May 21, 2006

The Beheading of John the Baptist (Part 1)

Mark 6:14–18

As an ambassador for the kingdom of God, John the Baptist was prepared to confront Herod Antipas for violating God’s law. Today, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Mark to examine the events leading up to John’s martyrdom.


Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, “John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.”

Others said, “It is Elijah.”

And others said, “It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets.”

But when Herod heard, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

Our Father and our God, as we attend Your Word, we pray that You will be merciful to us by granting us the illuminating power of Your Holy Spirit, that the full truth and its impact may be known to us in this hour. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

“King” Herod

Last week, we saw the commissioning of the Twelve to go two by two into the neighboring villages in the area of Galilee, and now we read a flashback report tied in with the reaction of Herod Antipas to the growing reputation of Jesus. Mark 6:14 begins with these words: “Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, ‘John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.’”

Notice that when Mark gives us this narrative, he identifies the ruler of the region of Galilee as King Herod. I need to say a couple things about that. This Herod is not the King Herod who was so vicious in the slaughter of the innocents at the time of the birth of our Lord. This is one of the sons of that Herod, who was known as Herod the Great.

There is some irony involved in Mark’s calling Herod Antipas “King Herod.” Though it was the popular Jewish designation to call Herod Antipas “King Herod,” formally speaking, he did not have that title bestowed upon him by Rome, which was no small matter. His father, Herod the Great, had ten wives. He made Henry VIII seem like nothing by comparison. One of the wives of Herod the Great was Cleopatra, who had a brief fling with this famous ruler of Palestine.

Herod the Great died in BC 4, and his kingdom was divided among four of his sons, each of whom became tetrarch of a region. Tetrarch simply means ruler over a fourth. So, Herod Antipas was ruler of the Galilee region. He was tetrarch of that segment of the land. He ruled from BC 4 until AD 39.

When Herod Antipas first came into power in Galilee, he petitioned Caesar Augustus to grant him the title king, as his father had enjoyed. Augustus refused the request. This really nettled Herod Antipas, but it particularly bothered his illegitimate wife, Herodias, who constantly goaded and urged him to acquire the title king.

In AD 39, when the mad emperor Caligula was on the throne in Rome, at the urging of Herodias, Herod Antipas made a formal application once more for the title. He had all the requisites already. He had all the benefits of royalty without the title. But sometimes people crave titles more than anything else, and Herod wanted the prestige of the title king. Caligula was infuriated by the request and forthwith banished Herod and Herodias to Gaul. His reign ended after forty-three years because he got greedy for the title, which has some irony to it.

In any case, Mark calls Herod Antipas by the common nomenclature of the Jews, “King Herod.” As we have seen, he was one of the sons of Herod the Great. One commentator on the family history of Herod the Great says that his family tree is more twisted than the trunk of a great olive tree native to that region. The machinations and political intrigue that went on in the New Testament days among this family were so wicked that it staggers the imagination.

Haunted by John

Herod Antipas was disturbed by the rumors coming to him about the mighty works being done by Jesus. Keep in mind that up until this time in Jesus’ public ministry, His fame was overshadowed by the fame of John the Baptist. John the Baptist got more interest at this time than Jesus because the Jews were astonished at the renewal of the office of prophet, which had been so important in Old Testament days but had ceased for a period of four hundred years, until John came out of the wilderness in the spirit and in the power of Elijah.

As Mark shows us with this flashback, Herod was well acquainted with John the Baptist. To explain Herod’s reaction to the news of the ministry of Jesus, Mark fills in the historical gaps of how John the Baptist had come to be executed. That is what we find in this narrative today.

Initially when the news of Jesus came to the ears of Herod, he was trembling. He was terrified. His first fear was that John the Baptist had come back from the dead. He was haunted by the idea that John had returned to life. In his mind, which was also the case in many people of antiquity, resurrection forecalled the idea of judgment. If John was raised from the dead, that meant he was raised to bring the judgment of God to pass upon his enemies, number one of whom was Herod, who was responsible for his death.

Some of you may recall the Hollywood movie called The Robe by Lloyd C. Douglas, which starred Richard Burton. In it, the mad Emperor Caligula was terrified by the mere presence of a piece of cloth worn by Jesus. Similarly, Herod had a superstitious belief that John the Baptist was spreading magical powers about the land and had taken on a new name, Jesus. It gives us an illustration of the adage, “The pagan trembles at the rustling of a leaf, and the wicked flee when no man pursues them.” That is the status of those plagued by troubled consciences.

Others said: “No, it’s not John the Baptist. It’s Elijah.” That was fear number two. Remember that John had come in the power and spirit of Elijah, and so the judgment of God was still in view when they were afraid of the presence of the prophet Elijah or one of the prophets.

When Herod heard, he said: “This is John. I know it’s John. It must be John.” He was not aware that Jesus and John the Baptist were two different persons, so he insisted it had to be John: “‘This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!’ For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her.” Therein lies the tale of what cost John the Baptist his life.

The First Witness and First Martyr

When John appeared out of the wilderness, he came as the herald of the Messiah. He came as God’s anointed witness to declare to Israel the coming of the kingdom of God and the appearance of God’s anointed king. Though we have read and studied the witness he gave by the river Jordan to the Lamb of God who appeared to him there, we remember that much earlier in his life, John the Baptist was the first human witness to Jesus.

Do you remember John’s first witness to Jesus? After the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced that she would be the mother of the Messiah, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was already six months pregnant with the child that Gabriel had announced to Zacharias would be the forerunner of the Messiah. What happened when Mary met Elizabeth? The babe leaped in her womb. Before he was born, John the Baptist bore witness to Jesus. So, he was, in a very real sense, the first Christian witness.

John was also the first Christian martyr. There is a link in the language that we often overlook. The word martyr comes into the English language from the root of the verb in Greek, which means “to bear witness.” The connection between witness and martyr has been so strong throughout linguistic history because in the early church, to be an open witness to Christ before kings and rulers was, in many cases, to experience martyrdom.

In this case, John the Baptist, who bore witness to the coming kingdom, called all the people to repentance and told them all they were unclean. He thundered especially against the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, for his wickedness and adulterous lifestyle.

Sins of Rulers

Herod had been married to the daughter of Aretas, who was king of the Nabataeans, who were a bordering nation next to the region of Herod Antipas. Herod divorced his wife because he had an affair with his half-brother’s wife, and her name was Herodias. Illegitimately, to satisfy his own lust, he divorced his true wife and married his stepbrother’s wife, which was illegal by Jewish law on two grounds. On the one hand, there was the problem of adultery, and secondly, Jewish law prohibited marrying your brother’s wife while your brother was still alive.

Out of his sinful desires, Herod Antipas violated the law of God. In his mind, he had justified it. He had assumed that his divorce was completely legitimate, even though it patently violated the law of God. His wife was particularly vexed that anybody would raise any question about the legitimacy of her second marriage to Herod Antipas. John the Baptist publicly declared their union to be unlawful and wicked.

Notice the pattern in biblical history that continues after the death of the last Apostle. Any time you call attention to the wickedness of those in power, any time you speak publicly against sin in high places, do so at great risk. We read about what happened when Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and spoke the truth of God: Pharaoh would have none of it. He not only denied the request of Moses and Aaron, but he also took away the straw from the Hebrews, so they had no straw for their bricks. At the same time, Pharoah maintained the quotas for bricks, further oppressing the people of God.

How like this are rulers, not just in the ancient world, but in the world today? There seemingly are few in history who, when placed in positions of power and authority, are really concerned about justice.

Appeasement over Justice

Several years ago, there was a case in a presbytery where a minister founded a church, and it grew to have over one thousand members. He went on his vacation for four weeks, and while he was gone, three of his elders met with the rest of the elders and accused the minister of having a sin problem.

What would you expect that to mean? Some kind of sexual immorality or embezzlement or something of that nature? The lead elder, who was powerful in the church, thought that the pastor had too much pride. So, he convinced the rest of the session to depose the minister without a hearing, without a trial, without any formal charges being made, so that when he came back from his vacation, he was told to vacate his office.

Of course, the pastor appealed to the presbytery. The presbytery created a commission to investigate it. I was asked by the presbytery to participate in this commission’s investigation. So, I went to the meeting, and the chairman of the presbytery commission set forth the problem.

The chairman said: “Here we have a church that has been thriving, with about one thousand people. The founding minister, however, has been accused of having a sin problem, pride, by three of the elders. The minister is hurting. His associate minister is hurting. The three elders who brought the charges are hurting. The rest of the session is hurting, and the congregation is hurting. So, we have five parties that we must minister to, and we must figure out a way to make peace among all five groups.”

After the chairman spelled out our task, he said, “Have I left anything out?” I raised my hand. He said, “What’s that?” I responded: “The main purpose of this commission is not to see how many groups we can make happy. The purpose of this commission is to establish justice, to see who the wrongdoer is in this situation, and to vindicate the innocent.”

The presbytery commission did not want to do that because that was not the political thing to do. So, the minister was banished. The three elders won control. When the pulpit was vacant, the chairman of the presbytery commission sent his resume and asked to be considered to fill the pulpit in place of the man who was kicked out.

Day in and day out, I see situations where people in authority are supposed to seek truth, but instead their decisions are guided by, “Who do we have to appease?” From Neville Chamberlain with his umbrella hanging over the balcony in Munich saying, “We have achieved peace in our time,” to the commission I just mentioned, it is human nature not to seek justice but to seek the appeasement of people in political solutions.

What happened with Herod’s attempt to appease his wife, which ended in the death of John the Baptist, I will leave, God willing, till next Sunday. We cannot miss, even at this point, the parallel between the way in which John the Baptist was unjustly killed for political reasons and the way in which the One to whom he bore witness was killed by an equally treacherous ruler who sought to appease a screaming multitude.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.