Continuing on with the John the Baptist series, 2 lessons left.
Jesus made it clear during His ministry that anyone desiring to serve Him, must be willing to sacrifice everything, “24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.'” Matthew 16:24 As we’ve seen, the very life of John the Baptist from the beginning was the epitome of sacrifice, therefore it seems only fitting that it be sacrificial to the very end. In fulfilling his mission, John preached throughout Judea, baptizing in repentance and preaching a bold, effective truthful Gospel. It was prophesied in the Old Testament that he would turn the hearts of the children of Israel back to God and that’s exactly what he did. The duration of his work was short and while he accomplished the task set before him, his life as a whole might have been considered a failure if measured by today’s worldly standards of success because it ultimately resulted in his imprisonment and death.
As we alluded to earlier, John rebuked not only the religious leaders of the day for their false ideologies and religious practices, but also King Herod for his inappropriate and incestuous relationship with his brother’s wife. In ancient Judea it would have been considered a death sentence to rebuke those leaders of the church, yet John was fearless and bold, disregarding any and all consequences because he knew his entire purpose was to fulfill the will of God at any and all costs. To understand exactly what John was up against when he challenged these religious leaders of old, we need to examine briefly their beliefs to fully appreciate on what grounds he stood regarding his rebuke.
The Pharisees were a small, yet influential group that was extremely legalistic in their views of obeying the Mosaic Law. In addition to obeying the written law as handed down from generation to generation, they instead added oral traditions to their beliefs. These extra-biblical beliefs were the source of their legalism that caused them to hold fast to every “minutiae of the law.” During His ministry, Jesus boldly pointed out that, “3 For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.” Mark 7:3 which is what Jesus was alluding to also in Matthew 23:25,” 25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.” As we pointed out in the previous lesson, their humanistic traditions were precisely what John was calling into question when he pointed out in Luke 3:9, “9And 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.” Simply put, their religion rested in the belief that it was passed down through a physical heritage.
Like the Pharisees, the Sadducees held equally significant role in the Bible. Unlike their blue-collar religious brethren, the Sadducees were elitists, interested primarily in financial gain, power, and prestige. Though they held elite priestly status in the temple, they denied all supernatural qualities of God. So as we can see, John basically has the representatives from the Jewish leaders of that day at his disposal and he takes full advantage of the opportunity to present the bold truth. If we think forward to Christ’s trial and subsequent crucifixion, it came at the hand of the Pharisees and Sadducees, so to speak out against them would have not only been deemed heretical, but life threatening. Still John persevered.
As if reprimanding the religious leaders wasn’t enough, John took it a step further by pointing out the evil that King Herod had committed. This Herod was Antipas, son to the equally evil Herod the Great, who reigned at the time Jesus was born. To gain perspective on how wicked these men were, we need to look no further than Matthew 2:16 when Herod the Great responded in anger to the wise men’s disobedience of his command to find the young Jesus and bring Him back. Herod’s anger and insecurity of his kingdom resulted in the brutal slaying of all newborns around Bethlehem. Yet his wickedness didn’t stop there as his insecurity and distrust led him to ultimately kill his family, the leaders of the region, and even the Sanhedrin. So here we have Herod the Great’s son who has now stolen his brother Philip’s wife, Herodius, because of her evil desire to be the queen. So to say that this family of Herodians was morally corrupt would be an understatement. Any challenge of their kingdom or authority was perhaps more of a death sentence than that of the afore mentioned religious leaders, because the king held ultimately monarchal rule. Nevertheless, John never hesitated and never faltered to point toward the truth and reprimand the evil actions of Herod as we read in Matthew 14:4, “4 Because John had said to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.'” He knew his exhortation of Herod could be costly, yet to ignore the blatant sins of anyone, would be considered a sin in its own right. However, this challenge would be costly to the ministry that was decreasing as that of Christ’s was increasing.
Ultimate Sacrifice: Freedom and Life
Herod enjoyed listening to John, he liked him, but he had to make a statement for his public embarrassment of being called out on his sin. Despite this, Herod imprisoned John. Matthew 14:3 recounts this episode, “3 For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.” Because of his ruthless, unforgiving and relentless attitude this embarrassment should have ultimately cost John his life.
But Herod feared him because of his great following and the declaration of the people of John being a prophet of God as we read in Matthew 14:5, “And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.” So here is John, imprisoned and at this point, it would be easy for our sinful nature to question imprisonment, especially given all the grace that God has bestowed upon John to this point. But this too was part of God’s ultimate plan, because now that John was in prison, the world stage was all Jesus’. John’s entire purpose, for preparing the way, was now complete.
Herod kept John in prison for nearly a year until a birthday celebration for the king required more entertainment than the normal feast. In an effort to seduce Herod, his new wife, Herodias, requested of her daughter to dance for the king. This would likely be the equivalent of a “stag” or bachelor party filled with strong drink, debauchery, and seductive dancing. Keep in mind that this young girl was also a distant relative of Herod’s, but his lust filled heart could care less. Essentially caught up in the moment, “7 Therefore he [Herod] promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask.” Matthew 14:7 Equally embarrassed of the public rebuke by John the Baptist, Herodias persuaded her daughter to ask for the head of John on a platter. (Matthew 14:8) Likely because of the fear of public ridicule for backing out of a solemn oath, Herod, despite regretting his vow, followed through and had John beheaded and his head brought on a platter to the girl, who subsequently took it to her mother, completing the morbid request.
John’s death was the result of a scheming evil plot by Herod’s wife that took advantage of the lust filled king. While Stephen (Acts 7:59) may have been the first martyr of the early Christian church, it’s clear to see that John was the first martyr for the Gospel from the time Christ’s ministry began. Upon his death, the disciples gathered up the lifeless body of the bold and obedient “Voice of the wilderness”, buried him, and told Jesus all that had transpired. This in fact was the key for the full launch of Jesus’ ministry. Upon hearing this news, 13 He (Jesus) departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities.” Matthew 14:13
Through his ministry, John the Baptist sacrificed his entire life, even unto death. In serving the Lord, he knew that speaking boldly may cost him certain liberties and he was aware of the dangers placed on his life by speaking out against the legalistic religious leaders and the corrupt and wicked king. In disregarding all consequences including his freedoms and his life, John persevered with endurance until the very end.
As we pointed out, God requires those that serve Him to “lay down their lives, pick up their cross and follow Him.” Despite our own insecurities, the fear of rejection, ridicule, or even persecution, we must persevere for the Gospel. Would that we had the boldness to speak the truth like John the Baptist, to confront not only the sins of those within our circle of influence, but to have the unquestionable courage to confront all sin, regardless of who’s at fault. Our lives should mirror John the Baptist’s and we must be willing to give up everything, even unto death, to serve the Lord.