First Century Scandal
Scripture: Mark 6:14-29
This message is going to be a little different because I am going to read a portion of the scripture, then I want to introduce the characters & tell you the full story of the drama. Besides the Bible, there are numerous histories that tell us about the characters & the events. Primarily, the Jewish historian Josephus writes about it. We have additional historical information from the Church Father Jerome & Roman historians Tacitus & Cassius Dio.
< 6:14-20 >
This story has been the subject of hundreds of works of art. In one particular painting we see John the Baptist pointing his bony finger at Herod on the throne. Herod cannot make eye contact. The two women are Herodias & her daughter. Let us learn a little more about each of these characters.
Herod Antipas was an arrogant ruler. The name “Herod” was almost like a family name; it meant “heroic” but there were not any heroes in the bunch. It can be confusing because no less than eight Roman rulers used the name Herod. This was Herod Antipater, whose nickname was Antipas. He was one of the sons of the ruler who is often called Herod the Great. Herod the Great was the ruler when the wise men came asking: Where is the newborn King of the Jews? Herod was a great builder, but he had a great capacity for hatred & violence as well. He attempted to kill the Messiah by ordering that all the male toddlers in Bethlehem be slaughtered.
Herod the Great was paranoid & jealous. He ordered the death of several of his wives & sons. The Jewish rabbis had an inside joke that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than to be Herod’s son. Herod the Great was plotting to murder his son Antipas when he himself died. So, Antipas was named the ruler of four small areas, so he was called a Tetrarch. But he always wanted to be called a king. To be more like a king, Antipas married an older Arabian princess, the daughter of King Aretas IV. He married her for the royal connection.
The next character is Herodias, the Jezebel of the New Testament. Jezebel wanted the head of the prophet Elijah, but she was not successful. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. She visited Rome & met her uncle, Philip, the half-brother of Antipas. Philip was not in politics; he was a wealthy Roman businessman. Herodias seduced her much-older uncle Philip & they were married.
One day, Antipas left his Arabian princess-wife & visited his brother Philip in Rome. Herodias had grown tired of her husband, so she seduced Antipas, her brother-in-law, who was also her uncle. In a scandal worthy of the Kardashians, Antipas & Herodias eloped back to Galilee. Antipas’ Arabian princess had gotten word of the scandal, before her husband could return with his younger trophy mistress. They were never divorced; she just packed up & ran home to her daddy, who vowed to extract vengeance on his two-timing son-in-law.
Next is Salome, the daughter of Herodias & Philip. She is not named in the Bible, but Josephus tells us her name. The really sad thing about Salome is the word used to describe her indicates that she was an incredibly young teen or even a pre-teen. It was a word used to describe a young girl not yet of marriageable age. And girls often married at age 16 in this time. The same word used to describe Salome is used to describe the daughter of Jairus, who was twelve-years old. Her wicked mother used her as her pawn to get to John the Baptist.
Finally, the true hero of the story, John—God’s faithful prophet. John the Baptist was 6 months older than his cousin Jesus. Like Samson, John had taken a Nazarite vow & had never cut his hair or beard. He was a man of the wilderness & ate locusts & wild honey & wore a camel’s hair garment. (His favorite clothing label was Camel Klein.)
He had baptized Jesus even though he felt unworthy to do so. When people asked John if he was the Messiah, he denied it. John’s job was to introduce Jesus & then to move off the scene. In fact, in John 3:30, John said about Jesus: He must increase & I must decrease.
John publicly preached that it was both illegal & immoral for Herod to be sleeping with his niece/sister-in-law. This public disgrace infuriated Herodias & she demanded that Herod kill him. Can’t you just hear Herodias whining to Herod, “You’ve got to do something to shut up that stinking preacher. Kill him, or I’m gone!” But Herod recognized that John was a man of God, so to make his wife happy, he arrested John & put him in jail. We know from Josephus that John was imprisoned in the desert fortress called Machaerus near the Dead Sea. You can visit the ruins today & still see the remains of the iron rungs in the wall where prisoners were chained. Now that you know the characters in this story, let us go straight to the action.
It was the birthday of Herod Antipas, so he invited in many special guests to the party. Herodias saw this as an opportunity to get what she wanted so she hatched a wicked plan. She knew the wine would be flowing & Herod had a weakness for dancing girls. So, she coached her young daughter to perform a sensual, seductive dance. < 6:21-23 >
The funny thing about that was that Herod did not have a kingdom to give her. He was the man who wanted to be king but was only a provincial ruler over four districts. He was just bragging in front of his guests.
< 6:24-25 >
I am sure Herod sobered up in a hurry. He was in a quandary. He knew John was a man of God, but he had made an oath in front of his guests. I wonder if he tried to negotiate with Salome. “Wouldn’t you rather have horses, chariots, clothes, or jewelry?” I can just imagine Salome stomping her feet, wanting to please her mother, and saying, “I want his head on a platter, and I want it now!”
Herod had made an oath in front of his guests. He would lose face if he did not keep his promise. So, he decided it was better for John to lose his head than for him to lose face.
The great prophet & preacher is in the dungeon. He hears the soldiers approaching & wonders what is happening. When he sees the sword, he probably realizes what is going to happen. I wonder what went through his mind as they held his head down & he heard the whoosh of the sword. I wonder if he thought, Jesus must increase, and I must decrease.
< 6:26-29 >
As I mentioned this story has been a favorite subject of artists through the centuries. There are many famous paintings that depict this final scene. But one of my favorites is by a relatively unknown Italian artist name Onorio Mariani. In 1680 he completed a piece in which Herod can be seen beside Herodias as she stares at her daughter. I think the artist has captured the youth & spoiled innocence of Salome.
Jerome writes that Herodias’ hatred toward John was so intense that she pulled John’s tongue out & pierced it through with a large sewing needle. It was like she was saying, “Now let me hear you speak against me you ignorant preacher.” But we are going to see that God always has the last word.
There are some biblical truths we can learn from the characters in this story. First, Herod show us that a guilty conscience is a cruel companion. Months later, when Herod heard about the miracles of Jesus, he was certain it was John the Baptist who had come back to life to haunt him. He would probably wake up in the middle of the night with his pajamas-soaked with sweat because of a bad dream about a headless prophet.
God has given every person a conscience to know right from wrong. The reason we often feel guilty about sin is because we are guilty. But you do not have to live with a guilty conscience. The good news is that the Bible says in 1 John 1:9 that if you confess your sins, God if faithful & just to forgive us our sins & to cleanse us of all unrighteousness. You can live a life free of guilt. When you give your life to Jesus, all your sins are forgiven. God has promised He will put our sins behind His back & will remember them no more. He has promised to separate our sins as far as the East is from the West. He has promised to bury our sins in the depth of the sea.
Herodias teaches us that hateful anger spills out & hurts those close to us. The sad story of Herodias is that her rage at John was like a deadly infectious disease that destroyed her husband & daughter. There is a sad principle in effect that our sin not only affects us, but it also affects those around us. A pregnant woman who injects crack cocaine into her body also endangers the life of her unborn child. A man who smokes like a chimney is affecting his family with the effects of secondhand smoke.
You never really sin personally. Every sin we commit is like a pebble dropped in a pond. The ripples spread out & touch those around us. Herodias’ sin had destructive consequences on Antipas & her daughter.
Remember Herod’s scorned wife who returned to her father, the Arabian king? Two years after Jesus was crucified, the father of his ex-wife, King Aretas, attacked Antipas, slaughtered his soldiers & conquered his territory. In shame, Antipas & Herodias fled to Rome. Antipas’ jealous nephew, Herod Agrippa, the brother of Herodias, had convinced the emperor that Antipas was guilty of treason. So, Antipas, the man who would be king, was stripped of his titles & property & was banished into exile in Gaul. The worst part of the punishment was that the wicked Herodias was sent with him, & they both died in obscurity & were buried in unmarked graves.
Be sure of this, friends, your sins will find you out. The Bible says exactly that in Numbers 32:23: Know that your sin will find you. The story of Herod’s family was fascinating to the Romans, like the stories of the Roosevelts & Kennedys have been to Americans. History records that Salome’s life was filled with tragedy. She moved back to Rome where she went through several failed marriages.
According to Cassius Dio, Salome died tragically when she was vacationing in the Northern Alps. She & her party were crossing a frozen river when the ice cracked. In the efforts to extract her from the frozen water, a jagged piece of ice severed her head from her body.
Salome’s life is a sad reminder of the principle of Galatians 6:7: A person will harvest what they plant.
Finally, John shows us there are things worth dying for. One thing that is worth dying for is your faith. John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus and said, Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). But after he was arrested & put in prison John started having some doubts. In Luke 7 we read that John sent word to Jesus to ask Him: Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else? I am not surprised that this great outdoor prophet had a few doubts when he was restricted to a tiny jail cell chained to the wall. It would have been like putting an eagle in a canary cage or restricting a great whale to a swimming pool. John began to have a few doubts.
Jesus sent word back to John to tell him that scripture was being fulfilled, miracles were being done, & lives were being changed. If Jesus had only been a man, He might have rebuked John for doubting Him. But on the day that John expressed doubts about Jesus; Jesus gave the greatest affirmation about John.
Jesus said John was more than a prophet. He said among men born of women (and that includes all of us), there is none greater than John. Wow! Jesus was saying that of all the people in the Old Testament period, John was the greatest—greater than Abraham; greater than Moses; greater than Elijah. But then Jesus said, I tell you that no greater human being has ever been born than John. Yet whoever is least in God’s kingdom is greater than he (Luke 7:28).
John stood for the truth of his faith, & he ended up dying for his faith. The moment the whoosh of the sword removed his head from his body John was immediately transported into heaven into the presence of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As they welcomed this hero of the faith into heaven, I wonder if John smiled and thought, “Why did I ever doubt?”
Would you be willing to die for your faith? Warren Wiersbe relates a story from China during the Communist purge of Mao Zedong in 1949. Churches were closed & Christians were arrested & executed. Wiersbe tells the story of a small group of Christians meeting in private. Suddenly the door flies open & 3 communist soldiers are standing there, with weapons drawn. They ordered all the Christians to line up against the far wall to be executed. The soldiers said, “If you are not a believer you are free to leave.” Some of the group hurried from the room. But a group of faithful followers of Jesus joined hands & stood together waiting to die for Jesus. When the unbelievers left, the soldiers lowered their weapons & said, “We are believers, too, & we wanted to find a group of Christians who are willing to die for their faith. May we join you?”
Here is hopefully a rhetorical question: Would you be willing to die for your faith? And here is a much more practical question: Are you willing to live for your faith seven days a week? I hope your answer to both is yes because Jesus & John the Baptist gave their lives so that we can have the privilege of living ours.