The state of your heart
In 1650 a Christian businessman travelled from London to Scotland. When he got home his friends at church asked him what news he had brought them. “Good news,” he said, “for when I went to St Andrews I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man, and he showed me the majesty of God. After him I heard a little fair man, and he showed me the loveliness of Christ. I then went to Irvine, where I heard a well-favoured old man with a long beard, and that man showed me all my own heart.” All of us preachers want to be like Samuel Rutherford who was the little fair man who showed that businessman the loveliness of Christ, but there are times when we also have to be like David Dickson, the long bearded old man who showed him his heart. Today’s passage challenges us to examine what’s in our hearts.
There are only a couple of passages in Mark’s gospel that are not about Jesus Christ. Both of them are about John the Baptist. The first one (1:1-8) announces his arrival on the scene as Christ’s herald, whilst this one records his murder. John was a man who couldn’t be bought by men’s smiles nor intimidated by men’s scowls – he called the Pharisees a brood of vipers, who need to bear the fruit of repentance! Stern stuff. Today’s passage tells of a woman with a grudge against John the Baptist, which she nourished and fed until she hated him. Neither her husband, nor her friends could deliver her from her bitter resentment. The hatred grew and grew until there was only one thing she wanted, to destroy John the Baptist. Herod her husband was a weak man, given to lust and people pleasing. They both came into contact with the word of God, but resolutely defied it, and so the prophet’s words became the smell of death to both of them.
None of the Herods are much good in the New Testament. We met Herod the Great in Matthew when he killed the children around Bethlehem. He had ten children, one of whom was Herod Antipas in today’s passage. He finished the Temple and the wailing wall, that still exists today. Interestingly he had claim to the line of David, but was immoral, marrying his brother’s wife. She had been married to his half brother, and she was also the daughter of another of Herod’s half brothers who had been murdered by his own father, that is, by her grandfather, Herod the Great. So Herod’s wife was also his sister-in-law and his niece. Complicated stuff! And immoral.
Herod wanted all the Jews to come together and recognise him as their true King, especially given he was a descendant of David. John destroyed all those ambitions when he exposed his immorality. Herodias let that destruction of their selfish ambition fester, conspiring to have John the Baptist killed, essentially for prophesying that Jesus was the real anointed king who would bring all Israel together. Herod’s heart is becoming hardened.
A few years later Herod would finally meet this King of the Jews – face to face. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies” (Luke 23:8-12).
Herod shows the full hardening of his heart. What did he do to Jesus Christ the Lord? He “ridiculed and mocked him” (Luke 23:11). He dressed him in a costume – like an actor – and sent him back to Pilate. Herod had begun by rejecting the preaching of John. He ended by ridiculing the one John declared would baptise men with the Holy Spirit and with fire. In the end God had no more to say to Herod. As Sinclair Ferguson says, “Unless we silence sin, sin will silence our consciences. Unless we heed God’s word, the day may come when we despise God’s Son – and then God will have nothing more to say to us” (Sinclair Ferguson, “Let’s Study Mark,” Banner of Truth, 1999, Edinburgh, p.90).
Far better to live like the 12 apostles at the start of the passage – following Jesus, getting sent out two by two, no baggage, proclaiming the good news, casting out demons and healing the sick. Watch your heart! Follow Jesus and do what He did.