John the Baptist Beheaded
“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 shew 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. 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. 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. 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”
We have before us Mark’s divinely inspired account of the cruel, barbaric murder of God’s faithful servant, John the Baptist. I have never understood why so many seem to be ashamed to wear the name Baptist, when it was so honorably worn by John, the first Baptist. I count it an honor to wear the name he wore and pray for grace to walk in his steps until my work on this earth is done. Mark tells the melancholy story of John’s slaughter by Herod in greater detail than either Matthew or Luke. Always read it with the reverence it deserves, praying that God the Holy Spirit will graciously seal to our hearts the lessons it contains.
Here we are given a very plain display of humanity. As we read these verses, we cannot avoid the fact that the human race is fallen, sinful, and utterly depraved. We do not like to acknowledge that fact, because such an acknowledgement forces us to acknowledge our own depravity. Yet, the wickedness of Herod, Herodias, and her daughter is the wickedness of your heart and mine (Matthew 15:19-20). How savage, cruel, and barbaric proud man is! Rather than lose face before men, Herod had a man he knew to be innocent of any crime, a man he believed to be the servant of God, beheaded! And the evil one man is capable of performing every man is capable of performing. I hope we truly recognize that fact. Robert Hawker rightly observed, “Until this is feelingly known in the heart, never will the infinitely precious redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ be understood or valued.” The seeds of sin are the same in every heart, because of the sin and fall of our father Adam. Until the Spirit of God convinces us of that fact, we will never know and acknowledge that it is Christ alone who puts a difference between Israel and Egypt, between his chosen and the world (1 Corinthians 4:7).
Herod’s conscience was so tormenting to him, after the murder of John the Baptist, that when he heard about the miracles the Lord Jesus performed, he was terrified at the thought that John had come back from the dead to destroy him. Herod convinced himself that it was so, simply because his conscience tormented him with guilt. How great, how completely unimaginable the everlasting torments of the damned must be in hell, where the gnawing worm of a guilty conscience never dies!
God has not left himself without a witness, even in the depraved hearts of fallen men. A sinner’s conscience is an amazing thing. Like the rest of our nature, our consciences are depraved and sinful. Yet, truth has an amazing power over the consciences of men. Herod the king was afraid of John the preacher, while John was living. And, even after he had been dead for some time, the memory of the Baptist street preacher and the sound of his voice tormented him.
Herod feared John the Baptist. Felix trembled as he listened to Paul preach the gospel. Agrippa was “almost persuaded,” as the imprisoned preacher reasoned with him about the things of God. Fallen and depraved as man is there is within him a voice called conscience, a voice that either accuses or excuses him, a voice that cannot be silenced, a voice that can make even great and powerful kings tremble.
This voice, the conscience, is one of many things that distinguish men from beasts. The conscience is, or is at least the reflection and result of the law of God written upon the hearts of all men by their Creator.
The conscience may be temporarily quietened by many things. But the only thing that can purge a guilty conscience is the blood of Christ. It takes the same thing to speak peace to the troubled conscience that it takes to satisfy the law of God, the sin-atoning sacrifice of God’s dear Son.
Herod was a terribly vile and wicked man. Luke tells us that John reproved him for all the wickedness he had done, though Matthew and Mark mention only the two most notable, obvious, commonly known things practiced by the king. Herod was guilty of incest and adultery. Not only had he taken his brother Philip’s wife, divorcing his own, but he publicly flaunted his depraved behavior.
According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, the situation was this: “Herod being sent for to Rome, called at his brother Philip’s by the way, where he fell into an amorous intrigue with his wife, and agreed, upon his return, to take her with him and marry her; as he accordingly did, and divorced his own wife, who was daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia Petraea; which occasioned a war between Herod and his wife’s father, in which the former was beaten.” (Quoted by Gill)
God’s Faithful Servant
For these public disgraces, these public displays of contempt for God’s holy law, John publicly reproved the king. — “For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.” In doing so, this faithful man stands as an example and pattern for every gospel preacher to follow. In this day and age, when everyone, from the white house to the wash house, is advocating and promoting homosexuality, lesbianism, fornication, and adultery, those things are still brazen, contemptuous violations of God’s law, “for which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh upon the children of disobedience.” Those who live in such debauchery not only bring upon themselves the wrath of God, they continually demoralize society, teaching all who are under their influence to disregard God. They wreck families for generations to come.
John the Baptist, when called to preach in the king’s court, spoke to Herod, Herodias, and the assembled crowd, with the courage and boldness of a lion pursuing a lamb. He did not smooth his words, soften his language, or try to find a way to get out of telling Herod exactly what God required him to say.
Many men, like Balaam, try to serve both God and their own bellies. They do not exactly lie to men. They do not exactly deny Christ and the gospel of his grace. However, they try to make the gospel palatable to unregenerate men by stating things very carefully so that they do not offend their hearers. Some men call such behavior wisdom. I call it compromise and treason.
That man who serves Christ, that man who is led by and filled with the Holy Spirit carefully words his message to expose man’s sin and enmity against God, probe his conscience, and demand that he acknowledge and bow to the truth of God (Acts 4:5-12).
God’s servant, John the Baptist, was faithful in his preaching and faithful in his behavior. Herod knew 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.” The Spirit of God tells us, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). God’s servants must, for the gospel’s sake, live as blameless men in a crooked and perverse generation. I do not mean that God’s servants are perfect in their behavior. They are not. They do not claim to be. Neither do I suggest that wicked men will acknowledge and willfully honor faithful preachers. They seldom do. However, God requires that those men who preach the gospel behave in such a manner that they do not give men a reason to hold them in contempt, or give God’s enemies occasion to blaspheme. Herod did not repent of his sin, but he knew that John the Baptist was God’s man and that, as such, he was blameless in his behavior, just and holy.
Point of Rebellion
Herod also demonstrates the fact that God always meets sinners at their point of rebellion and demands surrender. People may go far and do much in the exercise of religion and yet miss Christ and his salvation, because they refuse to yield at their point of rebellion. Herod went further than many. We are told that he “feared John.” He “observed” him and “knew that he was a just man and holy.” He “heard him gladly” and did many things in response to his preaching. However, there was one thing Herod would not do. He would not give up Herodias. He would not give up his adultery. Therefore he is in hell today!
Let all be warned. We will either bow to Christ at our point of rebellion, or we will perish in our sins under the wrath of God. Christ demands surrender. Naaman had to dip in the Jordan seven times, or die as a leper. Herod had to give up Herodias or perish. And you and I will either surrender to Christ as Lord at that very spot where we most ardently desire to have our own way, or we will perish in hell.
We must keep back nothing. It is better far to cut off your right arm and pluck out your right eye, and enter into the kingdom of God halt and blind than to go to hell with them. It is not enough that a person admire his favorite preacher and hear him gladly. Christ demands the surrender of our hearts and lives to his dominion as our Lord (Luke 14:25-33).
Another thing displayed in this passage is the fact that those who will not hear God’s messenger often become his implacable enemy. As Herodias sat beside Herod and heard John, she was seething. No doubt, she hid her anger, smiled politely, and may have even said, as John greeted her at the door, “You sure stepped on our toes today.” But from that moment, she was John’s resolved enemy, determined to destroy him if she could. Like a lion waiting to catch its prey, she waited for her opportunity to kill him.
We must never be surprised when faithful men are vilified by those who hate God. Elijah was accused of being the cause of Israel’s troubles. Ahab hated Micaiah, because he never prophesied good things to him, but only evil. And Herodias hated John the Baptist, because he exposed her adultery. You can mark it down as a matter of certainty, when a man or woman suddenly turns against a preacher, though he or she may not know how, when, or where, that preacher has, by his faithful preaching of the gospel, stuck his finger right in the sore spot of their hearts and exposed their sin.
It is no disgrace to a preacher to be unpopular, disliked, and evil spoken of by men. It is not an honor, but a dishonor for a preacher to be applauded by the community. Our Lord said to his disciples, “Woe unto you when all men speak well of you!” We must never forget it.
Herod threw a big birthday party for himself. Everybody who was anybody was there. The place was crowded with people, eating, drinking, dancing, and having a good time in “harmless” fun. But when the “harmless” fun was over, sitting in the laughing queen’s lap on a silver platter was the head of John the Baptist!
Herodias and her daughter knew what a weakness Herod had for women. So the queen sent her daughter in to do a striptease act before Herod. When his passions were hot, in a moment of unguarded excitement, the king made a ridiculous oath publicly. He promised the stripper anything she requested, up to half his kingdom. Now, she had him exactly where she wanted him. Herod backed himself into a corner, from which he could not extricate himself without embarrassment. And, rather than embarrass himself before all those important people, he did something that haunted him until his last breath, something that continues to haunt his tormented soul in hell today. He brutally murdered John the Baptist, a just and holy man who had been faithful to his soul!
Perhaps you are thinking, “What’s the point?” The point is just this: — People often do things at or immediately after times of great reveling, when passions are high, which they normally would not do, things which they regret for the rest of their lives. We would be wise always to avoid giving space to the devil. We would be wise never to willingly put ourselves in the place of temptation. Mischief and misery often follow the “harmless” pleasures of this world.
Young people often wonder why their parents refuse to allow them to go to the parties all their friends get to attend, why they refuse to let them run around all hours of the night, why they do not seem to trust them to always do what is right. It is because they know what can happen when passions are high. None of us knows what we are capable of doing. Mischief and misery often follow the “harmless” pleasures of this world.
A Better World
Our best things are yet to come. We must never look for good in or from this world. John the Baptist was beheaded. Stephen was stoned to death. The apostles were imprisoned, tortured, and cruelly murdered. This was the world’s “thank you” to those faithful men, of whom the world was not worthy, for their labors. The histories of these men are meant to remind us that our reward is not here. Our rest, our crown, our wages, our reward is on the other side of the grave. — “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable!”
There is a day of retribution. There is a time of reaping. There is a glorious harvest yet to come. The value of Christianity is not to be measured by the things of this world, by the things of time, or by the things that are seen. We are moving rapidly to a better world; and Heaven will make amends for all! — “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.” — “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.” — “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.”
“Life’s day will soon be o’er, all storms forever past,
We’ll cross the great divide to glory, safe at last;
We’ll share the joys of heaven — a harp, a home, a crown,
The tempter will be banished, we’ll lay our burden down!
It will be worth it all when we see Jesus!
Life’s trials will seem so small, when we see Christ!
One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase,
So bravely run the race till we see Christ.”
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