Story 95: Death Be Not Proud: Losing John the Baptist

Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9

The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

It was at about that time when Herod the Tetrach heard about all the things that were happening with Jesus. As the Lord and His disciples journeyed around the countryside, new stories emerged about people being freed from illnesses and disabilities and demonic oppression. Christ had become a national phenomenon, and everyone was talking about it. It had finally reached the halls of Herod’s palace. He heard that many were claiming that the Lord was really John the Baptist raised from the dead. Others said he was the prophet Elijah or one of the prophets of old. Herod heard these rumors and wondered. And he had good reason to. For you see, something terrible had happened to John the Baptist, and Herod was the one who had ordered it. John the Baptist had been beheaded. Now everyone was saying he had risen from the dead, and that he could work miraculous powers.

But let’s go back in the story a bit and learn what happened to John. Herod had John arrested and bound him in chains. He put John in prison to to please Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. Herod had taken Philip’s wife as his own and married her, and John the Baptist had denounced the union. He said it went against the laws of God…and it did.

Taking on a king in those days was dangerous business.  King Herod had the power to perpetrate great harm against anyone who displeased him.  Denouncing him was brave.  John could have kept quiet.  He could have let it go and simply whispered about it to his disciples.  But John was a prophet, and it was his role to speak the message of God with boldness, regardless of the cost.  Apparently John was one of the few who did speak up… if his was one voice among many, it is hard to imagine that he would be targeted for prison…and death.

Because of pressure from his wife, King Herod considered having John the Baptist killed, but he was afraid to.   John was popular with the people, and Herod thought they might rise up against him if he killed the man they thought was a prophet. But even more than that, Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man. He enjoyed listening to John’s preaching, though it confused him. King Herod was a conflicted man, indeed. He could have stood up to his wife and refused to imprison a prophet.  He could have repented of his sin and made things right.  He could have sought the wisdom of John the Baptist about what to do.  But he didn’t.  Instead, Herod put John in prison.  And his wife did not forget that.

Then her chance came.  There came a day of great feasting. It was King Herod’s birthday, and the lords and commanders and leading men of Galilee were all invited to a great banquet. At the celebration, the daughter of Herodias came out and did a dance for all of Herod’s guests. They were greatly pleased with her, so much so that Herod offered to give her a very lavish gift. In front of all his visitors, Herod told the girl that she could ask for anything she wanted, and he would give up to half his kingdom.

Herodias’ daughter went to her mother to find out what she should ask for. Her mother replied, “‘The head of John the Baptist.’” It was not enough that John was in prison for speaking the truth about this woman’s revolting behavior. She wanted him dead.

The girl went rushing back to Herod to make her request. Imagine this beautiful young girl running up to the grand king in the middle of his feast asking for such a gruesome gift. He had made his promise in front of the most important men in his realm. There was no way he could say no. She approached the King and said, “‘Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.’”

Can you imagine the face of Herod when he heard her request? Can you see how wicked the court of Herod was that she could ask for this wicked thing without feeling ashamed? King Herod was deeply saddened to take John’s life, but he had made his oath in front of his guests. Instead of being ashamed about making foolish promises to a misguided child, Herod was ashamed to confess his mistake. Instead of correcting it, he made it even worse. He sent word to the executioner to have John beheaded. John’s head was cut off in the prison and brought back to the palace. It was put on a platter and given to the girl. She took the head of the great prophet to her mother.

John’s disciples came to get the body and buried it in a tomb. Then they went to tell Jesus about their terrible loss.  Imagine the feeling of defeat as they went.  From a human perspective, it looked a lot like the bad guys were winning.  Herod was sitting in the midst of all the wealth and celebration a person could hope for, living with the woman he wanted, flaunting his step-daughter, enjoying his power.  Yet the man who honored God with utter faithfulness was dead.  From the place John’s disciples were standing on earth, they must have been tempted to question the ways of God.  Surely it was right to mourn, and surely they were comforted.

But what if we had a vision of what happened from the side of Heaven?  We don’t know exactly how it works when we die.  Jesus told the man on the cross next to him that they would be in paradise that very day together.  The Book of Revelation tells us that the martyrs cry out to God for justice in His Throne Room…and the Lord hears them and is patiently waiting to give it to them in fullness.  Somehow there will be a day when we join Christ and we will receive the glorified bodies of everlasting life, but it seems that there is a special situation in the era we are in right now…a time of the now and not yet, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit for salvation when we die…Paul called it going to sleep…but we will not quite be what we are going to become.  Whatever state we go to, the amazing thing is that all those who put their faith in Jesus are done with the burdens of this life.  John the Baptist was no longer alive to the people of this world, but he was alive to God…he went home.  It was a far better place than prison or anywhere else he could be.  As the Apostle Paul said, “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”  When we take on a heavenly perspective, we gain the freedom that we see in Paul and John the Baptist…the wild freedom to love God radically in this life and to serve Him regardless of the cost.


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