Martyrdom of John the Baptist
July 10th, 1966 @ 7:30 PM
THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-10-66 7:30 p.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. I wish all of you who listen on the radio and who have never been here at this church could see this vast congregation tonight. Outside of a few scattered seats here and there, this auditorium, which is one of the largest church auditoriums in America, is filled to the last row of that second balcony, and this on a July Sunday night.
It’s July something; I don’t know the day, but it’s hot outside. And so many churches go out of business in the summertime. And so many other churches who try to stay in somewhat of a business do not open their doors on Sunday night. This would encourage the heart of any pastor and any disciple of Jesus in the earth. So you who listen on the radio, come and visit us and see for yourself the goodness of God upon this incomparably precious and glorious congregation, the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the evening message entitled The Martyrdom of John the Baptist.
Turn to Matthew 14; Matthew 14, and we shall read the first twelve verses. And you who listen on the radio on WRR, you turn in your Bible and read it out loud with us, the First Gospel, Matthew chapter 14, the first twelve verses. Now everybody reading together:
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus,
And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him.
For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife.
For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her.
And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
But when Herod’s birthday was come, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.
Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she should ask.
And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John the Baptist’s head on a charger.
And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.
And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.
And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
What an abruptness! When Herod heard about Jesus he said abruptly, "This is John the Baptist" [Matthew 14:1-2].
Why, I thought the name of the man had been forgotten. It had been so long ago that he’d been murdered and buried, and yet when Herod hears of the fame of Jesus he says, "This is John the Baptist." Why, there was no marble cenotaph to remind the king of that prophet in the wilderness. There was no headstone of granite raised over his grave. There was no bronze encapitalature on any wall in Antipas’ palace recounting the historical deed. And yet – and yet, though he’d been dead and buried, when Herod heard of the fame of Jesus he said, "This is John the Baptist."
Do you ever wonder? Is there somewhere a recording angel that writes down the evil of our life and the cursed memory is brought before us as long as we live? Is it true to think of the Greek tragedians; there is a nemesis in every life that hounds us to our graves? I think of Cain, who went out from the presence of the Lord to build cities trying to drown the memory of his brother’s blood by masonry [Genesis 4:16-17]. I wonder if he did not see Abel’s blood in every red brick by which he built walls, and houses, and temples, and cities [Genesis 4:8-10]. I wonder when Ahab entered into his beautiful garden of herbs if every red flower that bloomed did not remind him of Naboth’s death [1 Kings 21:5-16].
Do you remember in Shakespeare’s Macbeth? The thane of Scotland cries, "if ’twere done when it’s done." But it is not done. There is a resurrection of deeds as there is a resurrection of body. And the evils of our lives rise out of the grave and shaking their gory locks say we, did them. So Herod – when he heard the fame of Jesus – said, "This is John the Baptist; he is raised from the dead" [Matthew 14:1].
For the thing that had happened was this – – and one of the most familiar stories in all literature, and if you hadn’t heard of it out of the Bible, if you hadn’t read of it in secular history, you have doubtless seen it portrayed in film after film – – you see, Herodias, one of the daughters of the Herods, had married her uncle. His name was Philip. He was a son of Herod the Great. All of the rest of the sons of Herod inherited kingdoms, but Philip was a private man, and inherited just a fortune, and was living as a private man in the city of Rome. And upon a day, Herod Antipas, the king of Galilee and Perea, made a visit in Rome. And while he was there he was a guest of his brother Philip. The wife of Philip, Herodias, was an ambitious and an unscrupulous woman. And she saw an opportunity to trade a private man – her husband, Philip – for a king, his brother. And she promptly went about encompassing it.
So the plan was made for Herod Antipas to return, and to dismiss his wife, and to do away with her, and to bring to Galilee and to Perea his new wife Herodias. Herod Antipas had married the daughter of the Arabian king Aretus, and news of what had been plotted came to the ears of Herod Antipas’ wife. And the daughter of Aretus, his wife, fled away to her father, and the father declared war against Herod Antipas. And the Arabian king Aretus annihilated the army of Herod Antipas. And had it not been for the intervention of the Roman legions, Herod Antipas would have been slain along with the rest of his forces.
But the iron hand of Rome intervened, and these things came to pass. Herodias divorced her husband Philip and became the paramour and the spouse of Herod Antipas. Upon a day, John the Baptist was preaching at "Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there" [John 3:23]; and the great throngs and multitudes came to hear the Baptist preach and to be baptized in the waters of the Jordan River. And as this fearless ascetic and prophet of God, dressed in camel’s hair, raiment of the wilderness, living on locusts and wild honey [Matthew 3:4] – as that prophet of God stood before those vast multitudes, he openly and fearlessly denounced the king and said, "It is not right for you to have your brother’s wife" [Mark 6:18].
It made the monarch furious. It stung him in his deepest soul. And he took John the Baptist and flung him into the prison house, in a dungeon beneath the castle of Machaerus, a great heavy fortress that his father Herod the Great had built on the eastern side of the Dead Sea to overawe the Arabian tribes. But the one that really hated John was Herodias, and Mark says that Herodias tried to kill the preacher but could not, so she awaited her time and her day [Mark 6:19].
And Herod’s birthday was kept [Matthew 14:6]; and his lords, and his noblemen, and the heads of his army, and of all of the kingdom were there in revelry, and in drinking, and in wine, and in drunkenness. They were celebrating the birthday of the king. And while they were drinking and when they had become drunk why, somebody suggested, "I hear that Herodias has a beautiful and gracious daughter. Her name is Salome, the daughter by Philip, the private man in Rome. Let’s call for Salome, and let her dance before us." And there before that rowdy, orgiastic, drunken revelry this sinuous girl came and danced before the king. And it pleased him [Matthew 14:6].
And the noblemen applauded, and everyone in high authority shouted applause, and approbation, and pleasure as Salome danced before the king. And in the spell of it and in the applause, Herod said, "Anything you ask, even to the half of my kingdom; anything you ask, I will give it to you [Matthew 14:7; Mark 6:22-23]. What would you like?" And her mother, who evidently could intuitively learn what was the situation even before it came to pass – maybe she had a part in the drunkenness, in the planning – before it came to pass, the mother had said to Salome, "If you please him, and before all of those noblemen, if he promises you, ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter." And when the king said with an oath, "Ask, whatsoever ask," she, being before instructed by her mother, said, "Bring me the head of the Baptist preacher upon a charger," upon a platter [Matthew 14:8].
Somebody has written in the years of the long ago this doggerel:
She danced for the king,
The dear little thing,
With bare neck and arms
And all her soft charms,
She pleased the great king,
The cute little thing.
There were ladies fine,
Noblemen and wine,
"Whate’er your behest,
I’ll grant the request,"
In haste swore the king
To the sweet little thing.
Her eyes open wide,
She planned on the side,
Mamma in the lead,
On a gift agreed
To ask of the king
For a nice little thing.
"John the Baptist’s head
Now bring me," she said;
She spoke it out loud,
In front of the crowd,
While pale grew the king,
The mean little thing.
The monarch was dazed,
Was shocked and amazed,
His face wore a cloud,
With grief his head bowed;
She had won from the king,
The sly little thing.
The mirth had all died,
What would he decide?
Then slowly he said,
"Bring hither the head
For the oath of a king."
The hard little thing.
["The Dancer," copied from Western Recorder (Kentucky Baptist Convention)]
And dancing, she pleased the king; "nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat around him, he commanded it to be given unto her" [Matthew 14:6, 9].
What a picture! What a picture, and how typical, and true of the whole world. There in the festive hall sits Herod Antipas the king. And there in a dungeon, brooding over the kingdom of God, mourns John the Baptist, the greatest man born of a woman [Matthew 11:11]. And he hears the steps of the executioner. And on a great platter, that usually would be heaped up with fruits, there is brought to Salome and her mother Herodias the head of the Baptist preacher [Matthew 11:10-11].
In reading history, the only other like instance of that, that I have come across, is the wife of Mark Antony. Her name was Fulvia, a Roman lady and one of tremendous abilities and insatiable ambition. Her third husband was Mark Antony. By her second husband she had a daughter who was married to Octavius Caesar Augustus. And in her ambition Fulvia married Mark Antony, her third husband. And Fulvia had an ambition to be the greatest woman in all the Roman kingdom. So she worked and she plotted with strange and unusual cruelty to elevate her husband Mark Antony to the highest throne. And to achieve that, part of it was the marriage of her daughter to Octavius Caesar, the next in line following Julius.
And as she schemed, and as she wrought in cruel and ruthless manner, there was a man in the Roman senate who opposed her designs. He was next to Demosthenes, the most eloquent man who ever lived. His name was Cicero. And in one great syllabic after another, after another, after another, Cicero stood in the Roman Senate and denounced Fulvia, and denounced Mark Antony, and denounced the seizure of tyrannical power. He was seeking to build up the republic of Rome, and Fulvia hated him, and conspired to destroy him. And finally, through the troops and the horses of Mark Antony, slew Cicero and had his head brought to her on a charger, on a platter. And Fulvia took her pen knife and took the tongue of Cicero, whose eloquence she could not answer, and cut it, and cut it, and cut it. Herodias and Salome with the head of the Baptist preacher on a charger [Matthew 14:10-11]; oh the violence and the personal ambition that lies back of so much of the blood and the misery in this world!
What a sad, and tragic, and dark day! And the disciples of John came and found his body flung out on some ash heap somewhere, unburied, to rot. And they tenderly, and lovingly, and prayerfully picked up the bleeding torso. And in someplace known but to God they laid it away and buried it in the ground [Matthew 14:12; Mark 6:29]. You know, if I might parenthesize here: the day will come, as it did to Abraham, however you may love somebody, the day will come when you will cry, "Give me a burying place, that I may hide my dead out of my sight" [Genesis 23:4]. The sad and tragic travail of Abraham over Sarah, the love of his life, "that I may bury my dead out of my sight." And the disciples came and picked up the broken, bleeding, headless body of the great Baptist preacher and buried it out of sight. But the sentence continues in one of the sweetest words to be found in the Bible, "and they went and told Jesus." "And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus" [Matthew 14:12].
One of the things that as a boy I never forgot: I was in the home of my aunt and uncle. I was a little fellow, just a little boy, and while I was there the son-in-law in the home received a telegram. Oh, in those days and so far away as I lived, a telegram, a yellow envelope was a remarkable providence! And there came to the home a messenger with a telegram, and addressed to that young man. He took it out of the hands of the messenger having signed for it, and opened it, and read it, and burst into tears. He went to my aunt and uncle and showed them the message. His preacher father had suddenly died. And he turned and went into a room. And it was separated from the rest of the house with folding doors, with sliding doors. He went in that room and pulled the doors to. And as a little boy in the house I could hear him on the inside of that room down on his face talking to God, telling Jesus. Did you ever do that? I have. I have; telling Jesus. "And they went and told Jesus" [Matthew 14:12].
I must tell Jesus all of my trials;
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress Jesus will help me;
He ever loves and cares for His own.
I must tell Jesus!
I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus!
I must tell Jesus!
Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.
["I Must Tell Jesus," Elisha A. Hoffman]
And if you have burdens to bear, take them to God. Make them a matter of prayer. Go and tell Jesus. It won’t seem half so heavy. The hurt won’t feel half so poignant. The cut will not be half so deep. Just take it to Jesus. And I suppose it was from that sweet little addition that closes the verse that inspired the writing of our invitation hymn tonight, "I Must Tell Jesus."
And while we sing that sweet and precious song, somebody you, give himself to the Lord; come and stand by me. A family you, a couple you, a youth, a child, however God shall say the word and open the door, come, "Pastor, tonight I give my heart in trust to Jesus," or, "Pastor, tonight we’re putting our lives in the fellowship of this dear church." As God shall speak the word to your heart, make it now. In a moment when we stand, stand up coming, "Here I am, pastor, I make it tonight." Do it. Do it. And God strengthen you and bless you in the commitment and in the coming. I’ll look for you here at the front. God speed you and attend your way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. When Herod heard about Jesus – "This is John the Baptist!"
A. He was not forgotten
1. No memorial, no bronze tablet, yet remembered distinctly
B. Is there a recording angel who brings our cursed memory before us?
1. A nemesis in every life that hounds us to our graves?
II. The story of John the Baptist’s death
A. John publicly denounces Herod for marrying his brother’s wife
B. Herod threw him into prison
C. Herodias’ opportunity
1. The dance of her daughter Salome pleased the king
2. Her mother instructed her to ask for the head of John on a platter
a. A like story and character – Fulvia
D. John’s disciples buried his body
1. "They went and told Jesus"