Over the last year or so when I’ve had opportunity to preach for a few weeks on Sunday evenings we’ve been engaged in a series looking together at the gospel according to Mark. And so let me invite you to take a Bible in hand and turn back there with me again this evening. Mark chapter 6. We are considering the words of verses 14 to 29 which is where we left off when last we were in Mark’s gospel together. As we read verses 14 through 29, an interesting story about the martyrdom of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas, as we read it, I want you to think with me about two sets of two things – two keys and two contrasts. There are two keys to properly understanding verses 14 through 29 – the context and in the way Mark begins and introduces this whole section. And then there are two contrasts here that sort of fill in some of the details for us. We’re going to see in the ministry of John the Baptist courage, rather than compromise, and in the example of Herod as Herod responds to John’s ministry, challenge, but not change. So, two keys and two contrasts.
Before we read the passage, let’s pause and pray and ask for God to help us. Let’s pray together.
O Lord, we do need Your help very much. The truth is that our minds are so prone to distort the truth. We love the darkness rather than the light far too often. And so we pray now, please send the same Holy Spirit who inspired Mark in the writing of these words to illuminate our understanding that we may perceive the truth in them and bend the knee to Christ who speaks to us by them. We pray that the Holy Spirit would wield His own word with great authority and power in our lives for Your honor and glory, for Jesus’ sake, amen.
Mark chapter 6 at the fourteenth verse. This is God’s holy Word:
“King Herod heard of it,” – that is, the effect of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of His disciples – “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.”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken to us in His holy, inerrant Word.
So there are two keys and two contrasts. Two keys first of all that will help us unlock the message of this text. The first key, of course, is the context. You may remember that at the beginning of chapter 6, Jesus had returned to His hometown, Nazareth, and yet His ministry there amongst people who had every reason to know Him well and His family background, His ministry there was met with significant opposition. They had nothing but disdain for them. Jesus, we are told, “could do no mighty works there.” He was amazed; He marveled because of their unbelief. And then against the backdrop of that general hostility to Jesus, we saw Jesus commissioning the twelve disciples, His apostles in training. And He sends them out on what we would probably call their first short-term mission trip. And later if you look down at verse 30, you’ll see this very clearly. The disciples come back at the end of their mission trip and they report to Jesus doubtless their successes and their struggles, their trials and their triumphs. They give Him the feedback from this first trip upon which He sends them.
And our text for this evening, verses 14 through 29, intrudes right into the middle of all of that, which at least at first leaves us rather scratching our heads. Doesn’t this passage seem to you to be a little out of place? Jesus’ mission in Nazareth seques neatly enough into His sending out of the twelve trainee apostles on a mission trip of their own. That makes sense, doesn’t it? So, the big theme has to do with mission reaching the world with the good news about Jesus. That’s the big idea of the chapter. Got it! Jesus has sent His apostles in training out on their first missionary endeavor and naturally enough we want to know what happens next. What’s the outcome? What about the aftermath of their missionary labors? But before he tells us, Mark inserts an apparently out of place account of the brutal murder of John the Baptist. If we were commissioning a team on a short-term trip, let’s say our Peru mission team – we commission them every year before we send them off to Peru. I doubt any of us would choose to relay accounts of the martyrdom of the last guys to go down there on a mission. It’s not exactly the kind of upbeat encouragement we’d typically think of for an occasion like that! And that’s sort of the point. If we’re going to read our passage correctly, we need to see that Mark inserts this frankly rather dark account of John’s martyrdom here, very purposefully, so that the church in his day and the church in our own might learn to count the cost of fulfilling the mandate to go and make disciples of all the nations. That’s the lesson the context teaches us. That’s the first key.
And that’s something, I think, we easily lose sight of sometimes because we tailor mission trips and outreach programs to cater much more for the safety, comfort, and general enjoyment of the people who participate in them than we do for the costly advance for the kingdom of Jesus Christ in the middle of a hostile world. It’s become, frankly, one of the scandals of the evangelical church in our time, that what we call mission trips are far too often little more than expensive exercises in spiritual tourism, being more of a burden than a blessing to the host church who now has to figure out what to do with twenty-five teenagers who have no marketable skills descending on them to be a blessing. But Mark wants to remind us that those who proclaim the Gospel must be ready to pay a price – measured not in dollars spent but in suffering for the sake of obedience to the call of the living God to make much of Jesus Christ. So that’s the first key to reading this part of Mark chapter 6 well. The context focuses on the cost, the costliness of the mission given to the church by the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then the second key has to do with the way that Mark’s account of John’s death begins. Look at verses 14 through about verse 16. If you look at those verses carefully, it’s very clear, isn’t it, that Jesus’ ministry was often confused with the ministry of others, especially for the ministry of John the Baptist. That was actually Herod’s own conviction. You see that in verse 16. “When Herod heard of Jesus’ ministry, he said, ‘John, whom I have beheaded, has been raised.’” This is John all over again! The only way Herod is able to explain the similarity between these two men and their ministries is to suggest that perhaps this Jesus that he is now beginning to hear about is John the Baptist in some sense raised from the dead. And that’s really important. It means that telling us this story about Herod and John, Mark is actually telling us something important not about Herod, not even really about John. He’s telling us something important about Jesus. Jesus follows a template set by the prophets of old, by Elijah, particularly by John the Baptist. Or we could turn it around and say John pointed, not just in his preaching but in his model of ministry, in his manner of life, to the One who would come after him, the One who would be the climax of the prophets – the Lord Jesus Christ.
Here, I think, is the lesson. Mark certainly wants us to face the sober reality that ministry will be costly, but he also wants us to understand as we face that cost that this is not just a tragic experience of John the Baptist. No, John points to Jesus. Jesus reminded people of John. Costly ministry is the paradigm set for us not just by John, but ultimately by Christ Himself who calls us to take up our cross and to follow Him all the way to the place of crucifixion. There really is no other way to serve Jesus faithfully than to walk in His steps bearing our cross and enduring the cost. That’s what it means for us to be on mission together. It’s costly.
But Mark is saying to us, “That’s how you get like Jesus! That’s how you get to look like Jesus!” Which, if you think about it, actually makes this passage a great help as we think about crossing the pain line in our own evangelism. Do you know what I mean by the pain line? You’re praying for a friend, you want to talk to them about Jesus, but you worry that if you do there is a risk they’re going to reject you. There is a risk you’re going to look foolish. There is a risk you will get hurt or perhaps even lose your friendship completely. That’s the pain line. And we’re all, if we’re Christians, we’ve all come right up to the edge of that pain line and had to decide, “Am I going to push through and cross the pain line and take what feels like a great risk and open my mouth and speak for Jesus or am I going to back off?” Some of us have managed to cross that pain line at times. Others, and perhaps some of the very same ones at other times in other circumstances have avoided it altogether.
But listen, if we don’t cross the pain line, if we can’t get to a place where Jesus is so precious to us that we are willing to risk losing anything else, including friendships, so as to please Him, we never will become faithful, obedient servants who fulfill the mandate to get the good news to the ends of the earth. Part of how you get like Jesus, Mark is teaching us, is by crossing the pain line. Pick up your cross and follow Him, in imitation of Him, enduring the cost. The servant is not greater than the master. If they hated Jesus, they will hate you also. There’s a pain line, and if we shrink back from crossing it no wonder the world does not see in us much of an echo of the character and likeness of the Savior we profess to love.
So there are two keys to understanding what Mark is doing by inserting the story of the death of John the Baptist at this point in his narrative. Do you see them? First, the context is a sober reminder about the general costliness of ministry in Jesus’ name in a hostile world, not just for John, but for Christ and therefore for every one of us who follow Him. And secondly, John was often mistaken for Christ, or Christ rather for John. John points to Jesus. This is the mark of Christ’s ministry, not just John’s ministry. It is the mark of suffering. And so when we carry the cross and push through the pain line, we begin to bear the likeness. We come to resemble the Savior just as John resembled the Savior. Two keys for understanding the passage.
And then I want you to notice two contrasts. I sometimes do watercolors, and you know you do a pencil sketch and you apply the paint to fill in the image and bring some depth and dimension and color and vibrancy to it. So if you like the two keys, provide is the pencil sketch, now let’s think about these two contrasts to apply some color to fill in some of the details.
Courage not Compromise
The first contrast I want you to notice has to do with John’s ministry. Notice it’s a ministry of courage, not compromise. Courage, not compromise. We just get a few glimpses but they’re quite telling about John’s ministry to Herod. Verses 17 and 18 tell us that John has routinely confronted the immorality of Herod’s lifestyle. He focuses in particular on his marriage to Herodias. He’d been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Luke’s gospel, chapter 3 verses 18 and 19, puts all of this into the context of John’s public preaching ministry. Although Mark seems to suggest these words were also addressed to Herod more directly, perhaps in the context of a more personal interview. Either way, we get a picture, don’t we, of a man who is willing to tell the truth, to speak truth to power, at great personal risk as it turns out. He wasn’t disrespectful, he wasn’t belligerent, but he was bold.
The immorality of the Herodian dynasty is actually very well documented. Herod Antipas who is the Herod in our passage, John’s interlocutor, he’s one of the sons of Herod the Great. And one of the scholars, a man called Robert Stein, says this about the family of Herod the Great. “He had ten wives and numerous sons and various incestuous marriage relationships existed between the descendants of Herod the Great. With the messed up family relationships resulting from this, Herodias’ daughter” – who will dance for Herod’s guests in a few more verses in the story – “Herodias’ daughter was in effect Herod Antipas’ niece on his father’s side, his grand-niece on his mother’s side, and his stepdaughter, all at the same time.”
So John directly calls out Herod for marrying his brother’s wife who is already Herod’s niece – if you can untangle that mess of spaghetti! And so John ends up in prison because he’s unflinching in calling out the open and scandalous sin in high places. He was imprisoned according to Josephus, the ancient historian, Jewish historian, in the dungeons of Herod’s palace fortress, Machaerus, on the northeastern corner of the Dead Sea not far from where John the Baptist conducted his ministry. But look at verse 20. It seems to suggest to us, doesn’t it, that Herod kept him there and while he was there, he regularly had John brought to him to preach to him. He heard him gladly. Imprisonment did not even impair John’s boldness in preaching. He’s in prison. Every pressure has been brought to bear upon him now. He has every reason to back off, just to cool it down a few clicks, to pull his punches just a little. But John, it’s very clear, John does not fear men. There was courage not compromise.
It reminds me – I love the history of the Reformation – it reminds me of a great moment during the Reformation in Scotland when, in St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh, during a Sunday service, King James VI is sitting up in the royal gallery and when Robert Bruce, not Robert the Bruce but Robert Bruce, began to preach his sermon; he was constantly interrupted by King James’ noisy gossip with his courtiers in the gallery. And so Bruce would stop. And when Bruce stopped his sermon the king stopped gossiping. And then when Bruce started again, the king started up again, his raucous behavior in the gallery. And so that went on for a while until Bruce stopped altogether and then he addressed the king directly from the pulpit. Talk about boldness. Very much like John. Here is what he said. “It is said to have been an expression of the wisest of kings when the lion roars all of the beasts of the field are quiet. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is now roaring in the voice of His Gospel and it becomes all the petty kings of the earth to be silent!” Courage not compromise! Bruce was banished not long after this. There’s a cost; a price to pay. John paid it. Christ paid it. And those who are faithful to Christ’s call are often called upon to pay it too. Courage not compromise. If we’re going to cross the pain line, we’re going to need it, increasingly so, in the hostile culture and climate in which we live. Courage.
John is no respecter of person, is he? He doesn’t avoid speaking about sin or calling someone to repentance just because of their position or their influence or their temperament. The elites of Galilean society gathered in the court of Herod, they were all indulging the moral relativism of the Herodian dynasty, but John has no interest at all in currying favor with any of them. He did not accommodate the message or adjust the emphasis. He went straight on and he spoke with humble authority and holy boldness the unchanging message of the holiness of God and the grace of God. Courage not compromise.
Challenge but not Change
Then secondly, let’s look at Herod’s response. Courage not compromise in John’s ministry. What about Herod’s response? Here I want you to see challenge, certainly, but not change. Challenge but not really change. If John’s example is a word to those of us who are followers of Jesus and called upon to share the good news, Herod’s example is a warning to those of us who hear the good news. Herodias is nursing her bitter grudge against John because of his preaching. But look again at verse 20. Herodias could not touch John because he’s under Herod’s protection. Isn’t that curious? Herod has him in jail and he’s keeping him safe. First, we are told “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous man.” Now that’s a fascinating statement. He feared John, knowing he was a righteous man. Some commentators explain it in political terms. The history books tell us that in order to marry Herodias, Herod had first rejected his first wife who was part of the royal house of the Nabateans, a neighboring state, which led to a conflict between Herod and the Nabateans, which Herod lost to his great shame. Maybe, some commentators speculate, John’s constant preaching about Herod’s affair with Herodias was keeping this whole scandal alive and perhaps stirring up still more resentment toward Herod among the people. That’s perhaps plausible.
But there’s got to be more to it than that, surely, because look at the reason Mark tells us Herod is afraid. Herod is afraid, Mark says, because “John is a righteous man.” That’s the trigger for Herod’s distress. So his fear here is spiritual in character, not merely political. Herod is miserable because John keeps calling him on his sin. John’s life and John’s message both constantly confronted Herod with an image of everything Herod is not. He was being called to account before a holy God and Herod is therefore afraid. He’s afraid. And look at the end of verse 20. “When he heard him” – do you hear the apparent tension here – “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.” He’s hearing John’s preaching and it’s really messing with him. He’s really disturbed by it. He’s scared, he’s perplexed, and yet he keeps inviting him back for another round. It both attracts and repels. It alarms him and it intrigues him. He wants to hear more, and he’s troubled by what he hears.
That is what the Gospel does, you know, when it begins to work on a conscience. We sense its truth and its power. We taste, perhaps, something of its beauty and the attractiveness of a life lived God’s way. We begin to feel the bite of shame over the sin we can see festering in our own hearts. And we feel it’s terrible pull and we’re torn, we’re conflicted. The life we now live we love! “I don’t want to change! I like my sin!” But the life to which the Gospel calls us we know is right and good and true. “I want to be around people who believe this stuff. I wish I was like them.” And so, we’re perplexed. There’s a fear of judgment, a fear of God, a fear of the mockery of God if we become Christians, a fear of change. There’s just plain old fear. That was Herod.
Kent Hughes quotes someone saying, “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.” That’s good, isn’t it? “The truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable.”
That was certainly what was going on as Herod listened to John’s preaching. There was challenge, but it wasn’t change. It wasn’t change. He likes to listen to John’s preaching, to be sure, even though it seems to scare him half to death, but he’s really not willing when push comes to shove to embrace the call to repentance that John is pressing upon him. When Herodias’ daughter dances for his guests as Herod’s birthday party, he makes these extravagant promises. He reminds me of Ahasuerus in the story of Esther – “I’ll give you anything, up to half my kingdom!” And when Herodias’ delightful daughter goes to check with mommy dearest about what to ask for, her delightful mother seizes upon her chance. “Now is my opportunity to finally be done with that wretched thorn in my side, John the Baptist. Let’s have his head, shall we?” And so off she goes, Herodias’ daughter, and asks for the head. She adds a little flourish to this. She’s a piece of work. Not just for the head of John the Baptist – “I want him served up like the main course at dinner. I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
And look at verse 26. Here is Herod’s reaction. He is exceedingly sorry, but he’s made promises, hasn’t he, and he doesn’t want to lose face among his guests. Perhaps he doesn’t actually want to admit publicly that John’s message was having any kind of impact upon him. And if he refuses to execute John, now without good reason having made all these promises, that would be a real tell. So, in the end, Herod is willing to murder a righteous man in order to avoid embarrassment. Saving face was more important to him than the salvation of his soul. And I rather suspect that among those who are invited to come to Christ, who come around the Gospel for a time and who finally reject Jesus in the end, I rather suspect that one of the biggest reasons for their refusal is the fear of the opinion of others. You don’t have to be a king or a politician to be caught in that snare. And yet what a tragedy it is. What a tragedy. Is there anything sadder than to face eternity under the just judgment of God because you were not willing to face the judgmentalism of your peer group for a season?
Listen to Kent Hughes again. He said, “John was a man of immense moral courage. Herod was a man who lived in spineless relativity. John was a man who kept his conscience and lost his head. Herod was a man who took John’s head and lost his own conscience. It was the story of the life and death of a conscience, of a death of a soul. This paradigm,” Hughes says, “has been lived out thousands of times in this century as well as in preceding ages. It bears gracious instruction for those who will learn.”
Listen, here’s the lesson. If you are here and your conscience is stirred by the preaching of the Gospel, you are challenged, perplexed, afraid even because the truth has gotten under your skin and the reality of sin has begun to sting and bite, and yet you keep coming back; you’re not really even sure why you’re here but you keep coming back – there’s something compelling, something drawing and intriguing to you about this Jesus and His Word. If that’s you, let me plead with you to hear the warning in Herod’s tragic tale. There will come a moment of decision for you, as there did for Herod. Are you going to come down off that fence you’ve been sitting on for far too long? I can’t imagine it’s a comfortable place to sit. Will you come down off the fence and submit yourself to the claims of King Jesus or will you let the fear of the opinion of other sway you so that you follow in the steps of King Herod instead? The first path is the way to life, to a conscience at peace, to reconciliation with God, and the second path is the way of death.
Conscience, you know, will eventually cease to sting and you will no longer care to hear the Gospel call you. That’s what happened to Herod. You remember a few years later, Jesus Himself stood before Herod and in that moment all hint of Herod’s earlier openness to the truth of God is entirely missing. He treats Jesus, do you remember he treats Jesus like a traveling magician, and he looks for a performance. You know, “Perform some miracles for me. Entertain me!” And when Jesus would not, Herod sends Him back to Pilate to die. There’s no stirring of conscience now. Even though this Savior of the world Himself stands before him, no sense at all of the opportunity presented to him to turn and find mercy. Jesus is standing in front of him and still he would not turn. Please, please don’t follow Herod’s path. Please don’t follow Herod’s path.
Maybe Christ has been calling you for a little while now to come and follow Him, to confess your sin instead of justifying it, to submit to His rule instead of running from it. Please don’t let the fear of the opinion of others lead you to dismiss that call because one of the most terrifying possibilities that you could find yourself facing is that the next time you hear the Gospel it simply will not challenge you at all. Your conscience will be asleep. There will be no tug, no pull, no draw, no sense of intrigue, no sense of “This is real, and I must answer.” It will be over and too late. Please don’t follow Herod’s path. Christ Himself, in the Gospel, is inviting you to come to Him. Take the opportunity. Come down off the fence. Tonight’s the night. Come down off the fence and follow Jesus.
Courage not compromise in John’s example. Do you see it? As Christians, we need to be willing to cross the pain line and risk rejection and speak for Christ. The passage of course reminds us when you do that you get like Jesus, you get like Jesus. That’s what He did. And then challenge but not change in Herod’s example. What a tragic tale Herod’s engagement with John was, not because John lost his head but because Herod lost his soul. If you reject the Gospel, it may well be like Herod before you – one day your conscience will cease to sting, and you will not even see the opportunity to repent and find mercy when it’s standing right in front of you. So tonight, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart. If you hear the call of Jesus, won’t you answer it?
Let’s pray together.
Lord Jesus, for many of us who have been Your followers for some time, the truth is, we’re not familiar, as familiar as we should be, with that pain line because we’ve become so comfortable and safe in a Christian bubble that we rarely have to meet it, let alone cross it. Please will You forgive us and begin to work in our hearts so that we feel the radical call of the Good News, not only for ourselves to come to Christ but to hold Christ out to the world. Help us to find courage rather than compromise and to press across the pain line, knowing that as we do we get like our Master; we become like Jesus. And it may be for some others here tonight who have been around the preaching of the Gospel for a long time but who have never yet really closed with Christ, please will You topple them off the fence tonight and bring them to Jesus while there’s yet time. For we ask it in His holy name, amen.
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