Are there consequences for speaking the truth?

john the baptist truth

I had a weird experience this week that was both troubling and comforting at the same time.

 On Thursday afternoon, I was invited to attend a prayer service at the university I teach at.  It’s traditionally held before each semester, and it provides a nice time of worship and community for those who will be teaching and serving together.  My wife was also at the service, but we didn’t sit together because she was asked to read a portion of Scripture and needed to be toward the front of the room.

 When I arrived, I took a seat near the back of the auditorium where several other friends were sitting.  After the worship service, I walked downstairs where there was a small reception with finger foods.  

 Up to this point, I was having a very normal day, but then I noticed that my phone was ringing in my pocket.  I wasn’t really in a context where answering my phone was appropriate, so I ignored it.  Then it rang again and again.  It wouldn’t stop ringing, so eventually, I excused myself to see what was going on.

 During that reception, I missed calls from nearly everyone in my family.  Apparently, my wife (who knew I was planning to attend the worship service) didn’t see me there and assumed I wasn’t present.  She called my son Daniel who confirmed that I left the house to go to the event.  She then called our other children to find out if anyone had heard from me.  No one had.  My son Daniel then called my son Jay (who is a local firefighter) to see if he heard of any car crashes.  

 Basically, at this point, while I was snacking on sliced fruits and cheese, my entire family was panicking because they feared I was dead.  I have no idea how things progressed that rapidly in our family, but they did.  In a strange way, I have to admit that the genuine concern everyone showed for my well-being made me feel loved, but I guess I need to do a better job of answering my phone quicker in the future.

 Mark 6:14-29 speaks of an actual death and the ways in which multiple people responded to it.  Specifically, this passage tells us about the death of John the Baptist and the way he was treated during the brief days of his ministry as he remained faithful to proclaim the truth and point people toward Jesus.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. 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 6:14-16)

Scripture refers to several kings by the name “Herod.”  Herod Antipas was the particular man who was referenced in this passage.  He was the ruler over Galilee and Perea, and as this portion of Scripture reveals, he had ordered the beheading of John the Baptist.

 John the Baptist had a special ministry during the time of Christ.  There are many people in this world who spend considerable time trying to make their own name great, but John never sought to do that.  His goal was to prepare the hearts of the people to receive Jesus.  As often as he could, he testified to the greatness of Christ.

 John was a prophet.  Even though his story is told in the New Testament, many have referred to him as the final Old Testament prophet because his ministry was prophesied in places like Isaiah 40:3-5 and Malachi 3:1, and the New Covenant wasn’t officially inaugurated until Jesus shed His blood on the cross.

A voice cries:  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  (Isaiah 40:3)

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.”  (Malachi 3:1)

 As is typical of a true prophet, John was a man who didn’t shy away from speaking the truth, even when it might be highly unpopular to do so, and even when speaking in such a way might cost him his life.  True prophets are willing to do this because their allegiance to the Lord is greater than their allegiance to their personal safety, treasures of this world, or the praise of men.

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.” 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 6:17-20)

It’s my personal opinion that generally speaking, kings tend to find honest conversation with people who aren’t afraid of them refreshing.  Herod was a wicked man, but he respected John and considered him holy.  Even though he arrested him, he made a point to keep him safe and he took great interest in the things John spoke about, even though he struggled to understand and accept John’s message.

 But Herod’s wife, Herodias, hated John.  She despised his honesty and the fact that he openly spoke against her marriage to Herod because it was an adulterous relationship.  In fact, Herod divorced his wife, and Herodias divorced her husband (Herod’s brother, Philip) so they could marry.  Making matters even worse, Herodias’ father was Herod’s half brother, Aristobulus.  So that made Herod her half uncle, and their marriage was both adulterous and incestuous.  

 John didn’t hesitate to speak out against this flagrant sexual sin that was being condoned by the king.  His bravery reminds me a lot of those in our era who aren’t afraid to call out sexual sin in our culture as well.  We live in a day when our leaders, entertainers, and other people of influence are actively encouraging our culture to embrace all forms of sexual sin.  And depending on where we speak up, there may be real consequences for what we say.  John the Baptist understood the potential consequences, but spoke up anyway.

 God has often historically used prophets to not only foretell the future, but to call a culture to repent of sin.  Prophets are usually despised for this by those who reject their message, but celebrated by those who accept their need to repent.  For those of us who are troubled by what we see taking place in our culture, I wonder to what degree will we be willing to speak the truth?

 Let me be transparent with you for a moment.  I have made it a point during the years of my pastoral ministry to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word.  That means I don’t skip the hard or sensitive parts, but in doing so, I have often opened myself up to criticism.  I’m not a fan of some of the letters, emails, or slander I’ve received for speaking the truth, but I have learned that I can live with it.  It doesn’t happen constantly, and while it usually stings when it’s fresh, there’s a part of me that has started to see it as helpful.  It reminds me that the gospel tends to offend before it heals.  It humbles me and forces me to think about whether I could have phrased my words more precisely.  And it keeps me relying on Jesus for strength.  If the Lord entrusts you with similar responsibilities, I’m confident He will use the things you experience to teach you similar truths.

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.” 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 6:21-29)

As Herod gave a banquet to celebrate his own birthday, his niece, the daughter of Herodias, danced for Herod and his guests.  She would have been a teenager at the time, and the implication is that this dance was inappropriate in nature, but it pleased these men of low character.  Herod offered her whatever she wanted in return, and as her mother suggested, she requested the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  This grieved the king, but he couldn’t go back on his word because that would damage his authority, so he honored this vile request.

 When I look at this, I can’t help but feel troubled by the disrespectful way John the Baptist was treated as his life was taken from him.  To take his head and serve it on a platter was such a dark and disgusting act.  In some ways, it would have seemed better for John to die a more respectable death, but as the history of the church demonstrates, for many believers the call to discipleship was also a call to experience a disrespectful and humiliating death.

 And I guess that shouldn’t shock us because that’s exactly what Jesus endured on our behalf.  He was mocked, beaten, spat upon, and nailed to a criminal’s cross.  He died a humiliating and torturous death at the hands of wicked men in order to pay for the wickedness of those who didn’t even realized they needed Him.

 There are consequences for speaking the truth.  John experienced them for calling out sexual sin.  Jesus experienced them for revealing that He is God and has the capacity to forgive sin.  You and I may experience consequences as well as our lives and our words point people to Jesus, but that’s OK.  We aren’t the first, and we won’t be the last.

©  John Stange, 2024


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