Privacy is a modern invention. Until quite recently, most people lived in small communities where everyone knew everyone else’s business. (Not unlike Reeds!) Until a few hundred years ago, everybody heard what was going on in the world by talking to neighbors & strangers, gossiping in marketplaces, & passing on stories of anything curious or striking. Only the royal, & the very rich, could afford something approaching privacy; & they achieved it, often enough, by employing deaf-mute slaves. Even then, word would often leak out as to what the king was doing.
That’s the background we need to know to understand what Herod heard about Jesus, & for that matter what the early Christians knew about Herod. In Britain to this day, rumors about royalty are passed between gossip columnists & fashion magazines; if a member of the royal family comes to town (or, in nations like ours, if the President comes to town) local people will talk for weeks about who he spoke to, what she said, what he wore, and so on. How much more in a culture like first-century Palestine, without newspapers, radio, or television.
And how much more when something truly remarkable was afoot. Everybody must have heard about the young prophet who was going about doing miraculous things. Rumors were flying around: maybe this was Elijah, who according to Jewish tradition would return to get things ready for the final judgment. In Scripture, he hadn’t really died, but was instead scooped up to heaven directly, so it was possible that he might come back, & Malachi 4:5 said he would do just that. Or maybe it was one of the other great prophets of old. Jesus was behaving like a prophet; he spoke of himself as a prophet; it wasn’t surprising then that people thought of him like that.
Herod, though, had a more precise suggestion, which is all the more interesting in the light of subsequent events. He proposed that Jesus might be John the Baptist, back from the dead; that would explain, he thought, why he had these remarkable powers. If he’d been down to death & back again, anything might be possible; John had not performed powerful healings, so it was not a matter of things returning to the way they had been before, but rather of something new & dramatic which needed an explanation. Maybe, then, thought Herod, John had come back from the dead. Herod probably didn’t have a well thought-out theory of resurrection. It was an idea around at the time, but he was simply grasping at straws.
It shows, however, both that Jesus was doing remarkable things, forcing people to unlikely explanations, & that, as we might expect with the kingdom of God, the kingdoms of this world were forced to take notice of it &, it seems, to take evasive action. It puts this question to us, if we desire or plan to be kingdom-agents in our own world, on this side of Jesus’ actual resurrection: What should we be doing, that the powers of the world would hear about it & scratch their heads in amazement? And are we prepared for the result?
Mark is very clear about what will happen to people who announce, & inaugurate God’s kingdom. The verses that follow our reading in Mark recount in detail the beheading of John the Baptist because of his courage & conviction in confronting Herod & his immoral lifestyle. You may recall that Herod had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, who at the time was the wife of his brother. John the Baptist then offended Herod by criticizing his marriage to Herodias. The legitimacy of Herod’s rule was weak. A king whose marriage might offend God would have trouble holding the loyalty of the people.
Mark tells us that Herod had a birthday party at which Herodias convinces her daughter Salome to dance for the drunken court. (How much convincing this took is up for debate.) Herod is so entranced by Salome’s sexy dance that he vows to give her anything she wants, up to half of his kingdom. After discussion with her mother, Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist. Herod, not wanting to be embarrassed before his entire court, reluctantly obliges. John is arrested, taken to a prison, & beheaded. John’s head was brought to Salome on a platter, who then gave it to her mother.
Our passage recounting the story of John, including Herod’s unclear thinking, points us to the greater story that is yet to come. Herod is wrong in thinking John the Baptist has come back from the dead, but not completely wrong; for in Jesus the resurrection power of God is indeed at work – not because he is John, back from the dead, but because Jesus is the one through whom, not very long from now, death will indeed be overcome. The mighty works Jesus is doing at the moment, taking on the kingdom of darkness & beating it, will reach their climax in his personal decisive confrontation with that dark kingdom. But first he, like John, must suffer a cruel & unjust death. Of course, they are not alone.
In the Acts 6-7, we have the example of Stephen, who was stoned for offending residents of Jerusalem by speaking the truth of their role in killing Jesus. He refused to be silent. In fact, as the stones rained down on him, he prayed that Christ would forgive his killers.
Simon Peter, the disciple who spoke first & thought later, was martyred in Rome around 64-67 under Emperor Nero. He said he was unworthy of dying like his Lord, so tradition says that he was crucified upside down.
John Wycliffe was a 14th century theologian. He believed the Scriptures should be available to people in their common language, so he translated the Latin Bible into English. This angered the pope, who had him killed. But this wasn’t enough; his body was exhumed & then burned, along with many of his writings. The pope then decreed that the Scriptures could not be translated into English.
William Tyndale also worked on an English translation of the Bible, only he used the original languages for as much Scripture as possible. He also opposed the Catholic Church & King Henry VIII’s divorce. In 1536, Tyndale was choked to death while tied to a stake & then burned.
On January 7, 2010, 8 Egyptian Christians were killed as they left a Christmas mass in Nag Hammadi, Egypt. They were killed by militant Islamic believers. They may have been killed as retaliation for another crime. But even so, they were primarily killed simply because they were Christians.
Believers in many parts of the world today still face torture & death for their faith. They may take comfort, & the rest of us may be strengthened in our prayers for them, from this strange story of Jesus, Herod, & John. The God who called & equipped John & Jesus, & who through them confronted Herod & by implication all other rulers, remains in charge. Those who simply watch what’s going on may draw all the wrong conclusions. But God knows what the right ones are. This God will vindicate & reward those who remain faithful to their calling in the face of intimidation, persecution, & death itself.
Last week I reminded us that we have been sent out as witnesses to Jesus & to grow God’s kingdom. What steps did you take this week to fulfill your calling? Do those you encountered this week know that you are a follower of Jesus? Did they “hear” the good news – in word or action – or both?
Allow me to ask it another way: Do you keep your Christianity private, or are you known as a follower of Christ? Can the authorities find enough evidence to arrest you for being a Christian?