Sunday, August 12, 2007

He Used to Enjoy Listening to Him -- Mark 6:14-29

In Mark 1:14 we read that John had been taken into custody. We were not told where, by whom, or for what. But we are told that after John was taken into custody, Jesus began preaching the gospel of God. As we traced the development of Jesus’ ministry in and around Galilee, we came to Chapter 6, where Jesus sent out the disciples in teams of two. Verses 12 and 13 tell us that they were preaching that men should repent, and they were casting out demons, and people were being healed. Word of this activity began to spread even more rapidly and broadly, and in time word reached Herod. What did Herod hear? We aren’t told specifically, but verse 14 says, “His name had become well known,” meaning the name of Jesus. Herod was hearing reports about the ministry that was being done by Jesus and by His disciples in the name of Jesus. And people began making speculations about the source of the “miraculous powers” that were at work in Him. So Herod heard about the name of Jesus, and he heard about the power of Jesus, and he heard that people were trying to figure out the nature of these things.

Some people were saying that Jesus was John the Baptist, raised from the dead. This is the first we have heard that John had died. Now, this was a pretty wild speculation on the part of some, for although Jewish theology allows for resurrection, it does not allow for reincarnation, much less that a person could come back from the dead to inhabit another person who was already alive during that person’s life.

Some were more biblical in their assessment of the situation. They were saying “He is Elijah.” They knew that Malachi had prophesied that the Lord would send Elijah to the people “before the coming of the great and terrible day of the LORD,” and Elijah would “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers,” so that God would not “come and smite the land with a curse." They remembered that Elijah had not died, but rather was whisked away by a whirlwind with a chariot of fire, and that God had promised to send him back to the people.

It is clear that John the Baptist was the one prophesied in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1 as the waymaker for the Messiah, but in John 1:21-23, he denied being this Elijah. In Matthew 11:14, Jesus claimed that John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come, but added the stipulation, “if you are willing to accept it.” In Matthew 17, Jesus says, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Matthew tells us that the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist. Elijah himself does come on the scene at the Mount of Transfiguration, and many, myself included, believe he will be one of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 during the Tribulation time in the last days. But here the people were speculating that Jesus was the Elijah who was to come. This speculation, though more biblical, was also incorrect.

Others were more realistic in their speculations to figure Jesus out. “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” This Jesus would not deny, as He uses the title of prophet to speak of Himself in Mark 6:4. But He was much more than just a prophet, as His death and resurrection will prove.

When Herod heard about the name and power of Jesus, and all these speculations about His identity, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” Whether or not this was a well-thought-out statement of theological belief is uncertain. Perhaps it was Herod’s way of saying, “No sooner than you silence one preacher, another one comes to take his place!” Whatever Herod intended by saying this, we are afforded some explanation as to the death of John the Baptist in his words. He was beheaded by Herod.

The irony of this confession is found at the end of verse 20: “But he used to enjoy listening to him.” In our time today, I want to explore this text for some explanation to how one can go from enjoying listening to the preaching of the Word of God to beheading the preacher. This should not be thought of as an old, dry history lesson. I am thankful that the beheading of preachers is not a common occurrence where we live. We do hear of a preacher “losing his head” every now and then, but I think we mean something far different. The beheading of God’s people is still a reality in other parts of the world. Yet, even where preachers are not beheaded, those who “used to enjoy listening” to them often fall away and become cold-hearted and bitter toward the Word of God. You know some like this – they are active in the church, present every time the doors are open, attentive to the Word as it is taught and preached, and then something happens, like the flipping of a switch, and they are nowhere to be found anymore. Attempts to reconnect with them are met with indifference, or worse, antagonism. Though they stop short of executing the messenger, there is a murderous hatred in their hearts for the things of God. How does it happen? Herod presents us with some explanations.

I. He used to enjoy listening to him, but he was indicted by preaching. (17-18)

Being unaffiliated and rather bothered by the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Herod was probably quick to sound the Amen when John called them vipers and preached about their need to repent. His family had been scorned by many in Israel because they were not full-blooded Jews, but Edomites. So when John chided the Israelites for their nationalistic presumptions about God’s favor, Herod was likely in hearty agreement. He was not bothered by John’s fiery exhortations to the tax-collectors and soldiers. But when the preacher’s bony finger pointed at Herod and began to deal with his sins, the story changed.

The family tree of the Herodian dynasty is extremely complicated to trace. Herod the Great had become the third in the family to rule over Judea, a post he had held under the authority of the Roman Emperor for over forty years when Jesus was born. Having already executed several sons, a wife, a mother-in-law, and countless others he suspected of trying to plot against him, He was none too pleased when a group of foreign mystics showed up and said that the stars had led them to a newborn king. Herod the Great issued an order for the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of two to prevent this newborn king from stealing his throne. Just a short time later, Herod the Great died. All total he had ten wives, and at least seven sons. In his will, He named his son Archelaus to be his successor, a fact mentioned in Matthew 2:22. His sons Antipas and Philip would be tetrarchs over smaller surrounding territories.

It is Herod Antipas that we read of here, who ruled over the territories of Galilee and Perea during the life and ministry of both John the Baptist and Jesus. The text calls him a king, and in function he was, but in reality he was a puppet governor under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Now another son from a different wife was also named Philip. They are distinguished in history by their titles, Philip the Tetrarch and Herod Philip. Herod Philip would have no official position of authority in the government following his father’s death. Herod Philip went on to marry his niece, Herodias, a granddaughter of Herod the Great by his son Aristobulus. Together they had a daughter, who is mentioned but not named in the Bible, but history gives us her name: Salome. Salome would later grow up to marry Philip the Tetrarch. Confused yet? Hold on, it gets worse.

It came about on one occasion that Herod Antipas was traveling to Rome and stopped in to stay with Herod Philip and Herodias. During that stay, he and Herodias took a liking to each other, and decided to marry (remember, she is also the niece of Philip and Antipas). She divorced Herod Philip and insisted that Antipas divorce his first wife as well. So she and Salome came to Tiberias to live with Herod Antipas. He also had a palace in Macherus, which was near the place where John the Baptist had been preaching. Perhaps in days past, Herod Antipas had ventured out to hear the preacher, and was quite fond of his berating of other people’s sins. But once the new wife came into the picture, the aim of the preacher was changed. John began to preach to Antipas, saying, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” The wording of verse 18 indicates that he said it often, and that he said it to his face.

Twice in the Old Testament Law, we read that God forbids the marriage of a man to his brother’s wife: Leviticus 18:16, and 20:21. There was one circumstance in which it was allowable – if the brother had died and left the wife without any children. Then a “levirate marriage” could take place, according to Deuteronomy 25:5, in which the brother would take the widow as a wife for the purpose of providing her children. In the case of Antipas and Philip, however, Philip was still alive and had a child. So this was no levirate marriage. This was pronounced as abhorrent in Leviticus 20:21. While for the immoral Herodian dynasty this was just their normal modus operandi, it was a sin in the eyes of God. And John boldly proclaimed the Word of God in the face of this puppet king.

Herodias wanted John dead, but Herod Antipas was afraid to kill him because he knew he was a man of God. Instead, he tried to silence John by imprisoning him. But John wouldn’t be silent. Echoing out of those cavernous chambers, the preacher’s voice could be heard crying out, “Not right!” Herod was perplexed by this. But John’s preaching was no longer enjoyable to him.

We must all be aware that the day will likely come when we will be indicted by the word. The Word of God is likened to a sword, and surely none of us are exempt from being cut by it. But woe to us if we rather enjoy watching other people pierced by the word but are not willing for it to pierce us as well. There are many today who used to enjoy hearing the preaching of the word, but who have tried to lock the word out of their lives once they became indicted by it. But Herod shows us more about this as we look on in the text.

II. He used to enjoy listening to him, but he was inflamed with passion (vv21-25)

Herodias was unable to persuade her husband to put this preacher to death. Herod Antipas was afraid of John the Baptist. He didn’t enjoy him anymore; he was perplexed by him; but he was afraid. But there came, the Bible says, a strategic day for Herodias to use a more subtle tactic to manipulate him. It was Herod’s birthday, and all of his cronies were around him. The language of verse 21 is remarkably similar to that found in the Book of Esther, and if Mark intends it that way on purpose, then it is only his modesty that refrains from describing the drunken debauchery that undoubtedly was going on during this celebration.

In verse 22, we read that the highlight of the party was when the daughter of Herodias came in to dance. Again, Mark is modest in relating the details. He is not writing a dime-store novel, so there is no need for titillating details of sensuality. But as she danced, we are told that she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. We are left with good reason to believe that she was not doing the Hokey Pokey. This was obviously a very erotic sort of dancing that aroused the men’s passions. And the guest of honor at this birthday feast would have received the most attention from the dancer, who I remind you, was his teenaged step-daughter. So inflamed with passion is Herod Antipas that he makes her an offer: “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” To demonstrate his sincerity in the offer, he repeats it, adding, “up to half of my kingdom.” So disoriented is he by his drunkenness and his lust that he gives no thought to the fact that Rome would not allow him to part with an acre of territory, especially under these terms. Herodias wastes no time in persuading her daughter to take advantage of this offer and ask for the head of John the Baptist.

Once upon a time, Antipas enjoyed listening to John the Baptist. But now, inflamed by passion, he is willing to behead the preacher because of his grotesque and lustful desire for his step-daughter. We may not be able to relate to all the sordid complexities of Antipas’s very strange family life, but we do know what it is like to wrestle with the passions that are common to human nature. And when those passions so inflame us that we are willing to do whatever it takes to pursue the gratification of those desires, we have cut off the Word of God from having any effect in our lives. I believe that this community, this city, this nation, is full of people who at one time enjoyed hearing the Word of God proclaimed, but who traded it in for the gratification of the passions of the flesh. It was easier for them to say yes to their desires and no to the Word of God than to say no to themselves in obedience to the Word. And rather than submitting to the Word, they discarded it like Herod, when they became inflamed by their passions. There is one more point we must make here.

III. He used to enjoy listening to him, but he was intimidated by popularity (v26)

Herod Antipas still didn’t really want to kill John. We are told in this verse that he went through with it for two reasons. One reason was because of his oaths. He had made an oath to the girl. But, still, he didn’t have to go through with it. He could have put things off a day until he sobered up and could think more reasonably about it. He could have said, “I offered you a gift, I didn’t offer to do something like this!” He could have said, “I didn’t promise your mother a gift, but you!” He could have even found scriptural support for not fulfilling this oath. Leviticus 5:4-6 offers instructions for one who swears thoughtlessly. He can confess his sin and bring a guilt offering before the Lord and have his sin atoned. But Herod doesn’t do any of these. Why not? Just because of his foolish, drunken, lustful, oath? No there is another reason …

And because of his dinner guests. How would it look for him to back down now? He was so bold in front of his buddies to offer up half his kingdom, how could he now renege on the request of a preacher’s head? How would he save face in front of his friends and colleagues? But rather than choosing to do what was right, Herod Antipas opted to save face and preserve his popularity. Mark uses his favorite word, “Immediately, the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head.”

There are many times when we are faced with the dilemma of doing what is right and doing what is popular. If we do right, what will others think of us? Will we be of lower esteem in their eyes? And countless people have turned their backs on the Word of God because they were afraid of what others would think of them. They used to enjoy listening to it, but when their friends began to look down their noses at them, they made a choice, and chose wrongly, just like Herod Antipas.

And so, in the end, as James Edwards says in his excellent commentary, “The one whom Jesus called the greatest man born of woman (Matt 11:11) is sacrificed to a cocktail wager! The only act of decency in the account … is the arrival of his disciples to give his body a proper burial.”[1] The rest of the passage is full of a tragic story about a man whose character flaws separated him from the kingdom of God because he was unwilling to avail himself of the mercy of God by abandoning his debased living in repentance and faith toward God. And perhaps the greatest irony of all it is that “he used to enjoy listening to him.” Some of us in this room have journeyed the peaks and valleys of life, and for a season at some point, perhaps we too have put the Word of God out of our life when we were indicted by preaching, or inflamed with passion, or intimidated by popularity. But our presence in the sanctuary today indicates that we have seen the error of our ways and returned to faithfulness. How we praise God for the mercy of the cross that allows us to return to God and be forgiven.

But there are others who have never come back. Perhaps they are your friends, your neighbors, your coworkers, your children, your parents, your siblings. They enjoyed being in church, they enjoyed listening to the preaching of God’s word. But one day it cut too close for comfort. One day they were not hearing about the heinous sins that others commit, and the bony finger of God’s prophet pointed their way. Or perhaps there came an occasion when they cashed in for the gratification of sensual pleasures, and either because of their shame, or else because they have become enslaved to that sin, they have yet to turn back. Or perhaps they were faced with the choice of disappointing their friends or the God of their salvation, and they opted to stick with the friends. Tragic stories, all of them.

So what shall we say to them? We say to them in a very loving way that all of us have sinned, but God offers to forgive us if we come to Him believing that Jesus Christ died for our sins and lives again to save us. We remind them that the door is still open to them if they will turn and believe. But see this very plainly in the text set before us today – just like John the Baptist, if you speak the truth for Christ, you will not always be received well. You may be hated. God forbid, in some situations, you can be killed. John knew this, but he did it anyway. And we, as God’s people, must agree together that it is better to speak the truth and let the chips fall where they may than to hide from the truth, or silence it when it needs to be spoken.

[1] James R. Edwards, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 189.

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