Martydom of John the Baptist
November 25th, 1979 @ 10:50 AM
MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-25-79 10:50 a.m.
Because this is the beginning of our week of prayer for foreign missions, and because of the tragic martyrdom of so many of our Christian people in the world today, and because tonight one of our missionaries, Webster Carroll, will be preaching, who lived through the awesome tragedy of the butcher reign of Idi Amin in Uganda, I have turned to Mark chapter 6 to expound the story of the martyrdom, the execution of the great Baptist preacher named John. The reading of the Word is in Mark 6 beginning at verse 14:
And King Herod heard of Jesus; (for His name was spread abroad:) and the king said, That is John the Baptist risen from the dead, therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. Others said, No, that is Elijah. Others said, That is the Prophet promised by Moses, or one of the other prophets. But Herod said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is raised from the dead. For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her. John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife. Therefore Herodias – Herodias Jezebel – had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him, but she could not: Now Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and a holy, and Herod watched him, observed him; and when he heard him,
The King James Textus Receptus said, "he did many things"; the best oldest manuscripts said, "he was perplexed by him," the Greek word actually means "he did not know what to do."
He was perplexed, but he heard him diligently. Now when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, his high captains, and chief estates of Galilee, threw a big stag party; When the daughter of Herod came in, and danced,
this is Salome,
And pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her when she demurred, saying, I tell you, whatsoever thou shalt ask of me I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And the girl was overwhelmed, and she said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And Herodias said, Ask for the head of John the Baptist. And she came and said unto the king, I will that thou give me in a charger –
a large plate on which the fruit and viands of the stag party were shared –
give me on a charger the head of John the Baptist. And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. So the king sent immediately an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded John in prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel brought it to her mother. And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse and laid it in a tomb.
And Matthew 14:12 adds the little clause, "And they went and told Jesus."
This story breaks abruptly into the recounting of the marvelous works and wondrous miracles of our Lord Jesus [Mark 6:30-56]. When Herod heard about it, he interjected the exclamation, "This is John the Baptist! He is risen from the dead" [Mark 6:16]. And those in the court around him said, "It couldn’t be. It must be Elijah that God promised would come. Or it must be the Prophet promised by Moses [Mark 6:15]. Or it must be Jeremiah or one of the other prophets." But Herod vigorously and zealously and vehemently exclaimed, "No! That is John the Baptist, whom I beheaded!" [Mark 6:16]. We thought John the Baptist was dead, and his name had been forgotten!
There were no marble monuments raised over the headless corpse of that preacher to remind Herod of what he’d done! There were no bronze memorial tablets on the walls of Herod’s palace to recount to him the murder of that Baptist preacher! How is it that, immediately, hearing about the mighty works of Jesus, he interjects and abruptly exclaims, "That is John the Baptist! He is raised from the dead?" [Mark 6:16].
Is there some recording angel? Are there invisible presences that dog our steps, that bring to us unwelcomed words and accursed memories? Are there? There is a constant referring, reoccurring theme in all the great Greek tragedians: namely, that there is a nemesis that dogs the steps of those who have perpetrated evil. Is that true? Is there a nemesis that follows us all the days of our lives, never letting us forget the evil that we have done? Is there? What brings this abruptly to the mind of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee and Perea?
In the Bible, Cain murders his brother Abel [Genesis 4:8]. And the Book says Cain went out to build great cities [Genesis 4:17]; the murderer will forget his bloody deed in laying the foundations of great metropolitan areas. But in every foundation that he digs, the face of his slain brother looks at him from the ground! Cain says, "But I’ll build higher and higher, away from the dirt and the ground that drank up my brother’s blood." So he raises his cities to heights and greater heights. But the topmost mortar is incarnadined and incrimsoned with the blood of Abel, a cursed memory!
Ahab enters into the garden of Naboth [1 Kings 21:16], whom he has murdered [1 Kings 21:1-15], where the ground drank up his red rich blood. And in the luxury and ease of his garden of herbs, every red flower reminds him of the man he murdered in order to seize his little vineyard! One of the most poignant passages, I think, in Shakespeare’s tragedy "Macbeth" is this: Macbeth, thinking of the death of his friend and guest, the king of Scotland, cries out and says, "If ’twere done, when ’tis done; but it is not done. There is a resurrection of our deeds as of our bodies, and our buried badnesses confront us again and shake their gory locks at us, saying, You did them!" Human life somehow is bound together with moral judgments!
Thus it was with Herod. "I know who that is. That is John the Baptist raised from the dead" [Mark 6:16]. What had happened was this – we read it in Josephus and then here in the Bible – Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, had a brother, a private man who lived in Rome. Philip, this private man, was married to his niece, Herodias; she was the daughter of Philip’s and Herod Antipas’ brother named Aristobulus. This Herodias was an ambitious woman; she was a veritable Jezebel. And she saw the opportunity in the visiting Herod Antipas to exchange her private husband for a king, which would make her a queen. So she connived and brought it to pass. Now Herod Antipas was already married; he had married the wife of Aretus, the king of the Arabians. When the wife of Herod Antipas heard about the scheme in Galilee, she fled and escaped to her father; and her father, Aretus, the king of the Arabians, declared war against Herod Antipas. And the army of Aretus annihilated the army of Herod Antipas. And had it not been for the intervention of the Roman legions, the Holy Land would have fallen into the hands of the Arabians. But the Roman legions intervened, rescued the kingdom of Herod Antipas and returned it to him. That’s the reason this thing of the marriage of Herod Antipas to Herodias was an extremely sensitive and touchy affair.
Down there at Aenon, because there was much water there, John the Baptist preacher was delivering the message of God and baptizing his converts [John 3:23]. And people came by the thousands from all over the Holy Land to hear that man of God [Matthew 3:3]. And this John the Baptist lifted up his voice against Herod Antipas, and said, "It is not right for you to take your own brother’s wife" [Mark 6:18], which infuriated Herodias! [Mark 6:17; Matthew 14:1-4]. And she moved her husband to cast him into the dungeon at Machaerus, which was a palace and a fort that Herod the Great had built on the east side of the Dead Sea, as a shield against the encroaching Bedouins and Arabians. Herodias bided her time. She would have killed him, but she could not [Mark 6:19]. And the day came, the opportunity opened. Herod Antipas is in Machaerus, that fortress, that palace, and they are celebrating his birthday with a stag party; all of his lords are there, his mighty captains are there, the leaders in Galilee are there, and they’re having a drunken orgy. And while the orgy is going on, Herodias, this vile and wicked Jezebel, sees an opportunity; and she sends in to dance before that drunken crew and crowd her own daughter, Salome. And mostly naked as she was, stripped as she was, and sensuous as she was, she danced before the king. And in their drunkenness and in their lustful carnality, they were caught up in the dancing of that lithe and beautiful girl Salome [Mark 6:21-22].
It was then, as the Bible says, that the king said to her, "Ask, I will give you anything." And when he pressed her, "I will give you the half of my kingdom, ask!" She, not knowing what to do, went to her mother Herodias, and said, "What shall I ask?" And immediately Jezebel Herodias said, "Ask for the head of that hated Baptist preacher!" [Mark 6:22-24].
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)]
That is the world. Herod, on his throne, in a drunken orgy, guided into an oath for the sake of a sensuous and carnal dance; and in the dungeon, incarcerated and imprisoned, John the man of God; that’s the world.
Jesus Himself said of that Baptist preacher, "Of all the men born of women, there is not a greater than he" [Matthew 11:11]. Imprisoned, John broods over the kingdom of God. And he sends two of his disciples to ask the Lord Jesus, "Lord, art Thou the One that is to come, or do we look for some other, another?" [Matthew 11:3].
The Lord Jesus sent back a reassuring word, and He said, "What went ye out for to see in the wilderness? A reed swayed by the wind? What went you out for to see? A man clothed in scarlet and kingly raiment?" [Matthew 11:7-8]. John the Baptist, Jesus is saying, is no reed swayed by the wind, nor do the discomforts, and hardships, and imprisonments, and persecutions of life hurt that stalwart man! He lived his life without luxury and comforts, dressed in a garment of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey! [Matthew 3:4].
Yet interpreters, all of them, reading that passage in the eleventh chapter of Matthew, says, "John is down there in that dungeon doubting!" Doubting, this man of God, doubting? Down there in that dungeon incarcerated in the castle of Machaerus, John was like the Old Testament prophets: he couldn’t understand; he couldn’t understand. So he asked the Lord Jesus that he might understand! [Matthew 11:2-3]. He says to the Lord Jesus, "Lord Jesus, I can see You the promised Messiah, the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world" [John 1:29], that’s the way John framed it: "I can see You as the sacrificial Lamb of God, healing the sick, preaching the gospel to the poor, raising the dead, moved with compassion for the people [Matthew 11:5]. I can see that. But where is the kingdom? Where is that One who is coming who sets the ax at the foot of the tree and cuts down those that are unrighteous and unholy? [Isaiah 53:5]. Where is the King and the kingdom? I don’t understand."
All of the Old Testament prophets were like that. In the same breath they would describe the coming Messiah King as first the One by whose stripes we are healed [Isaiah 53:5], and then in the next verse the great Lord and King of all the earth [Isaiah 54:5], in the same breath. They couldn’t understand; they didn’t see it. And John is an Old Testament prophet and preacher: he didn’t understand; he couldn’t see it.
So he asked the Lord Jesus, "Are there two Messiahs? You, the One by whose stripes we are healed; and do we look for another who is going to be King over all of the earth?" [Matthew 11:2-3]. Brooding over that in that dungeon, he hears the footsteps of the executioner, who with his sword slays God’s preacher, and brings his head on a charger, and lays it in the lap of that sensuous girl, Salome, who brings that bloody spectacle to her mother Herodias[Matthew 14:6-11; Mark 6:21-28].
That is the world. But is there not another chapter? Is there not another verse? Is there not another stanza? Does the Book end like that? Herod Antipas always on the throne, the sensuous there in an orgy sweeping away the whole balance of human righteous equilibrium, and in the dungeon incarcerated and imprisoned God’s suffering and persecuted and hated preacher; is it always like that? No sir.
The Old Testament prophets said, "There’s another day, there’s another chapter, there’s another ending to the story. It doesn’t stop there." And the New Testament apostles, with their Lord Jesus Christ, were witness of the same. It doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t stop in the grave. It doesn’t stop in blood. It doesn’t stop in persecuting and slaughter. It doesn’t stop in carnality and sensuality! There’s another story! And the Book says, "Lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh" [Luke 21:28].
I am as close to that glorious consummation as the day and the hour of my death. In that world, there’s not any time. Time is a creation of God. And when I step into eternity, I step out of time; and I am as close to that great consummation as the day of my death. And for me, it will be just so far. All of us ought to lift up our heads; our redemption draweth nigh. No one of us is any further away from that glorious intervention of God than the day of our death. And it could be before I’m done, it could be before the sun is down, it could be before a midnight or a morning hour. "He which testifieth these things saith, Surely, surely, I come quickly." Amen. "Even so, come, blessed Jesus" [Revelation 22:20]. Right the wrongs of this world! Stand by Thy prophet John the Baptist! Vindicate the preaching of the gospel of Christ in the earth! Lord, Lord, bring the kingdom, visibly, openly, heavenly, triumphantly, victoriously; do it Lord, do it, O God. Make it soon.
That’s the gospel. Not forever Herod on the throne, Jezebel Herodias by his side, Salome dancing in her sensuality, and God’s prophet lying headless, a corpse, in his own blood [Mark 6:21-28]: there’s another day, "Lift up your heads, it is coming soon" [Luke 21:28].
I cannot but remark on that little conclusion that Matthew wrote to the story: "And the disciples, when they buried that body, went and told Jesus" [Matthew 14:12]. Lord, Lord, what a comfort and what a consolation to share with Thee all the sorrows and burdens and tears that we know in this present life. "I must tell Jesus," that’s a song we sang so often when I was a little boy. Maybe the hardships of those people in that long ago day brought to them the meaning and message of that sweet hymn.
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus!
I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In his kind goodness Jesus will help me;
He ever loves and cares for His own.
I must tell Jesus
["I Must Tell Jesus"; Elisha A. Hoffman]
What a friend, what a comforter, what a sympathizer, what an understanding High Priest! [Hebrews 4:14-16]. Waiting for the day when we too shall be changed, raised from the dead [1 Corinthians 15:51-57; 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17], presented faultless and without blemish in the presence of His great glory [Jude 1:24]. Oh, what things God hath prepared for us who love Him [1 Corinthians 2:9].
Now may we stand together? Our Lord, when the day is the darkest, the dawn is the nearest, when the whole world seems to have fallen into impenetrable midnight despair, it is then that the promises of Jesus shine the most precious. And our Lord, all of us are a part of this darkening world. If it isn’t today, it will be tomorrow that tragedy and sorrow overwhelm us. Death draws nigh. Dear God, were it not for our hope in Thee, we would be of all men most miserable [1 Corinthians 15:19]. "But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For as by man came death, so by the second Man comes life and immortality and the kingdom of heaven" [1 Corinthians 15:20-22]. O Thou living Lord, what a strength, and what an encouragement we possess in Thee.
And in this moment when our people silently wait before God in prayer, asking the Lord for you, a family to make a decision for God, a couple to give your heart to Jesus, or just one somebody you, in this quiet moment of intercession make that decision now. "Pastor, we are deciding for God, and here we are." If you’re in the balcony, down a stairway; in the press of people on this lower floor, down an aisle. "Here I come, preacher, here I stand." Take that first step and the Holy Spirit will guide the rest of the way.
So our Master, bless our people as they come, trophies of grace to lay at Thy dear feet. And in Thy saving name, amen. While we wait, while we pray, while we sing, do it now. Make the decision now, and God speed you on the way as you come, 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
III. That is the world
A. Herod on the throne in a drunken orgy
B. John, in the dungeon, brooding over the kingdom of God(Matthew 11:3, 11)
1. He did not understand the Lamb and the King (John 1:29)
a. Old Testament prophets did not understand (Isaiah 53)
2. Jesus sends a reassuring word (Matthew 11:7-8)
C. Herodias, Salome requesting the head of John
D. But there is another chapter
1. It does not stop in blood
2. Our redemption draweth nigh (Luke 21:28, Revelation 22:20)
3. The gospel
IV. The disciples of John
A. Buried John away
C. Hymn, "I Must Tell Jesus"
D. Our hope (Jude 1:24, 1 Corinthians 2:9, 15:20-22)