The passage of Scripture we are studying here describes the terrible death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas. While the other Gospel writers tell of John’s martyrdom it is Mark who reveals the events leading up to it. Since the Bible has no surplus words, there must be practical lessons to be learned here.
“And king Herod heard of him; (for his name was spread abroad:) and he said, That John the Baptist was risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. Others said, That it is Elias. And others said, That it is a prophet, or as one of the prophets. But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead” (Mark 6:14-16).
Herod Antipas was one of the four sons of Herod the Great. John’s name troubled Herod both before and after his death, for he was an outspoken critic of Herod’s adulterous marriage with his brother Philip’s wife. Here we find a king, who has control over the military of the nation, yet was fearful of a preacher whose only weapon was the word of God. God never leaves Himself without a witness, someone who will stand tall in His name even in the presence of international and national leaders. Felix “trembled” and King Agrippa was “almost” persuaded when the apostle Paul faced them with the word of God on his lips (Acts 24:25, 26:28). Who knows what effect our words have on people’s consciences even though they appear to reject what we say? Herod knew that he had been in the presence of a “man sent from God” (John 1:6).
Herod, because of his remorse over having John executed, misunderstood who Jesus was. He thought that John had returned from the grave to haunt him. He did not need a resurrected John to convict him of his sin, for his own conscience was doing a good enough job of this. Solomon was correct when he wrote, “The way of transgressors is hard” (Proverbs 13:15).
For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:17-20).
Mark now relates to us why John came to such a terrible end. Though Herod knew that John was a prophet and that everything that he preached was true, he hated him for pointing out his sin. It was fear of God and John that kept him from murdering John sooner. Herod even loved to hear John preaching, but there was always that one thing that held him back from repentance and faith towards God. His adulterous marriage with Herodias meant more to him than his own soul.
Sin no matter its nature, if not forsaken, will eventually drag the soul to Hell. There can never be forgiveness for unrepented sin regardless of the fact that a person might be a church-goer, God-fearing, and a student of Scripture. “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).
John rebuked Herod for his sin, and probably he continued to do so from prison. Herod was not the first king to be troubled by a prophet. Elijah and Micaiah troubled the conscience of King Ahab, and it is interesting that he had a wicked wife named Jezebel who hated Elijah (1 Kings 18:17, 22:8). There are those in ecclesiastical circles who would consider it uncouth and undignified to call the Queen or a national leader to repentance, but John was not a preacher of “smooth things” or flatteries (Isaiah 30:10). He would have rebuked the Queen for her sin instead of accepting an MBE from her. We need preachers today who are as fearless of men and obedient to God as John the Baptist. We are commissioned to rebuke the wicked not flatter them while they sink down to Hell. “He that rebuketh a man afterwards shall find more favour than he that flattereth with the tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
“And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist. And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her” (Mark 6:21-26).
Like most people today, Herod thought that a big party with lots of drinking would soothe his troubled conscience. He thought that he could drown his sorrows and relieve his problems with worldliness and merriment, but wine made him over-confident so that he thought he could do anything he pleased. In a moment of lustful excitement Herod promised the dancing girl anything she desired. This wicked girl, under the control of her even wickeder mother, did not want half the kingdom, instead she asked for John’s head on a plate.
“And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:27-29).
Herod had a chance to stop this evil, but to avoid making a fool of himself he put an innocent man to death. Sin had woven its tight web around him. Like Herod, a sinner might be “exceeding sorry” but he still has to repent and turn to God. This immoral act would mentally and spiritually disturb Herod for the rest of his life.
The closing scene of the king’s birthday celebration is like something out of a horror movie. The drunken revelry came to a climax when John’s head was presented to Herodias. Unlike wicked queen Jezebel of Elijah’s day, she managed to kill the prophet she hated. Though John was hated in Herod’s house, he was greatly loved by his disciples, who risked their lives to give him a decent burial. Herod condemned John to death, but Jesus commended him for his ministry, “Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).
The world is not worthy of men such as John the Baptist (see Hebrews 11:38), who have sealed their testimony with their blood for the cause of Christ. John was never going to be a rich man in this world, instead his reward was stored up in Heaven. We might not be honoured here, and we may have to suffer persecution, be ridiculed, imprisoned and put to death, but we know that we have an eternal reward with Christ. “But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him. But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:9-10) … “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18) … “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17).