There are only two passages in the Gospel of Mark that are not about Jesus. They are both about John the Baptist and this is the second of them, the first being at the very beginning of the book. This is the account of his martyrdom. As John was the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, he is the forerunner of his death. In both cases these righteous men are executed by cowardly tyrants who, fully aware of the innocence of the man before them, nevertheless bow to pressure being exerted upon them by others. [Edwards, 183] But, interesting as the parallels between John’s death and Jesus’ are, in the context, as we saw last time, John’s martyrdom is sandwiched between the accounts of the Lord’s disciples’ first public ministry. It is a lesson in discipleship and the price that sometimes must be paid for serving Jesus Christ.
This Herod, Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (that is, ruler of a 4th part of Palestine), was the son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. Herod Antipas reigned as a client ruler for the Romans from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39. This is the man Jesus would refer to as “that fox” (Luke 13:32), a reference to his malice and cunning. Like his father he was shrewd, pitiless, and a lover of luxury. [Edwards, 184]
As we begin the account John the Baptist is already dead. From v. 17 on we have what in our parlance is called a “flashback.”
The stir that Jesus’ ministry created, both directly and through his disciples, had to be explained and the miracles required a supernatural explanation. People were searching about for some way to account for the astonishing things that were happening. Some said that Elijah, the greatest prophet and miracle worker of the OT, had returned. Herod, no doubt prodded by his uneasy conscience, found it easy to believe that the man he had murdered had returned to torment him.
It is not, however, easy to know what precisely Herod would have meant by saying that John had been raised from the dead and was continuing his ministry in Jesus because the Gospels make clear that both John and Jesus were active at the same time and so were obviously separate individuals and would have been known to be so. Perhaps Herod is thinking of something akin to the spirit of Elijah descending upon Elisha after the former’s death. [France, 253] In any case, it is obvious that the close connection between John and Jesus was widely understood. Whatever Herod meant, it is obvious he didn’t do anything about the fact that he himself felt it necessary to explain Jesus in these fantastic ways.
Mark had mentioned John’s arrest in 1:14. Now he concludes the story.
Mark does not supply all the seamy details. In order to marry his half-brother’s wife – Herod the Great had ten wives and four sons who would rule over parts of Palestine – Herodias had first to divorce her husband to marry him (something she couldn’t do by Jewish law but which she claimed the right to do under Roman law) and Herod had to divorce his wife, the daughter of the king of Nabatea, a nation east of the Dead Sea. It was a case of marital musical chairs. By the way, the king of Nabatea, Aretas, did not take kindly to his daughter being jilted and inflicted a crushing defeat on Herod Antipas in A.D. 36. Josephus tells us that it was widely believed that Herod’s defeat was divine punishment for his execution of John. Three years later Herod and his new wife were banished to Gaul by the emperor Caligula. They had caused enough trouble. In any case, Herod’s marriage to Herodias was unlawful because it was incestuous, a marriage to a sister-in-law while the brother was still living (Lev. 18:16).
Josephus, reporting the same events, says that Herod killed John because he feared his growing influence with the people and the possibility of an eventual uprising. (Ant. 18.116-119) There is no reason to reject Josephus’ account; it is very likely true. Herod was the sort of man who would worry about such things. John’s preaching of the kingdom of God would have worried a man chiefly concerned about his own political fortunes. Mark adds the other, more personal side of the picture: viz. that Herodias hated John because of his public criticism of her second marriage and that, at least for a time – also true to the picture history paints of this man – Herod himself was conflicted (as Pilate would later be), not wanting to execute John, fascinated by him, afraid of him, yet, at the end willing to be convinced to murder him.
At this party, attended by the powerful and wealthy in Herod’s kingdom, Herod’s niece danced. Maybe she was a good dancer, maybe not, but the crowd knew enough to fawn over the king’s niece and Herod did as well. Herod was either drunk or showing off when he promised “half his kingdom,” – probably a figure of speech in any case – because in fact the kingdom wasn’t his to give; it was Rome’s and Rome wouldn’t have parted with an acre of it, for a good dancer or anyone else.
Herodias, nursing her grudge, seizes the opportunity and has her daughter ask for John’s head. She is another Jezebel, manipulating her cowardly and indecisive husband, and seeking the death of Elijah, the Lord’s prophet. One begins to wonder whose idea it was to dump their previous spouses and marry one another!
Herod’s disquiet only increases his guilt by magnifying his cowardice. He did what he knew very well was wrong.
Among the various men and women who populate the history of the Gospels and who cluster around Jesus in the four accounts of his life and ministry, the greatest of them all is John the Baptist. Jesus himself, on one occasion, said as much. He said that there was not a man born of woman greater than John. What a man; what a life! We know something of his meteoric rise to fame in Judea and his impact upon the people by the references to his popularity not only in the four Gospels but in the history of Josephus.
His was a unique life. Born to his parents as a miracle child in their old age, brought up as a Nazirite with a special sense of calling, he came into his adulthood a man apart. He was unmarried, living in isolation, wearing the unusual clothing of an Old Testament prophet, and eating unusual food. It was not a life, I suspect, that any of us finds particularly enviable. We wonder how happy a life it was. Surely he had a warm and loving home in his boyhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth would have seen to that. But almost nothing in the accounts of his adulthood relieves this picture of solitude, self-denial and struggle. We are, to be sure, glad he lived that life; but we would not want to live such a life ourselves. I don’t say that he was not, in his way, a happy man. I’m sure he was. The joy of the Lord was his strength. But the picture of his life we are given in the Gospels concentrates on those aspects that define him and his ministry and they are such things that remind us his was the life of a prophet and to be a prophet is both a distinction and an affliction.
John was only six months older than his relative, Jesus, and began his ministry shortly before Jesus began his. How much before we cannot say though probably not less than a month or two and no more than six months. And relatively shortly after Jesus began his ministry, John was arrested. Short as John’s ministry was, its impact was terrific. People came from everywhere to hear John and many responded from the heart to his message and answered his summons to repent because the kingdom of God was drawing near. Some of the Lord’s twelve disciples were, as you know, first disciples of John the Baptist.
And then came his greatest moment and greatest work: his identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world and his baptism of Jesus. But there is something difficult here as well. Haven’t you wondered, as I have, why after Jesus’ baptism John did not leave his own ministry to follow Jesus? Wouldn’t we have expected him to become one of the Lord’s own disciples? Wouldn’t that have been the most unmistakable way to indicate that he was only the forerunner and that the Messiah had come? But Jesus never asked him to do this. Jesus came, received John’s salutation as the Lamb of God, was baptized by him, took some of John’s choicest disciples from him and went his way, leaving John to continue as before. So far as we know the two men never saw one another again. That cannot have been easy; to have been left behind by the very man whose coming you had preached and whose appearance you had waited for so eagerly.
But so it was. The forerunner had done his job: he had prepared the way for the Lord and, so, not long thereafter, he was arrested and his public ministry came to an end. We might very well have expected that the man honored above all other men by being called to be the forerunner of the Son of God would have lived a long life, adored by the Christian public, and died an old man, full of years, surrounded, as Shakespeare has it, by
That which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends.
[MacBeth, V, iii, 25]
But it was not to be. So there sat John in Herod’s dungeon, still a young man and full of life, whiling away the days and the nights, wondering what was to come and what the extraordinary things that had accompanied his birth and his short ministry would eventually mean. We don’t know how long his imprisonment lasted; perhaps it too was only a few months. But it was long enough for the great man to suffer from some creeping doubts. The Lord Jesus’ ministry, as it was reported to him by those who visited him in jail, was not progressing as John had expected and so through his disciples he sent an inquiry to Jesus asking whether he was indeed the Messiah. We struggle to know how John could have come to doubt that, having already identified him as the one sent from God, but then, we are not sitting day after day alone in a cold, dark cell. In any case, the Lord’s reply, sent back through his disciples, we expect put his doubts at rest, perhaps, so far as we know, only days before the sudden end of his life.
Some martyrs know they are going to die and are able to prepare for it. They are to be burned or beheaded or hung on such and such a date at such and such a place. They are able to pray and to pore over Holy Scripture to strengthen their faith. They are able to visualize themselves being led away to death and plan ahead for what they will say and do in that moment. They will have conversations with the Lord and with themselves about giving glory to God in their dying. But for John, the day of his death dawned as any other. He had no inkling that as the hours of that day passed his life was swiftly drawing to its end.
He may or may not have been aware of the banquet going on in the palace. Scuttlebutt among palace staff being what it was, the guards may have been talking about it. But no one was prepared for the door to swing open and some officer walk in with instructions to behead the Baptist and bring the head to the banquet hall. We wonder what the guards themselves thought. John was a man who made an impression and it is not hard for us to believe that he was liked by the men who guarded him, fed him, and talked to him through the day. But they had their orders. How much evil, cruelty, and inhumanity happen in this world simply because people follow orders.
How suddenly, unexpectedly the news came to John: a knock on the door of his cell, the approach of a guard and then what words: “John, we have orders to behead you”? “John, sorry, but the king has commanded that you be executed”? Did John ever learn why? Was he given a moment to dash off a note to his disciples? Was he given any time to pray, to steel himself? How suddenly the crises of our lives come upon us; how essential that we be ready to face them.
I’ll never forget that first call from my sister. I was sitting in my office typing at the computer when the phone rang. She was calling to tell me she had just got the news from her doctor that he had found something disturbing in a test taken during an annual physical. She was 47 at the time and was hurrying off to another examination to find out if it were in fact cancer, as the doctor suspected, and wanted me to pray with her. And then the next call, saying that it was indeed cancer and a very lethal kind of cancer. No thought of any of this a day before, or even an hour before she got the news. So it was with John.
He was taken from his cell or out of his chains, his neck was placed over a block and as suddenly as that his life was over. And the head of that great man was taken into the banquet hall and the gruesome display became everyone’s entertainment. I wonder how many went home from that party ashamed, sick to their stomachs, disgusted with the stupid, small-minded, and cowardly king who had done such a monstrous thing simply to show off. What ever became of that head? The news of the great man’s death somehow reached his disciples and they performed the only decent act in the whole sorry, sickening affair; they take away John’s body – minus his head – to give it a decent burial. I would hate to be Herod Antipas on the Day of Judgment, standing before the Lord Christ and having to answer for that ancient crime!
Thus ended the short life and the still shorter life’s work of the greatest man, save one, who ever lived. Mark is giving us a lesson in discipleship, in following Jesus and serving him. The account of John’s martyrdom is sandwiched between the call of the disciples to do ministry in Jesus name and their return from that ministry as reported in verse 30 of this same chapter 6. “The sandwich structure brings mission and martyrdom, discipleship and death into an inseparable relationship.” [Edwards, 189]
Jesus, of course, would say the same thing explicitly that is so magnificently and powerfully and movingly portrayed in this account of John’s martyrdom. He would speak of following him as being like a crucifixion, taking up a cross, or like dying again and again. It would be a forsaking of family and comfort and safety. It would be persecution and self-denial and loss.
To be sure, it will be many very happy things as well, but in this world of sin and death, among this rebel mankind, to love and serve Jesus is to take upon oneself the enmity of the Evil One and to face the opposition of his kingdom and of this world. And no disciple of Jesus Christ understands his calling or has truly embraced it until he understands this and is determined never to be deterred by it. Following Christ requires the facing of many difficulties and the suffering of many things. John is the perfect example. He was such a true disciple, his life was lived so completely in the spirit of discipleship, that his was a life alone, a short life brought to its end in sudden, tragic, and cruel death. The twelve disciples were, in their own somewhat lesser way, the paragons, the exemplars of Christian discipleship for all time, and they lived as a consequence difficult lives and at least many of them died violent deaths.
Following and serving Jesus is hard, so hard that the primary reason to do it, as Jesus often says, is not what you get in this world, but what you get in the next. It almost seems as if the nearer a man or woman gets to Jesus, the more faithfully he or she follows him, the more he or she must suffer. We rush to think of exceptions and surely every Christian doesn’t suffer as much as others do. John, the brother of James, did not go as heavily through this world as Peter and Paul. But when Augustine said that “The world was not overcome by fighting but by suffering,” and when A.W. Tozer said, “It is doubtful that God can bless a man greatly unless he has hurt him deeply,” we hear, all honest and serious-minded Christian men and women hear the clear, bell-like tone of the truth.
We may not be required to suffer an early death; we may never be asked to while away our lives in a prison for the sake of loyalty to Jesus Christ, but many people have and it was Christian discipleship that required such sacrifice of them, the very same discipleship to which you and I aspire this morning, the very same loyalty to Jesus, the very same service offered to him, the very same obedience and love. There are literally thousands of ways Christians suffer because they are followers of Jesus Christ, suffer in like if not in equally terrible ways to the beheading of John the Baptist.
My daughter called me this week. She had been asked by a teacher and supervisor to photocopy a considerable amount of music for use in a musical event. She suspected that such photocopying was illegal and had confirmed that, without mentioning names, with the university librarian. She went back to the supervisor to tell her what she had found but was told to do it anyway. To buy the music she was ordered to photocopy would cost $350 and her supervisor didn’t want to spend the money. Besides, she said, everyone does it. She consulted the librarian again to see if there were some way around the illegality, but there really wasn’t. She returned to her supervisor and meekly suggested that they buy the music instead and offered to make arrangements. She was snapped at, was told to find another student to do the photocopying, and now wonders what her relationship with this particular teacher will be in the future.
What is this but, in a small way, John telling Herod that it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife and what is this but, in a small way, Herodias offended to be told that she shouldn’t have done what she did. Many of you know very well how it hurts to bear the reproach of others because you are a Christian. How it hurts to have others think that you think yourself better than they. It is no fun for people to say, in so many words, “Who are you to tell me how to live?” And it is no fun to suffer the consequences over time. My daughter was in tears when we talked on the phone. She didn’t want to offend her teacher; she didn’t want to create a rift; she didn’t want to be a person apart from everyone else; she wants to be liked as we all do. But she couldn’t cheat as a follower of Christ and look where that got her?
That is a comparatively small thing, to be sure. This is not. The World Evangelical Alliance reported last Wednesday that 10 single Christian women in Eritrea, who had already been in prison for some 18 months simply because they are Christians, had been separated from other prisoners, ordered to recant their faith, and were tortured when they refused. On Wednesday, September 5th, one of these woman (Nigsti Haile, aged 33) was tortured to death. She was the fourth Christian recently to die from torture in custody. That certainly isn’t a small thing! That isn’t like or in some way similar to the suffering of John the Baptist for his faithfulness to Christ and his calling as a servant of God; that is precisely the sameif not worse suffering than that of John the Baptist. John at least was not tortured before he was beheaded.
Though you may not know it from what you hear of Christianity nowadays, it is not the proclamation of comfortable platitudes. It is the personal knowledge of the living God with whom the whole world in which we live is fiercely at odds. It is following Jesus Christ and that invariably means for us as it did for him suffering and loss.
This is true faith, this is genuine Christianity: what we see in John the Baptist. An altogether different thing, an altogether higher thing and nobler thing than most people think Christianity to be. Not a comfortable system, a predictable scheme of life by reason of which we give our good behavior to God and he smiles on us. No, it is a rumbling, roaring, great adventure, life and death and danger on every hand, walking with Christ who loves us and promises to help us but who has summoned us to his own life of struggle, suffering, and sacrifice. Such must a godly life be with a world as sin-soaked as this one is, standing under the specter of death as it does, and alienated from God as it is. Such must be a Christian’s pilgrimage through the Devil’s world.
Perhaps some of you now, in one way or another, are struggling with the fact that your life has not turned out as you had imagined or hoped. I cannot explain that to you any more than I can explain why John’s life took the course it did; no one can. The Lord is God. Let all the earth keep silence before him. But I can say this to you with absolute confidence: on this path of unexpected and inexplicable twists and turns, of difficulties and obstacles of every kind, you can see ahead of you the footprints of every truly great Christian who had preceded you in this world, even the print of that desert-worn, almost disintegrated sandal of John the Baptist.