John 12:1-16 – for the love of God

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”9 Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11 for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.12 The next day the great crowd that had come for the Feast heard that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. 13 They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!”14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, 15 “Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”16 At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that they had done these things to him.

When they asked Jesus, what is the greatest commandment, he answered: “`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbour as yourself’” (Mat. 22:37-39).

Because of man’s inclination to elevate himself above God, we have a tendency to go straight to the second commandment without obeying the first. For many people religion must be practical: giving money to the poor, preventing HIV, building shelters for the homeless, finding jobs for the unemployed, etc. We think of humanism as a modern trend, but the same attitude is clear from the disciples’ reaction to Mary, when she pours out the perfume.

The Old Testament sacrifices had no practical purpose. The Israelites were required to bring sacrifices to God and then to burn them on the altar. This would be for a ‘sweet smelling aroma to the LORD’. See this example from Exodus 29:

‘From the basket of bread made without yeast, which is before the LORD, take a loaf, and a cake made with oil, and a wafer. Put all these in the hands of Aaron and his sons and wave them before the LORD as a wave offering. Then take them from their hands and burn them on the altar along with the burnt offering for a pleasing aroma to the LORD, an offering made to the LORD by fire (verses 23 to 25).

Those same grain offerings and wine offerings could have been used to feed the poor instead of being consumed in the flames. The lesson in this is that our love of God does not always find a practical application in meeting the needs of people. We run into difficulties when start to compromise on ‘first commandment priorities’ such as bible study and prayer in order to run soup kitchens and the like – not that our love for the Lord cannot be expressed in these ways!

Mary’s act of pure worship was in the class of those Old Testament burnt offerings on the altar, and clearly of very great importance to the Lord. We know this from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus response is set out more fully: ‘She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me . When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Of no other expression of love or worship were such words spoken!

We should try to understand how deep a consolation this act must have been to Jesus –  to have that body which was so despised, and soon to be tortured, ridiculed and humiliated, anointed with sweet perfume and tears. In his short life, he had done nothing but show forth God’s love and truth – and for that he would become the object of man’s most intense hatred and pride!  What consolation then, with that prospect weighing heavily upon his soul, for Jesus  to have such love poured out to him.

What John claims to be the response of Judas alone –  ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages’ – Matthew records in his gospel as the collective response of all the disciples. While Judas was probably the one to speak it out, it is also probable that some of the others held similar reservations. But Mary is without reserve, and pours out everything she has – possibly her life’s savings – upon the body of her Saviour.

Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

Jesus had forced their hand. While he kept himself in the remote parts of Galilee, the ‘out-backs’ of Israel, doing his miracles among the simple and unimportant people, the Pharisees could happily ignore him. Although they would not believe in him, he was no immediate threat either. Then he stepped into their territory – coming up frequently to Jerusalem and undermining their religious traditions. For this, they could no longer maintain their neutral position. Either they would have to acknowledge him or else do away with him.

 This is true for all of us. Jesus does not allow us to sit on the fence forever. He will eventually enter into our terrain, step right into our lives and circumstances in a way that forces us – to either open the door and let him in, or otherwise to close it on him forever.

 The circumstance that now prevailed upon the Pharisees to act was the growing acceptance of Jesus among the Jews.  The Jews, as we saw in an earlier study from the New Testament use of this term, were specifically the residents of Judaea, those of the children of Israel most knowledgeable and zealous for the Law, and most closely involved in the Temple worship and its practices. These were not the rural and unschooled folk who formed Jesus’ earlier following, but the cream of Jewish society, and the life-blood of the religious institutions of Judaism.

The crisis came to a head when large crowds gathered to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem, crying ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ – being the refrain from Psalm 118, which follows immediately after the words, ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.’ At the same time, the crowd was crying, ‘Blessed is the King of Israel,’ and thereby clearly proclaiming Jesus as King Messiah. They do this while waving Palm branches (lulav), which was usually done in the celebration of Tabernacles – the feast that concluded the annual cycle and anticipated the Messianic age. In the same way, Simon Maccabee was welcomed into Jerusalem after his defeat of the Greeks (1 Mac 13:51). 

In response to this, we are told: ‘Jesus found a donkey and sat on it.’ Because He does this deliberately, his entering into Jerusalem in this way is not so much a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, but rather an express identification of himself with the King spoken of in that prophecy. I.e. because Zechariah spoke of the Messiah entering Jerusalem ‘poor and riding on an ass,’ Jesus by entering in this way acknowledges to the crowd that he is indeed that Messiah, whom they where proclaiming. At the same time, this mode of coming suggested peace. Jesus was not coming on a war-horse or chariot to expel the Roman overlords or to instigate rebellion against the Empire. Instead he came ‘righteous’ and bringing salvation of a different kind. Zechariah’s prophecy reads as follows:

 ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, your King comes to you: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass.  And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle-bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace to the nations: and his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.  As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit in which is no water’ (Zechariah 9:9-11).

 John notably substitutes the words ‘rejoice greatly’ with ‘do not be afraid’.The fear or perception of the Pharisees that the national acceptance of Jesus as Messiah would instigate an insurrection –  which, in turn, would bring the full might of the Roman Empire against them (John 11:48) was thus unfounded. By his coming in the manner of Zechariah’s prophecy, Messiah would ‘cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem and the battle-bow would be broken.’ He would, in other words, bring conventional warfare to an end.

Israel’s military campaigns of the Old Testament were a type and shadow of the true warfare, which is spiritual. It was not by its battles against flesh and blood that Israel would gain victory over the pagan world. The true battle is that of God’s eternal truth against all the vain philosophies of men, and the false and lifeless religion that is based on human traditions rather than the pure word of God. By this manner of warfare, Messiah would – by the blood of the New Covenant – liberate the Jews ‘out of the pit in which is no water.’ 

This is precisely what Jesus had now come to do. Jesus is no threat against Roman political domination, as we soon discover when Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, is at a loss to find any charge that would warrant his death under Roman law. Instead he is a threat to the Rabbis and Pharisees whose religion was ‘but rules taught by men’ and who were holding Abraham’s descendents captive in their waterless pit. 

We considered earlier God’s accusation through the prophet Jeremiah: 

‘My people have committed two sins:They have forsaken me,the spring of living water,and have dug their own cisterns,broken cisterns that cannot hold water.’ (Jeremiah 2:13)

The same principle applies today when people hold on to tradition instead of the Word of God, i.e. when man puts his hope in man, and on systems of religion rather than in the love and faithfulness of God.  Our battle even now continues to be NOT ‘against flesh and blood’ but against ‘against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Ephesians 6:13). As it is also written in 1 Corinthians 10:‘For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.’