"Cherishing the Cross"
Theme: We truly cherish Jesus' sacrifice for us in a way that pleases Him by giving ourselves to Him in return.
(Delivered Sunday, February 1, 2009 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.)
This morning, we begin the final section of Matthew's Gospel. Up to this point, the focus has been on Jesus' identity, His miracles, and His teaching. But now, we begin the section that focuses on His sacrifice on the cross for us.
And I believe that this morning's passage, placed as it is at the beginning of this new section, is given to us for a very practical reason. It is meant to teach us how we are to respond to and receive His sacrifice on the cross for us.
At the beginning of the twenty-sixth chapter of his Gospel, Matthew tells us;
Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, that He said to His disciples, “You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
And when Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him having an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil, and she poured it on His head as He sat at the table. But when His disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this fragrant oil might have been sold for much and given to the poor.” But when Jesus was aware of it, He said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me. For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always. For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial. Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her.”
Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?” And they counted out to him thirty pieces of silver. So from that time he sought opportunity to betray Him (Matthew 26:1-16).
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One of the things that I enjoy doing is to hunt around for rare books. (I know that's not everyone's thing; but it is mine.) Not long ago, while looking on the Internet, I found a very rare book I had been searching for for some time—and that it was available in the 'rare book' room of a book store here in town. And so the other day, when I had a chance, I went in to see it.
It's a very rare first edition of the first book published of one of my favorite fiction writers. It was in very good condition; and—best of all—it was signed by the author himself. I told the woman who ran the rare book section that I could in no way afford it; but that I was hoping I would be permitted to at least look at it. And so, she very kindly opened the case and handed it to me.
I think you have to be a pretty obsessive book lover to understand such a thing. I already have the content of that old book in other published collections; but there's just something about an old, rare, signed, first edition like that that's exciting to handle. And even though I thought for a few seconds about what I might be able to part with in order to get it for myself, I came to my senses and carefully gave it back to the bookseller. After all, it was priced at $1,500.
I'm sure that, as I handed it back, I had a sad look on my face that she'd seen on the faces of many other browsers. But then, I saw an even rarer book in the case next to it—-a 1542, calfskin-bound first edition by the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus. I didn't dare to ask if I could look at it; because it was priced at $16,500. But for a fleeting moment, I turned back to look at that first book—rubbing my chin, and thinking that maybe $1,500 wasn't such a bad price after all!
Now, relax. I didn't do anything rash. But let's just imagine for a moment that I did. What would do you think would happen if I were to gather up everything I owned, sell it all, take the money to the bookseller, and buy that $16,500 book? Right away, you'd have some pretty serious questions about me. But let's imagine further that I brought this rare book to this morning's service, set it on a little tray in front of you all, and set fire to it—so that the smell of the smoke would fill the room as my 'book lover's' offering to the Lord? I suspect that most people would be more than outraged at me for doing such a wasteful thing! Some folks who had already suspected that I was out of my mind would now be sure of it! I imagine there would even be a few of you, who would know the value of such a book, that would run up and physically try to stop me!
But it seems to me that that's a faint illustration of what this woman did. And what's amazing is that not only did Jesus not try to stop her; and not only did He even stop others from trying to stop her; but He actually praised her for this act! In fact, I'd say she received one of the highest commendations anyone had ever received from Jesus in the Scriptures for doing what she did.
As we read of this story in John's Gospel, we discover that this woman was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. It was an act she performed out of great love for the Savior, and in gratitude for the sacrifice He was about to perform for her in dying on the cross. And I ask that this morning, as we prepare ourselves to partake of the Lord's supper together—in which we commemorate that sacrifice on the cross—we look at this passage closer and learn why her sacrifice pleased the Lord Jesus so much.
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Now; we need to begin by considering the sacrifice that the Lord makes for us. So, let's consider what Matthew tells us about . . .
I. OUR LORD'S SOVEREIGNTY OVER HIS OWN SACRIFICE ON THE CROSS (vv. 1-5).
Matthew tells us that after Jesus "had finished all these sayings"—that is, after He had completed His instruction to His disciples regarding the events that will surround His return (see chapters 24-25)—He said to them, "You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified" (vv. 1-2).
This was something that the disciples should have known. He had already told them about it several times. Back in chapter 16, He had begun to show them that "He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day" (16:21). And in chapter 20, He told them again—this time, giving a little more detail; "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again" (20:18-19).
First, He told them what would happen; and then He told them how it would happen. And now, in this morning's passage, He tells them when it would happen. It would happen on Passover, just two days from that time. In other words, He was telling them that He would be betrayed at the same time as Jewish people—all over the land—would be slaying the Passover lamb in obedience to the law of God; and that He would be crucified at the same time as they would be commemorating their deliverance from their bondage in Egypt.
And what's fascinating is that right then, the chief priests, scribes, and elders of the people were assembling to plan to do something completely different. They were saying "Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people" (v. 4, emph. added). They knew that many of the Jewish people who where beginning to believe on Jesus would be present for the Passover feast. And they didn't want to risk creating the kind of commotion that would force the Roman authorities down on them. And so, they specifically purposed not to take Jesus during the feast, but to wait until the feast was over.
And this shows us who was really in control of the proceedings! Jesus Christ is our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). He is "The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). His death is the fulfillment of the Passover observance that God gave to His people long ago, through Moses, in the book of Exodus (Exodus 12). He must and would be offered on the Passover, just as He said.
So; what happened? Along came Judas—in the evil intention of his own heart, but under the sovereign rule of the Almighty God—to make an offer to the chief priests that changed their plans (vv. 13-16). He sought an opportunity to betray the Lord (v. 16); and the sovereign Lord waited in the garden in order to give him that opportunity . . . on Passover night!
As we come to the Lord's table this morning to reflect on His sacrifice on the cross for us, I believe that He would want us to know that His betrayal and crucifixion was something that was under His complete control. It was an offering that He made for us willingly; and that was all done "so that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled" (Matthew 26:56). As the Bible tells us, He was taken by lawless hands and was crucified; but He was "delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23).
You and I could not begin to appreciate the sacrifice He has made for us—or receive it with the love and gratitude it deserves from us—until we understand that it was a sacrifice over which He exercised absolute, sovereign control; and that He made in love for you and me.
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Now; that's when Matthew tells us the story of this woman. As we discover from John's Gospel (in John 12:1), this was something that had occurred a few days prior. But the Holy Spirit led Matthew to include the story here to give us an example of how we should respond to this great sacrifice from our loving Lord.
We're told that Jesus and His disciples were in Bethany, in the home of a man named 'Simon the leper'. He may have been a leper at one time; but he clearly wasn't one any longer. It must have been that the Lord had healed him; and it was now his great honor to host the Lord in his home.
And it's then that we see . . .
II. THE WOMAN'S EXTRAVAGANCE IN CHERISHING
JESUS' SACRIFICE FOR HER (vv. 6-13).
When you compare all the passages that tell us about Mary, you get the impression that she was a shy, retiring, sensitive soul. She wasn't the outgoing, extroverted type of person that her sister Martha clearly was. I imagine her quietly inching her way to were the Lord Jesus was reclining—clutching something carefully in her arms as she drew near.
At first, folks probably couldn't see what it was that she was holding. But we can imagine their shock when they saw that it was an alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil. In those days, this was something that only the very wealthy would have been able to afford. In another Gospel, someone who saw it estimated it to be worth more than three-hundred denarii (Mark 14:5)—or roughly the average working man's wages for a full year! The bottle itself was a work of art—a flask of alabaster, made from one piece. And it contained a fragrant oil that was so costly that it was used only for the most important of occasions. The flask didn't have a lid, or a cork at the top. It could only be opened by snapping the neck of the flask; and once that occurred, all of the contents must then be used.
Now; once people saw what it was, they must have wondered what Mary was going to do with such a big-ticket item. Could it be that it was something she already possessed? If so, it would have had to be the most precious thing she owned. Or could it be that she sold all that she had to purchase it? In any case, just imagine the collective 'gasp' when she stood behind the Lord, snapped it open, and poured its contents upon Him!
The people who saw this were very angry at her. I suspect that, if they had realized what she was about to do, they would have tried to physically stop her. So much money—gone to waste! And yet, look again at what Jesus said. He said, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a good work for Me" (v. 10). What they called a waste, He commended as a good work.
You see; she was a very insightful woman. She took the opportunity to act in the most remarkable moment in history. Mary believed what Jesus said—that in just a few days time, He would serve as the Passover sacrifice. She knew that the Son of God in human flesh was about to bear her sin and die on her behalf. And she said "yes" in advance to that sacrifice by taking what was most precious to her, and anointing Him for burial with it while He was still in her presence. And Jesus graciously approved of her expression of love and faith.
Those who looked on said that it was a waste. They said they were more concerned for the poor. But He said, "For you have the poor with you always, but Me you do not have always" (v. 11). If they really wanted to help the poor, they could certainly do so later. But while she had Jesus near, she was determined to express her grateful love to Him with the whole of her being.
He made the meaning and significance of her action clear to all. He said, "For in pouring this fragrant oil on My body, she did it for My burial" (v. 12). She, in essence, said that she believed Jesus was about to die as her Passover Lamb; and that she fully accepted His death for her as her Savior. (I appreciate what one Bible teacher pointed out. The other people thought that Mary was wasting this oil. But in a few days, after He had died on the cross, some women went away to prepare spices and oils to anoint His body with the expectation that it would remain in the grave—and if anyone was wasting oil, it was them!)
And perhaps most important of all, notice the remarkable commendation Jesus gave to Mary. He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her" (v. 13). He not only promised that the Gospel concerning Him would be preached world-wide; but that the story of what she did would be a vital part of it. And isn't that the truth? Aren't we still telling of her act today?
Truly, her fragrant anointing of Jesus for burial is the perfume smelled around the world.
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I believe that the Lord Jesus was holding this woman's action up to us as an example of the sort of response to His sacrifice that truly pleases Him. She believed what Jesus said. She trusted in His promise. And she was so grateful for what He was about to do for her that she cherished Him for it. She expressed her love for Him in an extravagant and costly way. You might say that, in response for the sacrifice He was about to make for her, she poured everything of herself on to Him in thanks. And I don't believe that she was ever the same after that. I believe that she went out of that room forever changed.
By the way; how do you respond to Jesus' sacrifice on the cross for us? With what kind of intensity of thanks do you come to the Lord's Supper today. You and I cannot physically pour costly, fragrant oil on Jesus' body, as Mary did. But we can respond by giving ourselves to Him completely. As we take the Lord's supper this morning, we can take the apostle Paul's invitation. After showing us the significance of Jesus sacrifice on the cross for us in the Book of Romans, Paul concluded by saying:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1-2).
That's what it would mean for you and me to truly value Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf.
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But what a contrast we find in the last few verses. There, we see . . .
III. THE BETRAYER'S BLINDNESS IN DESPISING
THE SACRIFICE (vv. 14-16).
Perhaps it was, in part, that Judas was upset with what he considered to be the "wastefulness" of Mary. After all, it was Judas who handled the money among the disciples; and he used to dip into the funds and pocket some of the money for himself (John 12:6). Or it could be, in part, because he was growing more and more disappointed with Jesus. Judas was probably like many—expecting a mighty, conquering Messiah; but Jesus kept disappointing those expectations with all His talk about being handed over and crucified. But in the end, Luke tells us the real reason for his action when he says that "Satan entered Judas" (Luke 22:3).
Judas despised the sacrifice that Jesus was about to make—so much so, in fact, that he sought to get what he could out of it while he had the chance. He went away to the chief priests and asked, "What are you willing to give me if I deliver Him to you?" (v. 15). They weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him; and from then on, he sought an opportunity to betray the Lord.
According to the Old Testament law, thirty pieces of silver was the price of a common slave (Exodus 21:32). It was a far cry from the great extravagance Mary had just poured out upon Jesus. That's how blind Judas was to the sacrifice Jesus was about to make. That's what a low value he placed on the Savior's love.
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There are two different responses to our Lord's cross that are shown to us in this morning's passage. In one case, such a low value was placed on Jesus' sacrifice that it was dismissed and despised. Judas was only concern was for what he could get out of it. In the other case, such a high value was placed on Jesus' sacrifice that it was considered worth everything. Mary cherished Jesus' sacrifice by giving all that she was to Him in gratitude for it.
As we come to remember the Lord's sacrifice on the cross for us this morning, whose response will yours or mine be like?
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