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The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

[Read Mark 6:14-29]

Faithful unto Death, Crown of Life

“Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10].

John the Baptist lost his head. But his Savior has promised him the crown of life. John the Baptist was martyred trusting in that promise. Though removed by the king, his head is not lost. He will be raised whole and on his head will be set a crown from his Lord Jesus.

John the Baptist preached both the Law and the Gospel of God. God’s Law is God’s eternal will, what He desires, what is true and just. It defines what we are to do and be in thought, word, and deed. The Law defines what is just and good.

And the Law always convicts us of sin. John the Baptist came proclaiming, “Repent”. The tree that doesn’t bear fruit will be cut down and cast into fire. To those convicted by this truth, John the Baptist proclaimed also the Gospel. He gave a Baptism for the remission of sins. He proclaimed Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world [John 1:29]. John the Baptist proclaimed “Comfort, comfort” to God’s bride – to “cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” “A voice cries in the wilderness.” [Isaiah 40:1-3]

John’s proclamation of God’s moral Law was not lessened or compromised for the sake of his preaching of the Gospel. And proclaiming the Gospel didn’t lessen the truth of the moral Law. Instead, the forgiveness of sins is the cause and reason for the fruits of the moral Law in the life of the believer.

John was hated by the Pharisees for his baptism for the forgiveness of sinners. John was baptizing former prostitutes and other notorious sinners into the kingdom for free. Forgiveness, not a program for improvement, was bearing the fruit of renewed moral life. This confounds Pharisees.

Yet, for what was John hated by king Herod? For what was John martyred? John did not shrink back but spoke the truth regarding adultery. John was martyred for faithfully teaching God’s will as found in the Sixth Commandment – God’s will found in creation – His will for male and female.

King Herod has taken his brother’s wife as his own. Except that it was his brother’s wife, this was a situation that is commonplace in our society – that men and women leave their spouse to go and marry someone else. Herodias parted from, or was parted from, her husband Philip and was married to King Herod. The culture around you says this is fine as long as the divorce papers are finalized first. To God, this process of divorcing and remarrying is adultery.

Jesus, the Lamb of God, the Savior to whom John the Baptist pointed, taught this truth clearly: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” [Mark 10:11-12]

John the Baptist faithfully taught this teaching of Christ. For it, he was imprisoned. He was so hated for teaching this truth that eventually he was beheaded. John easily could have spared himself. But God’s children, including you, are called, with an irrevocable call, to speak God’s will.

John lost his life. What might you lose? There is another kind of martyrdom that you too must face. In what ways must you teach the truth regarding God’s will for marriage, for man and woman, His will regarding male and female and sexuality – the exclusive union of a husband and a wife?

Jesus said concerning families that not all within a family will believe: “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three.” [Luke 12:51-52]

And our Lord Jesus said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” [Matthew 10:37]

John the Baptist taught the truth regarding marriage and human sexuality, man and woman, to a stranger, King Herod, and gave his life. We speak regarding man and woman, and regarding the most extreme departures from this truth – homosexuality and transgenderism. We have a responsibility, like John the Baptist, to be voices of the truth within our families and in our nation. Including among those who would have our heads for it, or cause division.

Among family, parents, children, siblings, cousins, neighbors, coworkers, and acquaintances, you face what might be called a soft-martyrdom. No one will take your life. But they might add to your life embarrassment, mocking – or division, hatred. They might reject you. They might treat you like your ignorant. Some, in the marketplace of our nation, have lost jobs or businesses or have been sued.

Although it’s wise and natural to avoid unneeded trouble, there are people in our lives to whom we are responsible for speaking the truth. Wherever I’ve been put, those with whom I have influence are my neighbor. My neighbor whom I must love.

Imagine if you yourself embraced as your lifestyle some particular sin: Griping, backstabbing, complaining, stealing, defrauding, neglect. If we embrace sin as a way of life, even we who have believed have now lost the faith and are on our way to hell and away from Christ.

Your own children, your own grandchildren, other family members, your friends – baptized – but you know they’ve embraced sin, ways of thought and life against God’s will, and do you say anything? To avoid this soft-martyrdom, their hatred, do you leave them on their way away from Christ and to their destruction? If we can’t love our own flesh and blood enough to speak God’s will to them, can we truly love our neighbor?

Why did John the Baptist suffer martyrdom over the issue of Herod and Herodias’ adulterous marriage? To be self-righteous? No. But perhaps for the sake of the nation. And, more than that, perhaps for the sake of King Herod himself. Herod did spend time hearing John the Baptist, even though he also was angry and imprisoned him. Perhaps Herod might hear and repent and turn to that Lamb of God. It was worth the chance.

We speak because it’s God’s will. We speak also because, though many may hate us, some might be saved. Some may come to know their sin and then come to know their Savior. For their sake, it’s worth enduring that division that Jesus has promised we would suffer.

We ourselves are sinners. Without hearing God’s Law and will to bring us to repentance, and without hearing the often-hated truth of the Savior Jesus, who saves by grace through faith – without hearing both Law and Gospel, threat of hell and promise of forgiveness, we could not be saved. The same is true of everyone else. Let’s not abandon them.

Jesus said, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” [Mark 8:38]

Jesus also gave this great promise to the faithful: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” [Matthew 5:10-12]

And Jesus has given this great promise of the resurrected life: “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” [Matthew 19:29]. All that is lost for the sake of Christ’s word and will in this life is restored a hundredfold in the life to come. Though we lose all now, none of it is loss – somehow, by the promises of Christ, it is all gain.

We ourselves are sinners, guilty of being displeasing to God’s will. Jesus is the Lamb of God who lost all things on the cross to gain redeemed sinners for Himself. Christ died alone in humiliation and was raised in glory. In losing all things on Calvary, Christ gained all things for Himself. And now, you are His. He gained you, sins forgiven by His sacrifice in your place. New life, new heart, new man born in you by His grace alone, the work of His resurrection at work in you.

Repentance from sin, salvation, new life, and forgiveness for the redeemed sinner are all the work of God in Christ alone. For you, and for the one who needs to hear it from you. We suffer loss, even the loss of all, for love and faithfulness to the Lord who has so loved us. And we suffer loss for the sake of those who, upon hearing God’s Law and Gospel from us, might believe and so be saved.

We live in a time when many in other nations are giving their lives for the sake of Christ’s name. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they don’t shrink back. We remember the Martyrdom of John the Baptist to remember what we might need to lose for speaking God’s will – and, more than that, to remember what we have gained through the Lamb of God. “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” [Revelation 2:10]. Amen.

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