our propitiation, to satisfy the wrath of God. Paul's writes about Jesus in Romans 3:25
"whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed."
Other places in the New Testament are explicity that, just as the Old Testament sacrifices emitted a "soothing aroma" in temporarily propitiating the wrath of God, Jesus would permantly do so in His once-and-for-all substitutionary atoning work (see Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). Mary's action at the end of our Lord's ministry would illustrate this point.
It is interesting to note that we twice find our Lord anointed in His ministry. Luke 7:37-50 records a different incident of a sinful woman anointing our Lord's feet with a similar ungent like we find in Matthew 26; Mark 13; and John 12. Why two accounts? In the Luke 7:37-50 record, Jesus is portrayed in that anointing as the sinner’s perfect righteousness, more than enough to grant a sinner covering, forgiveness, acceptance before God. Then of course in the Mary of Bethany account, we see how His soon death will have this soothing aroma.
So, we have seen the motive and the meaning of the anointing of Jesus in Bethany. What of its message?
C. The message of the sweet aroma – submission.
Our Lord would become that broken vessel as He underwent the torture and agony of Golgotha. Just as Mary broke the alabaster vessel containing the liquid to pour out on Jesus' head, He in-turn would later break bread in the institution of the Lord's Table to depict His body (see Mark 14:3 and Mark 14:22). Jesus did what He did in submission to the will of the Father.
Did you know, the Christian is called to be the same? To live a life yielded to the Father. Paul describes this in Ephesians 5:2
"and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma."
Or again, consider these words in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17
"But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God."
When we realize the lengths to which Jesus went to carry out the will of the Father (His Divine will at one with the Father, with His human will submitted to that Divine will), it strengthens Christian faith. One of my favorite verses, Hebrews 12:2-3 states it this way
"fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart."
Today we have meditated on the act of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus in Mark 14 and John 12. We noted the principle of how the sweet aroma of His presence is apprehended in a life that is broken, willing to live for Him. We then considered three motives in the anointing: celebration, propitation , and submission. Would it be that all true followers of Jesus aspire to live as broken vessels that carry forth the sweet aroma of His presence, just as He went forth, giving His life for them.