Sunday, August 24, 2008

Better to Lose Your Head than Your Conscience

One of the most pathetic passages, not only in Mark’s Gospel, but in all the New Testament; indeed in all scripture, is Mark 6:14-29. This section of Mark details the collapse of a conscience, the hardness of two hearts, and the senseless, savage murder of God’s mightiest prophet. In this passage we find two men who are enslaved. Only one experienced freedom. In this passage we find a man who lost his head (literally) but kept his consience, and a man who not only lost his conscience but who rejected Christ in the process.

By the beginning of Mark 6:14 news of the many marvelous and mighty works of Jesus had spread across the country like a prairie fire. All ears heard the reports of demons exorcised, diseases healed, and daughters raised from the dead. The message of repentance was being preached, not only by Jesus but by His twelve apostles. By those stories the depraved ruler Herod Antipas was hauntingly disturbed.

Herod Antipas was just one in a long line of immoral and ruthless rulers that descended from Herod the Great (who was actually not so great). Antipas’ father had ruled, with the approval of Rome, a kingdom that was comparable in land area to that of King David, but Herod was no David. He was, however, a skilled, albeit pitiless politician. He had his uncle, a brother, one of his wives, and three of his sons killed, and that is only his close relations. Many political rivals and dissidents were murdered, and it was Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of all males two years and younger in Bethlehem following the birth of Jesus. Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons and a brother of Antipas, so cruelly ruled the Judeans and Samaritans that the Emperor banished him to Europe. Herod’s grandson, Agrippa I, was the ruler of Acts 12 who ordered the imprisonment and execution of James and Peter. James was beheaded, but God busted Peter out of prison. Not long after that Agrippa suffered an ignoble and painful death. Luke writes that “the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost” (Acts 12:23). This is the ultimate end of all those who reject the Lord.

There is more to this family’s sad and sordid history. The son of Agrippa I, he was called Agrippa II, was the one to whom Paul gave his defense in Acts 25-26. It was this Agrippa who said, “Paul, almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (26:28); which is another of the most pathetic passages in the New Testament. The Herodians always seem to be involved in such texts of Scripture.

In Acts 25-26 a woman named Bernice is always described as being at Agrippa’s side. This woman was Agrippa's consort. She was also his sister. No surprise there, that sort of thing was common among the Herod’s. Antipas, the Herod of our text, had seduced Herodias into divorcing her husband and marrying him. She agreed, but only on the condition that he divorce his wife also. Antipas consented, and therefore Herodias divorced her uncle Philip to marry her uncle Antipas.

I’ve climbed that distasteful family tree to provide the reader with a picture of the ruling family in Judea during John the Baptist’s and Jesus Christ’s time. Political leaders do not have to be paragons of moral righteousness for the Gospel to thrive. The message of Christ and the mission of His churches is not dependant upon an upstanding civil leadership, or citizenry for that matter. What is necessary is for God’s people to trust God as they clearly, consistently, charitably, and courageously proclaim God’s truth. This truth is for all peoples of all ranks and for all time.

This is what John the Baptist had faithfully done, and this is why Herod Antipas had such a guilty conscience. Which is what we'll develop next time.

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