Some Christians have the idea that worship is only possible in the sanctuary of a church, that it consists only of flowery phrases pouring forth spontaneously from the mouth, and that it takes place only when beautiful warm feelings "flood the soul". Well, maybe the conceptions of worship are not quite that bad, but it is true that a lot of Christians have some warped ideas of what worship is all about. What is worship anyway?
When we look at all the Scriptures touching on the subject of worship, we can sum it up simply in the following way. Worship is the acknowledgement of Who God is and what God does, directed to God Himself. This acknowledgement must be from the heart--not just some outward mechanical religious motions. Worship of God without love is inconceivable. The acknowledgement may be by lip or by life. That is, worship may be either verbal praises and thanksgivings to God for Who He is and what He does, or it may be non-verbal deeds done in such acknowledgement. For example, a Christian student who, in spite of ridicule and solicitation, refuses to lower his or her moral standards, is worshipping the Lord. By his way of life, he is acknowledging to God His standards of holiness. A Christian who, without anger or bitterness, accepts as from God what others label as tragedy is also worshipping the Lord. He is acknowledging to God His sovereignty and His claims over life. Non-verbal worship is far more acceptable in God's sight than "mouthing" prayers and praises on Sunday morning from otherwise complaining lips and compromising lives (see Isaiah 1:10-17). The ideal, of course, is to have all our words and actions characterized by worship--in the crucible of life as well as in the church setting. Worship is not just one of several categories in the "Christian life". Worship is the sum total of living as a Christian.
Various aspects of worship are brought before us in the account of the Lord Jesus being anointed by the woman in Mark 14:3-9. We believe that the woman here is Mary of Bethany (the one who sat and learned the Word of God "at the feet of our Lord"--Luke 10:39) because of the parallel account in John 12:1-8. We can learn much about our own worship through a study of Mary's act of worship.
Worship involves sacrifice! This aspect of worship is emphasized by what it cost Mary to anoint the Lord. Pure nard was a very expensive perfume which was imported all the way from India. Three hundred denarii (v5) was about a year's wages for the average working man in those days. We see that a lot of hard work and sacrifice went into Mary's worship. Does my worship of God cost me something, or is it just "cheap perfume" involving no sacrifice? Will my worship this summer, for example, involve any sacrifice of time for the Lord--or will my summer be just all the "fun in the sun" I can get for myself?
Mary's action of pouring perfume over the head of the Lord should not be questioned as improper or "far out". It was the common practice in that dry and dusty climate for guests to have their feet washed and their heads anointed with oil. What is unusual here, however, is that Mary did not use common ordinary anointing oil but very costly perfume. Mary's action was extraordinary. Think of what she could have done with 300 denarii; yet in one act she sacrificed it all out of love for her Lord. Think of what we could do with a year's salary for ourselves! Are we willing to sacrifice that much at one time for our Lord? Whether by lip or by life, worship involves sacrifice (see Hebrews 13:15-16 and Romans 12:1). How much is our worship of God costing us?
Worship does not hold back; it goes all out. This is one step further than sacrifice. It is possible to sacrifice some, but still only "go half way". This is not the way of worship. Look again at Mary's action. The Lord was a dinner guest at the home of Simon the leper. (Perhaps he was one of those healed by the Lord.) In that culture the people lay on short backless couches around a low dinner table. They ate with one hand while propping themselves up on the other elbow. This is what "reclining at table" means in verse 3. It seems that Mary, her brother Lazarus and her sister Martha were also guests. In the course of the meal, Mary came up to the Lord's couch, broke open the alabaster (a white translucent fine-textured stone) flask and poured out the entire contents of expensive perfume over the Lord. John 12:3 tells us that it was an entire pound. That's a lot of perfume! Incidentally, spike-nard ointment would not be an oily or sticky substance which would have to be cleaned up. Pure nard was a very light and volatile liquid perfume which would quickly evaporate and leave no mess. No wonder "the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment" (John 12:3). The point here, however, is that Mary did not hold back in her act of worship. She did not anoint the Lord with only a few drops of her precious possession. She did not use only half the perfume and keep the rest. She gave the whole thing! This is worship at its highest.
In verse 8 the Lord says, "She has done what she could." The full force of this statement is lost in our English translations. It sounds as if Jesus is saying, "Well, Mary couldn't do much, but she did what little she could." What the Lord is actually saying is that Mary did all that she could. She went to the limit of her ability--she went all out! What about us? Does the Lord have to say, in reference to our worship, that we have done a "few drops" of what we could, or half of what we could, or can He say that we have done all that we possibly could do? What about my plans for my future and my intended career? Am I holding anything back from God for just ME? Worship does not hold back--it goes all out.
Worship is not a waste of time and effort. We read that some of the guests (Judas, as well as the other disciples--see John 12:4 and Matthew 26:8) were up tight with Mary's act of worship. They called it wasteful and said the money would have been better spent in relief efforts for the poor (vs4-5). Now such remarks seem reasonable enough, don't they? After all, a year's salary can go a long way in meeting the needs of the poor. Why waste the money on a flask of expensive perfume when ordinary anointing oil would have done the job? Perhaps Mary was caught up in the emotion of the moment and should have been more restrained! But such reasoning is squelched by our Lord. He not only defends Mary's action but commends it as well (v6). It was not a waste but a "good deed".
Many people today find fault with Christians who "waste" their time in prayer and praise when the crying needs of the world surround us. How can we rightfully "waste time", for example, celebrating the Lord's Supper, when children are starving in the city? How does the Scripture answer this question? Notice that the Lord Jesus does not tell them to forget about the needs of the poor in order to worship Him. Instead He encourages them to make a constant effort to meet those constant needs (v7). In fact, meeting the needs of the poor in the name of Christ is worship. It is acknowledging to God His care and concern for His creatures. How is our worship in this area? But--to care for the poor only without an expressed love for Christ is not worship and is wrong for the Christian. Some growing Christians tend to become unbalanced--in either direction--at this point. Proper integration is to constantly give thanks to the Lord for everything and to constantly let that praise ripple out in our actions for the benefit of others.
The depth of Mary's worship is further brought out in verse 8. What does the Lord mean when He says, "She has anointed My body beforehand for the burial"? Mary knew that the Lord was about to give up His life. She seems to have understood our Lord's teaching about His death and resurrection far more than the other believers--even the disciples (see Mark 8:31-33 and 9:31-32). The normal procedure was to anoint a body with spices after death (see John 19:40). Mary realized that the Lord would soon be taken from them, so she anointed His body for burial while she still had the chance. (Notice that John 12:3 makes clear that the anointing of the body was not just confined to the head.) So Mary's act was more than just the common custom of anointing the head of a dinner guest. There was a depth of worship here that went far below what appeared on the surface. The other guests saw only an apparent waste of expensive perfume. They read Mary's act as a spur-of-the-moment emotional extravaganza. The Lord Jesus knew that here was a well-thought-out and reasonable act of worship.
It is this depth of worship that is commended by our Lord and pronounced unforgettable in verse 9. Mary's deed was not a waste of time and effort; it had eternal value. The anointing of Jesus by Mary of Bethany is remembered wherever the gospel message has spread throughout the whole world--it will be remembered forever! The same is true of your worship of God. The worship you direct to God this summer in whatever job or ministry or activity He gives you will never be forgotten.
Let our lips and lives acknowledge God in everything--studies, social life, and summer work. Let worship be our way of life.