Martydom of John the Baptist
November 25th, 1979 @ 8:15 AM
THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-25-79 8:15 a.m.
It is a gladness for us in the First Baptist Church of Dallas to welcome the uncounted thousands of you who are listening to this service on the two radio stations that carry it. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Martyrdom of John the Baptist.
The reason that I speak of this solemn story is because of the beginning of our week of prayer for foreign missions. And tonight there will be present in this pulpit Webster Carroll, one of God’s gifted and dedicated emissaries, who represented the courts of heaven in Uganda, through all of those bloody and terrible days of Idi Amin. And thinking of the martyrdom of so many of our Christian leaders, and the decimation of our Christian churches, I thought I would speak today – beginning this week of prayer – on the suffering and sacrifice of John the Baptist.
The reading is from the Book of Mark, chapter 6, beginning at verse 14:
And Herod Antipas heard of Him – of Jesus – (for His name was spread abroad:) and he said, John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. . .
For when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John whom I beheaded: he is risen 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.
For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.
Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:
But Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and a holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he was perplexed by him, and heard him gladly.
But when a convenient day was come, that Herod on [his] birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;
And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel – this is Salome – Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.
And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.
And she went forth, and said unto her mother – Herodias –
What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.
And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me. . .in a charger the head of John the Baptist.
Now, 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 immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and the executioner went and beheaded him in the prison,
And brought his head in a charger – a large plate on which the vittles and viands and fruits of the party were placed – brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
And when his disciples heart of it, they came and took up the corpse, and laid it in a tomb.
And Matthew 14:12 adds: ". . . and went and told Jesus."
You cannot read that story without a hurt and pang in your heart. It is that kind of a world we live in, where Herod, drunken, sits on the throne; and John the Baptist, headless, a bleeding corpse, lies in the dungeon. But there is more to be said about it than that. And that occasions the sermon this morning.
Isn’t that a most amazing and astonishing story that we read: the fame of Jesus and the might works that He did spread throughout the land, and Herod abruptly interjects, "This is John the Baptist raised from the dead" [Mark 6:14]. And when there are those prone to argue with him, "No, it may be Elijah, or it may be one of the other prophets" [Mark 6:15], Herod abruptly interjected again, "No, this is John Baptist, raised from the dead" [Mark 6:16].
Nobody said anything about John the Baptist. He had been dead and buried. And we suppose that his name had been forgotten. There were no marble monuments above his headless corpse. There were no bronze memorials on the walls of the palaces of Herod to remind us of that prophet who had been murdered.
How is it that Herod immediately and abruptly interjects, "This is John the Baptist raised from the dead"? Is there some kind of a recording angel? Are there invisible presences that dog our steps all the days of our lives and bring to our minds the accursed memory of what we have done? Is it true, the constant and unvarying theme of the Greek tragedians: there is a nemesis that hounds us to our graves, reminding us of the evil and wrong in our lives? Is that true?
Cain, who has slain his brother Abel [Genesis 4:8], will drown the memory of that murderous moment in building great cities. That’s what the Bible says. But every foundation that he lays, the face of his brother Abel looks at him from the ground. And when he assays to build them high, thus to forget the face of his brother that looks at him from the ground – even up there, the topmost border is encrimsoned and incarnadined with his own brother’s blood.
Ahab, in his luxurious garden of herbs, will forget the murder of Naboth [1 Kings 21:1-16], whose blood the ground drank up where the beautiful herbs now grow. But every red flower in the garden reminds him of that monstrous and evil deed.
I don’t think there is a more poignant passage in Macbeth than when he turns over in his heart what it means, the murder of his friend and king of Scotland. Macbeth cries, "If ’twere done when ’tis done. . . ." But it is not done! There is a resurrection of deeds as well as of bodies. And our buried badnesses confront us again, shaking their gory locks at us, and saying, "You did it!" Isn’t that a remarkable thing? Abruptly, Herod said, "This is John the Baptist" [Mark 6:14, 16]. And we thought that he had been dead and buried and forgotten.
What had happened was this, both reading in Josephus and in the Bible: Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was a tetrarch. They called him a king of Galilee and Perea, the territory on the east side of the Jordan River: Galilee to the north, and Perea to the east. And he went to live for a while in Rome and lived in the home of his brother – his half-brother – his brother.
His brother had married Herodias, who was his half-sister. And while Herod the tetrarch – Herod Antipas – was in Rome, living in the home of his brother Philip, who was a private man – Herodias, the wife of Philip, the private man in Rome, saw an opportunity to exchange her private husband for a king. So she plotted the marriage, divorcing her husband and marrying Herod Antipas. Now Herod Antipas had already had a wife. He was married to the daughter of Aretas, the king of Arabia.
But the daughter of Aretas found out about the plot. And she escaped to her father in Arabia; whereupon Aretas, the king of the Arabians, declared war against Herod Antipas and annihilated his army. Had it not been for the Roman legions, Palestine would have fallen in to the hands of the Arabians. But Herod Antipas had escaped, and his kingdom restored to him by the Roman legions. You can see why Herod and Herodias were very sensitive about this plot; whereby, she exchanged Philip the private man for Herod the king.
That’s why, when John the Baptist was preaching at Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there so he could baptize his converts [John 3:23]; and the multitudes came and listened to John from all over the Holy Land, they were there by the thousands and the thousands. John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas and Herodias for that monstrous evil of her plan and plot to trade Philip for his brother that she might be a queen.
So Herodias egged on and encouraged on Herod, until he arrested John the Baptist – I suppose for treason, for insulting the king – and placed him in Machaerus, which his father had built, a big fortress and castle on the east side of the Dead Sea.
Now Herodias, this evil and conniving Jezebel, waited and bided her time. She wanted John the Baptist slain. She encompassed his imprisonment; but she was not able to bring to pass his murder. But she waited, and the day came. Herod,in that palace of Machaerus, in that fortress of Machaerus, is having a sumptuous banquet, a stag party. And they’re all there; it says they were there, all of the men of Galilee and all of his high captains, and all of his lords and noblemen. They are celebrating the birthday of Herod Antipas.
And while they are there and now drunk, stags as they are: "Let’s have some luscious and lustful entertainment." And Herodias, watching it, sends in her daughter, Salome. And bare and sinuous, she dances carnally before the king and all his lords. And drunken and filled with all of those lustful passions that sinuous dancing creates in an evil heart, why, the king says to Salome, the daughter of Herodias by Philip in Rome – he says to her, "You ask what you please. I give it to you" [Mark 6:22].
When she demurred, he said, "To the half of my kingdom, what do you want?" [Mark 6:23]. The girl, not knowing what to say, went to her mother. And her mother immediately replied, "Ask him for the head of John the Baptist" [Mark 6:24].
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)]
So we’re going to look for a moment at those two. In the castle – in the fortress, in the palace of Machaerus – and the king on his throne, drunken, and enflamed in passion by the carnal and sensuous dancing of Salome, Herodias’ daughter: he’s up there, and down there in the dungeon, imprisoned, is John the Baptist, God’s great preacher. Jesus Himself said, "Of those born of women, there is not a greater than John the Baptist" [Matthew 11:11].
And, there, behind iron bars and stone walls and in a damp dungeon, is God’s emissary, the great announcer of the coming of the kingdom of heaven [Matthew 3:1-2]. And he broods: "Where is the kingdom? Where is the coming great intervention of God from heaven? Where is the King and the kingdom?" He sent two of his disciples to the Lord Jesus [Matthew 11:2-3]. We say he doubted? Why, the Lord, Himself, said: "What went ye out for to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What went ye out for to see? a man clothed in scarlet, in dainty life, who was afraid to face the harsh realities of his existence? What went ye out to see?" [Matthew 11:7-8]. And yet we say, "Down there in the prison, he’s doubting because he is incarcerated." How we can misunderstand the Word of God!
What happened was, brooding down there in that dungeon he couldn’t understand the great announcement God had sent him to make! The Lord sent him to announce the coming of the great King, Jesus of Nazareth [Luke 1:76]. And he saw in the Lord Jesus, the suffering Lamb of God [John 1:29]. But where is the King who lays the ax at the foot of the tree and who brings in righteous judgment? [Luke 3:9]. Where is He?
So, John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, "Are You both of them, the suffering Lamb of God, and also the great coming, reigning King? Or, are there two? You are one, and we’re to look for another" [Matthew 11:2-3]. That’s what John wanted to know. And sometimes we also want to know: "Lord, where is the kingdom? And where is the reigning King?"
We see and we understand the love of God in Christ Jesus, and His atoning mercy and goodnesses: preaching the gospel to the poor, healing the sick, guiding us in the humble paths of righteousness. "But where is the judgment of God and the kingdom – where?" That’s what John asked in the prison. He couldn’t understand. Always, in the Old Testament those two go together – and sometimes in the same breath.
The prophets, who also could not understand, in one sentence will announce the coming of the Suffering Servant, by whose stripes we are healed, and in the same sentence – and in the next breath will announce the glory of the coming King [Isaiah 52:13-15; 53:1-12]. They couldn’t understand.
And John belonged to the Old Testament prophets; and he couldn’t understand. And he sent word to Jesus: "Lord, we don’t understand. Are there two Messiahs, two Christs coming: One to die as the Lamb of God for our sins, and another to come and reign in glory and power?" And while he is pondering that prophecy and promise of the Lord, the executioner’s steps are heard at the iron door. His head is severed with a sword and brought on a large platter – on a charger – by Salome to her mother [Mark 6:27-28].
My brethren, if that is all of the story and if that is this world; if there’s not another chapter, and if there is not an intervention from heaven; this world, of all places, is miserable, and hopeless, and forever plunged in impenetrable darkness.
Why, I see on every side wrong reigning, and right trampled into the dust. If I did not see in every newspaper, and in the story of every nation, the fierce triumph of wrong over right, I would be no less perplexed and downcast by the ravages of death in our own lives. "Lord, is this the meaning of life? And is this the purpose and consummation of life, to fall into the grave, and we be food for the worm, and for corruption, and disintegration, and eternal death? Lord, is that the meaning of life, and of creation, and of existence? And is this the kingdom of God?"
My brother, God says there’s another chapter. There’s another story. There is another ending. And it’s not in death. And it’s not in the grave. And it’s not in the triumph of the kingdom of darkness. And it’s not in the forever crowning of Satan and his minions, and the demons and darkness that afflict us in this world. There’s another day. There’s another time. There’s another coming.
And that’s why God’s blessed Book says, "Look up: for your redemption draweth nigh" [Luke 21:28]. My brother, we are no further away from the coming kingdom than the day of our death and dissolution. It is that close to me. It is that close to us. Time is a creation. There’s not any time in that world that is yet to come, and when I enter it, as did John the Baptist, I am there! "Look up; your redemption draweth nigh."
And the living Lord in the Revelation said: "Behold, I come quickly: and My reward is with Me to give every man as his work shall be" [Revelation 22:12]. And, when John saw Him, He was robed in the raiment of a king. He was crowned with a crown of a king [Revelation 14:14]. And His very name is the "King of all the Kings," and the "Lord of all the Lords" [Revelation 19:16]. That’s God’s purpose in the earth! And John the Baptist awaits that time as we await that day: for the fullness of the coming of the Lord, when His presence shall be seen [Revelation 19:12], and we shall bow down and worship before Him, look on His face and live, translated, immortalized, in a moment, in a twinkling of an eye [1 Corinthians 15:51-52].
No wonder Paul calls that the blessed hope! [Titus 2:13]. There’s not any beside. Our one hope lies in Jesus, our Lord – our coming and reigning King. So the disciples tenderly lift up his headless corpse, bury it in tomb [Mark 6:29]. And then they went and told Jesus [Matthew 14:12].
When I was a boy, we sang so often in the church:
I must tell Jesus. I must tell Jesus.
I cannot bear these sorrows alone.
I must tell Jesus. I must tell Jesus.
Jesus can help me. Jesus alone.
["I Must Tell Jesus," Elisha Hoffman]
And along our pilgrim way, in every dark trial, and in every inexplicable sorrow, He will be by your side, Jesus, our Savior now, and our reigning King on the morrow. Now may we stand together?
Our Lord in heaven, we only wish we had the eloquence and the power to present the glorious hope of this message more wonderfully, beautifully, preciously, adorningly, worshipfully; what Jesus means to us. When we bury our beloved dead, it is into Thy care and keeping we commit their bodies and their spirits. And when we look forward to the day of our own dissolution, we look forward to the triumph of the kingdom of heaven, when the trumpet shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall be raised incorruptible, and we, we shall all be changed [1 Corinthians 15:52]. And in that victory, Lord, may we lift up our heads; our redemption is so very nigh [Luke 21:28]. And, God, grant to all of us that peace that passeth all understanding [Philippians 4:7] – committing our way, our will, our work, our lives into Thy gracious, loving, and nail-pierced hands.
And in this moment, when all us stand in the presence of God, praying, praying for you to give your heart to that blessed Savior, to join your life with us in the hope that we hold precious in this dear church, in a moment when we sing a song of appeal, come and pilgrimage with us. "Pastor, today I make a decision for God, and here I stand. I’m bringing my whole family." Or, just you and a friend; or just a couple you; or just one somebody you, from the balcony down a stairway, in the press of people on this lower floor, down an aisle, "Here I come, pastor. This is God’s day for me." Do it now, make it now. And our Lord, give them that strength of commitment and decision to make that first step, then may the Holy Spirit guide them in strength the rest of the way; in Thy saving name, amen. Now while we sing, we are looking for you to come. Bless you in the way. Amen.