Faithful to the End
It’s February 21, 2007 and I am halfway around the world in India with Angela, who is now my wife, and three others from our church and Bible college. After travelling for 24 hours straight and spending 2 days in Delhi recuperating from jet lag, we find ourselves in a city named Agra, famous only because it is home to the Taj Mahal. Our main goal in Agra is not to sightsee the Taj but to board an overnight train that will take us to our final destination about 10 hours south. However, since this is likely the only chance we will have in this life to see this famous structure and since we have almost two days to kill, we decide not to pass up the opportunity.
We board a small bus outside our hotel and head to the Taj. About a half-mile out the driver stops and says we have to walk the rest of the way because the Indian government bans vehicles from coming any closer, fearing that the exhaust might tarnish the sparkling white exterior of the Taj.
On our walk, we meet three kinds of people: laborers, beggars, and outcasts. The laborers, like the 8-year-old boy who won’t stop trying to get me to visit his father’s shop, tirelessly attempt to sell things to the tourists. The beggars are the sick and poor people on the side of the road hoping the tourists will spend their money helping them instead of buying souvenirs. But the outcasts, like the man missing several limbs lying motionless in a wooden wheelbarrow in the middle of the street, those are the people I wasn’t prepared for; people so steeped in suffering that they have neither the energy nor hope to even beg.
The shock of this walk is not from having to adjust to the social customs of another culture. It is from having to make my way through a gauntlet display of economic, physical, and spiritual suffering while feeling totally powerless to do anything about it. This feeling of powerlessness in the face of so much suffering is only aggravated by the fact that, in the eyes of tourists, they are hardly more than obstacles on the road to an outlandishly extravagant, 350+ year-old mausoleum built to house the body of a Muslim Shah’s favorite wife. Sure, architecturally and aesthetically this building is absolutely breathtaking. In that sense, it deserves to be counted among the 7 wonders of the modern world, a status it would officially receive about 5 months later. But the fact that everyone is captivated by this monument created to honor one, long since dead woman while completely ignoring the hundreds of still living monuments created by God to honor Him, seems more and more unjust with every step toward the entrance.
By the time we get to the security checkpoint, I’m pretty much disgusted with the Taj Mahal and how anyone can think that a structure can be worth more than one life, let alone thousands. But when the security team tells me I can’t go in unless I leave my bag with them—more specifically, my Bible with them—my disgust turns to disdain. After lots of deliberation and urging from my companions, I choose to check my bag and see the Taj Mahal with the group.
I wouldn’t use the word “persecution” to describe that experience, especially knowing what some of our siblings in Christ across history and the globe have endured for their faith. But I do wonder what I would have done if, like them, it cost me more than checking my bag? What if it meant checking into prison? What if, in that prison one day, instead of seeing someone holding my daily meal, I saw someone holding a sword? What would I do or say then? I think it’s ok to hope I never find out but I certainly hope I would react like the hero in today’s story, Mark 6:14–29. We will look at two points—Jesus’s Legendary Fame (vv. 14–16) and Herod’s Lethal Flashback (vv. 17–29)—and then end with a call to imitate John’s faithfulness in three specific ways.
“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:14–29).
Point 1: Jesus’s Legendary Fame (vv. 14–16)
To put it lightly, miraculous powers were at work in Jesus. He healed and delivered so many people all over Galilee that king Herod heard about it. We will talk about Herod more in point 2 but notice out how significant it was that king Herod had heard about Jesus. For a modern-day example, imagine what it would take for a Wisconsin governor to both hear and care about what you are doing. I should probably add, “when it’s not campaign season.” It would take a lot for someone of such political importance to hear about you and say, “They are doing something so amazing, I’ve got to go see it for myself.” That’s what’s happening here. Jesus’ fame had reached both the common circles of society and the more elite ruling class. But people in both created theories or legends to explain Jesus’ miraculous works and Mark lists 3 of them.
Legend 1: Jesus had miraculous powers because He was actually the resurrected John the Baptist. This is kind of a strange legend for two reasons. First, Jesus and John were only a few months apart in age. Second, according to John 10:41, John the Baptist never performed any miraculous works while he was alive. Proclamation and preparation defined his ministry, not signs and wonders. So, miraculous works wouldn’t have been a clear indicator of his return. Whatever their reasons, people who supported this legend obviously held John in high regard and thought God vindicated him by raising him from the dead and bestowing powers on him. Nevertheless, this legend wasn’t true, Jesus wasn’t John raised from the dead.
Legend 2: Jesus had miraculous powers because He was actually the returned prophet, Elijah. This one makes more sense because 1) Elijah lived on earth several hundred years before Jesus came, 2) Elijah was known for his miraculous works, and 3) God had promised to send Elijah back to the earth after taking him into heaven alive. In 2 Kings 2:11, it appears that God somehow allowed Elijah to skip dying and go directly to heaven: “chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” Then, in Malachi 4:5, God promises, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” So, God took him to heaven planning to send him back before the great and awesome day of God’s final judgment and salvation came. So, claiming that Jesus was Elijah basically meant, “The end is near”—all these miraculous works indicate that God is about to wrap up history as we know it. As plausible as this explanation may have been, it wasn’t true; Jesus wasn’t Elijah, who was still yet to return.
Legend 3: like a prophet of old. So, not a prophet specially resurrected or returned but a separate prophet like those of old in his ability to perform signs and wonders while bringing a message from God. As we saw two weeks ago at the beginning of Mark 6, Jesus did identify Himself as a prophet. So, of all three legends, this one is closest; however, He is a prophet and much more as we have already seen over and over again in Mark.
Herod believed legend 1, that Jesus was the resurrected John the Baptist. And I would confidently guess that a mixture of guilt and terror accompanied that belief based on what we learn from his lethal flashback.
Point 2: Herod’s Lethal Flashback (vv. 17–29)
Even though Herod was wrong, Mark wants us to know why he believed John had been raised from the dead. He explains the whole story in vv. 14–29 and I want to dig into it a bit to better understand what happened.
During Jesus’s lifetime, the Roman empire had control over Israel. If the Romans thought an area was relatively unimportant, they would sometimes appoint someone native to that area but also loyal to Rome to rule it for them. The Romans called these leaders “client-kings.” “Herod” was the family name of the client-kings that ruled Israel from about 37 bc to 100 ad. There are several different men who were called Herod in history because it was a royal family name passed on to the child chosen to inherit the throne (kind of like “Caesar” in the Roman empire).
There are 4 different “Herods” in the NT—two in the Gospels and two in Acts. For the purpose of this sermon, we are only concerned with the two in the Gospels. The first Herod, “Herod the Great,” shows up in Matthew as the one who attempted to kill Jesus as a baby. He was a half-Jewish man who expanded his kingdom through wars and various political alliances. He had several children with 10 different wives. Three of his sons are important to today’s passage: Aristobulus, Philip, and Antipas.
Each one had a different mother; so, they were technically half-brothers. Aristobulus is important because Herodias was his daughter—the same Herodias in today’s passage who hated John the Baptist. The second son worth mentioning is Philip because he married Herodias and had a daughter with her—the same daughter in today’s passage who asks for John’s execution. The third son is Antipas, who is simply called “Herod” in Mark 6 because he inherited the royal family name and throne in Galilee.
Since this makes for a very twisted family tree, let me recap how these people are related. Philip and Herod are half-brothers. Philip was Herodias’ uncle and husband. Herod was also Herodias’ uncle and husband. The girl who dances is both Herodias’ daughter and her cousin. She is also Herod’s step-daughter and niece. Are you confused yet? If so, that’s ok, just take John’s word for it, Herod’s marriage to Herodias was unlawful on every level. The specific law John might have had in mind comes from Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.”
This highlights the tragic irony of the situation. At this point in biblical history and because they were Jewish, Herod and Herodias were adulterers who deserved to be executed and yet, they are the ones who wind up executing the righteous and holy man who spoke the truth about their sin. However, what is perhaps even more shocking than that is how John affected Herod even when he opposed him to his face about his unlawful marriage. Herodias hears it and is filled with unforgiving, murderous anger. But Herod hears it with a mix of emotions—perplexity, gladness, and fear—that leads him not only to acknowledge that John was a righteous and holy man but also to keep him safe, which at that point meant preventing his wife Herodias from acting on her murderous grudge.
That seems like a ray of hope until Herod shows his true colors. He showed himself to be a coward who couldn’t deny a teenage girl’s demand that he unjustly murder a holy and righteous man. When push came to shove, Herod preferred beheading an innocent man than potentially suffering some embarrassment and dishonor in front of his guests. This is the ultimate self-centered cowardice.
When a merchant says, “50% off everything in the store!” no one on planet earth seriously believes that includes every single physical item in the store. “50% off everything? That means we can force them to sell us all their $20 bills in the cash register for $10 each, and if they don’t we’ll sue them!” No, “50% off everything” includes the unspoken fine print “except anything that isn’t actual merchandise.” Similarly, I think Herod’s guests would have understood the unspoken fine print that “up to half my kingdom” didn’t include murdering the innocent.
He’s the king—no one is going to fault him for amending his oath after the fact, especially to exclude murdering the innocent. And even if they did, what’s the worst that can happen? If he said, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:23) and she responded, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mark 6:25), what would all of his guests do if he clarified, “Well, when I said ‘anything’ that actually didn’t include murdering the innocent… sorry, I thought you knew that. I didn’t realize I had to make it clear. It’s nothing personal—it’s just that your dance wasn’t quite good enough to coerce me start murdering innocent people.” What would they have done—start screaming, “He’s a liar! Down with the king! Depose him! Bind him! Kill him!”? I don’t think so but, even if they had, he still would not have had just cause to execute John. But he did. He killed a man who was faithful to God because his adulterous wife didn’t like it when he spoke the truth. This is where I want to begin applying this text to our lives, looking at how a man who lived a faithful life could end up losing his head in prison and how that should encourage us to cling to the truth and endure suffering
Endure suffering and persecution in light of God’s grace
John wasn’t a perfect man but he still lived a blessed and faithful life. Luke tells us how God intervened to bring about his birth even though his parents were “advanced in years” (Luke 1:7) and childless. Luke also tells us that “the hand of the Lord was with [John]” (1:66) as he “grew and became strong in spirit, and… was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Luke 1:80). All four Gospels mention his public appearance to Israel as a monumental work of God to prepare people for the coming of Jesus Christ. It was so significant, in fact, that Mark chose it as the starting point for “the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).
He lived and ministered out in the wilderness, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins… saying, ‘After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’” (Mark 1:4, 7–8). Despite being in the wilderness, his ministry was extremely effective because “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mark 1:5).
And when all those people who used to flock to and follow him left in pursuit of Jesus, a few of his remaining disciples asked him how he felt about it. He answered, “You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:28–30).
John considered it a complete joy, the capstone of his ministry, the happy fulfillment of his God-ordained purpose in life, to simultaneously witness himself decrease and be forgotten and witness Jesus increase in fame and following. And Jesus praised him for this. Jesus said that John was “more than a prophet” and “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:9–11).
Despite all of this blessing, faithfulness, and affirmation, the last person John ever met was the executioner sent to cut off his head in a filthy prison cell. What are we to make of such an unjust, grotesque, and horrifying situation? First, endure suffering and persecution—especially for the sake of your faith in Jesus—in the light of God’s grace. It is not evidence of God’s disfavor or abandonment. It is opportunity to fellowship with Christ in His very own suffering and lay hold of increasing measures of His grace and kindness.
Second, endure holding to the truth of the Gospel—that Jesus died for sinners who repent and believe. John’s message to Herod was, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). When did he say that to Herod? He ministered out in the wilderness and I doubt that he often wandered into king’s palaces with messages of repentance. No, I think Herod must have gone out to him in the desert to hear what he had to say to him. John’s message of repentance for Herod—the thing he needed to repent and be forgiven of in preparation for the coming of Christ—was his unlawful marriage and John didn’t shrink back from declaring that because of Herod’s position or influence. The truth isn’t a weapon but neither is it optional.
Third, endure with hope in Christ and eternal life with Him. This whole story would be utter tragedy if death in prison was the end of the story for John. “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain… I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21–23). Death is gain when it becomes the doorway to being with Jesus forever. If you are in Christ, death is not the end.