"The Woman Who Was Forgiven Much"
(Delivered Sunday, October 8, 2006 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Jesus once had a very strong word of rebuke for an otherwise great church.
It was a church that was, in every other way, a church you and I would be very proud and excited to be a part of. It was a church that Jesus Himself had commended as hard-working and faithful. It was patent in enduring persecution; but was also relentless in dealing with sin in its midst. It was doctrinally sound; and was careful to examine its teachers and preachers with respect to biblical truth of the gospel. Whenever false doctrine made an appearance, this church was able to recognize it and was faithful to deal with it. It had a reputation for persevering in times of trial; and did not become weary in the service of the Lord. Any one of us would feel honored to be a part of any church that the Lord Jesus would describe in such terms.
But He had one very serious problem with this otherwise great church. There was one thing that was so wrong—so displeasing to the Lord—that He even warned that He was about to take this church's opportunity for ministry away and set it off to the sidelines.
In spite of all the other things it had going for it, the Lord Jesus told this church, “Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Revelation 2:4).
This once-great church had allowed its love and affection for the Lord Jesus Himself to cool. They had allowed it to decline to the point that they had left it; and were simply doing all of the great things they were doing out of habit, and not out of a passionate love for Jesus. All of those other things great things about this church didn't matter to Him; because He didn't have the love of its people. He didn't want to have their doctrinal accuracy, or their great works and labors, if He couldn't—above all else—have Himself as their heart's great love.
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I wonder this morning how you feel about the Lord Jesus. Do you love Him? I don't mean, of course, to ask if you serve Him. Rather, I mean to ask if you love Him. I believe that, if you love Him as you should, you will never have to be persuaded to serve Him; but I also believe that it doesn't matter one bit how much you may try to serve Him, if you don't love Him.
It's my great longing as a Christian to grow to love Jesus more than I do. And it's my great longing as a pastor that we be a church of people who are characterized by a great love for Jesus. And to that end, I ask that you turn with me to the seventh chapter of Luke's Gospel.
Here, we find the story of a woman who had been a very notorious sinner. But she was transformed; and is now presented to us in the Bible as a great example of someone who loved Jesus. She has much to teach us about what needs to happen in us, so that we too will love Jesus as we should.
The story begins with a dinner invitation that Jesus received from a Pharisee. And so, let's first notice . . .
1. THE PHARISEE’S INVITATION (v. 36).
A Pharisee was someone, in the Jewish culture of Jesus' day, who was considered an expert in following the law of Moses. A Pharisee would be viewed as an example of great righteousness and conformity to the law. Luke tells us,
It's important to know that, in at the time of this dinner invitation, the Pharisees were opposing Jesus and His ministry. They did not accept the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus. Nor did they consider Him to be a prophet from God. Among other things, they accused Him of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (v. 34). They thought, “Surely this man Jesus could not be from God. Look at the kind of riff-raff that He allows to hang around Him! No true prophet of God would be such a friend of such great sinners! Why, if He were truly a prophet of God, He would be friends with righteous people . . . like us!"
Now, it's very possible that this Pharisee invited Jesus over for dinner to find out more about Him. It may be that the Pharisee was curious about the miracles He performed, and the things that He taught about the kingdom of God. It may be that the Pharisee wanted to see for himself if the things that were being said about Jesus were true.
But it may also be true that the Pharisee was doing nothing more than testing Jesus. It may be that he was wanting to find material on which to make further accusations against Him. It may be that he was seeking evidence that would satisfy his belief that Jesus was not a prophet from God at all.
Whatever the Pharisee's motive was, he issued the invitation; and Jesus accepted. And if I may, we learn something wonderful about our Lord Jesus in this. He is willing to show kindness and courtesy even to those who were His enemies. How glad we should be that He is; because, as the Bible says, God reconciled us to Himself through Christ “when we were enemies” (Romans 5:10).
Think of the privilege this Pharisee had—a tremendous privilege in that it was granted to him to have the Son of God in human flesh sit at his table and eat with him. And yet, he was among those who opposed Him. How gracious Jesus is even to those who do not believe Him!
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Now, fancy dinner settings in those days were not like the ones you and I may attend. Rather than sitting at the table on chairs as we do, people in those days sometimes sat around the food in “Roman” style—reclining on couches on their sides, with their feet behind them; resting on their left elbow and eating with their free right hand.
And the homes in those days were not like ours either. Often, there were not doors or walls that blocked the dining room from the outside world. Sometimes—at great and important feasts—people from the general public would simply come in and watch! It would not have been considered a particularly unusual thing, during a feast or banquet, to turn around and find a stranger sitting nearby—listening to the dinner-time conversation, and even throwing in a comment or two.
But on this particular occasion, a particular stranger—a woman—determined to come into the house where Jesus was, and do something quite remarkable. And so, let's now consider what Luke tells us about . . .
2. THE WOMAN’S ACTION (vv. 37-38).
What were the sins that this woman was guilty of? We're not told. What we know for sure is that she was truly a sinner, because Jesus states later in this passage that she was one. And we know that her sins were quite public, and were associated with life in the city. And we know that she had a bad reputation, and was recognized as a notorious woman. And we know that her sins were so bad, and were so many, that she was considered a moral “untouchable” by respectable, righteous, religious folks. I'm sure that, from a Pharisee's point of view, she had a great deal of nerve walking in on this particular dinner.
But it's also clear that she knew who Jesus was. And it's clear that she was obviously among the friends of Him who was called “the Friend of sinners”. And it is very apparent that this sinful woman had already met Jesus . . . and that He had already graciously changed her life.
So, hearing that He was in the house of this Pharisee, this woman made her way to Him; and she brought with her an alabaster flask of spikenard—a very expensive and fragrant oil. The Bible tells us of a time when another woman—Jesus' dear friend Mary—came and poured a whole pound of this costly perfume upon our Savior in preparation for His burial. Those who saw her do it were shocked; because such a flask of perfume was valued at “three-hundred denarii” (John 12:3-5)—which would be the rough equivalent to three-hundred days worth of wages for the typical working man. So, the flask of oil that this woman brought into the Pharisee's house with her was extremely costly.
Luke tells us that she came to where Jesus was reclining, and stood by His feet. She must have been in an emotionally tender state, because she broke down and wept. And in weeping, her tears fell upon the feet of the Savior. (I like what Martin Luther wrote—that she was wetting Jesus' feet with “heart-water”.) Then, she did something that it would have been considered scandalous for a woman to do in public in that culture; she undid her hair and allowed it to hang from her head freely. And she then began to use her hair—a very personal symbol of her beauty—to wipe the dirty tear-water from Jesus' feet. And then, even more shocking, she began to kiss His feet! And then, as an even more shocking act, she opened up this very expensive alabaster flask of fragrant oil (a bottle that must be opened by snapping the neck and breaking it; and that, once opened, must be entirely emptied of its contents), and poured the entire flask of spikenard out upon Jesus' feet!
I'm sure the whole room was filled with the fragrance of spikenard. And I'm also sure that the whole room was filled with a sense of shock.
But please notice that there were several things this sinful woman was expressing in this set of actions—things that communicated the remarkable depth of love she felt for Jesus. First, we're told that she wept, and covered His feet with her tears; and this communicated the depths of sorrow she had felt over her own sins. Then, she undid her hair—the symbol of her pride and beauty—and wiped His feet with her tresses; and this communicated her great humility of service toward Him. She then began to kiss His feet repeatedly; and you don't have to be an expert in ancient culture to know that this communicated her deep gratitude to Him for His forgiveness. And finally, she emptied an entire flask of fragrant spikenard—very probably the most expensive thing she owned—and this communicated her sacrifice of herself to Him.
Putting this all together, you certainly wouldn't have had to ask her if she loved Jesus. You would have been able to see her love for Him very plainly—in her actions toward Him.
By the way; do you love Jesus? Do they only know this because you tell them? Or can people very plainly see your love for Jesus in your actions toward Him?
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This was a great demonstration of love on the part of this poor, sinful woman toward the Savior who had first loved her and had forgiven her. But the Pharisee, in whose house all this was occurring, didn't see things this way. And this leads us, next, to consider . . .
3. THE PHARISEE’S CONDEMNATION (v. 39).
Luke tells us,
Now, the Pharisee was right about one thing. The woman was a sinner. But he was wrong about everything else. He assumed that Jesus had no idea what kind of woman this was who was touching Him; but clearly Jesus did. He knew all about her sins. He knows the sins of those He calls “friends”. It might have shocked the Pharisee to know this, but He even knew the Pharisee's sins too. And by the way; He knows your sins and mine as well.
The Pharisee thought that a righteous man would never let such a sinner touch him. And He was wrong in this too. Jesus is not afraid to be in contact with sinners. Jesus is not even afraid to reach out and touch them first. Even a poor, miserable leper was able to come to Jesus—only to have Jesus reach out His hand and touch him and heal Him (Matthew 8:1-4). Jesus is willing to reach out in love and touch the 'untouchable' sinners who seek Him and come to Him for forgiveness.
And what's more, the Pharisee thought that all of this meant that Jesus was clearly NOT a prophet from God—because if He were a prophet from God, He would know what a sinner this woman was and would never allow her to touch Him in this way. But the Lord Jesus was about to prove the Pharisee to be wrong on that point as well.
Now, before we go on to consider Jesus' response to this Pharisee, I ask that we pause to consider what all of this says about the Pharisee himself. In his own mind, he was certainly a righteous man. He thought that he was the kind of man that God would most naturally accept, because of all of his righteous acts. And when he saw some poor sinner coming to Jesus—expressing herself to Him in this way—it disgusted this self-righteous Pharisee. He didn't see the love this forgiven sinner was displaying; because he couldn't identify with her gratitude for forgiveness. This Pharisee counted on his own righteousness before God; and he couldn't relate to a sinner who was grateful to God for mercy and grace. He couldn't see the need to appreciate the Savior, because he didn't share her sense of a need to be saved.
That suggests that this Pharisee didn't have an experience of grace; or not much of one, anyway. Not having tasted of God's grace in the deeply personal way that this woman had, he had no grace in his heart for her. And this reminds me of another story Jesus told about a “tax-gatherer” (a very notorious sinner in the Jewish culture of that day), and another Pharisee. Jesus said;
What a difference between the two! The tax-collector felt so guilty that he couldn't bring himself to look up at God; while the Pharisee couldn't imagine that God would ever want to stop looking down upon him with favor! Jesus went on to explain, “I tell you, this man [that is, the tax collector—the notorious sinner who considered himself unworthy, and humbled himself before God to plead for mercy] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v. 14).
The Pharisee despised the sinful woman's behavior. He only saw her past sins; not her gratitude for Jesus' present mercy. But she was the one who was on the right track. She was the one who would go home righteous!
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The Bible tells us that the Pharisee only muttered these words to himself. He was evaluating Jesus' actions and was concluding that He couldn't possibly be a prophet.
Imagine his shock when Jesus shows that He knew the man's thoughts after all! He said,
I'd bet he wished later on that he never said that; because this leads us to . . .
4. THE LORD’S REBUKE (vv. 40-47).
Jesus told him a parable:
Now, please forgive me if I detect a little bit of an edge in the Pharisee's answer. I think that the answer to Jesus' question was obvious; and the Pharisee was just a little bit irritated by being asked such a dumb question. “Simon answered and said, 'I suppose the one whom he forgave more'” (v. 43). And I think Jesus' answer back to Him might also have had a bit of an edge to it. “And He said to him, 'You have rightly judged'”—almost as if He were saying, “That's right, Simon. Good boy!”
But the niceties were definitely over:
The Pharisee didn't even show the ordinary common courtesies to Jesus that any host would show to any guest. He didn't wash the dust off of Jesus' feet after the long travel by foot. He didn't give Jesus the customary greeting of a kiss. He didn't anoint Jesus' head with ordinary oil as a way of making Him welcome. And I'd just like to point out that it was the Pharisee who had invited Him! Clearly, he didn't love Jesus very much. And Jesus implies that the Pharisee didn't love Jesus very much because he had not been forgiven very much.
But the woman, on the other hand, washed Jesus' feet—not with mere water, but with her own tears and wiped them with her own hair! She did not cease to kiss Jesus—not merely on the cheek, but on His feet! And she anointed Jesus—not merely on the head, but on the feet; and not merely with ordinary olive oil, but with expensive spikenard! Jesus said that this proves something about her—that “her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for [or perhaps better translated, “therefore”] she loved much . . .”
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The principle involved is that we love Jesus to the degree that we have a sense of our own sinfulness—and of the greatness of His forgiveness for those sins! This leads us, finally, to consider . . .
5. THE WOMAN’S JUSTIFICATION (vv. 48-50).
To make it abundantly clear to the Pharisee—and to everyone else who heard this conversation—we're told, “Then He said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven'” (v. 48). That is authoritative. That is final.
And that also upset the dinner guests—all probably of the same mindset as the Pharisee! “And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, 'Who is this who even forgives sins?'” (v. 49). (By the way; people were certainly talking to themselves a lot at this dinner, weren't' they?) They thought, “Who does this Man think He is? Does He think that He has the authority to forgive sins?” And, of course, He did. He was going to go to the cross to pay for those sins Himself.
And just to drive the point home even further—even in the hearing of those who where thinking these things to themselves—we're told, “Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (v. 50). When He sought to declare her justification before the Pharisee, Jesus pointed to her works—because that was the only thing that others could see. But when He declared her justification to the woman herself, He pointed to her faith—because that was what only He could see.
The woman declared her great love for Jesus by action. She actively declared her personal sorrow over her sin, her humility, her deep gratitude, and her surrender of all that she was and had to Him. There could have been no question of her love for Him.
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Now; I ask you again: Do you love Jesus? Do you love Him enough? Can people see this love in your life? I believe this passage illustrates to us that, if we would grow in our love for Jesus, we must do certain things that will cultivate the depth of that love.
First, we need to come to terms with the dreadful sinfulness of our sins. We need to see just how deeply our sin condemns us and makes us guilty and defiled before a holy God. We need to see that our sins are violations of His holy law, and place us in a condition of deep debt before Him. The Bible teaches us,
You can't love the Savior if you don't realize how much you need to be saved. And so, if you would grow in your love for Jesus, you must come to terms with how deeply your sins separated you from God.
Second, we need to understand that those sins incurred a great cost. We could not have saved ourselves from them, because the penalty for our sins is death. Our only hope was that someone else pay the penalty for our sins and die in our place. And that's what Jesus did for us. Again, the Bible tells us,
If we would love Jesus as we should, we need to recognize not only the depths of our sin, but that those sins were what made it necessary for Jesus to take the nails of the cross in to His hands and feet and die in our place.
Third, after realizing the horrible cost of our sins, we need to realize the willingness of our blessed Savior to pay that cost. We need to know that He willingly left the glory of heaven to come down to us in our hopeless condition, and willingly humble Himself to the death of the cross in our place. The apostle Paul wrote of Jesus, that He
Paul tells us, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And this reminds us of one more thing we must know, if we would love Jesus as we should. After knowing the depths of our sin He saved us from; and the high cost of that payment in His own person; and the willingness with which He paid it for us; we need to know what great glory it is that He has now raised us up to in Himself. Paul again writes,
If you and I will allow the Holy Spirit to teach us (1) the depth of our sin, (2) the price that those sins required, (3) the willingness of Jesus to pay that price, and (4) the height to which He has raised us after having paid it, we will not be able to help but love Him with all our being.
May God help us to love Jesus as we truly should.
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