Please read Mark 6:1-30
In 1995, a number of London publishing editors made what was possibly the worst decision of their lives. They had received a manuscript from a new and unheard-of author, currently leading a hand-to-mouth existence as a single mother in Edinburgh. A children’s novel – but this woman had no writing background, no contacts in the industry; and frankly the whole concept looked distinctly unpromising: a title that’s a complete turn-off for the target audience; a slow-moving opening page; and a fat boy who is a horrible villain – how politically incorrect! No, these editors had seen and heard it all before. Struggling author desperate to make a breakthrough – they saw the same thing hundreds of times a year. So publisher after publisher made the same response: put it on the rejection pile and think no more about it. Eventually, of course, J.K. Rowling did get her publisher. A new and unheard-of publisher called Bloomsbury agreed to take the book. In June, 1997, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in London; and in the next ten years we witnessed a unique publishing sensation, breaking all records and earning that tiny publisher Bloomsbury around ten million pounds every year. What about all the people who rejected the book and its author, those literary experts and publishing editors who made that fateful decision? They are left with the regrets of a dreadful missed opportunity, a decision they will always regret.
In this next section of Mark’s gospel we are looking mainly at two stories of rejection. This brings to a close the second main division of the book, ‘Authority and Opposition’ (1:14-6:30). These themes of authority and opposition form part of the wider agenda of the first half of Mark’s gospel (up to 8:21), which is to ask and to answer the question: Who is this Jesus? We have already come across a number of different answers, just as people have different answers to that question today. In this section, we see Jesus going back to his roots in Nazareth and facing opposition there; and we see what happens to his faithful herald, John the Baptist.
In vv.1-6, Jesus returns to his home town, in the Galilean hill country where he grew up: Nazareth is not named here by Mark, but there is no doubt it is what he means (compare v.1 with 1:9,24). In the synagogue the people are amazed: the locals simply don’t know how to cope with him (v.2). They have heard what he has been up to in other places – the profound words, the teeming crowds, even the miracles. But where does he get all this power and wisdom? If his family think Jesus is mad (3:21), it’s perhaps not surprising that the rest of the village struggle with his identity! They think they know him so well. He is just the local carpenter (v.3) – the Greek word tekton means builder as well. He is ‘Mary’s son’ – hinting, perhaps, that the real father isn’t known – and all his brothers and sisters are here. Listen to them ticking off the names, some of them no doubt still with the family firm. And Jesus – he was just the first of the family. He went away last year and now he’s back. He looks just the same as ever: it’s not as if he’s come back with a degree or a good job or even a smart suit. Sure, he’s gained a bunch of followers, but frankly they don’t look any more impressive than he does. Any self-respecting rabbi can make a better showing. In fact, they are no more disposed to be impressed with Jesus than the London publishers were with J.K. Rowling.
It is precisely their familiarity with Jesus which breeds their contempt. In v.4 Jesus uses his own version of that saying. His own people have rejected him. He’s not welcome at home; v.5 tells us he can do only a few miracles there – just some healings, not much by his standards. Of course, this means not that he has lost his power, but that he doesn’t find the faith he is looking for, to the extent that he is ‘amazed at their lack of faith’. They have seen Jesus himself, in the flesh, walking their own narrow streets – and decisively rejected him. It’s rejection that will continue and deepen, until he faces his trial and his death. Ultimately the Lord Jesus must face the scorn of his accusers and the contempt of the authorities as he goes to his death. Here at Nazareth he is rejected; and in the next episode, as he sends his disciples out, he warns them at the outset that they will face rejection too. The pattern we should expect is that the world will often reject our message; and therefore they will reject us, just as they rejected him. Sharing the gospel is a joyful task, but it’s a serious and costly business too. For some Christians, rejection is found even in their own home – and that makes them even more like Jesus, because it’s exactly what happened to him.
Jesus’ response to the opposition in Nazareth is not to give up or change his strategy (vv.6b-7). Nazareth itself is just a small village – its only significance is that Jesus has grown up there. Now in order to multiply his mission, Jesus sends the disciples out in pairs to do exactly what he has been doing himself. He’s been leading up to this for some time. When he first selected the Twelve (3:13-15), this was one of the objectives. vv.8-11 give us the pre-mission briefing. This story, by the way, does not teach us exactly what our own ministry should look like. This passage doesn’t teach us how much we should emphasise exorcism, healing, or even preaching. If we treat this particular mission of the disciples as a model, we will also have to stop sending money to our missionaries and for that matter, ban our ministers from taking a packed lunch to work – which some of us would certainly struggle with! No, this mission is intended for one specific purpose: to do exactly what Jesus is doing in the villages of Galilee and expand it. They must travel light, just as he does; and to show they are depending on God to provide for them. Their confidence must be entirely in him. The message they take is the same as Christ’s (v.12) – repent, turn away from your evil past, a decisive change is demanded, because now Jesus is here, God’s Kingdom has arrived and it’s time for you to join it. And to prove that the Kingdom is breaking in, to prove that Jesus is taking on and beating the powers of darkness, they too are to heal and drive out demons (v.13). He gives them the authority to do just that. They must find a base where they are welcome and stay there until it’s time to move on (vv.10-11). If a place refuses to welcome them and rejects their message, they are to leave with the clear message that rejection is mutual.
So the disciples go out in their pairs. We don’t know how the pairs are chosen, though it’s interesting to wonder whether Jesus takes delight in putting opposites together, like Matthew the former collaborator with Simon the political extremist, or Thomas the hesitant with Peter the impetuous! They go and preach the message of repentance; they drive out demons and they heal the sick – far more than Jesus could do in Nazareth; and in v.30 they return. They gather round and tell Jesus how their mission has gone. Jesus knows it will be good for them to share their bubbling excitement before they move on. Their first taste of mission has been an exciting success; but as we will soon see again, this is in sharp contrast to the potential cost of following their master.
For us, the story of the apostles’ mission – like the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth – contains a warning: Follow Jesus, and he could send you anywhere! The disciples have obeyed Jesus’ call and they are following him. Already they have seen some amazing sights; these last few months have been full of the most memorable experiences; but all the time they’ve had Jesus there with them. It hasn’t always been easy, it hasn’t always felt very safe – it certainly didn’t in that storm – but at least he has been there. In all their experiences, he’s been teaching them, training them; this could turn into a bit of a comfort zone. Now comes the moment when they are to move out on their own. No longer will there be someone looking over their shoulder, holding their hand, telling them what to do all the time. This is the day when they will sink or swim. When we follow Jesus, this is what happens. You and I, when we followed Christ, placed ourselves at his disposal. Are we ready to move out of the safety zone, as these disciples had to do? Many people in our churches today are spectators. But this is no spectator sport.
There is also a warning here for non-Christians: Reject Jesus, and you will face the consequences. Jesus gives the disciples careful instructions as they set out on their mission (v.11). This is the picture. When religious Jews returned to their homeland after visiting foreign countries, their practice was to pause at the border and ceremoniously shake or wipe the dust off their feet as they crossed over. They did not want their own country contaminated by even a single grain of Gentile dust. It was the symbol of utter rejection. When hostile villagers see the disciples making that gesture as they leave, they will understand what it means. You have rejected our call, so now you too are rejected. As Jesus says, it is a ‘testimony against them’. Ultimately, everyone will be judged by how they have responded to Jesus; and those villages and towns which rejected his message will have to pay the price. They will be excluded from his Kingdom, excluded from his presence for ever. Exactly the same warning comes to everyone who rejects Jesus today.
The noise of the party, muffled by the weight of stonework, has fallen suddenly silent. From the gloomy depths of his dungeon, John can only guess that Herod is holding another of his imperial-style receptions in the banqueting hall. He’s been here for months now. Only rarely has he had the chance to see anything beyond these four walls, though when Herod does make one of his regular visits to this palace fortress, he generally sends for his prisoner and intrigues himself with his spiritual speeches. On those occasions he may get a glimpse of the barren surrounding country, the brown hills rolling down to the Dead Sea. But this is odd – Herod’s parties usually last longer than this. Then comes the rapid tread of feet down the stairway, the rattling of the bolt, the cell door swung open and a dim light shining in. A powerful arm seizes him. As he is pressed down onto a stone block, he barely has time to realise what is about to happen. As a suspicion of the reason begins to form in his mind, the sword swings. And so it is that John the Baptiser meets his end as he pays the price of truth. This tale of sexual obsession, a ruler’s weakness, political tension and a woman’s passion for revenge is one of the most grisly and frightening stories in the whole Bible. In such a time, and in such a world, the Christian faith was born. Mark 6:14-29 forms the backdrop to those peaceful stories about a lake, and fishing-boats, and parables about fields and crops. The story of John’s death is unique in Mark’s gospel in that it’s the only one that doesn’t focus on Jesus himself.
Mark deliberately places this story in the middle of the account of the apostles’ mission. This is what he often does: bracketing one story within another so that one story illustrates or explains the other. There go the disciples on the mission Jesus has given them, faithfully carrying out their God-given task. While that’s in progress, Mark tells us: this is what serving God may cost. This is where it may lead you – to the executioner’s block. That is what makes the story of John’s death so chilling.
Now in fact, the whole story of John’s death is told in flashback. It’s happened a while before. The story here begins with the rumours that are running round about Jesus (vv.14-15). All the activity in Galilee is causing a stir, not surprisingly; and everyone has their own idea about who Jesus is. Some think he is John the Baptist restored to life. Now of course we know that John and Jesus are around at the same time: John actually baptised Jesus (1:9) and directed his own followers to him. But John disappeared from the scene about the time when Jesus popped up in Galilee, so it was just possible to think that John ‘finished’ before Jesus ‘started’. And John didn’t do any miracles, but if he had been raised from the dead, perhaps other amazing events might cluster around him – like the miracles that Jesus is doing. Then there are those who think that Jesus is the return of the prophet Elijah, who the Jews expected would have a special role in the end times (Malachi 4:5). Others prefer to believe he is simply a prophet like the ones who were around centuries before. There are three options, none of which really fit the evidence but which seem to be good enough for market-place gossip. I don’t think these are any weirder than some of the ideas about Jesus that float around today.
But all this talk about Jesus, which will crop up again in ch 8, is not the main point here. The point is that one of these theories is worrying the man in charge of Galilee (v.16). At the centre of the story is Herod, a son of King Herod the Great, the ‘Christmas Herod’. Herod the Great ruled the whole area, but when he died the country was divided into four parts (or tetrarchies). One part is ruled by his son Herod Antipas, who is the Herod in this story. He is in charge of Galilee, but also of an area called Perea, on the other side of the Jordan, which runs right down to the Dead Sea. Herod Antipas has a half-brother called Herod Philip, and he is married (at first) to Herodias. Confusingly, there is also another Herod Philip, again a half-brother, who rules a territory away to the north-east beyond Galilee. He is mentioned in the Bible (Luke 3:1) but he is not the Philip in this story!
Herod Antipas was married to the daughter of the king of the Nabateans, who occupied an area east of the Dead Sea (Petra, the city carved from the rock and a well-known tourist destination today was one of their main cities.) But now, Antipas has divorced his first wife, taken Herodias from his brother Philip and married her instead (v.17). By doing that he has made a number of enemies. He has outraged many of his Jewish subjects, because his actions are in clear defiance of God’s Law; and he has infuriated the Nabateans, a dangerous action because they are a powerful nation and his next-door neighbours. What seems to worry Herod Antipas most is this wilderness preacher named John. John has taken every opportunity to remind him of what he already knows – v.18 – ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’. The Law is very clear on the subject (Leviticus 20:21); and John’s forceful preaching on this could be heard as a call to an uprising. Religion and politics are never far apart in the New Testament – the strange idea that you can keep them separate is a very recent one. Herod has alienated both his subjects and his neighbours: the last thing he needs is John cranking up the tension with his preaching, so he arrests and confines him, probably in the fortress of Machaerus, just east of the Dead Sea – a fortress which is also a palace, very close to the area where John has been operating. That is good enough for Herod, but it does not satisfy his new wife. Clearly the happy couple don’t see eye to eye here (vv.19-20). Herod knows there is something special about this man, and although in one sense he can’t stand him, he is also drawn to keep listening to him; and this could carry on for years unless Herodias can find a way of finishing John off for good.
Eventually the opportunity comes. Herod Antipas, interestingly, is never officially a king: it is his persistent demand for the title that eventually leads the Romans to sack him. Mark’s use of the title is probably ironic. But his bitter frustration does not stop Herod from running his own show like a miniature version of the imperial court in Rome. This is what we see in the next scene (vv.21-23). It’s his birthday party, and Herod invites all his top men to Machaerus for a lavish display of his rather limited power. Herodias’ daughter Salome – the name isn’t in the Bible but we know it from the writer Josephus – is the daughter of her previous marriage and is probably in her mid-teens. Herod, no doubt, is delighted that his step-daughter is willing to perform for the assembled company. He doesn’t yet know why she should be so willing, but the reason will soon emerge. Her dancing is certainly seductive and quite possibly sexually explicit – this is Herod’s household, after all, where more or less anything goes. The fact that she is the princess merely adds extra spice to the show. No wonder all these powerful men are so ‘pleased’. They probably fail to notice the satisfied expression on the face of the figure who lurks in the shadows, waiting to spring her trap. Drunk on a heady mixture of power, wine and sex, Herod makes his ridiculous promise and seals it with an oath. Salome immediately asks her mother and the answer comes straight back (vv.24-25). Herod detests the idea, but he is trapped. They have all heard him make his oath: he will simply have to keep it, even if it proves he’s been outwitted by his wife. The executioner is sent; then and there the deed is done; and Salome presents her proud mother with her gruesome prize (vv.26-28). All that is left is for John’s followers to retrieve his body and give it the dignity in death which it was so horribly denied in life (v.29).
It’s a vivid story! Let’s revisit two of the key players. First, there is John, the voice of truth. John’s life story is hardly enviable. It was hard from start to finish. Commissioned by God to prepare the way for Jesus to come, he lived out in the wilderness; he lived rough, on the most bizarre of diets (1:6). He attracted a following, but his greatest moment came when he could point to Jesus and tell his followers to leave and follow him (1:7-8). His bold preaching led to a dungeon and a solitary death. But his story reminds us what we Christians are called to. John is clear, uncompromising and authentic. This is what we too are called to be as God’s people. In the twentieth century, the Church in the UK lost its nerve and retreated into a safe ghetto. It bought into the idea that politics is too dangerous, it’s unsafe ground for a real Christian. It forgot that it was the Church of John Newton, William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury and Elizabeth Fry. It retreated from the world, it went into the wilderness. But when John went out into the wilderness it was not a retreat. The wilderness became the vantage point for him to speak to his own culture. Will we recover our nerve in time to challenge our own authorities about injustice, immorality and laws that contradict God’s Word? The challenge is for us as individual believers too. No-one thanked John for telling the truth. There is no career structure for a prophet! The terrifying truth from this passage is that John, the hero, the man of God, dies a hideous, undignified death as the result of a sordid marital power struggle. He dies in the company of no-one but his executioner, with no kind words, no family at the bed-side, not a friendly face in sight. That is the price of truth. Are we willing to stand for the truth if our only support, our only vindication, comes from the Lord?
Then there is Herod, the voice of doubt. Herod does not come out of this story well. He arrests John because it’s the easiest way to deal with his problem, without regard to justice. He makes John into a kind of spiritual mascot whom he can bring out whenever he feels the need. There are plenty of people today who like the idea that they have a spiritual side to their life. They have no intention of committing themselves to anything, but whenever they feel like it they will look for a spiritual boost. Some even go to church for that reason. People can carry on that way for years, never really understanding that Jesus Christ came into the world to change their life, not to make them feel more comfortable. In the end, of course, Herod is manoeuvred into an action he never means to take and then finds himself living with his regrets, believing John has come back to haunt him. That’s where superstition gets you.
History passed its judgement on Herod. A few years later, the Nabateans launched an attack against him to avenge their humiliation. They scored a crushing victory over Herod’s forces; and he had even greater reason for regrets. The local populace interpreted this defeat as an act of God avenging John the Baptist’s murder; maybe they were right. Three years after that the Romans sacked him; and then he died. You could say that after that night at Machaerus, the career of Herod Antipas was on the skids. But far more serious than the judgement of history is the judgement of God. In this story, the clear loser is John, dying that lonely, meaningless death. But in eternity, it is quite the reverse. On the day when Christ is seated on the judgement throne, there will be vindication and reward for all God’s children – for John, for all who suffer today, for us who belong to him. But for everyone who has opposed him, there is eternal punishment. Not just a moment of terror in a palace dungeon, but an eternity of painful, bitter regrets. John was not the last Bible figure to face an unjust execution. There was another who suffered hideous injustice; who met the same Herod; who was condemned by a weak and vacillating ruler; whose broken body was laid in a tomb by a brave disciple. John’s death seems meaningless, but the death of the Lord Jesus gives meaning to the lives of all who know him.