Mark 6:12-30. But she got eaten by dogs in the end.

So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. 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’ 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. The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.

 

We looked last week at the sending out of the 12- and at the implications that the way they are to behave- going out two by two, taking nothing for the journey, staying in one house in each place, and shaking the dust from their feet when rejected- has for our evangelism.

We turn now to the account Mark gives of John the Baptist and his death, which he places between the sending and the return of the Twelve.

 

1) First we are told what the current pundits in the village synagogues all over Israel make of Jesus- he is either John the Baptist back from the dead, or he is Elijah, or he is “A prophet, just like in the olden days”. Why do people identify Jesus with John, or with Elijah?

2) The people identify Jesus to be John or Elijah, but Mark and Jesus himself identify John as Elijah (1:1-3, 9:13). Why is this, and how do we see the likeness in this particular passage?

3) Mark is using his split-screen technique again here, placing John’s death between the sending out of the Twelve, and their return. Why would he do this?

Discussion

1) Jesus is famous. Everyone is talking about him. It is a guaranteed conversation starter in the local market place, “So… what do you make of this Jesus guy then?” People hope that he might be the Messiah. He has certainly attracted a lot of attention with his miracles and his teaching. Mark tells us what the current pundits in the village synagogues all over Israel make of Jesus. There seem to be several opinions on the matter.

Some of them reckon that he is John the Baptist back from the dead, in a different body and able to do miracles. Others think that he is Elijah.  A third group are less willing to pin their colours to the mast quite so definitely, merely affirming that he is “A prophet, just like in the olden days”.

Why do people identify Jesus with John, or with Elijah, or with a prophet?

Some people think that Jesus is John the Baptist, risen from the grave. John had been a sensation himself- crowds had flocked to hear him in the wilderness. They had wondered whether John might be the Messiah (Luke 3:15). And John had been similar to Jesus in some ways. Both men were evidently men of God. Both men spoke with an authority which couldn’t be ignored.

John had stood outside all the religious structures of Israel. John’s father had been a priest, and had served in the temple, but John himself abandoned that and lived outside in the wilderness. Rather than taking part in the temple system, he stood outside it and taught that good Jews needed to repent and be baptised. He condemned Israel as faithless  and prophesied speedy destruction for them. Jesus too seemed to be outside the religious mainstream of Israel. The Pharisees disapproved of him. Like John, he didn’t base himself in Jerusalem, but in “Galilee of the Gentiles”- a relative wilderness.

Others see Jesus as Elijah, and all those similarities Jesus had to John were also similarities to Elijah. Moreover, the Jews had Scriptural reason to expect Elijah to come back to them. The prophet Malachi spoke of an Elijah who was to come- in the closing words of the Old Testament…

“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)

Elijah himself had not been seen to die. He had been separated from Elisha by heavenly chariots and horses, and had been taken up in a whirlwind. The sons of the prophets, his followers, had wanted to go and search for him after that, thinking he might be alive somewhere out there. Elisha initially forbade it, then relented and allowed them to go, knowing that they would find nothing. And the Jews rightly expected Elijah to come back before the day of the Lord. Maybe Jesus was this Elijah- maybe the day of the Lord was just around the corner. Jesus was going around teaching that the kingdom of God was at hand, wasn’t he?

 

2) The people identify Jesus to be John or Elijah, but Jesus himself identifies John as Elijah (1:1-3, 9:13). Why is this, and how do we see the likeness in this particular passage?

Elijah and John are very similar indeed. They dress alike. Both come from the wilderness, eating wilderness food and wearing wilderness clothes. John “was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey” (Mark 1:6), and Elijah was recognisable because “he wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist” (2 Kings 1:8), and he hid in the wilderness and was fed by wild birds for a time.

But the similarity is more than cosmetic. They both occupied similar prophetic roles. Both of them were sent to call a wicked nation to repentance. To some extent, all the prophets did this, but John and Elijah have a deeper similarity. Both of them expected God to break out in wrath against Israel immediately, and yet neither of them saw the day of wrath they predicted.

Elijah was sent to a near-Baalist people. Ahab had imported the religious practises of his pagan wife, Jezebel, and his court was full of Baalist prophets. The people had all but abandoned their covenant with the living God. Elijah comes to urgently force repentance upon the people. He does miracles and brings blessing- but only outside Israel. Israel deserved no blessing, and so though there were many widows in Israel, it was the widow of Zarephath to whom he went. Elijah called down covenant curses (a three-year drought in this case) on the land, and then confronted the false religion of the king head-on.

Perhaps the clearest look inside Elijah’s head comes just after that though. He has just won an amazing victory. He has proven publicly that Baal is an empty idol, and that his God is real. He has slaughtered all the 450 prophets of Baal. The people have fallen on their faces and said “The Lord, he is God”. It looks as though Elijah is seeing fantastic results from his preaching. It looks as though the nation are returning to their God. So Elijah has prayed for the drought to be lifted, and rain has fallen- all that in 1 Kings 18.

But in the next chapter, reality bites. In the very first verse, we realise that nothing much has changed, Jezebel’s name is mentioned- she is still around. If Ahab had been truly repentant, he’d have put her away as an evil woman. If the people had been truly repentant, they’d have risen up against her and killed her for her crimes. But not only is she still there- she is even still powerful enough to make threats to Elijah which he found wholly believeable. Elijah expects no protection from the people, or from Ahab. He feels that the repentance shown on Mount Carmel was about as deep as a puddle. He runs away. Elijah thinks that the people are still wicked, and that he is the only faithful Israelite there is. Given that, his request to God is shocking. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). In effect, Elijah is asking for God to end his covenant with Israel- to kill the last remaining faithful man. He has tried to bring Israel to repentance, and he thought he’d done it- but now he sees that he is no better, and no more successful than his fathers. He despairs of the nation. He wants only wrath for them now.

John’s appearance calls to mind Elijah, but so do John’s words-

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:7-10)

Both men see very clearly that wrath is on the way for a disobedient and God-fearless people.

In this particular passage, there is a strong similarity. Elijah fought against Ahab and Jezebel- a wicked king and the pagan wife he should never have married. John too had his Ahab and his Jezebel. Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and he had married the wife of his brother, Philip. John spoke out clearly against this, and earned the undying enmity of Herodias. As our American cousins say, “You can’t tell the players without a scorecard”, and it is easy to get mixed up with the many Herods in the Bible. The Herod of Jesus’ early life- the man the wise men visited, and who tried to have the infant Jesus killed- was Herod the Great. The Herod here in Mark 6 is Herod Antipas. The Herod who will appear in Acts and speak to the apostle Paul is Herod Agrippa. Antipas and Herodias, like Ahab and Jezebel, are wicked rulers rebuked by a faithful prophet.

The similarity goes further than that, however. Ahab just might have listened to Elijah, had it not been for his wife. He was an evil man, but he hadn’t the strength and determination she had. We see this in several situations; Ahab was willing to take orders from Elijah just after Carmel. Had Jezebel been there, she would rather have died. In the case of Naboth’s vineyard, Ahab was sulky about Naboth’s refusal to sell him the land- but he wasn’t willing to flout the law and take it by force. It was Jezebel who trampled all over the Israelite concern for ancestral lands (not to mention the sanctity of life), and killed Naboth in cold blood to take his land.

And so it was with Herod and Herodias. Herod is evil, and he is quite willing to lock John up because it doesn’t suit him to have a prophet going around issuing condemnations of his sins. But he can see some sense in John’s critiques of Israel. He is strangely drawn to listen to John’s calls for repentance, and they worry him. He is also afraid of God. He doesn’t dare kill John, because he knows that John is righteous and holy. A man who had no fear of God would not let such a thing stop him, whereas Herod not only won’t kill John without the influence of wine and pride, but he is wracked by guilt after the event. When he hears of Jesus’ miracles, he jumps to the conclusion that John has come back from the dead to haunt him.

Herodias was a harder case. She harboured a long grudge against John, and would kill him in a heartbeat if she got the chance. She seems to have made her plans, waited for the opportunity, and seized her chance when it appeared. Herod made a rash vow to Herodias’ daughter (Josephus tells us that her name was Salome), and she went to see her mother who was ready with her answer.

This pattern of a strong evil woman standing behind a weaker evil man is a recurring one in the Bible. It was Adam’s sin that caused the exodus from Eden, but he was weak before Eve’s desire to eat the fruit. Samson was the strongest man in the world, but was putty in the hands of the scheming Delilah. Though Ahab was an evil man, he crumbled in the face of Elijah. It was Jezebel who was able to make Elijah crumble. And so it was with Herod and Herodias. John stands as the new Elijah. Patterns set in the Old Testament reach fulfilment when Jesus comes.

 

3) Mark is using his split-screen technique again here, placing John’s death between the sending out of the Twelve, and their return. Why would he do this?

If John’s life is meant to be like Elijah’s, then John’s death is almost counter-intuitive; Elijah had faced great opposition, but had never actually been killed by Jezebel, only threatened with death. In fact, Elijah never died at all. John is his New Testament counterpart, but where Elijah saw great blessings and national repentance and eternal life, John got his head served up as a grisly dish as a banquet. How can this be explained? Now that Jesus has come, wouldn’t you expect all to be victory, all the way? The kingdom of God has arrived. So how come God’s prophets are still being killed? How come “Jezebel” is victorious?

We looked last time at the sending of the Twelve, and the importance of all the instructions Jesus gave them. We didn’t think of the importance of the setting of their sending in the context of Mark’s Gospel. By splitting the story of the Twelve up around the account of John, Mark is linking the ministry of the Twelve to the ministry of John.

The Twelve found their preaching journeys very exciting. They cast out demons, healed the sick, and preached repentance. They believed that the kingdom of God was here- and now they were seeing it take concrete forms at their own hands! It must have been thrilling to be able to command demons and have them obey, or to be able to heal incurable ills. It is hard for us to imagine. But the apparent success of their work bodes ill for them. They were doing as their master did, acting by his authority- and seeing victory. They expected unalloyed victory, battle after battle won until all Israel repents and believes and enthrones Jesus as king. By cutting to a different scene- to John’s death- Mark reminds us of the reality of kingdom life. Victory only comes through death. Before the crown, comes the cross. This episode is an ominous portent for the Twelve, and it foreshadows Jesus’ own death. The disciples seem to have enjoyed their ministry, and were probably received as Jesus was- with joy and expectation by most ordinary Jews. But John had also been a faithful minister, and his faithfulness cost him his head. It is very important for Mark’s readers to take this on board. They will face imperial persecution. When the knock comes on the door in the middle of the night, they will half-expect it to be the legionaries coming to arrest them. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for them. They know that they are on the Lord’s side, and so will win in the end, but they should also be aware that no war is fought without casualties. 

Jesus came to bring God’s kingdom to the world, and the world put him to death. The Twelve can expect no better treatment at the hands of the world, and neither did John, and neither can the church of Jesus Christ today.

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