Sometimes we may think that what we do for the Lord doesn’t really matter. It may not be appreciated by some people, and it may be misunderstood by others. It is possible to be weary in well-doing. On the other hand, it is just as possible to lose passion, fire, focus and timely expression in our devotion to Christ. There are lessons here today from the Word of God for those who may need the fire of their devotion rekindled as we view our lives in relation to Christ, His cross and His mission.
A meal is being served in a home. A simple and yet sacrificial act takes place, an anointing with oil, which was not uncommon in those days; but as we will see, this act of appreciation and devotion recorded in Mark’s Gospel took on special significance. It became part of a much bigger story with a message to be proclaimed worldwide.
Jesus soon was be arrested and tried. He would suffer and be crucified (before His glorious resurrection.) All four gospels paint the picture for us. Verses 1-2 of this chapter in Mark’s Gospel reveal the conspiracy to do away with Jesus was well underway. After this event in Bethany (vv. 3-9), Judas betrayed Jesus. Then the final events of Jesus’ earthly life unfolded—the preparation for the supper, the prediction of betrayal, the Last Supper, Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial, the prayer and agony of Gethsemane, the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, the fleeing of the disciples, and all of the tragic events leading up to the cross. These were dark but significant days as our Lord Jesus prepared to “give His life as a ransom for many” (
The gospel writer moves us toward the cross. Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man and the Suffering Servant was fulfilling His mission. It didn’t take long for conflict to start in Jesus’ ministry and mission, but ultimately it came to a head. Soon, on the cross He would cry out, breathe His last, and the veil of the temple would be torn from top to bottom. Framed between the recorded conspiracy in Mark 14:1-2 and the betrayal of Mark 14:9-11 is the scene that we want to view.
Bethany was near Jerusalem. It was a place of friendship for Jesus. It was the town of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. It was also the town of someone we know as Simon the Leper. What a name! What a way to be known—Simon the Leper. We can only guess who this man was. It is likely that Jesus had ministered to him. Jesus spent time with people such as Simon the Leper, and they usually left His presence changed if they left at all. Maybe someday we’ll learn his story, but now we need to focus on someone else’s story in the text before us.
The scene is a time of eating and fellowship. Jesus was at the table, probably reclining. Then, it happens:
I. An Act of Devotion Displayed (v. 14:3)
True and pure devotion is displayed: Personally—”a woman came…” There is no indication this woman came when the program said, “time for an anointing.” She did not do this because there was a group of anointers. She acted personally. It was her isolated act that made it more noticeable and visible for criticism. “A woman came…” This action on the part of the woman does not seem to be on anyone’s order of worship. She came personally and humbly. No name is given to this lady in Mark or Matthew’s account, although John’s Gospel recounts the same event and identifies her as Mary; but her name is not given here. Rather, attention is on the act, not the person—no name in lights; no special fanfare; no sense of self or pride—and the very act of anointing with oil on the head in this setting indicates humility toward the One being anointed. This action was not about her, but about Jesus.
This act of devotion also was displayed sacrificially with “…an alabaster flask of very costly oil of spikenard. She broke the flask and poured the contents on His head.” The costly nature of this act is emphasized in this Scripture, and that is actually what bothered those who witnessed what was taking place. An alabaster jar or flask was broken, pure nard was poured out, and the text says it was “very costly.”
The sacrificial nature of this act is seen in the cost, as well as in the fact the act was done fully and completely. What do I mean? I mean that once broken, the jar or flask could not to be used again. I mean the nard, the perfume, was not going to be retrieved. As far as we know, every drop was poured on Jesus. This was an extravagant act seen as a waste to those observing the scene.
Before we move on, maybe we need to think about our own devotion to the Lord. The New Testament clearly presents all of life as the arena for sacrifice and devotion. True devotion and sacrifice involves:
and more. What does such sacrifice look like in your life and mine? Hold that question. As we go back to our Scripture text, we notice this act was done and displayed:
Meaningfully—This was not just and emotional act for a moment. It was not just meaningless extravagance. This was a purposeful act. How do we know? Because of what Jesus said about it. As we think about the display of this devotion, there is a sense in which all devotion must be meaningful and purposeful. Mindless, heartless, purposeless religion has no real meaning. It does not please the Lord.
You may ask what makes an act of devotion meaningful, and that’s a great question. The ultimate answer is that it is meaningful if it is meaningful to Jesus! This act was incredibly important as far as Jesus was concerned. Even if anointing with oil may have been quite common, this act took on a higher level of significance because of who was anointed and when He was anointed. What makes this account in Scripture so powerful is what happens next: At the center of this picture is the criticism that was voiced concerning this act and how Jesus responded.
II. An Act of Devotion is Criticized (vv. 4-5)
How are we to view these words of criticism? At first hearing, we might be thinking, “Well, they have a point, don’t they?” Think of all the needy people who could have been helped with the money involved in this act. We need to consider Jesus’ answer to this criticism, but first of all, we need to put these critical words in context and face the issue of criticism itself.
The criticism was not coming from those outside looking in; rather, the criticism came from those participating in the meal and the occasion. There were “church people” you might say, disciples, followers. Believe it or not, criticism will rear its head within the fellowship of the friends of Jesus! Let’s view these critical words for what they are:
The words of criticism viewed in light of the anger expressed: The text indicates these words were not shared graciously or helpfully. These words of rebuke were voiced with anger. This in and of itself gives us caution in evaluating this criticism. By the way, the track record of the disciples’ criticism was not good. Peter rebuked Christ. Disciples had harsh words for children wanting to see Jesus. Disciples were upset with each other about wanting to be the greatest—not a good track record, but so true to life.
The words of criticism viewed in light of future actions: You have to consider the events that were about to unfold in this scene. John’s Gospel indicates Judas voiced this criticism and that he had little concern for the poor. We might want to add that he was about to betray Jesus. Peter was about to deny Jesus. They all slept in the garden as Jesus prayed, and they all forsook Him when He was arrested (
The words of criticism viewed in light of Jesus’ words: What is interesting is that it seems this criticism was voiced without consulting Jesus. These people were speaking to one another. Then, they spoke to the woman harshly. Just as a simple observation, it might have been good to find out what Jesus thought first, then formulate an informed opinion. Jesus was the One who needed to respond to this lady’s act. It was done for Him and to Him. I think Jesus was fully capable of assessing the value of what this lady had done! It would have been wise to wait on Jesus’ words or ask Him what He thought about this extravagant act before offering criticism.
What is sad is this could have been a beautiful scene. This could have been a time to join in and say, “Jesus, You are worthy!” This could have been a time to let the devotion of someone else be the catalyst for personal devotion and worship right there and then. Instead, the moment was lost. Criticism filled the air. “Why was this fragrant oil wasted? Why this waste?” It is probably best that the recorded words of criticism were not as follows, “Why was this fragrant oil wasted on You, Jesus?” That would have taken the bite of the criticism off the woman and placed it on Jesus. Even though the question and criticism did not directly challenge Jesus’ evident acceptance of this anointing, it did call for a response of some kind; and a response came!
Criticism was and is not unique to that occasion. It can happen almost any time people get together, even with Jesus in their midst. As a matter of fact, people are good at it, especially religious people. So the important question to ask is: Are we willing to accept criticism for our devotion to Jesus, even from those who are close to us? Such questioning and critical comments can challenge the youngest believer and the oldest. Ultimately, there is only One Person’s opinion that must reign at such times, and we need to hear from Him.
III. An Act of Devotion Defended (vv. 6-8)
Jesus defended and commended this act of devotion. The woman’s detractors were rebuked and questioned by the Lord for their words. Jesus made it clear that what the woman did was good. It was beautiful, as it can be translated. We do not know how much of what Jesus said was fully understood by the woman, but she seemed to understand the heart of the Savior, as opposed to the crowd enjoying the meal! He commended what she had done and explained her act as an act of appreciation (vv. 6-7) and an act of preparation (v. 8).
Before we see the importance of this for us, let’s look at Jesus’ words concerning the poor. First, Jesus told those present (and us today) they should help the poor. Jesus came to minister to the poor. He had a heart for the poor. Jesus was poor (
Here, Jesus was not simply comparing Himself to the poor, but was answering the criticism directly and contextually. What He was emphasizing was the perpetual opportunity to help the poor and the temporary nature of His situation. (See William Lane’s helpful comments in his commentary on Mark’s Gospel.) Remember, Jesus was heading to the cross. He was about to celebrate the Last Supper. He was about to be betrayed, arrested, tried, crucified and buried. His days were numbered. What this woman did was done sensitively. What she did was done right on time. She did what she could when she could do it while there still was time to do it for Jesus.
The significance of what she did is not measured by the extravagance, but in relation to who received the act and when it was done. This was an act “for Me,” Jesus said. It was good. It was what she could do, and it was for Jesus Himself. It was an act of appreciation and devotion for the One on His way to the cross and His death.
Yet it was also an act of preparation done “beforehand” for Jesus. This woman was in sync with her Lord and did something that became a part of the great gospel story. Maybe she was in touch with the cross and the death of Jesus in a way the others were not. Think of what this deed meant to Jesus at that time. Her deed touched His heart and became a part of the gospel itself. Assuming this was Mary, maybe sitting at Jesus’ feet gave her special sensitivity to her Lord!
What can we learn from all this? Are there appropriate implications in light of Scripture as a whole?
The priority of all devotion should be the Lord Himself. Ministry or service for the Lord needs to be ministry or service to the Lord. It is worth asking: What is my primary concern in my service and devotion? What really counts in my mind? What really matters to me? Ultimately Jesus needs to be our primary concern. It may sound simplistic, but our focus needs to be Him.
What counts in life is what counts to Jesus. What matters is what matters to Jesus. In other words, what counts or matters is what Jesus thinks of anything we do. So it is not just, “What would Jesus do,” but “What does Jesus think?” We want to hear His commendation. That’s all we need. Imagine how this woman felt as she received Jesus’ words on that occasion. The criticism must have cut her deeply, as indicated by Jesus strong words, “Leave her alone.” Then, Jesus not only explained what the woman had done, but He pronounced it as “a good work for Me.” He said much more, but this in and of itself would be enough to begin to heal the wound of criticism.
There is such a thing as “timing” or sensitivity in our walk with God. There are windows of opportunity to act or to serve. Jesus already predicted His death three times in Mark’s Gospel. The road ahead for Jesus and the disciples was not a secret, even if it was hard to understand. There is such a thing as “now” in our service and worship of the Lord. This woman did what she did at the right time, the necessary time; you might even call it a “redemptive time.” We can miss the moment by not responding to the Lord in love and action when it is needed.
Today would be a great day to say yes to the Lord if it is in your heart to respond or obey Him in some specific area of your life. Why are you waiting? I ask you to ask yourself before the Lord: Is there something I can do in devotion to Jesus that will be in step with Him and His will? When must I act? Why not now?
As we conclude, we need to note:
IV. An Act of Devotion Remembered (v. 9)
These words of Jesus are amazing. First, they represent the fact this act:
• Is commended by the Savior. Jesus looked into the future and saw the telling of this woman’s act as part of the preaching of the gospel. This is being fulfilled across the world, and today it is being fulfilled right now in this message.
• Is captured in Scripture. For the remembering of this deed to take place, this deed needed to be captured in Scripture, which has preserved this act of devotion for all time.
Do you think the woman fully understood this was going to happen? Do you think she knew ahead of time that her deed was going to be in the Scripture and preached all over the world? I don’t think so. Sometimes an act takes on a greater significance. A simple act, done for the right reasons, at the right time, to or for the right person may mean more than anyone could imagine.
True acts of devotion have ultimate and eternal significance. I believe true devotion to the Lord is known by the Lord and will be commended by the Lord.
• The person in the marketplace who offers his or her work and witness to the Lord daily, putting Christ first on the job.
• The parent who offers the sacrifice of time and energy for his or her child as an offering to the Lord, seeking the Lord’s pleasure in all things.
• The young person choosing Christ and choosing to follow Him when others are cold or indifferent to spiritual things.
• Those leading in worship who offer their voices or accompaniment to the Lord with pure hearts.
• The Sunday School teacher who shares his or her life and the Scripture with restless children for years; the hospital visitor who visits for Jesus; the anonymous Christian worker who counts it all joy to serve the Lord without appreciation.
It matters. Offer everything you do to Him from your heart. One day, you will receive His commendation: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What matters is what matters to Jesus.
For some here today, this message may present a problem. You might not be sure you really want to give it all to Jesus. Others may sense potential criticism around the corner. However, if you really see your life as part of His bigger story, it will help you live specifically as a part of His story. Such a perspective will help you be a surrendered, devoted follower of Christ, willing to stand alone if necessary with extravagant commitment.
Many years ago when my father was a student, he was in a motorcycle accident. He developed double-pneumonia and was very ill. While at home in Wales, he received a letter from his father, Frederick Ernest Samuel Olford, who was in what is now Angola, West Africa. Fred Olford knew nothing of his son’s physical crisis, which actually occurred at a time of spiritual crisis, as well. It took months for news to travel back and forth in those days.
In the letter missionary Fred Olford wrote were words written directly to Stephen: “Only one life ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” These words pierced young Stephen’s heart. He surrendered afresh to God, prayed for healing; and God graciously wrote the rest of the story.
These words have a message for us all. It is really true that what is done for Christ and to Christ will last. It will be remembered. It will last; it counts; it matters.
Recognized significance can be short-lived in our culture. Few great moments, great acts, great events or great people are remembered for long. Time is ruthless, and the heroes of today are the good old guys or gals of yesteryear. If a person passionately lives for temporary significance here, it will be just that—temporary. Oh, it might be remembered in a record book, a hall of fame, a plaque somewhere or a book. In the arenas of politics, war, sports and social change there often will be a bigger memorial built; but very few people or acts are really proclaimed throughout the world. Jesus predicted this to be exactly what would happen for this woman’s act, and it would be done as a memorial to her. What a statement! This woman’s act would be part of a gospel proclamation that was to focus on Jesus Himself, and she would be remembered.
This unique special commendation from the Lord indicated how incredibly appropriate this act was as the death of Jesus was approaching. It indicated this death was not a surprise to Jesus; indeed, it was part of His mission. Evidently this mission would not end at the cross, because the proclamation of the gospel to the world is viewed as a certain future event. This is just another example of the Son of God understanding the bigger picture. In just a few verses, He would speak of His own blood as that of the New Covenant. Then He willingly met His betrayer and was arrested. Of course, that was not the end of the story either; for beyond the cross was the resurrection.
While we remember all of the events of our Lord’s humiliation—His betrayal, denial, arrest, trial, sufferings and crucifixion—we shouldn’t forget this beautiful flower in a marsh of mystery and tragedy. Let’s remember this devotion in the darkness, a simple sacrificial act that touched the heart of God!
It is time to be part of His story. Such devotion will last. It counts. It matters. Praise the Lord!
Mark’s Gospel is all about Jesus (the Son of God, Son of Man, Servant) and what it means to follow Him. A true disciple walks the way of the cross with Jesus. This act of anointing in the shadow of the cross helps us remember that following Jesus is not just a chosen radical lifestyle; it is a response to who Jesus is and what He has done for us.
This account challenges me to offer myself afresh to Him, saying, “Whatever the cost, I’m totally Yours, Lord Jesus. By Your grace, through Your Spirit, I will be a living sacrifice. I need to be in step with God’s will, and I commit to obey the Lord today as an act of devotion to Him in the light of His cross, the resurrection and the proclamation of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
It is not a waste. It matters. It lasts.