The scene for this text is set at six days before Passover when Jesus and his group reach Bethany. This is also right after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb and Lazarus, Mary and Martha are in attendance at this dinner, a Sabbath dinner at the home of Simon who is a good mutual friend, as we discover from the Synoptics. We can infer the close relationship between Simon and Lazarus, Mary and Martha from the fact that Martha is one of those serving the dinner, and it is interesting to note that the word used to describe her service in verse 2 is the word from which we get the English words “deacon” and “minister” meaning “servant” and is also used to describe Martha in Luke 10:40.
Mary suddenly begins an unusual foot treatment for Jesus by applying a large amount of nard to his feet. Nard is a highly-prized ointment imported from India that was prized by both men and women in the ancient world. It had a sweet-woody odor that was very heavy and likely to fill the entire house. The “pint” that she applied to Jesus’ feet would be worth something in the area of $20,000.00 today. Mary held nothing back in using so much of the very expensive luxury on Jesus, even mopping up the excess with her hair, a gesture of pure humility in front of mixed company; in short this was a shocking scene, and yet it shows us that Mary was holding nothing back in her service to Jesus. I daresay that there is a lesson in this for our time, for how many of us would pour $20,000.00 on Jesus’ feet? It seems likely that Mary understood that Jesus would soon be taken from them, and she was not going to stand by His grave and wish she had told Him how much she loved Him.
Judas raises what seems to be a logical objection to all of this extravagance, pointing out that the money could have been put to a better use; very reasonable indeed. However, John points out in the text that Judas may have had an ulterior motive for his objection as he has been known to embezzle their funds in his keeping. Notice that John does not reveal how or when they became aware of this, but it does show us a glimpse of the character of the man who would shortly turn traitor. One thing is clear; it wasn’t the poor that Judas was mourning for.
Jesus will have none of this criticism. He points out that she had saved it for His funeral, and even though the funeral hadn’t come about, it would within the week, and Mary would prize her act even more on that day. As for the poor, Jesus commented on that as well, although his comment has been misinterpreted by many since. He was not giving justification of those who would ignore those in need, but rather that there are times when service to God trumps everything else; even good works. How many Christians over the centuries have been so concerned with good social works that they have missed out on a closer relationship with the Lord! He comes first in all things, even doing good deeds.
News of the raising of Lazarus and Jesus’ arrival in Bethany reached near-by Jerusalem very quickly and many came out to see both Jesus and Lazarus. Of course, amongst the curious were also their leaders who had different things in mind. Their hatred of Jesus was all the greater for so many more were prepared to follow Him and to discontinue following their leaders. From their point of view, this had to stop for their position was being severely threatened; Lazarus must go as well as Jesus. Thus, the stage is set for the final drama of Jesus’ last week and the most seminal event of all human history.
As this text comes to its close, there are two main threads to the story, and two sub-plots. The two main threads can be summed up as support for Jesus, and opposition to Jesus, and the sub-plots are holding back and murderous intent. On the side of support, we see the gathering crowds that have come to see Jesus and Lazarus, many of whom are ready to follow Jesus. On this side also is Mary, standing above all the rest, for Mary has given everything to Him, while the rest remain somewhat less committed, probably at various stages of comprehension as to what it really means to follow Jesus.
On the other hand, we have Judas, who for various reasons of his own doesn’t see the value in what Mary has done. He does have a valid point; that the Nard could have been sold and many good things done with the money, not to mention a few bucks in his own pocket; Judas doesn’t seem to quite comprehend what following Jesus really means. Then of course, we have the Pharisees and the other leaders of the people, who see that despite their efforts, the crowds keep growing larger, along with the threat to their positions; something must be done, and quickly.
If we take a step back from the narrative, we might also discern that not only is this the climax of Jesus’ ministry, it is also where we approach the climax of our own lives. On the one hand, Mary has given her all to Jesus, and in doing so has essentially thrown down the gauntlet to all of us: Will we follow her lead? On the other hand, those who prize their worldly positions have also thrown down a gauntlet: Will we join with them in their quest to stop Jesus at all costs?
Like those in the room with Jesus that day, and those gathering outside, most of us are somewhere in between the two camps, and this is where I believe that God is leading us to a decision. Is God speaking to you in this text? If so, what are you going to do about it?
We pick up the story after Jesus has entered Jerusalem; His “Triumphal Entry”. The news of His having raised Lazarus has spread like wildfire through the region and people are flocking to Jesus like never before, some just to have a look and others in faith. The reaction of the Pharisees in verse 19 is classic: “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” Yes, they must put a stop to this business, pronto! Our text begins with some Greeks who are present for Passover who approach Phillip asking to meet with Jesus. It would seem that they were not Greek speaking Jews, but Gentile Greeks. Notice that they approach Phillip who goes to Andrew. Phillip and Andrew are from Galilee unlike these Greeks, and they have Greek names, the only two amongst the disciples. They are “Hellenized” Jews which is to say that they have adopted Greek culture while remaining Jews. Thus, it is believed that they took Greek names and most likely are Greek in dress and hair style.
They approach Jesus with the request of a meeting and Jesus answers oddly by going straight to the subject of His impending death. Using the example of a grain of wheat, Jesus will now teach those around him that life (eternal life) comes from death. The use of the example of grain is designed to overcome the fact that this concept is entirely counter-intuitive to humans who have not seen the glories of Heaven. The message is obvious in His case, now that we know the rest of the story, but the implication for us is quite serious: Any of us who holds on to our lives in this world too selfishly will not inherit eternal life, for we will not follow Jesus at all. This idea is seen in verse 26 where Jesus equates losing or “hating” this worldly life with serving Him and thus serving God. Thus, we “lose” our life by serving God rather than serving ourselves. I cannot over emphasize the importance of this idea, for this is the Christian life!
Verses27-28 reveal that Jesus was troubled by what He was about to face in going to the cross to die a horrible death. Remember that He is both Divine and human and had the same instincts of survival that we all have. How would you feel about things if you knew that you were soon going to be taken away for torture and death? I would be on my way out of town! Jesus has a different response, for this is the very reason He has been brought to this point. It is interesting that John tells us about this encounter that is begun with the arrival of the Greeks. Maybe Jesus was tempted to go off with them and take His message to a whole different audience to avoid His date with the cross… In any case, He will not be swayed from His purpose, and God confirms His approval with a rare vocal endorsement.
The people heard the voice and stunned, await some clarification. Jesus explains that the voice was for their benefit, so they would know that everything is going according to God’s plan. Then, He demonstrates the point in three amazing ways:
First, the time has come for “judgment on this world”. Since the Greek word rendered “judgment” is krisis, if we leave it un-translated, the statement would read “Now is the crisis of this world.” A crisis for this world would surely come when Jesus is murdered in front of everyone when all were aware of His total innocence. This would expose the sin that has the entire world in its grip for all of its stinking rottenness. Second, it is the time when “the prince of this world will be driven out.” Satan, who has the world in his pocket through their slavery to sin, will lose his grip on those who will follow Jesus, those who will be set free from bondage to sin. Third, that Jesus will die by being “lifted up” gives His listeners the method by which all of this will be accomplished; He will die on a cross. The result of this will be that all peoples who look to the cross in faith will see not merely a method of execution, but the means by which they can be saved from sin and death.
We reach a major turning point in John’s Gospel at this point. The crowd has come to discuss national liberation from Rome, and Jesus is talking about death and redemption. They object and refer to Daniel 7:14 which teaches that the Messiah will be with them forever. Jesus doesn’t engage. He does offer one last bit of advice: Darkness is about to descend, their only hope is to believe in Jesus (“trust in the light”) which will enable them to resist the oppressive spiritual darkness, for they will become “sons of light”. With that, Jesus slips away. The rest of the Gospel will describe Jesus’ answer to the question they have posed: “Who is this Son of Man?”