Originally written in April, 2020
“I saw in my vision by night, and behold, the four winds of heaven were stirring up the great sea. And four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then as I looked its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a man, and the mind of a man was given to it. And behold, another beast, a second one, like a bear. It was raised up on one side. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth; and it was told, ‘Arise, devour much flesh.’ After this I looked, and behold, another, like a leopard, with four wings of a bird on its back. And the beast had four heads, and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold, a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth; it devoured and broke in pieces and stamped what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that were before it, and it had ten horns.” (Dan 7:1-8)
Thus begins the seventh chapter of the book of Daniel with a jarring image of monstrous beasts arising out of the sea. We are later told that these four beasts represent the kingdoms and governments of men. This same picture is used in the book of Revelation, where the political powers of the world are compared to a terrifying beast that arises out of the sea that kills all who oppose it and refuse to worship it (Rev 13).
As the generation that has emerged from the 20th century, the bloodiest century recorded in world history, we can attest to the beast-like character of governments and nations. One needs only to think of leaders like Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Mao Zedong, three of the most deadly dictators the world has ever known. Between the three of them, they are responsible for nearly 130 million deaths. And the 20th century is full of many more sadistic, beastly governments. Friends, this is even true of Western Democratic governments, whom we tend to assume are always the “good guys.” Our hands are stained with the blood of supporting the mass killing of the unborn through abortion, where 61 million babies have been killed in America since Roe vs. Wade in 1973. Or we could look at the transatlantic slave trade, where 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped from their homes, put into a treacherous voyage across the Atlantic (where 1.8 million simply died while at sea), and then forced into a life of slavery in America, birthing a heritage of racism, degradation, and lynching—we Westerners have our fair share of abuse. Winston Churchill, after watching war film of Allied bombers dropping incendiary bombs on civilian cities in WWII, openly wept and exclaimed, “Are we beasts!?” We do not wear rose-colored glasses when thinking about the potential abuses of governmental authority, and neither does the Bible.
Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that governing authorities have been instituted by God and thus must be submitted to, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God,” Rom 13:1—if we don’t, we are actually resisting God’s authority (Rom 13:2). And, that government has been given generally to reward good behavior and punish bad (Rom 13:3-4; 1 Pet 2:13-17). Jesus Himself teaches that we ought to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” validating that state’s right and authority to levy taxes on its citizens, something Paul also expounds to the Romans (Mark 12:17; Rom 13:6-7). These are surprising teachings. Remember, the emperor that Peter and Paul are exhorting Christians to submit to is the cruel and bloodthirsty Nero—the same emperor who eventually impaled Christians in sticks and lit them on fire for his own amusement. That’s the governing authority that they are calling the churches to submit to!
Let’s make this a little more complicated: Does this mean that Christians are required to obey every order a government gives them? When the angel opens up Peter’s jail cell and tells him to get up and leave (Acts 12:1-11), was he “submitting to the governing authorities” who had put him there? When the Sanhedrin order that Peter and the apostles must no longer teach in Jesus’ name, they respond, “We must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:27-29). So, we are to submit to governing authorities, even in all of their “beastliness,” but there is a point where we no longer obey. When is it no longer possible for a Christian to submit to the governing authorities? This is complex. And in our text today we see the beastly and capricious nature of a government, abusing its authority, and a faithful prophet refusing to submit. Let’s turn to Mark 6:12-30 and read of the story of John the Baptist:
“So [the apostles] went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. 14 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.” 17 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.
21 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. 30 jThe apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.” – Mark 6:12-30
We are not told, but particularly given Herod’s seemingly positive disposition towards John, we could assume that if John could just agree to drop the problem he had with Herod’s marriage, he would have been able to go free. But he doesn’t, and suffers the consequences of willful disobedience of state’s wicked use of authority. Friend, what are you going to do when remaining faithful comes at a price?
Let’s look more closely at the story: The story unfolds (1) by Herod’s hearing of this missionary journey, (2) a reflection on the different identities ascribed to Jesus (a prophet, John the Baptist raised from the dead, or Elijah), with Herod certain that Jesus must be John the Baptist, come back to life, then finally (3) a recounting of John’s tragic death.
“King Herod” described here is not the same Herod who attempts to kill an infant Jesus in Matthew by slaughtering all of the male children in Bethlehem (Matt 2). That Herod is “Herod the Great,” whereas the Herod here is one of his sons, Herod Antipas. However, he is no less wicked and tyrannical. Though he was Jewish, the Herodian family represented a very liberal interpretation of the Jewish faith that was fairly syncretized with Roman culture and viewed the Roman occupation as a positive gain, rather than a problem. So, what happens when a powerful ruler with perverse morality and paper thin religion is challenged?
John the Baptist, as we have seen back in 1:4-8, had a popular ministry of calling people to repentance. Luke and Matthew tell us that John regularly called both religious and irreligious people to repentance (Matt 3:1-12; Luke 3:2-17). Jesus tells us that, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist,” Matt 11:11a. John was a remarkable individual who was specially chosen to “prepare the way of the Lord,” (Mark 1:3) by calling the nation of Israel to repentance. So what happens when a tried and true prophet, a popular, fire and brimstone preacher of repentance confronts a faithless ruler claiming to follow God?
We are told that Herod had John thrown in prison because John was vocally opposing Herod’s recent marriage to Herodias—his half-brother Philip’s wife (Mark 6:17-18). For the marriage to happen Herod had divorced his wife and Herodias had divorced her husband. With the further danger of the marriage seeming nearly incestuous, John denounces Herod’s marriage as unlawful, “For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife,” (Mark 6:18). Notice the present tense of the verb which implies that John had been continually telling Herod this—he didn’t just bring it up once, but repeatedly denounced this as violating God’s law. And eventually, Herod had enough, and threw him into jail. But, as much as John’s criticism bothered Herod, it burned in Herodias’ mind. Herodias wanted John dead—but she couldn’t act because, for some reason, Herod wanted to keep John alive (Mark 6:19).
Mark 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,” Mark 6:20. Despite being told that he is sinning, Herod is strangely attracted to John’s message and, for some reason, afraid of John. Perhaps he simply has never had anyone contradict him before and there is something compelling about that. Herod could have lopped John’s head off whenever he wanted—John knew that. But still, John lays his neck on the line (literally) and calls his leader a sinner who needs to repent (cf. John 19:9-12)—and that kind of boldness perplexes and attracts and scares Herod (cf. Phil 1:28). But, friends, this reminds us of the shallow soil back in Mark 4:16 who initially receive the word “with joy,” but shrivel and die once it becomes costly to keep the word. And that, tragically, is exactly what we see happen.
At Herod’s birthday celebration he invites, “nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee,” Mark 6:21. The party is filled with all of the most important people. The debauched nature of Herod’s character is revealed by the fact that he has his wife’s daughter come in and provide a sensual dance that “pleased Herod and his guests,” Mark 6:22a. Perhaps influenced by drinking too much or his own lustful passion, Herod makes an outlandish promise to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom,” Mark 6:22-23. The girl runs to her mother and asks for her advice and Herodias seizes on the opportunity. She knows her husband. She knows his powerlessness in the presence of such important guests—he has to do whatever you ask or run the risk of embarrassing himself: Now is the time to be finally rid of this meddlesome prophet. The daughter runs back into the king’s party and shares her wish: John’s head on a silver platter, please. “And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her,” Mark 6:26. So, John the Baptist, one of the greatest men who ever lived, lost his life because a lustful, drunken man was too embarrassed to say “no” to a cocktail wager at a party. What does this teach us?
1. Christians Must Obey God Rather than Man
John the Baptist didn’t submit to what the governing authorities over him asked of him. Herod did not want to hear that he was sinning by taking Herodias as his wife—John did not care. Herod was a ruler who claimed to be a Jew—he was claiming to have a relationship with God, which meant that he claimed to subscribe to the Law of God. That was manifestly false. So, Herod is walking around taking the Lord’s name in vain by claiming to be a Jew while living in blatant sin, and John—the messenger of repentance—cannot remain quiet. For John to acquiesce to Herod’s requests would have been sinful.
We cannot submit to the government when it requires us to sin or prohibits us from speaking the gospel message. So for all of the Christians in closed countries in the East and Middle-East, where at times conversion to Christianity or gathering in a churchfor worship is a crime, obedience to God requires disobedience to the governing authorities. So, let’s say that in the future the American government requiredme to publicly advocate for abortion or required me to not allow individuals of a certain race or class in our church, or require me to no longer evangelize non-Christians. I could, along with Peter, say, “I must obey God rather than man.” Obedience to God would then require disobedience to the government—I would be sinning if I didn’t.
2. Whenever it is possible Christians should obey the government
However, that disobedience does not merely come from a “don’t tread on me” kind of libertarianism. Because even though government can be “beastly” in its abuse of authority, we are still, nevertheless called to submit to the government. A Christian’s rejection of the state’s authority when it compels us to sin does not render governmental authority in general illegitimate. We are not anarchists—the governing authorities should be submitted to and obeyed as long as they are not requiring us to sin or hindering the spread of the gospel. And those instances must be clear and unambiguous. Thus, Christians should normally submit to and obey the government. Remember, all of the Biblical authors who are calling us to submit to the governing authorities were writing under a complete monarchy—Caesar was on the throne and ruled with no checks or balances. Do you think there were things that Jesus, Paul, and Peter found disagreeable with how Caligula or Nero or Claudius, all pagans, all ruthless and bloodthirsty, ruled the empire? I’m certain they did. But they still called Christians to recognize that God installs government as a gift for society—even if it is imperfect.
This is so important because we want our disobedience to the government to be clear and meaningful. What do I mean by that? I mean that we do not want people to think that Christians are simply pugnacious bulldogs, contrarians who just love a fight. Christians, rather, should be the most baffling thing to wicked governors. We should be people who will not move a millimeter on issues that violate Scripture, who will suffer any penalty rather than violate our conscience. But we should simultaneously be people who pray for our leaders, love our neighbors, work for the good of our cities, pay our taxes, and submit to the governing authorities as “God’s servant” (Rom 13:4) and trust that God has put that leader in place (Dan 4:17). We can simultaneously affirm that God is sovereign over installing every ruler, but also remain critical of that appointed leader when they endorse what is contrary to God’s Law, and refuse to obey any specific command from that leader that requires me to contradict God’s Law. Ultimately we are people who are motivated by love—the world has no category for this today. To rebel against unjust tyranny, but to love our enemies while we do so. Remember, if I surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Cor 13). I think the civil rights movement had it exactly right in how it brought about change in our government—through non-violent demonstrations they exposed Black America’s suffering and called our country to repent. We may disagree with some of the theology that the civil rights leaders held to, but they practiced their intentional disobedience of a wicked government exactly in accordance with Scripture. They would stage sit-ins on segregated diners and busses—which broke laws—but did not proceed to then break any other laws. Think of how difficult that would have been to be young black American in a Jim Crow South? They did not respond with violence when attacked, or return reviling for reviling, but suffered in accordance with how 1 Peter tells us to respond to unjust suffering.
3. Should we disobey the government now?
Given the current directive from our governor, Jay Inslee, one of the many causalities of this pandemic has been the ceasing of all churches being able to gather for corporate worship. We are commanded in the book of Hebrews to, “not neglect to meet together,” (Heb 10:25) for corporate worship. That command is clear: if we forsake regularly assembling together, if we abandon coming to church, we are sinning. The government is now telling us that we cannot gather for church, so are they compelling us to sin? Do we need to tap in to our inner John the Baptist and simply refuse?
I don’t think so. First, the “forsaking the assembly” in Hebrews 10 refers to a willful forsaking, not to extraordinary circumstances that prevent us from gathering. We do not call up the sick and bedridden who are incapable of gathering and tell them they need to repent and get down here on Sunday morning. We aren’t choosing to just stay home on Sunday morning because we want to sleep in or the kid’s soccer schedule is getting out of hand—a pandemic has forced us to stay home. Second, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves—which means we pursue our neighbors good and well-being with the same kind of creativity, commitment, and passion we would pursue our own well-being with. What does that mean when there is an infectious disease passing around our community? It probably means that we need to limit our social gatherings in some way. Third, the government doesn’t appear to be singling out churches or Christians in particular. Fourth, for us to flagrantly disobey the governing authorities over us, we need a clear, unambiguous instance of them prohibiting the spread of the gospel or leading us to sin—it does not appear that this is that clear. So, our church will continue to abide by the quarantine measures our governor has given until the quarantine fully lifts, or there is some creative and safe way for us to gather without breaking the spirit of the law, or until it becomes more clear that what the government is asking of us is leading us to sin.
4. Christians Should Live Risky Lives for the Kingdom
This story is inserted in the middle of apostles’ missionary journey (Mark 6:12-13, 30). Why is this? Mark does this to describe what the mission of Jesus’ disciples will be met with: persecution. You go out into the world and tell people that they are sinners who need to repent and you will experience push back, ostracization, threats. One of my favorite verses in the Bible comes from Paul’s final address to the Ephesian elders, “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God,” Acts 20:24.
What are you going to do when following Jesus comes at a price? What will you do when the beast of a wicked government bares its fangs at you? John the Baptist’s story here reminds me of another John. John Bunyan, who wrote the excellent Pilgrim’s Progress, was thrown into jail in England in 1660 because he did not conform to the new “High Church” standards imposed by King Charles II on all churches. Bunyan believed these new standards to be contrary to the Bible, so he refused, and continued to preach and was thus imprisoned. He had four children, one of whom was blind, and his wife was pregnant with their next child when this happened, which sadly ended in a miscarriage due to the stress of the crisis. Bunyan could have been let out of prison at any moment, only if he consented to stop preaching the gospel. But this Bunyan could not do, and for twelve years he remained in prison till the Declaration of Religious Indulgence act was passed, allowing nonconformists to preach the gospel. Deliberating his time in jail, Bunyan wrote: “If nothing will do unless I make of my conscience a continual butchery and slaughtershop . . . I have determined, the Almighty God being my help and shield, yet to suffer, if frail life might continue so long, even till the moss shall grow on mine eyebrows, rather than thus to violate my faith and principles.”
Bunyan knew to acquiesce here would mutilate his conscience. So he suffered the consequences of willful disobedience of the state’s wicked use of authority. There is a missionary our church back in Louisville supported that told us about Sally. Sally lived in Northern Africa in a country that was almost entirely Muslim. Sally heard the gospel and converted to Christ. Pretty soon word got out that Sally was wanting to be baptized, so the Muslim authorities arrested her and told her that if she did not recant her Christianity she would be executed. This is not a story from hundreds of years ago, this all happened just last year. Sally refused to recant, so her day of execution was set. By God’s grace, the very day of her execution, Sally was miraculously delivered because a demon possessed individual that no Muslim cleric could help was brought to her. Sally cast out the demon and on that day led ten other Muslims to put their faith in Christ and recant Islam. Sally, we were just told, was finally baptized just last week. But, none of that would have happened if the day the authorities knocked on her door and told her to recant she simply buckled and recanted her faith. Which certainly would have been tempting knowing what was likely to come.
Daniel 7 begins with a terrifying depiction of beastly governments, but then immediately shifts to description of the “Ancient of Days” who is sitting on His throne over the beasts (Dan 7:9-11). He then strips the dominion from the beasts and gives it to “one like a Son of Man” who approaches the Ancient of Days on a cloud and is given an everlasting “dominion and glory and kingdom” to which all peoples must obey (Dan 7:12-14). So, today, Christians can endure wicked kings and governments because we can affirm that behind them and over them is a resurrected, victorious Son of Man—Jesus Christ—who is ruling and reigning from His throne.