Mark breaks up his account of the 12 disciples’ first ministry tour to tell the sobering story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom. We see in John’s death that faithfulness to God can lead us to suffering and possibly death. But it is better to suffer now and enter life than to live with the guilty conscience of people like Herod Antipas, who love their sin more than God and fail to do what they know is right.
The Text (Mark 6:14-29)
14 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.”
15 Others said, “It is Elijah.
And others said, “It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets.”
16 But when Herod heard, he said, “This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!” 17 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. 18 Because John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
19 Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; 20 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.
21 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. 22 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.” 23 He also swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 So she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?”
And she said, “The head of John the Baptist!”
25 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.”
26 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. 27 Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, 28 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 away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.
Jesus and His disciples have now become famous enough in Galilee to draw the attention of the local ruler who serves Rome, Herod Antipas. This Herod was one of several sons of Herod the Great, the powerful king who had renovated the temple of Jerusalem and tried to kill the baby/toddler Jesus. Herod Antipas was not as strong as Herod the Great, ruling just a portion of his father’s former lands. He seems to have been a weak and fearful ruler controlled by others. He unlawfully married his still living half-brother’s wife (she left her husband to marry him). This woman Herodias was also his niece by another of his half-brothers, so Herod Antipas was guilty of incest (marrying family) and of helping a woman to divorce her husband so that she could marry him. The prophet John the Baptist was outraged that the ruler of Galilee could openly sin so wickedly, so he had continually rebuked Herod Antipas in his preaching until Herod had arrested and imprisoned him. Yet even in his sin, Herod recognized that John was a righteous and godly man and he did not want to have him killed. Like Pontius Pilate will be with Jesus, Herod was torn between his guilty conscience and his fear of man (what other people want him to do). It is only after much drinking and a foolish oath that Herod finally gets trapped by his wife and her daughter into giving the order to execute John.
Mark gives us this story to honor John’s sacrifice but also to foreshadow the death of Christ and later His disciples at the hands of ungodly people. Jesus was totally innocent, yet the religious leaders led the Romans and the crowds to demand His brutal death on the cross. 11 of the 12 disciples would all die for their faith in Christ, as would many early Christians during the first 300 years of church history. Today, innocent Christians in areas of Asia and Africa continue to suffer unlawful violence, imprisonment, and sometimes death for their faith in Christ. In the United States, we do not yet face that level of persecution. However, the peer pressure to not follow Christ is all around us in our schools, workplaces, and communities. We must remember that the Christian life will require us to make sacrifices. We may need to give up the approval of friends, teammates, or family to follow Christ in what we do and don’t do. We have to be willing to take a stand for Christ when called upon. We don’t seek out persecution, but we cannot run from it. To be Christ’s disciples, we must be willing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him. As Paul reminds us, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (1 Timothy 3:12). Where is God calling upon you to take a stand for Him today? Praying that He gives us all the strength to follow Jesus wherever He leads.