John the Baptist -- the Messiah's forerunner, Elijah in the wilderness, the prophesied one, the greatest born of women -- did not get preferential treatment. Read Jesus' words again:
God's approbation did not guarantee God's liberation. Herod crushed John like a bug on the floor. All it took was a hot dance, a little bravado, and a foolish oath.
Remember the story? Herod's step daughter danced in front of his dinner guests. Herod was so pleased that he said, "Ask me for whatever you wish . . . . And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:22-23 ESV).
The girl did not know what to request, but her momma did. Momma despised John. She told her daughter to ask for his head on a platter.
26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. Mark 6:26-28
Apparently it was a short trip from Herod's dinning room to the execution chamber. The hatchet man was not paid to dilly dally. I wonder how many mouthfuls the king finished before John was finished. Did Herod's knife fall from his hand before the sword severed John's neck?
What thoughts raced through the Baptist's mind when the executioner appeared. Certainly John heard the commotion. Perhaps he felt a determined clap clap clap on a stone floor as the soldier neared. Then he saw the saber's gleam and he felt the hardened look and he heard the word that signaled the end.
I'm relaxed in a comfortable chair in my study as I read these word. John may not have any time to reflect, but I do. "Wait a minute?" I protest. "What about . . .
- "No weapon formed against me shall prosper" Isaiah 54:17
- "I have never seen the righteous forsaken" Psalm 37:25
- "Trust in the Lord with all your heart . . ." Proverbs 3:5-6
- "The LORD will keep you from all evil . . ." Psalm 121:7
But in the time I could look up the references the sword fell, the body slumped, the platter was brought, and the head delivered. Herod's guilt passing faster than the sword that would end John's life. Meanwhile, the guests partied on into the night.
Interestingly, Jesus offers no explanation and tenders no apology. Again I protest: "But Lord, this is the great John the Baptist. Certainly he deserves better than that!"
As I search to make sense of the senseless I find my way to Matthew 11, where I hear my Leader utter these words:
New Testament Craig Blomberg sheds some light on this difficult passage:
Despite the many blessings of the arriving kingdom, from the early days of John’s ministry to the present moment in Jesus’ life, God’s reign has nevertheless received increasing opposition.
That's my wake-up call. Following Jesus is an invitation to his Kingdom Party, but that is at the end of the battle. In the meantime, this is war. Paul makes that clear:
- "Fight the good fight of the faith" (1 Timothy 6:12)
- Be "a good soldier of Christ Jesus" (2 Timothy 2:3)
- "Put on the whole armor of God" (Ephesians 6:11)
Yes, God comforts me, but following Jesus is not about my comfort. It is about his mission, a mission that advances as a spiritual struggle, a battle "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12).
War brings casualties: People hurt. Soldiers die. Great men fall.
The army marches on.
- "Despite the many blessings . . . " from Blomberg, C. (1992). Vol. 22: Matthew. The New American Commentary (188). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.