The Fourth Sunday of Advent December 23, 2007
1 Timothy 2:1-6
90(1-6), 68, 77(1-3,13-15), 70
Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly. Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee. And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” He also swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” So she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist!” Immediately she came in 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.” And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.
Joy to the World!
Now, sing, we now rejoice!
Let us all with gladsome voice!
One by one almost every Christmas song is about joy, praise, and good things. Our faces often show the emotions we are feeling so it comes as no surprise that when Christmas draws near there are excited and cheerful faces all around.
Since today is just two days before Christmas you may wonder why, rather than hearing words of joy and praise to light up our faces, we have instead heard the gruesome account of John the Baptizer’s death. Just as there is much to learn for our Christmas preparation from John’s life and work, so too there is much to learn from the end of his life and work; and what we learn will actually help us to celebrate Christmas.
There are three main characters surrounding John the Baptist’s death: 1) King Herod, 2) his wife, Herodias, and 3) John. As we peer into these three faces, each one different from the other, there are lessons to be learned from all three. THERE WERE THREE DIFFERENT FACES AT JOHN THE BAPTIST’S DEATH I. Herodias ~ the face of wicked revenge II. Herod ~ the face of foolish weakness and III. John ~ the face of faithful service.
At the time in his Gospel account where Mark records the death of John, John had already been dead for some time. Mark tells us that Jesus’ ministry was growing and that He and His miracles were becoming well-known. When king Herod heard about Jesus he was convinced that Jesus was John raised from the dead. Then Mark uses a “flashback” to catch us up with how it came to be that John was dead. The flashback begins with Herod having John arrested and put into prison. “Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her.” [v.17-18]
Before going any further we should establish just who Herod and Herodias were. Herod is not a personal name. It is a family name for a family of rulers. They were called kings, but they were not really kings. They were rulers given a certain amount of territory and power by the Roman government.
Herod the Great was the Herod who ordered the babies of Bethlehem to be killed after He heard about Jesus’ birth. The Herod and Philip mentioned by Mark were both sons of Herod the Great, but they came from different wives so they were half-brothers. Herodias was the daughter of another son of Herod the Great. Herodias was married to Philip, her uncle, which is clearly forbidden by God in the words of Leviticus: “None of you shall approach anyone who is near of kin to him, to uncover his nakedness; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 18:6). A further sin was committed when Herodias left Philip and married Herod, her half-uncle. Since Herod was also an uncle, the words of Leviticus would apply again. In addition, Herod and Herodias were committing adultery since Herodias was already married to Philip. John spoke against the sin in which Herod and Herodias were living and it comes as no surprise that Herodias did not react favorably to John’s rebuke. “Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod….protected him.” [v.19-20]
Rather than admit her sins and repent of them, Herodias reacted with violent anger and rebellion and held a grudge against John as she looked for ways to kill him. One day, Herodias had her perfect opportunity and she took full advantage of it. “Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.” [v.21] At this feast when Herod promised Herodias’ daughter (a daughter by her first marriage) anything for which she asked, she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” Herodias didn’t once hesitate lest she lose her opportunity. She said, “The head of John the Baptist!”
With one sentence of request Herodias multiplied her sin. The murder in her heart, which was sin already, bore fruit and would be accomplished. Furthermore, Herodias sinned against her daughter by involving her in the same path of wickedness. It is the God-given responsibility of parents to instruct and discipline their children according to God’s Word. They are to instruct them in the paths of righteousness and lead them to their Savior, “You fathers provoke not your children to wrath, but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Jesus spoke against leading a child, or anyone else, into sin when He said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
The daughter of Herodias followed her mother’s request. She was equally as wicked as her mother for she never questioned the request for John’s head but “₀immediately she came in 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.’” [v.25] Not only did the daughter hurry back to make the request, but her request included an immediate execution so that Herod could not procrastinate or back down from his offer. Mother and daughter asked for John’s death and it was done. “Immediately, the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.” [v.27-28]
Looking into the face of Herodias we see striking similarities to Jezebel, a wicked and murderous queen in the Old Testament. Much to our shame we may also find a certain resemblance to our own face at times. I am not suggesting that you have plotted to kill someone, but still we are guilty of the same sins as Herodias. It is the reaction of our sinful nature to rebel and bear a grudge against the exposure and correction of sin. An example, “Who is he to tell me what is right or wrong? I am going to do this my way.” Luther said, “Those who like to hear the truth when it testifies against them are rare birds. On the other hand, [even] sparrows and crows are not as common as the folk who like to have themselves patted on the back” (What Luther Says, #4510).
It is possible for us to suppress and harden our conscience so that we are able, like Herodias, to ignore our sin. The more we expose ourselves to sin—whether it is in literature, radio, TV, or something else—the less it will bring a response from our conscience and the more likely we will be to fall into the same sin.
It is also possible for us, like Herodias, to lead others astray. It is not just parents who are called upon to serve as an example, but all children of God are to be lights of testimony shining in the darkness of the world. “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).
As we look into the face of Herod there are a number of similarities to Herodias. Of course, the sin of adultery was just as much Herod’s as it was Herodias’. Like Herodias’ sin, Herod’s wickedness went further. Luke tells us, “[John rebuked Herod] concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done” (Luke 3:19). Herod was in a position of authority and leadership and as such he should have been a good example for his people. Instead, by his public and open sin, Herod was an evil and misleading example for all.
Herod’s conscience was also pricked by John’s message and he reacted in the same way as Herodias. He too wanted to kill John, but a few things stood in his way. Matthew writes, “And although [Herod] wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet” (Matthew 14:5). John had a big following of people and Herod was afraid that if he killed John the people would revolt against him. Herod also “feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him.” [v.20]
Herod was a superstitious fellow. Herod’s superstition combined with a conscience plagued by John’s murder decided that Jesus had to be John raised from the dead. The same superstition made him afraid to harm John because Herod recognized that John wasn’t an ordinary man. Herod believed that John was a prophet of some sort even if he didn’t like everything that John had to say.
A third reason why Herod protected John was that, even though he hated John’s rebuke, he liked hearing what John had to say and seeing what he did. “And when [Herod] heard him, he did many things, and [he] heard him gladly.” [v.20] Herod was fascinated by John. This is the same Herod who at the time of Jesus’ trial would be anxious to meet Jesus, but was disappointed when Jesus did not perform any miracles and didn’t even say anything. John’s preaching of repentance and the coming Savior kept Herod coming back for more, but when it came down to a choice between wickedness and God’s Word, Herod in foolish weakness chose the wickedness.
Herod’s moment of truth came at the birthday feast which Herod made for himself and all the VIP’s, military leaders, and nobles of Galilee. Often entertainment in those days among the heathen involved a dance, usually suggestive and immoral. It was a special event when Herodias’ own daughter came and danced for Herod and his guests. “And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’” [v.23].
Taken up with the celebration and the daughter’s dance, Herod made the foolish promise of granting whatever she might want. Herod offered to pay a high price for the self indulging pleasure which he had derived. To emphasize his promise he took an oath—he invoked God as his witness—that he would give up to half his kingdom and that God would be the one to judge him if Herod did not keep his oath. Such swearing is forbidden by God in the second commandment and Jesus said, “Do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No. For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:34-37).
Swearing is taking an oath which asks God to witness the truth and punish the lie. Swearing in conversation is unnecessary because all of our conversation should be truthful so that when we say yes or no it means yes or no without needing an oath. Swearing in uncertain things is contrary to God’s Word, for if we are uncertain in something we dare not take an oath that God witness the truthfulness of what we are saying. Such was the case with Herod because he had no idea what the daughter’s request would be.
The error of Herod’s oath in uncertain things bore wicked fruits as we know from the girl’s request. Following the request, Herod was “exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner…” [v.26-27]. Herod had apparently repeated his oath for effect and emphasis because Mark refers to his oaths (plural) which he had made. The revelry and frivolity of the feast quickly turned to stunned and sorrowful reality at the girl’s request. The sorrow which Herod felt was deep. The word which Scripture uses to describe his intense sorrow is used in only two other places: 1) the sorrow of the man who loved his wealth more than God when Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor, and 2) when Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane and told His disciples: “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful.”
Herod’s oath foolishly put himself between a rock and hard place—break an oath, or murder John? Even though it meant breaking an oath, Herod should not have killed John. However, because of the peer pressure and wanting to save face among his important guests, Herod caved in and ordered an executioner to go to John. Herod had started to hear John preach God’s Word, but his own foolish weakness led him back to wickedness and killed God’s messenger.
As with Herodias, we shudder to see Herod’s face. Again, we hide our faces in shame as we see similarity. Herod’s foolish weakness is only an example of the same foolish weakness that lurks within us. Peer pressure to conform and the uncomfortable feeling that comes from identifying ourselves with God will work to produce a “lukewarmness” toward God. Lukewarmness is a non-committal, take-it-or-leave-it approach to God and His Word. I’ll take it when it seems best to me and I’ll leave it when it seems best to me. Jesus warned the church in Laodicea: “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16).
The reason we see similarities in our faces to Herodias and Herod is because the mirror of God’s law shows us our sin. No human being can look into that mirror and escape God’s condemnation. Each one of us sins daily and we all deserve eternal damnation for it. We know our faces without the forgiveness and righteousness of Christ. Also knowing that God has given us a Savior is what lights up our faces with joy at Christmas.
The third face we wish to look at is that of John himself. It is a face of bold and faithful service. John was called and sent by God to be the forerunner of the Messiah. John’s message was to expose sin and he preached it to everyone regardless of his position or status. John preached it even to a king who with one command could end his life.
John humbly recognized that He had a purpose but that there was no room for personal pride, nor was he the one to receive glory. John never once claimed to be the Messiah though many thought he was. John pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29). When disciples began to leave John in order to follow Jesus, without jealousy John knew his work was drawing to a close and joyfully said, “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Jesus spoke highly of John and his ministry when He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11).
John’s ministry prepared the hearts of the people for the Gospel news of salvation. John’s ministry was a forerunner to Christ’s own ministry. So too, John’s death was a forerunner to Christ’s own death. John lost his life because of what he preached and for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus also lost His life for the sake of the Gospel, albeit in a different way. Jesus willingly gave Himself into death to accomplish the good news of the Gospel. He died on the cross for the sins of all people and rose again so that there is good news and salvation for sinners.
We can learn much from John: Call a sin a sin. What God condemns is a sin and don’t ignore it or try to cover it up. God’s Word doesn’t change or waffle on the issues. Stand firm and unflinching with that Word. Be faithful in the work which God has given you to do. God gives differing gifts and so He places each one of us in a different calling. Recognize your particular calling and situations in life as opportunities from God to use the gifts He has given you to serve Him and “whether, therefore, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
We can admire John’s faithful service and willingness to follow His Lord even to death. We can admire this in John, but all glory belongs to God. John was a weak sinner like us, but he found his strength and encouragement in the assurance of sins forgiven. John’s faith and perseverance was created by the Gospel and preserved by God to His glory and so it is with us. “For it is God who works in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The three faces at John’s death have helped prepare us for Christmas and Jesus’ second coming.
Filled with sorrow over our sins and seeking God’s strength to persevere and be ready for Christ’s return, we can appreciate with thanksgiving the scene in Bethlehem which we will soon celebrate. So carry with you the image of the three faces and then see the face of the Son of God born to save us and lying in a manger. Then “to Bethlehem hasten with joyful accord; Oh, come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord! (TLH 102:3) Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.