Mark 6:14-29

Counting the Cost in the Cause of Christ

Mark diverts his attention in only two places in his gospel to tell the story of anyone but Jesus.  Both instances are about John.  In the first instance (c.f. Mark 1) we are introduced to John  as the one announcing the arrival of Jesus.  And here Mark writes about John as the one who foreshadows the death of Jesus.  I want to share six observations about this passage.

#1 The disciples’ mission to spread Jesus’ name was successful.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.  Mark 6:14

This account of Herod and John comes as a “sandwich” between the sending out of the disciples (v.7-13) and their return to Jesus to report what they had done (v.30).  While this passage might seem at first glance to be out of place (why the sudden details about the death of John the Baptist?), we see that verse 14 links it with the preceding passage.  As the disciples spread the name of Jesus, Herod came to hear about it.  So far in chapter 6 we’ve seen a theme of faithfulness to mission and rejection by the world (Jesus was rejected in Nazareth, the disciples were to be prepared to shake the dust off their feet, and now the death of John).

While Mark refers to Herod as king, he would have been more commonly referred to as a tetrarch. Both Matthew and Luke use the more common designation of tetrarch (see Matthew 14:1 and Luke 9:7).  Herod is the son of the more well known Herod the Great who was ruler at the time of Jesus’ birth.

#2 Herod has a troubled conscience.

Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”   Mark 6:14b-16

Discussion is had as to the identity of Jesus.   Some say he is John the Baptist back from the dead.  Even though no miraculous deeds are ever attributed to John, this apparently mother-of-all-miacles is attributed to him.  Others believe Jesus to be Elijah.  This comes from Malachi 4:5-6 where God promises to send Elijah back before the day of the Lord.  Remember the same was believed to be true about John himself.  Still others believe Jesus to be a prophet.

Herod is certain that Jesus must be John back from the dead.  No explanation is given as to how this could be possible.  Jesus and John had overlapping ministries before John was imprisoned.  However, reason often does not apply in cases of a guilty conscience.  Under that kind of burden every knock on the door is cause for alarm.  Herod knows that what he did to John was wrong and he feels the weight of that decision.  He concludes that Jesus must be John.

#3 John’s integrity gets him in trouble.

17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”    Mark 6:17-18

One of the lies we believe is that if we do the right thing, good will come to us.  Yet we see here John doing the right thing and still he dies because of it.  John was a faithful prophet doing all that God called him to do.  He was full of the Holy Spirit since before his birth (c.f. Luke 1:15).  Even Jesus gives testimony about him saying, “among those born of women none is greater than John (Luke 7:28).”  And yet John’s days are still cut short.

Most people enjoy listening to powerful and convicting preaching.  Certainly John fit this category.  When crowds ventured the day or longer journey into the wilderness to witness John’s ministry, what did they hear?  A call to repentance.  Matthew records one of the lines of his sermons: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (Matthew 3:7)”  We like hearing convicting preaching but often we do not want to be the one who is convicted.  This is the case with Herod.

Josephus in his Antiquities tells us that Herod was first married to the daughter of Aretas, another powerful ruler of the day.  He divorced this woman and went on to marry Herodias who was his brother Philip’s wife.  (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.5.1)  Herodias herself apparently abandoned Philip to marry Herod.  This, of course, is wrong on many levels.  And so John denounces the marriage.  From a worldly perspective, John had nothing to gain and everything to lose by this action.  But it was the right thing to do.

#4 Herod and Herodias have opposite responses to John.

19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.   Mark 6:19-20

The same word preached often produces different responses in those who hear it.  As the rain falls to the ground it provides growth to the flowers and to the weeds.  Some hearts are softened and others hardened.

Herodias hears John and is furious.  She would kill him if she could.  The only reason John is safe for the moment is that Herodias has no opportunity to carry out her wicked desires.  The desire is present but no opportunity presents itself.

Herod, on the other hand, is a more complicated person to figure out.  We are told he respected John and thought of him as a “righteous and holy man.”  It seems implied that the reason John was even put into prison in the first place was to spare his life from Herodias.  Further, Mark tells us that Herod was greatly “perplexed” by John.  This is rendered in other translations as “puzzled,” “disturbed,” and as the King James puts it Herod “did many things.”  Herod does not know what to do with John’s preaching and yet he is still drawn to it as he “he heard him gladly.”

#5 Desire and opportunity meet at Herod’s birthday party.

21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.”23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”   Mark 6:21-25

Herodias had the desire to kill John but no opportunity.  Herod’s birthday bash provides the opportunity.  This is a dangerous place to be when sinful desire and opportunity meet.  Our hearts are full of sinful desires but by God’s grace we don’t always have an opportunity to fulfill those desires.  When these two do meet, we are in danger!   What, then, should we do?  James tells us what to do when we find ourselves in this situation: “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you (James 4:7).”  In other words, run!

So Herod throws himself a party and invites all the VIPs of Galilee.  He arranged for his stepdaughter to come in and dance for the men of the party.  Mark mercifully leaves out any details of this entertainment but it does not seem to be a family-friendly event.  He makes a rash promise to the girl. promising to give her up to half of his kingdom. This should call to mind a similar event in the Old Testament when King Xerxes promised to give up to half of his kingdom to Esther.  Esther, you’ll remember, asked the king to save the life of her people (c.f. Esther 7).  Herodias asks here to take the life of another.

#6 John loses his head so Herod won’t lose face.

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. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.  Mark 6:26-29

It was wrong for Herod to make such a rash promise to his stepdaughter.  It was even more wrong to fulfill that promise.  If John was a man of integrity, stepping up and doing what was right, then he meets his opposite in Herod.  Herod was more concerned in saving face than in doing what was right.  Remember who was at this birthday party?  His nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.  And so John the Baptist loses his head so Herod won’t lose face.

This is a sad end for John and for the disciples.  Here was a man who was doing the right things and suffered because of it.  Mark is beginning to show us that pursuing the cause of Christ comes a cost.  Jesus was rejected by his hometown.  The disciples were rejected by other towns.  John was martyred.  There is a cost in the cause of Christ.


John’s life is a reminder for us to live for what is truly important.  In Jesus’ parting words in the Gospel of Matthew he makes no promise of a long life for believers.  He makes no promise of a comfortable life.  What does he promise?  “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  The promise is that we belong forever and always to our Savior.

Question 1 of the Heidelberg catechism captures this well when it asks “What is your only comfort in life and death?” And the answer: “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”

And so John’s life should encourage us to live for our Savior.  Arrange your life around what is most important.  Nineteenth century poet C.T. Studd puts it this way:

Two little lines I heard one day, Traveling along life’s busy way; Bringing conviction to my heart, And from my mind would not depart; Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only one life, yes only one, Soon will its fleeting hours be done; Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet, And stand before His Judgment seat; Only one life, ‘twill soon be past, Only what’s done for Christ will last.

Only what is done for Christ will last!  So let us resolve, by His grace, with the help of the Spirit, to live for Him!


Discussion Questions

  1. There is speculation as to the identity of Jesus in verses 14-15. Who does Herod conclude Jesus to be? Why do you think Herod makes this conclusion (even though it seems to defy reason!)?
  2. In what ways do we see John the Baptist continuing his ministry of calling people to repentance? If you were in John’s position, what fears might you have had in calling the king to repentance?
  3. John “preaches” the same word to Herod and Herodias and yet they respond very differently.  How do their responses differ?
  4. How can you explain Herod being “greatly perplexed” but at the same time hearing John “gladly”? How might this describe some people’s experience with the Christian faith?
  5. Desire (v.19) and opportunity (v.21) meet at Herod’s birthday party.   Why is the intersection of desire and opportunity a dangerous place for us to be? What practical advice would you offer Herodias (or anyone who finds an opportunity to fulfill their evil desires)?
  6. Who are the invited guests at the party? Explain what happens during this party.
  7. Why does Herod keep his oath (v. 26)? What does this tell us about Herod’s heart? What possible idols does he have?
  8. How does this account of John the Baptist’s death confront the myth that if we are faithful to God, our lives will be comfortable?
  9. John lived a life poured out in service to Jesus Christ. What is hindering you from living a life fully poured out for Christ?



Add a Comment