Worship or Waste?
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, March 31, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
Is Christian worship a waste? Certainly, in the eyes of the world it is. People in the world watch true Christians worshiping and serving God, but to them it is all a waste of time, money and energy. Why do they call it a waste? It is because their eyes have not been opened to understand the gospel. Until a person understands the person and work of Jesus Christ, he or she cannot appreciate what worship or Christian service is. In this passage we see the Christian disciple Mary courageously, expensively, and thoughtfully worshiping and serving her Lord, Jesus Christ. We see her pouring out her heart to the one who would pour out his heart for her on the cross. As we study this passage, may we be challenged to emulate Mary, who showed her devotion to Christ by lavishing upon him the most expensive thing she could find.
The Fulfillment of God's Plan
We have been studying the Olivet Discourse as found in Matthew 24 and 25. In these chapters Jesus taught his disciples about eschatological matters, meaning, things relating to his second coming and the end of the age. At the end of his discourse, Jesus informed the disciples that he would be handed over to be crucified in two days during the Feast of Passover (Matt. 26:1,2). So at the beginning of chapter 26 we see Jesus Christ, the Son of God, undistracted as he focuses on the will of God for him, which was to die and give his life a ransom for many.
Now, the chief priests and elders of the Jewish people had already decided to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. They were envious of Jesus because of his popularity, his miracles, his teachings, and the large crowds who followed him. But they did not want to kill him during the Passover feast, because the people might riot.
The man charged with keeping order among the Jews was Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest and leader of the Sanhedrin at this time. Now, Caiaphas did not inherit his post; rather, he was appointed to it by the Roman overlords. Before 37 B.C., the position of high priest was inherited, and a man kept it until he died. From 37 B.C. to A.D. 67, however, the high priesthood was under the control of the Romans, who appointed whomever they wanted. The Romans hated social disorder, and they looked for men who could keep order. It was Caiaphas's duty, then, to promote peace, particularly during times like the Feast of Passover, when over two million people gathered in Jerusalem.
Joseph Caiaphas was appointed high priest by governor Valerius Gratus, who preceded Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea. Like some of our modern politicians, Caiaphas was a shrewd man. He had no moral scruples and would do anything to promote himself and keep himself in power. He was capable, even, of planning the death of Jesus, the miracle-working Son of God, who had raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:45-53). It was Caiaphas who prophesied that it would be better for the nation that one man die than for the whole nation to be destroyed by the Romans. Shrewd Caiaphas maintained his powerful position as high priest from A.D. 18 to A.D. 36. So Caiaphas met secretly with the Jewish elders, including Annas, a former high priest, and decided to kill Jesus. To avoid a riot, they planned to wait until the twenty-second of the month of Abib to carry out their plan. That was the decision of the council. It was man's decision. But God the Father had another plan. God the Father had decided that his Son be arrested, tried and crucified during the feast of Passover. Why did God plan this? Jesus Christ was God's Passover lamb.
The Feast of Passover celebrated Israel's deliverance from Egyptian bondage. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the month of Abib, every family removed leaven from their home, took a lamb to the temple in the evening, killed the lamb and threw its blood upon the altar in sacrifice. They took the carcass home to roast it, and then they ate it along with bitter herbs. The lamb is the main part of the Passover meal.
Jesus Christ was the Lamb of God who came to liberate the elect people of God from the bondage of sin, Satan, death, and hell. Every lamb killed throughout the history of Israel pointed to Jesus Christ. So although the secret council agreed to wait until after the festival, it was the Father's decree that his Son die as the true Passover Lamb during the Passover festival itself. Now, whose decree would be fulfilled, God's or the Sanhedrin's? Would Jesus be killed during Passover or after Passover? We know God's decree is irresistible. Jesus died during Passover.
So we see Jesus moving in total consciousness of the will of God for his life. He took each step to fulfill the purpose for which God the Father sent him. What was that purpose? He spoke of it in many places, but we read of it particularly in Matthew 20:28: "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Refreshment Before Suffering
Beginning in Matthew 26:6, Matthew records an event that took place a few days before the events of Matthew 26:1-5. So here Matthew is not chronological. In this passage, Matthew 26:6-16, Matthew is speaking about an oasis of experience that Jesus had in Bethany on his way to the cross. It was an elim , where Jesus was refreshed.
Jesus had friends in the town of Bethany. Here he had raised Lazarus from the dead, and it appears from the Scriptures that he had also healed a man named Simon of leprosy. On the Saturday prior to the Passover feast, Jesus and his disciples were honored at a dinner in Bethany, where Mary, Martha, Lazarus and Simon lived. There were about fifteen men at the meal--twelve disciples, plus Jesus, Simon, and Lazarus. As was the custom, no woman sat with them, but the text says elsewhere that Martha, who was also a believer, was there serving. It was during this meal that, in the providence of God, while Jesus was on the road to Calvary from Galilee, he was allowed to experience some refreshment in Bethany before his suffering and humiliation on the cross. This refreshment came through an outpouring of love and devotion from his disciple, Mary.
Mary, the True Disciple
Mary was a true disciple of Jesus Christ. Although Jesus had told his male disciples many times that he would be killed in Jerusalem by the authorities, they failed to understand what he was saying. But Mary understood the gospel. Remember how she sat at the feet of Jesus, intently listening to what Jesus Christ was teaching her? (Luke 10) She took time to hear and understand. What did Jesus say at that time? Only one thing is needed. Brothers and sisters, Jesus himself said only one thing is needed. And what is that one thing? It is to understand the mission of Jesus. Only one thing is needed in all of our life--to understand the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the good news of the gospel.
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 St. Paul tells us what the gospel is: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. . ." That is the gospel, and without this understanding no one can be saved. The one thing needful that Mary understood is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came into this world to die for our sins and to be raised for our justification.
Mary deliberately chose this gospel and loved it with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength. This gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. As a disciple, Mary came to understand that she was a wretched sinner, under the wrath of God and bound for hell. Then she met Jesus--this Jesus who is a friend of sinners, who is the Lamb of God, and who takes away the sins of Mary and all elect sinners. Mary became fascinated with the amazing fact that Christ would die for her salvation and be raised from the dead.
Now Mary was present when Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. She heard Jesus say, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die," and she came to understand the truth of Jesus' words. Mary believed this gospel and was gloriously saved. So in this account she shows her understanding by anointing Jesus with this very expensive perfume. The male disciples at this time failed to understand this gospel. When they saw what Mary was doing, "they were indignant" (Matt. 26:8). The audacity of this woman to come into the room publicly and waste expensive perfume on Jesus irritated his disciples and made them very angry.
The Disciples' Failure
All these men with their brilliant minds failed to understand what this woman, Mary, understood. Some say that women are emotional. Maybe they are, but in this passage we see a woman who was also very intelligent. When all of the men failed to understand the gospel, there was a woman who understood. So we read, "When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. 'Why this waste?' they asked" (Matt. 26:8). That type of speech cannot come from the mouth of anyone unless that person fails to understand the person and the mission of Jesus Christ. Only those who do not understand Jesus will speak such language.
That is not the only time in this chapter we see these men failing to understand the gospel. In verses 14-16 we see the disciple Judas, one who had preached the kingdom of God, going to Caiaphas, the high priest, and offering to sell Jesus. "What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?" Judas asked. His question tells us that Judas Iscariot had no understanding of who this Jesus Christ was. In verses 33-35 we read of the utter self-confidence of St. Peter. He spoke as a fool, because he did not understand what was going on. In verses 40-45 we see the failure of the disciples to watch and pray. Why couldn't they stay awake? They did not understand what was happening. In verse 56 we see the flight of the disciples away from Jesus, and in verses 69-75, the denials of Peter, who said three times, "I don't know him." Why did they do this? They did not understand the gospel. But Mary understood the death of Jesus Christ, and knew it was a death that would save her. She knew she was a sinner, and she also knew all her sins were forgiven. This gospel understanding filled her heart with such love for Jesus that she did something during the supper that was extraordinary, courageous, costly, and contemplative. Although Mary was not seated with the fifteen men, she came with great boldness and courage to worship her Savior, the Prophet, Priest and King, Jesus Christ. In Hebrews 4:16 we are told to approach the throne of grace in boldness. The world may think that we are foolish when we worship and serve Jesus Christ in this world, but the child of God is unafraid of the world and what the world would say. A true believer will pour out his or her love and devotion to Jesus Christ without fear.
Mary, the True Worshiper
No one worships God unless he or she is saved by the gospel. True worship springs from the realization of the true worth of God and the realization of one's own utter unworthiness and lostness. Mary understood that in his death Jesus would pour out his life for her, and so she poured out her heart for him. Mary knew that God the Father loved her, as it was his decree that his only Son should die for her. God the Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for Mary's salvation. She knew that God the Son loved her. She knew that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. Jesus said, "I am the good shepherd . . . and I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14-15). As Mary meditated on God's love and Christ's impending death, I am sure she wondered how she could express the utmost love for this Jesus who loved her and would soon die for her salvation. As she pondered that question, she came to this resolution: she would give him the best and most valuable thing she had. So probably she gathered up all her savings, and bought, not one ounce but one pound--one pound of the most expensive perfume available. She bought authentic nard, which was imported from India. This costly perfume was produced from an aromatic perennial herb, Nardostachys jatamansi , grown chiefly in the Himalayan pasturelands. It came in hermetically sealed, marble bottles with long necks. It cost about 300 denarii, we are told by the conservative Judas. A denarii was the wage for one day's labor in those days. This perfume was used on special festive occasions. The neck of the flask would be broken and all the perfume would be poured out upon the honored guest. King Cambyses (d. 522 B.C.) sent this authentic nard perfume as a gift to the king of Ethiopia. It was considered to be a gift fit for a king--certainly fit for Jesus, the supreme Prophet, Priest and King.
Love's Response to Christ
Love shows extravagance and lavishness. Love does not look for cheap bargains. Love gives the best. Mary loved this Savior who would pour out his life for her, and so she poured out on him that which cost her most. The Bible speaks of other believers doing the same thing. In the Old Testament we read of King David, who committed the horrible sin of taking a census of people when God did not command him to do so. God was angry and many people died, although David was spared. But David was told to offer a burnt offering on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When Araunah saw King David coming, he told him he could have whatever he needed for worship--the threshing floor, the oxen, even the wood--for free. What did David do? The king would not accept this. It would be an insult to Jehovah who spared his life to offer a sacrifice that did not cost him. He said, "No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God that which cost me nothing."
The vast majority of Christians worship in a way that costs them nothing. Why? Their evaluation of their salvation is cheap. Their knowledge of their sin is not true. True worship is the worship of all our heart, all our mind, all our soul, and all our strength, which includes money. Do you remember the widow that we read about in Luke 21? She came to worship God in the temple. When the time came to put in an offering, being a poor widow, she put in two copper coins. These coins represented all that she possessed, yet she put both into the temple treasury, and Jesus commended her, saying she gave more than all those who had given much richer gifts. Why did he say that? Out of her poverty she had given all that she had. Why would a poor widow do such a thing? She appreciated God and her salvation.
Love lavishes freely. Love is self-sacrifice. Paul says, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us. . ." (Eph. 1:7-8). No man or woman will love God sacrificially except in response to the love of God he or she has experienced.
In response the love of Christ for her, and knowing of his forthcoming death, Mary boldly came into the presence of the fifteen men, broke the neck of the perfume bottle, and poured the entire contents upon the head and upon the feet of Jesus. Then, in great humility, she unbound her hair, which was a terrible thing to do in the Jewish culture. Only women of ill-repute loosed their hair in public, but Mary did not care what people thought of her at that moment. Instead of using a towel, she used her own hair, which Paul says is her glory, to wipe the feet of her Savior. This was bold worship! It was courageous, costly, humble worship! Mary wanted to serve and honor her Christ.
Forgiven Much, Loves Much
Saved people worship. Saved people serve. Saved people love. The Bible tells of another woman who came while Jesus was in Galilee in the house of a Pharisee named Simon (Luke 7:36-50). This unbelieving Pharisee invited Jesus for dinner, but he treated him with contempt. He did not give Jesus any of the commonly expected courtesies--water for washing his feet, a welcoming kiss, and oil for his head. Simon did not show any respect to Jesus Christ. However, we are told that a sinful woman entered Simon's house during the dinner and washed Jesus' feet with her tears, kissed them, poured costly perfume on them, and dried them with her hair. Why did she do this? Her actions tell us that although she was known as a sinful woman, her sins were previously forgiven by Jesus, and now, seizing the opportunity of Jesus' visit, like Mary, she came and poured out her heart in devotion to Jesus. Simon the Pharisee became extremely upset at this woman's actions. He concluded if Jesus were a prophet, he would not let such a "sinful" woman minister to him. But Jesus told Simon, ". . . her many sins have been forgiven--for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." (v. 47) Let me tell you, that is always the truth. Simon the Pharisee was not forgiven at all.
The same is true of Mary. She is not depicted here as a sinner, but we know she was, because all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. So Mary, the sister of Lazarus, also realized the amazing love of God that forgave her sins. In response, she worshiped, served, adored and spent for him. A Christian who appreciates salvation and the total forgiveness of sins will love, worship and serve God with total delight.
The Disciples' Response
What was the reaction of the disciples, these twelve mighty men? The text says they were indignant, angry, frustrated, irritated. This happens when some people worship and love God. Others become frustrated and irritated, because they cannot understand what is going on.
Judas and the disciples concluded that Mary had done a foolish and wasteful thing. They saw no merit to her actions. To them, she had acted imprudently and much too liberally. They thought she should have sold the perfume and given it to the poor, giving the money to the treasurer, Judas, of course--so he could steal it (John 12:5,6). Judas was like many preachers today, who have no interest in the gospel or in saving sinners. They cover up their greed, as Judas did when he said she should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. There are many fraudulent evangelists and preachers who are always manipulating people to get money for their own interests, but they come in the name of the poor, in the name of some mission causes, some social services.
Why did the disciples react this way? They still lacked understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ. To them Jesus was just another person, and therefore this anointing was a waste. Now Judas was an unbeliever, but the other disciples also did not understand. They were slow to grasp the significance of Christ's death. To those who have no understanding of sin, the gospel means nothing. It is a waste, they say. The Sabbath is a waste, they say--one whole day set aside for what? To worship God? One could work for eighteen hours and make a lot of money. One could go places and have a lot of fun. To them, people who go to church and worship on Sunday are foolish. It's a waste, they say. To them, the Sabbath is a waste, singing is a waste, praying is a waste, preaching is a waste, and giving to Christ is a waste. They would say, If only you put what you give to God in mutual funds, and let it work for you for thirty five years, think of all the monies you could have when you retire!
The gospel is foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews, but to Mary and to all who believe, it is the power of God unto salvation. To such people it is not a waste--it is investment, treasure in heaven. Worship is joy unspeakable and full of glory, the greatest experience in the world. Worship is our glory. It is the very evidence of our understanding of the gospel. Our worship is the very evidence that our sins, which were many, have been forgiven forever.
In 2 Corinthians 8 we see how this idea of giving, service, and worship, is based on our salvation. It is a grace. In verses 1 through 5 Paul writes, "And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will." It is a grace to give for the Lord's work and for the Lord.
Jesus Memorializes Mary
In response to the disciples' indignation, Mary was defended by the Chief Counsel of the whole world, Jesus Christ. In effect, he rebuked his disciples for their failure to understand his death and its imminence. He had just told them he would be crucified in two days. Jesus said, "Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing for me." The disciples called it a waste, but Jesus called it a beautiful thing. Mary's worship was a good work. It was acceptable to God. Why? Of all those present, she alone understood the significance of Jesus' death.
Jesus enjoyed this outpouring of love from Mary's heart. It was elim, an oasis, a time of great refreshment, for him to experience the love of the church for whose sake he would soon die. Such worship is a beautiful thing to God. Who said so? Jesus Christ himself.
In 2 Corinthians 8 we read of the generosity of the Macedonian churches, including the church at Philippi, and in Philippians 4:18, these churches are commended by Paul: "I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God." Keep that in mind when you serve in the name of Christ. Such service is a good thing, acceptable to God. God is pleased with the worship and service of his people in response to his infinite love for them. What did the twelve men do? Nothing. Mary alone expressed her love for Jesus sacrificially, and Jesus did something for her by establishing a memorial for her. Some people establish their own memorials. In the Bible we read about King Saul, who did not have time to obey God, but who did build a monument to himself. Why? He wanted to perpetuate his fame after his death. What happened to him? He killed himself. Absalom built a monument to himself. What happened to him? He was also killed. The people of this world are ever working hard to perpetuate their fame by serving themselves and build monuments for themselves, but they have no time to worship God.
Mary acted in total self-forgetfulness and total focusing on her Savior. She did everything for her Master, and Jesus said he was going to build a perpetual memorial for her. When Mary's perfume was poured out on Jesus, it filled the house with its fragrance. But Jesus said, not only the house but the whole world would be filled with the fragrance of Mary's worship, because wherever the gospel is preached, this story would also be declared throughout the world. What a memorial!
Seize the Opportunity!
Mary knew Jesus was soon going to die. This was the last time he was going to be at her house. I am sure she thought, "This is my great and only opportunity," and she seized that opportunity. She spent all she had on Jesus. Jesus greatly appreciated this outpouring of love as he looked forward to his suffering and crucifixion. His disciples asked, "Why this waste?" and in the Greek Jesus answers, "It was for me--she did it for me." What a rebuke! What appreciation! It was not a waste; it was worship. It was a good, beautiful thing. Mary performed acceptable worship in anticipation of Jesus' death. Why? She understood his death was in behalf of her.
Have you received Jesus Christ? Do you believe the gospel, that Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification? This may be your only opportunity. Do you remember blind Bartimaeus who sat by the side of the road? One day he heard a great noise and asked what it was. When he heard it was Jesus of Nazareth, he seized his opportunity and cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stopped and showed him mercy. God the Father crushed his only Son in our behalf. Isaiah says, "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (Isaiah 53:5). Mary broke the neck of the perfume bottle and poured its contents on Jesus in worship because God the Father crushed his own Son and poured his blood for our salvation on the cross of Calvary. From the cross of Christ the fragrance of life wafts around the world. In 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 Paul wrote, "But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved. . . the fragrance of life."
Oh, what is our authentic nard perfume compared to this fragrance, that God did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all? God crushed his Son. He died that we may live, that we may repent and believe in the gospel of the fragrance of life, and be saved. Then we will worship with joy. We will worship boldly. We will worship with costly worship. We will worship with contemplation, with thoughtfulness.
Is worship a waste? When I was a child in south India I was enabled to smell this fragrance that wafted from Calvary. Oh, what joy I had! The dead was raised to life, and I was taught to worship, serve, and give. I was made generous toward God, who has forgiven all my sins, and now I join with that sinful woman, whose sins were forgiven, who came from behind boldly. She was probably the town prostitute, but she came and worshiped Christ, wetting his feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and pouring out expensive perfume on them. I join with Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who sat at Jesus' feet and chose the one thing needful, coming into the realization of the gospel. She also said she was a sinner, and this Christ forgave her sins. The world may say it is waste, stupid, and foolish, but let me tell you why I am worshiping God: I am going to heaven! He took away my hell, my sin, my guilt, my death, and my condemnation. Therefore there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.
Have you been liberated from the shackles of sin? Have you been made able to smell the aroma, the fragrance, of the gospel? This fragrance does not come from the Himalayas. It comes from Palestine. Salvation is of the Jews and salvation is of Jesus who died there. But the gospel is for all nations.
I urge you to consider: This may be your last opportunity. Christ wants to save you, bless you, guide you, take away your hell, condemnation, and guilt, and usher you into the kingdom of God, which is righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
May God have mercy on you, that you may experience this fragrance that emanates from Calvary and be saved. May those who are saved appreciate this salvation that they may join with Mary and worship God courageously, in a costly way, and with thought. Amen.
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Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
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