Jesus—His Life and Message: Anointing at Bethany

December 15, 2020

by Peter Amsterdam

In John chapter 11, we’re told that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.1 As a result of this miracle, the chief priests and the Pharisees agreed that Jesus needed to be put to death, and they ordered that anyone who knew where He was should report it so that they could arrest Him. We’re told that Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.2 The passage doesn’t clarify how long Jesus remained there, but after some time Jesus was on the move again.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.3

The town of Bethany was only a few miles from Jerusalem.4 Upon Jesus’ arrival, a meal was held in His honor. Martha served the food, which she also did elsewhere in the Gospels.5 Her brother, Lazarus, whom Jesus had earlier raised from the dead, was at the table.

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, was also present.

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.6

The ointment Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet was expensive because nard, also known as spikenard, comes from a flowering plant which grows in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, China, and India, and had to be imported to Israel. The amount of perfume Mary used was the equivalent of about twelve ounces, or 327 grams, so her action was quite costly.

Such oil was normally poured on one’s head, so Mary’s pouring it on Jesus’ feet is seen as an act of humility. She was putting herself in the lowliest place, as generally only the lowliest of slaves/servants would attend to the feet of others. As a further show of devotion, she wiped the excess oil off His feet with her hair. Jewish women never uncovered their hair in public, as doing so would indicate that they had loose morals. One author wrote: Mary did not stop to calculate public reaction. Her heart went out to her Lord, and she gave expression to her feelings in this beautiful and touching act.7

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”8

Judas asked a legitimate question. A denarius was a day’s wage, so the value of the ointment was close to a year’s worth of wages. That amount could have helped quite a few of the poor. However, Mary’s actions need to be seen in the light of Jesus raising Lazarus, her brother, from the dead and her gratitude for such a precious gift.9

Judas’ motive for questioning how the money was used is revealed in the following verse:

He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.10

Judas was a thief. He was entrusted with the communal money of Jesus and His disciples, yet he broke that trust by stealing funds and using them for himself. His true motive for objecting to the expensive ointment being poured on Jesus’ feet was selfishness. If the ointment would have been sold, he would have had access to the money and could have skimmed some off for himself. This is the one place in the Gospels where Judas is shown as having bad character prior to his betrayal of Jesus.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”11 

Jesus immediately came to Mary’s defense. In the book of Mark, Jesus commends Mary by saying,

She has done a beautiful thing to me … she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.12

The point Jesus made was that while the poor would always be present, He wouldn’t be, and that Mary was right to seize the moment and take this action of devotion.

When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.13

Bethany was a little more than three kilometers (two miles) from Jerusalem, so when the news reached the capital city that Jesus—who had previously raised Lazarus from the dead—was in Bethany, a number of curious people made the short trek there with the hope of seeing both the miracle worker, Jesus, and Lazarus.

The crowds of people coming to see Jesus and Lazarus did not go unnoticed. Earlier in this Gospel, the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where [Jesus] was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.14 Their intention was to kill Jesus, as the chief priest Caiaphas had said earlier, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”15 Now we read that Lazarus was also included on the list of those that the chief priests felt must die.

The chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.16

Lazarus, like Jesus, was also in danger.

The top religious authorities wanted to eliminate Lazarus because his testimony of being raised from the dead was a powerful endorsement of Jesus and His message. Though it is not mentioned in these passages, it is likely that Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead was an embarrassment to the religious leaders, and specifically to the Sadducees. They denied that there would be a resurrection of the dead, and yet here was a man who had been in the tomb for four days and had been brought back to life.

The overall effect of Jesus’ dinner with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus was that when people heard that Jesus was at their house, a large crowd—presumably from Jerusalem—came to the town of Bethany in order to see Jesus and Lazarus. We’re told that as a result of this, many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.17

From this point on, the focus of the Gospels is on Jesus’ final ministry in Jerusalem before His arrest, trial, and crucifixion.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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2 John 11:54.

3 John 12:1–2.

4 John 11:18.

5 Luke 10:40.

6 John 12:3.

7 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 512.

8 John 12:4–5.

9 See John chapter 11.

10 John 12:6.

11 John 12:7–8.

12 Mark 14:6–8.

13 John 12:9.

14 John 11:57.

15 John 11:50.

16 John 12:10–11.

17 John 12:11.