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John 12:1-8 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 2-20. BOOK OF SIGNS—BOOK OF GLORY
Chapters 2-12 are often called “The Book of Signs.” They include a series of seven miraculous signs (2:1-11; 4:46-54; 5:1-9; 6:1-14; 6:15-25; 9:1-12; 11:1-45), so named because they point to God and can be properly understood only when seen through the eyes of faith—the resurrection of Lazarus (11:1-45) being the last and greatest sign. Our Gospel lesson comes toward the end of the Book of Signs, and serves as a transition into “The Book of Glory” (chapters 13-20), so-called because it records Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—Jesus’ glorification.
JOHN 11. THE CONTEXT
In the chapter that immediately precedes our Gospel lesson, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. The telling of that story is dark with clues to what will follow:
• When Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill he said, “This sickness is not to death, but for the glory of God, that God’s Son may be glorified by it” (11:4). In this Gospel, the glorification of Jesus revolves around his death, resurrection, and ascension.
• When Jesus told his disciples that they were going to Judea, the disciples responded, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (11:8).
• When Jesus persisted in going to Judea, Thomas said, “Let’s go also, that we may die with him” (11:16).
• Martha confessed her faith in a bold statement, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, he who comes into the world” (11:27). Martha and Mary are Lazarus’ sisters, and the three siblings are among Jesus’ closest friends.
• The cave in which Lazarus was buried, the stone that had to be moved away, and the dead man arising from the tomb all prefigure Jesus’ resurrection, which will soon follow (11:38-44).
• The council plotted to kill Jesus, because many people, learning of Lazarus’ resurrection, believed in Jesus (11:45). The council feared that Jesus’ popularity would lead to Roman reprisals (11:48). Caiaphas justified Jesus’ death sentence by saying, “nor do you consider that it is advantageous for us that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (11:50). The author comments that Caiaphas “didn’t say this of himself, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation” (11:51). “So from that day forward they took counsel that they might put him (Jesus) to death” (11:53).
• “But the chief priests conspired to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus.” (12:10-11).
• The author then says, “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand. Many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves” (11:55). In this Gospel, Passover will be killing time in Jerusalem.
Thus the story of Jesus’ passion started in chapter 11 and continues in chapter 12.
JOHN 12. AN APPEAL TO BELIEVE
The author is using this chapter to encourage Jews who have expressed an interest in Jesus to make a commitment of faith (Beasley-Murray, 220).
• Because of the resurrection of Lazarus, “many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (v. 11).
• A great crowd will welcome Jesus to Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna” and “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel” (v. 13).
• The Pharisees will admit their helplessness, saying, “See how you accomplish nothing. Behold, the world has gone after him” (v. 19).
However, Jesus knows that the acclamation of Palm Sunday will fade quickly, along with people’s shallow-rooted faith. He warns, “He who rejects me, and doesn’t receive my sayings, has one who judges him. The word that I spoke, the same will judge him in the last day.” (v. 48). Jesus also promises that “the Father who sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. I know that his commandment is eternal life” (vv. 49-50).
Eternal life is central to this Gospel. Jesus has come that we might enjoy eternal life (3:16), which he defines thusly: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ.” (17:3). Indeed, the purpose of this Gospel is “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” (20:31).
JOHN 12:1-8. COMPARISONS WITH THE SYNOPTICS
All four Gospels tell this or a similar story. Details vary in the four accounts, Matthew (26:6-13) and Mark (14:3-9) being similar to each other and also to John’s account (the most significant difference being that, in Matthew and Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head and in John anoints Jesus’ feet).
Luke’s account (7:36-38) is distinctive, coming earlier in the Gospel, taking place at the home of a Pharisee, and involving a sinful woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with ointment.
We need to respect the integrity of the two accounts (Luke and John), rather than trying to blend them into a single hybridized version (Howard-Brook, 269; Craddock, 164).
Scholars believe that there might be two separate incidents behind these accounts, one as described by Matthew, Mark, and John, and the other by as described by Luke. Luke uses Mark as one of his primary sources, so it seems likely that he merges Mark’s account with material from a second source.
JOHN 12:1-3. SIX DAYS BEFORE THE PASSOVER
1Then six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, who had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. 2So they made him a supper (Greek: deipnon) there. Martha served (Greek: diakonei), but Lazarus was one of those who sat at the table with him. 3Mary, therefore, took a pound (Greek: litran) of ointment of pure nard, very precious, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment.
“Six days before the Passover” (v. 1a). Only six days remain before the final chapter of Jesus’ life will begin. “Six days before the Passover most likely refers to the preceding Saturday, which began the Friday evening” (Carson, 427). This meal at which Mary anoints Jesus most likely takes place shortly after the end of the Sabbath (Saturday evening). The Triumphal Entry will take place the next day.
“Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, who had been dead, whom he raised from the dead” (v. 1b). Bethany is a small village only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, and would be crowded with pilgrims come to observe Passover in Jerusalem. By returning to Bethany, Jesus sets in motion the events that will lead to his death. Indeed, it was the popular response to Lazarus’ resurrection that led the council to decide to put Jesus to death (11:45-53).
“So they made him a supper” (deipnon) (v. 2). Deipnon can refer to any meal, but is usually used of the evening meal. In this Gospel, it is used three times—here and in two references to the Last Supper (13:2; 21:20). This dinner at Bethany is also sacramental—prepares Jesus for the day of his burial (v. 7). “They” probably refers to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, but could also include neighbors helping to honor Jesus for his role in raising their neighbor, Lazarus, from the dead (11:43-44).
“Martha served (diakonei), but Lazarus was one of those at the table with him” (v. 2). Luke tells another story of Jesus in this home. On that occasion, Martha busied herself with serving while Mary sat at Jesus feet—and Jesus said to Martha, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42)—a negative characterization. However, this Gospel describes Martha’s work as service—diakonei, the word from which we derive our word “deacon”—a much more favorable characterization. Lazarus’ presence at this table reminds us of his recent death and resurrection.
“Mary, therefore, took a pound (litran—about twelve ounces or 325 grams) of ointment of pure nard, very precious” (v. 3a). Nard is imported from India, which in part accounts for its expense. Matthew 26:7 and Mark 14:3 also tell of this anointing, but (1) Mary’s name is not mentioned and (2) she anoints Jesus’ head rather than his feet.
The perfume is worth three hundred denarii (v. 5), a year’s wages for a workingman. This does not indicate that Mary is wealthy, as some have suggested. This is more likely an extravagant gesture by a woman of ordinary means—a sacrificial offering.
Mary’s expensive anointing looks forward to the anointing by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who will use one hundred litras of myrrh and aloes (19:38-40)—an anointing fit for a king—Jesus’ kingship being an important theme of this Gospel (1:49; 12:13, 15; 18:33, 37, 39; 19:3, 12, 14, 19, 21-22).
Mary “anointed the feet of Jesus” (v. 3b).As noted above, Matthew and Mark have Mary anointing Jesus’ head, a gesture sometimes associated with the anointing of a king. At this dinner men would be reclining at table, so Jesus feet would be accessible. Anointing feet is a humble gesture—care of another person’s feet being a task reserved for the lowliest of servants. Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet may also look forward to Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in chapter 13 and instructing the disciples to do the same for each other (Cousar, 236). Also, a person preparing a body for burial would start by anointing the feet (Burridge, 539).
“and wiped his feet with her hair” (v. 3c). This is a shocking gesture in a culture where women do not let their hair down in the presence of any man other than their husband. Barclay says that Mary is a spontaneous person acting out gratitude that cannot be expressed more simply, and suggests that we would all profit by being less inhibited in our affection for Jesus (Barclay 128)—a thought worthy of consideration. To see exuberance in the church today, visit an African-American or a Pentecostal service. You will see people speaking in tongues—holding their hands in the air—engaged in a little dance—whooping or shouting—even fainting in the aisle. Such denominations have great appeal—draw people to Christ at a time when less demonstrative denominations are shrinking.
The Princeton Theological Seminary bookstore used to sell a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Presbyterians do it decently and in order.” Most lectionary-denominations do it decently and in order—which is certainly scriptural (1 Corinthians 14:40). However, there is also scriptural support for exuberance (Exodus 15:20-21; 2 Samuel 6:14; Psalm 149:3; 150:4). Perhaps we would serve Christ better by showing a little more enthusiasm.
“The house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment” (v. 3d). Only a short time earlier, Jesus ordered that the stone be moved from the entrance to Lazarus’ tomb, and Martha protested, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days” (11:39). The stench of death is now replaced with the strong scent of celebration.
JOHN 12:4-6. WHY WASN’T THIS OINTMENT SOLD
4Then Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, one of his disciples, who would betray him, said, 5“Why wasn’t this ointment sold for three hundred denarii, and given to the poor?” 6Now he said this, not because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and having the money box, used to steal what was put into it.
“But Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, one of his disciples who would betray him” (v. 4)—and “because he was a thief” (v. 6). The author takes pains to inform us that Judas is not to be trusted. This is the only hint that he gives of Judas’ character prior to the betrayal itself. Judas has no compassion for the poor, but only uses them to justify what he wants. In Matthew 26:14 and Mark 14:10, Judas betrays Jesus to the chief priests immediately following this incident with Mary and the perfume, suggesting perhaps that Jesus’ defense of Mary’s prodigality might have sparked the betrayal.
However illegitimate Judas’ concern, the issue that he raises is nevertheless legitimate. In Matthew’s Gospel, it was disciples who protested the waste (Matthew 26:8). In Mark, it was “some who were indignant” (Mark 14:4). Faced with similar prodigality today, we would likely share their concern. Three hundred denarii would feed many hungry people—could be used for any number of practical purposes. Gestures of devotion are appropriate, but should be proportionate—perhaps a scholarship fund in Jesus’ name, but not $20,000 worth of perfume—generous hospitality, but not this unseemly gesture with the hair!
JOHN 12:7-8. YOU DON’T ALWAYS HAVE ME
7But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial. 8For you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me.”
“Leave her alone. She has kept this for the day of my burial” (v. 7). Jesus chooses not to unmask Judas as a betrayer here. He will do that at the Last Supper (13:21-30).
Mary has no intention of anointing Jesus for burial. She surely understands that Jesus is in danger, but cannot imagine that he has only a few days to live. However, her anointing of Jesus has meaning beyond her understanding, just as Caiaphas’ earlier comment revealed a truth beyond his understanding (11:49-52).
Both Jesus and the author of this Gospel are very aware of what the next few days will bring. We are in the midst of a passion narrative. For some time now, Jesus has been on the road to Jerusalem—to his death—to his glorification. Now Jerusalem is quite near—and not just geographically. The Sanhedrin has already decided to kill Jesus (11:53).
Jesus resolves the issue of proportionality. Mary’s extravagance is appropriate, because she is preparing his body for burial. We treat burials with respect. On funeral days, we do things in grander fashion than on other days. The deceased may have preferred overalls, but now is dressed in coat and tie. He may have driven a modest car, but he rides to the cemetery in a limousine. His comfortable chair may be worn, but his casket is satin-lined. In Jesus’ day, people considered expensive perfume to be appropriate for funerals, just as we consider expensive floral arrangements to be appropriate.
“For you always have the poor with you, but you don’t always have me” (v. 8). These words have often been used to justify callousness toward the poor cannot legitimately serve that purpose. Jesus is referring to the Torah, and the complete verse reads, “For the poor will never cease out of the land: therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor, in your land'” (Deuteronomy 15:11). The real sense of Jesus’ comment is that they will have many opportunities to help the poor, but they won’t always have Jesus present. They need to take advantage of his presence while they can (Morris, 515).
People gathered around a casket often wish that they had done things differently—regret their failure to tell the deceased of their love—to apologize—to help. The day of the funeral is too late. Mary, however, has seized the moment—has made the grand gesture while Jesus is still alive to experience it.
Our opportunity to serve the Lord will also come to a close. At some point, it will be too late. Even now, those of us who are older can offer only our diminished vigor. Still, our time is not yet finished. We can still seize the moment so that Jesus can greet us, “Well done! …Enter into the joy of your lord!” (Matthew 25:23).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Beasley-Murray, George R., Word Biblical Commentary: John (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999)
Borchet, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 12-21, Vol, 25B (Nashville: Broadman Press, 2002)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Burridge, Richard A., in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The Third Readings: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; McCann, J. Clinton; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year C (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994)
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year C (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1994)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Kostenberger, Andreas J., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: John (GrandRapids: Baker Academic, 2004)
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Ridderbos, Herman (translated by John Vriend), The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Williamson, Lamar, Jr., Preaching the Gospel of John (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004)
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