Speaking of Jesus: King Herod

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Mark 6:14-16

King Herod heard of it; for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Mark 6:14-16 rsv

“When Herod heard of it, he said, `John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’” That’s how Herod Antipas explained the ministry of Jesus. This Herod, son of Herod the Great, was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from the time of his father’s death in 4 b.c. to a.d. 39. He had been ruling for over 30 years when John the Baptist began his fiery preaching in the wilderness. Herod’s encounter with this man John proved to be the most fateful experience of his life.

THE SHARED HISTORY

Think with me now about what had happened between them. Herod’s direct contact with John began with his highly questionable marriage. He had taken to wife Herodias, a woman who had formerly been married to his brother Phillip. Very, very few people in those days would have dared to challenge a monarch’s marital behavior, but John did. He told Herod to his face, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). He did Herod the great kindness of telling him the truth about his life. For his trouble he was seized and thrown in prison.

Herod himself may not have been to blame for that. The one who most bitterly resented John the Baptist and his interference was the woman involved, Herodias.

Herod apparently just feared John. This man of the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair, had a strange intensity about him. Herod knew that John was “a righteous man” and that what he had said was the truth. He sensed also that John was “holy,” separated to God for His purpose. And there was a deep uneasiness in the king for fear that John’s words to him might have been a divine message. He seems to have imprisoned the Baptist not so much to punish him as to keep him safe.

Herodias was the real enemy. She had a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. Finding no way to persuade her husband to cooperate in this, she decided to trick him. She waited cunningly for the right moment.

Finally the day came when Herod held a birthday celebration. All his courtiers and officers were there, along with the leading citizens of Galilee. A high point in the program was the provocative dancing of Salome, Herodias’s daughter. The king was captivated. Much wine had put him in a carefree, reckless mood. He made a rash promise to give Salome, the dancer, anything she wanted – even to the half of his kingdom.

This was the opportunity Herodias had been looking for. When Salome conferred with her mother, “What shall I ask?” Herodias didn’t hesitate for a moment: “The head of John the Baptizer.” That meant more to her, apparently, than half the kingdom. How could this boor from the wilderness have dared to criticize her marriage to the king? At last Herodias would have her revenge.

When Herod heard Salome’s request, the color drained from his face. All the merriment was suddenly forgotten. The king, we read, was deeply grieved. But sadly, the unrest was not great enough to make him resist. He saw through it all now, the malice and cleverness of Herodias, how he had been duped and betrayed. But his anger at her and his concern for John were not enough to make him swallow his pride. Because of all the people who had heard his foolish vow, he couldn’t bring himself to back down. He gave the command to murder a blameless man.

Some time later Herod heard about the ministry of Jesus, His mighty works, His arresting words. That’s when he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” What was behind that reaction?

THE HAUNTING FEAR

I hear in it, first of all, a deeply troubled conscience. Herod had never wanted to kill John the Baptist. He had been manipulated into something he knew to be wrong. He felt angry with himself about it, depressed, perhaps even fearful. Herod was a tyrant, but some kind of moral sense had apparently remained alive in him. He knew that John had been a good man, God’s man. For no reason at all, except to save face, Herod had taken off his head.

Even for a near-eastern monarch, to whom cruelty was commonplace, this must have been disturbing. Herod was haunted by memories of the just man he had murdered. When he heard reports of Jesus’ ministry in the same locale, among the same people, Herod felt fresh twinges of guilt and fear. Could his nemesis have returned? Could John be back again, armed now with supernatural power? It was a chilling thought, even for a seasoned ruler like Herod.

But there must have been other resemblances too. Jesus and John, in some respects at least, preached the same message. John called people to repent because a greater One than he was at hand. Jesus preached repentance also because, as He said, “The kingdom of heaven has drawn near.”

John had shown a remarkable fearlessness in telling Herod bluntly that the king had no right to marry his brother’s wife. The same bold denunciation of evil seemed to be a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry too. He could call the leaders of His day “a brood of vipers.” He spoke the truth, even when it involved serious personal risk.

Even more notable was this quality in both John and Jesus: a sense of divine destiny. Both spoke of being sent. Both heralded a word from beyond. Both announced the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into history. Both spoke with a note of divine authority. It’s easy to see why Jesus reminded Herod of the innocent victim who had disturbed the king’s dreams.

Then there were those reports of miracles. Jesus was said to make blind people see, the deaf and dumb to hear and speak. He restored cripples, freed demoniacs, even raised the dead to life again. John, of course, hadn’t done things like that. But, who knows? If he came back from the dead, he might. That’s what worried Herod. A man who had returned from the mysterious realm beyond might be expected to do strange things.

Herod was in a way like the killer in Edgar Allen Poe’s horror story The Telltale Heart. The murderer in that tale kept imagining that he heard the heart of his victim pounding louder and louder. Herod also nursed a superstition awakened by fear. Now, in the spirit and power of Jesus, he thought he heard John’s heart beating again.

WAS IT TRUE?

From our perspective centuries later, what can we say about this strange belief of King Herod? Was he right in seeing a close connection between Jesus and John the Baptist? In one sense, no. The two men were not identical. In some respects, they were not even similar. Remember how Jesus contrasted His own ministry with that of John? “For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say he has a demon. The Son of man came eating and drinking and they say, `Behold, a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners’” (Luke 7:33,34). The lifestyle of the two men was evidently different. John was a kind of recluse from the wilderness – Jesus a man among men. John never drank wine or attended celebrations, but Jesus was often sitting at table with others and sharing in their feasts. It’s interesting that Jesus compared John to Elijah rather than to Himself. Jesus was not John the Baptist back from the dead. Rather, John was like Elijah: a man of the wilderness, a critic of kings, a preacher of repentance. Jesus actually said of the Baptist on one occasion, “If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:14).

In another sense, Herod was not so far from the truth when he identified Jesus with John. John was a pointer to Jesus not only in his preaching but in his career. He was hated and opposed for speaking God’s truth fearlessly. He was arrested by the authorities even though he had committed no crime. After being conspired against by the cunning and the cruel, he was cut off in his prime, unjustly put to death. John truly fulfilled the word of Jesus, “It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord.” John walked the path of obedience and rejection, of suffering and death, which Jesus was to walk as our Representative, our Savior.

Further, what Herod had mistakenly assumed about John became reality in the case of Jesus. Herod feared that John the Baptist had come back from the dead. Jesus actually did. Herod’s fear in the case of John that God might overturn the wickedness that had been done to His servant was in a sense prophetic. That mighty work of God to turn the tables, to reverse the human verdict, became a reality of history in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Death could not hold Him.

Herod was afraid that John the Baptist back from the dead would be possessed of heavenly power. He would be able to do unheard-of things, the king feared. In that way, he was again an unwitting prophet of what God would do in the raising of His Son. Jesus risen from the dead is mighty to save. The powers of the age to come are abundantly at work in and through the risen Lord. He poured out His Spirit upon His followers so that they were able to do the works that He had done, and as He said, even mightier works. It was precisely the work of the Holy Spirit to bring the powers of the coming age into the experience of God’s people so that they became the agents of His mighty works.

In dealing with John and with Jesus, Herod was fighting against a kingdom that could not be defeated. He was discovering that while prophets can be slain, the truth they proclaim lives on. Tyrants can kill the witnesses, but they cannot destroy the witness. The blood of the martyrs becomes again and again the seed of the church. Nothing can stop the inbreaking of God’s gracious rule in Christ. Jesus builds His church, as He said He would, and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

So Herod’s instinct was sound when he saw in Jesus of Nazareth something that reminded him of John the Baptist. The same truth was proclaimed by both, the same kingdom announced. The same God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, was at work in both, and no power in earth or hell could finally defeat either one.

WHY IS IT THERE?

Why do you suppose Mark included these strange words of Herod in his Gospel? Remember his purpose. Above everything else, Mark wants to bear testimony to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. In doing that, he brings forward various witnesses. Herod doesn’t really intend to be one, but what he says has telling effect. It shows us something about his guilty fears. It helps us see how much he stood in awe of John the Baptist as a holy man of God. And it bears an indirect yet convincing witness to the mighty works that Jesus did. For Herod, the only way to explain the ministry of this Jesus was by appeal to supernatural power. “It must be someone come from another world,” he seems to say, “to do the things that Jesus is doing.” Herod was mistaken, of course, to conclude that this was John the Baptist come back from the dead. But he was right in recognizing that in Jesus heaven had indeed come down to earth. The life of the age to come was breaking into history, and the man of Galilee really was the Lord of life and death.

And finally, remember Mark’s purpose in calling forward these witnesses, in relating what various people had to say about Jesus. He wants to bring his readers and hearers to the personal decision of faith. He wants them to see how God’s power is at work in Jesus, how God’s kingdom is coming in Him. He wants me, he wants you, to believe that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. So let the faithful witness of a good man, John the Baptist, and even the grudging word of an evil one, Herod Antipas, lead you this very day to commit yourself in faith to Jesus as Redeemer and Lord!

PRAYER: Father, we praise You for Jesus Christ, the Lord come from heaven, our Redeemer from sin and death. May everyone who shares the message this day put his or her trust in Him. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.