Herod and John

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mark 6:14-29 Herod and John

A Strange Story
Today’s Bible reading contains a strange story.

By way of reminder—and maybe if you have not been here in the last few weeks—we are in the midst of a sermon series taking us through the book of Mark. My goal is to cover the book of Mark between New Yea”s and Easter. That’s about 14 weeks to cover 16 Bible chapters.

I’ve been saying that it is going to be impossible for me to comment on every verse or even every story. So we’re doing something a little different for us, but something that is common in a lot of other churches: every week we are having someone come up and read scripture. And, because we want to cover the entire book of Mark, the readings are a bit long. Usually an entire chapter, as Richard just read all of Mark 6.

Then, for the sermon, sometimes I try to cover everything that was just read, and sometimes I focus on one story or just a few verses. And that’s the case today. Even though Richard read about Jesus going back to his hometown and sending out the twelve and the death of John the Baptist and feeding the five thousand and Jesus walking on water, I’m not going to be able to cover all that. Rather, I’m going to focus in on one story. The story of John and Herod.

And, as I said, it is a strange story. It’s the kind of story you would not expect to find in your Bible. It reads like the plot line to an HBO television show. It’s got all kinds of things that seem to sell in edgier entertainment these days: adultery, incest, sensuality, revenge, violence and blood. It’s a gross story. An uncomfortable story. But on its surface it appears to have little spiritual value.

So, when I encounter a story like this in the pages of scripture, I tend to ask questions: "Why is this story, written in this way, in our Bibles? What is Mark's purpose--and, more importantly, God's purpose--in including this story in the gospel of Jesus Christ?"

An Illustration of Faith
At one level it is easy to see the purpose. John the Baptist was a figure introduced earlier in the gospel. He's a character in the story--his story is a part of Jesus' story--and so it makes sense to finish his story. To tell us how he died. The purpose we could say then, is to let us know what happened to John.

But at another level, that answer is unsatisfying. Because if all Mark wanted to do was to finish John's story, then why didn't he do it when he introduced John to us? Flip back in your Bibles to chapter 1, that's where we read about John. Mark 1:4:

4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John is introduced as a forerunner to Jesus. He drew a crowd in the Judean countryside and he baptized people in the Jordan River. But as much of a celebrity as he became, his message was always that someone more powerful was coming. And then Jesus arrived, and John baptized him, and the voice of God declared that Jesus was God’s own Son.

That’s what Mark tells us about John. But Mark ends that section with this, in chapter 1 verse 14:

14 After John was put in prison.

So, if Mark’s whole point in including the sordid story of John’s death is to finish John’s story, why didn’t he put it right there. Why wait until chapter 6 to tell us how John’s story ends?

It certainly wasn't because he was concerned to tell the story chronologically: as the gospel stands now, when people begin to speculate that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, Mark has to go backwards--out of chronological order--to tell us how John died. Verse 17 of our text reads almost as though Mark were saying, "Oh, by the way, I forgot to tell you, John is dead." If Mark wanted to be chronological, it would have seemed that chapter 1 verse 14 would have been the best place to narrate John's death.

Why then, did he choose this place in the story to include it? What is his purpose in telling this story here?

I think it has something to do with where we are in the story of Jesus. Last week, we looked at chapter 5 and we saw these miracle stories that revolved around the question of faith. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said, “just believe.” Mark’s purpose seems to be to call us to have faith in Jesus.

Then, our reading today starts out with Jesus returning to his hometown only to be rejected. They did not have faith. Then Jesus sends the 12 out on their first mission. They had faith. And the question seems to be: what about us? Will we have faith or not?

Then comes the story of John and Herod. And to me, it reads like a further illustration of that question. It seems to me like Mark is asking us to make a choice. And the question is: will you live for yourself, or will you live for Christ? And John and Herod are the examples of both choices.

So let’s take a moment to look at both Herod and John, and compare them to each other.

First, we need to look at Herod.

I should tell you right off the bat that this Herod is not the same Herod as the one who tried to kill Jesus when He was a little baby. That Herod is known in the pages of history as "Herod the Great" and he died not long after Jesus' birth. The Herod we read about here in Mark 6 is a son of Herod the Great, a guy known as Herod Antipas. This is the same Herod who saw Jesus on the night before his crucifixion, the one who passed the buck to Pilate.

Herod Antipas was one of three sons who divided up the territory of Herod the Great after their father died. Herod the Great, of course, was something of a monster. He was an expert at pleasing the emperor in Rome—at whose pleasure he held on to his power—but he was paranoid and jealous of his power. Not only did he have the infants of Bethlehem killed in the days after Jesus was born, he also ordered the assassination of many family members whom he feared were plotting against him.

When Herod the Great died, it wasn’t clear which son should succeed him, so they divided his territory three ways. Antipas—the Herod in Mark 6—received the Galilean area. He was not, technically, a king--his official title was tetrarch—but he like to style himself as a king. Which is probably why Mark refers to him that way. It is probably supposed to be ironic.

In light of what we know about his father it is not too surprising to read Mark's account of Herod Antipas. The apple did not fall too far from the tree, as they say. As far as Rome was concerned, he was a good ruler. But his personal life was one of decadence and moral corruption.

In about 29 AD, right around the time Jesus was beginning His public ministry, Herod Antipas went to visit his brother Philip and fell in love with his wife--Herodias, who also happened to be his niece. Herodias agreed to marry him, so long as he divorce his first wife, which he promptly did.

Now, not surprisingly, marrying your brother's wife while your brother is still alive is something expressly forbidden in the Mosaic law, to say nothing of marrying your own niece. John the Baptist, who conducted his ministry in the territory of Antipas, began to preach against this marriage. This, undoubtedly, made things rather uncomfortable for both Antipas and Herodias, and so he had John arrested and thrown in jail.

Imprisonment, however, was not good enough for Herodias. She felt John had greatly insulted her, and she wanted to see him dead. She urged her husband to have him executed, but Antipas was reluctant. Perhaps feeling a little guilt over his own behavior, he did not dare kill a righteous and holy man.

But Herodias, true to her family name, was not to be dissuaded. Knowing her husband's weaknesses, she arranged for a birthday party. The high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee were all there, and the food and the drink were plentiful. Then, just when the guests were relaxing after their meal and looking for some sort of diversion, Herodias sent her own daughter in to dance for them.

The dance was undoubtedly sensual and lascivious, and Mark tells us that it greatly pleased both Herod and his guests. In fact, it pleased Herod so much that, filled with lust for his own step-daughter, he rashly promised to give her anything she asked for. This was precisely the opportunity Herodias was looking for, and she bluntly instructed her daughter to request the head of John the Baptist. This the girl did, apparently adding her own perverted sense of humor by requiring that the head be presented before the banquet guests on a serving platter.

Antipas was still reluctant to have John killed, but because he had used an oath in front of all his guests, decided he had no choice, and John was summarily executed. It is a disgusting story.

What, then, can we say about Herod?

I would say that Herod is the very essence of Philippians 3:18-19. Paul writes this:

18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things.

Herod appears to be a man who was extremely earthly minded. He was a man who grew up accustomed to wealth and power, and apparently he felt these things gave him the right to do as he pleased. As concerns his happiness, he clearly focused on what would bring him the greatest immediate pleasure. He made a god out of his stomach. He does not seem to know what it meant to deny himself, apparently believing he was entitled to any woman he wanted, whether she was his brother's wife or his own step-daughter.

He was also a man who was easily swayed by the opinions of others. Even though he had an inkling of how wrong it would be to take John's life, his concern over how the guests at his party would then perceive him was enough for him to do it anyway. He allowed concern over his stature in the perception of others to hold more sway over his actions than even his own conscious.

John the Baptist
Now, let’s compare John the Baptist to Herod.

Think about what you know about John: born to poor and elderly parents, his life is one of deprivation and want. Rather than life in a lavish royal palace, the gospel writers tell us that he made his home in the desert of Judea.

Mark 1 verse 6 tells us that he "wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey." Rather than the sumptuous foods of royal banquets he lived on what he could find in the wilderness. Rather than the fine clothing of the rich, he wore the rough clothing of a prophet.

Herod was a man who lived for pleasure. John was a man who knew very little pleasure--but knew much about self-denial. Even when his preaching attracted great crowds and offered him some of the satisfaction of fame, John self-effacingly pointed to another who was more worthy to be followed than he.

John was also a man who was little swayed by the opinions of men. While Herod was careful to protect his reputation in the eyes of others, John cared about pleasing only God. I have no doubt that during the time of his imprisonment, if John had told Herod he was sorry for speaking out against the marriage and that he would do so no longe Herod would gladly have set him free.

But John was not willing to do that. He knew God's word and he knew the importance of being committed to it. He would not compromise God's holiness, even if it meant the loss of his freedom or his life.

So how do we summarize the contrast between Herod and John? Well, if Herod was earthly minded, then we would have to say that John was heavenly minded. While Herod was focused on what could please him and make him happy now in this life, John was more focused on what would guarantee him happiness in the next life. While Herod was swayed by the opinions of men, John cared only for the opinion of God. And while Herod broke all laws to get what he wanted, John had faith that God would provide what he needed.

Let me go back to the passage in Philippians. Philippians 3, 18 and 19, but this time adding in verse 20 as well:

18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,

It seems to me that Herod and John are the perfect illustrations of these verses. It’s stark choice, and a vivid picture of the two paths set before us. The question is: will you live for yourself, or will you live for Christ?

You can choose to live for yourself. You can be earthly minded. You can make a god of your stomach. Do whatever seems right to you. Glory in your shame—or, more likely, lose all sense of shame altogether. This is the path that Herod took, and it took him to very dark places.

Or, you can choose to live for Christ. You can be heavenly minded. You can put your focus on the Lord Jesus Christ and living for him. You can do what God says is right. You can find you’re your glory in serving Him. This is the path that John took, and while I know it looks like he is the loser in this story, the Bible says that he is the one who truly lived.

**Mark 8:35 **
Let’s go back to the book of Mark, and skip ahead a little bit. Mark 8:35 is an important verse in Mark, and one we are going to focus on in a couple of weeks. But we need to look at it now, because I think John is being presented as an example of what Mark 8:35 calls us to.

Here’s the verse:

35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Doesn't that sound like John? Isn't that what John did?

Jesus puts everything into perspective in verse 35: His identity, faith in Him, what that faith means, what it means to follow Him. The call to faith, the call to be a disciple, is a call to find strength and satisfaction and life in God to the exclusion of all else--including temporal life itself.

The faith that we saw last week in chapter 5, the faith that Jesus asked His disciples to have when they went out to preach without any provisions of their own--is defined here for us. If we are to have faith--if we are to follow Jesus--then we need to be prepared to find our strength, our satisfaction, our happiness, our well-being, our very life in God.

"Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the sake of the gospel will save it." That's precisely what John did. And it is precisely what Herod did not do. Herod lived for himself--for pleasure, for praise, for power. John denied himself--he ate insects, he deflected attention away from himself, and he refused to compromise his message.

"Whoever wants to save his life will lose it..." Can there be any doubt what happened to Herod? He lived for the present and no doubt he received all his reward in this life.

"...but whoever loses his life for me and for the sake of the gospel will save it." Can there be any doubt what happened to John? He denied himself in this world and no doubt he received all his reward in heaven.

The Hope of Dying
There is a story about a man who was traveling by boat from Europe to America. It turned out he was rather weak-stomached, and had a difficult time with the motion of the boat. It made him queasy. To make matters worse, the ship encountered a rather ferocious storm about midway through the journey and this man found himself at the rail of the ship repeatedly retching and depositing the majority of the food he had eaten the past few days into the ocean. And as he stood there, hunched over and in agony, another man came up to him and put an arm around him: "Cheer up George," he said, "at least you're not dying."

And George turned to him and said, "Don't say that! It's the hope of dying that's keeping me alive."

Oh that more of us could say that! Oh that more of us might have the faith of John! That instead of living for ourselves, we might live for God. That instead of chasing after our own ideas of pleasure and happiness we would have the faith to see that pleasure and happiness can only truly be found in God.

It is only the hope of dying--dying to ourselves in service to God--that gives us any hope to live. It is only faith--faith like John the Baptist--that will allow us to look beyond the things of this world and focus on our greater reward in heaven.