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Tuesday
Aug272019

The Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Mark 6:14-29.  This sermon was preached by Pastor Marty Bonner on August 25, 2019.

Our Passage today is about how people in power do not like to have anyone rail against their sins in public.  Imprisonment and execution can be done in a moral manner and will occur under good governance, but they are the main methods and means of tyrants to keep a firm hold upon society.  The Bible warns that in the last days mankind will be more likely to kill believers than less.

We should praise God for the protections that have been provided for us in t he United States of America.  However, we are guaranteed that it will not last forever.  It is important that we recognize that our purpose on this earth is to take our stand beside Jesus before all others and without shame.  To do this without redefining Jesus in our own image, we must remember that our reward is not what we experience in this life, but what we shall experience in the life to come.

John’s imprisonment and death

This story tends to work backwards in time, which doesn’t give us a good idea of when John had been imprisoned and executed, and how long before this it was.  Those who have researched the history tend to see an overlap of less than a year in the ministry of John and Jesus before he is arrested.  It is also thought that John may have been in prison up to a year.  We will deal with the story by looking at the imprisonment and death of John first, and then we will come back to verses 14-16.

Before we get into John’s arrest, we must also take a moment to talk about the convoluted Herodian families, and just which Herod is being referenced here.  The Gospels don’t always give good clues to us because they had lived through these things and it was obvious.

Herod the Great is the Herod that is mentioned in the stories about the birth of Jesus.  He had been made king over all of Israel by the Romans.  He is also the one who ordered all children under 2 years of age in Bethlehem to be killed.  He was a dangerous man who was considered by many to be somewhat insane.  He executed three of his sons under suspicions of plotting to assassinate him.  Herod the Great died within 3-4 years of the birth of Jesus, which allowed Joseph and Mary to come back from Egypt and settle in Nazareth. 

Upon the death of Herod the Great, his kingdom was broken up into 5 parts and divvied up between three sons and 1 daughter.  Now, Herod had married many different wives and so, most of the brothers mentioned here are actually half-brothers.  The Herod of our passage in Mark 6 is one of these sons and is usually called Herod Antipas.  Herod Antipas was given rule over the Galilee (the western side of the Sea of Galilee including Nazareth) and another area called Perea, which was on the eastern side of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and about half way down the Dead Sea.  Notice that John the Baptist would have been baptizing people on the edge of his territory.

John the Baptist had a clear message.  Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.  He often challenged the people on specific sins, even calling out the Pharisees, but what got him in trouble was when he called out Herod Antipas for his sin.  You see, Herod Antipas had gone to Rome at the same time as one of his half-brothers named Herod Philip (not Philip the Tetrarch who is mentioned in the Scriptures).  There he had fallen in love with his half-brother’s wife, Herodias.  Yes, as her name implies, she is related and is actually the half-niece of Herod Antipas.  Apparently, the feelings were mutual because they divorced their spouses and married each other when they returned to Israel.  Now, the Law of Moses specifically prohibits marrying your brother’s wife, while he is still alive, not to mention the flimsy “case” for divorce.  Secondly, a case could also be made that she is too close in kinship to be lawful to marry.  Thus, John the Baptist calls out Herod Antipas for an illegitimate marriage.

People in power do not like religious prophets calling them out for their sin.  It is a personal affront, but also a political threat that can undermine their authority.  John had multitudes of people listening to his words and responding in repentance, which leads Herod Antipas to have him arrested and thrown in prison.

Herod Antipas had enough of his father in him to imprison John, but not so much as to have him executed.  He not only feared John as a holy prophet, but he also feared what the people would do if they heard he had killed John (Matthew’s Gospel specifically mentions this).  Yet, we are told that Herodias, his unlawful wife, wanted John the Baptist dead.  She could not do so because her husband stood in the way. 

This sets up the scene, that Matthew and Luke both describe, wherein John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Coming One, or do we look for another?”  Of all the people in Israel, John the Baptist seemed the most confident in who Jesus was.  Yet, after he had spent weeks and months in prison, it is clear that he began to wonder if he had missed something.  How could the Messiah be in Israel, and I am in prison under threat of death?  Surely, he will take power and set me free any day now.  In those passages, Jesus tells the disciples of John, “Go tell John the things you have seen and heard: that the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.  And Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matthew 11:5-6 NKJV).  The word “offended” here is the Greek word Skandalizo, and literally means “to cause to stumble.”  It comes from the concept of a stumbling block or stone in the Old Testament.  Basically, Jesus is telling John to hang on to his faith.  He is right and Jesus was doing all he was supposed to do.  Sometimes we think God should be doing things that the word never says that He must do.  In those times, we must trust Him, even it means we will die.

Our text tells us that an “opportune day” came.  This is in reference to the evil desire that Herodias had for John.  Whatever we allow to grow in our hearts, will one day find an opportune time to be expressed.  This is why we are warned to guard our hearts, not from being wounded in love, but from sinful desires that rise up and consume our inner dialogue from day to day.  Herodias nurtured murder in her heart and finally an opportunity came and she fell headlong into the full expression of that sin.

The opportunity comes in the form of a party that Herod Antipas throws for his birthday.  All his nobles, chief men, and high officers of his lands are gathered.  Herodias has her daughter (Herod’s step-daughter) dance before the king and his assembly.  No doubt, this is a typical, sensual dance that stirs up the passions of the king and was no doubt set up by Herodias, knowing her husband very well.  Herod is so pleased by the dance that he offers the young girl anything up to half his kingdom as a reward.  She goes and asks her mother what she should say, and her mother tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist.  I would not think the young girl had such a gift in mind.  However, she does not seem to put up much of a protest.  When she asks Herod for John’s head on a platter, Herod is in a bind.  He had given his word by oath and would look weak, impulsive, and untrustworthy to his administers.

We are told that Herod is “exceedingly sorrowful” at this reply.  This is the same word that is used of the rich young ruler who Jesus told to sell everything and come follow him.  That young man was exceedingly sorrowful because he wanted to follow Jesus, but he also had a large amount of wealth that he did not want to give up.  It is also the word used for Jesus in the garden on the night he was betrayed.  As he prayed that night, he was exceedingly sorrowful unto death.  This is part of the tragedy of sin.  Most people are not as completely evil as they can be.  However, we can become so tightly entangled in a great web of sin that it traps us into descending further.  Many wicked things are done by unwilling people who feel that they are trapped and have no other choice.  Yet, remember the message of John the Baptist.  Repent.  Herod was only trapped because he continued to refuse a place in his heart for repentance.  We too are only as trapped as we are insistent on resisting the call to repentance.

Herod’s fears about Jesus

This leads us back to the beginning of our passage.  Herod had executed John and it bothered him enough to be superstitious, but not enough to repent.  You see, when word of the exploits of Jesus reach him, he concludes that John the Baptist has come back to life and is going to cause him even more trouble.  It is interesting that there is no statement of a fear of God, only of John.  This scene is a reversal of the scene where Jesus asks his disciples who people are saying he is.  There too we are told that a common theory of who Jesus was said that he was Elijah.  This is not as strange as it may seem to us.  Elijah had been taken up into the heavens by a heavenly chariot.  Also, Malachi 4:5 prophesied that Elijah would appear before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord, and he would turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers.  This is a beautiful picture of what wholesale repentance can do in a society.  We know that this theory was not true.

The second theory was that Jesus was The Prophet or at least just one of the prophets.  This is a reference to an interesting prophecy that Moses himself had given in Deuteronomy 18:15. He said that a particular prophet would come in the future that would be like him.  This seems to mean that he would be on the same order and magnitude of Moses.  Thus, many prophets had arisen since Moses, but none of them with such deliverance from bondage, and establishing a completely, new order within Israel.  “The Prophet” was seen as either the same as the Messiah, or another who would work with the Messiah to reform Israel.

I take time to go through this because, in our flesh, we come up with religious speculation and superstitious conspiracy theories.  Even today, many Christians exist in a kind of Herodian sphere where they have enough religion to speculate and respond in fear to the things ahead of us.  However, the Holy Spirit of God is working to reveal to us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  Herod put to death the very one who testified the truth about Jesus.  If Herod had only listened then he would know exactly who Jesus is.  He is the Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!

Our passage ends at this point.  In Luke 13:31-33, we are told that Herod Antipas sought to kill Jesus.  When the Pharisees bring this up to Jesus, he basically tells them to go tell “that fox,” I will do what I am going to do and he can’t stop it.  Herod Antipas, or Caesar for that matter, had no power over Jesus.  He had to go to Jerusalem and die there because that was the prophesied plan.

Herod Antipas received one more chance and gracious witness of the truth from God when Pilate was determining what to do with Jesus.  He sends Jesus to Herod Antipas because Jesus was from Nazareth, which was in his territory.  We are told that Herod was excited because he wanted to hear what things Jesus would have to say.  However, Jesus refused to play his game and so Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate and deferred to his judgment.  There was no place for repentance in his heart.  Religion was only a fun game to play or a fine sounding instrument to play, and that was all.

Within ten years of the death of Jesus, Herod Antipas and Herodias are caught up in a political maneuver that causes them to be exiled to Gaul, where they later died.  If only he had responded to the tremendous people who witnessed to him of the truth of God’s Word.

John the Baptist is not recorded as the first Christian martyr because Jesus stated that John was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and rightly belonged to the era of Israel under the Law of Moses.  With Jesus, a new era was beginning.  The remnant of Israel was called out in order to become the Church of Jesus, wherein both Jews and Gentiles would become one people of faith upon the foundation of Jesus and his apostles. 

We too can find ourselves in a position much like John the Baptist.  The difficulties and sufferings that we face in this life at the hands of selfish and even wicked people can cause us to question Jesus.  Precious, few believers in America need to really fear martyrdom, dying for our faith and testimony in Jesus.  However, this is part of the condemnation that comes upon this world.  God has sent us prophets and righteous people speaking the truth, and we have persecuted them and put them to death.  More people have died in this last century than all the previous centuries combined.  Part of that is because of the increase in population, but part of it is because the world hates the message of Jesus, and thus hates those who truly follow him.  Yet, such hatred, persecution, and even martyring, will not destroy us.  The work of John was not destroyed by his death and the work of Jesus was not destroyed by his death.  May we always remember that the things we do that are of God cannot be destroyed, but will only produce a harvest at thirty, sixty, even a hundred-fold!

Martyrdom audio