Martyred for Christ

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Mark 6:14-29 (Death of John the Baptist)

INTRODUCTION: These verses form the middle part of what we have been calling “sandwich stories” in Mark, where Mark starts one story, moves on to another, and then comes back and finishes the first. Last week we looked at the outsides of the sandwich story, Jesus sending out the Twelve on their mission. This week we will look at the inside of the sandwich story, the death of John the Baptist. (Read and pray.)

John the Baptist was the first person to die for Christ. I say “first” because many others followed in his footsteps. The persecution of Christians has been a reality throughout the history of the church, and it continues even today. Nina Shea writes in her book on Christian persecution:

“Millions of American Christians pray in their churches each week, oblivious to the fact that Christians in many parts of the world suffer brutal torture, arrest, imprisonment and even death — their homes and communities laid waste — for no other reason than that they are Christians. The shocking untold story of our time is that more Christians have died in [the twentieth] century simply for being Christians than in the first nineteen centuries after the birth of Christ.” (In the Lion’s Den, p. 1)

Although dying for Christ might seem like a far-fetched notion here in early 21st century America, it is a reality for many Christians around the world. Let me read you a few recent headlines from the news:

    – 7/24: North Korea Executes Christian Woman for Distributing Bibles
    – 7/27: Gunmen Kill Iraqi Christian Outside Factory
    – 7/27: Third Christian this Year Dies in Eritrean Military Prison
    – 7/28: Churches torched by militants in Nigeria
    – 8/1: Six Pakistani Christians Killed by Muslim Extremists

Each of those news stories took place in the last ten days. And those are just the stories that were reported or that I happened to see. Persecution of Christians is common, it is global, and it is severe.

Of course the question that comes up when we read accounts of Christians facing severe persecution is, “Could I do that? Could I die for Christ? Could I pay the ultimate price?” Well, John the Baptist did, and I believe God calls us to be ready to do the same. Remember, the story of John the Baptist is “sandwiched” in between the verses telling about the mission of the Twelve. I believe God inspired Mark to do that in order to tell us that as we take our mission from God seriously, we can also expect to face persecution from those who do not know Christ.

I. You can expect people to be confused about Jesus (verses 14-16)

For starters, you can expect people to be confused about Jesus. People in John’s day were certainly confused. Look at verses 14-16. The context for these verses is the mission of the Twelve as they went forth preaching Christ, driving out demons and healing the sick. We read in 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, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” (Mark 6:14-16)

The King Herod here in Mark 6 is not the same King Herod that was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth. That Herod was known as Herod the Great, and he ruled over all of Palestine. The Herod here in Mark 6 is Herod Antipas. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great. Antipas ruled over Galilee and the land of Perea to the east of the Jordan, so his rule was much smaller than his father’s had been.

When Jesus’ disciples went forth on their mission, they were six pairs of disciples going off in six different directions and covering various villages all across the region. They were preaching in Jesus’ name, and under his authority they were casting out demons and healing the sick. And so the name of Jesus was causing quite a stir in this area.

But people were confused as to who Jesus was. Some thought maybe he was John the Baptist raised from the dead. John had had quite an impact on the people before he was arrested and killed. Others thought Jesus was Elijah. Elijah worked miracles in the Old Testament, and the book of Malachi spoke of Elijah returning some day. And then others thought maybe Jesus was a new prophet, like the prophets of long ago.

Anyways, when word got back to Herod about Jesus and his miracles and all that the people were saying, Herod decided to go with theory number one. He was convinced that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist come back from the dead. Now Herod was the one who arrested John and had him beheaded, so perhaps this was a bit of a guilty conscience talking here.

But the main point I want us to see from these verses is that people were confused about Jesus. They knew he was important, but they didn’t know why. They knew he had something to do with God, but they didn’t have a clue as to his actual identity.

I believe the same is true of people today. People are confused about Jesus. They don’t have a clear idea of who he is or why he came or what he’s done. And so part of our mission is to tell them.

  1. We need to tell people who Jesus is – he is the eternal Son of God who left heaven and came to earth as a man.
  2. We need to tell people why he came – he came to seek and to save lost people like you and me who were separated from God because of our sins.
  3. We need to tell them what he has done – he died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could be forgiven and brought back into relationship with God.

When you go forth on mission for God to tell people about Jesus, you can expect people to be confused. Some will not understand. Some will find it hard to believe. Others will resist what you are saying. God’s Son becoming man and dying for sins is astounding. It is a mind-bender. And so you can expect people to be confused about Jesus.

II. You can expect to be persecuted for confronting sin (verses 17-20)

And when you take a stand for Christ, you can also expect to be persecuted for confronting sin. That’s what happened to John the Baptist. Look at verses 17-20:

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. (Mark 6:17-20)

The reason Herod arrested John was because John had confronted him about sin in his life. Herod had married Herodias, who was his brother Philip’s wife. Now if you think your family tree is complicated, wait until you try to unravel the relationships in the Herod family tree. To begin with Herod the Great had ten wives, two of whom had the same name (Mariamne). These ten wives bore him multiple sons many of whom also went by the name Herod. And those multiple sons had a habit of complicating things further by intermarrying within the family tree.

Let me just fill you in on the relevant people for this story. We have already said that Herod Antipas was one of Herod the Great’s sons. Herod the Great had two other sons named Aristobulus and Philip, so Aristobulus, Philip and Antipas were all brothers. Now Aristobulus had a daughter named Herodias. Herodias married Philip, so that means Herodias married her own uncle. I told you this was complicated. Don’t worry, it gets worse!

Next, Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias. At this point Herodias was both Antipas’ niece and his sister-in-law. Antipas divorced his own wife, he convinced Herodias to divorce Philip, and then Antipas and Herodias got married. So Herodias divorced one uncle to get married to the other.

This is where John got into trouble. John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” This made Herod mad, so he arrested John. It made Herodias even madder, so that she wanted to kill John. But fortunately for John, Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. Herod liked to listen to John, even if he didn’t always understand what he said, but Herodias wanted John dead and continued to nurse a grudge against him.

You can expect to be persecuted for confronting sin. This is where the gospel becomes offensive to people. You can’t tell people about needing Jesus as their savior without also talking to them about sin. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus died to save sinners, but you can’t tell people the good news without also telling them the bad news. The bad news is that we are all sinners! We have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. We are all under God’s just condemnation and wrath. That’s why we need a savior. That’s why Jesus came.

Now you don’t want to be offensive about it and have a judgmental attitude and start picking at all the sinful things in your friends’ lives. That kind of attitude will get you nowhere. But when you take a stand for righteousness and start calling sin “sin,” you can expect to be persecuted. It happened to John, and it will happen to you.

III. You should be ready to pay the ultimate price (verses 21-29)

And as a Christian, you should be ready to pay the ultimate price for Christ. Look at verses 21-29. Remember, Herodias was nursing a grudge against John all this time.

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 6:21-29)

Herodias had been waiting for something just like this. It was Herod’s birthday, he has this banquet for all his important leaders and officials, Herodias’ daughter comes in and dances, Herod and his guests are pleased, and Herod tells the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”

This daughter, by the way, was the daughter of Herodias from her previous marriage to Philip. Her name was Salome, and just to show you how complicated this all gets, that means Salome was Herod’s niece through his brother Philip and at the same time she was his grandniece and step-daughter through his wife Herodias, who also happened to be his niece. Salome was both Philip’s daughter and grandniece. And then Salome eventually went on to marry another brother of Philip and Herod from a different mother. This other brother also happened to be named Philip (you find him named in Luke 3), and if you can figure out all the relationships from there, I will grant you an honorary degree of genealogy from this very stage. I am telling you, this was one messed up family.

Well, Herod tells Salome, “I will give you anything you want.” Salome checks with mom, and her delightful mother tells her, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” Like mother like daughter, Salome doesn’t skip a beat. She hurries back in with her request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

The king was distressed by all this, but there was nothing he could do. He didn’t want to lose face in front of all his guests, so he gave the order, and John was beheaded. The head was presented to Salome, and she gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came for John’s body and gave him a proper burial.

CONCLUSION: John the Baptist paid the ultimate price. He became the first in a long line of martyrs who have died for Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” (The Cost of Discipleship, chapter 4, p. 99) Christ certainly calls you to die to self and to die to sin, but he sometimes also calls you to die physically, to actually give up your life for Christ. I guess that is when you discover what you really believe.

And so I would like to end with the question we started with. Could you die for Christ? Could you do it? I don’t think any of us can know for sure unless we were put in that situation, but I think you can get a pretty good idea by looking at your obedience to Christ now. Are you living a life of obedience to Christ? Have you given up other things for Jesus? If you have never given up smaller things for Christ, how will you ever be ready to pay the ultimate price?

Karen Watson was a missionary to Iraq who was killed on March 15, 2004. She knew the danger of what she was doing and wrote a letter long before she died. After she was slain the letter was found in an envelope marked: “Open in case of death.” Here is what it said

Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger,

You should only be opening this in the event of death. When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn’t called to a place; I was called to Him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory my reward, His glory my reward . . .

The missionary heart:
    – Cares more than some think is wise
    – Risks more than some think is safe
    – Dreams more than some think is practical
    – Expects more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or to success but to obedience. . . . There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him.

I don’t know if you will ever be called upon to give up your life for Christ. But if you are, you won’t be the first – that was John – and you most likely won’t be the last. As a follower of Christ, you can expect people to be confused about Jesus, you can expect persecution for confronting sin, and you should be ready to pay the ultimate price.

© Ray Fowler

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