17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
(Mark 6:17-29 NIV)
Let’s quickly recap and find the dot on the map that says “you are here”. Jesus has sent His disciples out in pairs to minister in Jewish villages (6:6-13). The disciples’ report on their ministry will come next (v. 30). In between, Mark takes a brief moment to tell of Jesus’ notoriety beyond Capernaum, even being mentioned in the circles of regional Roman government.
Herod Antipas, the Roman governor of the region of Galilee, had heard of Jesus. Herod had met John the Baptist but had only heard of Jesus. As we discussed last time, Jesus was very misunderstood as to who He was and what His mission was about. Some said Jesus was a prophet, some said He was Elijah returning as God promised, while others thought Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected.
Mark breaks with his typical overview writing style and provides a great deal of detail around John the Baptist’s relationship with Herod, including John’s imprisonment and death. This is the background-behind-the-story-within-a-story. Mark knew that his readers, both Jew and Gentile, would need some context to understand the implications.
Mark introduces us to Herod’s fears in verse 16, then goes on to explain in verses 17 – 29. To understand Herod’s fears of John the Baptist coming back from the dead to torment Herod for his death, we must understand John the Baptist’s life, imprisonment, and death.
Herod was married to his first wife, and during his first marriage, went to Rome to visit his brother and take care of matters of state. During his visit there, Herod fell in love with his half-brother Philip’s wife. Herod then divorced his first wife and married Herodias, his half-brother’s wife.
John the Baptist told Herod that what he did was wrong. Herod was troubled yet intrigued by John’s words. Herodias, Herod’s new wife, was offended and wanted John dead. Herod had John put in prison, partly to prevent a public uprising against him because he married his half-brother’s wife, and partly to appease his new wife Herodias and protect John (whom Herod recognized as a holy man) in the process.
On Herod’s birthday, he threw a big party for himself and invited all his government and military leaders to the bash. Herod was likely feeling good, full of food and drink. The entertainment was Herod’s step-daughter and niece, Herodias’ daughter Salome. She performed a dance in front of Herod and his guests. While Mark does not say, the dance was likely inappropriate and sensually charged. Herod, carried away by the moment, the wine, the food, and his lust, promises Salome up to half his kingdom.
Salome quickly consults with her mother Herodias, a cold and calculating woman. Herodias sees her chance to get rid of the person who is ridiculing her marriage to Herod – John the Baptist.
Salome goes back and makes her request to the king, who reluctantly grants her wish, if for no other reason than to save face in front of his guests. The executioner is summoned, John is beheaded in prison, and the rest is history.
While the text does not say, my guess is that Salome’s request ruined the festive mood and quickly sobered up Herod. This moment was likely uncomfortable for Herod’s guests as well, since they were likely forced to stick around to witness the fulfillment of Herod’s promise to Salome. This was not the way Herod envisioned his birthday party ending.
Mark finishes the story by noting that John the Baptists’ disciples learned of John’s death and retrieved his body and gave it a proper burial.
If you’re wondering how all this detail became known to Mark (via Peter), remember that Jesus’ influence had spread throughout the region, including some of Herod’s staff and their families (Luke 8:1-3).
As we consider today’s passage, we see that the Romans viewed life as cheap – stealing your half-brother’s wife was acceptable, having your step-daughter and niece provide sensual entertainment was encouraged, and killing a holy man to save face and show you’re in charge was a tough but necessary business decision.
On the other hand, we see John’s disciples’ view of life as precious. They took a risk of meeting the same fate as their mentor John, went to the prison, retrieved his decapitated body from the Roman human trash heap, and gave it a proper and respectful burial.
Mark spends much detail recalling John the Baptist’s story, as he knows that any one of them (and any one of us) could be called on to face the same thing as John. The cost of following Jesus is never easy.
May we remember those throughout history, up to and including our current time, that have given and are willingly and joyfully giving their very lives for Christ.
May we live in detachment to the things of this world and be humbly and boldly attached only to Christ, proclaiming Him and leaving the results and our fate in His hands.