Jesus brings division. He understood that this would be the case. He did not want his disciples to misconstrue the impact of his coming into the world: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matt. 10:34).1 He knew that people would either love him or hate him, and this would affect even the closest of relationships within the family: “For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household’” (Matt. 10:35–36). We have to be prepared for the fact our commitment to Christ may rupture the closest of relationships.
For Him or Against Him
Jesus has always brought separation. We see this everywhere in the Gospels, and we see it today. People either cherish him or loathe him. The English Reformed theologian John Owen made the same observation in the seventeenth century. Writing about Christ, Owen affirmed, “It is he whom the souls of his saints do love for himself, for his own sake, and all other things of religion in and for him.” Things are much different though for them who “are not renewed.” “The truth is . . . that Christ, in the mystery of his person and in the glory of his mediation, is the only thing that they dislike in religion.”2
Owen reflected upon the real state of the unregenerate: “Those who are not spiritually renewed cannot love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, yea, they have an inward, secret aversion from the mystery of his person and his grace.” Where then do such people place their love, since it is not focused upon Christ? Owen went to the heart of the problem by directing attention upon the disordered love of fallen man: “It is self which all their affections center in, the ways whereof are too long here to be declared.”3
Christ’s birth brought division. The magi from the East came to Jerusalem looking for him who had been born king of the Jews. When they found him in Bethlehem, they fell down and worshiped him (Matt. 2:11). Herod the Great, by contrast, sought to destroy him (Matt. 2:13). His miracles set people against one another. When he healed the paralytic, the multitudes glorified God, while the scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy (Matt. 9:1–8). His teaching tore people apart: “There was a division again among the Jews because of these sayings” (John 10:19). “Many of them said, ‘He has a demon and is mad.’” “Others said, ‘These are not the words of one who has a demon’” (John 10:20–21).
A Position with Consequences
It is not possible to be neutral about Christ. Jesus made it quite clear: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matt. 12:30). He who does not love him stands in opposition to him.
This is an issue of fundamental importance. On what side of the aisle do I find myself? Do I cherish him, or do I have a secret aversion to him? The presence of love for Christ or a lack thereof anticipates what is coming in the future. Paul concludes his first letter to the Corinthians with a solemn declaration: “If anyone does not love the Lord, a curse be on him” (1 Cor. 16:22, Harper Collins Study Bible). At the same time, he affirms in his final letter as he anticipated martyrdom: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).
Jesus was either treasured or abhorred down to the final days of his earthly ministry. We see this in the last week of his life preceding the crucifixion. There is both devotion and animosity, allegiance and opposition. It is all there—in the anointing of Jesus in a private residence on Saturday and in the public miracles in the temple on Monday. The adoration for him and the malice directed at him as an infant continued down to the end.
Let us then consider in greater depth the events of two important days in the life of Jesus as his earthly ministry drew to a close.
The Anointing of Jesus on Saturday
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was who had been dead, whom he had raised from the dead. There they made him a supper” (John 12:1–2a). The parallel passage in Mark 14:3 tells us that “he was in the home of Simon the leper.” It seems apparent that Jesus had healed Simon from a disease that humanly speaking is incurable. Simon then invited Jesus to supper to give him honor, an opportunity to express thanksgiving for all that Jesus had done for him. He held Jesus to be precious and dear.
Something remarkable then happened. There was an unimaginable expression of care and devotion on the part of Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha, something that Jesus said would never be forgotten. It would be “spoken of in memory of her” throughout the world wherever the gospel would be preached (Mark 14:9). “There came a woman with an alabaster vial of very costly perfume of pure nard; and she broke the vial and poured it over his head” (Mark 14:3). The apostle John, an eyewitness, adds this statement: “Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3).
The oil had come from the Himalayas near modern India and Nepal. The expenditure was significant. She had just spent in a matter of minutes what would amount to an annual wage for the average working man.
Her affection and allegiance to the Savior ran deep, and her actions reflected the kind of spiritual perception that few people had. She knew that Jesus, perhaps sooner than most people realized, was going to be buried. The Messiah was going to die.
In the same house at the same event, we find Judas, a man without love. He did not care for Jesus, and he most certainly had no concern for the poor, although he pretended to be a man of charity and compassion for those in need. He objected to what Mary had done, even though it was none of his business as to what Mary decided to do with her own resources. “But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray him, said, ‘Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’” (John 12:5). The reality is that Judas only cared about Judas. His affections centered in himself. The apostle penetrates to his core motivation directing his readers to what was really going on: “This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it” (John 12:6).
It is interesting that Judas and his warped perspective caught on, at least for the moment. “But some were indignantly remarking to one another, ‘Why has this perfume been wasted? For this perfume might have been sold for over three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they were scolding her” (Mark 14:4–5).
Jesus rushed to her defense and provided the true perspective of what she had done: “Let her alone; why do you bother her? She has done a good deed to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have me” (Mark 14:6–7). He then added, “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for the burial” (Mark 14:8).
Jesus needed this expression of love and encouragement in the private confines of the home of Simon the leper. When Mary wiped his feet with her hair, he found strength in her love for the coming ordeal. There would be a renewal of his fortitude as he remembered that there were disciples who truly cherished him.
People would be for him, and people would be against him in the coming week. Even the thieves who were crucified with him would take opposite sides. One of them would revile him (Luke 23:39), while the other would realize that he is the Savior and would bring the fateful petition: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Let us though restrict ourselves to what happened on Monday in a public event in the temple.
The Miracles in the Temple on Monday
Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Sunday in a remarkable public manifestation of himself as the Messiah (Matt. 21:10). Riding upon a donkey in joyful celebration, he fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah: “Behold, your King is coming to you; he is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). A vast crowd went before him and followed from behind him (Matt. 21:9). “As he went, many spread their clothes on the road” (Luke 19:36). All of this reflected ancient traditions associated with kingship in the Old Testament. David and Solomon rode a mule, the offspring of a male donkey (1 Kings 1:33–35); and the soldiers placed their clothes on the ground under the feet of Jehu and blew their trumpets declaring him to be king (2 Kings 9:13). There was the explicit declaration of the part of the multitude of the disciples that Jesus indeed is the Messiah: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38).
What a day it had been! It had been filled with jubilation, and his disciples had been determined to give to the Lord the honor that was his due. Now it was Monday, and Jesus had entered the temple. “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matt. 21:14). Surely his miracles would prove the case: this has to be the Messiah! Certainly they would see that this was the very thing that Isaiah had foretold, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the dumb sing” (Isa. 35:5–6a).
Once again, as it had always been the case, the people were divided about him. The children understood what all of this had to mean. They were “crying out in the temple and saying, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’” (Matt. 21:15). They knew enough to begin to praise God for the Son of David who was standing before them. The Sadducees and the Old Testament scholars had no worship to offer. “When the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out . . . they were indignant and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’” (Matt. 21:15–16a). Just as he had defended the devotion of Mary, Jesus came to the defense of the children by quoting from the psalmist: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise?’” (Matt. 21:16b).
How are we to understand this? Mighty works were done in public view. The blind could now see, and the lame could now leap for joy. The children rejoiced, and the elites grumbled. The children loved him, and the Sadducees hated him and within days would hand him over to the Romans to be put to death.
The Explanation for This
Jesus explained how the babes could have understanding, while the wise were blinded. Early in his ministry, Jesus “began to rebuke the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Matt. 11:20). He pronounced woes upon Chorazin and Bethsaida, and he declared that Capernaum would “be brought down to Hades” (Matt. 11:21, 23). Astounding miracles had been performed in all three cities along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, but there had been no response to speak of—no change in their thinking and no correction in their conduct. It was as if Jesus had never even been there. The people continued in their unbelief, indifferent to his message of repentance. Their minds were left without understanding, and their hearts were cold and unfeeling.
They were hearing but not understanding; they were seeing but not perceiving (Matt. 13:14). How can we even begin to have some understanding regarding such blindness in the presence of such light?
Jesus reflected upon the root cause of such incredible unbelief in his prayer that immediately follows his rebuke. “At that time Jesus answered and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes’” (Matt. 11:28). Jesus uncovers the deepest recesses of the heart. There are people who are wise in their own eyes. They, or so they think, are the wise and prudent ones of this world. Pride fills the inner man and is reflected in the haughty look. God is revolted by what he sees and brings judgment upon it hiding truth from their understanding: “You have hidden these things from the wise and learned” (Matt. 11:28, Harper Collins Study Bible).
Blessing comes to the babes, the humble in heart, people who know that they are spiritually bankrupt and have nothing with which to commend themselves to God. Jesus had made this point in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). Now on this occasion, he thanks the Father that he is pleased to reveal truth to those who walk in lowliness before God: “You have revealed them to little children” (Matt. 11:26, New International Version).
The Instruction That We Need
The lesson is clear. We must not be wise and prudent in our own estimation lest justice be our portion. There remains an enduring moral principle that comes to us in the Word of God: “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). This is not only a warning but also a word of encouragement. If we take the posture of a child and humble ourselves and sit at the feet of Jesus as his disciples, God will be pleased to pour grace into our lives and to reveal truth to us.
How can you and I become more like Mary, who had deep spiritual insight and a heart that cherished her Savior? We need to emulate her conduct. We all remember the occasion when Martha welcomed the Lord into her house (Luke 10:38). While Martha became “worried and troubled about many things” and the serving of her guests (Luke 10:41), Mary decided to prioritize. She chose to do the most important thing in the entire world. “She had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard his word” (Luke 10:39).
May we never forget what Jesus said about Mary who gave herself so completely to Jesus and his teaching: “There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42, New Living Translation). When all is said and done, Christ is the indispensable thing. Mary discovered in the Lord the real meaning of life. May we have the wisdom to know that Christ and his teaching is all that really matters about life in this world. Learning about Jesus is the foundation upon which we grow in our love for the Lord.
May we all experience the reality of the apostolic benediction in our lives: “Grace be with all who have undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 6:24, Harper Collins Study Bible).
- Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical citations are from either the New King James Version or the New American Standard Bible.
- John Owen, “The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded,” in The Works of John Owen, vol. 7 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1979), 473–74.
- Ibid., 474.
Dr. Mark J. Larson is the pastor at Peace Reformed Church in Garner, IA. as he had defended the devotion of Mary, Jesus came to the defense of the children by quoting from the psalmist: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants you have perfected praise?’” (Matt. 21:16b).