JESUS AND THE DEATH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
The Gospel of Mark is as Mark introduces it, “the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This book is the good news about Jesus Christ. It is noteworthy then, when we come to a passage that is not directly about Jesus. There are only two passages in the Gospel of Mark like that, and both are about John the Baptist, the great prophet and forerunner of Jesus. The first was 1:2-8. And the second is the passage before us today. Mark includes these accounts of John because John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus. If we understand John, we will better understand Jesus.
I want to look at three truths from our passage today that will help us understand Jesus and his work better.
First Truth:Jesus is fundamentally misunderstood by the world (14-16)
Remember from last week that Jesus had sent out his apostles on mission. News of Jesus is spreading. Now we read in verse 14 that “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.” Last week I said that Jesus forces people to respond. Well now that his name is becoming known, more people are being forced to respond. And Mark gives us insight into what people are saying on a popular level. He tells us that there are three basic misconceptions that are widely floating around about who Jesus is. Later in the gospel the disciples will mention these same three things when Jesus asks them who people say that he is.
The first misconception is in verse 14: “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead.” This confirms what Mark has already told us—that Jesus’ message is in line with the message that John proclaimed. People recognize that John and Jesus were about the same sort of ministry and were united in purpose. And they wrongly assume that a resurrected John would explain why Jesus has power to perform miracles. But they are right to see a link between these two men. Listen to how the apostle John writes about the relationship between John and Jesus in John 1:6-11:
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. 9 The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.
You can see there that John and Jesus shared a purpose. John came to bear witness about Jesus, and Jesus came to bear witness about himself. So it makes sense where this misconception came from.
The second popular misconception about Jesus is in verse 15: “He is Elijah.” The Jewish people were looking for Elijah to return. They knew about what the Old Testament prophet Malachi had declared:
1 Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. (Malachi 3:1–2)
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 4:5–6)
[And yet again John and Jesus are getting confused in people’s minds. Mark has already quoted Malachi 3 and told us that John is this messenger preparing the way of the Lord, and Jesus is the Lord. And we only have to wait three more chapters until Elijah himself appears along with Moses in chapter 9. There Moses and Elijah come to testify that Jesus is God’s beloved Son to whom their ministries pointed, and Jesus tells Peter, James, and John there that in John the Baptist Elijah had already come. Again we can see that the people don’t understand who Jesus is.
The third popular misconception about Jesus is also in verse 15: “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” This may have been related to the promise in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—[…]I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.
Now certainly Jesus is a prophet, and he is in fact the prophet spoken of by Moses. But this popular belief about Jesus as a prophet fails to see that he is much more than a prophet.
All three of these misconceptions are in contrast to Peter’s true confession in Mark 8:29: “You are the Christ.” But nobody understands this on a popular level. And with these ideas floating around we come back in verse 16 to Herod, who agrees with the first misconception, that Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. This “Herod” is from a family of “Herods.” Herod the Great was the Roman ruler at the time when Jesus was born. This Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great’s fourth wife. He was known to be merciless, shrewd, cunning, malicious, and one who enjoyed living a life of luxury.
When Herod says that the John whom he killed has been raised, he is viewing Jesus as a threat. In one sense he recognizes his personal guilt and responsibility for executing John, so that he fears that in Jesus John has come back, perhaps for vengeance. The Jewish historian Josephus even records that when Herod died people believed his death was God’s judgment for killing John.
But beyond Herod’s dealings with John, we find that people in authority generally are suspicious and feel threatened by Jesus. This will also become apparent with the Jewish authorities. For we read in Mark 11:18 that “the chief priests and the scribes heard [of Jesus cleansing the temple] and were seeking a way to destroy him, for they feared him, because all the crowd was astonished at his teaching.” The leaders recognized that Jesus came with authority, and this is a threat to their authority.
After this episode we can see that Herod is a personal enemy of Jesus. In Mark 8:15 Jesus warns his disciples, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
So what can we learn from this? We see that people generally come with preconceived ideas about Jesus when you tell them the gospel, unless you are ministering in a part of the world that has been completely unengaged with the gospel. These situations do exist. But here in our city, people already have some opinion about Jesus, even if that opinion is that he is irrelevant. And unless they are already a Christian, the opinion they have will be wrong. Rarely do you encounter people who express pure hatred of Jesus; more often they will have a misconception of him. They may think of Jesus as a good moral teacher, or a name to invoke in crisis, or a strong historical religious leader.
But you must understand that a high opinion of Jesus does not equal faith in him. The crowds liked Jesus’ miracles and the works that he did. But the closer he got to the cross the sparser they became. When you encounter people who like Jesus but don’t embrace him for his atoning death, you are encountering people who are actually hostile to Jesus. Why is this? Because you cannot divorce Jesus from the work he came to do. You cannot have him and reject his teaching that he came to give his life as a ransom for many. You cannot have Jesus and brush past his claim to be the Messiah, the Son of God with all authority. You cannot have Jesus and ignore his command to repent of your sins, and follow him. Jesus is a package deal. All or nothing. That is our first truth, that Jesus is fundamentally misunderstood by the world.
Second Truth:God’s law judges the whole world (17-20)
You might remember all the way back to 1:14 that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee after John was arrested. Now here in chapter 6, beginning in verse 17 Mark gives us the rest of the story of what happened to John. We read that “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.” Philip was Herod’s half-brother, another son of Herod the Great, but his mother was one of their father’s other wives. Herodias had been married to Philip but she had divorced Philip in order to marry Herod, and Herod had put aside his own wife for Herodias.
John looked upon this situation and told Herod that God had something to say about it. Verse 18 reads: “For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”” The words of Leviticus were ringing loudly in John’s mind: “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness,” (18:16) and “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless” (20:21). Philip was still alive and he and Herodias had a daughter. This was a clear violation of God’s moral commands. Jesus would later speak to this situation in Mark 10:12, saying, “…if [a wife] divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” Therefore John was confronting Herod over his sinful marriage to Herodias.
We can learn something very important about the law here. We know that God gave his law to a particular people—to Israel. His statutes and ordinances govern that nation in particular. However, God is not God of the Jews only. He is the sovereign over the whole earth. Every person is accountable to live in accord with his laws as the expression of his unchangeable character. Paul addresses this amazing reality directly in Romans 3:19 when he writes, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” This Roman ruler Herod was not exempt from God’s commands. There is no ruler in the word who is not under the authority of God.
So we can get the logic here. God gave the law to the Jewish nation, so that all people everywhere may be held accountable to God. Now it is one thing to recognize that. It is another to have the prophetic courage that John had. He feared God more than Herod. He took to heart the truth Jesus taught in Luke 12:4-5 when he said, “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” John confronted Herod, fully aware that Herod was in a position to kill him if he so desired. But John counted it gain if he were to lose his life to this human ruler but be welcomed in by the ruler of the universe as a righteous and faithful servant.
What was the result of John’s confrontation of Herod? Beginning with verse 19, it reads:
19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not,20 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.
John received a mixed response. Not mixed in terms of repentance, because nothing is written indicating that either Herod or Herodias repented. But it is mixed in their posture toward John. Herodias was bent upon killing him. But Herod was holding her back. He feared John and protected him. He was clearly torn when he heard him. Part of him wanted to hear John and part of him didn’t.
Let this be a lesson to us. Brothers and sisters, settle it in your hearts whom you will fear. Your gospel witness necessarily means that you will be confronting people in their sin. Take courage. Fear God. Pray for boldness and clarity. And leave the results to God. O, that we would have the lion-hearted courage of John the Baptist! For just as God’s law judges the whole world, so his gospel is freely offered to the whole world. John was a bearer of God’s truth, and he did not concern himself with the fact that he could get himself killed obeying God. He acted upon our second truth, which is that God’s law judges the whole world.
Third Point: Jesus came to be put to death
I don’t think Mark included this story of John’s death because he thought his readers would find the gruesome story of his death interesting. He included it because John is the forerunner of Christ. We have seen that John came before Jesus, preparing the way through his ministry and the message he preached. Now he is doing his final act of going before the Messiah by preceding him in death.
Listen to how Jesus will connect himself to John’s ministry and death later in the Gospel. In Mark 9:11-13 Jesus’ disciples question him about why the scribes say that Elijah must come before the Christ. His response is: “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” He is referring to John’s death here and we can see that it points ahead to the suffering that Jesus will undergo. Then later in Mark 11:27-33 as Jesus is in the temple shortly before his own death, the religious leaders came to him and demand an answer for his teaching and works he was doing. They ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus response is this: “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. 30 Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” They have no answer for Jesus there. The point I am making is that Jesus links himself, the authority of his ministry, and even his suffering very closely with John the Baptist. So when we read of John’s death, I think our minds are meant to go forward to Jesus’ suffering and death. John’s death comes about through a confrontation with an earthly authority. There is a greater confrontation coming, and a death that is supremely more significant. That is where the Gospel of Mark is heading.
I want to briefly look at the main characters in this story involved in putting John to death. First we have Herod. His actions point ahead to Jesus’ trial and death. Herod is shown to be a weak man, driven by foolish, sinful desires. We see that he had arrested and bound John, as will happen to Jesus in chapters 14 and 15. He wanted to kill John, but has divided desires. He can’t let John go free, but neither can he bring himself to put him to death. He has to be driven there by another. This same thing will play out for Jesus, but with Pilate. We will see Pilate, the Roman ruler who put Jesus to death, in chapter 15. He resists the chief priests who want to kill Jesus because he knows Jesus is holy, and righteous and innocent. But ultimately he will give up his resistance and allow Jesus to be crucified. Likewise here, it says in verse 20 that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. Nevertheless, his weakness is shown by the way he is brought by Herodias to put John to death anyway.
Next we have Herodias, Herod’s manipulative wife. If you are familiar with the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah, there is a wicked king named Ahab, whose wife Jezebel manipulates him. She likewise hates the prophet and wants to put him to death. And she does put another man named Naboth to death by Ahab’s hand. You can read about it in 1 Kings 21. It is another story of a murderous wife manipulating her weak husband to kill a man. Here, Herodias hates John because of his condemnation of her sinful marriage to Herod. She is bent upon killing him. One theologian (T. W. Manson) has written: “Herodias felt that the only place where her marriage-certificate could safely be written was on the back of the death-warrant of John the Baptist.”
Finally we have Herodias’s daughter, who we know from the Jewish historian Josephus, was named Salome. She serves in this story as simply a tool in the hand of her mother, doing whatever Herodias desires.
The way this story plays out is that Herod holds a feast in honor of his birthday. This is a very different feast than we will hear about next week. This is a feast with alcohol, entertainment, and all the important guests: government officials, military officers, and the wealthy and well-known men of Galilee. When Salome, who is probably 12 or 14 years old, gives what we can only imagine is a sensual dance for these men, it pleases Herod. In a moment of drunken foolishness he offers her whatever she wants, and Herodias through her daughter demands the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod feels forced by social pressure to follow through in order to protect his own name and thus the prophet is beheaded and his head is brought to Salome, who gave it to her mother. Thus John the Baptist is silenced, but his message never could be. And like Joseph of Arimathea will do for Jesus, John’s disciples take his body and bury it at their own personal risk.
So we have John going before Jesus in ministry, in the message he proclaimed, and in death. His whole life was meant to point to Jesus. And there was no mistake as to who was the greater. John said, “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.” John died to point ahead to Jesus. And Jesus died in the place of John, and all the rest of his people who would believe in him. He bore our sins on the cross so that his righteousness might be counted as ours. This is the gospel.
John could die without fear knowing that Christ was his Lord, and it is the same for all who are disciples of Jesus. You see John is not only a forerunner of Christ, but his death also shows the way to be a cross-bearing disciple of Jesus. This is why the account of John’s death is placed between verses 7-12, where the apostles are sent on mission, and verse 30, where they return. The power that Jesus promised to his apostles is not only the power to cast out demons and heal the sick. It is also the power to preach the gospel in the face of death. John’s death provides an example of the consequences of following Jesus in a world where people live for money, power, fame, and sinful pleasure. Being a courageous disciple of Jesus is sure to be costly in such a world where your words and even the example of your life will convict sinners. And from time to time tyrants like Herod will arise who cannot tolerate the righteous, and Jesus’ followers are put to death. Most of the twelve apostles did not die because they got old. They died for the gospel and for the name of Jesus, like John the Baptist.
Jesus links discipleship with death for his followers. Listen to Mark 8:34-38:
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Discipleship is believing in and following a crucified and resurrected Messiah. It involves forsaking your sin and giving up your very life to follow Jesus. Following him means taking the gospel to the world. The gospel is good news of salvation, but it also includes the message that God judges sin. Combine that with the misconceptions people have of who Jesus is, and persecution is bound to come. John has given us an example of what faithfulness looks like even when faithfulness to God leads death. He shows us how to give up treasure on earth in order to store up the greater treasure in heaven so that when he dies he is welcomed into the everlasting joy of God.