How Fear Led One Man to Heaven and Another to Hell (Part Two)
Today we resume our study of Mark 6:14-29 and the story of Herod, John the Baptist, and a couple of reprehensible women. Continue reading . . .
Today we resume our study of Mark 6:14-29 and the story of Herod, John the Baptist, and a couple of reprehensible women.
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).
We are told in Mark 6:14 that news of Jesus and all that he was doing had reached the palace of Herod. Jesus ministered primarily in Galilee and never visited Tiberias, the headquarters of Herod. Some have thought that Jesus intentionally stayed away from Tiberias to avoid a premature conflict with Herod, but more likely it was due to the fact that Tiberias was built on the site of an ancient cemetery, which would have meant no Jew could live there lest they become ceremonially unclean. In any case, the many miracles of Jesus and his teaching and undoubtedly the testimony of John the Baptist before his execution got Herod to thinking, got him to worrying.
Some thought Jesus might be Elijah or one of the other prophets. How else can they account for his miraculous powers? But Herod was convinced that somehow the spirit of John the Baptist animated Jesus: “He’s come back to haunt me and torment me and to get even with me for killing him!”
Herodias was determined to find a way to get rid of John. Although he was in prison, she couldn’t convince Herod to kill him. Herod, we are told, “kept him safe”,
“for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, . . . When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly” (v. 20).
Fascinating! Herod (1) feared John (perhaps because of John’s influence and popularity among the people; maybe he thought John was to lead an insurrection); (2) was impressed with John’s personal piety, his holiness of life (Herod wasn’t an atheist; he evidently saw the presence of God in John); (3) was greatly perplexed when he heard John speak (couldn’t quite figure him out, but he was strangely drawn to John’s call to repentance; perhaps convicted by him); and (4) heard him “gladly” (he was intrigued by John and curious and found a measure of joy in what he said).
Finally, Herodias got her chance:
“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’” (vv. 21-23).
The offer of half of his kingdom should not be taken literally. It was proverbial language for, “I’ll give anything if you’ll do this.” Also, Herod didn’t own the land. Rome did, and they would never have allowed him to part with so much as an acre.
Herodias’s plot worked to perfection. She told her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Whether impulsively or drunkenly, or both, Herod made his promise in public, in the presence of nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee (v. 21). All the powerful and rich men of the region were present. Herod was determined to save face. As much as he regretted killing John, he had to maintain his reputation. He couldn’t afford to be seen as one who made a promise and then casually broke it.
It’s hard to think of anything of real value that we can take away from this story, but on closer inspection I believe there is actually much to learn. Let’s not get swept up in the sadistic sinfulness of Herod and Herodias, but rather turn our attention to John.
Consider if you will John’s undying devotion to Jesus in spite of imprisonment and death. He never retracted his words to Herod. He never softened his stance on the immorality of his marriage. He never tried to rationalize a compromise by saying: “But if I simply modify my position, just think of how much good I can do preaching the Word and ministering to people’s needs. What good am to anyone, least of all God, if I’m dead?” Never.
Consider also the fact that John hadn’t been imprisoned and mistreated because he had sinned or turned his back on God. It wasn’t for immorality that he found himself in Herod’s jail but because of his unwavering righteousness and commitment to the call of God on his life. Let’s not forget that John had lived his entire life as a celibate, with minimal physical comforts; no alcohol, no sex, no drugs. Yet nowhere do we get any indication that he wondered to himself or aloud: “What have I done to deserve this? How could a loving God abandon me to this dungeon after all I’ve done for him?” John knew that following Jesus meant suffering and hardship and often times martyrdom.
Consider also that John had lived for 30 years in complete obscurity, waiting for the time that God had ordained when he would serve as the forerunner of the Messiah. John’s life and ministry had been prophesied in the Old Testament. He was the one who came in the wilderness shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Even Jesus had declared that John was the fulfillment of the prophesied coming of Elijah. And if that weren’t enough, it was Jesus who said: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt. 11:11a). And yet, now hear this well, John probably only ministered for about a year! One year! All of this prophesied preparation. All of this sacrifice in terms of earthly comforts. All for one year of ministry. Why?
Why didn’t Jesus mount up a rescue operation, a raid on the prison to set John free? Surely that wouldn’t have been difficult for him. After all, this is the man who had driven out demons and cleansed lepers and raised the dead and calmed the waves on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus let his friend, his cousin, die. Perhaps John prayed for freedom. Paul on several occasions asked Christians to pray that he be released from jail so that he could resume his ministry and preach the gospel. I suspect John did too. Paul was set free on several occasions, but eventually was himself beheaded by Nero. But not John. He never was released.
That was God’s will for his life! It may be God’s will for yours. John accomplished what God raised him up to accomplish, and then God took him home. Why did those 10 medical aid workers in Afghanistan die so young, with so much work left to do? That was God’s will for their lives!
What does that mean for us? At minimum, it means we must diligently seize every second of every day for the glory of Jesus Christ. It means that we must redeem the time, to use Paul’s language. It means that we must count every minute as a gift of grace that we do not deserve. It means that we must never charge God with injustice or unfairness or a lack of love simply because godly people who are fulfilling a glorious and fruitful ministry are taken from this earth at what appears to us to be a premature time.
One final consideration comes to mind in light of this story: How far will your faith in God take you? To what lengths are you willing to go on behalf of the gospel? What kind of sacrifice are you committed to making in your stand for righteousness? When tempted to keep your mouth shut concerning Jesus, when fearful of offending friends or people whose respect you crave, do you yield to the pressure? When tempted to compromise on some ethical principle lest you incur the ridicule of peers, or when you are buckling under the strain of financial or physical trials, does your faith hold fast?
In any case, John’s faith held fast, even when Jesus didn’t do for him what he thought was best. What if Jesus chooses not to heal you, not to fulfill your dreams, not to promote you at work, not to answer your prayers in the way you think he should? Will your faith die or intensify?
I earlier said that this story is about two men and their respective fear. Herod was afraid of people, of plots against him, of his wife, fearful of losing face, of losing power, of diminishing popularity. He was afraid of everything and everyone except God.
John couldn’t have cared less about popularity or praise or power or even life itself. His fear was of God, not that he was afraid of him. It was the fear of reverence and awe and amazement and adoration and awareness of the majesty and glory and beauty of God as revealed in Jesus. Herod’s fear led him to hell. John’s fear was the pathway to heaven.