Continuing with a study of St Mark’s Gospel, today’s post presents the events surrounding the death of St John the Baptist.

Strangely, his death as related in both St Mark’s and St Matthew’s Gospel has been excluded from the three-year Lectionary for public worship. Yet, the story of the Jewish people’s last prophet is iconic and instructive. This omission is but another mystery from the cross-denominational theologians and clergy who edit this book of prescribed Sunday readings.

Readings which do not appear in the Lectionary comprise my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the ESV with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Mark 6:21-29

21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25And she came in immediately 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.” 26And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

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Last week’s entry described how Herod had heard of Jesus’s many healing miracles and feared that He was a resurrected John the Baptist. That passage of St Mark’s also related why Herod and Herodias had taken against the great prophet.

Today we find out in this flashback from Mark how his death occurred. Those readers who are interested in the arts know that throughout history this death has been represented in many paintings, plays and films which revolve around Herodias’s daughter Salome. Although Mark and Matthew do not refer to her by name, the ancient historian Flavius Josephus did in his great work Jewish Antiquities. After that, it wasn’t until the 19th century when the name was regularly used, thanks to French author Gustave Flaubert who used it in his short story Herodias.

John MacArthur’s sermon gives a lengthy account of the various Herods, which is well worth reading. The Herodian dynasty was descended from Esau, so outside of the covenant the Lord made with his brother Jacob. However, because Esau and Jacob were biological brothers, the Herods various could use that historical relationship as a lever with which to ingratiate themselves with the Jews. This helped them maintain their power locally whilst their non-Jewish lineage kept them in Rome’s good books. That’s an oversimplification but gives the general background.

The dramatic and gruesome story unfolds in verse 21 at Herod’s birthday celebration. Picture a scene at the powerful provincial ruler’s — King Herod’s — splendid palace. There he is surrounded by other men who report to him on a ministerial or cabinet-like level, Jews included. Liken them to today’s politicians and corrupt military commanders; that will give you a good idea of what his guests were like. They were yes-men, sycophants, ready to play the game at any cost as long as doing so kept their boss sweet.

High-level Roman-style birthday parties were extravagant, outrageous and debauched. Anything went. The bigger, the better.

And so it was with Herod’s party. His niece — Herodias’s daughter Salome — comes to dance before him and his guests (verse 22). The man watches his blood relative (via his brother Philip) dance before him and becomes excited. Mark’s account tells us that his guests were similarly seduced. No doubt the wine flowed and loosened their inhibitions, not unlike at a stag night.

Herod says to the girl, by way of a reward for her performance, that she may ask him for anything she desires. He backs this up (verse 23) by vowing that he would even be willing to give her half his kingdom.

MacArthur explains:

Since John the Baptist was in prison in Machaerus, that must be where the party was held. The Jews would likely have shunned having a party at Tiberius because it had been built on a cemetery. This is a male event, by the way. This is a men’s event. This is the worst that a men’s event could possibly get. This is gluttony, drunkenness, lasciviousness at its rankest level. This is conversation and laughter unmitigated, unrestrained, untempered by female presence. And the low point comes at the high point, from their perspective …

Purity was not an issue in that wretched family. It hadn’t been for generations. It really never would be. As the adoptive father of this, his niece, the daughter of his brother Philip, he had no desire to protect her in any sense. For a young girl aged 15 or 16 as she probably was to dance like this was a shame, for a princess to dance like this was a double shame, for a mother to let her daughter dance like this is a triple shame. But shame doesn’t exist in the vocabulary of the family of Herod.

So she comes in to dance her evil dance when the leering men have reached the right proportion of satiation both with food and alcoholic drink, in she comes…immoral, suggestive, shameless dancing. That’s what happens. And she pleased Herod in the basest way and his dinner guests.

And so he’s going to throw his braggadocio around a little bit. He’s looped, as you would say. He’s inebriated. He’s feeling his petty power … The truth of the matter is, he didn’t have anything to give. He held what he held only because Rome let him hold it. One false step and he was done. And I already told you that happened when he tried to overstep his bounds one time. He couldn’t take any more territory, when he did he was exiled. He couldn’t give up any territory, it didn’t belong to him, this was just sheer braggadocio …

Note how Salome leaves to ask her mother Herodias what she should wish for (verse 24). As we saw from last week’s passage, John the Baptist had infuriated Herodias by telling Herod that his marriage to his sister-in-law was unlawful (Mark 6:18-19). No doubt that statement had been reverberating around Herod’s household since that point. It was only Herod who kept John the Baptist out of harm’s way, mainly because he feared a public backlash from his many subjects who knew Jesus’s cousin was a prophet, the first the Jews had had in 500 years.

But now, that route was open. Salome rushes in to declare that she would like John the Baptist’s head on a platter (verse 25). Verse 26 tells us that Herod is ‘exceedingly sorry’ however he has to save face by making good on this vile request.

Matthew Henry analyses the situation, pointing out Herod’s probable hypocrisy (emphases mine):

The plot laid to take off John’s head. I am apt to think that Herod was himself in the plot, notwithstanding his pretences to be displeased and surprised, and that the thing was concerted between him and Herodias … for John Baptist’s head was worth more than his whole kingdom. This promise is bound with an oath, that no room might be left to fly off from it; He sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask, I will give. I can scarcely think he would have made such an unlimited promise, but that he knew what she would ask … The king was exceeding sorry, that is, he seemed to be so, he said he was so, he looked as if he had been so; but it was all sham and grimace, he was really pleased that he had found a pretence to get John out of the way. Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare-The man who cannot dissemble, knows not how to reign.

Herod immediately orders an executioner to slay the prophet (verse 27) who soon returns with John the Baptist’s head on a platter (verse 28). Note how the girl immediately takes it to her mother, Herodias.

What a savage death. Yet, it was customary in those days amongst high-ranking Romans and their provincial rulers. MacArthur says:

… when the head of Cicero was brought to Fulvia, the wife of Mark Antony, she spat on it and drawing out the tongue that had so eloquently opposed and condemned Antony, she pierced it with her hairpin with bitter ridicule.

And:

John was nothing to them. They had rejected the Messiah. The Herodian party had already been in commiseration with the Pharisees to kill Jesus, reject Jesus. John doesn’t matter. Anything for entertainment.

And so they kill the last of the prophets and the best of the prophets.

Verse 29 tells us that when John the Baptist’s disciples heard the news, they collected his body and buried it in a tomb. Think back to Mark 6:16 when Herod mused on Jesus’s identity:

But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Henry notes that if Herod had bothered, he could have managed to locate John the Baptist’s tomb:

Herod, if he had pleased, might have found it, when he frightened himself with the fancy that John Baptist was risen from the dead.

The parallel version of this story is in Matthew 14:6-12:

6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

Matthew’s account includes their notifying Jesus. However, in both Gospels, we find Jesus sorrowfully — and briefly — seeking solitude upon this sad event. In Matthew 14:13 we read:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

Mark 6:30-32 includes a call to rest not only because of John the Baptist’s savage death but also the Apostles’ burgeoning ministries:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

King Herod would not see Jesus until His trial recounted in Luke 23:1-13. Note how this becomes a bonding experience for Pontius Pilate and Herod (verse 12):

Jesus Before Pilate

 1 Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him,  “You have said so.” 4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

Jesus Before Herod

 6When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7And when he learned that he belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.

 13Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

Luke 23 goes on to describe how Pilate caves in to the mob’s cry for Barabbas to be saved in the annual Passover pardon in place of Jesus.

MacArthur concludes:

… sadly, the words of Jesus come back, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that stoned the prophets, kill those sent to you, your house is left to you desolate.”

Hours after that meeting with Herod, they screamed for the blood of Jesus and asked the Romans to do the dirty work. And they executed Him. The nation received the greatest prophet up to his day, the greatest man up to his day, and the very prophet above all prophets, the Son of God, rejected them both, executed them both. As I said, the Jews didn’t kill either one of them, Herod killed John, and the Romans killed Jesus, but the nation had rejected both.

It’s a horrible tragedy when such privilege is given and privilege is spurned. They went on to chase the prophets and the preachers of the gospel until eleven of the twelve Apostles were martyred. And the persecution even went on after that. The rejection of the true gospel is so tragic.

You say, “I would never do that.” You might want to join the speech of those in Matthew 23 who say, “We’re not like those people, we would never do that. We would never do that.”

Look, if you reject Jesus Christ, you stand with the executioners. There’s no escaping it. You either embrace Him as Lord and Savior, or you reject Him. And if you reject Him, you put Him to shame by that rejection. You stand in agreement with the rejecters and the crucifiers.

But Jesus welcomes your repentance, and welcomes you into His Kingdom if you turn from your sin of rejecting Him, confess your sin, acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior and receive His forgiveness. You go from death to life, from darkness to light, from blindness to sight, from hell to heaven, from tragedy to bliss, this is the gospel. Yes, they put Him on a cross in rejection but in that very act of dying on the cross, He paid the penalty for all the sins of all who would ever believe. And if you believe, then you’re part of that all. The point of application here is just make sure that you’re on the right side of how Jesus can be treated, rejected, or received. To as many as receive Him, He gives the power to become sons of God. What a promise.

Next time: Mark 6:53-56