Our sermon today is about a man of whom Jesus said, “no one born of women is greater than he”….and not just because he was a Baptist!
One of the consequences of reading, teaching, and preaching the whole counsel of God’s Word is that 1) because the Bible is a record of God’s dealings with fallen humanity, the book contains tragic — and sometimes down-right horrendous — evidences of that fallenness and 2) it falls on church leadership to teach the congregation how to navigate and appreciate the difficult passages as much as maybe our favorite ones.
We have come to a point in our Lord’s ministry where he has just sent the Twelve out on their mission to preach repentance, and that preaching was accompanied by many signs and wonders. In fact, by all accounts, they were wildly successful in spreading Jesus’ renown. (Mk. 6:12-13)
Main Point: Despite the efforts of the ungodly, God’s truth remains.
- Despite the misunderstandings of ungodly rulers, God’s truth remains Mark 6:14-17
- Despite the murder of truth-bearers by ungodly rulers, God’s truth remains. Mark 6:17-29
- God’s truth remains because He has disarmed ungodly authorities in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What lays before us is a story within a story. With a superficial reading of the text, you might suspect that the total focus of the account is on John the Baptist, and while John is certainly in view, Jesus is the focus of the passage.
You see, the disciples are doing ministry and Jesus is becoming famous around Galilee. This stir eventually reaches the ears of Herod who misunderstands who Jesus is and thinks that He is the Resurrected Baptizer. The confusion about who our Lord is permeates the Gospel of Mark. Our brother Brad preached an entire sermon on this confusion a few weeks back. Constantly, people are asking, “Who is this that even the wind obeys?” “What is this teaching?” “Where does this power come from?” Total misunderstanding about who Jesus is.
Despite the misunderstandings of ungodly rulers, God’s truth remains.
All evidence points to the fact that this is the first-time Herod is hearing about Jesus, and he has no idea who Jesus is. In fact, Herod’s conscious was haunting him because he had killed John, and he thought that John was coming for him. Throughout Mark, there is a “secret” of sorts. Jesus is doing these miracles, and he is commanding people to not tell anyone about them, which directly leads to this confusion.
“Confusion”: People during this time had political expectations for a Messiah. Just short of 250 years prior to this event, the Hebrews had enough with their Greek rulers violating their religious laws and consciences; so, they revolted and won a short-lived independence. That lost independence was humiliating and reintroduced Gentile control (Roman Empire) over the Judean region. They enjoyed a degree of freedom, which is why Herod is called “king” here, but Israel always held out hope that the Messiah would come and — like before — restore independence through force.Even the disciples, after the resurrection are confused about what kind of king Jesus is. They ask him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus did not want to be seen in this light; for example, in John 6, he flees when he perceives that they want to make Him king. This King is not about establishing a kingdom of the earth. There are people who perceive clearly who Jesus is; and they are the ones who are unattached to the world, and unconcerned with its dealings.
People living around Jesus and his ministry – even his disciples – cannot seem to wrap their mind around precisely who Jesus is — even though there is something magnetic about his name.
My suspicion is that some of you – today – like the idea of Jesus, but cannot answer the question: Who do you say Jesus is?
John the Baptist’s whole life lived to answer the question. If we had only the Gospel of Mark, the only thing that we would know about him was that John is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, that he baptized for repentance, and that he esteemed himself so low that he was not even worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. And, we’d know that he was arrested right around the time that Jesus’s public ministry began.
Apart from Jesus, John the Baptist might be one of the most important individuals in the New Testament. Now, I say this, because John the Baptist fulfills several prophesies in the Old Testament. John is a miraculous baby. In a pattern just like the patriarchs and prophets of old, an old man and old woman are given a miraculous gift: Zachariah and Elizabeth are going to the parents of the child whom the prophet Malachi prophesied would come before the day of the Lord, which is shorthand for the fulfillment of all of God’s promises to visit His people in His righteous judgement and loving-kindness. This baby would grow up to be just like the prophet Elijah — one who would prepare the way for the Lord.
The confusion throughout Mark about Jesus’s identity causes many to make tragic miscalculations. Herod knew that there was something special about John the Baptist. It’s the whole reason he had him bound – akin to what we’d call protective custody (Mark 6:17,20). His conscience has been pricked, and he knows that he killed John the Baptist.
Despite the murder of truth bearers by ungodly rulers, God’s truth remains.
Mark’s whole gospel is written in a way to clue us in on who John the Baptist is, and if we figure out who he is, we can and will recognize who Jesus is: The Holy Spirit through Mark does this by 1) opening up his quoting a passage of Scripture showing us exactly who John is; he is the one who is “preparing the way” 2) describing his clothing; these details aren’t for the tabloids: one who is familiar with the Old Testament will think “Oh man! This guy dresses like Elijah!”
Those clues might jog a reader’s mind of what happened in the life of Elijah that directly relates to our passage today. Elijah is opposed by the king of the day, Ahab, who was led into an immoral marriage with his wife, Jezebel.
Now, if you failed to make that connection: it’s okay. So, did the disciples. As Jesus was telling them about how he would suffer, they ask about Elijah. Jesus tells them that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased (Mark 9:13).
John the Baptist was bound for his own protection. He had preached against the illegitimate marriage and sexual immorality of Herodias. Sound like today? The pattern of the sexually immoral who are in control have the same mode of operation as Herodias: Silence and destroy. Herodias had a grudge against John and wanted him dead. This, again, is why Herod had him put into prison. As we will see shortly, she ended up getting what she wanted, but let’s talk about what she didn’t get: 1) Herodias silencing the prophetic voice against her sin did not rewrite the righteousness of God. 2) Herodias silencing the prophetic voice against her sin did not thwart the sovereign, eternally successful mission of the Son of Man to redeem sinners from their sin and restore what was lost in Eden.
Here is a reality check, perhaps, for some of you. The time is past when anyone can straddle the line on biblical marriage and what it means to be a man or a woman. At some point in the very near future, every single one of us will – as our Lord told us in Matt 10:18 – “be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles.” Those governors and kings might take away your bakeries, your T-shirt printers, your wedding photography business, maybe your church’s tax exemption. Do you know what I say to that? “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8). Brothers and sisters, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt 10:28). Today’s Herodias cannot rewrite the righteousness of God. And, because of the eternally successful mission of the Son of Man, Today’s Herodias can receive wholeness and satisfaction in the person and work of Jesus Christ, but they’ll never know they need it if we do not compassionate shine light into darkness.
In a moment of profound foolishness, Herod makes a rash vow – again, evoking all number of memories of wicked kings in Israel’s history: Jephthah, technically a judge and commander, who vows to give whatever comes through his gate as a burnt offering to the Lord. His daughter walks through the gate. Saul vows to kill any soldier who eats the honey in the forest. His son, Jonathan doesn’t hear it and eats the honey. Luckily, Saul’s soldiers keep him from keeping that vow. Kings that walk-in righteousness do not make such foolish vows! But, Herod is obviously one who does not walk in righteousness, and he follows the pattern of foolish kings before him. He offers Herodias’s daughter up to half of his kingdom. When the daughter consults her mother, Herodias seizes upon this opportunity to have John killed.
Notice how wickedness tends to beget wickedness. Herodias and Herod, upon hearing the preached word of God against their sin, harden their hearts and don’t repent. I’m pleading with you today that when the question is asked of you at the end of my sermon that you do not harden your hearts today. Herodias did not simply smolder against John; she sought his head. If you hear today, who is Christ? Behead your own sin today and go to Christ.
God’s truth remains because He has disarmed ungodly authorities in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Our sermon title today comes from a hymn by our brother Martin Luther: A Might Fortress Is Our God. I chose it for several reasons. This year marks the 500th year anniversary of when Luther wrote his infamous 95 Theses where he desired to reform particular Catholic practices that Luther recognized as problematic, to put it lightly. The firestorm that enveloped Germany was insane. Luther was brought before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles the V, at the Diet of Worms and was asked to recant. He said, “I cannot and will not recant anything.”
From that moment, Luther was a man marked for arrest by the Holy Roman Emperor and the Papacy. Luther always lived under threat, although no harm ever came to him. His life in Saxony was one of teaching, writing, and pastoring. The remainder of his life was spent defending justification by faith alone. He penned the words of this hymn as the plague crept toward Wittenberg and threatened the life of him and his family. It became an anthem for the Protestant Reformation, that, despite the efforts of all who would try to thwart it by killing the Protestants, the gospel of God would prevail. “The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still.”
John the Baptist lived under the threat of death for the time that he was in prison. No doubt that he understood why Herod held him, and he also understood that Herodias could and would likely use any opportunity to kill him. He also suffered greatly before his death.
The tragedy of John’s life is further revealed in his question while in prison. Our brother Matthew tells us about how some of John’s disciples came to Jesus and asked “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). We know John’s question is significant because he has already confessed Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. Yet, John is still in prison. John has read Isaiah, and he knows that when the Christ comes, the prisoners will be set free (Isa 61:1). So, why has he not yet been set free? Jesus responds tenderly to the question, quoting the passage that John potentially was thinking about, but omitting mention of “opening of the prison to those who are bound.”
Are you weighed down? Do you feel heavy-hearted this morning? Jesus knows. He doesn’t rebuke your doubts. He doesn’t rebuke your sadness. More, he invites you to see who He is and what He has done.
This account of John ends rather quietly. John is killed and placed into a tomb by his disciples.
If that was how the life of John ended, what a sad, sad story.
But, it’s not. You see, John is the forerunner of Jesus in every way. In just a few months, Jesus will ask Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” (Mark 8:28). People are still confused. But Jesus asks again, “Peter, who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.”
With those words, death and hell itself shakes. Jesus would be brought before a king and executed and he would be laid in a tomb. John’s death finds no resolution apart from what God did in Christ. Similarly, Jesus, innocent of sin yet handed over to death, like a lamb led to slaughter, is killed. But in that moment, Christ “canceled the record of debt that stood against us…and he disarmed the rules and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col 2:14-15). John the Baptist got his reward. Later, the Apostle John would see “thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also, I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (Rev 20:4–6). This is the inheritance of all who know Christ.
So, I will ask you today, “Who do say that Christ is?” Believer, if you do, remind yourself of the permanence of God’s truth in the face of what sometimes feels deadly aversion.
If you cannot answer that question, I beg you to find the answer to the question “Who do say that Christ is?” Jesus is Lord. Repent and believe on that name, and you will be saved.