November 15, 2009
The Herodian dynasty was known for its cruelty, as was vividly demonstrated in the death of John the Baptist. At the same time, King Herod himself had an interest in religion; prior to John’s execution, Herod had “heard him gladly.” Alistair Begg warns of the dangers of desiring and even enjoying the preaching of the truth only to ultimately reject its life-giving message. Each of us could be merely one breath away from eternity. When God awakens our conscience, we must respond.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now, let us read from Mark 6:14:
“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!’
“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.”
Having had a number of speeding tickets myself, I’m not particularly proud of the fact that it was a Scotsman who invented radar. His name was Sir Robert Watson-Watt. He was awarded $140,000 for his invention. It was the biggest award ever given for a wartime invention. And somewhat ironically, while driving in Canada, he was caught for speeding in a radar trap. And he wrote this verse about it:
Pity Sir Robert Watson-Watt,
Strange target of [his] radar plot,
And thus, with others I [could] mention,
[A] victim of his own invention.
I begin that way this morning because in our passage, we discover one who was himself a victim, if you like, of his own invention. King Herod was similarly trapped as a result of his proud boast. The events which we read provide the kind of fodder that gossip columnists in every day and age just eat up. The events as we’ve read them are not dissimilar to what we can find on a daily basis in passing through the checkout of a grocery store or of standing waiting for a plane at the airport. These glossy covers seem to rejoice when they can combine tales of royalty and cruelty and immorality. And each of these elements are woven carefully and sadly into this particular incident that we’re considering. It is, in short order, the tale of the sad collapse of the conscience of a king and the cruel execution of a prophet of God.
The last time we heard of John the Baptist, those of us who’ve been studying Mark together, was in 1:14. You may want to flip back just to make sure that it is there. We are told that it was “after John was put in prison” that “Jesus went into Galilee.” Once John was in prison, Jesus now comes into Galilee, and he declares, “The time is now fulfilled,” and his story and his message of the kingdom is being proclaimed as he calls men and women to repent and to believe the good news. Now we are in chapter 6, and we are about to be told how it was that the arrest of John the Baptist came about and what it was that led to his execution. And Jesus, who had begun to proclaim the kingdom of God, had called to himself disciples. He had taken them up on the mountainside in order to “be with him” in order that they in turn might go for him.
Last time, when we looked at Mark 6, we discovered that he had dispatched the Twelve, and they were to extend the mission of the Lord Jesus. Mark now tells us in verse 12 and 13 that when “they went out”—that is, the Twelve—“and preached that people should repent” and “drove out many demons and anointed … sick people with oil and healed them,” that they created quite a stir. And that is the link between verse 13 and verse 14. As now, so then: people talk, news travels. The courtiers of the king presumably made it known to Herod just exactly what was going on. And this incident begins in verse 14, with King Herod hearing all about this, because the name of Jesus “had become well known.” And the reason it had become well known is because of the mission of the Twelve.
And so we discover that Herod is disturbed by this news. The very fact that Herod was disturbed—that phrase—ought to trigger in the minds of some of you a disturbance of another Herod (actually, the father of this Herod), who, upon hearing news of the birth of the King of the Jews—the people had seen “his star in the east” and had “come to worship him,” and Herod “was disturbed,” you will remember, in the narrative, “and all [of] Jerusalem with him.” He “was disturbed” by the news of a king who had been born. He wanted no other king than the kingship of his own rule.
In that respect, he’s not dissimilar from each of us in our lives who really want to rule and run our own lives. We might be prepared to add a little bit of religion here and there to fill in the gaps, but we are not personally and primarily interested in anyone who would come and rule and reign on the throne of our lives. And Herod, his father, had no interest in that, and that reaction to the disturbance led to what we refer to as the slaughter of the innocents. And on this occasion, his son’s reaction to the disturbing news of the mission of this King was to result in the execution of John.
Now, the house of Herod was a strange blend of religious interest and cold cruelty. Almost without exception, when you read of the Herods, the family of the Herodians, you find this juxtaposition between sort of intrigue with the notion of religion combined with this amazing cruelty.
Now, Mark tells us in verses 14 and 15 that the word on the street concerning Jesus was as follows: some were saying (verse 14) that he was John the Baptist resurrected; others were actually suggesting that he was Elijah, in light of Malachi 4:5; and others were simply consigning him as a prophet in the style of the Old Testament prophets.
In other words, men and women at that time, confronted by the words and the works of Jesus, sought an explanation for him. And in every generation, every thoughtful person that comes across the words and the works of Jesus will need to find an explanation for him, even if it is only in order that they might dismiss him. And it may well be that part of the reason that you are here this morning is because you’re actually on that quest yourself. You have for whatever reason determined that you’re going to sort this thing out about Jesus. You’ve read something of what he said, you’ve considered the story of what he’s done, but you haven’t put the pieces of the jigsaw together, and you’ve begun to attend Parkside, and perhaps other places too, and your quest is somehow or another to understand the words and the works of Jesus. And in the same way that there were all kinds of notions then, so there are all kinds of notions now. Well, if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here, and I commend to you a careful reading of the Gospel of Mark.
Whatever other people were saying, verse 16 tells us that Herod had come to his own decision: “When Herod heard this, he said”—to himself, presumably—“‘John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’” This was not the voice of an analyst speaking; this was the voice of conscience speaking. This was, if you like, on a par with Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth that arises in his mind as he puts together the pieces of his life and he realizes all the sorry, sordid things he’s done—that he is culpable concerning the death of John, that he has been cruel in relationship to John, and that John, this preacher, has been the source of some of his greatest anxieties.
Now, in verse 17 and following, Mark then goes behind this situation, or he predates it. And he backfills, and he tells the Gospel reader just what it was that had led to Herod determining that—when the news of the disturbing notions that were alive in his kingdom had come to him—that he had reached this conclusion. And I have made a number of headings in my notes. I’ll share them with you. If they’re helpful, use them. If not, just ignore them, and hopefully the narrative itself will be enough to keep our attention moving along.
The first thing I wrote down was simply: “It was John’s preaching that got him in trouble.” It was John’s preaching that got him in trouble. It was not his personality; it was his preaching. He had a very distinct personality. We’ve already studied in Mark and noted that he was an unusual man; he dressed in an unusual way, and he exercised his ministry in an unusual place. Nobody went to hear John the Baptist because he was immediately accessible to him. He was actually ministering in “a hot, uninhabited depression” deep below sea level. But crowds and crowds of people came out to hear him. He was actually the most popular preacher of his day.
And his preaching was marked, in part, by humility, clarity, urgency, and integrity. And in that respect, he is a model for all who preach: humility, clarity, urgency, and integrity. In respect to the latter point, he had no difficulty in being direct. On one occasion, Matthew tells us that when crowds and crowds of people came out in order to be baptized by him, he addressed them as follows: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” Not exactly a very courteous and gracious welcome for all these people who had traveled down into this uninhabited place in order to be baptized by him.
But he was very direct. He was very straightforward. And his straightforwardness was not on account of his personality. His authority was actually grounded in his humility. He was able to speak with such authority because he knew who he wasn’t. When they asked him who you are, he spoke in neutral terms. He said, “I am a voice crying. I am a finger pointing. I am a light shining. I am the one who is the best man; I’m not the Bridegroom. The Bridegroom is coming, and that’s why I am here.” And on one occasion, he points to Jesus on the other side of that valley, and he says, “If you look over there, you will see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” “He must increase, [and] I must decrease.” And it is on account of that understanding of who he is and his place before Christ that he is able to speak with such striking boldness and authority in his day. That is the explanation for him tackling head-on the immorality of Herod and his wife.
I have noted in the Southern states—particularly in Baptist circles I think I hear this from time to time—they say things like “My preacher at one point stopped preachin’ and began meddlin’.” And on occasion when I’ve been down there, they’ve said to me, “Now, preacher, you been meddlin’ this morning.” And what I discovered is that any time that the Word of God actually hits right the target of the listener, then that is “meddling.” As long as it is being applied to everyone around you, then that is “preaching.” Well, if that is the case, then John the Baptist was a classic meddler. Because he looks the two customers in the eye, and he is prepared to speak straightforwardly to them.
If he’d been looking out for himself, if he’d been a respecter of persons, he would’ve left the matters well alone. Because, you see, Herodias was not only Herod’s sister-in-law; she was also Herod’s niece. So their marital bed was an adulterous, incestuous pit. And he pointed that out to them. And it was therefore inevitably his preaching that got him in trouble. And if things are to continue as they are apparently going in the climate of our contemporary culture, then my preaching is about to get me in trouble too. Fine.
Secondly, I wrote down, “The response of Herodias and Herod.” The response of Herodias and Herod. Should actually be “the responses,” because they differ in their response. First of all, we’re told that since he told them straightforwardly, verse 18, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”—actually, he was speaking to Herod in this instance. But Herodias sticks her nose into it, and as a result, she, number one, “nursed a grudge against John”; number two, she “wanted to kill him”; and number three, she was unable, because her desire did not coincide with opportunity. That was the only thing that stopped her from following through on her decision. So, how do you like John the Baptist as a preacher, Herodias? “I hate him. If I could kill him, I would kill him.” Okay, thank you. I think we understand that perfectly. We’ve got the response of Herodias.
Secondly, the response of Herod himself—different from his wife. She was a viper. He was a fox. In fact, Jesus on one occasion said, “You go and tell that fox, Herod…” He was foxy. He could move. He could dance. He could play the game. And look at what we’re told of his reaction: “She was not able to [kill John]”—here’s the explanation—“because Herod feared John and protected him.” There is almost the inference that he put him in prison because that was the only place that he could be safe from the clutches of his wife, Herodias. That’s how bad she felt about it.
He protected him. He knew he was a good man. That’s there in verse 20, isn’t it? “Knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.” In other words, he knew that John was good. He knew that he was bad. He knew that John was good. “When [he] heard John, he was greatly puzzled,” it says in the NIV. In the King James Version, it says, “He did many things.” In other words, as a result of the preaching of John, it got him all agitated—got him puzzled and agitated. But he actually liked listening to him. It was a kind of bittersweet experience.
Now, despite all of this, it is not, in the case of Herod, enough for him to summon up the courage to do what is right, for he is capricious, and he is weak-willed. And he’s proud. And as a result, he’s finally trapped by his own bravado. Pride and lust are unhappy bedfellows. Pride and lust is a bad combination. You might escape with humility and lust, but pride and lust—look out! And that’s what he had.
And so, in verse 21 and following, we have the sorry details of what then transpired. And that’s the third thing that I wrote down in my notes. I wrote down, “A birthday he would never forget.” A birthday he would never forget—or, if you like, a birthday party he would never forget.
You will notice that he had quite a group that came, in verse 21: “On his birthday [he] gave a banquet.” In keeping with this position, he was able to invite the “high officials and [the] military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.” In other words, it would be like the society pages, again, today. You get these glossy magazines, and you look in there, and you see, and it shows you Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So were there, and they were there with Mr. and Mrs. So-and-So, and she was wearing Prada, and he was wearing Gucci, and they were all just absolutely having a splendid time. And you might look at that and say, “My, that must be quite a party to attend.” If you look carefully, you may see their bloodshot eyes (if they haven’t photoshopped them), and also, if you look even more carefully, you may see the pain and tragedy and sadness in some of the eyes. But the general public is left to the notion that somehow or another, access to those parties is really where it is. If you could ever get an invitation to that, you would be on the list, and you would be ready to go. And presumably, in his day, as the equivalent of the limousines pulled up to the palace, and as they arrived, and as they came out in their splendor for this great occasion, people would have looked on and said, “My, my! That would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?”
A bit like the poem of Richard Cory, to which I was introduced through the music of Paul Simon. Remember?
They say that Richard Cory own[ed] one-half of this whole town,
[And] with political connections [he] spread his wealth around
[He was] born into society, a banker’s only child,
He had everything a man could want: power, grace, and style. …
The papers print his picture almost everywhere he goes:
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show.
And the rumor of his part[ies] and the orgies on his yacht!
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he’s got.
You can go back as far as you like in human history; you can project as far forward as you want, before history is wrapped up at the command of Christ; and you will find that the heart of man is the same: turned in upon itself, essentially wicked, with little interest in God, with a strong desire to squash conscience, with a peculiar fascination concerning religion, with dark, disturbing doubts about death and the future, and yet an almost exclusive resistance to the invitation of Jesus.
And so there he has his party. What do you get for the man who has everything? Do you think the invitation read “RSVP; no gifts, please”? And people breathe a sigh of relief: “What were you going to take to the king in any case?” There would be nothing that would really please him. And even his wife was up against it, don’t you imagine? What are you going to get for your husband, after all this time? He has everything! “Hey, honey? Why don’t you go in and dance for those guys?” So she sends her daughter in.
I don’t think that we ought to regard verse 22 in its brevity as covering over a scene that we might find in Pride and Prejudice. I don’t think that we should imagine that somehow or another, Salome went in there and became the waltzing partner of a number of the high men of Galilee and waltzed around the room. No, I think the brevity of verse 22 covers over a multitude of sins. I can only imagine the sights and sounds that are represented and the result that comes: “And when she danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.” It would be hard to imagine a party where the wine didn’t flow.
Can I just say in passing to you, before we get to Thanksgiving, just a word of warning concerning Christmas? I just want to make a note to—make a mental note, will you? Make a note yourself: beware the office Christmas party. Do you know how many adulterous liaisons come out of office Christmas parties? Somehow or another, people think that once you get within ten days of Christmas, it doesn’t matter what you do with whoever you do it. Beware the two-day conference, where the sun shines, and the jokes follow, and the flirts are present. Beware the day when desire and opportunity and temptation come together. All of that danger is represented in this circumstance.
And let me tell you what to do when that day dawns. Let me tell you the most spiritual thing you can possibly do on that day. You ready for it? Run! Run! It’s not a prayer meeting. Run! If you won’t take it from me, take it from the song writer:
You gotta know when to hold ’em,
You gotta know when to fold ’em,
You gotta know when to walk away,
You gotta know when to run.
You say, “Well, pastor, you know, you live such a sheltered, cloistered life, you don’t even understand about what you’re even talking about.” If you knew how much I understand about what I’m talking about, you would pray even harder for me than you do.
Herod creates it. His friends embrace it. The daughter provides for it. And now he comes to his great moment, boasting proudly of his ability to do what he chooses. As you might expect, he says to this girl, “What would you like? You’ve done such a beautiful job here. I can give you anything, up to half my kingdom.” And not knowing how to reply, she goes to her mom, and her mom says, “I’ll tell you what to ask him for: ask him for John the Baptist’s head on a plate.” And she comes back, and his proud boast of verse 22 is more than matched by his distress in verse 26.
We ought not to think that this is an imagined distress but a real distress. After all, he liked listening to him. He feared him. He protected him. He never for a moment imagined getting himself in this mess. But there he was. He was wrong to make this promise, and he was doubly wrong to keep the promise. His devotion to his wife is not admirable; it is wrong. Only with distorted values can you read this and come to any other conclusion. And because he had made this proud boast and because his friends were all present, he followed through.
And so the story ends. History records that John the Baptist, this brave, humble man of integrity, dies alone in a moment, presumably in a dungeon. And his friends have the unenviable task of laying his decapitated body in a tomb.
The final heading in my notes reads as follows: “What does all this have to do with me?” What does all this have to do with me? That may well be what you’re asking. I hope it is. Because I’m going to tell you what it has to do with us.
It means—and it matters a lot, more than time will allow to tell, but this we mustn’t miss—that we must be careful how we listen and respond to God’s Word when it’s preached. That we must be careful how we listen and respond to God’s Word when it’s preached. Herod was listening to the greatest preacher of his day. Herod could never have argued that John was obscure, for John was clear, and he was as candid as he was clear. Herod would never have been able to say that the preaching of John the Baptist was dull or uninspiring. But at the end of the day, he listened to the voice of his wife rather than to the voice of his conscience. At the end of the day, he decided that it would be better that John the Baptist lost his head than that he, Herod the king, lost face before the assembled throng.
And here we are at the point of impact: I cannot but believe that there are some Herods among us this morning—not in every respect, but at least in this. For we may listen as Herod listened and, like him, still be lost. We may admire and respect notions of justice and moral rectitude while ourselves embracing immorality. We may even admire those who are bold enough to tell us the truth while simultaneously rejecting the truth that they tell. We may find it fearful to sit under the teaching of the Bible, we may be encouraged to do all kinds of things as a result of hearing the Bible, and still be lost.
I actually like the King James better than the NIV in this respect: not simply that he “was … puzzled” but that “he did many things.” He got agitated. Because he realized, “John is a good man. John is telling the truth. I know that. I am a royal mess. I’d better do something.” And so you can imagine that as a result of John’s preaching, he would go out and try and fix the externals, the way in which some of you are trying to fix your life by fixing the externals: reading the Bible, trying to attend church, attending a Bible study—doing things that are fine and good, but they’re all external to you. And still you have never come to believe in Christ, to trust in Christ, to find forgiveness in Christ. You’ve become a churchgoer. You’ve become a religious person. You’ve become interested in these things where you were never interested in them before. But loved ones, that is not the same as salvation. Plenty of people are interested in that way. And some of us, like Herod, may allow the pressure of the crowd to keep us from doing what ought to be done.
We may wrongly assume that we can silence our conscience this morning and reawaken our conscience at a more convenient time. Isn’t that what Felix sought to do when Paul preached to him of righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment? Do you remember what Felix said? And he was in an adulterous relationship with his wife. He said, “Listen, I’ll hear you at a more convenient time.” In other words, “Let’s just be done with this for today. And some other time, when I am more prepared, when I am ready, I will reawaken my conscience, and I will get this thing sorted out.” Is that what you’re saying? Well, I suggest you wash your hands very carefully and stay away from people who are coughing, lest the swine flu sweeps you into eternity and you have no moment left to do what your conscience tells you must be done.
Do I overstate the case? Not for a moment. If you fast-forward to the end of things, you go forward to when Herod finally gets a chance to meet Jesus, because we’re told that he had wanted to meet Jesus for a very long time. He finally meets Jesus in prospect of the crucifixion. You can read it for homework in Luke 23. And there in Luke 23, it tells us that for a long time he had been hoping to see Jesus. “When Herod saw Jesus,” Luke 23:8, “he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he[’d] been wanting to see him.” Course he had! Finally, he’s at the root of the thing. But it was to be an occasion of amusement, not an occasion of adoration. And “he plied [Jesus],” verse 9 tells us, “with many questions.” Now, here for me is one of the most chilling phrases in the entire Bible: “He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.” Jesus refused to speak to him! Christ, the loving Shepherd; Christ, the Savior of all who trust in him; Christ, who is hours away from his death, an atoning death for sinners, says, “You had your day. But it’s not today.”
And then Herod reveals exactly what’s inside of him. And “the chief priests and the teachers of the law were … accusing him. [And] then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him[, dressed] him in an elegant robe, [and] sent him back to Pilate. [And] that day Herod,” the fox, “and Pilate,” the equivocator, “became friends.” Because “before this, they had been enemies.” And the only thing that brought them together was their reaction to the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
Loved ones, I have to tell you this morning that there are no second chances after death. There is no possibility of finding some other way or some other means. All of us are one breath away from eternity. When God speaks into our lives by his Spirit through his Word, using strange people to do it, it is incumbent upon us to respond and to respond immediately. For now is always “the accepted time,” and now is always “the day of salvation.” When your conscience is awakened, you must turn to Christ, for there is no guarantee that you will ever be in the position again, nor that you yourself will be able, as per your own design, to reawaken your conscience as if it were under your control.
That is what makes it so compellingly urgent. And tonight, when our study returns once again to hell, we will be reminded of what the hymn writer puts here: “But sinners, filled with guilty fear, shall see his wrath prevailing, for they shall rise”—that is, they will rise from their graves—“they shall rise and find their tears are wholly unavailing.” Why? “The day of grace is past and gone; they trembling stand before the throne, all unprepared to meet him.”
The reason that this ministry is exercised is in order that we might not be found in that company but that we might be found in the company of those who have responded to the tender voice of Jesus reaching out to us, wooing us, winning us, drawing us to himself by his kindness. You see how the two things are put together? Why would we respond to the kind and gentle invitation of this Jesus, were it not for the fact that we are by nature unprepared to meet him? And he has not asked us to clean up our act, to do certain things, to fix ourselves up. He simply says, “Come [un]to me, all you who are weary and [heavy laden], and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn [of] me, for I am gentle and [lowly] in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Well, I trust that there will be some this morning who respond to Christ’s word.
It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That [your] own Son should come from heav’n
And die to save a child like me.
Look upon us in your mercy, we pray, so that we may respond in repentance and in childlike faith. For in Christ’s name we ask it. Amen.
 Robert Watson Watt, “Rough Justice” (1959).
 Mark 1:15 (paraphrased).
 Mark 3:14 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 2:2–3 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 2:16–18.
 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Luke’s Gospel: 1–11, Commentary on the New Testament (1946; repr., Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), 176.
 Matthew 3:7 (NIV 1984).
 John 1:19–23; 3:29 (paraphrased).
 John 1:29 (paraphrased).
 John 3:30 (KJV).
 Luke 13:32 (paraphrased).
 Mark 6:20 (KJV).
 Paul Simon, “Richard Cory” (1966).
 Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler” (1978). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Acts 24:25 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (KJV).
 2 Corinthians 6:2 (NIV 1984).
 William Bengo Collyer, trans., “Great God, What Do I See and Hear?” (1812). Lyrics lightly altered.
 Matthew 11:28–29 (NIV 1984).
 William Walsham How, “It Is a Thing Most Wonderful” (1872).
Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.