As Jesus approached the end of His ministry and was preparing Himself for the cross, He attended a feast in His honor at the home of a man named Simon. Simon is called the leper, but as he was holding a public feast in his home, we surmise that he had been healed of his leprosy, most likely by Jesus. Also present was Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead (cf. John 12:1-3). It was, by all indications, a dinner given to honor Jesus for all the good He had done for others. There Mary, the sister of Lazarus, took a costly ointment and used it to anoint Jesus. When his disciples protested at the extravagance, Jesus replied to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me… In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her. (Matthew 26:10-13; ESV)”
Jesus was, in effect, saying her behavior was such that she would make a good sermon illustration for use by preachers in teaching the message of Christ. Sure enough, some two thousand years on, and Mary’s loving gift continues to be used to illustrate the sacrificial thanksgiving we ourselves should possess as regards the person of the Christ who died for us.
The Bible is full of such illustrations, and purposefully so.
Paul writing about the example of the Israelites who had been freed from Egypt, only to perish in the wilderness because of their rebellion against God, says, “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:6-11; ESV)”
Twice Paul calls the behavior of the Israelites an, “example,” and he explicitly comments that these things were, “written down for our instruction.” That is, God knew that we would need illustrations of how not to behave, and so included them in His word.
Mary, on the other hand, is an example of how we should behave, and so we see that God includes examples and illustrations both positive and negative, for use by those who are going to preach the word.
Which is a good thing for preachers. Illustrations make teaching easier and preachers across the ages and around the world love a useful illustration. So much so that they very frequently don’t limit themselves to just those examples drawn from scripture. There are whole books of published preaching anecdotes able to be used to illustrate this point or that.
Have you ever stopped and thought, however, that all of these illustrations, good and bad, whether drawn from the scriptures, the newspapers, family life, or some other source… all of these illustrations are taken from things that people actually did. Before the story is told, someone had to make the choice to behave in such a way as to provide a useful illustration so as to make an important point about behavior, human nature, morality and the like. Preachers don’t have to make up cautionary tales. The world is full of them. Likewise, tales of love and benevolence abound in the lives of those touched by Christ.
Which leads us to the question we want to get at: if a preacher looked at your life and drew an illustration from it, what kind of illustration would it be? Would it be a story, like Mary’s, about how one should behave? Or would it be more like that of the Israelites under Moses: a cautionary warning about how we should not act in our service to God?
Even if the preacher never uses you as an illustration, you can be certain that someone around you is looking at your life and drawing a lesson from it. It is to be hoped they are drawing a proper lesson.
God wants us to live our lives in such a way as to illustrate the right way to go. The apostle wrote to the Philippians: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,… (Philippians 2:14-15; ESV).” Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:16; ESV).”
Mary let her light shine, and we are still talking about it in a positive way, drawing encouragement from it, and learning that we should do the same. Let us all try to live in such a way so that when men talk about us, years from now, our lives will have been so illustrative.
The church of Christ invites you to worship and study God’s word with us as we learn more and more about how our lights are to shine. If you have any questions or comments, please share them with us at 234 Chapel Drive, Gallipolis, Ohio.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.