The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
“Speaking the Truth Can Get You Killed”
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus
St. Mark 6.14-29
29 August 2021
SOLI DEO GLORIA!
When one mentions King Herod there might be some confusion about him. There are four different King Herods mentioned in the New Testament because Herod is a family name. This family tree is more confusing than that of the European royal families since King Herod the Great had five wives, and sons by all of them. This Herod slaughtered the infant boys of Bethlehem [Matt. 2.16-23]. These Holy Innocents, as they are called, were the first martyrs to our Lord. Herod Antipas was a son. He is the Herod who put John the Baptizer to death. Then there was Herod Agrippa I, the grandson of the first King Herod. He persecuted the church and was responsible for the death of James, the brother of the Apostle John, He had his sights on Peter until an angel delivered Peter from prison [Acts 12.1-19]. Then there was Herod Agrippa II before whom the Apostle Paul was brought to make a defense of himself. Murder and assassination was a way of life in this royal family with all sons wanting to be king. Those who achieved the kingship were always on the lookout for any rival. Rivals were assassinated. Perhaps a fitting term for this royal family would be Murder Incorporated. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. She appears to have been married many times and had her eyes on whoever had the most power and money. She had been married to Philip, the half brother of Herod Antipas. Both of these husbands were also her uncles. Incest seems to be rather common among them. It is thought that Herod also had an incestuous relationship with Herodias’ daughter. Herodias was as evil and murderous as anyone in this family. Given these circumstances one should not be surprised that John the Baptizer ran afoul of this royal couple when John had condemned Herod’s taking of his brother’s wife while she was still married to Philip, Herod Antipas’ brother.
“Speaking the Truth Can Get You Killed,” especially when spoken to people with absolute power. There was no free speech in John’s world, yet John was fearless in his denunciation of the sins of those who came out to hear him, calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” He announced that God’s wrath was coming on them, referring to them also as “the chaff” which “will burn with unquenchable fire.” John threatened them with hell! [Matt. 3.7-12] For condemning the relationship of Herod and Herodias John ended up in prison, Herod being afraid of John.
When John sat in prison he sent his disciples to ask Jesus if he were “the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” [Matt. 11.1-3]. Jesus asked the crowds about John, asking rhetorical questions.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” [Mt 11:7–9]
Among those born of woman, Jesus said, none was greater than John. In fact, as the forerunner of the Christ he was the Elijah who was to come. Those who fell under the accusations of God’s Law said John was possessed by a demon.
The opportunity for Herodias to get her revenge came and she made full use of it. Her daughter who danced for her stepfather’s delight consulted with her mother for what she should ask. She wanted—and got!—John’s head on a platter, something that did not shock these randy royals. Herod was a lecher as were nearly all the ruling people.
“Speaking the Truth Can Get You Killed.” No one likes to have the light of God’s condemnation shined on his sins. Few are those who will tolerate it. In his defense at Worms Luther spoke plainly to the Diet, the ruling princes of the Empire, knowing that they had the power to put him to death. Luther was declared an outlaw by Charles V following his bold testimony at Worms and anyone who found him could put him to death. “Speaking the Truth Can Get You Killed.”
You have probably never heard of Robert Barnes. He was one of the first Lutheran martyrs. He was an Englishman and was the prior of the Augustinian monastery in Cambridge. He became a Lutheran and was exiled to Germany where he became a friend of Luther, having dined often at the Luther household. When he returned to England he shared the Lutheran faith with King Henry VIII and initially received a positive reception. In 1529 he was named royal chaplain. However, his confession of the truth of Scripture about marriage earned him the hatred of Henry because, like John the Baptizer, Barnes would not condone Henry’s divorces and murder of his wives. Speaking the truth got him burned at the stake in Smithfield in 1540. He was the first Lutheran martyr in England.
We often think that martyrdom is ancient history when in fact it is a very contemporary thing. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all of the centuries leading up to it. Martyrdom goes on. Just last week the Nigerian-based International Society on Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law issued its midyear report. Jihadist Fulani herders were responsible for 1,909 of the 3,462 Christians killed in Nigeria in the first half of this year. Fulani militias target Christian areas in all six Nigerian regions. Christian communities in Nigeria’s north and middle belt are being driven out systematically. [nationalreview.com/2021/08] We. know of the persecution and deaths of Christians in many nations including Communist China. Marxism cannot tolerate a God who condemns sin. Islam cannot tolerate the confession of Christ as true God.
The time has come for us Christians to realize that we face persecution for confessing Christ. We will not likely suffer beheading, but we may be persecuted. Well known are the accounts of the Christian baker, Jack Phillips, who refused to decorate a cake approving homosexual marriage, or the Christian florist, Barronelle Stutzman, in Richland, Washington, who refused to make floral displays for same-sex marriages. The United States Supreme Court has refused to take up her case. She has been ruined economically yet remains joyful in Christ. Not only do the cultural Marxists have the family in their crosshairs, but Christianity is really at the center of their hatred. People as evil as Herodias use the government to persecute those who are bold enough to refuse to participate in their sin. It may be subtle, but it bursts into the open with increasing frequency.
Satan does not want God’s truth to be spoken! Satan wants his lies spoken and accepted. There are not different truths. Such a concept is a logical absurdity. There is only one truth and it is objective. To speak of “your truth” and “my truth” is to contradict what truth is, an objective reality. Such people would ask you to all become Pontius Pilates. When Jesus told Pilate that he had come into the world to “bear witness to the truth” and that all those who are of the truth listen to him, Pilate uttered the infamously skeptical words, “What is truth?” [John 18.37-38]. For Pilate there was no objective truth.
While our commemoration of the martyrdom of John the Baptizer is the theme today we must, above all, also remember his bold confession of Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Repentance leads to forgiveness. Those who do not repent of sin will never hear the sweet message of the forgiveness of sins proclaimed in the Gospel. Speaking the truth about Christ as the only Savior of the world will get you killed in many Islamic and Marxist nations.
Just last week our Synod’s President, Matthew Harrison, mentioned persecution of our Finnish Lutheran brothers and sisters for maintaining that marriage is only between a man and a woman. The Finnish government has gone after two prominent persons who speak the truth. Jail is a very real possibility for them just as it was for the Apostle Paul who spent years in prison for speaking the truth. It is not an anomaly these days. Speaking the Truth Can Get You Killed, or at the very least, canceled, exiled, imprisoned, or economically destroyed. Confessing Christians are on the receiving end of Satan’s murderous intentions!
Our comfort does not lie in the protection of the government. “Trust [not] in princes” advises the Psalmist [Psalm 118.9], as we sang last week in our Lutheran hymnal::
Trust not in rulers;
they are but mortal;
Earth-born they are and soon decay . . . [LSB 797.2]
Governments have condoned and continue to condone violence against Christ’s people.
One does not seek martyrdom or it is not martyrdom. Martyrdom is thrust upon you. In our Second Reading the Apostle John tells us that martyrdom will continue to the end of this age:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. [Rev. 6.9-11]
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” is reportedly a paraphrase of something the early Church father Tertullian wrote:
But do your worst, and rack your inventions for the torture of Christians—it is all to no purpose; but attract the world, and make it fall in love the more with our religion; the more you mow us down, the thicker we rise; the Christian blood you spill is like the seed you sow, it springs from the earth again, and fructifies the more. [The Apology of Tertullian, Merton College, Oxford: Clarendon Press, p. 143].
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us not fear what man might do to us. Fear God alone!Learn to think and live like John! What lies ahead for us is the final victory in Christ. You have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Our Lord’s promise holds true even now, especially now:
Because I live, you also will live. [John 14.19b]
Physical death is not the end of the Christian but only the beginning of a new and glorious life. As we commemorate the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptizer and all those who were martyred for the faith, find comfort in these words of the great Lutheran hymn, Behold a Host, Arrayed in White:
Despised and scorned, they sojourned here;
But now, how glorious they appear!
Those martyrs stand,
A priestly band,
God’s throne forever near.
On earth they wept through bitter years;
Now God has wiped away their tears,
Transformed their strife
To heav’nly life,
And freed them from their fears.
They now enjoy the Sabbath rest,
The heav’nly banquet of the blest;
The Lamb, their Lord,
At festal board
Himself is host and guest. [Behold a Host, Arrayed in White, LSB 676.2]
God the Holy Spirit grant us all boldness to confess Christ even if it means martyrdom!
In the Name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit.