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#23: Reasons to Worship: It Is a Fragrant Offering to God

[span class=download]Click here to download the complete PPT presentation.[/span]

Or, Worship That Smells Right: five principles that can help guide us to worship God in a way that is memorable to Him and to us

John 12:1-8; Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:1-11; Luke 7:36-50.

I’m sure you have heard the expression, "Somethin’ just doesn’t smell right." In our house, the contest is over the smell of tuna fish. I love it; Nancy doesn’t. So we recently negotiated a settlement. If we have it, I will immediately clean up the bowl and can, make sure the sink is clean and the garbage disposal is deployed.

Our sense of smell is said to be one of the most vivid we possess. We know memories can be positively triggered by the right smell, and it is also a commonly understood idiom in the English language that when something doesn’t "smell" right, we should be wary!


We want in this lesson to apply that test further, asking "how does the smell test apply to worship?" In John 12 we have an opportunity to apply the "smell test." Jesus was approaching Passover, just ahead of what we know as the "Triumphal Entry" into Jerusalem. He and his disciples were in a town called Bethany, and the family he was dining with included Lazarus, who He had just raised from the dead.

John 12:1-8

1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint[1] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages.[2] " 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 "Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "[It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

Looking at the various cross references, we find differences of opinion as to whether similar incidents recorded in the other gospels are parallel accounts or are separate incidents. Though there are some apparent inconsistencies that exist between the accounts, the real value of studying and meditating upon these records is not to be found in reconciling them, but in extracting the principles of worship which are so graphically communicated in these texts. (See Appendix)

In this passage, Mary offered worship that had a distinct aroma, but Jesus stated that Mary’s fragrant offering would be remembered for as long as the gospel is preached. It is a prophecy being fulfilled again here as we study these verses.

five principles of worship

From this scene, I want to offer five principles of worship that can help guide us in our personal approach to worship of God. They are offered with the hope that we might offer up "worship that smells right," i.e., a worship of God that is memorable to Him and to us.

Mary made certain that the guest of honor was honored.

v. 2—"Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him."

Let’s take a closer look. Who was present at this dinner?

  • Lazarus, recently raised from the dead
  • The disciples of Jesus
  • Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus (notice, not fighting who should be serving)
  • A Pharisee named Simon the Leper, typically understood to be one healed by Jesus of leprosy, and now back in his normal social circlesצMatthew 26:6

Undoubtedly there were other dignitaries and special guests at the table, but despite this guest list—several of whom were outstanding personalities in their own right—Jesus was the guest of honor, the center of attention.

How does this guest list speak to us today? Jesus should always be the guest of honor at every gathering in our lives. We should never allow Jesus to remain in the shadows in our daily worship, corporate worship, or wherever we are. He is the preeminent one to be glorified, even by the Holy Spirit.

John 16:13-14—"But when He, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you."

As we have said many times in our series, worship is about Jesus, a personal God. We do not worship some ethereal "force of the universe," or undefinable "concept," but a Person who deserves to be seated as a guest of honor in every worship setting. This is the absolutely profound, cool thing about Christianity. We have a guest in our lives who is worthy of all honor. Our honored guest is not distant, nor is our God an ogre to appease. He is present with us.

That is why every service of worship should be constructed or carried out with great attention to God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with great emphasis on Jesus. "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority"—Col. 2:9-10.

If Jesus is the guest of honor, then worship passes the smell test.

In our culture, we often miss the idea of a guest of honor. It reminds me of the family who invited the pastor and his family to dinner. The little daughter was invited to say grace over the meal. She hesitated and expressed that she was not sure what to say. Her mother spoke up and suggested that she just repeat what she had heard her parents say, so the little girl grabbed onto that idea and said, "Oh Lord, why ever did I invite the pastor and his family over for dinner on this weekend!" This is not the way to treat a guest of honor!

A current worship chorus expresses it well, "I’m coming back to the heart of worship, and it's all about you, Jesus..." As we have been saying, the validity of a worship experience is not determined by who wins the worship wars that wage in our nation: hymns v. choruses; liturgical v. spontaneous; loud v. quiet, formal v. casual, etc. It’s not just what we think or appreciate about worship forms that is important! Most of all, what God thinks of my worship is what counts. Does it "smell right" to Him?

Mary's worship was pure.

v. 3—"Then Mary took about a pint [Greek a litraצprobably about 0.5 liter] of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."

Do you see the word "pure?" Mary anointed Jesus with a pure offering, a pure, uncontaminated perfume. This perfume was commonly used in the preparation of a body for burial.

4] But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5] "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages. [Greek three hundred denarii]" 6] He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

That is a helpful snapshot of Judas, allowing us to see that he was driven by greed and hypocritical when it came to his speech and values. Jesus responded to the criticism of Mary by expressing His approval and commending her when Judas insisted that she was "wasting" the offering.

7] "Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8] You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

This was not a putdown of the poor, but a statement of how long Jesus had before His death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. Jesus was pleased that Mary would give honor to Him while He was still alive rather than waiting until He was dead, buried and resurrected!

As we look at this scene, we can draw a number of applications from what Mary did here, but allow me to suggest just two:

  1. First, it is not a stretch to see the reference to purity could symbolize "the sincerity of worship" (the unmasked and absolutely pure love expressed in worship). We should know God desires to be worshipped, but not just with outward expressions. He prefers outward expressions of worship that align with the inward realities of our hearts. In other words, God wants integrity in our worship.

    If we look at Isaiah 1:11-20, we see His desire for pure worship! Isaiah opens his prophetic exhortation by establishing the real problem in Israel’s relationship to their God. It was a relationship which had grown insincere, one in which outward expressions of worship were inconsistent with what God knew was going on in the hearts of His people. Therefore, because of their insincerity, their worship/sacrifice was not acceptable.

    This is a good checkpoint for each of us as we approach God in worship. We need to ask ourselves if our love for Jesus is only outward. Is our worship what God is looking for in His worshippers? Is it sincere and heartfelt?

    It reminds me of 1 Samuel 15:22. In this account of Saul, we find him disobeying the command of God to destroy the enemy, the Amalekites, and God's rebuke was: "To obey is better than sacrifice." How is that correction applicable to believers today? We can sacrifice without obeying, but we will never obey without sacrificing. God wants our pure worship!


  1. The second application is that Mary’s pure offering suggests that we can be "intimate" without sexual or sensual overtones. As we can see in this passage, Mary had a spiritual experience of great intimacy with Jesus, but it carried none of the sexual innuendo that modern authors and screenwriters tend to insert in their interpretation of this scene. So many people misunderstand what is going on between Mary and Jesus, because we have come to define intimacy only in sexual or sensual terms.

    True worship, however, is purely intimate, but never sexual or sensual in nature. For many people who have suffered from sexual abuse, intimacy is a great struggle, but I have come to understand that one of the helpful steps to healing for someone who has been abused is to experience intimacy with God in worship. The same thing may be true for someone who has been sexually promiscuous.

    You see, pure worship can illustrate that we can enjoy safety in intimacy that bears no marks of selfish sexuality or sensuality. I have a friend who has suffered from sexual abuse; and her testimony is that it is a wonderful blessing to see her daughter grow up in the health and safety of a home where she has been spared such exposure and abuse.

    She says it is healing and therapeutic to see healthy relationships. It is wonderful for her to see a daddies or grandfathers who are able to be intimate in relationship with their daughters and granddaughters with no sexual or sensual overtones.

I want us to see that with purity of heart Mary approached Jesus. This woman—most likely abused and mistreated by men—loved Jesus greatly, but the love was not erotic (eros) in nature; it was pure (agape) in nature. This purity of worship, then, is a wonderful example for us.

Mary’s worship was costly.

v. 3—"Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."

How expensive was this perfume? Three hundred denarii would equal about 11 or 12 month’s wages (Matt. 14:5).

A friend of mine went on a missions trip to India where a local pastor treated the group to bottles of soda pop. He and his son refrained from drinking, but soon he was offered a double serving. The missionary whispered that he should drink the pop, or it could be taken as an insult. Apparently drinking the soda was hard because of the way it looked, but they were glad they did when they learned those 6 bottles of soda were equivalent to about one week’s salary for that Indian pastor. It was costly.

Likewise, Mary’s worship cost her something; it was an "expensive perfume." It reminds me of 2 Samuel 24:24, where David refused to accept the threshing floor of Araunah (A-raw-nuh) the Jebusite without paying for it. He said, "No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing." Mary’s example raises some questions for us:

  • What did my personal worship of Jesus cost me today?
  • What has it cost me this week? Am I worshipping cheaply?

True worshippers are willing to expend the energy, attention, time, and even money to assure that a quality and heartfelt worship is experienced. We have people in our services who are in pain and have been hurting all week long, yet they will not miss coming to this service until they literally can’t walk, or the pain becomes too intense. It costs them something to worship.

Are you aware of the time, the effort it takes just to prepare worship in a church? Besides the time it took our musicians to learn and hone the skill to play their instruments, there is the considerable expenditure of energy, time and money spent in preparing for each of our four worship services, Body Life, the worship of Campus Christian Fellowship, youth group worship, children’s worship, small group worship times, worship at men’s and women’s events, retreats and camps.

If we added it all up, we would find it takes a lot of effort/money/time to have worship experiences here at Hillcrest. To be more specific, there is

  • the cost of facilities and utilities
  • the time spent in arranging, even writing the music we sing
  • the Magnification Team's two-three hours a week in discussion about the order of service, the calendar, and special events
  • the worship teams’ rehearsals, an average of two to three hours a week just for our four services

There are numerous hours of Scripture study by the pastors and worship leaders to be better prepared to lead and speak to this congregation’s four services. If we focus just on the worship and media areas of our budget, there are salaries for our worship leaders. There are also many volunteers who run the computer and sound for each service. In summary, many staff, musicians and support people give of their time, gifts and finances so that we might have a quality worship experience that truly glorifies God.

Does it cost Hillcrest Chapel to offer Jesus our worship? Of course! Money and time follows the value. As Mary shows us, our God is worth all the time we have and more! Sadly, a lot of churches would be more represented by Judas’ attitude than Mary’s. They speak about worship they want to do cheaply, while Mary’s worship was costly!

Mary’s worship was bold.

v. 3—"..she poured it (pure nard) on Jesus’ feet and wiped His feet with her hair." Why would this action be considered a bold move in Mary’s day? If you read the parallel accounts (or a very similar account of the anointing in Luke 7:36-50), the Mary in that passage was scorned by some of the onlookers as being an undeserving worshipper (see appendix).

In fact, in Luke 7, they wondered why Jesus would allow her to even come near. "If he only knew who she was, he would not allow her to do this." Also, think of the context. She was a woman approaching a gathering of men, and as such, was looked down upon in her culture. So when we put this all together, the boldness of this worshipper (in fact, the worship of both Marys) was amazing!

So, why did she make such a bold move? Certainly the great need for mercy and help of the Mary in Luke 7 could have kept her from Jesus, but it was the recognition of her needs that motivated her to boldness; to step forward and make connection with the only one who could give her mercy. In summary, it appears her boldness may have been born out of desperation.

Do you see the parallel to some of our own conditions? Sometimes our most enthusiastic worship and our attentiveness to God are born out of desperate circumstances/great need, or appreciation. We see others' outward expression of worship, but there is a story behind each person’s worship.

So let me ask, are you desperate today? Do you have a great need? Do you need someone to help you out of your current condition? Do you feel an overwhelming sense of appreciation for God’s goodness to you? By all means be bold and come to Jesus; He won’t turn you away and/or welcome your praise! Let’s think very personally: what would be a bold act for you as a worshipper of Jesus?

Perhaps it's something as simple as raising your hands in surrender to God. Perhaps it's accepting a responsibility in serving or in ministry that you feel is far beyond your gifts and abilities, yet you feel God is asking you to do. I want to encourage you to take a bold step of worship in order to please God. As you make these steps, I am confident He will provide the strength and means to accomplish this service of worship.

Jan Paderewski, world-renowned concert pianist, was performing in an American city. As patrons were arriving, one mother sat attentively with her "would-be" concert great, a grade school-aged son. In a moment when her attention was diverted, the boy slipped into the aisle and scampered up the stage where he seated himself at the marvelous 12-foot grand piano.

To the shock of the crowd and the dismay of his mother, he began to play the only song he had mastered, "Chopsticks." His mother headed to the stage immediately to retrieve him, but before she could get there, Paderewski, who was waiting in the wings, made his way on stage and took a place behind the boy. He wrapped his arms around the child and began to embellish the simple tune.

The boy faltered and was going to stop, but Paderewski leaned down and whispered in his ear, "Don’t stop. Keep playing. Don’t stop." So as the boy offered his simple tune, the master embellished it almost beyond recognition. This was only able to happen because of the boy’s naive boldness!

What would be a bold act for you as a worshipper of Jesus? If we take the step of faith, even in desperation, God will come to us, surround us with His power, and embellish our simple service into a beautiful concert of praise. Sometimes the act of faith that pushes us beyond our comfort zone will open up a wonderful opportunity of worship and praise we never dreamed possible. You may be playing chopsticks, but God will make it into a beautiful concert of praise.

The whole house was filled with the fragrance of Mary's worship.

v. 3—"...and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." (We’ve already spoken about this at the beginning of our study.)

The application is obvious, isn’t it? True worship has a way of filling the whole house/church gathering today, too. There is something about sincere worship that is so beautiful, even fragrant. I have heard testimonies from many people over the years who were led to the point of decision to follow Jesus, as they observed and "inhaled" the fragrance of the true worship of God by His people—Psalm 40:3.

We know baking bread fills the air with an aroma and sends a signal that the dinner to come is worth waiting for. In fact, some realtors suggest that when showing a home for sale, you should put a loaf of bread or a pan of cookies in the oven. The idea is that the aroma of that fresh baking will entice a potential buyer. This idea is not foreign to other portions of Scripture. For instance, 2 Cor. 2:14-15:

14] But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. 15] For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life."

Do you see the words that speak of fragrance and aroma?

  • What do people "smell" when I/when we worship?
  • Does the fragrance of worship rise to God as a pleasing aroma and then impress upon those around us that God is alive, well and worthy of worship?
  • Has our life and our praise become the aroma of Christ "among those who are being saved and those who are perishing?" Are we those who "spread everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him?"


Let's apply several of these observations to three situations some of us might be in right now.

To the one who is offering an inexpensive gift of worship to God: It cost you little, if anything, in time and effort. Are you satisfied with your offering? Remember, if your offering/worship doesn’t cost anything, if it is only outward and not sincere, it doesn’t count.

To the one who needs to make a bold step in worship: What might be on the other side of your obedience? You only know if you take that bold step of service and worship.

Finally, let me speak to the one who has smelled the aroma of Christ in the worship of His people.

v. 15b—"For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life."

What you sense in the worship of believers is either the aroma of life, or of death. What makes the difference? It is whether you respond to Jesus’ message of love and grace like Mary did. I encourage you to come to Jesus—even if it takes a bold move—and you will discover a life of great beauty and an intimate relationship you have never known before.


Contributing to the overall theme and content of this sermon were the following:

  1. Les Welk, Assistant Superintendent, Northwest District Council of the Assemblies of God, 9930 Evergreen Way, Suite Y-150, Everett, WA 98204.
  2. Ray Stedman, God’s Loving Word, Discovery House Pub., Grand Rapids, MI, 1993, pp. 321-330.


Mary expresses all the love that is in her heart for Jesus. Some people confuse this action with another account in Luke 7, where an unnamed woman bathes the feet of Jesus with her tears and wipes them with her hair. (That unnamed woman might have been Mary Magdalene, a prostitute out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons.) The incident in Luke 7 occurred in the house of a man named Simon (a common name in ancient Israel), but it was not the same Simon and not the same house. The incident in Luke’s gospel took place in Galilee, far to the north of Jerusalem, while this account in John 12 took place in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem.

The incident in John 12 clearly concerns Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, about whom there is never any mention of an unsavory past. John makes it clear that Mary understood the work of Jesus and the change He had made in her heart. She was grateful to Jesus for the richness and blessing He brought to her life, not only in restoring the life of her brother Lazarus, but in the life-transforming teaching she has heard from Him while sitting at His feet. That is why she worships Jesus with an extravagant love. That is why she has spared no expense. Stedman, pp. 326-327.