The Death of John the Baptist | Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14-29 ESV

“Ahab did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33). He and Jezebel, his queen, not only wholeheartedly supported the worship of pagan gods; they also persecuted and harassed the small number of Israelites who continued to worship God alone. Under their rule, the idolatry of the Israel reached heights that made them indistinguishable from the other nations around them (which is further emphasized by Jericho being rebuilt during Ahab’s kingship).

Into this bleak setting, a new prophet arose: Elijah the Tishbite, who is introduced in Scripture with his pronouncement to Ahab of a drought that would only end at Elijah’s command (1 Kings 17:1). This man of God, who we later learn dressed in “garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist” (2 Kings 1:8), was sustained by the LORD throughout the drought by hiding him in the wilderness beside the Jordan River and feeding him with bread and meat delivered by ravens.

Yet Elijah would not remain hidden. At one point, he challenged the divinity of Baal by orchestrating a showdown between the false god and the LORD. Four hundred of Baal’s prophets cried aloud and cut themselves in effort to get their worshiped vanity to send fire down from heaven. Elijah only jeered that maybe Baal was too busying on using the toilet. When it was Elijah’s turn, the prophet prayed a simple prayer of faith, and the Most High rained fire down upon the altar. In a time of widespread wickedness, Elijah appeared to be a lone voice in the wilderness, calling for God’s people to return to their first love.

Interestingly, the Old Testament concludes with a promise that Elijah’s ministry was not yet concluded:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.

Malachi 4:5-6

HEROD HEARD OF IT // VERSES 14-16

Our text begins with these startling words: ‘King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.’ This particular Herod, called Herod Antipas, was one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ordered the murder of Bethlehem’s young boys in an effort to kill Jesus. After Herod the Great’s death, his kingdom was divided into four parts and given over to four of his sons, making each one a tetrarch. Yet we use the words king and kingdom loosely here, for there was no true sovereignty. Judea was no longer a kingdom of its own. Indeed, it had not been a kingdom since the Babylonian Exile, except for the Hasmodian Era. Therefore, neither Herod the Great nor his sons were truly kings; they were governors under the ruling hand of the Roman Emperor. Even still, they fashioned themselves kings, and as long as Rome received its taxes and rebellions were kept at bay, governors were relatively free to rule as they pleased.

Except for a brief mention of the Herodians in 3:6, this is the first mention of the ruler who would preside with Pontius Pilate over Christ’s crucifixion (although only Luke records that encounter). He is inserted into the narrative because the name of Jesus had reached his ears, as had theories as to His identity.

Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.”

But how had Herod come to hear the name of Jesus? He heard of it. What does Mark refer to by it? It points us back to verses 12-13, where the disciples went forth in pairs proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, casting out demons, and healing the sick. Herod heard of Jesus because of the work that His disciples were doing throughout Galilee.

This is the only evidence that we need of the success of the apostles’ mission. We do not need reports of how many exorcisms they performed, how many healings were given, nor even of how many people repented and confessed faith in Christ. They made Christ’s name known, and that is enough. It must be enough for us as well. Prosperity teachers boast in healings and exorcisms as evidences of their success. Many Baptists boast in baptisms. Yet a successful ministry in the kingdom of God is measured not by any of these things but by faithfulness to make the name of Jesus known, to spread the good news of His kingdom. Take this to heart in regards to your personal evangelism as well. Successfully sharing the gospel is not dependent upon how the person reacts to the gospel. Simply be faithful to make the good news known.

Verse 16 brings us back to Herod’s reaction: ‘But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”’ Here we are given Herod’s answer to the all-important question of who Jesus is. Jesus’ family believed that Jesus was out of His mind. The scribes believed that He was demon-possessed. Herod believed Him to be John the Baptist raised back from the dead, and he thought this because his conscience was plagued by the fact that John’s blood was on his hands. Of course, this is not only are first mention of John’s death, but it is the first mention of him since chapter 1 (except for 2:18, I suppose). For this reason, Mark pauses his narrative of Jesus to recount for us the events that led to the messianic forerunner’s death.

PERPLEXED, YET HEARD HIM GLADLY // VERSES 17-20

For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he has married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When we heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

Here we learn that Herod imprisoned John at the behest of his wife because John had been rebuking Herod and Herodias. Their sin was twofold. First, they had an adulterous relationship while Herodias was still married to Philip. Second, Herodias then divorced Philip in order to marry Herod, which was forbidden in Leviticus 18:16. Herodias desired to have John executed, but Herod could not bring himself to do so. We can make several points of observation here.

First, note that John was not afraid to rebuke Herod. In contrast, R.C. Sproul once wrote that “the church has largely abdicated its responsibility of social and political criticism. At times the church speaks merely as an echo of secular critics after the criticism has achieved the level of a popular cause. At other times the church refuses to speak on the grounds that involvement on such matters is none of the church’s business.”[1]

Sproul’s evaluation may be changing somewhat today, forty-three years after he wrote it, but it certainly has been true. Fearing a damage to one’s “witness,” many have largely avoided controversial topics. Yet such a stance has not preserved the witness of the gospel, it has only convinced the secular world that Christians are moral pushovers. Of course, there is the opposite extreme that is equally dangerous, when the proclamation of the gospel becomes secondary to addressing social and political issues. There is a common phrase thrown around often today: “speak truth to power.” That is not the Christian slogan. Instead, we should speak truth. Period. Whether it is to the lowliest beggar or the wealthiest and most powerful of people, we should proclaim Christ, rebuke sin, and point to the good news of forgiveness in Christ alone. Like the John and many other believers throughout history, we must be prepared for that message to be returned with hostility. Indeed, I believe that many Christians are rediscovering the biblical truth that the world was never going to be our friend unless we became like the world.

Second, even though John was imprisoned and later killed by Herod, notice how John has disturbed the ruler. So long as he did not undermine Rome, Herod’s authority within Galilee was absolute. John, on the other hand, lived in the desert, wore camel’s hair, and lived off of locusts and honey. From a worldly point of view, John should have lived in fear of Herod, not the other way around. And yet it was indeed the other way around. Herod knew that John was righteous and holy. He knew that John was a prophet, a man of God in the likeness of Elijah no less! It was Herod who squirmed before John, not John before Herod.

In light of our first point, we should take heart that the one small voice of truth is unbearable to those who happily walk in darkness. Ryle notes that “Herod ‘fears’ John the Baptist while he lives, and is troubled about him after he dies. A friendless, solitary preacher, with no other weapon than God’s truth, disturbs and terrifies a king.”[2] And so it was with many of the prophets. Elijah was one such voice before the wicked King Ahab. Micaiah also stood boldly before Ahab and spoke God’s Word, even when four hundred other prophets were speaking favorably to the king. Many, like Zechariah the son of Jehoiada and John, were murdered for speaking their rebukes. Most importantly, both religious and political leaders have been plotting to kill Jesus since 3:6. The light of truth always exposes darkness for what it is. And if the world slaughtered the true Light, how can those who walk as children of light expect anything less? Yet their inability to tolerate such small resistance displays the great danger that the truth presents to sin’s house of cards.

AN OPPORTUNITY CAME // VERSES 21-29

The remainder of our passage moves rather quickly.

But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Herodias saw her opportunity to finally kill John at a great feast that Herod threw for himself and his nobles. In the midst of this feast, her daughter (note: now Herod’s stepdaughter) to dance before these intoxicated men. If we read this text and envision an adorable, choreographed routine of little girl to which one might say, “you did so good, sweetheart!”, then we have likely (and sadly) missed the reality. Instead, the dance was likely erotic and seductive, and as she concluded, Herod essentially stammered out, “Tell me what you want. Just name it. I’ll give you anything.” After consulting with her mother, the girl returned to ask for the head of John the Baptist.

Let us pause here for a moment. Notice, however, that there is a distinct variation in what Herodias said and what her daughter actually asked for. Herodias simply said, “The head of John the Baptist.” But her daughter then told her stepfather, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The whole notion of requesting someone’s severe head as a gift is already grotesque enough, yet it appears to be the girl’s idea to have it given on a platter, as if it were another course of the feast. Here we are given a reminder that we are discipling our children every moment, both by our presence and our absence, and they will, as a general rule, go further than we have, either in good or evil. Herodias longed to see John dead because he was thorn in the side of Herod, who heard the prophet gladly. Her daughter, however, is not only undisturbed by her mother’s suggestion; she seems to take particular delight in demanding a man’s execution.

Verse 26 informs us that the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. Here we find Herod torn within himself. He knew that John was a man of God. He knew that he was already sinning to have John imprisoned, but he greatly feared being guilty of his death. And yet he had now made an oath to this girl in the presence of all his guests. It is interesting that Mark notes those two matters: his oaths and his guests. These were the two elements in his mind that led him to justify executing Jesus’ cousin.

We can imagine him leaning into the first thought, “I made an oath. What can I do? I’m bound to it!” Oaths, of course, are a serious matter, one that we take far too lightly today. However, between murder and oath-breaking, oath-breaking is by far the smaller sin. Jephthah’s foolish vow to sacrifice whatever came out of his home to greet him is an example of this. His beloved daughter came out to meet him, and he declared, “I cannot take back my vow” (Judges 11:35). His resolve to keep his vow to the LORD by sacrificing his own daughter only serves to highlight the overall theme of the book of Judges that God’s people continued to forget both Him and His Word. Jephthah was treating God as if He were just another Canaanite god to be appeased, apparently having no knowledge that the LORD actually made a provision for rash vows in Leviticus 5:4-6. Or we could turn to Saul’s vow that almost led him to kill his son Jonathan. All three, Jephthah, Saul, and Herod, had a pagan understanding of God; they were fundamentally ignorant of the character of God.

But his commitment to his oath was only part of the problem. What was likely most important to the ruler was how he would be seen by his guests. It simply would have been too shameful for him to go back on his pledge in the presence of the most important people in his province. He feared John, but he feared the mockery and ridicule of those around him even more. Jesus warned His disciples not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Tragically, Herod’s fear was not even of those who had the authority to execute him. He was the most powerful man in that room. All the guests were his subjects. Yet for all of his perceived authority, he was ruled by fear of them rather than by fear of God.

Our text ends simply with Herod ordering the execution, and John’s disciples laying the body of their teacher in a tomb. As tempting as it would be for us to conclude by observing the faithfulness of John the Baptist even unto death, the man of God’s faithfulness is quite literally in the background of this passage. Herod, instead, is the primary figure for us to consider. And like the people of Nazareth, he serves as a warning to us.

Let us conclude by viewing the warning of Herod through two of Mark’s big themes. We have already mentioned the first of these themes: fear. Since the calming of the sea, Mark has been presenting us with various examples of fear and astonishment. In the case of the disciples, the woman with the discharge of blood, and Jairus, their fear led them closer to Christ. The Nazarenes lacked any fear of Christ at all, while the Gerasenes and Herod had superficial fears that led to them further hardening their hearts to Christ.

In the parables of Mark 4, Jesus commanded the crowd to listen (v. 3), concluded the parable of the sower (a parable about how we listen) by saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (v. 9), and later said, “pay attention to what you hear” (v. 24). We were then met with the account of how the wind and the sea listened and obeyed Jesus’ voice, followed by how a demonic host listened and obeyed Jesus’ voice, and then followed by how a dead girl listened and obeyed Jesus’ voice. Our previous passage displayed the apostles listening and obeying Jesus’ voice, which is sandwiched between Nazareth and Herod who both do not. Indeed, notice how in verses 14, 16, and 20 we are told four times that Herod heard. In the first two, he heard the name of Jesus, and in the last two, he heard John, who was proclaiming the arrival of Jesus’ kingdom. The seed of God’s Word came upon Herod’s ears multiple times, and even though he heard it with joy, he could not endure even the presumed tribulation that it would bring.

Herod is a warning to us that a superficial fear of God and mere interest in the Word of God are no sufficient. As we noted earlier, Herod is a biblical example of the rocky ground from the parable of the sower. He is strangely drawn to the words of John, knowing that they are true and from God. Yet he cannot endure the truth. He cannot bring himself to submit to it. The same is sadly true of many who sit in pews today. Calvin once wrote words that are no less true today:

Many are content to have the gospel preached, provided it does not touch them, or make them uncomfortable. But the moment one stirs a stick in their dung, or uncovers their mischief, they despise such a person. If at first, then, they applauded the gospel, once they perceive that God is about to hold them accountable for their sins, behold, they forsake it all.[3]

May that never be true of us! Let us fall upon the good news of Jesus Christ that John faithfully made known. When our sins are rebuked, let us humbly repent, knowing that He who died to redeem us of sin will be faithful and just to forgive us. Let us not only hear the gospel but submit our lives to the truth and reality of the gospel.


[1] R. C. Sproul, Right Now Counts Forever Vol I, 16.

[2] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 93.

[3] Cited from Steven Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin, 110.

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