July 3, 2016
There is a cost to being a follower of Jesus Christ. Well, if we confess we are disciples, and invite others to follow Him, too. You see, last week, we saw Jesus send out the twelve – to do what He did, and say what He said. That is, to preach the gospel, that people should repent.
And so they went out, preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick. But one thing I didn’t point out last week is this is another of Mark’s famous sandwiches. You know, where he starts a story, and interrupts it to tell another story, then finishes the first story. He does it all over his book, and I’ve told you he usually does it because there are related themes in the two stories – similarities or contrasts. So, in this one, Mark tells us Jesus sent out the twelve. He finishes the story in Mark 6:30, “The apostles (those sent) gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught.” They go out, and come back.
But the in-between story? It’s the account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. How does that relate to Jesus sending out the twelve to do His work? Because, there is a cost to being a disciple of Jesus. That is, if you confess Him, and invite others to follow Him too. If you decide to be a sent one – to join Him in the work, take His message of the gospel, which includes repentance – the need to confess sin and to turn from it – it will cost you. People don’t like being told they’re sinners, and need a savior. There is a sense in which the sandwich today – the in-between story – is the story of the first martyr of Jesus – for calling out sin.
And there have been many since. Name the name of Jesus, share His truth, the hope of the gospel, the need to repent, and it will cost you – maybe even your life. It’s costing brothers and sisters around the world today – and the evangelical bubble in which we’ve lived seems to have burst. But, it will separate the professors from the possessors. He’s sending us out with His message. Will you speak for Christ, even if it’s no longer popular to do so? Even if it cost you?
Our text today is found in Mark 6. It’s a long one, but we can’t really divide it. So, we’ll just read as we come to it in the narrative. Very simply, we’ll follow this outline:
- Herod’s Response to Jesus (14-16)
- Herod’s Rejection of John (17-29)
I’m simply going to tell the story this morning – the story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the forerunner to the Messiah. It serves to illustrate the rising opposition to Jesus as it also closes the last chapter of this prophet’s life. And it reminds us, if you’re a follower, you’ll be opposed – just like John, just like Jesus.
You remember, because I’ve emphasized it, Mark’s primary purpose is to prove Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. But while I’ve mentioned it, I’ve not emphasized who Mark’s first readers were. You may remember when I first introduced this book, I suggested Mark was writing to Roman Christians who were suffering persecution for their faith. So he writes to encourage them. The first follower of Jesus suffered. And Jesus will suffer the same. So follow, and suffer with Him. Because He is the Christ, the Son of God. Let’s begin by looking at Herod’s response to Jesus – it’s a curious one, found in verses 14-16. Read it with me.
This kind of catches us off guard. This is the first time we hear John the Baptist is dead. We first met him in chapter 1, where he’s introduced as the forerunner, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way for the Messiah, Jesus. Our text today is one of only two stories in Mark that aren’t about Jesus – and both are about John the Baptist – here and chapter 1. Again, in that first chapter, John bursts on the scene, but we left him in verse 14 with the troubling words, “after John had been taken into custody…” Now, Mark finishes John’s story. Why had he been taken into custody? Because it will cost you to share the good news of Jesus.
Here, we see Herod heard about Jesus – perhaps through what Jesus had been doing, or maybe through these twelve Jesus sent out. Jesus’ teaching and miracles had become well-known. As a result, some were saying, why, He’s John the Baptist risen from the dead. That’s a bit curious, why would they say that? Likely because John had been quite popular with the people. In fact, the Jewish historian Josephus says the reason John the Baptist had been arrested and imprisoned by Herod was because of his popularity – the possibility of an insurrection. Now, Jesus comes along with the same popularity – maybe Jesus is a resurrected John. Of course, we know, and likely the people knew Jesus and John were contemporaries – so probably they meant, Jesus now has the spirit of John – much like the spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha.
So, some were saying Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead, how else could He do these miracles? He’s a supernatural being – a ghost – how else could Jesus do what He was doing? Others were saying, He’s Elijah, based on the prophecy in Malachi 3 that Elijah would come before the Messiah. Do you see what they missed here? The truth is, Elijah had come – in the person of John the Baptist – (not literally Elijah, we don’t believe in reincarnation, but John came in the spirit of Elijah) to announce the way of the Messiah – who was Jesus.
Well, others were saying He’s a prophet, like of one of the prophets of old. That is, like the OT prophets – we haven’t seen any like them for 400 years. So when John came dressed like OT prophets, eating like OT prophets, and preaching like OT prophets, well, they knew he was a prophet. And now Jesus came preaching the same message, repent for the kingdom of God was at hand. So when Herod heard about Jesus, he was convinced Jesus was John the Baptist, risen from the dead. You see, Herod was feeling guilty. Why? That brings us to our second point – Herod’s rejection of John. Let’s read verses 17-29.
It costs something to be a follower of Jesus, and proclaim the need of repentance in order to receive Him. People don’t like being told they are sinners. Let’s meet the characters in this story. Again, many suggest John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His job was to announce the coming of the Messiah, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. His message was familiear, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It didn’t matter whether the hearers were among the Jewish ruling party or the religious elite. It didn’t matter whether the hearer was a soldier carrying out Roman law or a puppet king carrying out Roman orders – the message was the same. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
This prophet would even name the sin which needed repentance. Religious leaders, you brood of vipers, turn from your hypocrisy. Tax collectors, don’t cheat people – don’t collect more than you’ve been ordered. Soldiers, stop extorting people – don’t take money by force, don’t accuse anyone falsely. Political leader, king/tetrarch, you’re living in adultery – it is not lawful for you to have the woman you have. It was that last one that resulted in his being taken into custody, confined to a dungeon. It was that last one which cost his life.
This specific dungeon – dark, cold, deep, foul –was located beneath a magnificent palace at Machaerus. Located seven miles east of the north end of the Dead Sea, archeological excavations reveal walls where prisoners were chained. Most did not make it out alive – they died, alone, forgotten. How did John end up here? Let’s meet the other characters of the story.
There are three others. By the way, this story is more sordid than any soap opera you’ve ever heard. It is a story of infidelity, divorce, remarriage, incest, political intrigue, jealousy, spite, revenge, lewdness, lust, cold-heartedness, cruelty, brutality, violence. In fact, one commentary suggests these three make for fascinating studies in deviant psychology. What young teenage girl would ask for the head of man on a plate? It is the subject of many middle ages paintings – I would show you one, but they are too gruesome.
The next character we need to meet is King Herod. He wasn’t actually a king, that’s what he wanted to be. Matthew rightly calls him a tetrarch – one of four rulers. You see, this Herod was one of the many sons of Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the first of the Herods, and ruled Israel under the authority of Rome. He came to power around 40 BC and ruled until 4 BC. He was given the title King of the Jews by the Roman Senate even though he wasn’t a Jew. Although a politically gifted, able administrator, the King Herod was also a harsh ruler – he loved power and levied heavy taxes on the people. And he wasn’t a nice guy. He actually became incredibly paranoid near his death. Right before he died, he had his wife and two of his sons executed along with several of his close associates. He also left instructions for hundreds of Jewish leaders to be killed when he died just to make sure there would be mourning at his death. He’s also the guy who had all the male babies under the age of two murdered in Bethlehem in Matthew 2, trying to kill the Messiah, the rightful King of the Jews.
When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided between four sons: three of whom where Herod Philip II to the north; Archelaus, to the south; and Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea right in the middle. This Herod Antipas is the Herod we’re talking about here. By Mark 6, he is in the 32nd year of his reign. By the way, it was to this Herod to whom Pilate sent Jesus after His arrest.
Herod Antipas lived primarily in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s interesting, in all of His ministry, Jesus never visited Tiberias, even though it was within walking distance of Capernaum. He did miracles all around Tiberias, but seemed to steer clear of Herod.
In addition to Tiberias, Herod also had a palace in Machaerus – seven miles east of the northern end of the Dead Sea. It was kind of a summer palace for him, and Josephus tells us it was there this story takes place. Underneath the opulent palace, deep down in the ground, was a dungeon. It was there John the Baptist was kept for about a year.
The next person we meet is Herodias. Try to keep up with this – it gets really confusing and disgusting. Herod the Great actually had more than three sons – in addition to these three who ruled, he also had a son named Aristobulus. Most of these guys were half-brothers since Herod the Great had ten wives. So, Aristobulus had a daughter named Herodias. She married her uncle, Herod Philip I. Together, they had a daughter named Salome, the daughter in this story who does the dancing.
So, Herodias marries her uncle Philip – are you with me? But, one day while she was visiting her uncle Herod Antipas, he seduced her. They agreed to get a divorce from their respective spouses and marry each other. (Now to this time, Herod Antipas had been married to the daughter of Aretas of modern-day Jordan.) In fact, it’s interesting Josephus tells us shortly after this, King Aretas went to war against Herod Antipas for dumping his daughter. Herod got his butt kicked – and most of the people thought it was God’s judgment for killing John the Baptist.
Well, the last character, of course, is the daughter of Herodias, named Salome. At this time, she is probably 12 or 14 years of age. You might be interested to know that she grows up to marry her great uncle, Herod Philip II the tetrarch, making her both the aunt and sister-in-law to her own mother. Follow all that? I am my own grandpa.
This is one sick family. John thought so too, which is why he denounced Herod Antipas’ wedding to his brother’s wife, Herodias. So, you have the background – Herodias divorced one brother to marry another. No biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage – just lust and disgust. Leviticus 18 says you can’t do that. So rightly, John condemns their marriage as unlawful – it was against the law of Moses. The language in the Greek is such he condemned it, spoke out against it, over and over. And don’t miss, John had said it over and over to Herod himself – notice verse 18 – he’d been saying to Herod. John had some serious moxie.
All this begins the chain of events that lead to his death. Because of his denunciation of their illicit relationship, John was arrested, bound, and imprisoned. By the time we get to Mark 6, he’s been there perhaps over a year.
Now, Herodias was an spiteful, bitter woman – she wanted John put to death because of his audacity is decrying her illicit marriage. But, Matthew tells us Herod was afraid of the people, who saw John as a prophet. Fear seems to govern Herod’s life. You see, he was also afraid of John, knowing John to be a righteous and holy man. Don’t miss that. He knew John was right. He knew John’s message of repentance was right. In fact, he becomes interested in John – he actually enjoys talking to him, and used to spend time with him. But John’s message perplexed him – it wasn’t enough to cause him to turn from his sin. I should camp there a bit – just being intrigued by the message is not the same as accepting the message.
You see, later, when Pilate sends Jesus to Herod, he’s intrigued again. Luke tells us, he’d been wanting to meet Jesus for some time – to see Him do a trick – a miracle – but Jesus remained silent, so Herod clothed Him in a purple robe – had Him beaten and sent Him back. Herod met the forerunner to the Messiah, and the Messiah Himself. But He was so committed to His sinful rebellion against God, he never turned from his sin. Being intrigued by the message – coming here and listening, like Herod did with John, is not the same as receiving the message of grace.
Well, Herod is a fearful man – afraid of the crowds, afraid of John, and also afraid of his dinner guests. These guests were a veritable who’s who of Galilean aristocracy. A strategic or opportune day came – that is, opportune for Herodias. It was Herod’s birthday, so he threw himself a huge party – and everyone who was anyone was invited – lords, military commanders, and leading men of Galilee. These were political, military and social leaders of Galilee.
Now, you should know something about this party. Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays back then because birthday parties came out of pagan culture, and they were vile, drunken parties. Herod’s was nothing but a drunken stag party. The men would eat and drink themselves into oblivion, and then they would bring out the women. The dancing at these parties was sensual, vulgar and lustful – foul.
In this particular case, one of the women to dance was really just a girl – Herod’s young step-daughter. She pleased them, most notably, proud step-father. Get the picture – stuffed to the gills, drunk out of his mind, enjoying lewd dancers, one of whom was his step-daughter, this blithering idiot tips the dancer too much. He’s so pleased that he promised her whatever she wanted – up to half his kingdom. Salome was only a young girl – she didn’t know what to ask for, so she went and asked her mother. This was the moment Herodias had been waiting for. All her rage and anger and bitterness spilled out – ask him for the head of John the Baptist. The language is such there was an urgency – I want his head right now – make no delay. By the way, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree – Salome goes back to Herod and says, I want John’s head, and adds the words, on a platter.
And because of the oath he had taken, fear of losing face, Herod gave the order. In a cold, dark dungeon, for no apparent reason, the executioner made his way to John’s cell. He was murdered, and his head taken to a girl on a platter, who in turn, took it to her mother.
Jerome, who was a contemporary of the Apostle John, one of the Twelve, tells us that when the head was brought to Herodias, she spit on it, and pierced his tongue with a hair pin. For her, it was a sign of victory – the tongue that had condemned her sinful behavior she pierced. She had gained the ultimate victory over this man.
Or did she? You see, history further records when her former husband, Herod Philip II died, Herodias encouraged her husband, Herod Antipas, to ask Emperor Caligula for his brother’s territory. However, word had gotten to the emperor that Herod Antipas was planning an insurrection, so not only did Herod not receive his brother’s area, but his was taken from him. He was banished, sent into exile, to France – even worse than that, he was forced to take his wife with him.
Actually, that’s not the worst that happened. Yes, the body they may kill – they killed John the Baptist. But Jesus said, don’t fear him who has power over the body. Fear him, rather, who has power over the body and soul. Herod came to the end of his life, and because of his fear of man, and fear of woman, while he had opportunity to hear John about Jesus, he never repented. He never turned. He never entered the kingdom. And all that awaits him is fearful judgment. Fear him who is able to cast the body and soul into hell. Herod had his fear in the wrong place.
And so, this middle story of the sandwich reminds us, there is a cost to being a follower of Jesus. In fact, in the parallel passage in Matthew, when Jesus sends out the twelve, He says things like:
16 “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves….
17 “But beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in their synagogues;
18 and you will even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles….
22 “You will be hated by all because of My name, but it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved….
24 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master.
25 “It is enough for the disciple that he become like his teacher, and the slave like his master. If they have called the head of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign the members of his household!
26 “Therefore do not fear them….
27 “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.
28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
29 “Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.
30 “But the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
31 “So do not fear….”
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says outright, you will opposed. In this gospel, Mark just illustrates the cost of discipleship with the martyrdom of John. Because there is a cost to being a follower of Jesus. But now listen to Revelation 6:9-11:
9 When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained;
10 and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed.
How long? Till the number of your brothers and sisters who are to be killed are killed. Then, the day will come when the blood of the martyrs will be avenged. All will be made right. The day is coming. Until then, preach the gospel. Broadcast the seed. Oh, and the blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the church.