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The Life of Jesus - Series 12: Episode 8

Jesus anointed at Bethany

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 14:1-11
Matthew 26:1-16
Luke 22:1-6
John 12:2-11

During the Passover preparations Jesus is anointed by Mary in Bethany.  In showing her devotion she prepares Jesus' body for burial. Judas' reaction is to leave the meal to consort with the Jewish leaders.

During the Passover preparations Jesus is anointed by Mary in Bethany.  In showing her devotion she prepares Jesus' body for burial. Judas' reaction is to leave the meal to consort with the Jewish leaders.


Hello, and welcome to Series 12 and Episode 8 - 'Jesus anointed at Bethany'. We are going to be studying in Mark 14: 1 - 11. There are parallel passages in Matthew, Luke and John, and we will be referring to some of those as we go along.

Introduction and Recap

For those who have been with us in Series 12, you will know that for the first seven episodes we have been studying in detail Jesus' teaching about judgement on Israel and particularly on the end times, the Second Coming and the end of the age, as we have seen in Matthew 24 and 25. It has taken us seven episodes to look closely at that material. We are now moving forward because the story moves on from that particular moment in time.

Let us capture the time-frame a bit more clearly, before we actually look into this very moving story that takes place in the middle of the week that Jesus is in Jerusalem. If you followed Series 11, you will know that we looked at the first half of the week that Jesus spent in Jerusalem, at the very end of his life. This is literally the last week of his life; he is going to be crucified on the Friday. Series 11 describes events that happen on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday of that week. On the Sunday, Jesus entered the city in great triumph - lots of people heard that he was coming. There was a wonderful entry through the gates into the city of Jerusalem, with crowds attending him, throwing their cloaks on the road in front of him as he came in. He was travelling on a donkey and they were proclaiming that he was the Messiah, Son of David and the King of Israel. Children were dancing. It was an amazing event. People had a very high expectation that Jesus was going to bring about some radical change in the nation. That expectation was heightened by the fact that, in the village of Bethany, Jesus had performed a remarkable miracle just a short time earlier, which was the raising from the dead of a man called Lazarus, who was actually in his tomb. The tomb was closed and he had been dead for a short time before Jesus came and raised him up from the dead - such an amazing miracle that the word about it spread throughout Jerusalem. Expectations were high. That was Sunday. Then on the Monday, Jesus came back into the city, having stayed overnight at Bethany, or in that area. He went straight into the Temple, which was the centre of operations for the priesthood and the religious hierarchy, the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council that officiated and judged all issues relating to the Jewish religion. Jesus went into the Temple compound and provocatively and decisively challenged the market traders there, who the priests had set up to create a robust and very profitable monopoly trade in exchange of coins and the buying and selling of animals and birds for the sacrificial system. Jesus called this corrupt and he said they had turned his Father's house into a den of robbers. This was about as provocative as you could get. He was challenging the Sanhedrin which had already adjudicated Jesus to be a false messiah, and was preparing to move against him in order to bring about his death. The stakes were high. Then on Tuesday, Jesus came back to the Temple. Having gone out of the city he came back in again, and spent a day there teaching, no doubt healing the sick and answering trick questions which his opponents put to him at various stages during the day. In particular, we have three recorded parables that he delivered on that day, which were attacks on the religious leaders and indicated God's future judgement on them, and on the nation of Israel, for rejecting his Messiahship.

It is from that context, that Jesus left the Temple and, in discussion with his disciples as he was leaving, about the building which they commented on, he began to prophesy that that Temple was going to be destroyed. That provoked the disciples to ask a number of questions about when this was going to happen, when Jesus was going to return again for his Second Coming; when the age was going to come to an end and the Kingdom of God come in full power. These questions are recorded in the first three verses of Matthew 24. At that point, Jesus is sitting on the Mount of Olives, a small hill right next to Jerusalem, near Bethany, where he went every day, He was talking to his disciples, looking down over the city, and he told them lots of things about the future and the end times, and about his Second Coming. This is what we have been discussing in Matthew 24 and 25. 


He then retreats from the city. He is on the Mount of Olives, and he rests outside the city, as he did every day. The events we are going to look at now took place in Bethany, which is probably where Jesus was staying and it probably took place on the Wednesday of that week. Jesus was going to be arrested on the Thursday, crucified on the Friday, lay dead in the tomb on Saturday, and be raised again from the dead on the Sunday. These are the very thrilling, challenging, complex events that are taking place in this week. Here we are, roughly in the middle of the week, and it is very likely that this event took place on the Wednesday of Passion Week. We have it recorded in all the Gospels. Mark's account is the fullest, and we are going to use that account as the basic narrative but we are going to draw some material from the other narratives.

Bethany was a place that Jesus knew well because he had visited there at least twice. We have a record in Luke 10 of Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha. John tells us that this was in the village of Bethany, which is just a few kilometres outside Jerusalem, very close to the city. Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear in this story. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in this village and that made Jesus hugely famous there; everybody knew him in Bethany. He had stayed there at least twice before, and now for a third time, he seemed to be staying in Bethany during these final crucial days before he was crucified. Let's turn to the text Mark 14: 1 - 2,

‘Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away. And the chief priests and Teachers of the Law was scheming to arrest Jesus secretly, and to kill him, but not during the festival they said or the people may riot.‘

Mark 14:1-2, NIV

Matthew gives us a little bit more detail. Matthew 26: 3 - 4, says this.

‘Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the High Priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and to kill him’.

Matthew 26:3-4, NIV

The Sanhedrin

At this time there was a secret meeting taking place, amongst the Sanhedrin leaders, chief priests and elders of the people. The most senior religious official, the High Priest, was convening a meeting in his own house to try and bring the arrest of Jesus forward, and to find a way of achieving it successfully, without causing a riot amongst the crowds who were gathering in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, and the feast of Unleavened Bread, which followed straight on afterwards. Caiaphas is an important person. He appears in the narrative here as a very significant figure because he is the one who cross-examines Jesus at his trial by the Sanhedrin, which was to follow very shortly. The plan was to arrest Jesus privately, and to get him charged with some religious crime by the Sanhedrin Council and then to hand him over to the Romans to execute him, and try to persuade the Romans that he was a danger to Roman authority.


We need to think about the Passover events, in order to be clear about what was about to happen during that week. The Passover was an annual festival, one of the three main religious festivals of the Jewish calendar. Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles were the three in that order. Passover generally took place in March or April. During that feast, one of the main features was a symbolic remembrance of the escape from Egypt that took place when the Jews were led by Moses out of Egypt and into the Sinai wilderness and ultimately into the promised land.(Exodus 12) The Egyptian pharaoh had been oppressing the Jewish people severely. They cried out to God. God sent Moses as the leader of their nation. He negotiated with Pharaoh and God brought some divine judgements on the Egyptian people for enslaving and restraining the Jews in their country. The concept of Passover reflected the fact that at the very end of this cycle of events, when the Jewish people were just ready to leave the country, God sent angelic forces to bring judgement on the Egyptians but said the angels of judgement would pass over the houses of the Israelites, or Jews, if there was blood sprinkled on the doorposts and lintels of the doors. They sacrificed a lamb, and used the blood to be placed on the lintels of the doorposts of their homes, thereby avoiding judgement. That's the original concept of Passover - expressed very briefly. Then they left Egypt. They escaped; it was an exodus.

The memory of this was deeply embedded in the Jewish nation, and the Passover feast was to celebrate this event. Lambs, generally speaking, were taken to the Temple on the Thursday of the week and slaughtered in the Temple, then taken back to homes for a Passover meal. The lamb was taken into the domestic environment wherever people were staying in and around Jerusalem and there would be a family meal with a number of traditions attached to it that was known as the Passover meal. This would become very significant because it became associated with the Last Supper of Jesus. Then on Friday, the Passover lambs would be taken to the Temple, so that the remainder of the Passover lambs would be burnt up in a sacrificial offering. Immediately after that, there was a week of a feast known as the feast of Unleavened Bread.

Vast crowds came to Jerusalem at this time for the feast of Passover. It was just about to happen, so the authorities were trying to work out when to arrest Jesus - was it going to be before or after that particular event? They didn't want to get the crowd involved because they knew that many in the crowd would be favouring Jesus and might turn against them.

Anointing in Bethany

We are going to read the story of something remarkable that happened in Bethany - an anointing in a domestic context. Before we do so, we need to point out that there are two similar stories in the Gospels, one in Luke 7, which we saw in Series 5, Episode 5, where Jesus was anointed by a sinful woman in the home of a Pharisee called Simon, in Galilee. This is a separate occasion to the anointing of Jesus by Mary that took place in Bethany, near Jerusalem, on this particular occasion. We need to distinguish the two. They are not the same incident recorded in different ways, in different contexts. They are two completely separate incidents. Let's read 3 - 11,

‘While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another “why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year's wages, and the money given to the poor,” and they rebuked her harshly. “Leave her alone” said Jesus, “why are you bothering her. She's done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with. You can help them any time you want, but you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the Chief Priest to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money, so he watched for an opportunity to hand him over’.

Mark 14:3-11, NIV

The location is Bethany. as mentioned earlier and we are in the home of Simon the Leper. We don't know who Simon the Leper is but this is intriguing in itself because lepers were not allowed to live in community in the villages and towns. They had to live outside because they had an infectious disease and were not allowed any contact with other people. Therefore, Simon the Leper must have been healed. How was he healed? Probably by Jesus. Then he was reinstated into society and had his own home. No wonder he wanted to provide hospitality for Jesus. He could not have been living in Bethany if he still had leprosy.

John tells us that Mary, Martha and Lazarus - two sisters and a brother, who are mentioned extensively by John were present. John 12: 2 - 3

‘Here a dinner was given in Jesus's honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was amongst those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus' feet, and wiped his feet with her hair, and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’.

John 12:2-3, NIV

The home is that of Simon the leper but Mary. Martha and Lazarus are all present. An intriguing thought is this - if Simon had been a leper, he is almost certainly not married and doesn't have a family and therefore he has invited other people in. He will need help with serving dinner for Jesus and his twelve disciples, and Martha offers to help. The perfume that was used was made probably from the nard plant which comes from India. It was very expensive and only used for very special occasions. It was a tradition amongst the Jews that a dead body would be anointed with oil before burial, in order to preserve the body, and as a sign of respect and devotion to the person. It is Mary who anoints Jesus. She anoints his head and his feet, as a sign of honour. She humbles herself by letting her hair down and using the hair in the anointing. It is a very moving occasion.

What is the significance of this event - something that's not within the culture of many modern people? Mary's primary intention probably was to express her devotion to Jesus - her worship and her thanksgiving to him. We have encountered Mary much earlier in the story because Mary and Martha first appear on the scene in Luke 10: 38 - 42, where Jesus visits their home in Bethany. When Jesus visits the two sisters, who are probably unmarried, because there is no reference to their husbands, children, family, parents - it is just the two of them, these two sisters are given the responsibility, quite suddenly, of preparing for the hospitality of Jesus and all his disciples in the incident in Luke 10. Two completely different responses to that - Martha is agitated, energetic, organising, planning, worrying about how she's going to manage it but Mary focuses on engaging with Jesus - sitting down at his feet and listening to his teaching. Martha then criticises Mary but Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better things. You should n ot be worried because there will be time to sort out the food and the hospitality later on. We meet Mary as someone who was devoted to Jesus, very open to his teaching, very humble, a real listener. She would have wanted to express her devotion to Jesus also, because she was so grateful for the raising from the dead of her brother Lazarus. The impact of that event is impossible for us to calculate emotionally. It only happened a short time earlier in that very same village and here was Lazarus reclining at the table with Jesus and the other guests.

Jesus sees another application of this. Not only is it her devotion but Jesus said, ‘she poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial’. This was a prophetic action, anticipating the death of Jesus and maybe intuitively Mary understood that Jesus' death was imminent and she was anticipating it and giving honour to him and acknowledging that this event was going to happen soon, which Jesus had predicted on many occasions.

Judas' Reaction

Some people were critical of Mary because such a lot of money was consumed in using the alabaster jar of perfume. John's account identifies Judas Iscariot as the chief critic. John 12: 4.

‘But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected,’

John 12:4, NIV

He wanted the money to be used on giving to the poor, rather than on anointing Jesus in this expensive and extravagant gesture. However, John also notes Judas' hypocrisy - John 12: 6,

‘He did not say this because he cares about the poor but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put in it.’

John 12:6, NIV

He kept the common purse for Jesus' discipleship group. He looked after their money; he made payments for provisions they needed along the way. It turned out that he also stole money. He didn't care for the poor at all. He just took this opportunity of criticising Mary. Jesus, however, endorsed Mary's action. ‘She has done a beautiful thing for me’. He affirmed her motive of devotion and he encouraged the disciples and the guests by saying you can help the poor any time.

‘The poor, you always have with you. You can help them at any time you want, but you will not always have me with you’.

Mark 14:7, NIV

He predicted that Mary's action would become well-known; it would become a famous action of devotion and worship and loyalty and it is through the recording of her action in the Gospels that that has taken place. Here we are, 2000 years later, discussing an act of devotion and kindness, by an unknown woman to Jesus during the last few days of his life. It is a wonderful story.

Luke 22: 3 - 6, tells us more about Judas. Judas quickly slips out from this occasion. This is the moment that he chose to betray Jesus. Luke 22: 3 - 6,

‘Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve, and Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard discussed with them how he might betray Jesus.They were delighted and agreed to give him money. He consented and watched for an opportunity to hand Jesus over to them when no crowd was present’.

Luke 22:3-6, NIV

Luke tells us that Judas, who had been hard-hearted and sinful for some time, was now overwhelmed by demonic power. He was motivated by financial reward and he chose this moment to do a deal with the chief priests. They were just wondering, how are we going to arrest Jesus when he is away from the crowds? How can we find out where he is? How can we do it secretly and quietly? While they were still struggling to find an answer to this question, one of Jesus' own disciples came and gave them an answer, gave them everything they wanted. What an irony that was! This will lead to the arrest of Jesus.


Some final reflections on this moving and wonderful story. There are intense and opposite responses to Jesus, represented here by Mary and by Judas Iscariot: Mary, the truly devoted disciple, humble, loyal and gracious; Judas Iscariot the hypocrite who was two-faced, and slipped out of a wonderful moment of devotion and went to the Chief Priest to betray Jesus. The betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot has caused many people to think, how does this all fit in with God's sovereign plan? We have an answer to that question in Acts 2: 23. When Peter is preaching on the day of Pentecost, speaking of Jesus, he said,

‘This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge, and you with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.’

Acts 2:23, NIV

God, in his sovereignty, allowed Judas Iscariot to do his dirty work because it was already in God's plan that Jesus would have to die to make the ultimate sacrifice, to make atonement for sin in a way that we'll describe and discuss in detail in subsequent episodes. Even Judas' sinful and demonically inspired action was under the sovereign control of God. God was going to turn it to good. The scene is set for some dramatic events. The Sanhedrin and the chief priests are about to make their move, and Jesus himself is going back into the city shortly, where he will prepare what is known as the Last Supper. Thank you for joining us for this episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Why does Jesus say "you will always have the poor" and agree with Mary?
  • Discipleship
    1. In what way may God use evil plans for his good?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Research Bethany and all that had happened there before this occasion.
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