The Death of John the Baptist
May 5, 2019
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.’ 15 But others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.’ 23 And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’ 24 And she went out and said to her mother, ‘For what should I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. 30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Prayer of Illumination:
Holy Spirit, pour out upon us wisdom and understanding, that, being taught by you in Holy Scripture, our hearts and minds may be opened to receive all that leads to life and holiness. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
Last week, we saw that Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth to minister there. While he astounded the people with his ability to teach and preach, they were ultimately offended by him. They were offended that someone they knew, someone who to them was so ordinary, could do those things. So they rejected him.
We saw that Jesus then sent his Apostles out to minister just as he had been teaching and training them to do. The twelve went and were successful. They proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was breaking in through the person and work of Jesus and called the people to repent of their sins.
The ministry and mission of Jesus the Christ is starting to make waves. People are talking about this itinerant preacher who preaches with such power and authority. They are talking about the miracles that he has done. They are wondering what it all means.
And this talk about Jesus and his ministry has reached the ears of King Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was reigned when Jesus was born. This is his son, Herod Antipas. When Herod hears about Jesus, he is reminded of John the Baptist. Herod hears this and worries that he has another John on his hands.
John and Herod clashed and Herod had him imprisoned. They clashed over Herod’s wife Herodias. See, Herodias was originally married to his brother Philip. Now, the Torah allowed for a brother to raise up a child for his deceased brother to continue on the family line but it forbade marrying a brother’s wife while he was still living. Leviticus 18:16 says, “Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother.” And Herod had convinced Herodias to leave his brother for him.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Herodias was also his niece. Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, the father of her husband Herod Antipas. So Herod is married to his niece, who also happens to be his brother’s wife. From a biblical standpoint, this is completely and utterly wrong. It was sinful.
And John being the prophet that he was, he denounced Herod and Herodias’ marriage. John was greatest of all the prophets that prepared the way for Jesus. In Matthew 11, Jesus says that John was more than a prophet. He never shirked from calling people to repent. He called the religious leaders, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, to repent of their wicked ways. So when John heard that Herod had married his sister-in-law who was his niece, he called him out. He called him to repent saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
That didn’t go over well. John’s preaching had upset the apple cart. Herod was upset by what John had been preaching. He didn’t need a popular preacher like John calling out his sin. Herod was already unpopular with the Jews for building Sepphoris on a burial ground. Any Jew who set foot in Sepphoris would be ceremonially unclean. And having John publically calling Herod to repent of his sin for marrying might galvanize the Jews against him.
In addition to that, the neighboring kingdom Nabatea was offended with Herod. See, for Herod to marry Herodias he had to jilt the daughter of the King of Nabatea. And that didn’t go over too well with the king. Had enough people heard John and really become dissatisfied with Herod, they might have been ripe for the picking of Nabatea. And to prevent that from happening, Herod threw John in prison.
One of the greatest preachers of all-time was a man named John from Antioch. He was so good they nicknamed him Chrysostom, which means golden mouth. He eventually was elevated to the position of Archbishop of Constantinople, one of the most prestigious archbishoprics. While he was a clear and concise communicator of the gospel, he also never shied away from calling the imperial court in his congregation to repent of their sins when they were in sin. More than likely, his willingness to call political leaders to repent of their sins led to his exile from the city.
Sometimes pastors need to fulfill the role of prophet and call people to repent. It’s not easy to call someone who is powerful or popular to repent. Sometimes they think they are above the normal rules and morality. And so it’s easy to bend and make excuses for their sins. That’s why James reminds the church not to show favoritism.
It’s easy to say, “Well that person gives a lot to the church, we can overlook their sin. We don’t need to call them to repent. If we do, they might stop giving and we need their contribution”. But if they are in error and sin, we should call them to repent.
It’s easy to say, “Well that person is powerful and if we call them to repent of their sin it could make life uncomfortable for us”. But if they are in error and sin, we should call them to repent.
We live in an era of intense political division. We frequently dismiss and overlook the sin of politicians and leaders we like. Sometimes we even explain away their sins. But sin is sin. And we should speak truth to power and call them to repent.
And that might lead to politicians and other powerful people making life difficult for us. They might threaten us with financial, social, or physical harm. But for the purity of the Church and for their own growth as believers, we might need to call them to repent of their sin.
“And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.”
Herodias was deeply offended by John’s preaching. She never forgave him for calling out her sin with Herod. She nursed her grudge and the bitterness grew and spread in her heart. She wanted nothing more than to kill him and make clear that she wouldn’t tolerate people calling her to repent of her sin.
But Herod protected John. In fact, he even sat with John and would listen to him. Maybe Herod would ask John questions about morality; maybe Herod would ask John for advice on how to govern; maybe John would actually be honest with Herod. But in any case, Herod’s conversations with John left him perplexed. Somehow Herod’s conversations with John left him wanting something.
Despite the fact that Herod conversed regularly with John and seemed to come away considering what had been said to him, Herodias plotted and planned a way to get revenge on John. She knew she could never just come out and ask Herod to kill John. He enjoyed listening to John too much. No. Herodias knew that she needed to orchestrate events so Herod would want to kill John.
Eventually “an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.” The moment to strike was now. This party would be the opportune time for Herodias to get what she wanted.
She knew Herod’s greatest weakness was his pride. Herod wasn’t actually a king but he called himself one. He was actually a tetrarch, a ruler of a fourth; essentially Herod was a governor. But he wanted to be considered more powerful and stronger than a governor so he styled himself a king. He was proud. And it was this pride in his title that led to his downfall as he rebelled against Rome when they didn’t give him the title of king.
And at this party, there would be nobles, military commanders, and the heads of prominent families of Galilee. As those men ate and drank, Herod would want to show off. He would bring out the best meat and the best wine. This is when Herod would be at his most vulnerable. This is when Herod would be most susceptible to Herodias’ influence and demands.
So she sends in her daughter, Salome, to dance for Herod and the men. The young girl dances and the men are pleased. Maybe it was a belly dance. Maybe it was just the dance of a daughter for her step-dad. In any case, Herod and the men feasting with him are pleased. They enjoyed it.
Herod, desiring to show his grace and generosity, said “‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.’ 23 And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’”
Herod couldn’t give away half his kingdom; Rome would have never allowed it. Remember, Herod is essentially a governor. The land isn’t his to give. Herod is being hyperbolic. He is saying, “Ask me whatever you want, anything, and I’ll give it”. We do it all the time. But in any case, Herod is wanting to show off his generosity.
And he wants to do so in front of his guests. He wants them to think he’s generous and magnanimous. He might need them to help keep the peace. If Nabatea tries to stir the pot and get the Jews upset with Herod, he might need his guests to calm things down. So he wants to show off his generosity and grace. His does it for his own pride.
And when Salome hears the request, “she went out and said to her mother, ‘For what should I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Herodias had not revealed her plan to her daughter. She had just instructed Salome to dance for Herod and his guests knowing that the wine was flowing, knowing that he would want to appear generous and gracious. The trap was set and Herod fell into it. And now was the time to get her revenge.
Herodias tells Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist and the girl is not phased one bit. She is her mother’s daughter. When she goes back into the party, she shows her own twisted and depraved humor by asking that John’s head be brought out on a platter. This is party after all.
What is Herod to do? He enjoys talking with John, even though it perplexes him. But he also is a proud man who wants to appear generous and gracious before his guests. What is he to do?
It doesn’t take him too long to make his decision. “And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”
Despite the fact that Herod enjoyed his conversations with John, his hart was hard to the good news of the kingdom. Herod beheads John and gives his head as a gift to his step-daughter, who promptly presents it to Herodias.
This is a sad tale. It is heartbreaking. So why does Mark include this sad and sordid tale? Because one greater than John is here. And if this is what happens to John, then something even worse will happen to Jesus. Mark is dropping hints now that the opposition to Jesus will lead to his death.
The last mention of Herod comes in Luke 23. There, Jesus has been arrested and sent to Herod by Pilate. There we read, “When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate.”
Herod wants to see Jesus. But instead of wanting to see Jesus and talk with him as he had with John, Herod only wants to see Jesus so he can be entertained. He wants Jesus to do miracles and entertain him. But Jesus does not perform for Herod or answer him. He remains silent. And Herod sends him back to Pilate for his crucifixion. Jesus experienced a death worse than John’s. He is publicly flogged, condemned as a common criminal, and crucified before all to see.
Mark is dropping that hint now. And we know that was the plan from all eternity for Jesus to die on the cross in the place of believers. He is hinting about that now.
And he hints at that now because he is saying something incredibly important about discipleship. Notice that very last verse, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught”.
Do you remember the passage we looked at last week? Do you remember the second half of it? Jesus sent the twelve out minister and do as he does. Mark is famous for inserting a story in the middle of the story he is telling. He did that few weeks ago when we looked at Jesus being lord over disease and death. He started telling us the story of Jairus’ daughter who was deathly ill before interrupting that story to tell us about the woman who had been bleeding before returning to Jairus.
Every time that Mark does that, he tips his hand and shows how the first story will end. In the case of Jairus and the woman bleeding, Mark tips his hand that just as the woman was healed and restored so will Jairus’ daughter. Here he is telling us that as disciples of Jesus we need to be prepared that we might die for our faith.
Mark is writing is gospel around 65 A.D. All of the Apostles except John have been killed for their faith. Mark might have even seen his mentor, Peter, crucified upside-down. Maybe he watched in horror as Paul was crucified.
And the first readers of Mark’s gospel would have been known that they could die for their faith. Nero was emperor at this time. He was a cruel and sadistic man. He threw Christians to wild and hungry lions in the Coliseum; he dipped them in oil and tar before burning them alive so that they could light the way to Rome. They knew all too well that following Christ might mean their death.
And that is still true today. Two weeks ago on Easter Sunday, 250 brothers and sisters in Christ were tragically killed. Worshippers in three different Sri Lankan cities were martyred for the faith just as John was. Christians in Sri Lanka are a small minority and they know better than many us that following Christ might mean our death. Those 250 believers gathered two weeks ago to worship the risen Lord prepared to die for the faith but not expecting to.
But the hope of the gospel is that when Christ returns, all who have died in him will be made just like him. Our hope is that even if we are martyred we will rise bodily when Christ returns. Let us as his disciples, those whom he has called to himself, be prepared that following Christ might mean our death.