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John 12:3

ESV Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
NIV 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.
NASB Mary then took a pound of very expensive perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
CSB Then Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus's feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
NLT Then 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. The house was filled with the fragrance.
KJV Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment.

What does John 12:3 mean?

Jesus is being treated to a dinner in the home of a man named Simon (Mark 14:3–11), in the town of Bethany (John 12:1). This is to celebrate Jesus' raising of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha (John 11:38–43). These three siblings, in a way, each represent a mode of service Christians can emulate in their lives. Martha provides literal, material service. Lazarus is a living testimony of Christ's influence. Mary, as shown here, exemplifies sacrifice and worship.

Nard, sometimes referred to as spikenard, is an oil made from plants grown in northern India. In an era long before trains or planes, this was an incredibly expensive substance. The Greek term here is a litra, which in oil form would have been about a pint, or a bit less than half a modern-day liter. This was valued at some 300 denarii, nearly an entire year's wages for a common laborer. As a woman of the ancient middle east, Mary probably owned no property or land. This, then, was a substantial part of her life savings. The container, made of the marble-like stone called alabaster (Mark 14:3), highlights how valuable the substance was.

Mary's application of the oil is especially humble and worshipful. Wiping of someone's feet was an act of servanthood and submission (John 13:1–7). Adding to the sacrifice of the oil itself, women in this era usually kept their hair covered in public. Mary is using her hair—not a towel or a rag—to wipe Jesus' feet. While that image is merely odd to modern-day eyes, in that era it was a deeply intimate, self-exposing act, putting her in a position of lowliness and quasi-nudity.

This doesn't imply any sexual component to Mary's action whatsoever—that would also be a modern misunderstanding. Rather, Mary's behavior was uninhibited worship and submission to Christ. Upcoming verses note that bystanders were not afraid to criticize her, but that criticism was about perceived waste, not something untoward in her act.

Nard has an aroma better described as "spicy" more so than as a perfume. However, the scent is quite strong, and Mary is using a considerable dose. It's no surprise, then, that the entire house is permeated with the scent. Mary's sacrifice is not something hidden or secretive—but she's not deliberately advertising her good deed. It's simply a natural consequence of her sacrifice.

Scripture not only shows us positive examples of service, it also gives us negative examples of those who belittle the spiritual efforts of others. At other times, Martha has been frustrated at Mary, who sits and listens to Jesus while Martha hurries to serve guests (Luke 10:38–42). That complaint, at least, was inspired by good intentions. She sincerely meant to see the right thing done, and over-emphasized her own perspective. Judas, on the other hand, will snipe at Mary with a dishonest appeal for better use of money. In truth, his interest is greed, and he's actually angry to see the nard "wasted" on Jesus instead of ending up in Judas' own pocket (John 12:4–6).
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