January 28, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Gospel of Mark
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
John the Baptizer Is Beheaded
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.
Our scripture says that Herod “heard about this.” “This” refers to the end of the previous chapter. [Jesus and the disciples] went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.
By now, news of Jesus had penetrated all over the country. The tale had reached the ears of Herod. The reason why he had not up to this time heard of Jesus may be due to the fact that his official residence in Galilee was in Tiberias. Tiberias was largely a Gentile city, and, as far as we know, Jesus never set foot in it. But the mission of the Twelve had taken Jesus’ fame all over Galilee, so that his name was upon everyone’s lips.
While Jesus’ fame was spreading, he was also being insulted by his countrymen for his unimportance and obscurity. Jesus was thought to be a false Messiah. But his fame in Judea and in Herod’s court was causing the rulers and religious leaders to become more vigorous in their attempts to discredit Jesus and to eventually kill him.
With Jesus preaching the same message as John the Baptist, Herod began suffering from a guilty conscience. Herod was guilty of allowing the execution of John the Baptizer, and now he was haunted by what he had done. Whenever people commit evil acts, the whole world becomes their enemy. We cannot avoid living with ourselves; and when we are filled with self-accusations, life becomes intolerable. Outwardly, we live in the fear that we will be found out and that someday the consequences of our evil deeds will catch up with us.
Some people even thought that Jesus was Elijah raised from the dead. That he was the prophet to announce the coming of the Messiah. The Jews were thinking of their own ambitions to have a conquering king who would give the Jews back their liberty and who would then lead them on a triumphant campaign throughout the world. They were thinking of Jesus not as someone to whom they must submit and whom they must obey; they were thinking of Jesus as someone they could use.
In all of this, Herod came to the conclusion that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” A guilty conscience can play terrible tricks with you mind. Jesus did not intend to criticize Herod, like John did, because he had come to save people, but Herod was paranoid at this point and saw Jesus as the enemy. How did Herod get to this point in his life? We will discover that in a moment, but first, will you pray with me?
A young mother complained to her friend about the difficulties of child rearing, especially the lack of peace and constant pestering by her small children. Her friend smiled and said, “What you need is a playpen to separate the kids from yourself!” So, the young mother bought a playpen. A few days later, her friend called to ask how things were going. “Awesome! I can’t believe how nice it is,” she replied. “I get in the pen with a good book and the kids don’t bother me one bit!”
Herod was feeling penned in and people were bothering him. But it was of his own doing. He had committed an act that was against the Law of Moses. Herod’s unlawful message and his beheading of John the Baptist were such flagrant acts against the laws and customs of the Jews, that the story appears in some form in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The great secular historian of the Roman Empire, Josephus, even mentions it in his history book.
Herod was called Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great, King of Judea and his fifth wife, Malthake, when Jesus and John the Baptist were born. Herod the Great was the king who was responsible for the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. Over the years Herod the Great had many of his wives and sons murdered because he was suspicious of their activities to take over his kingdom. When he finally died, one of his remaining sons, Herod Antipas became King of Judea.
Herod broke the Law of Moses when he married his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. Now see if you can follow me here, because the Herod family was pretty messed up with many matrimonial entanglements. Herodias was the daughter of Herod the Great’s son Aristobulus, whom he murdered. Herodias was then married to Aristobulus’ half-brother Herod Philip. They birthed a daughter called Salome, the one who dances in our story.
But Herod Antipas, the Herod in our story, became enamored with Herodias and stole her away from his half-brother Herod Philip. So Herodias was Herod Antipas’ wife, as well as his niece from his half-brother Aristobulus, but also his sister-in-law, because she was married to Herod Philip. That made Salome, at the same time, Herod’s niece, his great-niece, and his step-daughter. You can’t make this stuff up.
Because of this adulterous marriage and because of Herod’s deliberate seduction of his brother’s wife, John the Baptist had been after Herod saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” This infuriated Herod, who was somewhat weak and feared what others may say about him. It took courage for John to rebuke in public a dictator who had the power of life and death, but John rebuked evil wherever he saw it. Herod had John the Baptizer arrested and placed in prison in the fortress of Machaerus. But know this, Herod did not want to execute John.
Machaerus stood on a lonely ridge, surrounded by terrible ravines, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. It was one of the loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world. Herod had built fortresses all over Judea to use as escape routes if there was an uprising in the country. To this day the dungeons are still there, and one can still see the staples and the iron hooks in the wall to which John must have been bound. It was in that bleak and desolate fortress that the last act of John’s life was played out.
William Barclay writes the following in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark: “In spite of John’s rebuke Herod still feared and respected him, for John was so obviously a man of sincerity and of goodness; but with Herodias it was different. She was [ruthlessly] hostile to John and determined to eliminate him. She got her chance at Herod’s birthday feast, which he was celebrating with his courtiers and his captains.”
Barclay continues, “Into that feast her daughter Salome came to dance. Solo dances in those days in such society were disgusting and licentious pantomimes. That a princess of the royal blood should so expose and demean herself is beyond belief, because such dances were the art of professional prostitutes. The very fact that she did this is grim commentary on the character of Salome, and of the mother who allowed and encouraged her to do so. But Herod was pleased; and Herod offered her any reward; and thus, Herodias got the chance she had plotted for so long; and through her spite and desire for revenge, John was executed.”
Herod beheaded John the Baptist and had the head brought to Salome on a platter according to her wishes without giving John a formal trial which was also in violation of the Law of Moses. Herod did this because he wanted to save face and not look like a fool in front of his guests. Folks, 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. Sound familiar? 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. So, 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. So many times, people in positions of power are subjected to pressures that threaten their security or cause greed.
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. But both secular rulers caved in to pressure from outsiders. 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 would become involved in Jesus’ death as well.
By the time Jesus stood before Herod, just prior to the crucifixion, his heart had become completely hard. His conscience had been seared, and he was unable to see the things of God or the way of salvation. Neither Herod nor Pilate wanted to kill Jesus, but they were persuaded by the crowds. Interesting though, both John and Jesus continued to exert power after their deaths. John’s death haunted Herod and Jesus’ resurrection assured the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Folks, this is a tragic and sobering passage of Scripture. The life of an innocent man, John, ended tragically due to hatred, bitterness, and pride. The heart of a convicted man died within Herod long before he took his last breath. That heart of stone sealed his eternal destiny. No doubt Herod would love to hear John preach one more time and call on him to repent, but that opportunity would never come. Herod rejected truth and now he is dealing with the eternal consequences.
We too must respond to the truth we have received in the Word of God. If we are saved, we should be thankful the Gospel was presented to us and we have responded. As believers, we should be concerned with those like Herod who have heard the Gospel and have not yet responded. If you are one of those who has not yet responded to the Gospel, don’t put it off. Ask God for forgiveness today and invite the light of Christ into your heart. After all, it is tragic to develop a hard heart and become insensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your life. You have a second chance that Herod did not take.