May 28, 2006

The Beheading of John the Baptist (Part 2)

Mark 6:19–29

Because his dinner guests were pleased by his stepdaughter’s lewd dancing, Herod Antipas vowed to give her whatever she desired. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues to examine the unjust execution of John the Baptist in his study of the gospel of Mark.


Before we turn our attention to the reading from the gospel of Mark from the New Testament, I do not want to slight Moses and his efforts in the Old Testament. So, first I will read from the sixth chapter of the book of Exodus. This morning, I will proceed a little differently from our normal reading from Exodus. I will only read a portion of the text in front of us and skip over part of it in order to catch the flavor of the history involved in this narrative. So, I will read from Exodus 6:1–13, where we read this:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh. For with a strong hand he will let them go, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land.”

And God spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name the Lord I was not known to them. I have also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their pilgrimage, in which they were strangers. And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the Lord.’” So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Go in, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the children of Israel go out of his land.”

And Moses spoke before the Lord, saying, “The children of Israel have not heeded me. How then shall Pharaoh heed me, for I am of uncircumcised lips?”

Then the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, and gave them a command for the children of Israel and for Pharaoh king of Egypt, to bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt.

What follows is a rather lengthy passage that gives us the genealogy of the families of Aaron and Moses, at the end of which we read these words in verses 28–30:

And it came to pass, on the day the Lord spoke to Moses in the land of Egypt, that the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I am the Lord. Speak to Pharaoh king of Egypt all that I say to you.”

But Moses said before the Lord, “Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh heed me?”

Beloved, this is the Word of the Lord. Now we will turn our attention to the New Testament, to the gospel record found in Mark 6. Last Sunday, we looked at a portion of this section of the execution of John the Baptist, and this morning I would like to pick it up at Mark 6:19–29. I will ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the gospel:

Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” He also swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

So she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?”

And she said, “The head of John the Baptist!”

Immediately she came in 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; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, 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 away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.

He who has ears to hear the Word of God, let them hear. Please be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, as we look again at this grim and ghastly record of the execution frivolously accomplished to Your servant John, we pray that the Holy Spirit, who deemed it fit to include this in the record of our Lord, will give us insight into this narrative. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Power Corrupts

It has become an axiom repeated so often that it is usually unaccompanied by any argument to defend it that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Of course, there is something inherently wrong with that axiom, in that the only being who possesses absolute power is God Himself, and He is absolutely without corruption. But the unspoken assumption of the axiom is that it refers to human beings.

If you want to see unrestricted corruption manifested, just give a human being unrestrained power. If you were to list the names of the great criminal minds and evil personages of world history, on virtually everybody’s list would be people like Nero, Hitler, and Stalin. These men all had one thing in common: they wielded virtually absolute power. That is, there was no one, at least within their own nation, who could exercise restraints upon them.

The rogues’ gallery of evil people is filled predominately with rulers—people who are not accountable or answerable to anybody beyond themselves. We see this with Pharaoh in what read in Exodus, that Pharaoh’s arrogance, power, wickedness, and cruelty were an expression of the freedom from restraint that he enjoyed as the most powerful ruler in the world in his day.

In our text in Mark, Herod is not of the same level of power as a Hitler, Stalin, Pharaoh, or Nero. But in his local environment, he wielded almost absolute power. We see unrestrained evil and wickedness in him. Like his father, he was known for his licentious lifestyle and his cruelty. It is because of his wickedness that he had the unfortunate encounter with John the Baptist.

Herod’s Conscience

I find what we read verse 20 to be particularly striking. First, we heard about how much Herodias hated and despised John and how she wanted to kill him. Just as Jezebel pursued the life of Elijah through her wicked husband Ahab in the Old Testament because the prophet thundered against their immorality, so Herodias was furious with John’s attacking the legitimacy of her marriage.

We also get a note about Herod’s attitude, where the text says this: “For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” What is this about? It is out of character that this monster Herod, ruling in Galilee, had a groundswell of admiration, respect, and interest in John when he heard him speak. Even though John was denouncing his actions, He heard him gladly. Why?

The single greatest restraint for evil that God has put in this world is man’s conscience. The most wicked people, even people described as being without conscience—as sociopaths or psychopaths—nevertheless have not been able to annihilate altogether that voice of right and wrong that God has implanted in every human creature.

Remember that the law of God is not known merely from the Ten Commandments or sacred Scripture. As the Apostle Paul labors, “Death reigned from Adam to Moses” (Rom. 5:17). That is because sin reigned from Adam to Moses, and Paul argues that where there is no law, there can be no sin. If there is no sin, there is no death. The point the Apostle makes is that from day one, before the Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses, God planted His law internally in the conscience of every human being.

Now, the reality of the conscience comes with some dangers. We must be careful that we do not become seduced by Walt Disney and begin to think like Jiminy Cricket, that we should let our consciences be our guide. If we follow our conscience at every point, beloved, it will guide us into disaster. Why? Because even though God plants conscience in the mind of every creature, through our repeated transgressions and ongoing sin, we can put calluses on our conscience. We learn how to silence and almost completely eradicate its voice. That is, our consciences can be distorted and twisted. If you let your conscience alone be your guide, you will likely live a life of unrestrained wickedness.

But as far as you go in your wickedness, and as much as you seek to quiet and stifle your conscience, you will not be able to destroy it. The people you know in this world who are hostile to the things of God, who have no qualms about their godless behavior every day, nevertheless do not always sleep easily at night. When they put their head on the pillow, they know—and they know that they know—how they are living is not good. So, I think that explains, to some degree at least, the attraction and fascination that Herod Agrippa had with John the Baptist.

The Fear of Holiness

At the turn of the twentieth century, a German theologian and sociologist studied human beings’ reaction to whatever they deemed to be holy. He found that holiness is repulsive to the sinner, yet it carries a certain fascination. We know that we are not holy. We know that our lives are not right. We do not want to hear judgments against us. Yet when the holy comes near, as fearful as it is, we have a certain attraction to it. You see, that is how God has made us. He has made us so that we cannot totally eradicate the voice of conscience.

When John came into the presence of Herod, Herod was fascinated. Notice what is said of him: “Herod feared John.” Why? “Because he knew that he was a just and a holy man.” Why would Herod fear John because he knew John was a just man and a holy man? I will tell you why. Because Agrippa knew that he himself was not a just man. Agrippa knew that Agrippa was not a holy man.

I have told this story many times, but an interesting experience was related to me of a friend who was once on the PGA golf tour in America, and he had a friend who had been voted the golfer of the year. He was the defending champion of a golf tournament held in the south. In the pro-am for that event, he was paired with Jack Nicklaus, Billy Graham, and the President of the United States.

That is quite a foursome: the reigning golfer of the year, the President of the United States, Jack Nicklaus (the golfer of the century), and Billy Graham. After the round of golf, the man voted golfer of the year stormed off the eighteenth green, went over to the practice tee, took his driver out of his bag, and started beating drives out into the practice area in a state of fury.

My friend who was watching all of this asked him, “What’s the matter?” He said, “I don’t need to have Billy Graham forcing religion down my throat.” Then he went back to pounding drives down the practice tee. When he was finished and put his club back in the bag, my friend walked over to him and said, “Billy really came on strong to you, huh?”

The golfer hung his head and said: “No, Billy didn’t say a word about religion. I just had a bad round.” Is that not fascinating? Billy Graham did not say a single word about religion to this man, but Billy Graham did not have to. His mere presence and what he represented to this golfer was enough to make him supremely uncomfortable.

The golfer was like Herod Agrippa in front of John the Baptist. Herod likely was thinking: “I know who he is. He’s a just man. I can’t deny that he’s a just man. He is a holy person. I know that he’s a holy person. I’m fascinated by him. I don’t want to kill him. I’ll put him in jail to make my wife happy, but I’m going to protect him.” This is the posture Herod took with respect to John.

Herod’s Extravagant Party

The text continues, “Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.” The guest list was “who’s who” in Galilee. It was the A-List, the elite list.

This brief narrative brings to mind a similar feast in the Old Testament when Belshazzar gathered all his chief satraps and leaders in his kingdom and threw a munificent banquet for them. You might remember what happened. While Belshazzar was making a toast using the stolen sacred vessels of the Jews, and all the people he had invited were facing the king, he looked over their heads at the back wall. All of a sudden, he saw a hand, writing on the wall.

Belshazzar’s knees began to buckle, his teeth began to chatter, and he saw this hand, and he understood the message: “MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. You’ve been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” Then, almost as a concluding, unscientific postscript, the end of the chapter reads, “That very night Belshazzar, king of the Chaldeans, was slain” (Daniel 5:25–30).

It was a night just like that when Herod Agrippa gathered all his leaders, all the noblemen, and all the princes of the land to his tremendous birthday party, a huge feast and celebration. One of the featured guests of the night was his stepdaughter. The Bible does not give her name, but Josephus, the Jewish historian, does. A name that ranked up there with Jezebel is the name Salome, who was invited to the feast to perform a dance.

If you examine the background of this text culturally, you know that this dance was not ballet. This was clearly an erotic dance, a sensuous dance, that made the men who were at this feast exceedingly happy. Agrippa saw the dance and saw the reaction of his chief lieutenants, and he was pleased with his stepdaughter.

John’s Head on a Platter

The text says, “When Herodias’ daughter came in and danced, and pleased Herod”—and this is critical—“and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you.’” He was saying: “Ask me anything. You’ve really pleased my guests. Ask me anything, up to half of my kingdom I’ll give you as a reward for this performance.’” Do not take that phrase “up to half my kingdom” literally. This was a common expression of rulers in antiquity. “I will give up to half my kingdom” is simply an idiom to express this idea: “I am prepared to reward you, and I will reward you greatly. I will be exceedingly generous in my reward to you.”

Salome, hearing this, went and spoke to her mother Herodias, and she said: “The king said I can have anything. What should I ask for?” Herodias perhaps smiled and thought: “This is the day I’ve been waiting for. This is what I’ve worked for behind the scenes day and night. This is my golden opportunity. Go back and say to the king, ‘I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’”

When the king heard that, Mark tells us that he was exceedingly sorry. He never dreamed that was what she would ask for. He likely thought: “I’ve been protecting John. I’ve kept him in prison. I’ve put the muzzle on him. He can’t go about the countryside preaching about my immorality, but I don’t want to kill him.”

Ungodly Oaths

Notice what the text says: “But because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.” It does not say that because of his commitment to justice or righteousness he did not want to carry out this diabolical act, but rather, his first excuse was the oath.

I think there is a reason why the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the confession of faith of this church, has an entire chapter devoted to lawful oaths and vows. We are a people who have lost our understanding of the sanctity of oaths. We make promises haphazardly. We promise certain things before God, before witnesses, before family, before the church, and then as soon as the service is over, we forget about them. But we must learn to guard the oaths we take with our very lives.

At the same time, beloved, though the Bible warns us that it is better not to vow than to vow and not pay, there are some vows we take that are unlawful and should not be fulfilled. Remember Jephthah’s vow in Judges 11? “The first person that walks through that door, I’ll sacrifice.” Then he saw his daughter come through the door. He had no right to make that vow. Having made it, not only should he not keep the vow, but he must not keep the vow, because he vowed to do something that God forbids.

So, the vow Herod Agrippa made was an unlawful vow. The oath he swore to Salome was ungodly, and when she held him to it, he essentially said, “I guess I have to do it since I promised,” as if keeping promises was something sacred to this man. But you see, the problem he really faced was where and when he made the oath. All the princes, all the A-List, all the opinion makers of his society heard him make the promise. Because he made the promise, and because all those who were there heard him make the promise, he acted swiftly.

Barbarian Culture

The text says, “Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl.” What a ghastly story. What a macabre narrative this is. What a birthday party that in the middle of the party, somebody’s severed head is brought in to display to the guests. But they loved it. That is what happens among pagans. That is what happens among barbarians.

Several decades ago, a leading theologian in America said that American culture had become neo-pagan—that is, you cannot really speak of America as being a Christian culture anymore. Paganism has taken over. But today’s commentators say: “No, neo-pagan is far too innocent a term to describe us. Our culture has become barbarian.”

Yes, our culture is educated. But we think nothing of slaughtering one million babies every year. That is barbarian. Historically, that only happens in barbarian cultures. But once it is legal, our culture thinks it is okay. The only thing is, they are not bringing heads on platters to us. Barbarians love a culture of death. They were the ones who loved the blood of the martyrs on the sands of the Colosseum floor and in the Circus Maximus.

The chiefs and princes were amused. They likely went back to their friends and said: “You won’t believe what happened last night at King Agrippa’s party. What a dance. Then a man who thought he was a prophet got his head cut off, and they brought it and showed it on a platter, like a pig with an apple stuck in its mouth.”

Then John’s disciples heard of it. They came and took away the corpse and laid it in a tomb. The king did not respect their leader, mutilating his body, a foreshadowing of what was to come with the disciples of Jesus. But the disciples of John, head or no head, gave him a proper burial and sanctified the place where he was laid.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.