King Herod was restless, unable to escape the guilt he bore for putting John the Baptist to death. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke with a discussion on the nature of guilt and the only way it can be resolved.
We are continuing our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading Luke 9:7–9:
Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
This brief interlude that Luke inserted here, before his account of the feeding of the five thousand, calls attention to a significant moment in Jewish history. It was so significant that it was recorded not only by the New Testament but also in the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus, with respect to the death of John the Baptist under the orders of Herod the tetrarch. This account comes to us from the superintendence and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit and bears the full mark of divine truth and authority, which I urge you to receive as such. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we confess to you how frail we are in our understanding of divine things. We acknowledge that we cannot fully comprehend or even apprehend the things that are contained in Your Word unless You assist us by the illuminating power of Your Holy Spirit. So, we ask that You would send that Spirit to help us not only to understand this text but to apply it to our own lives, wherein we need it so desperately, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
In this brief interlude, Luke describes a man haunted by guilt, and he should have been. His guilt was connected to an atrocity that was committed under his rule. So that we might recall that particular atrocity, I’m going to take a moment and read Mark’s account of what had gone before this event. Starting in Mark 6:14, we read:
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’ 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.
Ahab and Jezebel Redux
This is one of the most grisly and macabre stories that we read anywhere in the New Testament. Let me give a brief background on it. Herod, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was given a quarter of his father’s kingdom. Thus, he was called a “tetrarch.” His reign included Galilee, and he had been married to a neighboring king’s daughter. The marriage was arranged chiefly to secure a political alliance with this neighboring country, with whom Israel had intermittent bouts of conflict over the centuries. To bring peace between the two countries, a marriage was arranged between the daughter of the king of one and the king of the other, namely Herod the tetrarch.
After the marriage was arranged, Herod’s eye turned away from his wife toward his brother’s wife, Herodias. He dismissed his wife and took Herodias for his own, against the law of God. When that happened, John the Baptist, who was a prophet, publicly denounced Herod for this immoral action. As we are told, Herod was fearful of John the Baptist and had enormous respect for him. He recognized that John the Baptist was a righteous man and, indeed, a holy man. However, his wife, Herodias, could not stand the public humiliation that came at the denunciation of her illicit marriage to Herod that was made by John the Baptist. So, she labored endlessly for her husband to arrest John the Baptist and keep him in custody where he couldn’t do them any more harm.
If you read the pages of the Old Testament, you can’t help but see the parallel between this episode and the way Jezebel was constantly steering her husband, Ahab. She wanted him to go after the prophet Elijah because he had spoken against the practices of Ahab and herself. This story, then, is Ahab and Jezebel redux, as it were, and it takes place in the New Testament.
Weak as he was, Herod surrendered and acquiesced to the wishes of his wife and placed John under arrest. Then, the occasion came to celebrate Herod’s birthday. Herod invited all the nobles and the people of great status in the environs. As part of the celebration, the daughter of Herodias, Salome (presumably Herodias’ daughter from her previous marriage), performed a dance in front of Herod and his guests. Herod was so moved by this dance that in his exuberance, he offered a reward for whatever the young girl requested, up to half his kingdom. So, she consulted with her mother, Herodias: “Mother, what should I ask for?” This was Herodias’ great opportunity. She said to her daughter, “I want the head of John of Baptist served on a platter.” Salome came back to Herod and said, “The head of the Baptist on a platter.”
Herod, who had made an unlawful vow, was incorrect in his ethics and theology. He thought he was duty-bound to fulfill this vow. What he should have said was, “My vow was unlawful, and I’ll have none of this.” Since he did not want to embarrass himself in front of his guests and fail to keep his word, he gave the word to the executioner to kill John the Baptist and present his head on a platter. In the midst of this birthday party, instead of a cake, they brought the severed head of a prophet of God and paraded it before the guests.
One of the Most Destructive Forces in the World
Returning to the text in Luke, Herod was hearing stories about a Miracle-Worker in Galilee, but he didn’t know who He was. We read of how Herod was perplexed when he heard about what was being done by Jesus. He listened to the reports and the analysis that others had given. Some said that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead, while others said that the prophet Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of old had risen.
When we look at the texts parallel with this one, we see the one option of which Herod was most persuaded: this miracle-worker can only be John the Baptist: “He’s alive, but how? I saw his head on the platter. I had him executed. How could that man possibly be back?” Herod thought this must be the case because all the other explanations fell short of explaining the miracles that had taken place. Only the holy and righteous man, John the Baptist, could have done these things. So, Herod said, “I must meet this man and deal with Him.”
Do you feel the moral anguish in the soul of Herod? He was seeing John the Baptist behind every bush. He saw the ghost of John the Baptist when he went to bed at night. When he tried to sleep, he dreamt of that severed head. There was nothing he could do to get rid of the weight of the guilt on his head.
Ladies and gentlemen, guilt is one of the most powerful, demoralizing, paralyzing, disintegrating, and destructive forces in all the world. I know there are people right now who are haunted by the guilt they have incurred from past sins, and it has never been resolved.
I remember the first time I administered the Lord’s Supper. It was not to an assembled congregation like we have at Saint Andrew’s Chapel. Instead, the first time I administered the Lord’s Supper was in a hospital, to a woman who was dying. Before I gave her the sacrament, she told me she had something to confess. She had an abortion years before and was convinced that the cancer she was dying from was a consequence of God’s judgment upon her. She told me that after she had her first child, a daughter, she became pregnant a second time. Her husband was adamant that he didn’t want another child and insisted that she have an abortion. So, she had her unborn baby killed. As she was facing the grave, she was haunted by that guilt.
I said: “Before you participate in the sacrament, you need to understand the gospel. Yes, abortion is an egregious sin. It is a weighty sin, but it is not the unforgivable sin. We have a Savior who can forgive you of that sin and remove that guilt from you before you die.” She confessed that sin to God and was forgiven by Christ. Having received the sacrament, she died in faith. I will never forget, however, the impact that unresolved guilt can have on people.
What We Do When Burdened by Guilt
Our friend, John Barros, and some of his associates were recently preaching the gospel at the local abortion clinic. They were pleading with women to not go through with an abortion. One woman said, “I am a born-again Christian, and Jesus will forgive me.” The sin of abortion is one thing, but to add such a blasphemous presumption of future grace makes it all the more wicked. She went ahead with the procedure. My prayer for her is that God will haunt her day and night until she truly repents and confesses her sin, not because I want God to punish her relentlessly but to heal her. I want her to be forgiven. The only cure for guilt is forgiveness, but it is usually the last resort we seek.
When we are burdened by guilt, the first thing we do is deny it. We will say that what we did wasn’t really a sin, so many of our friends have done the same thing, and it is acceptable in our culture. We give many reasons why a certain behavior is okay, saying that it’s not a sin. We deal with the guilt through denial.
On the other hand, we might reckon that what we feel is guilt, but we’ll say that we had extenuating circumstances. We will try to rationalize our guilt. I am not just talking about abortion. For example, there are many couples today who have eschewed marriage and live together without being married, which is a blatant assault against the sanctity of an institution that God established and ordained. They carry on as if there were no God or as if they are exempt from the commandments of God. There is also the widespread experience of adultery. The New Testament says, “Let fornication not once be named among you as befitting saints” (Eph. 5:3). Yet, the church is filled with unrepentant fornicators, and we are aware of that. So, the “everybody’s doing it” excuse tries to relieve one of guilt.
The other problem with guilt is that the more we repeat, deny, or rationalize our sins, the more hardened our heart becomes. We develop what Jeremiah describes as “the forehead of a harlot” where we have lost the capacity to blush. That is what impenitence does to us, which is why we try a multitude of ways to escape the reality of guilt.
Forgiveness and Feelings of Forgiveness
We often distinguish between guilt and guilt feelings. Guilt is objective and has nothing to do with your feelings whatsoever. Guilt is an objective state of affairs that we incur when we break the law of God. It does not matter how we feel about it; we are still guilty. Guilt feelings are our subjective responses. It was good that Herod had guilt feelings, because nothing is more wicked than being a sociopath who incurs guilt but doesn’t feel any guilt about it. On the other side of the coin are forgiveness and feelings of forgiveness. Forgiveness is an objective state, whereas feeling is a subjective state.
I like to tell the story of a young woman who came to me and was beside herself because of her guilt. She confessed her sin to me and said: “I have prayed to God ten times to forgive me for this sin, but I still don’t feel forgiven. What can I do?” She wanted a deep, profound, theological answer.
I said, “Let me tell you what I want you to do. I want you to get on your knees and confess your sin to God.” She responded: “That is what I’m trying to tell you. I’ve already done it ten times, and it didn’t work.” I said: “No, I don’t want you to ask God to forgive you again for the sin you have repented of ten times. I want you to get on your knees and ask God to forgive you for your arrogance.”
She was confused: “What arrogance? How could I be more humble? I’ve been groveling at the feet of God and telling Him how sinful I am.” I said: “Yes, and did not God say that if you confess your sins, He is faithful and just to forgive them? Have you not confessed your sin?” She confirmed she had confessed her sins, but she still did not feel forgiven. I said to her: “For you, the truth is you’re not forgiven because you don’t feel forgiven. So, God isn’t faithful, and He isn’t just because He didn’t do what He said He would do. Therefore, your unbelief now is worse than your original sin.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t care if we feel forgiven. I care if we are forgiven. Feeling forgiven is a bonus and a wonderful benefit. However, the reality that we are looking for as sinners is God’s forgiveness because if God forgives you, you are forgiven.
The Cure for Guilt
I want to say something to every person carrying guilt, particularly women who have had abortions or men who aided and abetted in them. What do you think would happen if Jesus came and asked for a private meeting with you, and you said, “Jesus, I had an abortion,” or, “I paid for my girlfriend to have an abortion, and I’m sorry about that”? Then, what would happen if He put His hand on your head and said: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more”? Would you be forgiven? Of course, you would be forgiven, and you wouldn’t be haunted another moment by your guilt. You would go out skipping, leaping, and praising God because you had known the forgiveness of Christ.
Our session has put together a program to deal with this national holocaust of abortion-on-demand in which we counsel people not to get abortions. One important ingredient is working with people who have already had abortions and helping them be restored in their relationship with God. I do not want to think of anybody walking around paralyzed and destroyed by a guilt for which there is a cure: the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the only reason any of us can be where we are right now.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.