14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. – Mark 6:14-29 ESV
Right in the middle of his recounting of Jesus’ commissioning and sending of the 12 disciples on their first official missionary journey, Mark decides to insert the story of the death of John the Baptist. At first glance, his placement of this event at this particular part of his gospel narrative seems rather odd and out of place. But it provides an important insight into the overall atmosphere surrounding Jesus and His ministry.
Jesus had warned His 12 disciples that they would encounter a wide range of reactions as they preached and performed miracles throughout Galilee. Some would gladly receive them, while others would refuse to have anything to do with them. While the reputation of Jesus had spread throughout the region, there was still a great deal of confusion and even conflict over His identity. Some believed Him to be their long-anticipated Messiah. Others concluded that He must be a prophet sent by God, with some declaring that He was actually Elijah. According to the book of 2 Kings, Elijah did not die but was taken up to heaven by God (2 Kings 2:11-12). So, some assumed that Elijah had simply reappeared on earth.
Then there was the rumor that Jesus was actually the resurrected John the Baptist. And this is why Mark chose to insert the story of John’s death at this point in his narrative. In order for the rumor regarding John’s return to make sense, Mark had to explain how John had died. Mark’s last mention of John the Baptist was all the way back in chapter 1.
John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Mark 1:4-5 ESV
In that same chapter, Mark recounts how John baptized Jesus, but then he never mentions him again until this point. The apostle John revealed that John the Baptist knew his ministry and mission were short-term in nature. He had been given the divine privilege to announce the coming of the Messiah. But once Jesus appeared on the scene, John the Baptist knew his job was done. He even rejoiced in the diminishing nature of his role.
“I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:29-30 NLT
But John the Baptist didn’t just hang up his camel-hair coat and retire. He was decommissioned by God. And Mark provides the details concerning his fate. In order for Mark to explain why people assumed that Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead, he had to reveal how Mark died in the first place. And as the story makes clear, John’s death was tragic and unexpected.
It’s at this point that Mark introduces us to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch over Galilee and Perea. Herod was the Roman-appointed ruler over these northern regions of Israel. Mark refers to Herod as a king, which was not uncommon in that day. But Herod was not a descendant of David and was not recognized by most Jews as the official king of Israel. He was little more than a puppet king, who served at the discretion of Caesar. And this pseudo-sovereign will end up playing a significant role in the life of Jesus as the story unfolds.
Herod was a particularly wicked man who coveted power and would do anything to solidify and maintain his lofty position. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled over Israel when Jesus was born. At the death of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas and his brother, Philip, were appointed by the Romans to rule over a portion of their father’s former lands. In a sense, these two brothers became competitors, with each vying for the favor of Caesar and hoping to expand and solidify their power and influence. The Jewish historian, Josephus records how Herod Antipas fell in love with his brother’s wife, Herodias. He ended up divorcing his own wife and convinced Herodias to leave Philip and marry him instead. This kind of behavior by a “king” of Israel was unacceptable and John the Baptist had publicly called out Herod for this and other indiscretions.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT
John the Baptist had publicly accused Herod of violating God’s laws concerning divorce and remarriage.
“It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” – Matthew 14:4 NLT
But his outspoken criticism of this powerful man resulted in his imprisonment. Herod had heard enough from John and decided to have him silenced by locking him away.
And we know from Matthew’s gospel, that this turn of events left John confused and questioning the very nature of Jesus’ identity. He began to have second thoughts about whether Jesus was who he had thought Him to be. He even sent some of his disciples for clarification.
John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NLT
John had fully believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. But his sudden and unexpected imprisonment seems to have caught him off guard. Perhaps John did not think things were supposed to end this way. If Jesus was the King of Israel, would He not defeat the Romans and remove Herod from power? John was having a difficult time reconciling his imprisonment with his belief that Jesus was the anointed one of God. But all of this was part of God’s sovereign plan. In His wisdom and according to His providential will, God had orchestrated all the events surrounding John’s life. Without realizing it, John was living out his very statement, “I must become less and less.” Little did John know that he would end up sacrificing his own life so there would be no chance of his ministry distracting from that of Jesus. His role had been that of a herald, declaring the news of the Messiah’s arrival. But now that Jesus was here, John’s job was complete and God was going to call him home.
John’s death reveals volumes about the decadence and immoral nature of Herod and his stolen wife. This woman was furious with John over his humiliating comments about her and she longed to see him dead. And when she discovered that her husband had imprisoned John, she began to scheme how she might take advantage of the situation and ensure that John never left the prison alive. Her chance came when Herod threw himself a lavish birthday party to which he invited “his court officials, military commanders, and leaders of Galilee” (Mark 6:21 NLT). Part of the night’s entertainment was a dance performed by his own step-daughter, Salome. It seems likely that this young girl was put up to this by her mother. It was all part of a carefully orchestrated plot to do away with John the Baptist. Pleased by Salome’s dancing, Herod offered her a reward,
“Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” He swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” – Mark 6:22-23 NLT
When Salome asked her mother for advice, she was told to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herodias saw her opportunity to seek revenge and took full advantage of it. She knew that Herod would have to keep his word, having made his brash and unwise offer in the hearing of all his guests. And, reluctantly, Herod gave in to Salome’s strange request. He immediately ordered John’s execution and had his head placed on a platter and presented to his stepdaughter as a reward for her dancing. And ultimately, the gruesome gift made its way to Herodias.
And this brings Mark’s little diversion full circle. The death of John the Baptist must have haunted Herod for some time. Because when he heard all the rumors about Jesus, he began to question whether John had returned from the dead.
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!” – Mark 6:26 NLT
This statement is filled with fear and foreboding. Herod must have had nightmares about what he had done to John. He had ordered the execution of a man who had simply spoken the truth. Herod had been a convert to Judaism and knew that his marriage to Herodias was unlawful. All that John had said had been true. And yet, due to his own pride and arrogance, Herod had made a rash vow and unintentionally sealed the fate of this innocent man. Now, he was having to live with the consequences.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.