Pastor Scott Andrew | November 19, 2023
Philippians chapter 1:
29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…
Colossians chapter 1:
24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. [which simply means, the church has been allotted a certain amount of suffering – not to complete Christ’s atonement – but a certain amount for the maturing of the body, the church of Jesus Christ.]
Revelation chapter 6:
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 also.
A certain amount of suffering has been granted, a certain number of brothers and sisters to be killed. And so there is a group of souls – dare I call them, a family of martyrs – right under the altar, close to the throne. Slain as followers of Jesus – and the number grows toward completion.
In 1955, Edward Steichen, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, completed an exhibition, begun three years earlier, called The Family of Man. It was an ambitious project, beginning with over 2 million pictures submitted from around the world, narrowed to 503 photographs, 273 artists, from 68 countries of the world. The exhibit intended a story – to display a family album, showing how, from birth to death, people are basically the same the world over. Same emotions, same relationships, same lives, same end. Cast after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War when people were rightly concerned for nuclear holocaust, it was intended to demonstrate hope through humanity’s family oneness. Hope within.
The Family of Man was hailed an incredible achievement – the greatest photographic exhibition of all time. It was on display from January to May before it went on a 37-country tour lasting eight years. Millions traveled to see it. One reviewer suggested the attraction was, as people viewed the photographs, they saw their own faces staring back at them. The title of the exhibit comes from a poem written by Carl Sanburg, which reads:
There is only one man in the world and his name is all men.
There is only one woman in the world and her name is all women.
There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is all children.
The family of man. And while there is some truth to the poem and the exhibit, they both miss something of eternal significance – the souls under the altar. Not everyone shares the same fate – the same end. There is a sense in which we are not all the same. Those who name the name of Christ potentially, even regularly face opposition, persecution, even martyrdom.
And so, The International Day of Prayer tried to highlight the difference in a video they produced almost 20 years ago, playing off Steichen’s massive exhibit. The video is no longer available, I suppose removed by copyright concerns. But in it, they suggested the family of man does have an album. In that album are pictures of people cut from the pages of human history – men, women, boys, girls; black, white, brown, red; young, old, rich, poor – the album is not selective. This album, perhaps better called the family of God, contains the images of people whose lives have been taken for the testimony of Jesus Christ. Souls under the altar.
And I would suggest, the cover of that family album is engraved with a cross, and the preface has a painting of a dungeon. A specific dungeon – dark, cold, deep, foul – this dungeon 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 never again saw the light of day, most did not make it out alive – they died, alone, forgotten. The most famous of all prisoners chained to those walls was the forerunner to the Christ and His cross.
He 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 always the same: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It was also the message of Jesus. It didn’t matter whether the hearer was 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 order – the message was the same. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Dressed in simple camel hair, for reasons only attributable to the work of the Holy Spirit, his message was effective. Droves of people traveled to the wilderness of the Jordan River, to hear him preach, and be baptized by him – a baptism of repentance. Like the millions, I suppose, who traveled to see their faces in a mirror.
This prophet even had the audacity to name the sin which needed repentance. Crowds, you brood of vipers, turn from your hypocrisy. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. If you have more than you need, give it to those who don’t. Stop hoarding. Tax collectors, don’t cheat the people – don’t collect more than you’ve been ordered. Soldiers, stop extorting the 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 confinement to that famed wilderness dungeon. It was that last one that cost the prophet his life. His picture was taken and placed in the preface to the album, the family of man – better, the family of God. I suspect there are some days he leads the worship at the foot of the throne of God, under the altar, and pleads for God to avenge his blood. After all, he was eventually beheaded. You see, the family of God has an album. The cover is engraved with a cross. The preface has a painting of a dungeon and its most famous prisoner…John the Baptist.
We read a summary of the story attached to the picture in Luke 3. And it is most appropriate. You see, this month, like November every year, is a month in which we, the church, remember our brothers and sisters around the world persecuted for their testimony of Jesus Christ, maintained in the midst of the most adverse circumstances, persecution, and martyrdom. And so, that family album continues to grow. Pages are added every year, every month, every week, every day, with new pictures, new faces. It is to be expected – Jesus said it would happen. You will share the truth of the gospel, and you will be opposed. The sons and daughters of the kingdom are forced to live alongside the sons and daughters of the evil one. There is a cost to being a follower of Jesus Christ.
If we’re not careful, we briefly skim the verses of our text, and hardly pause – like we pause once a year to pray for today’s persecuted, and return to our wonderful lives. Who wants to be disturbed by such depressing news. Read the brief story in the preface to the album with me. Luke 3:18-20.
This greatest of all those born of women. There is a sense in which the family of God, the album which contains the pictures of those whose souls are now under the altar, begins with this picture. Certainly, there are many OT saints as well.
No outline today. I’m simply going to tell the story – the story of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, the forerunner to the Messiah, the preface to the album. While Luke summarizes it, I’ll draw on some other gospel narratives to fill in needed detail. But know this – Luke gives only the scantiest of facts because for him, the sun sets on John, while it now shines most brightly, from here on, on the Christ – which ends with the cross.
There is a sense in which John’s job is finished. In fact, next week, we’ll see the baptism of Jesus – but Luke doesn’t even mention the baptizer. To be sure, John doesn’t die this early in the narrative, and Luke will mention another story concerning John in chapter 7 – after John has been arrested and imprisoned, facing death. But again, this story serves as the last chapter of the life of this prophet, as the light begins to shine on Jesus. John’s ministry lasted six months, maybe a year. His imprisonment, according to Josephus, lasted two years.
Now, as we tell the story, I want you to remember – it is the first of many such stories which could be told across the pages of time to the present day. It’s a very full album – hundreds of thousands of pictures. While the source is early church tradition, it is said that 11 of the 12 apostles died as martyrs. Early stories exist as to their martyrdom, to include Peter who was crucified upside down, his brother Andrew was also crucified, James, whose only apostolic death appears in Scripture, was killed by Herod Agrippa, run through with the sword. Philip was stoned, Matthew was burned at the stake, Thomas was run through with a spear. Credible stories exist concerning the others. Stephen was stoned, the Apostle Paul was beheaded.
Many of the earliest Christians and church fathers died for their testimony of Jesus – Ignatius, Polycarp, John Chrysostom. It is said of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, as he was facing immediate martyrdom in the stadium at Smyrna, he was given opportunity to recant. His response, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He has never done me wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who has saved me?” When the proconsul threatened to burn him alive, he said, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and after a little while is extinguished, but you are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal judgment, reserved for the ungodly. Why do you tarry? Bring forth what you will.” His picture was added.
Unfortunately, in later years, some experiencing martyrdom for their faith, faced it at the hands of the church. Men like John Huss, who 100 years before the Protestant Reformation, was teaching biblical truth and was thereby opposed by the church. Promised safe passage to the Council of Constance in 1415, upon arrival, he was arrested, and eventually burned at the stake. As the flames burned, Huss, whose name means goose, said, you may cook the goose, but 100 years from now, a swan will arise whom you will not be able to burn or boil – whom you won’t be able to extinguish. One hundred years later, Martin Luther, whose family crest was a swan, rose to post the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenburg – next door to Huss’ home country of Bohemia, and a few hundred miles from Constance, the place of his death.
We could speak of men like Hugh Latimer or Nicolas Ridley who were also burned at the stake under the reign of Bloody Mary. We could speak of the hundreds of Huguenots killed in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. We could speak of today’s martyrs – more in the 20th Century than the previous 19 centuries combined. The truth is, pages are being added to the album every day. And there is a sense in which John was the first – but of course, in the long line of God’s people who came before, who paid the ultimate price.
Jesus promised suffering for His followers – and said, blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward in heaven is great. Don’t listen to the false teachers out there with their pernicious and ungodly, unbiblical teaching which says that God wants you to be healthy, wealthy and prosperous. Their names will not be found in the family album, nor perhaps in the book of life.
We should begin by meeting the characters in the story. John we know, but 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, and violence.
The first character is Herod, whom Luke called the tetrarch. We met him earlier in chapter 3 –one of three of Herod the Great’s descendants, among whom the kingdom was divided. We first meet Herod the Great in Matthew 2. He 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 was not a Jew – he was an Idumean. Although he was an able administrator, politically gifted an incredible builder, he was a harsh ruler – he loved power and levied incredibly heavy taxes on the people. And he wasn’t a nice guy. You may remember he became paranoid near his death. Right before he died, he had his wife and two of his sons executed as well as several of his close associates. He also left instructions for hundreds of Jewish leaders to be killed when he died to insure there would be mourning at his death. He was also the one who had all the male babies under the age of two murdered in Bethlehem, trying to kill the Messiah, the rightful King of the Jews.
When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided between three of his sons: Herod Philip II who was tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis to the north; Archelaus, who was the governor of Judea, Idumea and Samaria to the south; and Herod Antipas, who was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea right in the middle. This third Herod, Antipas is the Herod we’re talking about today – the antagonist of the story. By this time, he was in the 32nd year of his reign.
A tetrarch literally meant a fourth ruler, but it had come to mean any kind of two-bit ruler. You see, Herod the Great was the last king – technically, Herod Antipas wasn’t really a king – he just liked being called such. This, by the way, is also the Herod to whom Pilate sent Jesus after His arrest.
Now, Herod Antipas lived primarily in Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s interesting to note that Jesus, in all His ministry, 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, whom He once called a fox.
In addition to Tiberias, Herod also had a palace in Machaerus – that place 7 miles east of the northern side of the Dead Sea. It was kind of a summer palace for him, and Josephus tells us it was there that the events of this story take place. Underneath this opulent palace, deep down in the ground, was a dungeon. It was there John the Baptist was kept for a year or two.
The second 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, after all, he had ten wives. In addition to these three who ruled, he also had Aristobulus, Antipater, and Herod Philip I. Actually, most of these guys were half-brothers since Herod the Great had those ten wives. Now, Aristobulus had a daughter named Herodias. She married her uncle, Herod Philip I. Together, they had a daughter named Salome, who is the third character we’ll meet in a moment.
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.
The third character, of course, is the daughter of Herodias, named Salome. At this time, she is probably only 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. It’s confusing.
This is one sick family. John thought so too, which is why he denounced Herod Antipas’ marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. We’ll talk about that more in a moment. You’ve got the background – Herodias divorced one uncle to marry another. No biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage there – just lust and disgust. And so rightly, John condemns their marriage as unlawful – it was against the law of Moses. The language in the Greek in Matthew is such that he condemned it, spoke out against it, over and over.
All this began the chain of events which led to his death. Because of his denunciation of their illicit relationship, John was arrested, bound, and imprisoned. At first, Herod wanted to put him to death – he was infuriated by John’s confrontation.
But, one thing we find about Herod is that he is a fearful man. He was afraid of everyone, and that’s something you should remember. We’re going to find Herod actually becomes interested in John – he actually enjoys talking to him, and used to spend time with him. But his fear of everything and everyone kept him from committing to John’s message. His fear kept him from repenting. What would everyone think?
First, he seems to be afraid of his wife, Herodias. Again in Matthew, we find he arrests John because of Herodias. She seems to be the one who put him up to it – she nursed a grudge, she seethed with bitterness and hostility – she wanted him dead. But, there’s a problem. Herod, second, was also afraid of the people. He would have put John to death, but was afraid of how the people might respond since they viewed him as a prophet.
Third, in the parallel passage in Mark 6, we read he was afraid to put John to death because he had come to see John as a righteous and holy man. In his frequent visits with John, he was beginning to understand there was something about this man and his message. He was afraid to put him to death because he was beginning to understand John just might be a man of God.
Fourth, Josephus records that one of his motivations for putting John to death was politically motivated – he was afraid of John’s influence and how John might undermine his power. And lastly, we see that when he finally does put John to death, it is not because he really wants to – but he’s made an oath, and he’s scared of what his dinner guests might say if he doesn’t keep it. This whole thing is a fearful mess.
Well, this is what happened. John is in prison. Herod has been visiting him, because he enjoyed listening to him – apparently there was some degree of receptivity on Herod’s part. But there came a day – a strategic day, Mark calls it, when all that would end. It was Herod’s birthday, and he invited a bunch of lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee over for a birthday bash. Now, you should know something about this party. Jews didn’t celebrate birthdays back then because birthday parties flowed from the pagan culture. They were vile, drunken parties. In fact, 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. It was a foul party.
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 he promised her whatever she wanted – up to half his kingdom – as if this two-bit ruler actually had a kingdom. Salome was only a child – 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, anger, and bitterness spilled out – ask him for the head of John the Baptist. The language in parallel passages is such that there was an urgency to the request – I want his head right now – make no delay.
And because of the oath he had taken, as if he had an attack of integrity, 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 the 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 on the platter, she spat 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 gained the ultimate victory over this man.
Or did she? You see, history further records that when Herod Philip II the tetrarch 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 was planning an insurrection, so not only did Herod not receive his brother’s tetrarchy, 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.
But, that’s not the worst that happened to Herod. 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 the opportunity to hear John about Jesus, he never repented. And all that awaits him is judgment.
So that’s the story. The family of God has an album. The cover is engraved with a cross. The preface has a painting of a dungeon. And new pages are being added to the album every day. It grows – more pictures taken, more faces displayed. And believers the world over are filling up that which lacking in the afflictions of Christ and joining the throng under the altar.
The family of God has an album. It sits on His coffee table. He knows every tattered picture. They are written on His heart. How long? Till the number of their brothers and sisters who are to be killed is completed. 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, sow the seed of the gospel. And the blood of the martyrs will be the seed of the church.