Who was Mary of Bethany in the Bible?

Mary of Bethany is a woman who demonstrated great faith in and love for Jesus. She is best known for sitting at Jesus' feet (Luke 10:38–42), her interaction with Jesus when her brother Lazarus had died (John 11), and anointing Jesus with expensive perfume before His death on the cross (John 12:1–8).

There was obviously a close friendship among Mary, her brother Lazarus, her sister Martha, and Jesus. In Luke 10, Mary's sister, Martha, opened her home to Jesus. Luke recorded that Mary, "sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching" (Luke 10:39). To sit at the feet of a rabbi is the Hebrew expression of how disciples were formally trained (cf. Acts 22:3). Mary was learning from Jesus in a manner that was normally reserved for men. When Martha protested that she was left to do the serving alone, Jesus responded, "Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10:42). Jesus defended Mary's choice to be in the presence of her Lord and her right to learn directly from Him alongside the other disciples.

Sometime later, Mary's brother Lazarus fell ill and the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, "Lord, he whom you love is ill" (John 11:3). The Bible affirms "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (John 11:5). So an intimacy had been established between the four of them by this time. And yet, Jesus stayed where He was two more days while Lazarus died. Jesus knew, "This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it" (John 11:4). When Jesus did finally arrive in Bethany, Martha went out to meet Him. After her conversation with Jesus, she reported to Mary, "The Teacher is here and is calling for you" (John 11:28). "And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him" (John 11:29). Mary, even in her grief, immediately obeyed the call of her Lord to come to Him.

"Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died'" (John 11:32). She brought her grief to Jesus while still stating her faith in His ability. "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled… Jesus wept" (John 11:33, 35). Mary's suffering moved Jesus to tears. Even though He knew He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, Jesus still took the time to mourn with Mary. The compassion and love Jesus had for Mary is evident. Lazarus's resurrection would certainly have only increased Mary's already steadfast faith.

During the week before Jesus' death, the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and John record what appear to be two separate anointings of Jesus. Luke records a different anointing that happened earlier in Jesus' ministry (Luke 7:36–50). John records the account of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus' feet six days prior to the Passover. He writes, "Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table. 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" (John 12:1–3). Mary humbled herself by taking down her hair in public and performed an act of service. Just a few days later, Jesus Himself would wipe the feet of His disciples, teaching them to serve one another, while probably still smelling the perfume with which Mary had anointed Him (John 13).

Judas, who would betray Jesus, complained that the ointment should have been sold and the money given to the poor. But his concern was not actually for the poor; as the keeper of the group's money, he would steal from their resources for himself (John 12:6). Jesus defended Mary, saying, "Leave her alone so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me" (John 12:7–8). Similar complaints and defense occurred in the incident recorded by Mark and Matthew when an unnamed woman anointed Jesus' head two days prior to the Passover at the home of Simon the leper (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9). Jesus defended that woman saying, "Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. … She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial" (Mark 14:6, 8). It seems Mary of Bethany and this other woman knew Jesus' death was imminent. He had told His disciples plainly that it was, so it makes sense that Mary would have known (Matthew 16:21; Mark 10:32–34). Mary of Bethany and the other woman poured out a costly perfume, investing a valuable treasure in Jesus and the work He was about to accomplish.

Mary of Bethany showed her faith in Jesus by listening to His teaching, bringing her emotions to Him, and performing a humble act of service. May we learn to love and serve our Savior with this same passionate abandon.

Related Truth:

What do we know about Mary Magdalene?

Why do women seem to have a small role in the Bible?

How many people were raised from the dead in the Bible?

What was the historical Jesus like? Who was Jesus as a person?

Who were Jesus' twelve (12) disciples / apostles?

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