We’re now going to travel from the small, backwater village where Jesus was born to the heart of political power in his homeland—the palace of Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee. This has been a tough journey for me, though. The passage we’re looking at today is difficult: the storyline is easy to understand, but the way Mark structures it makes it a real challenge to figure out the meaning of these events. I’ll share what I believe is happening, and if you have any other ideas or questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!
What makes this a challenge is that it’s yet another “sandwich story.” Mark records that Jesus has begun commissioning the Twelve, his “inner circle” among his disciples, to act as his emissaries throughout the region. They set out on their various journeys, but before they return, Mark decides to relate the story of how Herod had put John the Baptist to death. This is very odd! Mark is not the kind of guy who likes to waste words. Why does he go into such great detail about an event that doesn’t seem to be relevant? (This is one of the most detailed stories in Mark’s gospel so far!) How does this inner story in the “sandwich” help us interpret what’s going on in the outer story?
The first key is to understand what Jesus is sending his disciples to do. He calls them to himself and sends them out in pairs, giving them “authority over the unclean spirits.” We find out a few verses down that they’re also healing the sick and preaching that people should repent of their sins. But the focus is on exorcism. Since Mark likes to focus on the fact that preaching was Jesus’ top priority, it should surprise us that he is commissioning the disciples for war against the unclean spirits. Even more surprising, he’s not equipping them very well! They are to travel light, depending on the generosity of people who are receptive to what they have to say. They are utterly dependent on the Lord to take care of them. At the same time, Jesus gives them authority to condemn anyone who rejects them, telling them, “Shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” This is what Jews did when leaving unclean Gentile territory. In effect, the disciples would be saying, “God does not have any people here for his kingdom.”
The disciples’ dependence accentuates their authority. They are weak, but they are accomplishing great things as emissaries of Jesus. So word quickly spreads, and rumors begin to fly about who this Jesus fellow is. He could be a prophet, or even Elijah come back. But Herod, the governor, is fixated on another explanation. He thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist, and he speaks as a guilty man when he says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
Of all the possible ideas of who Jesus could be, why does Herod obsess over this unlikely one? Well, Mark goes into a lot of detail to explain why. John had criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias (who had divorced her husband to marry Herod). This was illegal according to the law of Moses (Leviticus 18:16), and John called them out on it. So Herod imprisoned him, though he didn’t want to kill him. Herodias and her daughter, however, trapped Herod and forced his hand. So John was put to death. Now, notice how many times Mark talks about Herod’s psychological state! He tells us, “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.” When Herodias’ daughter did a little dirty dancing for his birthday party, she “pleased Herod.” In a rash and presumably drunken euphoria, Herod swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked. When she demanded the head of John the Baptist as a gift, Herod “was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” So he had John executed. Happy freaking birthday, Herod.
Now, Mark’s a guy, so he doesn’t like talking about people’s feelings. Yet here, he practically has Herod lying on a couch to be psychoanalyzed! Why? Because he wants you and me to understand what Herod is feeling. Herod knows he is guilty of John’s death; he knows that he had killed a “righteous and holy man” because of his own foolishness and pride, and ultimately because of his own sexual sin. He is ashamed because of his guilt. So when he hears about a man traveling throughout Galilee with disciples in tow, performing great miracles and preaching about a new “kingdom,” his thoughts immediately go to John the Baptist. He becomes irrationally fixated on this idea that John has come back from the dead. (And, in a sense, he’s right—a lot of what happened to John in this story is a close parallel to what’s going to happen to Jesus.)
The thought of John’s resurrection must fill him with fear. Herod knows that he is guilty of adultery and murder. God’s kingdom and its emissaries are a threat, because he will come under the judgment of the Lord’s anointed king. To people who are in power, Jesus is a threat. He insists on his own authority over men and demons, wind and waves, disease and death. A petty tyrant like Herod doesn’t stand a chance.
So which side will you be on? Will you join Herod in trying to cling to your own authority, your own way of doing life? Will you keep running your business your way, or leading your family your way, or handling your money your way? Or will you become dependent on Jesus, trusting him, obeying him, and clothing yourself in his authority? I’d suggest that you pick the side whose King came back from the dead.