The death of John the Baptist
Herod Antipas orders the execution of John at the request indirectly of Herodias. Herod only met Jesus in his final week but had influences in his home and territory. John fulfilled his mission.
Herod Antipas orders the execution of John at the request indirectly of Herodias. Herod only met Jesus in his final week but had influences in his home and territory. John fulfilled his mission.
Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 4. This is about the death of John the Baptist. We're going to be studying from Mark 6:14 - 29, and this account is also recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Introduction and Recap
Before we get to the particular event, we'll remind ourselves of where we are in the bigger story because Series 6 describes how Jesus sends out his twelve Apostles on their first missionary journey, going out in pairs around the towns and villages of Galilee. It's, in fact, the third tour of Galilee that Jesus conducts and organises. If we go back in the account to Series 3, we have the first tour of Galilee, where Jesus went round at the very beginning making a name for himself, proclaiming the Kingdom had come, healing the sick, teaching and preaching and causing a considerable sensation. During that period he was forming his group of disciples together, gradually, and at the end of the first tour he appointed the twelve Apostles when he went to pray on a mountainside during the night. Then he, in Series 4, delivered the Sermon on the Mount which provided the framework for the lifestyle of the new discipleship community. In Series 5, we saw the second tour of Galilee that Jesus conducted.
Now we're into Series 6 where he is transferring his authority onto the Twelve in order to multiply the mission and reach more people with the good news of the Kingdom. Something very strategic is happening; it's the beginning of a process that will launch the multiple replication of mission through the Church. Jesus starts the process here and it's been described in Matthew 10 most fully - it's also described in Mark's Gospel, as we shall see briefly and in Luke 9. We are now catching up with the story of John the Baptist, which gets connected with this other story of mission very clearly in this particular context.
Mark summarises the mission of the Twelve (in Mark 6: 12 - 13) and this is just the introductory event to describe something that leads us to the question of John the Baptist. Let's read, as an introduction Mark 6:12 - 13:
‘They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’Mark 6:12-13, NIV
This is the background to the events that we're going to describe. The next verse says that ‘King Herod heard about this.’ Let's think about King Herod: this is King Herod Antipas, who we've met before in terms of our story, from time to time. Let's reflect a little about him before we continue to describe the situation where he authorises the execution of John, who is his prisoner. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee - he also ruled another region further south, east of the Jordan, called Perea but, for our purposes, the main interest is the fact that he was the regional ruler who ruled in the area where Jesus mostly ministered. He ruled on behalf of the Romans, as we stated in previous episodes, and he was accountable to them and tried to keep the peace in his territories so that the Romans were not concerned and so that he could continue to be the ruler. His capital was Tiberias, which was a large town on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, a little bit further south from Capernaum, which was Jesus' headquarters. He was really quite close to Jesus, geographically, but we have no record of Herod Antipas ever meeting Jesus until the last week of Jesus' life. Herod Antipas is trying to work out what to do with this popular movement of religious fervour, excitement and hope that Jesus has been stirring up. He's already had dealings with this movement through the question of John the Baptist because John the Baptist entered into direct conflict with Herod Antipas, which led to Herod putting him in prison. Let's read our passage today with those things in mind and then look into the story a little more detail.
We're going to look at Mark 6: 14 - 29. The second half of this passage is a recapitulation of an event that had happened earlier. Bearing in mind what I've just said: that Herod ‘heard about’ the mission of the Twelve, as he'd already heard much about the mission of Jesus, and he could see this acceleration of momentum of Jesus' ministry and that's the context of the opening part of this passage. Verse 14:
‘King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.Mark 6:14-29, NIV
This is a complex and intriguing story and we're able to get further insight into it because we have not only the Gospel accounts of what went on here, but we also have some historical information about Herod Antipas, Herodias and John the Baptist from the Jewish historian, Josephus, who wrote about this period in some detail. If we combine the information that we have in the Gospels, with the information that Josephus gives us, as a relatively reliable historian about that period and the leading Jewish historian of the period, we can bring together the following picture: Herod Antipas had a brother (he had a number of brothers but he had a half brother) by the name of Philip, who lived in Rome. He visited him one day (this was many years before this event of course) and whilst he visited Philip he met Philip's wife, Herodias, with whom he formed a relationship and he persuaded her to leave Philip and to return to Galilee, from Rome, and to marry him. We also know that John the Baptist challenged Herod Antipas, directly, about this action. He challenged him, as indicated in the text here, by saying it wasn't lawful for him to marry his brother's wife. He was referring to the Jewish Law which was very clear on this point - Leviticus 18: 16,
‘Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife; that would dishonor your brother.’Leviticus 18:16, NIV
John confronted Herod directly and, as a result of this, Herod put John in prison. Luke 3: 19 - 20, describe this:
‘But when John rebuked Herod the Tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother's wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.’Luke 3:19-20, NIV
Herod Antipas (or Herod the Tetrarch as he was also known) was an evil man; there were lots of things he did that were against the Law of God, in the Old Testament, and John challenged him. He particularly challenged him about his marriage and so Herod responded by putting him in prison. It's quite possible that he kept him, for some time, in a prison in the south of his territory, in a place called Perea, where he had a palace and a mountain fortress at a place called Machaerus, which is in modern-day Jordan. I've mentioned this in an earlier context but I had the privilege of visiting the ruins of that palace, high up in the hills overlooking the Dead Sea, and there the guide took us around and showed us a place where there was a prison cell in the palace, which made me think of the difficult fate of John the Baptist - having had such popularity, having been so much at the centre of attention, he was completely isolated and cut off. The interesting thing, going back to the account here, is that even though Herod had imprisoned John and was angry with him for his challenge, he was fascinated by him. He respected him: he even feared him. He feared John might have the power to be raised from the dead, as indicated by the words he stated earlier on, concerning the work of Jesus. He enjoyed listening to him, but he never really understood or responded to John's message about repentance and faith and the Kingdom of God.
Herodias - the Wife
Herodias had a grudge against John. She had wanted him executed in the first place. She didn't want him in prison because, if he was imprisoned, there was always a risk, one day, he could be released and there was a risk that he could become a popular cult figure in the community and people would put pressure on her husband, Herod, to release him. She waited and then this extraordinary circumstance happened. It appears that John is in prison, at this particular point, in Tiberias, the capital. Maybe he was kept in prison wherever Herod went - he went between his different palaces, in different parts of his territory - but all the commanders, all the leaders of his palace, all the important people in the province of Galilee, were invited to Herod's birthday party and Herodias' daughter, probably by her first husband, Philip, danced and Josephus names this girl as Salome. Herod made a foolish and exaggerated promise to her because she pleased him with her dancing, that he'd give her an extravagant gift. Maybe he'd had a little too much to drink, maybe he was carried away by the heat of the moment? But he did not expect what would happen when the daughter of Herodias went out, spoke to her mother and her mother seized the opportunity she'd been waiting for, for a very long time, and demanded the execution of John. At that point, Herod felt stuck because he'd made a public statement. He didn't want to look ridiculous in front of all his guests so, despite his inner feeling of uneasiness about it, he went ahead and had John executed and John's disciples collected John's body, whilst the head was presented in a gruesome way to the guests at the dinner.
Herod in Relation to Jesus
This is a very dramatic story but, interestingly enough, it is corroborated by the historian Josephus, who wrote some decades later and wrote in detail about Herod Antipas and about John the Baptist. Herod was anxious about Jesus. We see, in the first few verses here, that when he heard about this missionary trip and all the things that Jesus and his disciples were doing, he was wondering what he could do to deal with this popular movement because people were claiming that Jesus was a prophet. Some were saying he was Elijah (considered by many the supreme prophet of the Old Testament); some a prophet who was promised by the prophet Malachi would return again. Elijah would come again in the end times of the people of God. Maybe he's Elijah, maybe he's one of the prophets of long ago who's been raised up again? Maybe it's Isaiah, maybe it's Jeremiah, maybe it's Ezekiel come back? People had a very high view of who Jesus could be, lots of speculation was around. Herod was aware that his whole kingdom was full of excitement about Jesus but, as far as we know, interestingly enough, he had not met Jesus. There's no evidence in the Gospels that they had met by this time - which seems amazing given that Jesus was operating so close to his capital city, Tiberias, just a few kilometres away. He must have passed by the city many times but there's no record of Jesus going to Tiberias and there's no record of Herod Antipas going to Capernaum, or any of the other places where Jesus spent time. As far as we can tell, they hadn't actually met. Maybe Herod was afraid of meeting Jesus? He'd already had difficulty dealing with John the Baptist, maybe he felt it was safer to keep him at arm's length?
What he couldn't do was to keep the influence of Jesus out of his palace. By the time this event happens we have three different likely connections between important officials in Herod's government and Jesus. Here are the three: we have the story in Luke 7, of the centurion whose servant was healed by Jesus. A centurion was a soldier, looking after a hundred men, and since this centurion lived in or around Capernaum, he must have been working for King Herod Antipas. A senior soldier has seen a miracle performed by Jesus and, no doubt, that story would get back to the palace. In John 4, even earlier, we see a royal official who sees a miracle in his own family at the hands of Jesus - one of the earliest miracles mentioned. The royal official is somebody working for the king and the king in that area is Herod Antipas, because this royal official also was in the same geographical area living close to Tiberias. Most intriguing of all (a third piece of evidence of the influence of Jesus even on Herod through other people) is in Luke 8: 3, where Luke describes in fascinating detail some of the female disciples who are travelling around with Jesus and the twelve Apostles. One of them (in Luke 8, verse 3) is described as ‘Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod's household.’ No further details are given, but what is given is enough to tell a very interesting story: Chuza is literally running the palace for Herod Antipas in Tiberias; his wife, Joanna, has become a disciple of Jesus; not only that, she's become publicly committed to that discipleship in such a way that, for a period of time, she left her home in Tiberias, left her husband in Tiberias, and travelled around with the Apostles and with Jesus, and used her financial means (as a relatively rich woman) to help support them in their travelling ministry. No doubt she returned to Tiberias and to her family - maybe her husband was also a believer? We've no idea but what we do know is that his wife Joanna is a believer.
Herod Antipas must have known this fact and so he could feel the presence of Jesus, and the influence of Jesus, everywhere in his territory. He'd had John to deal with but having Jesus and his disciples to deal with was proving a fairly overwhelming experience for him. He could see that Jesus had become well-known throughout Galilee.
Herod seems to me to be a paradoxical character. He's obviously, in some ways, an evil, selfish ruler - we can see that by his marriage to Herodias and by the fact that Luke 3 tells us that he did many other evil deeds, which John rebuked him for. We can also see that he is fascinated by John the Baptist and intrigued by Jesus and there's a missing dimension in his life - a missing spiritual dimension. He's got unanswered questions about the meaning of life and he's really interested in these Jewish prophets who he encounters - John the Baptist and then Jesus - and, as we'll see in a moment, he does have an opportunity to meet Jesus at the end of his life.
Herod is an intriguing character and this is a very intriguing story. Lots of different threads of our narrative are coming together and it's really interesting to see it from the point of view of the ruler of the area. He didn't feel strong enough to try and suppress the Jesus movement; it was a popular movement that was far too extensive for him to do that but he kept a distance from Jesus.
In conclusion, what I want to do is to draw some lessons for us, by way of reflection, from three key characters in this story. Let's start with Herodias. She seems to us, from what we know (from the Gospel accounts and also from Josephus again) to be a sinful and a selfish woman who was full of self-justification and determined to get rid of John the Baptist. She's a fairly clear-cut character from the story. She wants her own way; she's a powerful woman; she doesn't want John the Baptist to threaten her in any way; she doesn't ever want to see him again; she doesn't want to see him released; she doesn't want him to speak his words of condemnation against her marriage to King Herod out in the public again - she's been humiliated by that before and so she wants to get rid of him. It's interesting that her determination was such that when the opportunity suddenly came and her daughter came to her and said, “The King has offered me anything I want. What do you think I should ask?” It didn't take her long in that moment to say, “I know exactly what I want. I want the execution of John the Baptist. Let's have his head on a platter! Let's publicly demonstrate his death so that we bring to an end the way that he has taunted me and challenged me.”
We have an evil woman and we have Herod Antipas - a sinful ruler, with a troubled conscience. A man with power but with unease within himself. He's guilty; he's confused; he's uncertain; he acts strongly but in his heart you know that he is confused. Interestingly, the opportunity comes for King Herod Antipas, in an unusual circumstance, to meet Jesus face-to-face. It doesn't happen in Galilee, it happens in Jerusalem at the end of Jesus' life. King Herod Antipas, often, would go to Jerusalem for the religious feasts of the Jews; it was traditional for the rulers to do that. Jerusalem was in Judea; it was not his territory. Judea was ruled directly by the Roman governor, or procurator, who at this time was a man called Pontius Pilate. It was the neighbouring territory. Herod would go, and he and Pilate would be in the same city together because Pontius Pilate would also go to Jerusalem from his headquarters, in Caesarea by the coast, and oversee the religious festivals because huge crowds came to the city and he wanted to make sure that there was no civil disturbance. In Luke 23, in the account of Jesus' arrest and trial, we see an interesting thing happen: when Jesus is brought to Pontius Pilate, Pontius Pilate doesn't really want to deal with him. He doesn't see that he's done anything wrong and he doesn't want to submit to the will of the Jewish ruling council (the Sanhedrin) who brought the accusation that he is a blasphemer and he's broken the Jewish law and he should be executed. Pilate doesn't want to get involved in all that, initially. Luke 23: 7,
‘When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.’Luke 23:7, NIV
Now Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction because he lived in Galilee. Reading from Luke 23, verse 8:
‘When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.’Luke 23:8-9, NIV
This was the one occasion when Herod actually met Jesus. It was inconclusive. His spiritual questions were not persistent enough, or deep enough, to cause him to engage with Jesus in any significant way.
We conclude our study with a third reflection: we've looked at Herodias, we've looked at King Herod Antipas and now a final comment on John the Baptist himself. John was a very courageous man, who had preached fearlessly a baptism of repentance, had challenged people to change their lifestyles - we discussed that when we looked at his ministry, much earlier in this Life of Jesus' teaching. He'd been in prison for some time and he was vulnerable, emotionally. He sent some of his disciples to ask Jesus questions, as recorded in the beginning of Matthew 11, just checking out that everything was okay with Jesus because he was isolated from what was going on. This great Jesus movement was spreading throughout Galilee and John the Baptist was in prison. He was faithful under persecution and he had been willing to speak boldly to Herod, the king, and had confronted him with things that were wrong. He had performed his function as a prophet and he died as a martyr. He had fulfilled everything that God wanted him to do. In fact, I want to end this episode by reminding us of the prophetic function of John the Baptist, as described by his father, Zechariah, when he was born - when his father spoke a wonderful prophecy and part of this prophecy is very specific to John's identity. Luke 1: 76 - 79:
‘“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare (a) way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven (and) shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”’Luke 1:76-79, NIV
“You, my son, will be a prophet of the Most High,” that's exactly what John was; he fulfilled his ministry. He, in his time, drew the attention of the whole nation of Israel towards Jesus and was able to focus them in such a way that many were able to respond to Jesus when he came. He truly was a prophet but prophets are often misunderstood; they're often persecuted; they often suffer; and they often get rejected for their messages - and that's what happened to John at the hands of King Herod Antipas. This is a powerful story and it brings to an end the narrative about John. It's interesting that in the context of John's life coming to an end, Jesus' ministry is accelerating. He's fulfilled his role and he did say, at one point early on in his ministry when Jesus came, ‘I must decrease and he must increase’ and that process reaches its conclusion in this passage, when he passes into eternity, through martyrdom, and Jesus' ministry continues at full pace throughout Galilee and beyond. Thanks for reading.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Herodias held a grudge. Can you be like that and look for ways to ‘win’ or take revenge?
- John challenged immorality even in people of position and power. How often do you turn a ‘blind eye’ or keep quiet?
- Notice how many followers of Jesus there were in Herod Antipas’ household. Pray for all those who work in influential spheres today that there will be opportunities to share faith.
- Examine how anger and hatred developed between characters in this story as their lifestyles were challenged.