We’re in Mark 6:14-29 today, if you would like to turn there. Last time we saw how Jesus sent out the twelve to do the work of the kingdom: to preach repentance for the kingdom of God is at hand, to heal the sick and to cast out demons. We also saw how they came back to report to Jesus and he called them to rest from their kingdom work.
Well, in between the beginning and the end of this story; the working and the resting – Mark tells the story of John the Baptist’s death. And as I said last week, there’s a reason for this; there’s a link between these stories, which we’ll look at in a moment.
John raised from the dead?
14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.
King Herod here refers to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great, the one who tried to kill Jesus as a baby. When Herod the Great died his territory was divided into four parts and four of his sons took over one part each. Herod Antipas was given rule over Galilee and Perea.
So in our verse we learn that Herod Antipas heard of the mission of the disciples. They went out in Jesus’ name and have now made him even more well known. As we’ve seen, Jesus’ fame has been increasing and here even the political leaders of the day have heard about him.
Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”
This is the first indication in Mark that John has died. Last we heard back in 1:14 he had only been arrested.
Although not really plausible, since John and Jesus are about the same age and were together for a time, some think that Jesus is just John raised from the dead. And it’s because he’s raised that he now has these miraculous powers.
5But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”
Elijah, or someone like him, was prophesied to return in Malachi (3:1; 4:5-6). But as we will learn later, Jesus identifies John as this Elijah (9:11-13).
Others thought Jesus was a significant prophet, since they compare him to prophets from the Old Testament.
16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
Herod declares his opinion that Jesus is John raised from the dead. He here also confesses to killing John, “John, whom I beheaded.” And perhaps there’s a connection between his guilt over killing John and the fear that John has now come back with even more power to haunt him.
Having told us that he died, Mark now gives us a flashback and tells us –
How John was killed
17For 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. 18For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herod Antipas was not known as a devout man by any stretch of the imagination. In this case, John has be criticizing his marriage to his second wife Herodias. She was previously married to Herod’s half-brother Philip.
So Herod married his brother’s wife, while his brother was still living. This is strictly forbidden in Scripture. In fact, it’s considered incest (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21). Herod and Herodias have broken a basic boundary that God has laid down for sexual relationships.
And this plays into why John was arrested. Apparently Herod didn’t care too much about it but arrested John “for the sake of Herodias.” And this makes sense. After all, John was calling into question her marriage and thus her power. So she would have wanted him silenced.
But not only this –
19And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death.
Her response is straightforward and brutal.
But she could not, 20for 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.
So even though Herod is not a devout man, who here flouts biblical teaching on incest, he’s still fascinated by John and is afraid to do more than arrest him. Indeed he protects John from his own wife. He even went to listen to him from time to time.
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22For 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.” 23And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.”
Herod throws a birthday party for himself and all the bigwigs of Galilee and Perea are there. And no doubt it was a lavish event.
Herodias’s daughter, most likely from her first marriage, dances. And she does such a good job that Herod promises to give her anything. He even swears an oath to give her “up to half my kingdom.” (The word here in v. 23, sometime translated “vowed,” does mean he made an oath and not a vow.)
The phrase “up to half my kingdom” was a proverbial saying that just means – whatever you want (1 Kings 13:8; Esther 5:3, 6; 7:2). He couldn’t give his kingdom away even if he wanted. He was a client ruler under Rome’s power.
24And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25And 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.”
This was the moment Herodias was waiting for and she does not hesitate she wants John’s head. And notice her daughter’s grisly addition “on a platter.”
26And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.
It’s not that Herod is suddenly concerned about righteousness and keeping oaths, it’s that all the important people in his realm heard him and so he feels he has to come through on his foolish and rash oath. Even though he personally didn’t want to kill John.
27And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.
Herodias got what she wanted all along. Herod kills John, a person he knows to be “a righteous and holy man” – v. 20. A man about whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater” than John. And he was killed for the most petty of reasons, so that Herod could save face in front of his guests.
Notice the contrast in this story and Jesus calling the twelve to go out. The same word “sent” is used in both. Jesus sends out the twelve to preach and heal and cast out demons (v. 7). Herod sent to have John arrested (v. 17) and sent the executioner to kill him (v. 27). There is a contrast in kingship here between Jesus the true king and Herod the worldly king. Jesus bring peace and blessing. Herod kills the most righteous man up to that point in history. (Perhaps this is why Mark uses the language of “king” for Herod even though he was really only a tetrarch).
[There are some interesting parallels between this story and the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Elijah. Except in this case “Jezebel” gets to kill God’s prophet]
29When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
The story begins with Herod hearing about Jesus’ disciples, and it ends with John’s disciples coming to honor their teacher by giving him a proper burial.
Let me end by highlighting three truths from this passage:
1. It’s not enough to hold Jesus in high regard. You can have a very high opinion of Jesus; that he’s a prophet – whether Elijah or John or another great prophet. And many people today do have a high regard for Jesus. If they don’t hold the church or Christians in high regard, and tragically too often with good reason, they do respect Jesus.
But Jesus is not just a prophet or a good man. He’s much more. Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. And it’s a faith in this Jesus, not in Jesus as a prophet or good man, that saves.
Jesus himself tells us that there will be many on the final day who even call Jesus “Lord” to whom he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!” Luke 13:27
2. God sets the boundaries for sex and marriage, not us.
The world says, as long as sex is adult and consensual – it’s fine; there’s no problem. But Herod and Herodias were both adults and their relationship was consensual and it was incest and it was wrong, as John the Baptist made clear. (See also 1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
Likewise a same sex sexual relationship can be adult and consensual. But it’s still wrong. And two people living together outside of marriage can have adult and consensual sex. But it’s still wrong. For Christians, God sets the boundaries, and those boundaries are found in Scripture.
Just like Herod and Herodias in their day, the world today can seek to silence us. But you know what? Even if it does, sexual sin is still sexual sin. And that’s because God sets the boundaries for sex and marriage, not us.
But certainly the main point of this story is that 3. Working for God’s kingdom will cost you. I believe this is why the story of Jesus sending out the disciples to do kingdom work and this story are intertwined in the way they are.
John’s death for his work of the kingdom forebodes the persecution and death that awaits Jesus and the apostles and even the opposition that awaits us – as we work for the kingdom. Are you ready for this?