Let me start today by posing a hypothetical situation to you. If you were able to live a truly exemplary Christian life, a life of ministry, a life of righteousness, a life that pointed people to Christ – if that was something that not only your friends said about you, but also more importantly something that God said about you, how would you expect your life to turn out? Wouldn’t you think that for such a person, there would be the proverbial “showers of blessings?” Wouldn’t you expect at the very least, a long life, all your financial needs met, your health assured, your family’s well being?
I think if you are honest, deep down in your subconscious heart you would expect all those things on the life of someone who was truly a man or woman after God’s own heart. That’s what the majority Christian view teaches, for the most part. That if you live for the Lord, He will bless your life here on earth, and in fact, those blessings will be pressed down, shaken, and running over.
I must confess that there is a part of me still that holds to that view as well. In spite of having experiences to the contrary many times in my life. I think we want to believe that a blessed life is the norm for the Christian life, and though times of tribulation and even distress like that which befell Job, for instance, are sometimes encountered, they are due to extenuating circumstances, and we should not expect that as the normal situation for the Christian.
Well, as a counter point to that subconscious or conscious mindset, I offer you today the example of John the Baptist. I’m sure that most of you are well familiar with his life and need no review. But some review is necessary, if only to illustrate the kind of man that John the Baptist was. Because the end of his life does not bear testimony to the degree with which he was regarded by God.
In fact, leaving aside a lot of the historical details of John’s life, the ultimate testimony as to what kind of man John was is recorded as spoken by Jesus in Matthew 11:11 where He said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist!” There can be no higher accolade given to men that that statement by none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. No one up to that day had been born who was greater than John the Baptist.
Yet, consider how this man died. Alone, after having spent a year and four months in prison according to some commentators. He wasted away all that time in a dungeon, practically forgotten about, finally to be beheaded at the request of a viciously angry woman. Something doesn’t seem fair about that. The very people that he preached against, managed to have him killed. And if some historians are to be believed, his decapitated head served on a charger was treated with public contempt by this same woman.
So how are we to view this man’s life? There is no evidence of sin that he committed which would have brought on such an ignominious end. And we cannot believe that God was so unjust as to forget about the good works that John did while on the earth. So what are we to think in regards to this story? I will confess something to you. I read several sermons in preparing for this message, secretly hoping that I might find a nice, tight little three point outline and a poem that I could borrow which would have answered my own questions regarding this event, as well as solve my dilemma on how to present it. But as I reviewed several messages from my favorite stable of pastors out there whom I like to listen to, I found that they avoided the why, and just expanded on the what. They took the parallel passages in the other gospels and added a lot of historical details and simply retold the story with a lot more in depth material than what Mark gives us. But that approach doesn’t answer my questions. And I think that perhaps it doesn’t answer your questions either.
My purpose then today is not to teach a history lesson, or a geography lesson. If you want that you can find it in most study Bibles. But my purpose is to try to understand the principles of the gospel that Mark is giving us today. Of all people, Mark could easily have embellished the story with a lot of biographical details about the Herods. He could easily have given us more history connected with this event. But Mark, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, gives us this account, in all it’s brevity, for the purpose of teaching us some important lessons – the life principles of the gospel. And so I want to try to examine that aspect today. Though I admit that perhaps I will raise more questions than I will answer.
I would like to build on the questions I started out with concerning our preconceptions about the blessings of God in regards to our lives. There are two men in the Bible that we are told who never died. One was a man named Enoch, who it was said in Genesis 5:24 walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. The other was Elijah, who was taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire, while Elisha was looking on. This is the same Elijah, by the way, that some said had come back to life in the form of Jesus, as we read in vs 15.
So to expand on my earlier question, obviously these two men were special in the sight of God. God enjoyed fellowship with Enoch to such a degree that He took Him to be with Him. How, we do not know. But one minute he was on the earth, and the next God took Him to be with Him. Hebrews 11:5 tells us that ‘By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; AND HE WAS NOT FOUND BECAUSE GOD TOOK HIM UP; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.”
I remember my Dad attempting to dramatize it by saying that Enoch and the Lord used to walk together, perhaps in the cool of the evening as He had done with Adam and Eve before the fall. And one evening, as they were walking and their conversation was particularly engaging, darkness began to fall. And perhaps Enoch said, “Lord, it’s getting late. Martha probably has dinner on the table. I guess I better get back.” And the Lord said, “Enoch, why don’t you come home to dinner with Me tonight. I’ll send word to Martha so she won’t worry.” And so Enoch and the Lord kept on walking and talking and just kind of faded into the evening dusk. And Enoch was not, for the Lord took him.
Now that would be a nice way to go, wouldn’t it? Just be walking with the Lord, and you go around the bend out of sight, still walking and talking with the Lord. And you walk out of this world into the next.
Or how about Elijah? What a triumphal way to end your life. Elijah lived a life with supernatural power. He performed mighty miracles. He was a mighty man of God, and he left this world in a blaze of glory, with the thunder of horses hooves, and the rattle of chariot’s wheels, and a flaming fire enveloping all of it. I can imagine that there was a special angel driving the chariot, and one minute Elijah is standing there talking to Elisha, and the next there is this whirlwind and fire and the chariot appears in a rush, and the strong arm of the angel reaches out and swoops Elijah off his feet into the chariot and they fly away into the clouds, leaving poor old Elisha standing there dumfounded.
Those are great stories. They are true stories. And we are excited at hearing about such things which happened to mighty men of God. But if the truth be known, and the Lord was to say to me or to you today, “You are highly favored among men. You have walked faithfully with Me during your time here on the earth, and come tomorrow at this time, I will come and take you away from this earth to be with Me.” Well, I hate to say it, but I think a lot of us might tell the Lord, “You know, I am flattered that you think so well of me and the ministry that I have done here on the earth, but the truth is I am not really all that anxious to leave right now. I would rather spend a long life here on earth, and enjoy all the blessings that you can give me here on earth with my family and friends. After all, I still have a lot of things I want to do before I leave. Thanks for the offer though.”
That fits better with our paradigm of the Christian life, doesn’t it? That God’s blessings on good people means that we get to enjoy life more abundantly, right here, for many, many years to come. Well, I would suggest that such an attitude reveals much about our commitment to our Christianity and our walk with the Lord. I would suggest that our commitment to the Lord is based more on what He can do for me in the here and now, rather than what kind of benefit I might receive in the hereafter.
So John the Baptist illustrates for us first and foremost the kind of dedication and commitment that pleases the Lord. John’s whole purpose was to introduce people to Jesus Christ. He went about preaching repentance in order to prepare the way for the Lord’s ministry. He said about Christ, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” He had the right perspective about his purpose in life. Jesus was to be lifted up, exalted, and he was to decrease. In other words, he wasn’t interested in Jesus blessing his earthly life, increasing his horizons, building his kingdom. But just the opposite, he was interested in blessing the Lord, increasing the reach of the gospel, building the kingdom of God.
Not only did he have the right perspective, but he gave the right testimony. He was salt and light to the world. Not only did John preach righteousness, but he preached repentance, he preached about sin. In fact, John got pretty personal. In vs.18, John told King Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” That kind of preaching did not go over too well. John called the Pharisees who came to his church service on the beach, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” (Matt.3:7) John was salt and light to a dark and corrupt world. He called sin what it was. He called people who sinned sinners. And he called people to repentance.
Furthermore, John eschewed the benefits of this life in favor of the benefits of the kingdom. John didn’t concern himself with the niceties of this life. He dressed badly. He ate badly. He didn’t live in fancy houses, but he lived in the wilderness. Matt. 3:4 “Now John himself had a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.” He was one of the giants of faith described in Hebrews 11 as one who lived as an exile on earth, who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.”
And ultimately, his life was about showing people Jesus. John 1:29 When he saw Jesus coming to him he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” When that part of his ministry was completed, John soon faded off the stage, and found himself arrested and put in Herod’s dungeon for 16 months. Mark tells us that Herod liked to listen to John preach. I imagine that it’s possible Herod would call him up out of the prison to preach a sermon to him, and maybe have some fun at his expense. He considered John a novelty, sort of entertainment. But in the course of doing so, Herod became convinced of John’s righteousness, and holiness. Maybe it was like the way some of you like watching scary movies, you don’t really believe them, but they scare you and entertain you at the same time. And sometimes, late at night, they cause you to worry that there may be some truth to them after all. Herod may have been like that with John. He found his message disconcerting.
But John’s incarceration raises the question, where is God in all of that? John is a faithful servant of the Lord, and yet he finds himself suffering in prison for months on end, forgotten and forlorn. And so we see in Matthew 11:3 that John sent word by his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” John, though more highly thought of by God than any other man up to this point, has a moment of doubt. He must have been suffering discouragement. He was not having a good day, or week or month, for that matter. Jesus wasn’t doing what John though the Messiah would do. John probably expected Jesus to overthrow the kingdoms of the world and in due time He would set things right with John. He would set him free from the dungeon.
But Jesus doesn’t give him the answer he expects. Jesus just confirms that He is doing the works of God. Jesus said according to Matt. 11:5 “the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM.” I can almost imagine what I would have said at that, if I had been in John’s place. “Well that’s great! If you are doing miracles over there, then how about doing one in here? Get me out of here!” How many of us, reading of the miracles that Jesus performed, do not expect that He should do the same for us? It may be a logical conclusion to the human mind, but it does not always fulfill the purposes of God. The purpose of the gospel is not to make our lives here on earth better, to do away with our suffering, do enable us to live a trial free life, but to give us a sure hope of a better life beyond this world.
So John is left there in the prison, left there to suffer the horrors of life in a dungeon with the rats and bad food, and the indignities of being in chains. But while he is there, I believe John comes to terms with God’s purposes, he is convinced that Jesus is the Christ, and he is satisfied to know that he did his job well, and that the gospel is progressing according to the will of God. So John doesn’t send any more messages. His disciples come less often. And John must have turned his thoughts to going home to be with the Lord. The things of earth became strangely dim, in the light of the glory that awaited him.
Well, not long after that, Herod’s birthday approaches. And as Mark has told us in his gospel Herodias’s daughter comes in to dance before the dignitaries that Herod has assembled for his banquet. And she so pleases Herod by her dance that he offers her anything she might want, even up to half of his kingdom. So this girl goes to her mother, Herodias, and asks her what she should ask for. Mark says that her mother has carried a grudge against John because of his rebuke of her marriage to Herod, and so she asked for John’s head to be brought upon a platter. Vs26 “And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison.”
Here is the part that is so hard for us to understand. Given the exemplary life of John the Baptist, why would God let him die like this? Beheaded at the request of a villainous, sinful queen, a woman who lived in incest, a woman who controlled her weak, evil husband. Why did God allow such a good man to die such an ignoble death, and perhaps an untimely death at the hands of such evil people? After all, John was probably only about 33 years of age at this point. He had only preached about a year and a half. What sense does this make?
Well, the only sense is that John the Baptist walked with God, and he was not, for God took him. Whether God took him by flight into the heavens by means of a chariot, or by freeing his spirit in one fell swoop of the executioner’s sword, the end result is the same. John finished the purpose here on earth that God had given him, and so the Lord took him home to be with Him. One minute, he was bending his body over the stone and laying his head upon the chopping block, his mouth moving in conversation to God, and the next minute, the angels are ushering him into the presence of the Lord Himself, to hear “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” (Matt.25:21)
I think that this story of John’s execution is put here for a number of reasons. One of which is that it reinforces a principle we have seen twice so far in this chapter, and that is that the gospel will be rejected. The very hometown of Jesus rejected Him in the opening verses of this chapter. And then we see that various towns rejected His disciples as well, so that Jesus told them to expect it, and to shake the dust off their sandals as an indictment of their rejection. Now we see this rejection of the gospel taken to another level, to even that of murder so that Herod and his wife might try to maintain their sinful life style and might eliminate the reproach of the preacher of righteousness. And so I believe that Mark has given us these examples, that he might illustrate the nature of the ministry of the gospel. It is an adversarial gospel. It is an offense to the sinner. It forces people to examine themselves in the light of the truth, and some people are going to reject it, and some will go so far as event to take vengeance upon you for your ministry.
The other reason that this story is given is to illustrate the purpose of the Christian life, to be willing to die to this world and offer up our lives as a living and holy sacrifice to God. And even if we are killed for the sake of the gospel, we see that even a king cannot kill the gospel. In vs 16 we see evidence that the fire that John the Baptist lit was fanned into even greater flames by Jesus Christ, and then in vs30 we foresee that same fire which will become a blazing inferno that would engulf the world through the ministry of the disciples. Satan cannot stop the gospel, though he might even put some of us to death.
But even though some of us might die an inglorious death such as John did at the hands of our detractors, yet even that accomplishes the purposes of God. For the purposes of God in such lives has been accomplished, and in killing us Satan only serves to usher us into the arms of God. He cannot stop the spread of the gospel. And he can only hasten our home going by the permission of the Lord.
It is human to worry about death. After all, none of us have experienced it. Fanciful tales to the contrary no one in our lifetime has died and come back to tell us about it. So death is a mystery that is worrisome to us. But let’s remember what Paul said in 2Cor. 5:6-8 “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord– for we walk by faith, not by sight– we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.” The hope of the gospel gives us courage in the face of death, knowing that to be absent from the body means we will be home with the Lord.
I won’t take the time today to expand upon what I believe the Bible says about heaven, or what it means to be at home with the Lord. Other than to say as Paul said in 1Cor. 2:9 “but just as it is written, “THINGS WHICH EYE HAS NOT SEEN AND EAR HAS NOT HEARD, AND which HAVE NOT ENTERED THE HEART OF MAN, ALL THAT GOD HAS PREPARED FOR THOSE WHO LOVE HIM.”
The point we need to be concerned with is that if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die we go to be with the Lord. In Phil. 1:21-23 Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better.”
And I guess that is where we come full circle. To depart and be with Christ is very much better than to stay on in the flesh. That is what Paul was able to confidently say, having seen the Lord, having been caught up into the third heaven and seen inexpressible things he wasn’t allowed to disclose. Paul knew that what the Lord had prepared for us was more than worth all that this world might have to offer. Everything, including life itself, is worth forsaking for the joy of knowing Christ, for the joy of being with the Lord.
Listen, this story of John’s execution reminds us that while it may look like sometimes that evil wins and the life of righteousness fails, the truth is that God’s plan will prevail. His people will prevail. The gates of Hell will not prevail against His church. Whether by Christ’s second coming, or by our death – and all of us will die unless the Lord returns in our lifetime – whether by being taken up in the air or by being laid down in the grave, we go immediately to be with the Lord, and we will not miss this earth, nor the things of this earth, for to be with the Lord is very much better.
I will close by reading 1Thessalonians 5:9-11 “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we will live together with Him. Therefore encourage one another and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”