Alfred Place Baptist Church

6:14-29 The Death Of John The Baptist

Mark 6:14-29 “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 bother 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.”

All Scripture is God-breathed and is profitable for correction, and rebuke, and instruction in righteousness, and such a passage is this. It has no allegorical meaning. It is a straightforward history intended to bring our emotions to the law of God, to give us a hatred of sin and a fear of hell. In the year 1650 a Christian businessman travelled from London to Scotland. When he got home his friends at church asked him what news he had brought them. “Good news,” he said, “for when I went to St Andrews I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man, and he showed me the majesty of God. After him I heard a little fair man, and he showed me the loveliness of Christ. I then went to Irvine, where I heard a well-favoured proper old man with a long beard, and that man showed me all my own heart.” All of us preachers want to be like Samuel Rutherford who was the little fair man who showed that businessman the loveliness of Christ, but there are times when we also have to be like David Dickson who was the proper old man who showed him his heart. This passage is designed for that end. The seeds of the sins that were in the hearts of Herod, Herodias, his daughter and the guests at his banquet are in every heart.

There are only a couple of passages in Mark’s gospel that are not about Jesus Christ. They are both about John the Baptist. The first announces his arrival on the scene as Christ’s herald, whilst this other records his end as a servant of Jesus Christ faithful to death. John was a man who couldn’t be bought by men’s smiles nor intimidated by men’s scowls. This story tells of a woman with a grudge against a preacher, which grudge she nourished until she hated him. Neither her husband, nor her friends could deliver her from her bitter resentment. A hatred grew and grew until there was only one thing she wanted, that this man be destroyed; she would have no peace until he was dead. This incident also tells us of a king who could take any woman he wanted, a slave to lust, whose life was destroyed by that idol. This incident tells us of a couple who came into contact with the word of God, but resolutely defied it, and so the prophet’s words became the smell of death to both husband and the wife.

This incident gives us the history of one man’s conscience. What a gift from God is your conscience. It is one of the factors that makes you differ from monkeys and dolphins and computers. You are made in God’s image and likeness, and one of the proofs that this is so is this divine monitor planted in your heart that commends you when you do right, and warns you when you do wrong. It is the voice of God. Today I want to ask you how are things between you and your conscience, and I want to hold up before you a man who mortified his very conscience – killed it – and what happened to him.

1. HEROD HAD A ENSLAVED CONSCIENCE.

We are told that “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'” (vv. 17&18). Let’s look at this man Herod. There are actually four different kings in the New Testament all bearing the unhappy name Herod. There was Herod the Great who is the king we meet in the first chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, the monarch responsible for the murders of the children in Bethlehem. He had ten wives and many children. His son was this Herod, Herod Antipas, who ruled after him for 43 years. He was in fact the tetrarch of Galilee, but was popularly called ‘king.’ He was shrewd and pitiless, a lover of luxury and like all governments in power, ambitious to spend taxpayers’ money on grandiose architectural schemes, for example, one of the cities that he built in Galilee was Tiberias. He also spent years completing his father’s project of building the Temple in Jerusalem. The wall known today as the ‘Wailing Wall’ is the remnant of that temple of Herod’s. The Lord Jesus knew this king and referred to him as “that fox”; it was a reference to his cunning and ruthlessness.

Who was this woman Herodias his wife? She had been married to his half brother, and she was also the daughter of another of Herod’s half brothers who had been murdered by his own father, that is, by her grandfather, Herod the Great. So Herod’s wife was also his sister-in-law and his niece. There was an occasion when Herod was away in Rome, far from the Galilean backwater he had to spend his years, and there he met Herodias the wife of his half brother Herod Philip, and he became infatuated with her, though he and she were both married. No principles ever stood in Herod’s way, and Herodias was no better. How could something that felt so right be wrong? So he dismissed his wife and took his brother’s wife. His first wife, whom Herod threw out, happened to be the daughter of the king of Nabatea, and he got so angry with the way his daughter had been treated that he sent an army against Herod and destroyed his soldiers. What began with a man throwing out his wife resulted in thousands of widows and orphans in Galilee. People say that what goes on in a man’s bedroom is entirely a private act, but it wasn’t long before thousands of others were involved when Herod took Herodias. No man is an island unto himself to come.

We live in an age when such behaviour is too common. The myth was circulated by media people that we were all prudish and buttoned up before the 60s and that the great contribution of that decade was that it taught us to ‘let it all hang out.’ Well, today everything does hang out. It is hard to avoid the wretched stuff. The 60s was described as a time of sexual liberation, but to preach the loss of restraint as a form of liberation is folly. Are we insane? Do we really want to say to people that to be a slave to our desires and infatuations is liberation? It is the opposite. It is slavery. And your conscience can be enslaved to your flesh just as much as the old time cotton picker was a slave to his master. A man who cannot say ‘No’ to his lusts has no freedom at all.

That was the situation in royal circles in Galilee when God sent John out to prepare the nation for the coming of his Son. He was the Messiah’s herald. He was making a way for the King sent from Heaven. There were mountains of public sins and they had to be brought low. There was a lot of crookedness in the land and that had to be made straight. The dark valleys of sin had to be filled in and exalted. That was John’s commission, and he was utterly faithful in fulfilling it. He called the whole nation to sincere repentance, from the beggar at the city gate to the king on his throne. There was a wretched formalism about the people’s faith in God; the whole religious system was utterly corrupt, and John addressed it fearlessly. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire'” (Matt. 3:7-10). He was not afraid of the chief priests and he was not afraid of the tetrarch.

We know that Herod was a claimant to the royal line of David, and that Herod wanted all the Jews to come together and recognise him as their true king. John destroyed all those ambitions when in his sermons on the moral decrepitude of the nation he turned his holy eyes on the royal marriage. “The king has left his wife and taken his own brother’s wife. How shameful! It is against the will of God,” he preached. “He may be given the title of king, but kings must rule under God and must obey God like anyone else. King Herod, and Queen Herodias, you have no mandate to follow your lusts.” There were no sacred cows in the kine of Israel when John was prophet. He didn’t read the polls before he spoke. He didn’t protect any special interests, nor did he predicate what he did on their chance of success. John’s courage was a costly courage.

John was preaching another King, the Coming One who was about to appear. Who was most likely to be the truly anointed of God, that fox from Galilee who devoured his own brother’s home, or the King from glory? Would a Messiah from heaven dream of marrying his brother’s wife? John the Baptist destroyed 33 years of Herod’s careful ‘spin’ by that one sermon. The king was angry when spies brought the news of the sermon to him. He might have chosen to ignore it, but his new wife went ballistic, and she insisted and pleaded and nagged until Herod gave orders to have John arrested. He had him bound in chains and put in prison. “He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married” (v. 17). That is one possible reaction to a preacher who convicts the conscience – don’t listen to him, ignore him, shut the door on him, lock him up, and try to switch off the voice of God that says, “You have taken from your own brother his most precious possession, and I tell you that that is a disgraceful thing to do. God is angry with such an action. You’ll answer to him for it.” I say you can dismiss that word, and silence the preacher, but there is an alternative response. Heed the word! God wounds that he might heal. Repent of it. Turn from it, and give your brother’s wife back to him and plead for his forgiveness. But Herod wouldn’t. He tried to murder his convicting conscience.

2. HEROD HAD A STIRRED CONSCIENCE.

The historian Josephus tells us that John was executed in a place called Machaerus on the hills surrounding the Dead Sea. There Herod the Great had erected one of his palace-fortresses. It was strongly defended with high towers to spot any invading army, but it also contained the customary luxuries of homes like Saddam Hussein’s and other despots. Josephus describes Machaerus as “magnificently spacious and beautiful apartments.” But deep under the palace were the dungeons, and they can still be seen today with their iron hooks. John would have been bound to one of those and left in the darkness, his brief year of ministry completed.

You would think that that would have been the end of the tale, John left to rot to death down there, while Herod and Herodias frolicked in their apartments above: business as usual. But it was not like that, because Herod still had a conscience, and, as Calvin says, suddenly a man’s conscience will summon him to stand before the bar of God. Queen Herodias wanted John dead. “Finish him off!” she would say to her husband. “Send the executioner down there. Why are you keeping him alive?” We are told that “Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to” (v.19). Why not? “Because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man” (v.20). John was in Herod’s hands. Herod had life or death power over him, but John didn’t fear him. Herod feared John. Didn’t mighty Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world, fear the slave Moses in Egypt? Didn’t King Ahab fear Elijah? Didn’t the lions fear Daniel? Didn’t Nebuchadnezzar fear Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Didn’t Mary Queen of Scots fear John Knox? Didn’t the pope fear Luther, and the king and the bishops fear the covenanters of Scotland for the way they lived and died? Aye, they certainly did.

When a dictator takes over a country why will he soon send the preachers to the concentration camps and prisons? Because he fears their influence. Why do the Islamic countries prevent missionaries from preaching the living Christ in them? Because they fear the impact of the gospel, and its life-transforming power. It can make weak men and women able to do all things through Christ who strengthens them. Herod feared John. He knew that a man who lived as he did, who had transformed the lives of thousands, and preached righteousness so fearlessly, such a man had to come from God. The hand of Jehovah was on him. He had spent years in the deserts with the Lord, and then he came forth in the fulness of time with God’s message. John feared him. Should we not fear men of God? There must have been just the tiniest spark of light in Queen Herodias’ conscience – dead, but for a flicker. In King Herod there was much more light. He feared John and he also protected him. “Let none of you soldiers lay a finger on him or he will answer to me. Is he getting enough to eat? Does he have a blanket for the chilly nights?” Herod looked after him. But more, listen: “When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him” (v.20).

You see the scene in the sumptuous apartments of Machaerus? Queen Herodias is wandering around looking for her husband, and she can’t find him. Then she knows where he’s gone . . . again! He is down in the dungeons sitting in a dark corridor with a silent soldier who holds a smoking torch, and her husband is looking through the bars at John and talking to him and listening to him. “What do you mean that the axe is laid to the root of the trees? What do you mean that the coming One will baptize with fire and the Spirit? You say that he is going to be king, but then you say that he will be the Lamb of God who will take away the sin of the world? How can he be a king and a lamb at the same time?” Herod was greatly puzzled. “it doesn’t make sense,” he would snarl at John, “yet he liked to listen to him” (v.20). John was the first real man Herod had ever met. He wasn’t a fawning flunky who brought him women and wine, and cooked him some lamb at three in the morning when his conscience wouldn’t let him sleep. Herod was a great sinner who was offending his own conscience and rejecting the word of God and gripped by the word of God. He wanted John to be silent, and yet he wanted to hear him too. He was just like another king named Felix who sent for the prisoner Paul and listened to him as he spoke to him on righteousness, temperance and judgment to come. Then the king would say, “That’s enough!” and curtly dismiss to his dungeon, but then Felix couldn’t stop himself. He would frequently send for him and talk with him (Acts 24:24-27). So Herod would hear John, and then continually put off doing anything about it. There is never a convenient time for repentance. There will never be a time when you are more ready to obey God than today. Only today; this very moment is all we are guaranteed.

Aren’t there people like that we know? Aren’t there people like that here, week by week? You can’t stop coming, but you are perplexed at what I say and don’t like it when I get under your skin, when I point out your wrong attitudes, and speak about your sins. You go running to other people and complain. You want me to be silent, and yet you want to hear me speak. You have an awakened conscience, and that is good. You don’t have a conscience like Queen Herodias’, a tiny little spark in overwhelming darkness. She never went to talk to John. You’ll hear me, and yet you want to silence me too. You are puzzled by me, and yet you like to listen to me. You are an enigma to yourself and to your friends. I am not going to say to you, “Take comfort from the fact that you’re here listening.” For years Judas Iscariot heard Jesus with pleasure, but Judas went to hell. King Herod had a stirred conscience.

3. KING HEROD HAD A VIOLATED CONSCIENCE.

We are told that finally the opportune time came (v.21). Let me warn you that they will come, such times, into every sinner’s life. The opportunity will come into the bully’s life, and the thief’s life, and the charmer’s life. The time he has longed for and imagined, a time for seduction and revenge, it comes! The sinner has great patience. He can wait, and Queen Herodias bided her time. Two years Absalom waited for revenge on his half brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar. Then he got Amnon drunk at a party and cried out, “Strike Amnon down,” and men stabbed him to death. The opportune time had come. Matthew tells us that Judas waited for his opportunity to betray Christ, and it came. If you plan for sin, and wait for sin, then sin will come. It is a fearful thing. It doesn’t just happen. It is not like catching a cold. You are not a victim. Sinners are waiting for an opportune time. Beware sinner! You sow a wind and you reap a whirlwind. That’s God’s law. It is appointed unto men once to die and after death the judgment. God’s great opportunity to set the record straight and to deal with us absolutely fairly.

So it was with Queen Herodias; she nursed a grudge for some time; she longed for John’s death every day, and she got up wondering, “Will this be the day I’ll see him dead?” And every night she went to bed disappointed. Someone has said that the only place she felt her marriage-license could safely be written was on the back of John the Baptist’s death certificate. Then one week, along came Herod’s birthday. It’s the only place in the New Testament where you find a birthday, and in the Old Testament Pharaoh’s birthday is mentioned – just that single reference in each testament to the birthdays of evil Pharaoh and wicked old Herod. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet, and all the great and the good came along, the high officials and the military commanders and the leading men of Galilee, the sort of men you needed to endorse you and repair your tattered reputation is you were looking to be the king of the Jews. So they made the long journey to the fortress at Machaerus on the hills above the Dead Sea, and they tied up their horses and carriages, and they were greeted by Herod and his queen. They were wined and dined for hours, and then the floor show took place. The queen’s daughter came in and danced for them. We all know her name was Salome, but that isn’t anywhere in the Bible. It is Josephus who supplies us with that name. What Mark tells us is that she was a young girl, a teenager probably, and that her dancing pleased Herod. But we are not told what kind of dance it was, though we can guess that it was suitable for a lecherous and drunken group. When she’d finished Herod shouted out his delight: “Ask me for anything and you can have it! Half my kingdom? It shall be yours.” “All right Herod!” the men cried. “All the way Herod!” You can hear the crude comments in different parts of the room, the bibulous shouts and explosions of laughter to words you haven’t heard. What would she ask for? Two white stallions? Ten silk dresses? The hand of that handsome young general in marriage? The conversation buzzed. The offer of half the kingdom was rhetoric of course. A sham. At best a figure of speech. Rome wouldn’t let him give away half his kingdom. Pathetic Herod was more a puppet of Rome than he’d admit.

So Salome went out from what was probably a “Men Only” function, and she told her mother what Herod had said, and thus the opportune time had come. Don’t even think of it, whatever it is, or imagine it, or dream of it, or long for it, or that sin will certainly come to you, and you will be ready to give yourself to it. The plan will work like clockwork. Your hand will be in the till, or the forbidden fruit will taste so sweet, and down you’ll go. “What shall I ask for?” Salome said to Herodias, and her mother immediately replied, “The head of John the Baptist” (v.24). Mark tells us that there was no pause to think, or to protest and say, “Are you sure?” “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” (v.25). You see, she even embellishes her mother’s words, “right now” she says, “on a platter” she says. The girl was a pawn, totally in the grip of her mother. She sold herself to the highest bidder.

So the banquet came to its terrible denouement: Herod was outmanoeuvred by his wife, and greatly distressed. He was genuinely torn apart by the request. The word concerning his ‘distress’ is used to describe Jesus’ pain in Gethsemane. Herod felt a climb down wasn’t possible. It rarely is for proud men like Herod. They can’t lose face. The guests had all heard him, and they were also the dancing Salome’s lip-licking audience, as obsessed with her legs and body as the king. They were the leverage to force his hand. They were the power bloc Herod needed to advance his career to its ultimate peak, the ‘king of the Jews’. He daren’t lose face by revoking his oath. He wanted to show them he was a strong man, who kept his word. He could take tough decisions. But Herod also feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. What should he do? Did he weigh it all briefly? If he reneged on his word the news would get back to Rome of his vacillation. They’d laugh at him, and weak men hate to be mocked. So without any more thoughts he made his mind up: “He immediately sent an executioner with order 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” (vv. 27&28).

There are teenagers who would never go to church for fear of their friends finding out. There are men and women who spend their entire lives living like Herod, basing their decisions on what other people think. There are politicians who will parade their pure consciences on certain politically correct issues, but in personal morality their consciences are in the gutters. There are businessmen whose only determinant of what is right and wrong is whether it will advance them up the corporate ladder. There are people who have lost God because they did not want to lose favour with man. They have lost eternity for a few more smiles in time.

It all began when a married man gazing at another woman. Then he took that woman who happened to be his brother’s wife. He divorced his own wife, and then end of it all was murder. That is not unusual. Sex is still a serious and profound matter. It is about personal involvement of the deepest sort. So when it goes wrong it is the cause of unspeakable jealousies, hatred and violence. Haven’t you noticed that a lot of people have been driven to murder because of sexual sin?

Herod violated an informed conscience. This is how the man died of whom Jesus said none born of a woman was greater. Not much scope for health and wealth teaching from this passage! John was sacrificed to a cocktail wager! There are no last words of John recorded. Nothing was spoken in the cell for posterity to ponder over. There is John’s life, and the fierce integrity, and the death. That is John’s legacy to the church. Think of this context of chapter 6, how Jesus commissions the 12, and immediately we are told by Mark of this incident and he is saying, “This can happen to those who follow the king.” We know it also happened to James, and perhaps to others too. Mission and martyrdom go hand in hand; discipleship and death. What God has joined together let no man put asunder. Herod violated his conscience and killed the word of God that came to him. His conscience was still in slave to his sin.

4. KING HEROD HAD A CONSCIENCE THAT REFUSED TO BE SILENT.

In a m onth or two Herod’s spies came to him again and told him about another preacher in Galilee named Jesus from Nazareth. He was preaching to great crowds, as John the Baptist used to, and some of John’s old disciples were now following him. There was a great debate going on in the country and it spilled over into the palace. Who was this Jesus? “Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist had 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!'” (vv. 14-16). Did he get nightmares of the head on the platter dripping blood? John haunted his dreams and when he had nothing to think about his mind was always drawn to that whole incident. So when the stories of what Christ was doing were brought to him Herod could only think in one way: “John’s come back.”

John had done no miracles at all, but Herod thought, if a man has been killed and then comes back from the grave he surely must have enormously enhanced powers. That would explain the raising of Jairus’ daughter and all those healings. “It’s not Jesus. It’s John, back again,” said Herod, “and I beheaded him.” The word ‘I’ is emphatic in the original. “I am the one: I did it.” Those are his exact words, as guilty as if he had been the king’s executioner unlocking the door and going up to John with his axe and hacking off his head in that appalling crime. When these stories of Jesus activities reached the palace and Herod ‘knew’ that it was John redivivus did he go straight to his wife and say to her, “You see, you didn’t ‘deal with him’, after all you’ve said. He’s back, and he is still saying those same things, and thousands are listening to him. Why did I ever listen to you?” A marriage conceived in infatuation was cracking through hatred. There was the same threat from God hanging over their life together. They couldn’t go to God and say, “Lord bless our marriage,” because he had stolen her from his brother. It was an unblessed union, and every argument and every reference to the Lord Jesus instead of being an encouragement to him, rubbed his conscience a bit more raw.

Herod has to think about Jesus, like every man and woman. Who is Jesus Christ? Who is the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount? Who is the man who spoke and the winds and waves obeyed him? Who is the man who is completely without sin? Who is the man who healed every single person who came to him? Who is the man who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life, and that no man comes to the Father except by him? Who is the man who on the third day rose from the dead and appeared for forty days to his disciples? More than a holy man. More than a teacher. More than an inspirational example. More than a miracle worker. Utterly unique. Once each week the wheels of commerce stop turning, and multitudes from every race in every part of the world go to their worshipping assemblies and bow before him. Though almost two thousand years have gone by since Jesus was preaching in Galilee yet his influence is immensely greater today than then. Herod could not silence his message, and the grave could not hold him.

In Jesus the resurrection power of God is indeed at work, not because he is John back from the dead, but because he is the one who is more powerful than the grave. Death does not have the last word: Jesus Christ has it. The mighty works he was doing in Galilee, defying the domain of demons, disease, darkness and damnation and dismantling it, all demonstrated his divinity. One day there would be a climax; the one who will rise from the grave never to die again will also return again in power and glory. Let suffering Christians take comfort. The God who called and equipped John and Jesus, who confronted Herod and all other godless men, is the God who is in charge today. Such men may look at the Bible and Jesus Christ and come to all the wrong conclusions, but God knows the truth. He will vindicate his people and reward those who live and die for him. Nothing can separate them from his love.

5. KING HEROD HAD A CONSCIENCE THAT WOULD NOT BOW TO CHRIST.

Let us go on a year or two. It is the Passover in Jerusalem and there has been great excitement about Jesus of Nazareth entering the city sitting on a donkey. Thousands greeted him, tearing down palm branches and shouting Hallelujah. But soon he was betrayed by one of his followers and arrested. The Jewish Sanhedrin found him guilty of blasphemy and passed a sentence of death asking Pilate, the Roman Governor, to crucify him. Pilate doesn’t know what to do. He can’t find much wrong with the man, and so he sends him on to Herod. They meet finally, face to face, the Lord Jesus and Herod. You know what happened: “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies” (Lk. 23:8-12).

This is a hardened man. This man had once gone down the stone stairs into the dungeons to ask questions about the coming King. Now here was that King, and he had a personal audience with him. If you should meet Jesus Christ what would you ask him? Most of us have questions about the way providence has affected us, why we lost the loveliest and the best. One day he is going to answer us, and we will be satisfied for ever. Others of you think you would say, “My Lord and my God! Become my Saviour! Answer for me O Lord!” But Jesus is here, and you can say that to him now.

What did Herod say to Jesus? “Perform a miracle! Turn a rod into a serpent. Make a hammer head float. Change a stone into a loaf of bread.” There would be instant fame and recognition. Herod would spare his life and keep Jesus as the court magician. He’d have a pension, and they could discuss theology now and then. There was no conscience there. But Jesus didn’t open his mouth. Herod interrogated him, but our Lord was silent before the royal cross-examination. The King had come into the world to become the Lamb of God, just as John had long before prophesied. Nothing was going to deflect him from that. Herod stood face-to-face before Christ, but Jehovah Tsidkenu meant nothing to him. What great grace he was being shown, and yet he was utterly blind to it. You say, “If I could see Jesus I would believe.” Herod saw him but he didn’t believe. Consider this grace. Here was the King of Kings who once sat on a glorious throne and faced innumerable ranks of angels stretching out as far as the eye could see. Their delight was to do his bidding. He was now standing at the foot of Herod’s throne, but God had not sent his Son into the world to condemn the world but that it might be saved through him. This was still a day of grace for Herod and his wife Herodias. Their sins were scarlet, but if they had said to him at that moment, “We are so sorry. We have made a mess of our lives and hated you and your servants the prophets. Please forgive us and show us mercy,” then total forgiveness and a free justification would be theirs. Let Herod ask Jesus the questions he had asked his servant John. Every answer would have been infallible.

But Herod showed himself. What did he do to Jesus Christ the Lord? He “ridiculed and mocked him” (Lk. 23:11). He dressed him in a costume – like an actor – and sent him back to Pilate. Herod had begun by rejecting the preaching of John. He ended by ridiculing the one John declared would baptize men with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In the end God had no more to say to Herod. As Sinclair Ferguson says, “Unless we silence sin, sin will silence our consciences. Unless we heed God’s word, the day may come when we despise God’s Son – and then God will have nothing more to say to us” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let’s Study Mark,” Banner of Truth, 1999, Edinburgh, p.90). Wouldn’t that be a fearful state to be in, whenever you went to church that the preaching never speaks to you? “I have spoken to you so often in the past, and you never listened to me, so now I have nothing more to say to you” says the Lord.

What about peace with God? Herod never got it. What about a good conscience? He never got it. What about forgiveness and eternal life? He never got that either. Did he get the whole world and lose his soul? He certainly lost his soul, but he didn’t even get Galilee. He lost everything in the end. What happened was this: in the year 37 Herod’s nephew Agrippa the tetrarch, son of Aristobulus his half-brother, was actually made King officially by the Emperor Caligula of his small territory. Herod was green with envy and deeply distressed; Agrippa was someone Herod had assisted after he had been banished. So Herodias urged Herod, “Go for it: ask the Emperor if he will upgrade your title from tetrarch to king.” Herod had been a loyal servant of Rome and tetrarch for decades. But when Caligula heard the request he was not pleased, in fact he was outraged. It was in the year 39 that Herod and Herodias had made the journey to Rome to meet the Emperor, but Caligula frowned and told them, “You are not to go back to Galilee. I am banishing you to Spain as plotters, and you will remain there until you die.” Off they went, utterly inconsolably. She had left her first husband thinking she would be queen with her second husband. She ended up in Spain, never to return. The news was later brought to them there that nephew Agrippa had been given Herod’s territories and been appointed by the Emperor the King of Galilee and Peraea. Herod lost his soul, but Herod lost the world too. Don’t we see that all around us? Men have sacrificed everything for mammon, but they’ve also failed there. They have lost their souls, and lost the world too.

What a cautionary history is the life and death of Herod. What is going to be your future? Will you listen to your conscience, and heed the word of God? Or will you do it your way, and lose everything?

7th September 2003 GEOFF THOMAS