What does John 12:3 mean?
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.
NKJV: Then Mary took a pound of very costly oil of spikenard, anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.
Verse Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
John 12:1–8 describes a dinner held at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Jesus has recently raised Lazarus from the dead, in a spectacularly public miracle. As a result, the religious leaders of Jerusalem have banded together to have Him killed. In this scene, Mary sacrifices an extremely expensive container of oil in order to anoint Jesus. Judas objects to this, dishonestly claiming that his concern is for the poor which the ointment's value could have supported. This is similar to an event related in Mark chapter 14, but not the same as the one recorded in Luke chapter 7.
Chapter Summary:
Jesus is treated to an honorary dinner at the home of Lazarus, whom He has recently raised from death. At this dinner, Lazarus' sister, Mary, anoints Jesus with expensive oil. Jesus then enters Jerusalem to great fanfare, stoking fears that His popularity will attract the anger of the Roman Empire. That anger even inspires a murder plot against Lazarus. After being approached by non-Jewish seekers, Jesus offers a final plea for people to understand His ministry. In effect, these are the last public words spoken by Jesus in the gospel of John.
Chapter Context:
In the prior chapter, Jesus spectacularly raised Lazarus from death in front of a crowd of witnesses. This inspired local religious leaders to commit to having Him killed. Here, after a celebratory dinner where Jesus is anointed with oil, He will fulfill prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, celebrated with shouts of ''Hosanna'' and a massive crowd. This leads to a group of curious non-Jews approaching Him. Christ then offers a final plea for belief in Him and His message. After this, His ministry will turn to preparing the disciples for His impending death and resurrection. The next several chapters of the gospel of John are almost entirely made up of his teachings to these men.
Book Summary:
The disciple John wrote the gospel of John decades after the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were written. The author assumes that a reader is already familiar with the content of these other works. So, John presents a different perspective, with a greater emphasis on meaning. John uses seven miracles—which he calls "signs"— to prove that Jesus is, in fact, God incarnate. Some of the most well-known verses in the Bible are found here. None is more famous than the one-sentence summary of the gospel found in John 3:16.
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