February 8-9 sermon resource

Death of John the Baptist

What this passage means to us

This passage is the last time Mark records Jesus teaching specifically in a synagogue and the rejection we see in Nazareth foreshadows the rejection (and death) he will face in Jerusalem. Like many who reject Christianity today, their issue was not specifically with Jesus words or deeds. “Rather than perceiving the depth of his teaching, the compassion of his actions to the needy, and the significance of his having come home to them again, Jesus’ kinfolk chose to belittle him by reference to his background, and to their familiarity with him and his family” [1]. They confess in Mark 6:2 the wisdom of his words and likewise marvel at his miracles, but they cannot get past who they believe Jesus to be. “They simply think it unlikely that God can work so dramatically in this fellow who comes from their midst. They cannot get beyond the infinitesimal size of the mustard seed and can see nothing else” [2]. This perhaps goes some way to explain why it has been so important to Mark to explain in his gospel not just what Jesus taught, but who Jesus was – the Son of God.

Mark’s record that Jesus “could do no mighty work there” (Mark 6:5) is not to suggest that faith is some kind of magic resource that Jesus used to perform miracles, but rather it reflects the relational nature of Christ’s ministry. “Where that relationship is one of near total animosity on the part of the crowd, the setting is not right for healing intended to provide an opportunity for perception of who he was” [3]. The healings that Jesus has performed so far in Mark have also had a strong participative element. Jesus does not just heal random people to make a point, people either bring the sick to Jesus for healing as in the case of the paralytic (Mark 2:3) or they seek Jesus out to come with them and heal someone they love (e.g. Jairus). Christ desires for us to participate in his ministry and after this encounter we see this yet again when Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the gospel.

That Jesus desires our participation in his ministry can seem miraculous in and of itself. Mark’s description of the disciples so far has not been flattering. They have failed to understand who Jesus really is (Mark 4:41) and they have struggled to understand his teachings (Mark 4:13), yet, despite this, Jesus sends them out as his witnesses, and perhaps this is key. They are witnessing to Jesus and not to themselves. The disciples did not go out on their own strength. They took nothing with them, and Mark specifically tells us that they could only cast our demons on Christ’s authority. They ministered not through their own strength but instead participated in Christ ministry. It was Christ who gave them the authority and the power. God provided for their physical needs.

When Jesus sends his disciples out he warns them that they too will face rejection as they participate in his ministry. Rejection is definitely the strongest theme in this passage of scripture yet as this passage builds to the death of the John the Baptist it is worth noting that Mark has already hinted through the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter at the hope we have in Christ that death is not the end. Herod feared that Jesus was a resurrected John (Mark 6:16) yet the truth is so much greater. Jesus is the one who conquers death and the one through whom all will one day be raised.

Mark’s account of John the Baptist’s death has several interesting features. Perhaps the biggest feature to note is the similarity between what John goes through and what will happen to Jesus. In his opening chapter Mark introduces John as the one who prepares the way (Mark 1:2) – and it would seem that John does this even in his death. In Mark 6:21-29 Mark seems sometimes to suggest that that Herod is somehow an innocent party to John’s death and that he was trapped or tricked into killing him. Yet it was Herod who was in charge and ordered John’s death. Herod’s attempts to wash his hands of the killing of John the Baptist foreshadow Pilate’s own attempts to absolve himself of Jesus’ crucifixion Jesus. Both men chose to do what was politically expedient for themselves at the cost of doing what was right.

The inclusion of the women in this narrative is also interesting and draws several parallels. First, it reinforces the connection between John the Baptist and Elijah as Elijah also faced death because of the opposition of the King Ahab’s wife Jezebel. But Herod blaming Herodias also reminds us of Adam blaming Eve for his sin. Eve may have tempted Adam to eat the fruit, but Adam was still the one who decided to go against God’s instructions. That Herod regarded John as being “righteous and holy” (Mark 6:20) only goes to highlight that Herod is anything but innocent when he orders his death.

“Mark 6:14–16 shows that the real object in telling the story of John’s death is not to entertain the reader with a juicy tale but to help the reader to understand Jesus better. John, not Jesus, is “Elijah,” the great prophet who announces the Messiah, and his ministry was to prepare the way for Jesus, who is then to be seen as Messiah. But more than simply announcing the Messiah and his work, John prefigured it in his death, indicating that the Messiah’s work too is to suffer death, and this to accomplish God’s will” [4]

Scripture resources

  • Matthew 14:1-12
  • Luke 9:9

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and References

  1. Donald English, Bible Speaks Today: the Message of Mark, (Downers Grove, IL: 1996). Digital edition.
  2. David E. Garland, NIV Application Commentary: Mark(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2011). Digital Edition
  3. Donald English, Bible Speaks Today: the Message of Mark, (Downers Grove, IL: 1996). Digital edition.
  4. Larry Hurtado, Understanding the Bible Commentary: Mark, (Ada, MI: Baker Books, 1989). Digital edition.
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