The Death of John the Baptist – Mark 6:14-29
If you have a Bible, I invite you to turn to the Gospel according to Mark. If you don’t have a Bible, there should be a Bible under the row of chairs in front of you. If you can turn to the Gospel according to Mark, we’re going to be looking at Mark 6:14-29, this morning.
I’m just going to begin by reading our passage for us. Mark 6, beginning in verse 14: “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.’ 15 But others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ 17 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. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 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.
“21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 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.’ 23 And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’ 24 And she went out and said to her mother, ‘For what should I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ 25 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.’ 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.”
Throughout this sermon series on the Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Mark, we have seen Jesus portrayed as the authoritative yet suffering Son of God. And in every passage that we’ve looked at, Jesus has been front and center in what has been going on, except for this passage. This passage is about a man named John and a man named Herod.
Back in Mark 1, John is given a message to proclaim to the people. It’s a message of repentance—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. So, John begins to baptize people, and people are coming from all over to be baptized by John, including Jesus.
But then, in Mark 1:14, as Jesus is beginning His public ministry, we read that “John was arrested.” And that’s it. We don’t hear anything more about John, until now. In Mark 6, we discover that John is executed by a man named Herod.
Now, there are four Herods mentioned, throughout the New Testament, so it’s important that we get the right one. The Herod in our text is Herod Antipas. He’s the son of Herod the Great, who was in power when Jesus was born and who was responsible for the massacre of male children two years old and under. You can read that story in Matthew 2.
In verse 14 of our text, Herod Antipas is mentioned as “King Herod,” but the reality is that he was just a tetrarch—the governor over the Jewish territory of Galilee. He would later call himself king, but this wouldn’t go over well with the emperor of Rome, and Herod would eventually be banished to Gaul, where he would later die.
This is the Herod in our text—Herod Antipas. And Herod hears that Jesus’ name had become known in that region. Jesus’ disciples have gone out two by two and are preaching a message of repentance—they’re calling people to turn away from their sin and turn to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.
The renown of this Jesus makes its way to Herod, and everyone seems to have an opinion of who Jesus is. Some say He’s John the Baptist, some say He’s Elijah, some say He’s one of the prophets of old. Later on, in Mark 8:29, Jesus is going to pose this question to His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And they respond by saying, “You are the Christ.”
The disciples understand who Jesus is, but there are still many people who don’t. Jesus has been preaching this good news of the kingdom of God and has been giving everyone glimpses of what life in this kingdom looks like by healing people of their various diseases.
But all that the people can come up with is that Jesus must be someone tangible—someone they understand—because He can’t be the Messiah, the Christ, the promised One of God.
And the reports of this Jesus get to Herod, and he’s afraid, not because of the implications of what it would mean if Jesus was who He claimed to be, but because he’s afraid that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead. He’s afraid, because he was the one responsible for having John beheaded.
And this bombshell takes us a little bit by surprise, because we haven't heard anything about John, since we discovered that he had been arrested, and now we find out that he’s dead—he’s been beheaded. And we wonder what happened for things to get to that point.
And thankfully, Mark tells us what happened. Verse 17: “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. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.’”
What happens is that Herod has an affair with his brother’s wife, who is actually his niece, just to make things even more convoluted, and by doing so, he violated the Law of God, which states that it is unlawful for a man to take his brother’s wife. Leviticus 18:16 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife.” And Leviticus 20:21 says, “If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother's nakedness.”
This was what Herod had done—he took for himself his brother’s wife—and John the Baptist is calling Herod to repentance. He tells him that he is a sinner who has broken God’s Law, and that he needs to repent of his sin and turn to God.
Now, what we need to see is that this would have taken a lot of courage. Here was Herod, who claimed to be a leader of the Jews, not living according to the Jewish Law. He is a powerful ruler, who clearly takes what he wants. John didn’t have Facebook. He didn’t have a computer screen to hide behind while he laid into Herod. John is confronting Herod face to face, calling him to account.
We live in a culture where it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this. If you take a biblical stance on a moral issue like abortion or same-sex marriage, it will get you lambasted on social media. Andrew Scheer, the current leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, is constantly being asked whether or not he believes homosexuality is a sin. We can’t get away from it. Either we will stand on the truth of God’s Word or we will bow down to the preference of the culture. We cannot ride the fence. We must take our stand.
And we see what happens to the one who stands upon the Word of God. Verse 19 says that “Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 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.”
When I was doing my pastoral internship under my dad, he and I would joke about going to prison together, because of preaching the Word of God from the pulpit. We’re getting to the point, and it’s almost here, when this won't be a joke. Are we willing to stand upon the Word of God, if it comes to this? Are we willing to go as far as John went, for the truth of God’s Word?
We see the courage of John, but then we see the foolishness of Herod. Notice that it’s not Herod who has the grudge against John; it’s Herodias. Herod has John bound and put in prison, “for the sake of Herodias.” Herod is doing John a favour by putting him in prison and not having him put to death, which is what Herodias wanted. But why would he do that?
Herod had no intention of ending his adultery with Herodias. He had no intention of repenting of his sin and turning to God. Why fear John? Why revere him as a righteous and holy man? Why keep him safe? Why listen to what he has to say? Because of the power of truth over the conscience.
John is denouncing Herod to his face, and Herod is gladly listening to John, because Herod knows what God’s Word says and he knows that he is wrong to have done what he did. His conscience has been pricked that much. But the foolishness of Herod is that he is unwilling to obey it.
And how many of us have been here? We hear a convicting sermon and think to ourselves, “That was a good sermon, but I’m still not convinced”? It’s not that we disagree with what's being said, we might have no problem with that, we’re just not convinced to the point of actually changing.
And this is where many of us find that we are more like Herod than we care to admit. We’re fine with listening to the Word of God, as long as it means that we don’t need to do what it says. We’re fine with hearing what God has to say, as long as it means that we don’t need to obey it.
And all this does is make us think that we can simply put off obeying the Word of God until I am convinced that I need to obey it.
Turn over to Acts 24. The Jewish religious leaders have brought the apostle Paul before the governor, Felix, for preaching about Jesus. And after the case against Paul is presented, Felix decides to hear from Paul himself. And in verse 25, it says that as Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, ‘Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.’ 26 At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him.” And it says that they did this for two years.
That’s two years of hearing the truth of God’s Word and having your conscience pricked, but notice that it never says he repented. There’s something about the Word of God that strikes a cord with us, but it’s a foolish thing to think that we can simply put off obeying it until I am convinced that I need to obey it.
For now, John is spared. But in verse 21, it says that “an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 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.’ 23 And he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.’”
What kind of a dance leads to that kind of a promise? But even the promise itself is interesting. You better believe that Rome wasn’t about to part with a single acre of land to some girl, no matter how good of a dance it was. No, the promise itself is empty. Herod had nothing to offer this girl. But what the promise does is it exposes the evil plan of Herodias.
If you turn to Esther 5, you see this same promise given by King Ahasuerus to his young queen, whose people, the Jews, were on the verge of being wiped out by the evil Haman. Esther approaches the king, and he says to her, in verse 3, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? It shall be given you, even to the half of my kingdom.”
The king would go on to give her this promise two more times, before she would eventually ask for her life and the lives of her people to be saved from the wicked plans of Haman. And the king grants her request and Haman is the one killed.
In both of these instances, the promise unmasks an evil plot, but in the case of John the Baptist, there is no happy ending.
In our text, Herodias’s daughter goes to her mother and asks her what she should ask for. And her mother says to her, in verse 24, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she goes to the king, and she says, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
And you can just imagine the inner turmoil that Herod is experiencing. Verse 26 says that “the king was exceedingly sorry,” because he immediately realized what he had done by making this promise to this girl.
It reminds me of Daniel 6. Daniel is one of the young, Jewish men, who has been taken into captivity by Babylon. But when Babylon is eventually taken over by Persia, the king of Persia, King Darius, takes a liking to Daniel and intends to set him over the whole kingdom.
This makes the rest of the officials very angry, so they make a plan to go to King Darius to get him to sign an injunction, in verse 7, stating, “that whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions.” And they do this, because they knew that Daniel prayed to his God, which was not the king, and that this would be a way of getting rid of Daniel for good.
And so, the king signs it, not realizing the implications of what he’s doing. But when the officials reveal to King Darius that Daniel pays no attention to the king, or the injunction that the king signed, but instead, prays to his God, Darius realizes the mistake he has just made. And verse 14 says that he was “much distressed and set his mind to deliver Daniel.”
And we know from the story that God spares Daniel’s life from the den of lions and that King Darius makes another decree, in Daniel 6:26, saying that “all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring forever; his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. 27 He delivers and rescues; he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.”
In verse 26 of our text, it says that “the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” Even though Herod had no intention of obeying what John said, there was a part of Herod that realized that this was wrong, but because Herod held his pride in higher regard than John, he does nothing to deliver John.
And verse 27 says that “immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.”
The one whom Jesus called the greatest man born of woman, in Matthew 11:11, is executed as a result of a stupid wager. And verse 29 says that when “his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.”
And that’s it for John. He’s dead. There are no famous last words from John the Baptist. It’s not like the second-century bishop, Polycarp, whose final prayer was recorded as he was being burned at the stake for refusing to deny Jesus.
Here is what Polycarp prayed: “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
He prayed that as he was dying. We don’t read anything like that from John. John’s story seems to come to an abrupt end. But I want us to look at one more text—Matthew 14. This is Matthew’s parallel account of this story. I’ve said before that the Gospel writers are like four corners of an intersection where an accident takes place—they each have a different perspective of what happened.
And in Matthew 14, the account itself is fairly similar, but look at verse 12. Where do the disciples of John go after John is executed and they’ve buried his body? It says that “they went and told Jesus.”
I said earlier that Jesus wasn’t front and center in this story, and that it focused more on John and Herod, but look at who the disciples of John turn to when tragedy strikes. They turn to Jesus.
The disciples of John knew Jesus. John’s entire life and ministry was built on preparing the way for Jesus. “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.”
The disciples of John knew Jesus. They knew that following John was always intended to lead them to following Jesus. But notice that it takes the death of John the Baptist to get them to do this. It took persecution to get them to do this.
It’s not like life is going to be safer or easier if they follow Jesus, and not John. Jesus will later say, in Mark 8:34, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” No, there’s not freedom from persecution found in Jesus Christ. But as Polycarp said in his prayer, there is an identification with Christ in His suffering that we find. We’re in good company when we suffer for the name of Jesus, because Jesus Himself suffered.
Jesus would later stand before Herod himself—the man who ordered John to be executed. Luke 23 has that encounter. Herod, verse 8 says, was glad to see Jesus, “for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him.”
Herod’s attitude toward the truth of God’s Word has not changed, since the death of John the Baptist. He enjoys hearing the Word of God, but still has no desire to do what it says. And here, Herod has the Word of God in human flesh standing before Him, and he wants a sign—a party trick.
And what does Jesus do? Nothing. He stands there and says nothing. Jesus is mocked by Herod and his men, but He never says a word. Why? Because Herod has already heard the truth from John, and his conscience has been pricked, but Herod has no desire to obey it. And the terrifying thing that Jesus does is let Herod sit there condemned for his hardness towards the truth of God’s Word.
And there is something equally terrifying here: We can listen to a sermon calling us to repent of a specific sin in our life, and we can experience a moment of conviction, and we can say that we will get to it later when we’re more convinced that we need to obey it, and later may never come.
Delayed obedience is disobedience. I tell our kids that all the time. If you don’t do what I’m asking you to do, right now, you’re disobeying me. It doesn’t matter if you intend to get to it later, you’re still living in disobedience, and who knows if we will ever get a later? Who knows if Jesus is going to stand before us and say nothing, because we hardened our hearts to Him, long ago?
What Mark is trying to get us to do is to run to Jesus. In the face of conviction, or when we are on the fence with Jesus, Mark is pleading with us to go to Jesus.
The tragedy in this story is not that John lost his life and Herod kept his life. The tragedy is that Herod chose the approval of man and momentary pleasure over eternal joy. I pray that we don’t make the same mistake.
The tragedy is not that we might go to prison someday for preaching the gospel, or lose our life for telling someone about Christ. Those aren’t tragedies; they’re triumphs. They show the world that following Jesus is costly, but He is worth it.
Jesus would eventually go to the cross, where people would mock Him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” People are still looking for a sign to believe in Him, even as He is standing in the place of judgment for our sin against a holy God. Jesus’ dying words were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was abandoned by His Father for us.
Will we reject this gospel, or will we accept it? Are we more like Herod, or are we more like John? Will we run to Jesus in face of conviction, or will we bow to the preference of the culture and postpone obedience until I am more convinced of my need to obey it?
John 1:12 says, “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” That’s a promise that is sure and that we can hold on to. What will our response be? Let’s pray…