John the Baptist was a herald. He was designated to run ahead and proclaim the One who was coming. Most obviously, John accomplished his task by preaching about repentance and baptizing people. And when Jesus stepped onto the stage, John stepped up to the crowd, pointed to Jesus, and announced his presence. Yet, even in his death, John was a herald of the kind of death that Jesus would die.
We can read in Mark 6 about the events that led up to the death of John the Baptist. It doesn’t seem to make much sense why Mark includes this story inside of his fast-paced account of Jesus’ ministry, unless it is meant to prepare us for the unexpected way in which Jesus is going to die. For first-century readers who didn’t know the ending of the story, the inclusion of John’s death sets off a warning that perhaps the journey of Jesus the wonderful miracle-worker is not going to end up like they might think.
John the Baptist was a righteous and holy man. That was King Herod’s assessment of a man he had every reason to despise. John had told Herod the truth that no one else had the courage to speak: he was unlawfully married to his brother’s wife. Herod was afraid of John because anyone who dressed in camel’s hair, lived in the desert, and spoke unpopular truth, could not be trusted to toe the line. John spoke the truth whether it was popular or not. Yet Herod was also slightly curious about John and his message, and the king was willing to offer John the protection he needed.
But Herod’s goodness didn’t run deep. When push came to shove, Herod jumped ship on the Truth and only thought about his own self preservation. When his evil wife requested the head of John on a platter, Herod acted as if he essentially had no choice but to keep his word and grant the sinister request. Herod was willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man in order to keep the party going and appease the wrath of his wife.
How does all this point to the death of Jesus?
Jesus was a righteous and holy man. That was Pontius Pilate’s impression when he met Jesus at his trial. Pilate was both intrigued and fearful of Jesus, whose words cut to Pilates heart like nothing else. Like Herod, Pilate had authority to protect or destroy the righteous, innocent man before him. Pilate was certainly more level-headed than Herod, and he didn’t have a depraved wife making outlandish requests. Even so, the governor could not find the backbone to stand up to the raging mob calling out for Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate was willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man in order to appease the crowds and keep his job secure.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.”John 3:19
John the Baptist bore the light, pointing to Jesus who was the true light of the world. John was faithful to his task even to the point of death, and in ways he did not understand he set the stage for the death of Jesus.
Both John the Baptist and Jesus died at the hand of authorities who knew of their innocence, who could see their light, yet preferred the darkness. A pattern is set for all believers; for all true disciples who seek to follow the mission of Jesus. We bear the light into the darkness knowing that the powers of darkness will attempt to snuff us out. Are we willing to go anyway?