Question: "What is the significance of Jesus being anointed by a woman with expensive perfume?"

Answer: All four gospels present an account of Jesus being anointed by a woman with a costly jar of perfume (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8). Matthew and Mark relate the same event but do not give the woman’s name; Luke tells of a different woman, also anonymous, on an earlier occasion; and, in yet another event, the woman in John is identified as Mary of Bethany (John 11:2), sister to Martha and Lazarus. To understand the significance of Jesus being anointed on these three occasions, we’ll look at each account separately and then compare and contrast them in conclusion.

The anointing of Jesus in Matthew takes place two days before Passover in the town of Bethany at Simon the leper’s home: “Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table” (Matthew 26:6–7, ESV).

Matthew focuses on the anointing of Jesus as a teaching episode for the disciples, who react with anger because of the woman’s wasteful extravagance. But Jesus defends her, saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to me” (Matthew 26:10). Christ explains that the anointing is to prepare His body for burial and that the woman’s act of love will forever be remembered wherever the good news is preached.

Mark tells the same story in similar terms, with an anonymous woman with an alabaster box interrupting a meal in Simon the leper’s home to anoint the head of Jesus with expensive perfume. Again, the woman’s critics describe her gift as excessive, complaining that it could have been sold for more than a year’s wages (Mark 14:5). But Jesus receives the woman’s gift as a selfless act of love and devotion—an appropriate way to honor the Messiah. Jesus reveals that He will not be with them much longer, which references His impending death and burial.

Both Matthew and Mark’s accounts emphasize the prophetic significance of the anointing of Jesus, alluding to His death and burial. There may also be an implication of Jesus’ kingship, since, in the Old Testament, the anointing of the head was often associated with the dedication of kings (1 Samuel 9:15—10:1; 16:12–13; 1 Kings 1:38–40).

In Luke’s account of a similar, yet different, instance, Jesus uses the occasion of being anointed to tell a parable about forgiveness (Luke 7:39–50). About a year before His death, Jesus was dining in the home of Simon the Pharisee, who had arrogantly neglected to extend the customary respect and hospitality to his guest, while a sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet, lavishing her love and gratefulness upon Jesus.

In John’s gospel, Lazarus’ sister Mary is the woman who anoints Jesus with a high-priced perfume at a dinner in Bethany. The story is similar to those in the other gospels, although this anointing takes place six days before Passover, and Judas is named as the disciple who objects to the “waste.” On this occasion, “Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair”(John 12:3, NLT). Jesus defends Mary from Judas’s criticism by pointing out the unique opportunity Mary had: “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8).

Mary’s anointing again points to Christ’s identity as Messiah-King, but it also points to His humble position as Servant-King. When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and then wipes them with her hair, she foreshadows Jesus’ actions at the upcoming Last Supper when the Lord washes the disciples’ feet and teaches them how to love one another through sacrificial, humble service (John 13:1–20).

In each account, a woman pours out a precious and costly perfume in an extravagant act of worship. The three women who anointed Jesus recognized Christ’s unequaled value and expressed their gratitude with unreserved love and devotion. Two anointings of Jesus happen during the week of Passover and are linked with His imminent death and burial. The earlier anointing, in Luke’s account, is in the middle of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and draws a different lesson on forgiveness and love.

In each case, the woman’s actions signal more than she knows. But, although she may not fully comprehend the messianic significance of her anointing, each woman had come to appreciate Christ’s worth more than anyone else at the table.

Jesus Christ is God’s anointed Messiah. The word Messiah means “anointed one” and derives directly from the Hebrew word for “anointed.” Christ comes from the Greek word Christos, also meaning “anointed one.” Thus, Christ is the Greek equivalent to Messiah. When Jesus receives the Holy Spirit at His baptism, He is “anointed” by God in preparation for His life’s work (Luke 3:22; cf. Acts 10:38; Luke 4:18). On three separate occasions, Jesus is anointed with fragrant ointment in His work as the Savior, the King of heaven who was in preparation to die to save His people.