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Christian Life: The Anatomy of a Conscience (Mark 6:14-29)
John the Baptist is one of the most colorful and dynamic characters of Scripture. Jesus treated him with the highest respect. Jesus insisted on being baptized by John in the Jordan River. Matthew tells us that when John was arrested and put in prison he wanted to do some reality checking. He sent his disciples to Jesus, asking Him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matthew 11:3). Jesus told them to report back that the blind receive sight, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. That must have been tremendously reassuring to John.
As John's disciples left, Jesus began to talk about John and described him not as one dressed in fine clothes who had the blessings of political leaders but one who was a prophet. He went on to specify that John was the prophet written about by Malachi hundreds of years in advance. "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you" (Malachi 3:1). Then Jesus expressed the depth of His feeling about John in these words: "I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist..." (Matthew 11:11).
John was a miracle child. You know he was born to the aged priest, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth long after Elizabeth's biological clock had run out. He was a Nazarite from birth according to the explicit orders of the angel Gabriel. His hair was never cut. He never touched a dead body. He never drank alcoholic beverages. These qualifications for the Nazarite are outlined in Numbers 6.
From his earliest childhood John had a unique relationship with God. He knew the Old Testament Scriptures. He was sensitive to God's call upon his life. He wore the garb of an ancient prophet, wearing a rough coat of camel's hair and a leather belt. He subsisted in the wilderness on a diet of locusts and wild honey.
John spent a lot of time alone communing with God in the wilderness. He had a sensitive conscience shaped by the Scriptures. He had moral courage. He refused to make political accommodation. He burst onto the first century public scene denouncing sin. He called men, women and children to a radical repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. He saw through the two-facedness of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. He referred to them to their faces, saying:
"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:8-12).
This story is more than just first-century history. As I have mused over it during the past several days, I am overwhelmed with the insights it can bring to you and me living on the fast-track in 21st-century America. This story can have a considerable impact on your life if you let it. Let me share with you six ways.
First, we are alerted to the enormous significance of a conscience.
Don't let anyone put down the importance of a conscience. Granted, you and I are capable of dulling our consciences, becoming insensitive to ethical truth. We can also over-sensitize our consciences, entertaining needless guilt. But once we have granted these two extremes, we need to once again emphasize the important role that a healthy conscience plays in your and my existence.
The name Herod does not raise positive vibes when we hear it, does it? At the same time, this man who had the diabolical capacity to order the beheading of John the Baptist was also a man who in his better moments had a sensitive conscience. As does any good political leader, he had a feel for what was going on in his country. Word had come to him that a rabbi by the name of Jesus of Nazareth was traveling throughout Galilee preaching a message of repentance and doing remarkable miracles. This Herod is not the one we know of as Herod the Great. This is his son, Herod Antipas, who had been given responsibility for the area of Galilee. His residence was in Tiberias, a Roman city nestled on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was known for its hot spring mineral baths. It was a perfect center for a Roman capital. Herod, who came from quasi-Jewish roots, bore the responsibility of being a liaison between his Jewish constituency and his Roman benefactors.
In a way, Mark tells the end of the story first. He shows King Herod hearing about Jesus and His miraculous powers sometime after his murder of John. Then Mark gives a flashback to those fateful events as he gives the narrative of the entire story.
We don't know how long it had been since Herod had given that order. We do know, however, that ever since he had been haunted by what he had done. He had to live with a troubled conscience for having succumbed to that terrible request to deliver the head of John the Baptist to his stepdaughter (whom we think was Salome) on a platter. That's the stuff of nightmares, isn't it? I don't care how hardened a heart is to the things of God and to ethical sensitivities, Herod and you and I, in the darkened closets of our lives, live with skeletons of the past which periodically come out and dance around and haunt us.
Even the most wicked of people has some good. Mark describes how Herod had heard about John, even as now he was hearing about Jesus. Mark tells us that Herod actually liked to listen to John preach and apparently had him taken into custody so as to be able to more fully comprehend who this strange man was. Then caught in that squeeze play - between his wife's animosity toward John, his stepdaughter's vulnerability to manipulation, and his own drunken promise to give this dancing girl anything she wanted -- he had succumbed to pressure and killed the prophet. Now in both sleeping and waking hours he was haunted by the man, his message and his power, and his own sense of responsibility for having taken that life.
When the word came about Jesus, people were trying to figure out just who Jesus was. Some referred to Him as John the Baptist who had been raised from the dead. Others had a nationalist approach to the topic, seeing Jesus as Elijah. Are you aware that to this day faithful Jews looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, when they celebrate the Passover, leave an empty chair called Elijah's chair? They place a glass of wine before it on the table. Why do they do this? Because one of their age-long understandings is that before the Messiah could come, Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, would return as His herald. Others simply saw Jesus as a prophet like the Old Testament prophets.
Herod was not beyond a sense of superstition which played right into his guilty conscience. He almost immediately knew who this person, Jesus, was. He concluded, "John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!" (Mark 6:16).
I urge you, don't play lightly with the things of God. He has given you a conscience. He knows it can become over-sensitized by neurotic guilt. He doesn't want you to succumb to that. That's why He has given the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that promises you forgiveness. Through the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross you are freed from sins -- past, present and future. He wants you to be healthy.
At the same time, He does not want that conscience to be dulled. Thank God for your conscience. Compare what it tells you to what the Bible tells you and realize the Holy Spirit has a way of communicating to you through your conscience. Keep close accounts with God. Take Him seriously. Cultivate a sensitive conscience, following through on those subtle prodings, asking the tough questions, listening with great attentiveness to what your conscience is trying to tell you.
Second, we are alerted to the enormous significance of a clear biblical word.
John the Baptist told the truth. There were some people who didn't want to hear the truth. It is important to hear the truth and to adapt to it. Some of us would rather not adapt ourselves to the truth but adapt the truth to our own personal desires.
We see this in the case of Herod's wife Herodias. She hated John the Baptist. She hated him because he told the truth, and she didn't like the truth. She was determined to twist truth into a lie and a lie into the truth. And, at her earliest opportunity, she would direct her revenge upon the truth teller, getting rid of that "crazy man" who was so dedicated to putting a moral mirror in front of her face.
What was the issue? There were several. The major one was that of adultery. Tied into it was incest and the abuse of power.
Take a look, in our flashback, at the castle of Machaerus which stood on a lonely ridge surrounded by terrible ravines overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. It has been referred to as "one of the loneliest and grimmest and most unassailable fortresses in the world." William Barclay tells us that today travelers can visit the dungeons and see the staples and iron hooks on the wall to which John must have been bound. It was in that bleak and desolate fortress of Herod that the last act of John's life was played out.
To understand it, you need to know a little about the characters. When Jesus was born, Herod the Great was the king. He was the one responsible for the massacre of the children in Bethlehem. Herod the Great was married many times. Toward the end of his life he became paranoid, murdering many members of his own family. It was said about him, "It is safer to be Herod's pig than Herod's son."
Herod had a total of five wives. By one of them, Mariamne the Hasmonean, he had a son by the name of Aristobulus. Aristobulus was ultimately murdered by Herod the Great, but not before he had a daughter by the name of Herodias. Herod the Great had another son we know as Herod Philip whose mother was Mariamne of Boethusian. Herod Philip ended up marrying Herodias; by Herodias, he had a daughter named Salome.
Herod the Great had two sons by a wife named Malthake. The sons were Archelaus and Herod Antipas, who is the Herod of our passage and who was the ruler of Galilee.
Herod Philip, who married Herodias originally and who was the father of Salome, inherited none of Herod the Great's dominions. He lived as a wealthy private citizen in Rome.
Here is where the plot thickens. Herod Antipas, the Herod of this passage, visited him in Rome. There he seduced Herodias and persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him. See how complex and incestuous this all became? Herod Antipas was involved in an adulterous relationship with his own niece who at the same time was the wife of his half-brother and therefore his sister-in-law. To complicate the story even more, Herod the Great finally married a woman by the name of Cleopatra of Jerusalem by whom he had a son named Philip the Tetrarch. This Philip later married Salome who was at one and the same time his niece and his grandniece.
This sounds like something out of a contemporary soap opera. In fact, it comes closer to home than that. We all know of some complex domestic situations here in our area that rival this first-century soap opera plot.
John the Baptist is not about to countenance this immorality. He had the courage, in public, to rebuke Herod's deliberate seduction of his brother's wife. In spite of that, Herod feared and respected John the Baptist. But John earned a "to-the-death" animosity from an embarrassed and exposed Herodias.
For God's sake and yours, no matter how complex your life may be and how much you have strayed from the teachings of God's Word, take His Word seriously. Repent before it's too late. Don't play a game of rationalization. Don't close your heart to the clear teachings of the Word of God both in Scripture and as it is articulated in preaching.
Third, we are alerted to the enormous significance of a marriage partner.
Husbands and wives have a great influence over each other. And they should.
I urge you to clarify once and for all who is most important in your life. Your husband or wife was never intended to be your Lord. Your marriage partner is human and fallible, as are you. Converse with each other. Teach each other. Learn from each other. Argue with each other. But in the final analysis, let Jesus Christ, the God of all creation, be your Lord. Adapt yourself to your partner on those things that are nonessential. Have the courage to stand up and say no if what your partner is demanding goes contrary to God's Word.
Herod liked John the Baptist. The last thing he wanted to do was kill him, even though John's teachings were threatening to him. We see that Herodias had different thoughts. The opportune time came. On his birthday, Herod gave this magnificent banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the rest of the leading people of Galilee. Herodias' daughter, whom we assume to be Salome, came in and danced, and she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king made the mistake of declaring, "Ask me for anything you want, and 111 give it to you." The girl went out to get counsel from her mother and came in with her mother's request. "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter." You know the rest of the story.
Our marriage partners have enormous impact on our behavior.
Fourth, we are alerted to the enormous significance of parental modeling.
We have the responsibility to pray for, teach, and model for our children what it is to be one of Christ's. We promise that we will expose ourselves to an Authority that goes beyond our own ways of looking at life. We are people of the Book -- the Bible. We are also people of community, committed to each other in the name of Jesus Christ. We are a people of the Church.
We are men and women who are willing, in front of our children, to admit it when we are wrong. It is painful for me to have to declare, in open repentance, before God and Anne and my daughters, when I am wrong and need God's forgiveness. It is especially difficult when they are not prepared to reciprocate, but I have abdicated my responsibility as a parent if I stubbornly insist on that which is in opposition to God's Word and model that which will trip up my children in the future.
Herodias used her daughter. Herodias encouraged her into lewd dancing that had such a profound influence upon the alcohol-crazed brain of her stepfather Herod and his colleagues. Herodias taught her daughter to manipulate men by her sexuality to get power. Herodias gave an immoral command that the daughter was unequipped to resist.
Let's never forget the enormous significance of our parental modeling and what it does to the children God has given to us.
Fifth, we are alerted to the enormous significance of the friends and associates with whom we surround ourselves.
Herod knew what was right but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He should have said no to Salome and to Herodias. But he didn't have the guts to do it.
One of the reasons was his senses were dulled by that party environment. His passions had been inflamed by his stepdaughter's seductive dance. But Mark tells us that he was enough in his senses to be "greatly distressed." He still had a moral sensitivity. He could still have those feelings of admiration for John the Baptist even though he wasn't prepared to live life in accordance to the prophet's godly instructions. He looked around and saw all of his dinner guests, those high officials; those military commanders, those leading men of Galilee. Mark states:
The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother (Mark 6:26-28).
Watch out for your associations. Watch out for those people who, as wonderful as they are in friendship, do not share a respect for God's Word. You need a counterbalancing influence in your life, godly men and women who will hold you accountable. Resist that tendency to twist your ethics to conform to the social pressure of your contemporary environment.
Sixth, we are alerted to the enormous significance of the power of Jesus Christ.
To do adequate justice to this story of King Herod and the beheading of John the Baptist, we must acknowledge the last verse. "On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb" (Mark 6:29). At the same time, we must flash back to the first verse and realize that the last verse is not the last word. The first verse is the last word. Mark tells us this story not in the context of lamenting what had happened to John the Baptist but in declaring the power of God at work in Jesus Christ. He writes, "King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying, 'John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him'" (Mark 6:14).
God has a way of carrying out His agenda. John is dead -- but Jesus is alive and well.
I have discovered in my own life terrible defeats and joyful victories and the steadying help of the Lord in both the extremes and in the in-between circumstances.
The Herods of this world will come and go. Herod could have bit the bullet but he didn't. Herod played the game somewhat reluctantly but the pattern became set. We see him again many months later when he happens to be in Jerusalem at the time of the Passover Feast. Jesus had been dragged before Pilate, accused of sedition, of blasphemy and of becoming a pretender. Pilate, wanting to wash his hands of the whole bloody mess, sends Him over to Herod Antipas. Once again, fascinated by a religious miracle worker, Herod wants to observe a performance. Luke writes:
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23:8-11).
Little did Herod understand that this Rabbi from Nazareth, who he had once in his nightmarish dreams thought to be John the Baptist risen from the dead, was actually the God of all creation who was headed to a cross to die for the sins of the world. No, John the Baptist wouldn't rise from the dead at that time. But Jesus would. And God's plan of salvation for humankind marches on with relentless faithfulness, undeterred by the human obstacles set up by us along the way.
The call of human victory is "Christus Victor!" Jesus Christ is victorious. Someday He shall return to set right that which is wrong. In the meantime, even if you are a minority of one in the dungeon, He will set you free to ultimate victory!
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