How many of you have ever watched a horror movie or read a horror story? It’s not always a pleasant experience, is it? As strange as it might seem, there are actually some horror stories in the Bible, and one of the most famous of its horror stories is the story of the death of John the Baptist.
John condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias because it went against the Law of Moses. Herodias was the wife of Herod’s brother Philip, and she divorced Philip in order to marry Herod. Herodias was also Herod’s niece (She was the daughter of Herod’s half-brother Aristobulus). She wanted the intrigue of palace politics and a man whom she could not have lawfully. John’s condemnation upset Herodias so much that she looked for an opportunity to have him killed, and that opportunity came at Herod’s birthday party.
Herodias hated John so much that murder was in her heart. There is an old saying that someone who tries to get even by making others suffer for their sins is interfering in God’s business. Revenge is all-consuming and all hatefulness. Revenge is in the business of hurting others. Revenge is the destructive force in life. Herodias had all of these characteristics and one more-coldness. She was an example of another old saying-revenge is a dish that is best served cold.
Herodias’ daughter Salome was not an innocent bystander. On the contrary, she had an active part in the plan. Salome’s dance, which some modern commentators labelled as pornographic in nature, pleased her step-father so much that he made a promise he would later regret. When he promised her anything she wanted, he thought she would ask for material goods, but she didn’t. She fell under the influence of her mother and asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Herod should have relied on the following advice, which is the same advice we need to rely on when we face temptation:
1. Recognize temptation for what it really is and what it can do to us.
2. Run away from temptation’s seduction and turn to God. Do not walk.
3. Rely on the power of God through the Holy Sprit’s power to give us strength as we ask for his moral courage.
Herod allowed John to speak the truth and protected him, even though John’s words puzzled him (according to some ancient manuscripts). Herod listened to John because John told him the truth, even though it hurt. Herod was surrounded by “yes men” who would tell him anything he wanted to hear, and he got tired of it. Herod wanted to hear the truth.
John spoke the truth about Herod and his wife, but he also spoke the larger truth about repentance in our lives and the even larger truth that he shared as he always pointed to Jesus. The same certainty rings true to us today as we also clear the way and get ourselves out of the way so that others can encounter Jesus.
Herod beheaded John and did not give him a formal trial. This was in violation the Law of Moses. Herod did this because he wanted to save face and not look like a fool in front of his guests. Many of the sins we commit today are done in order to save face. How many lies have we told because we are more concerned with looking good in front of others than we are with pleasing God?
Herod’s story was one of impulse, pride and stubbornness, and the story of our lives is similar. Herod gave his word to his stepdaughter Salome in front of his friends, so he had no choice but to agree to her demands. To do otherwise would have led to a loss of power. Politics overruled principle. Herod was infected with guilt both physically and psychologically. Guilt does that to everyone. Herod had greater concern for his pride and reputation than for truth and integrity. Believers and unbelievers alike can easily allow peer pressure and public opinion to turn them away from doing what they know in their hearts is right.
Herod ordered the execution of John the Baptist even though he wanted to spare his life. He made a foolish promise to his stepdaughter. When Herod heard about Jesus’ work, his guilty conscience made him wonder if John the Baptist rose from the dead. His conscience bothered him. He could not forget the evil he did by having John beheaded.
Herod is an example that speaks to leadership. People in positions of power are subjected to pressures that threaten their security or cause greed, the desire for prestige or the influence of ambitious advisors to take control of their lives and their careers. As a result the desire to serve truth and the common good can fade. The results can be damaging. Even great leaders who are devoted to the welfare of the people they serve find themselves in conflict with human greed.
John’s life counted for something. He put himself in God’s hands, went where God told him to go, did what God told him to do and said what God told him to say. God was in control of John’s life. John is a good example for us as believers to follow. In the case of Herod, the voice of God cane from the mouth of John. This same voice comes to us today in many forms. It can come in the form of a sermon or a friend. It can even come in the form of beauty in nature. In any event, something or someone awakens our spirit to the fact that there is something more in life. When we realize that there is more to life than our earthly circumstances, we have a choice. If we make the wrong choice, it leads to more bad choices. Instead, we need to listen for the voice of God, decide to make our relationship with God the top priority in our lives, keep our eyes on who we are in Christ and remember that no one can take the place of the inheritance we have in Christ.
In Mark’s Gospel, John’s death was crucial because it was a preview of the death of Jesus. Both men were put to death by secular rulers who did not want to execute their prisoners. Both secular rulers caved in to pressure from outsiders.
This story also serves as a warning of the dangers involved to those who proclaim God’s word. Mark included this story to encourage us by reminding us that nothing can stand in the way of God’s kingdom. The story also suggests that just as the mission of the disciples followed the death of John the Baptist, the mission of the church must follow Jesus.
Those who do good and right things still won’t be protected from being badly hurt. The story of John the Baptist’s death is meant to shock us out of our complacency. We are called on to confront the evil we see around us. Confrontation is never comfortable, but it is necessary. Those who proclaim the truth of God’s word will certainly face opposition, and John was no exception. John condemned Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, and the condemnation was based on Leviticus 18:16 and Leviticus 20:21. Herod knew that his life was wicked and John’s was holy. Herod recklessly abused his power and privilege. He took dead aim at every standard of decency and morality. He was not the first ruler who sinned because they took advantage of their God-given power to challenge God himself. Herod still had some characteristics and conscience that were not destroyed by sin.
Some might think that God doesn’t care about them deeply. Just when we feel forsaken, God appears and assures us that we have an eternal inheritance. We might be martyred for our faith. Our martyrdom is a symbol of a deep commitment to Jesus and the truth and value of the Gospel. Martyrs inspire us, lift us up and energize us to the same quality of commitment to Christ and his values that the martyrs had.
John and Jesus are linked to Herod, the man who would play a role in both of their deaths. Herod killed John for telling the truth. In time Herod became involved in Jesus’ death. Herod was ambivalent about both John and Jesus. Neither Herod nor Pilate wanted to kill Jesus, but they were persuaded by crowds. John’s disciples took his body and laid it in a tomb. Joseph of Arimathea did the same for Jesus. Both John and Jesus continued to wield power after their deaths. John’s death haunted Herod, and he thought Jesus was John resurrected. Of course, Jesus was in fact resurrected.
John was faithful to his calling-faithful to death. He prepared the way for Jesus, and so should we. John’s life was intended to prepare the way for Jesus and point people to Jesus. The church needs to make these same two roles the centre of its ministry. We as individuals and as the church need to spend our lives preparing the way for Jesus, pointing toward Jesus and drawing people to Jesus.
Herod wasn’t the first person who had a false opinion of who Jesus was. People then and now have different opinions about who Jesus is. Some people in Jesus’ time thought he was a reincarnation of the prophet Elijah. Others saw him as the prophet foretold by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. Still others thought of Jesus as someone like the prophets of old-a remarkable holy man and teacher, but nothing more.
Christianity is not about knowing about Jesus. It is about knowing God as represented in Jesus. It is about having a relationship with God through Jesus. Our affirmation and allegiance to the truth of the Gospel is all or nothing regardless of the consequences. We have a choice-be like John or be like Herod. Will we be weak like Herod, easy tempted and easily manipulated, or we will be strong in our moral convictions like John? We are often fascinated by the wealth, power and intrigue of Herod’s court, but the death of John in Herod’s prison is the most significant point of the text. Mark invites us to look closely at success, and then choose significance by following Jesus on his way.