This pericope in Mark comes as somewhat of a parenthesis in the events of chapter six. It also echoes a tone of rejection and challenge to the ministry of Jesus and the Gospel in this chapter. In this, the shortest Gospel, Mark decides to dedicate the most space out of all the Gospels to this account of John the Baptist’s death (cf. Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9).
In 6:1–6 Jesus experiences rejection of his message and ministry in his own hometown due to their unbelief (6:6). In 6:7–13, Jesus sends out his disciples on what we might call their first “short term missions trip.” They were sent out to preach the Gospel and to heal the sick (6:7, 12–13). Given what Jesus just experienced in his hometown, the disciples must have anticipated the potential of rejection to their ministry as well (see the instructions in 6:11). However, given Mark’s comments in vs. 12 and vs. 30 it appears that the disciples’ outing ended up more “successful” than not.
Within this larger narrative context of the ministry of the Gospel, we encounter this sidebar account—a reporting of king Herod’s response to the ministry of John the Baptist. Mark presents this account in somewhat of a jumbled chronological order. If we lay all the pieces of the narrative out, and put the events in chronological order, we get the following:
•Herod heard John the Baptist preach and was “greatly puzzled” by him, “yet he liked to listen to him” (vs. 20b)
•In his preaching, John the Baptist opposed King Herod because Herod had seduced his brother’s wife (Herodias) from his brother and married Herodias (vs. 17b-18)
•Because of this Herod had John the Baptist arrested (vs. 17); Herodias also “nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him” (vs. 19)
•Herod protected John the Baptist from being hurt because he believed John was righteous and holy (vs. 20)
•Herod held a birthday party for himself (vs. 21)
•Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod and pleased him and his guests with her dancing (vs. 22)
•Herod promised Herodias’ daughter up to half his kingdom (vs. 22b-23)
•Herodias convinced her daughter to ask for John the Baptist to be beheaded (vs. 24-25)
•Herod followed through with his promise and had John beheaded (vs. 26-28)
•Upon hearing about what Jesus was doing (vs. 14), Herod wondered who Jesus was and considered the opinions of other people (vs. 14b-15)
•Herod theorized that Jesus, on account of the miracles he was performing (vs. 14b) may be a resurrected John the Baptist (vs. 16)
This story of John the Baptist’s demise goes on without much commentary, even to the point of Mark recording in vs. 29, “On hearing of [the beheading of John the Baptist], John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.”
Period. End of story.
There’s not much given on the surface of this account that is apparently very encouraging or edifying. At first glance, this appears mostly to be another account of political power stamping out religious belief and activity. This is a story that is all-too-common in our day. We may even think of the recent events in our own country which seem to show political leaders “trumping” the religious (Biblical) beliefs of the Christian church.
What’s perhaps most troubling about this pericope is that, except for the singular mention of “Jesus’ name” in vs. 14, Jesus appears no where in this account. What are we to take from this? Is Jesus not concerned for John the Baptist, his cousin? Is Jesus aware of what John is going through? Is Jesus even able to do anything about John’s predicament? We might think about the release of Peter and John from prison in Acts 4, or the miraculous jailbreak of Paul and Silas in Acts 16, and wonder, “Why couldn’t/didn’t Jesus make this happen for John the Baptist?!”
Sometimes it seems like such a waste to see Christians suffer and die at the hands of evil. According to Mark’s account, John wasn’t even given a chance to share any last words, in which he could have been given one more chance to witness to the Gospel. Instead we read that his disciples came, took his body, and buried him. End of story.
This might be highly discouraging if it weren’t for the fact that very similar words were used to describe Jesus’ own death. In that account, Jesus did not even have any of his disciples waiting on him; instead, they all deserted him. All that was left was a couple “secret” followers. They took his body down from the cross and buried him in an unmarked tomb. End of story…or so they thought.
But unlike John the Baptist’s assumed resurrection (Mark 6:16), Jesus actually raised from the dead! In doing so, Jesus triumphed over all powers and authorities—both seen and unseen (Col 2:15). Only he didn’t crush these powers and authorities by his might (although he could have) but, as Paul writes, “he triumphed over them by the cross.”
And so we receive from Jesus the pattern of life in the Kingdom of God: taking up one’s cross and following Jesus; faithfully proclaiming the Gospel; suffering with Christ because of this Gospel; overcoming evil with good. And we receive from him hope and assurance in times of darkness and suffering. Jesus has won! He is alive! And because he lives we can face whatever trials may come, knowing our life and eternity are in his safekeeping. This pericope brings us the opportunity to proclaim the unassailable power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May you and your congregation rejoice in this Gospel!