Mary’s Remarkable Act

It’s Tuesday and that means it is time for Tuesdays with Edwards!

One of the many things I have grown to appreciate in the writings of Jonathan Edwards is his remarkable way of taking you deeper into a passage of Scripture by pulling things out that we often miss without thoughtful reflection and a keen knowledge of the Bible.

In a sermon titled Mary’s Remarkable Act on Mark 14:3, Edwards offers seven insights into the “spiritual things” that he believed were signified by Mary’s anointing of Jesus (Edwards believed that this was the same event referenced in John 12:3 where Mary is identified as the woman anointing Jesus).

You can read the entire sermon at the Jonathan Edwards Center website The selection in this post is from “Mary’s Remarkable Act” in Sermons and Discourses, 1739-1742, ed. Harry S. Stout, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 22 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) pages 386-391.


What spiritual things are signified by these acts of this dear friend of Jesus in thus anointing him?

And in answer to this inquiry, I would observe in general that there seems to be no better key to open the spiritual signification of this act of Mary’s, than to consider what spiritual things in her this outward act of her’s was an expression of. This act of hers was no insignificant act. It was an expression of something that she felt within. There was some spiritual thing within her that she intended this outward act as an expression and sign of. And if we examine and consider what that was, that will open to us the whole mystery, and show us what was signified or represented by these outward actions of hers.

If we look into the matter, we shall find that which she then was in the exercise of in her soul, that she expressed and intended to testify by this action, was what the action very naturally represented. And here, to be more particular:

1. At the same time that she poured forth the precious ointment out of her box, she as it were poured forth grace and divine love out of her heart upon Jesus Christ. She was a woman that had a great love to Christ, and was at that instant in an high exercise of grace and love to Christ, and did as it were pour forth her love upon [him] as she poured forth her sweet ointment out of her box. And this was what she intended to signify by it: she poured out this sweet ointment on Christ as a testimony and token of her love to him. And therefore this I suppose to be the spiritual thing represented and signified by it.

The sweet ointment poured forth out of Mary’s box on the head of Christ, was a type of true grace and divine love flowing forth out of the heart of the true believer towards Jesus Christ. Grace in Scripture is often compared to oil or ointment. So it is in the parable of the ten virgins: the wise virgins had oil in their vessels; their oil signifies grace and their vessels that contained their oil signifies the same with the box, the vessel that contained Mary’s oil, viz. the heart. They had oil in their vessels, that is, they had grace in their hearts.

So grace is compared to ointment with which the soul is anointed of God, in 1 John 2:20, “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things”; and v. 1 John 2:27, “But the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you.” So 2 Corinthians 1:21, “Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God.”

And grace or divine love in the soul is naturally represented by a sweet perfumed ointment. For as that is sweet and has an excellent savor, so has the grace of God, and it brings an excellent savor and sweetness in the soul.

The Spirit of God, or the author of grace in the soul, was of old typified by a perfumed ointment, as by the holy anointing oil that was used in the tabernacle and temple. Exodus 37:29, “And he made the holy anointing oil, and the pure incense of sweet spices, according to the work of the apothecary.” This was a type of the Spirit of God as given in his gracious influences on the heart. So Christ compares the graces of his spouse to sweet perfumed ointments… [Song of Songs] 4:10, “How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine! and the smell of thine ointments than all spices!” As Mary’s ointment was very precious and costly, so is that grace that is in the heart of a saint. It is a most precious thing and very costly. It cost a great price. All the silver and gold in the world would not have purchased it. It cost Christ’s precious blood. Mary poured her sweet ointment upon Christ; so does the grace that is in the heart of a saint, when in exercise, flow out to the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is anointed by the church as Jacob anointed the pillar, and as all Israel anointed David.

2. Mary, at the same time that she poured forth precious ointment out of an alabaster box, poured forth divine love towards Christ out of a pure heart. I have observed before that alabaster was a substance remarkable, even to a proverb, for its extreme whiteness and purity. So the saints are spoken of in Scripture as those that are pure in heart. Mary was such an one; she was a true saint, an Israelite indeed in whom was no guile, and was an eminent saint. All the saints, with respect to the guilt of sin, are already perfectly pure; they are perfectly washed from all guilt in the blood of Christ. And as to sincerity, they have pure hearts. In conversion God creates in men a clean heart, and renews in them a right spirit. And when the work of sanctification that is begun in them is finished, then their hearts shall be as clean and pure as alabaster, perfectly free from all stain of sin, and shall be presented to Christ without spot or {blemish}. Thus it is out of a pure heart that the saints do pour forth the exercises of divine love towards Jesus Christ.

3. Mary poured forth this precious ointment on Christ out of a broken box. So true grace flows out of a broken [heart].

Believers don’t only pour forth the exercises of grace out of a pure heart. True Christian grace and divine love always flows out of a broken heart, an heart broken with a sense {of sin}. And the heart of a saint never sends forth such a sweet savor as when it is most broken and contrite, as is evidenced by Psalms 34:18, “The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit”; and Psalms 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Isaiah 57:15, “For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”; and Isaiah 66:1-02, “Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest? For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.” And grace never gives as sweet a savor to the believer himself.

This admirably represents the excellent frame that a believer is in {when of a broken heart}. In this also the external act of the woman in the text was a representation of what was then in her heart. By what the evangelist John informs us, we learn that the deed not only {touched} his head but {also} his feet. “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped them with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment” [John 12:3]. One thing showed by this was her brokenness of heart. And that other parallel instance that we have in Luke does more remarkably illustrate this. We are told in [Luke 7,] v. Luke 7:38, [she] “stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears.” What a broken-hearted frame was she in! Though this be not the same instance, yet it probably was like it. Thus is livelily represented to us what the love and what the joys of a true Christian soul are.

4. The breaking of the box seems also to represent the believer’s devoting and making a sacrifice of his whole heart to Christ. As ’tis said in Psalms 51:17, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Mary did not only devote that precious ointment to Christ and spend that upon him, but she devoted the box, that was also precious. As sacrifices that were offered to God of old were slain and cut in pieces, so she broke her precious box.

5. As she did not only anoint Christ’s head with this ointment but also his feet, so the exercises of divine love that flow out of pure and broken hearts don’t only flow out to Christ but his members— but the meanest of them. This precious sweet oil of the woman that flowed out of her alabaster {box is a type of that sweet love that flows out to the meanest of the members of Christ’s body}.

6. It is said, John 12:3, “the house was filled with the odor of the ointment,” whereby [John] represents two things:

(1) It shows how the soul is filled {with the odor of true grace and divine love}. So it doubtless was then with her. And it may be observed that the more pure the heart is, the more it’s like an alabaster box; and the more it is broken, the more is the soul filled.

(2) That the church of God is filled. [The] church [is] often represented under the representation of an house. When a person is much in such excellent frames, it tends to diffuse the savor and benefit of it to all around. [When] one in a particular church {is much in such excellent frames}, it tends to fill that whole church {with the savor and benefit of it}. And when grace [is] in its lively and humble exercise in one part of the church, the savor of it is diffused in other parts of the church, as we have seen heretofore and see at this day.

7. Mary thus poured {the ointment} on Christ while he sat at meat, which represents to us:

(1) The communion which the believing soul has with Christ when grace flows out. By the account John gives, she was a guest with Christ {at supper}. John 12:2-03, “There they made him a supper, and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with her. Then took Mary a pound of ointment, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus.” When the soul has sweet communion with Christ, then the believer does as it were feast with Christ. He is fed with that food that Christ has prepared for his people at great cost. Christ himself sits at the table with the believer at such a time. He enjoys his company. At such time the heart is pure. And,

(2) This seems especially to represent the exercise of grace towards Christ at the Lord’s table. When a Christian partakes of the Lord’s Supper in a spiritual manner, then Christ always sits at the table. So he was at the table in the first sacrament that ever was. And so it is still: whenever the believer does in a spiritual manner {partake of the Lord’s Supper, Christ sits there at the table}. And at such times the heart is purified, and the exercises of divine love flow out of a broken heart like precious perfumed ointment upon Christ, the head of the church; and not only so, but towards others that are his fellow members, even towards the least and meanest of them, towards not only the head but the feet.

This feast is a feast of love. And then the soul is filled with the odor {of the ointment}. And then when Christians partake in such a manner, the church is filled {with the odor}; the whole house is filled. This does most livelily represent the manner in which believers ought to partake {of the Lord’s Supper}, and do partake, when in the holy exercise of grace. Then they partake with pure hearts; then their hearts are broken, humble. {They} lie at Christ’s feet, and anoint his feet. Then divine love flows out as precious ointment. Then the heart is devoted and offered up in sacrifice to Christ. Then love flows out towards fellow Christians, and even to the meanest and lowest of the members of Christ.

Let us in such a manner approach the table of the Lord at this time and earnestly seek to God to give us pure hearts.

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