Herod the Great had built up a magnificent and powerful rule. He was authoritative and feared. He was respected and not easily dismissed. Under his rule Jerusalem did quite well. He oversaw an extensive renovation of the Temple and expanded the Temple Mount itself. He tried hard, so it seems, to respect the traditions of the people of God and participated in much of the life and traditions of the people. But Herod was treacherous as well. He would not stand for opposition to his throne. When his wife Mariamme publicly opposed him, he had her executed. When her mother sought revenge, he had her executed as well. Soon he became concerned that the two sons he had by Mariamme were out to get him, so he had them strangled to death. And of course, when he learned from some Magi from the East that a new king had been born, he wasted no time in making a preemptive strike. He willingly slaughtered the children of Bethlehem to maintain control and silence any opposition.
Herod the Great had three sons who came to power. Although, by the time they were recognized in their seats of authority they were but a shadow of what their father had been. Their rule was extremely limited. Rome was happy to use them and even honor their family name but there was not any real political power anymore. Among the sons was Herod Antipas and Philip. Now, Philip was married to a woman named Herodias and her story is a confusing tale of incestuous royalty and power moves made by marriage to the right house. When she sees no chance of advancement with her husband Philip, she divorces him and marries his brother Herod Antipas. When she and her daughter Salome set up home in their new location, thinking this will at least give them some way to advance themselves, they are faced with an unseen problem. They are immediately pestered by a strange character we know as John the Baptist.
Of course, everything we know about John the Baptist tells us this guy does not play games. He is not a man of half measures or a timid proclamation of the Word of God. This is the guy who challenged the Pharisees coming out to be baptized by him saying, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee the wrath that is to come. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” So, when he leans Herod Antipas has married his brother’s wife, he calls it out. This is unlawful. If you want to live like a man of the faith, if you want to claim that as your identity, then this cannot stand. Herodias wanted John immediately to be put to death, but Herod just could not do it. He knew John was a righteous and holy man, and as such he feared him. While he wanted him to stop preaching against his marital affairs, he just could not quite bring himself to have him killed. Instead, he has John imprisoned.
John, the great forerunner of our Lord. John, the one who leapt in the womb of his mother when he heard the voice of Mary. John, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the paths of the Lord.” John, the one who baptized our Lord and saw the heavens tear open and the Spirit of God descend upon Jesus. John, who heard the voice of God declare, “This is My beloved Son.” This John learns firsthand what our Lord means when he says to his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” There is a clear cost to following our Lord. It is not that you need to do certain things to be worthy of a follower and not that He awaits your effort before He calls you a brother or sister. No, it is when He calls you His brother or sister, He fundamentally changes your situation in this age, but this comes with a cost.
We tend to think of discipleship as something primarily guided by our individual desires and passions. Your discipleship is different than her discipleship and each one will decide how far they will go with it. Everyone seems to understand what things they will engage in and what things they will pass by. However, our Lord seems to present us with quite a different reality. The contours of how you live your life is certainly within your wisdom and choosing but discipleship and cross bearing are not two separate things. If you are going to follow your Lord, it will come with a cross. Now, that cross may look different for each one of you. It has taken various forms at different times throughout history, but it is always there. Perhaps it is the crucifying of passions and desires which captivate your hearts and minds. Perhaps it is facing ridicule from friends and family members because you go to Bible study. It could be the reality of living a life that is never satisfied with what this life has to offer, a disjointed sort of existence where you are seeking but never content. Or it could be outright and hostile rejection of all you hold dear.
John was the great forerunner of our Lord. He had prepared the world to meet the only begotten Son of God. But the word he proclaimed was met with violent opposition. On Herod’s birthday there was a great party. All of the nobles and military leaders were there, and Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the men. Yes, it had become a pretty twisted family. But Herod was so taken with it, and he had probably had a little too much to drink, that he made a public vow to give her whatever she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. She then immediately goes to her mother to inquire as to what she ought to ask for. Her mother does hesitate to say, “The head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was upset by this. He did not want to do it, but there was public pressure. Everyone was looking at him to see if he would keep his word. So, John is executed, beheaded at the request of a girl as a favor for a dance she performed.
In Saint John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta there is a whole section called the oratory dedicated to this incident. As you make your way to the front you are greeted with a stunning painting by Caravaggio of the moment where they are removing John’s head from his body. And you wonder why, why feature this incident? Well, I think it is a crucial thing for us to remember. It is probably the same reason we have so many paintings of the crucifixion or images depicting the martyrdom of many of the apostles. It is the correction to the prosperity preachers, the ones who would have the masses believe that if you just pray enough or give enough or trust enough why then glory will come your way. You will be happy, wealthy, and wise. It is a reminder discipleship comes with a cross, and that cross is not the abandonment of God or the absence of His love. Rather, the cross is the reaction of a world consumed by sin as it tries to silence the mercy of God.
John died a humiliating death. It was low and shameful and powerless. But it points to another death, a greater death. It directs us toward our Lord Jesus Himself. And there it is not Herod but Pilate who seeks to spare the life of this man. It is not a vengeful woman but a whole crowd of opposition that clamors for His death. As Pilate tries to release Him after having him whipped, they shout, “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” His humility was put on display for all to mock. He who is righteous and holy died for sins which were not His own. He died for you. In His death He creates something new. He binds you to Himself. He binds you to His suffering and death and resurrection. He binds you to the promise of something beyond this age.
We see this in John’s story as well. For as Herod marvels at the works of Christ, he is convinced it is John back from the dead. In other words, the work of the Kingdom continues to go forth. The cross marks discipleship but it does not end the working of the Kingdom of God. In fact, it just might be that it is from the cross true faith is strengthened and refined. It is here you are given the promises of life and victory beyond these temporal struggles and trial. You are bound to your Lord, bound to His cross, and bound to His victory.