When we open up the text of John 12, we find ourselves at the beginning of the most important week in human history. After the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and Pharisees decided that Jesus needed to die in order to quench the messianic fever that was gripping the nation. But Jesus Christ is our Passover Lamb, and Passover lambs were not slaughtered until the eve of Passover (the Day of Preparation), and so Jesus temporarily escaped the fires of their murderous hatred and camped in the region of Ephraim near the wilderness, until the appointed time of His sacrifice. But when the time of the Passover neared, Jesus arose and began the march to Jerusalem.
Before Jesus entered Jerusalem, however, He stopped for the night in Bethany, where He shared a meal with His disciples and His friends. The events of this meal are recorded for us elsewhere in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, and from those accounts we learn that the meal was held in the home of Simon the leper, whom Jesus had evidently healed of His leprosy. Also present were Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead just a few months prior, and Martha and Mary. John tells us in verse one that it was six days before the Passover, which means (if I’m counting correctly according to the way the Jews marked days as beginning at sunset) that it is Saturday evening. The next day is Palm Sunday, when Jesus will make His triumphal entry into Jerusalem amidst shouts of praise.
A Picture of Love
But it is what transpired that night in the house of Simon of Bethany that draws our attention. For in the middle of dinner, or perhaps immediately following, Mary “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” (12:3). Although John does not record these words, Matthew and Mark write that Jesus responded to this astonishing act of devotion by saying, “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be spoken of in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9). What a commendation, what an honor… And those words proved true, for Matthew, Mark, and John recorded this event in their Gospels, and here we are, 2,000 years later and on the other side of the globe, hearing of it as well. Why? What was it about this act that so impressed Jesus that He would memorialize it forever in His Scripture, even connecting it to the very proclamation of the gospel itself?
I think the answer is that it displays what genuine love for Christ looks like. It provides us with a picture of real, heartfelt affection for the Lord Jesus. It shows us how a person relates to Jesus once he or she has been awakened by grace to behold the supreme glory and value of Christ. I think this is an extremely important point, especially in today’s church, because I am convinced that many people who call themselves Christians are not actually Christians at all because they do not actually love Christ. They have their name on a church membership roll; they have their name on a baptism certificate; they may have “walked the aisle” or “asked Jesus into their hearts,” but their hearts remain cold and dead.
The apostle Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 16:22, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed.” Whoever does not love the Lord Jesus is to be accursed, which means eternally damned. So this is not an irrelevant question for anybody. On the contrary, this is a topic of eternal relevance. Those who love Jesus will spend eternity enjoying the blessings of God’s grace, and those who do not love Jesus will spend eternity enduring the curse of God’s wrath. So, do you love Jesus? How do you know? Let’s look at six characteristics of Mary’s love.
It Is a Gospel Love
I want you first to notice that genuine love for Jesus is first and foremost a gospel love. That is, genuine love for Jesus Christ is born of the gospel, is anchored in the gospel, and is continually fueled by the gospel. I love Jesus because of the cross. The death of Christ on my behalf is the supreme demonstration of God’s love for me (Rom. 5:8). And my love for Christ is caused by His love for me. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). How did God love me? By sending His Son to die as the propitiation (sacrifice of atonement) for my sins. “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Had God not loved me by providing atonement for my sins, I would never have loved Him. I would never have known Him as Savior and Redeemer, but only as Judge and Executioner. Genuine love for Jesus is first and foremost a gospel love, a cross-centered love. I love Jesus because He suffered, bled, and died in my place. I love Jesus because He is my sin-atoning, justice-satisfying, curse-bearing, wrath-absorbing Savior.
Mary’s love for Jesus was a gospel love. That is, it was a love vitally connected to the atoning death of Christ. Look down at verse 7 – “Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial.” Jesus connected Mary’s act of lavish devotion to His own death and burial. Jesus tells Judas to leave Mary alone, because she is anointing Him in preparation for His burial. Does this mean that Mary knew Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the purpose of dying? Does this mean that Mary knew the significance of Christ’s death as the Passover Lamb who would take away her sins? Did Mary know she was anointing Jesus for His burial? Perhaps. Jesus had not kept secret what lay in store for Him when He arrived in Jerusalem. Just a few days prior, maybe even earlier that same day, Jesus had told His disciples as they walked on the road going up to Jerusalem, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34). Anyone with ears to hear would have known exactly what was going to happen once they arrived in Jerusalem.
But did Mary understand the significance of His death? Once again, Jesus did not keep this a secret. A little further along the road, Jesus had told His disciples, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus told them, “I am going to give My life in order to redeem yours.” But the disciples did not seem to grasp this, or else I would think their discussions with Jesus would have taken on a different form in the Upper Room (John 13-14). They certainly did not understand His promise of resurrection, or else they would not have been so despondent when Jesus died, nor so surprised when He was raised. But perhaps Mary, the one who loved Jesus and sat at His feet, basking in His words of life… perhaps she understood, and decided to prepare Jesus for the week ahead by preemptively anointing Him for His burial.
But on the other hand, perhaps Mary did not know, and was simply displaying her love and affection for Jesus by lavishing upon Him a costly gift. Perhaps she was like Caiaphas, doing and saying more than she knew. I like to think she knew what she was doing, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Because by week’s end, she knew exactly what Jesus had meant; and from that day forward, she and everyone else to whom the gospel has been preached know that she was anointing Jesus for the day of His burial.
Is your love for Jesus a gospel love? If your love for Christ does not flow out from the gospel and is not fueled by the gospel, then it cannot be genuine love. Martin Luther knew this. He knew that the Bible commanded him to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). But as he searched his heart, he found that He could not love God. “Love God? Sometimes I hate Him!” And why did Luther hate God? Why could he not love Him? “Sometimes Christ seems to me nothing more than an angry judge who comes to me with a sword in His hand.” He hated God because God commanded Him to do what he knew was impossible for him to do – namely, to keep God’s law in perfect righteousness. And then, Christ would judge him on the last day and sentence him to hell for not keeping the law. Martin Luther was not like so many people today who do not believe God when He declares that He requires perfect obedience and promises judgment and death for all disobedience. They think that God will grade us on a curve. Luther was far too smart for that. He knew that God is supremely holy and would never compromise His justice at the expense of His mercy.
It was not until God awakened Luther and opened his eyes to the glory of the gospel that he understood how a holy God expresses holy love. Let me read you what Luther later wrote:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Therefore I did not love a just and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him. Yet I clung to the dear Paul and had a great yearning to know what he meant.
Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate of heaven. . . .”
There can be no genuine love apart from the cross, for it was at the cross that the curse of the law was removed and God’s fierce and righteous wrath was absorbed. And it is only when I know myself to be free from the curse and wrath of God that I am free to love Him as a Father rather than fear Him as a Judge. Genuine love is first and foremost a gospel love.
 James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 917.
 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1991), 430.
 Quoted in R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1998), 91.
 Quoted in Sproul, 114-115.