Mark 6:14-29, The Confusion of Those in Power

[June 20, 2010] Today’s text deals specifically with Herod Antipas. The passage from verses 17-29, which does not appear in the Gospel according to Luke, is the only one in the Gospel according to Mark in which Jesus is not the major focus. Clearly, however, the death of John foreshadows the death of our Lord Jesus.

In the Gospel according to Matthew this whole passage comes between the rejection of Jesus in Nazareth and the feeding of the five thousand. There, in Matthew 14:1-12, it creates the setting for the revelation of Jesus and the church that is developed in the long section of 13:53—20:34. In Mark’s gospel it serves a similar purpose, falling between the same events and preparing us for the manifestation of Jesus as the feeder of the multitudes—and the continued imperception of the disciples—and the revelation of who He is in the light of the cross, in the following section (8:27—10:52).

In the Gospel according to Luke, the questioning of Herod in Mark 6:14-16 appears in 9:7-9. There, as also in Mark’s gospel, it appears after the sending of the Twelve and before the feeding of the five thousand. However, in Luke Herod asks the question, “Who is this?” The words, “It is said by some that John had been raised from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that a certain prophet of the ancients had risen up” is identical to the disciples’ answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” in 9:18-19. The feeding of the five thousand is sandwiched (framed) between these two passages, demonstrating the answer, brought out in 9:20 and the passage that follows in 22-36. Again, in Mark’s gospel Herod’s perplexity serves a similar purpose, though Mark takes longer to get to the key passage of 8:29, focusing on the disciples’ inability to grasping the significance of who really Jesus is.

In Mark the passage on Herod’s perplexity and the death of John the Baptist is sandwiched between the sending out of the Twelve in 6:7-13 and their return in verse 30 (not reported in Matthew’s gospel). Thus in Mark’s gospel this passage taken as a whole (6:14-29) represents the reaction of the powers of the “world” into which the apostles are sent to labor, then and now, and it also introduces the section, 6:6b—8:26, in which Jesus demonstrates His true identity but is not understood even by His disciples. Herod Antipas represents the world, and in particular, the powers of the world, which on the larger stage of history is represented by Rome and, in the Book of the Revelation, by the beast that rises from the sea and Babylon the Great, thus by all the great “civilized” powers of history.

After the news of the death of John the Baptist, Jesus seems to withdraw from public life in Galilee (Mark 6:31) and kept on the move, until He left the region of Herod permanently. After the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, He and His disciples cross the lake to Gennesaret and then went to Tyre and Sidon; from there they traveled through the Decapolis and came to Dalmanutha. Next they came to Bethsaida and from there went to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. After the Transfiguration in the Hermon range, He takes the way of the cross to Jerusalem, passing through Galilee one more time in secret, making a last stop in Capernaum before He went to Judea.

The Apostolic Setting

The Twelve are sent out (apostellō) in 6:7-13, and under the providential hand of God depend for their sustenance on the hospitality of the people to whom they are sent. They are a representative picture of the mission of the church in the Acts of the Apostles (and the present day) when other apostles and their coworkers were sent forth by the Holy Spirit. The Twelve return in verse 30 but not before we hear about what Herod did to John the Baptist. He made a martyr of him, as Nero was doing to many in the church at the time of the telling of the Gospel according to Mark.

So Herod is a picture of those in power in the world. On the one hand there are the people, a small portion of whom receive the Gospel and give hospitality to the workers even if the majority do not receive them. Their perception of the Gospel is different than those in power.

Those in power think they stand on the outside. They look on as spectators. Herod hears of Jesus and speculates about Him from the sidelines. He looks on not as one of the audience but as a judge, as someone who has power over others. He compares Jesus to John the Baptist whom he beheaded. He exercised his absolute power over John and callously had him beheaded—on a whim, really, so as not to embarrass himself. The power that John had, and the power of Jesus, is spiritual. As prophets they speak on behalf of God. John defied Herod personally. But what kind of power is this when Herod has the power of violence, the power of the sword (the gun), the power over life and death? Herod simply had John imprisoned, thus putting a lid on him.

Herod was still human, and so we are told of his perplexity. He “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed yet heard him gladly.” After he killed John, he was still left with doubts, “He whom I beheaded, John, this one has been raised!” He acted as if he was in complete control, but if John could simply reappear in Another, raised from the dead as it were, then, was not “John” (the prophetic office which he represented) in control after all?

Those in power are still human beings, but because of the worldly power that they possess, they are rendered helpless. The power that they possess possesses them. This power has to sustain itself, and therefore when it is threatened it acts through the one whom it has enslaved to its will. The threat here is trivial—the daughter of Herodias dances and Herod foolishly makes her a promise in front of his political guests. “The king was grieved yet, because of the oaths and those reclining at table, he did not want to refuse her.” Of course he had a choice. He could have refused her; and if he were a just man he doubtlessly would have. But the power that possesses him will not allow him and even a human life, even the life of one in whom Herod was “interested,” was trivial in the face of this power. The life of John the Baptist, and the Authority that he represented, was as trivial as the dance of the young Salome and the resentful wishes of her mother and the impression of the guests. He must impress his guests, not with his righteous judgments, but with his absolute power.

This story demonstrates the powers that are at work in the world. It is by means of such powers that the gods of this world guide the course of things. The people who possess power are mere puppets in the hands of the power that they possess. The power is greater than they are. This power is what the idols of the world represent. There is and never has been anything innocent about them. Those people in power might not worship their power or the ideologies and symbols that represent and buttress it, yet they are nonetheless captive to it. It would be an unusual person, someone of great humility, who could wield such power and not be enslaved by it.

This is the power that “rules” the world in which the church exists and into which we are sent to proclaim the liberating power of the Gospel. The Gospel frees us from the tyranny of the powers. However, it does not free us from their outward coercion and violence. John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus was crucified. Apostles and saints are martyred. We are inwardly free, which is demonstrated by our subordination to such treatment as a testimony to the world-power. Nor is our ill-treatment at its hands an expression of our impotence. Rather, if we suffer while being faithful to the Gospel, we undermine the power on its own unseen level. Our faithfulness establishes the kingdom of God where we are. Jesus “stripped off the rulers and the authorities, making a display of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). Likewise we, overcoming Satan (the god of this world) because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of our testimony, and loving not our soul unto death, bring about the issue of the war in heaven so that Satan and his angels are cast down (Revelation 12:11, 7-10).

All this is unseen. What is visible is the suffering of the saints, whose lives are treated as trivial, even as rubbish, by the powers of the world. This gives little assurance of the truth of our position. The motive for the “foolishness” of our persistence in the face of outward oppression and failure is not based on the inebriating feeling of defiance, which temporarily relieves our sense of powerlessness. That, as everyone knows, can be as delusional as the “belief” of those wielding the sword. The assurance comes from the revelation of the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus Christ—who He is—to us. That, our faith that derives from this spiritual enlightenment, and not the empowerment that comes from mere defiance, is what enables us—in the mission of the Gospel—to remain steadfast and faithful under trivialization and persecution.

Within This Shadow

From here we go to the two feedings of the multitudes: the five thousand with the twelve baskets of “overflow” representing Israel and the four thousand with the seven baskets of “overflow” representing the Gentiles; and the telling incidents around these. In the multiplying of the loaves and fishes Jesus symbolizes the giving of the manna in the wilderness and the abundance of food in the Promised Land. The abundance represents God’s present sustenance in the wilderness and the messianic fulfillment of the promises in the land: the wilderness of the present world and the land of Christ’s fullness yet to be manifested in the creation. The “zealous” of Israel resist the messianic abundance while the Gentiles gladly receive its overflow (Mark 7:1-30). At the same time, the disciples themselves do not yet perceive or understand because their heart is still hardened. They can only see partially because they do not yet grasp the significance of the cross (8:17-25). (Is this a prophetic foreshadowing of the history of the church?!)

The shadow of the cross, however, already looms over them all through the news of John the Baptist’s calloused death at the hands of Herod. (The resurrection too is hinted at in Herod’s doubts.) The messianic abundance takes place in this very shadow, and it is the cross, which the death of John foreshadows, that will eventually open the eyes of the disciples to the abundance that Jesus in fact IS. This abundance of provision is satisfaction in the wilderness and already the fullness of joy. But as long as we resist the cross we cannot see the abundance without confusion. The temptation to trivialize such promises stays and we cannot escape it except through pious denials, until the cross of Jesus is revealed and we take up the cross ourselves as the way of discipleship in the world.

The abundance of the cross in resurrection is revealed in the transfiguration of the earthly Jesus on the mount. His humanity is divinized there, but only because He is the One beloved of the Father who has denied His soul from the beginning—this being ratified at His baptism when He was anointed (christ-ened) for service.

So while Jesus manifests Himself in the miracle of the loaves and fishes, He does not do so in a fantasy but rather in the midst of His enemies who look on Him quite differently than how He sees Himself or how His believers see Him. The eye of Herod is the practical eye of the world, the eye of power and utility, which is the eye of unreality, the eye delusion. And it is watching us.

Leave a Reply