2014-Mar/April-Article 05-The Alabaster Vial

A Precious Gift


“Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came unto Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him. 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” (John 12:1-3, citations from NASB unless otherwise noted).

Ernie Kuenzli

One of the most memorable events during the final week of our Lord’s earthly ministry took place in Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18). This was Jesus’ last stop before reaching Jerusalem and the tumultuous events which would culminate in our Lord’s death and resurrection. This night was the quiet before the storm. Here, in the home of Simon the Leper, Jesus was the honored guest at a feast hosted by Martha, Mary and Lazarus.

Jesus’ First Meeting with Martha and Mary

During this visit to Jerusalem, Martha welcomed Jesus and his disciples into her own home and served them. Since that visit was in Martha’s home, it appears that now (1) Martha no longer had a husband and; (2) it was a different home than that of Simon the Leper. During Jesus’ visit, Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching while Martha was left to serve all by herself. Martha complained to Jesus about this and asked Jesus to tell Mary to help out. Instead, Jesus responded, “But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41,42).

Jesus did not criticize Martha for her serving him and the disciples. He appreciated Martha’s sacrifice and labor of love. However, Jesus was looking for those with a heart open to receive his message, the words of truth. He found that in Mary. Our Lord said something similar to the woman at the well in Samaria. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus was offering this same living water to Mary and Martha.

This is an important lesson. Service to God is crucial but it is more than just providing food and drink. It is working in cooperation with God and walking in the footsteps of Jesus. For that, we need the living water, the words of Truth, to enlighten our hearts and minds about the right path of service, and to provide the spiritual growth and strength we need to render that service.

The Death of Lazarus

Lazarus first appears in John 11:1-3. Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that “Lord, behold, he whom you love is sick.” Jesus did not rush to Bethany to heal Lazarus’ illness but abode in his place two more days until Lazarus died. Then the group traveled back to Bethany, arriving four days after Lazarus had died (John 11:5,39).

Martha met Jesus before he arrived in Bethany. One can sense the disappointment in her voice when she said to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). Martha clearly believed that Jesus could have healed Lazarus, but also understood the close relationship between Jesus and his Heavenly Father. She said, “I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You” (John 11:22). Was Martha asking Jesus to raise her brother from the dead?

Martha believed in the resurrection, but perhaps had not yet linked that promise to Jesus. That is why Jesus responded “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies” (John 11:25). Here Jesus confirms that resurrection and everlasting life is available only through him. Martha had listened closely to the words of Jesus. She believed in the resurrection and that her brother would be raised in the last day. She also believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God. Now she was learning the linkage between Jesus and the resurrection. Martha left and told Mary that Jesus had called for her. Mary left their home to meet Jesus and fell at his feet (John 12:32). You can sense her disappointment when she repeats the words that Martha had spoken: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

Both Martha and Mary acknowledged Jesus as their Lord. Both believed him, loved him and served him. They believed that Jesus had loved them and their brother. Yet they could not understand why Jesus had not come in time to heal their brother and prevent his death.

Martha and Mary were heartbroken at the death of Lazarus. Their sorrow and the sorrow of their friends was so great that it touched Jesus. “He was deeply moved and visibly distressed” (John 11:33 Phillips). Jesus was moved to tears as they took him to the tomb. Although he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the grave, his tender heart ached and felt great compassion for his dear friends in their great sorrow. Jesus was touched with a feeling of their infirmities and bore their sorrows (Hebrews. 4:15, Isaiah 53:3).

The Raising of Lazarus

When they reached the tomb, Jesus asked for the stone to be removed. When Martha protested, Jesus responded, “Did I not tell you,” replied Jesus, “that if you believed, you would see the wonder of what God can do?” Then they took the stone away and Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of these people standing here so that they may believe that you have sent me.” And when he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with grave-clothes and his face muffled with a handkerchief. “Now unbind him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go home” (John 11:40-44 Phillips).

Jesus had performed a miracle for their benefit, something never before seen in human history. He had turned their great sorrow into indescribable joy. Lazarus was alive once more. As a result, their love for Jesus would have known no bounds. Their joy, thankfulness and appreciation would have looked for an outlet of expression. We find that expression just a few days later during the dinner at Simon the leper’s home.

We are not told the connection of “Simon the Leper” to Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Pastor Russell suggests that Simon was either their father or Martha’s husband (Reprint 2703). Since the earlier dinner was at Martha’s home, we suggest that Simon was likely their father and was no longer alive. Robert Seklemian, in his discourse “Ointment, Very Precious”, suggests that this home was as close to a home as Jesus had during his earthly ministry and that this was his first visit to the family since he raised Lazarus from the dead.

The awakening of Lazarus must have stirred a flood of thoughts in Mary’s heart. How could she express her appreciation to and great love for Jesus for the great love he had bestowed upon them? She would treat him as the finest earthly king or emperor by anointing him with her finest perfume. It appears that the ointment of spikenard was a perfumed oil of great cost. The Emphatic Diaglott describes it as “balsam of spikenard genuine of great price.” Rotherham translates it “pure nard perfume, very precious.” Judas said it was worth 300 denarii or nearly one year’s wages (John 12:5). The ointment today would have been worth $17,000.

Robert Seklemian’s commentary suggests that the perfume might have been a family heirloom. Next to their home, it may have been the greatest item of value they possessed. While the anointing seems to have been Mary’s idea and Jesus gives her sole credit for it, the anointing of Jesus probably was a family project. It is not likely that Mary would have access to this heirloom by herself. It would have taken all three to agree to use it for their friend Jesus. Martha served the dinner, freeing Mary to render this most important service. Lazarus attended the dinner and no doubt approved its use. Remember, it was his life that had been saved.

They anticipated Jesus would visit them on his way to Jerusalem for the Passover as he had previously done. Perhaps they sent Jesus an invitation to stay and dine with them, on his way to Jerusalem. In either case, we think this dinner was planned and what Mary did was agreed upon, as an expression of their collective love and appreciation to their Lord and Master. All approved, but Mary was the prime mover in this experience. It is important to note that the perfume was not used to anoint the body of Lazarus after he died. Instead, it had been saved and was available to anoint the master.

The Anointing of Jesus

Matthew writes in Matt. 26:6-7: “Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume, and she poured it on His head, as he reclined at the table.” John 12:3 says: “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.” Mary was the woman, who broke vial’s seal and anointed first our Lord’s head and then his feet wiping them with her hair. The room and Mary’s hair both were filled with the sweet smell of the perfume.

The manner in which Mary anointed Jesus tells us so much about her great love for him. She showed that love by anointing him with the most valuable thing she possessed, in a most humble way. After anointing his head, she bowed at her master’s feet, anointing them and wiping them with the crown of her glory, her hair (1 Corinthians 11:15). Mary humbled herself before her Lord in a way very few have.

Bro. Russell writes, “What a picture of loving devotion is here given us! The feet, always recognized as the humblest and lowest members of the human frame — the hair of the head, especially of woman, always recognized as a special treasure and glory to her — here thus brought together in a way which signified that Mary esteemed her Lord and Master as infinitely above and beyond her” (R3534).

Judas’ Criticism

What happened next caught Mary and her family by surprise. Instead of praising her great sacrifice, Judas proclaimed it a waste. With indignation, he said the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor (John 12:4-6). His indignation kindled similar criticism from the other disciples (Matthew 26:8-9, Mark 14:4-5). However, John tells us that Judas was deceitful in his criticism. Judas did not care for the poor nor for his master. He wanted the perfume sold, so that the money would come to him as the treasurer and he could steal it for his own purposes.

The other disciples joined Judas in his criticism, not understanding the depth of love which motivated Mary. To them, it seemed like an extravagance — but — then, Jesus had not awakened a member of their family from the tomb. This criticism must have had a crushing effect on Mary’s heart. Something that she had planned to be such an expression of love and thankfulness to her master brought such indignation upon her from Jesus’ closest followers. Could she have been so wrong in what she felt and was trying to do?

Jesus’ Response

Unlike his disciples, Jesus deeply appreciated Mary’s gift and even more, the great love that prompted it. Jesus reveals the great depth of love in Mary’s gift in his response to his disciples in Mark 14:6,8-9 (Weymouth): “Leave her alone: why are you troubling her? She has done a most gracious act towards me. What she could she did: she has perfumed my body in preparation for my burial. And I solemnly tell you that wherever in the whole world the Good News shall be proclaimed, this which she has done shall also be told in remembrance of her.”

Mary was like an angel or messenger to Jesus. Her act was a blessing from God, refreshing our Lord’s spirit and indicating the Father’s abiding favor. She had rendered a most beautiful act of kindness for Jesus. The disciples would have many years to do acts of kindness for the poor — but — Jesus would be with them for only a few more days. Unbeknownst to her, Mary had anointed Jesus’ body in preparation for his burial. Mary’s kindness demonstrated the character and love that Jesus was seeking and he commended her for that. She did right and her critics were wrong.

The Lord had this story recorded not just to praise Mary but to establish Mary as an example for us to follow. Just as she demonstrated her great love and thankfulness to Jesus by anointing him, we should do similarly. This is the heart attitude and action Jesus is expecting from each one of us.

Mary was able to show her great love directly to Jesus, before he had died. But what about us?

Anointing Jesus’ Head

Mary anointed both our Lord’s head and his feet. This would illustrate how our love and service is to be directed to both Jesus (our head) and our brethren (his feet). How do we do this? We show our love for Jesus (our head) by keeping his commandments. Jesus said so in John 14:21,23: “He who has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will disclose myself to him. … If anyone loves me, he will keep my word; and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him.”

Jesus keeps it very simple. We show him our love — by keeping his words, following his example and conforming our hearts to his character. John 14:24 says: “He who does not love me does not keep my words.” If we do not make a serious and constant effort to keep Jesus’ words in our lives, it means our love for him is lacking.

What were the commandments that Jesus gave us to follow? During his earthly ministry, Jesus mentioned just three. Jesus listed two of them in Matthew 22:37,39,40: “YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND. The second is like it, YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus added a third commandment in John 13:34: “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.”

These three commandments sum up the royal law of love (James 2:8). To demonstrate our love directly to Jesus as pictured by Mary anointing Jesus’ head, we must love God supremely, love our neighbors as ourselves and love our brethren as Jesus did — by laying down our lives for them (1 John 3:16). Loving Jesus does not restrict our love to just Him — but — expands our love to our Heavenly Father, our neighbors including our enemies and our brethren (Luke 6:27-28, 32-35).

Anointing Jesus’ Feet

By anointing the feet of Jesus and wiping them with her hair, Mary demonstrated that we are to show our love for Jesus by bestowing that love upon and humbly serving the feet members of the Christ. Paul confirms this in Galatians 6:10: “as we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Paul adds in Galatians 5:13: “for you were called to freedom, brethren … through love serve one another.” We show our love for Jesus by servingloving andsacrificing for our brethren as we would do unto Jesus directly.

Who does this include? Any and all of the Lord’s disciples should be recipients of our service. This includes all of our brethren, not just those who agree with us. We should especially look for those who might be forgotten, the less prominent, the less noticed to serve and help. We should especially help those who cannot return the service. We should be attentive and constantly on the lookup for those who need help and then we should help them. We should not wait for them to come to us. Instead, we should seek them out and be attentive to their needs.

Tabitha, or Dorcas, is one disciple who followed this example. She was a “woman abounding with deeds of kindness and charity which she continually did” (Acts 9:36). She was especially helpful to one of the least prominent and most needy groups of brethren in her day: widows. Dorcas made clothes (tunics and garments) for them. Dorcas was so helpful to, and loved by, the widows that it was their appeal to the Apostle Peter that helped convince him to raise Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9:37- 41). Let us follow the example that Dorcas set.

Our Alabaster Vial

Mary poured a rich, very costly perfume on our Lord. What is our alabaster vial and how do we break it? Bro. Russell suggests that Mary’s alabaster vial represents our heart and the perfume she poured upon Jesus pictures the best wishes of our love that should poured from our hearts upon our brethren.

“It is not our privilege to come into personal contact with our dear Redeemer. It is our privilege to anoint the Lord’s ‘brethren’ with the sweet perfume of love; and the more costly as respects our self-denials, the more precious it will be in the estimation of our Elder Brother” (Reprint 2448).

How can we do this? Jesus said in Matthew 10:42: “and whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward.” Our service can be as simple as giving a cup of cold water or it can be as expensive as providing costly perfume. The more our service costs us, the more valuable it is in our Lord’s estimation.

One way of serving is to ease the burden of a trial or difficult experience on our brethren. That is what Mary did. We can do the same thing — pouring our love upon our brethren who are facing serious trials of health or physical illness, those who are laboring in difficult trials with respect to their work, the world or their personal lives, those who are lonely and missing family members and those who are struggling in their spiritual lives.

We can encourage them as Martha and Mary did — providing a place to get away from the trials and pressures they are facing. We can provide spiritual encouragement by giving them a willing ear and an opportunity to unburden their hearts, share their concerns, express their fears, etc. We can share their burden by taking some of the workload off of their shoulders or helping them do things they cannot do for themselves. We can provide material assistance in the form of time, funds, physical assistance such as transportation and other forms of help.

Lydia, a seller of purple fabrics from the city of Thyatira, was an example of this. After the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul, she and her household were baptized. “She urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon” the disciples to stay at her home” (Acts 16:14- 15). Let us follow Lydia’s example and become helpers of those used in the Lord’s service.

Our Motivation

Our motivation in providing this help should the same as Mary’s — our great love and thankfulness to the Lord for his great love toward us. Those who have made a consecration have been raised from Adamic condemnation to walk in newness of life — similar to Lazarus’ awakening from the dead. We have been “begotten unto an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled and that fadeth not away” (1 Peter 1:4). We should be just as thankful for our deliverance as Lazarus and his sisters were for his. This great love because of our deliverance should lead us to hold nothing back in our service to the Lord.

Like Mary, our service should be done in great humility. Just as Mary knelt before her master and Jesus knelt to wash the disciples’ feet, we should kneel down before our brethren to serve them. Our service is not to gain accolades for ourselves, but to ease their burden, refresh their hearts, encourage their faith and inspire their zeal. Priscilla and Aquila are examples of humility in service “who … risked their own necks” for the Apostle Paul (Romans 16:3-4). Let us in humility risk our necks and lay down our lives for one another.

Timeliness is the Key

Our Lord mentioned that Mary anointed him for his burial (John 12:7). This thought was probably not in Mary’s mind when she poured the costly perfume on our Lord’s head and anointed his feet. However, if she had waited just 6 days, for our Lord to stop by their home after the Passover, she would have lost the opportunity to refresh and encourage our Lord while he was still alive. Timeliness was the key. Mary’s love would not let her wait. She planned for and took advantage of the opportunity before her. In contrast, the other woman who came to anoint the Lord at his tomb were too late (Mark 16:1-2).

Like Mary, we need be timely in pouring out the love of our hearts on our brethren now while they are still on this side of the veil. Each of our brethren will eventually finish their course. After that, the chance to anoint them with the sweet perfume of love and help will be gone forever. They need help and encouragement now — during their walk up the narrow way. We should break the seal on our alabaster vial and pour out the sweetest perfume of love every chance that we see.

The brethren of Rome demonstrated this timeliness when they heard of Paul’s approach. They traveled from Rome to the Market of Appius and Three Inns to meet him and “when Paul saw them, he thanked God and took courage” (Acts 28:14-15). It encouraged Paul for the Roman brethren to travel nearly 43 miles or one day’s journey outside of Rome — just to meet and welcome him. Let us be prompt to follow the example of these brethren.

Taking the Initiative

Mary demonstrated a boldness of action that brought the Lord’s approval. Her heart would not let her delay. She seized the opportunity when it presented itself and she made sure that she showed her Lord and master, how much she loved him. If we had been in Mary’s place, would we have taken the initiative to do what she did? Do we take the initiative today — to show our Lord how much we love him?

What is that spark of zeal that leads us to open the vial of our hearts and pour out its precious contents? For Mary, we think it was the resurrection of her brother Lazarus that inspired her to provide this very special service to the Lord. She loved Jesus very much but when Jesus raised her brother from the dead, that spark fanned the fire of her love for Jesus into a consuming blaze.

What is the spark that leads us to follow Mary’s example?

  • Is it our great thankfulness that Jesus called us out of darkness and into his marvelous light?
  • Is it our deliverance from Adamic condemnation into the glorious liberty of the sons of God?
  • Is it God’s overruling providences in our lives — which have provided both great blessings and great deliverance from our enemies?
  • Is it God’s great love and mercy in forgiving us our sins through the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice and leading us up the narrow way?

May the Lord help us to find that spark, kindle that love into a blazing fire and lead us to pour out the sweet perfume of love wherever we go — just as Mary did

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