We are studying the Gospel of John in our Bible study. What is the significance of anointing Jesus in different events?
Giving a Precious Gift
You said you were doing a study of John, and anoint appears twice in John’s Gospel: John 11:2 and John 12:3. It’s the same Greek word both times—aleipho. This is the page from Strong’s Concordance about that word. If you look at the verses where it is used, it’s only used when human beings anoint someone. If you scroll back up to the section called “Outline of Biblical Usage” and hit “click for synonyms” you’ll find that Greek has two words for anoint—this one, which is used for common purpose (aleipho) and another word (chrio) that is used when the anointing is for a sacred purpose.
That definition for chrio is here, and you can see in the listing of verses where it is used at the bottom that John doesn’t use chrio at all. You can also see that chrio is only used when it is God who does the anointing. So “common purpose” seems to define when humans anoint something/someone and “sacred purpose” seems to define when God does it, either directly or through a human agent acting on God’s behalf, like Jesus’ disciples. In either case the word changes based on who is doing the anointing and not the recipient.
So that’s the short answer to the question. In John, where the word is only used in connection to the story where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment, the common word, aleipho, is used because it’s a human anointing Jesus and not the other way around.
But what is anointing, exactly? What did she think she was doing—or anyone else for that matter? What did anointing symbolize? That's always the more important question in a Bible passage.
Looking at the original languages and the service of Strong's Concordance online can help us find a much deeper understanding of what she did and what all anointing of both types is about more generally.
This will get nerdy...
The word for the common anointing in John (aleipho) is a combination of two other Greek words which are the words for union and oil. So in a very technical sense you are uniting a thing (someone’s forehead, feet, or whatever it is you’re anointing) with oil. And that’s pretty consistent with the meaning of the Hebrew word for anoint, which means to smear a substance on something—usually fat or oil. (The word is sometimes translated as “paint.”) But of course what we really want to know is why they were smearing stuff on someone or something to begin with. What did they think they were doing?
Since we’re dealing with Jewish history and practice throughout the Bible, the New Testament practice of anointing has ancient Hebrew roots. While rituals can and do shift across time and can be adapted to new use or new understanding in a new age, I always find it helpful to see if I can go back and find the origins of something to help me understand a modern practice. So one of my favorite things to do is to find the very first time in the Bible a word is used and see what is going on there.
In this case, the first time “anoint" is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 31:13 where God says to Jacob, “I am the God of Bethel, where you anointed a sacred pillar and where you made a solemn promise to me.” Interesting. Looks like if we want to understand what anointing is, we need to go back to Bethel. The Bethel story is in Genesis 28:10-22. That’s where Jacob, while running from his brother Esau, has a dream where God comes to him and promises to be with him. Jacob wakes up and feels like this must be a sacred place, so he takes the stone he had used for a pillow and makes a sacred pillar out of it by pouring oil on it. The word “anoint” does not appear there. The words in Genesis 28:18 for pouring oil are those two specific words—the word meaning "to pour" and the word meaning “oil or fat.” Since Jacob pours it (instead of smearing it), it is likely liquid oil.
This is also the first time in the Bible that word meaning oil or fat is used—likely because this story is so ancient that before this they had not yet learned to press oil. That technology was invented in the region around 2500 BCE. That helps give a general time frame for this story—it had to be sometime after the region around the Mediterranean learned to press oil—but it also tells us that Jacob was not pouring out a common substance on that rock. In the story, he is on his way to find his Uncle Laban and hopefully live with him, so he would have come with precious gifts to help convince his uncle to take him in. Olive oil, as a relatively new and uncommon thing in the world, would have qualified as one such precious gift.
So what Jacob does at Bethel, when he is overcome with gratitude for God appearing to him and blessing him, is to mark the spot with the stone he was touching when it happened and then he poured a special gift (the oil) on it. He spilled it onto a rock out in the desert as a gift to the God who had blessed him in that place. A few chapters later, in the Genesis 31:13 verse mentioned above, God describes what he did to the stone as “anointing,” the first time the word is used in the Bible. So in the Bible it is God who first defines the word “anoint” by referencing Jacob’s extravagant gift, which was given in gratitude for what God had given to him. Anointing, at its most fundamental level and as defined by none other than God, is the completion of a gift-giving cycle. We get something precious from God and we mark our gratitude by giving something precious in return.
Here’s where we make the leap to the anointing mentions in John, both of which refer to the story in John 12. In John 12:3, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with spikenard, a precious ointment. It is the common word for anointing (aleipho), not the sacred word (chrio), because it is a human being doing the anointing. This is Mary doing what Jacob did thousands of years before her. She is giving a precious gift to Jesus, who had so blessed her by restoring her brother’s life. This is Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and she, Martha, and the newly-resurrected Lazarus are sitting at a table together, something she could not have imagined possible just a short time before. It is completely understandable that as she took in the scene at the table and how much Jesus had given to their family, that she would take the most precious thing she could find and give it. She would not have presumed to anoint Jesus’ head, but taking a servant’s role she anointed his feet with a substance (spikenard) that had been recognized at least since the days of King Solomon as one of the most precious substances in the world. What else could properly show the gratitude for someone who had given you life itself.
But more generally, no matter who is doing the anointing, we can see from the origins of the practice that anointing is the giving of a precious gift—either a gift from God to humans or a gift from humans to God—and that gift is marked by a special and precious substance. You could say in one sense that the ultimate anointing of humanity is the gift from God to us in the life of Jesus, marked by His precious blood.