Christ In His Suffering, Trial, and Crucified by Klaas Schilder: Schilder, Klaas - Vol 1 - Christ In His Suffering: 03. Chapter 3: The Ministering Angel Among Satanic Wolves

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Christ In His Suffering, Trial, and Crucified by Klaas Schilder: Schilder, Klaas - Vol 1 - Christ In His Suffering: 03. Chapter 3: The Ministering Angel Among Satanic Wolves

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The Ministering Angel Among Satanic Wolves

Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus. Then said Jesus, Let her alone: Against the day of my burying hath she kept this.

—Joh_12:3 a. and Joh_12:7.

THERE are those who regard the passion of Christ as a progressive series of intensely dramatic events, a series occasionally relieved, however, with God’s permission, by a lyrical interlude or two. Such an idyllic intermezzo, they suppose, introduces a pleasant pause into that epic pageantry of blood and sweat, of struggle and tears. To some the legend of Veronica’s handkerchief is just such an entr’acte; to others it is the account of the angel who ministered to the Saviour in Gethsemane; and to many it is the story of the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary at Bethany.

If such an interpretation truly represented the significance of the passion history, that history would very likely contain ample material for a sensitive novel and for a gentle lyric of love. Here is a woman who, from a heart overflowing with love, offers the Saviour a vial of costly spikenard. Here is a house permeated with incense and a priestess who anoints the clothes of the High Priest of our confession with the very aroma which has already suffused her own garments.

However, this construction of the meaning of the Scriptures does not satisfy us. Whoever chose to write a novel, based on this experience at Bethany, and employing only the meager information recorded by the Evangelists, would find, unless he gave his fancy free rein, that he had too little material. And for him to let his imagination run riot would in this case be to profane the story.

The point is that so much is uncertain. We do not know precisely how to fit the account of the anointing at Bethany into the whole structure of the story of that last passion week which Jesus spent on earth. We do not know definitely the date on which the anointing occurred. Nor are we sure of the cost of the spikenard. True, Judas names the value of the gift in round numbers, but his was a rough estimate, albeit by a qualified observer, and, besides, we cannot be sure about the value of the currency of that day or about the standard of living. Furthermore, whether Mary, who anointed Jesus, used all of the ointment in the vial or only some of it is still a matter of dispute. Commentators differ in their interpretation of Jesus’ statement, “Against the day of my burying has she kept this.” Some say the “keeping” has reference to only a part of the ointment; others suppose it refers to all of it.

You see therefore, that any novelist who might care to convert this material into fiction would get little assistance from the Gospel writers. The Gospel is neither a novel nor a sequence of the fragments of one. The Gospel is not a short story. It is the record of God’s work in Christ Jesus, given by revelation.

Others there are who cannot take up the Bible without raising psychological problems and proceeding then to solve these in their own way. The account of this anointing very likely provides these with much material for a long and fascinating study. They will have as a “given” this woman who has been bound to Christ by a very intimate relationship of spiritual love for several years, and a small company of people visiting at the home of Simon, once a leper, but later probably healed by Jesus. Whether he is dead or alive now does not affect the matter; his home, at least, remains the meeting place of this group of friends whose common attraction is Jesus. Moreover, the head and the heart of everyone in the company still ponder the—miracle, for it was at Bethany that Jesus not long before had raised Lazarus to life. Yes, there is matter enough, there are complications enough, and there is sufficient impression and expression for an involved psychological study.

Yet, even they who follow this course will find that the biblical data is unsatisfying. They can only guess at much of what happens. In fact, the very deed of sacrifice itself, significantly involved in this, leaves several questions unanswered. Most important of these is whether Mary fetched the vial, broke it, and poured the contents over Jesus in an uprush of affection or whether she had long planned to do so, and, accordingly, had bought the ointment specifically for the purpose. The King James Version, it is true, has Jesus say, “Against the day of my burying hath she kept this.” Such phrasing does indeed suggest that a deliberate plan rather than a spontaneous impulse motivated her. But in this connection it must be remembered that the rendering of the text at this point is not known to be accurate. It may be that for days and weeks Mary had felt a premonition of Christ’s suffering and death. But certainty is lacking. It may also be that the somber word “burying” was first introduced into the conversation and into the home by Jesus Himself.

In short, the person who is given to making psychological analyses will find the Bible very intractable material. And again, it is no wonder. The Gospel is not a compilation of data, either theoretically or empirically assembled, is not a source-book filled with striking illustrations of psychological phenomena. It is a record of the redemptive work of God in Christ Jesus, a record given by special revelation.

There are others again who follow a third course in “dealing with” this story. As these see it, the Bible is not a unity in which one continuous, progressive history of God’s special revelation is recorded, but simply a succession of edifying spiritual treatises. To these the one Word of God becomes many words about God. Accordingly they dismember the one Work of God into several works in some way related to God and religion. Consequently one of their favorite activities is to look for analogies, parallelisms, and allegories among the holy fragments into which they have shattered the Bible, and among the sacred histories. So they discovered, for instance, a story parallel or analogous to the one told in our text in the Song of Solomon. Since that time they write over John 12 this caption from the Song: “While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof.” And so they manipulate similar expressions in other parts of the Scriptures.

And readily we admit that in the love life of the bride of all ages, gifts are proffered in the hands, yearnings breathed from the heart, and songs sung from the lips which all issue from one law, beat time to one rhythm, and are in consonance with one song. To this extent, in this case, too, there most certainly is room for seeking out striking correspondences and analogies.

But it is important not to forget that a happy comparison of Mary’s anointing with an episode in the Song of Solomon, in some other book of the Bible, or with an experience elsewhere recorded, positively does injustice to the Divine meaning of the Gospel, provided the analogy is taken as the whole significance. God’s work progresses, passes from stage to stage, from beginning to fulfillment. What He does in reference to Christ today has never been done before in the world. It is a new event, a unique act, occurring now, never to occur again.

Hence those who read the Bible solely to find comparisons and analogies can give no satisfactory account of the narrative in John 12. For instance, the spikenard referred to in the Song of Solomon must, if it is to be made applicable to this chapter at all, be immediately “spiritualized”. As a matter of fact, however, Mary’s ointment and its vial are both sensuously apperceived objects. And as for the King? He who is here in Simon’s house is not seated in royal state at a round table, encircled by twelve knights, but is standing for the moment en route to the cross. No one, therefore, has the right to wrench the account of the anointing at Bethany out of its setting; that is, out of its relationship to Christ’s humiliation and death.

No, that method is as wanting as the other two in explaining the significance of the occurrence. And—to repeat a third time— it is no wonder. The Gospel is not of a piece with the noblest book one happens to recall. It is and will ever remain the revelation- given record of God’s one, progressive, redemptive work in Christ Jesus, His Son.

We, therefore, must take a different course. Trying, then, to keep this narrative of ointment and love related to the whole history of the passion, we see two things: first, Christ, active in the capacity of His threefold office; and, secondly, God, fulfilling His work and consummating history.

First we observe Christ again accomplishing His threefold task. Moreover, we note that He is both receptively and productively active in each of these offices. He takes and He gives. He takes from God who sends Him and He gives to the people to whom He is sent.

Christ again appears as a Prophet, and as such He is, first of all, receptively active. He absorbs into His being the light of His God. With His whole human soul He eagerly basks in the rays of revelation. He drinks at the fountain of the Scriptures, puts His lips to the sparkling water of the truth of God. He attaches Himself to the source, from which God’s truth gushes forth, so securely that He receives it directly, views it from within and without, saturates Himself with it, lives it. That is why Christ, here in Simon’s house, so thoroughly lives by the Scriptures. A hymn of Isaiah echoes in His being, and not a single chord, not one note of the song is lost in the God-hewn auditory of His soul. The song is, of course, the very familiar hymn on the “Servant of the Lord.” Isaiah sings of Christ’s suffering in it, but he also speaks of Christ’s glorification. That song depicts the Christ as bearing the sorrows of all men. But it also pictures Him as a victor who shall “see his seed,” as one to whom gifts will be brought, one for whom all treasures in heaven and on earth are reserved. And these two lines, that of humiliation and that of glorification, parallel for a while in Isaiah 53, merge at the point where the prophet sings: “He made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death.” Isaiah had already seen that men would assign His body to a place of shame, that the people and the government would select the grave of the Man of sorrows, would deliberately seek it out among the wicked and despicable. But he had seen also that the finger of God, the will of the angels, and the hand of justice would share in naming that burying place of the Lord and that these would designate it among the rich. There would be luxury, extravagance, and distinction at His burial because of the righteousness of His soul.

Therefore we honor the Prophet of our confession for so deeply immersing Himself in revelation, for living by it so faithfully, and letting His Messianic consciousness so completely conform His conduct to the Scriptures, that He accepted the costly spikenard and the vial. These probably represented the savings of a lifetime[1], but Jesus accepted them and referred them at once to His burial. He knew that His grave and luxury were appropriate to each other. Here at Bethany He already saw “his grave with the rich.” Twice, as we noted, in Caesarea Philippi and on the mountain of transfiguration, He traveled the way of humiliation irresistibly in spite of satanic opposition. Thus He experienced Isaiah’s prophecy of the fact that men should designate His grave among the wicked. But, in this same moment, as His attitude toward Mary’s gift shows, Christ is also absolutely sure that He will be assigned a burying place among the rich. Surely, that is living by the Scriptures.

[1] The amount approximately equaled the wages of a common day laborer for a period of three hundred days (one year). Compare Dr. F. W. Grosheide, Kommentaar op Matteus, p. 311, note.

Or note this other approach. When Zechariah has completed his prophetic work, he asks, “Give me my price.” That request is a symbol of the demand the Chief Shepherd makes for His wages, for the reward the grateful soul is willing to give for the tender care of that Shepherd who in Zechariah, later in all of the prophets, and finally in the highest Prophet, Christ Himself, comes as the Good Shepherd to the true Israel. Zechariah pictures God, his sender, as One who insists that His right to wages continues in force and who exercises that right, even though He receives only thirty pieces of silver, the remuneration of a slave, of an outcast. Just so Jesus Christ, the greatest of the prophets, greater too than Zechariah, unhesitatingly accepts His price, here in the house of Simon the leper. Judas, who is present, quickly reckons the value of the ointment and concludes that such a wage is too high for Jesus—he himself being willing to betray the Great Prophet for thirty pieces of silver. But Jesus willingly accepts the reward of three hundred pence, very likely worth about two and a half times as much as the thirty pieces. And He accepts also the love of Mary’s heart which is His entirely. He takes His remuneration without demur. Living by the Scriptures, the Great Prophet fulfills His office by laying claim to His reward from every soul to whom He has been the Good Shepherd.

Mark now how Jesus, having receptively done His duty as a Prophet, also becomes active productively. Have you ever considered how Jesus by accepting luxury as becoming His burial must have astonished His disciples? He had just been teaching them that He was to die as a criminal, as One despised and rejected by the people and government. And in that situation it is more natural to think of the “burial of an ass,” to use biblical language, of a being hauled away and thrown out than of an expensive funeral. On the mountain of transfiguration, in fact, these disciples had been exhorted to “hear Him.” Now, having tried hard and painfully to get used to the idea of Jesus’ curse and humiliation, they marvel to see Him accept extravagance as befitting His death.

Really, this Prophet is a hard teacher. He proposes riddle after riddle. A person has hardly grown accustomed to one thing before He suggests another, apparently contradictory to it.

And, looking at the matter thus, we, too, are inclined to regard the story of the anointing, at first hearing it, as a gentle idyll in the drama of the passion. It seems to be a lyrical episode, attractive to all who hear it. But, viewing it in its great setting, we say of it: This is a hard message; who can bear to hear it? Ah yes, Lord, there is but one answer: Hear Him, hear Him!

In the second place, Christ appears as a Priest. Again He is receptive first; that is, His priestly soul lives in and is sustained by God, who created it. As a Priest, He is so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of His office that He Himself is the first to mention the word “burial.” It is priestly to pause, when the sun is shining and love is beaming from Mary’s eyes, to pause on the bridge that arches the passion and to peer into the chasm where God’s wrath lowers continually. Furthermore it is a readiness typical of the priest to relate every event that occurs immediately to suffering and death. Look: a pearl is being given the Saviour, very costly—vial, spikenard, tears, and a very great love. But before it can actually be extended to Him He is already holding out His handbag, laced with the crepe of mourning, to receive it. How sensitive He is to God’s program, how He absorbs truth from the fountain of God’s will, now beginning to be active in the matter of the great sacrifice. Most compassionate is this holy heart which anticipates God’s hours of sacrifice with a pure and delicate humanity.

As Priest, too, the Saviour becomes productive. A good priest understands the frail, and leads the hesitant tenderly to the altar of thanksgiving. So this High Priest shields Mary’s modest demeanor from the cruel censorship of the bystanders. He protects the dove from the vulture and then gladly accepts the offer of gratitude. He comforts the soul He is compelled to wound. Yes, Jesus also wounds Mary. Even if she had anticipated the coming drama of suffering, burial, and death, it was still terrible for her to hear the shocking word “burying” from His lips. We anticipate so many things which, when they come in their naked, undisguised actuality, nevertheless hurt the soul cruelly. But this Priest is kind to console. He takes Mary’s gift. He assures her that her good work will become memorable, that the perfume of her spikenard will escape from the four walls of Simon’s house and permeate the world. As a Priest he recites to her the words:

Nothing remaineth,

Nothing remaineth.

Even the beautiful succumbs to the stain;

But whatever in love was given to Jesus,

That keeps its worth and will ever remain.

And this, above all, is priestly: When, in anticipating His burial, Christ allowed God’s will to be realized in Him, He fixed the attention of His heart and mind upon His death, and so He began to make His own great Sacrifice.

Again, Christ proves to be King; receptive first, and productive then. So inextricably has His kingly function become a part of Him that He is absolutely convinced of His uniqueness, of His distinctiveness. It is a royal speech to say, “Ye have the poor always with you, but me ye have not always.” In making it, Christ manifests the right of kings, for it is a king’s prerogative to declare, “I first, and then thou.” Now Jesus steps ahead of all of His brothers and sisters and says, as once Elijah did: “Make me thereof a little cake first .... and after make for thee.” Meanwhile He is, of course, leaving room for the priestly service of benevolence—ye have the poor always with you. But as a King He wants the choicest things, the sheerest luxury to be reserved for Him. He is insistent upon the fact that there be no psuedo-democracy in the “civitas dei”, the kingdom of heaven, no democracy in which the citizens help themselves and leave the chance scraps of the table for the king. In His kingdom He would eliminate the friction between the people and the monarch. But note also that as a Ruler He is also a Priest. He gives as well as takes. He is a Monarch who is also the Head of the body. Therefore His demands upon the citizenry are never independent of His services to them. Serve them He does; else He were not the Head. But He also makes demands. Otherwise He were no King. It is His inalienable right to tax the people. “An expensive ornament,” sneer some when they hear the word “king” mentioned in our day. Precisely. Our King is an expensive ornament and He knows it. But He is also the very foundation and—He paid His price, He gave His own life. Surely a King who on this basis accepts as His due even the extravagant gifts which love offers Him in rich profusion is thoroughly conscious of His royal office.

The King is productive. He takes the gifts which rightly belong to royalty. He restores harmony to His quarreling subordinates, the disciples. As the Creator of the world, coming into His kingdom, He now asks, in the language of the 50th Psalm, for the “gold” and the “silver,” and for “the cattle upon a thousand hills.” Even though He is a Great Candidate for the darkest of graves, He insists upon these as a Monarch.

And so our attention in conclusion looks up from Christ to God who anoints Him. The anointing at Bethany is a subsidiary part of the whole work of God’s special revelation and grace as it has progressed up to this time. Do you sense the significant harmony? Twice on the threshold of the temple of sorrows God confronted His Son with a satan in the form of flesh and blood, with the satan in Simon Barjona. But that same God today places a ministering angel upon His path. Satan and angel, both, appear in human form. In short, the whole world of flesh that is in enmity to Him and the whole world of spirit that extends offers to Him are impressed upon His mind in the form of common words and experiences.

Those, then, who are looking to this story to find an idyllic respite from the passion of Christ will be disappointed to learn that even this ministering angel, whose name is Mary, can execute her loving purpose only in a setting of evil interlocutors. Hell’s foulest vapors mingle with the incense of the spikenard. Mary’s gentle worship clashes with Judas’ critical censorship; his whole being is in resentment against her. And the other disciples, too, are critical in their attitude toward her, for they do not fully appreciate the fact that God is here preparing His Son for what must come. It is as though God is offering His Christ a diamond, but has had it set in a cross. If His Son is to take the precious stone, He must take up the cross also and go to do God’s will.

So is the conflict between spirit and flesh aggravated not only in the Christ but also around Him. The satanic opposition coming from Peter’s lips first and then from those of Judas, and the ministration of love fully informing Mary’s gift—these show that the struggle of spiritual forces in the air has been carried over to the small company of people assembled at the house of Simon the leper. Ah yes, coming to Jesus means exposing oneself to conflict.

We bare our heads in reverence. Who among that group in Simon’s house understood the purpose of the Lord save Christ Himself? And who called forth the spirit of the Lord save the Redeemer alone? Put off thy shoes from thy feet; for the place where the leper once lay is holy ground. Now has the Saviour’s soul been caught between the spiritual forces of the air and the spiritual energies of the kingdom of heaven, and He is being tossed to and fro by them.

The two lines of emphasis in Isaiah 53, that of humiliation and that of exaltation, meet at a point and form a scathing right angle provocative of passionate conflict. But Jesus remains poised in this passion. And He proceeds straight from the threshold into the vestibule of the house of sorrows. Just as the cyclonic gust of Simon’s satanic utterance could not make Him hesitate, so the sweet incense of Mary’s ointment cannot entice Him back out of doors. Behold, He cometh, O God, to do Thy will. In that conflict of antithetical forces, of hate and love, of ministering angels and satanic wolves, He remains one and undivided.

That, for those who would read the Scriptures in the light these shed upon themselves, is a little, though not one-half, of the meaning of the Gospel which tells of Mary who anointed the feet of Jesus. For it is a Gospel which tells, not of Mary, but of Christ.

And this besides with reference to that anointing. Never in history has there occurred such another. For to what purpose had the oil of anointing always been poured except to mark externally and to strengthen internally the bearer of the office of prophet, priest, and king? Behold, He is here, discharging the responsibilities of that threefold office in full capacity. His name is Anointed, Anointed of the Spirit, Christ of God. To Him this pouring out of oil is a great comfort and an eternal mandate, and to us it is a sacred revelation. For now He, Jesus of Nazareth, whom no one in the great wide world would anoint with oil, whose official right and capacity is denied by all flesh, now He receives that ointment from the hand of His Father. Heaven lets it drip through Mary’s hands upon His blessed body. So He was twice anointed: first by the incomparable Spirit; now also with the symbol of oil proffered Him as love’s choicest gift.

Now, if anyone would care to ponder these matters further, he would perhaps soar no higher than to the exalted thought that the angels in heaven never knew a more blessed hour than when they witnessed this first true anointing. For this one was genuine, at least on one side. Previous pourings out of oil had always been doubly polluted, had never been perfectly holy. The ointment had been tainted by the hand of him who poured it; the anointed person had never lived sinlessly, not even during the brief process of the sacrament.

At this instant a miracle takes place. Yes, even here at Bethany love has not entirely cleansed the offensive odor of sin from the oil or from the proffering heart. But the Anointed Himself is true, and good, and beautiful in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness. This, therefore, is not an instance of anointing making rich the anointed. It is that of an Anointed One who takes the oil which has been consecrated to Him, purges it, and pours it again over love’s trembling hands. To this end that love may confess Him thus: My oil is found in Thee. Thou art the Christ, God’s Anointed, Thou alone, Thou perfectly, Thou who preparest thine own oil.