John Could Have Said . . . and Kept His Head

John the Baptist was the preacher who lost his head. Usually when we speak of one “losing his head” we mean he lost his composure. Some preachers do that, but John did not. He literally lost his head.

Herod Antipas imprisoned John because of his preaching. Herod kept him alive for a time, but Herodias, Herod’s wife, had a grudge against John. On Herod’s birthday, Herodias’s daughter danced before the king and his guests. He got so excited (he “lost his head”) that he offered her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom. At her mother’s bidding, she asked for John’s head on a platter. Herod, though sorry, complied and ordered his immediate execution. Mark 6:14-29 relates the full story.

Herod did not mind the fact that John was a preacher. To the contrary, Mark says the king enjoyed listening to him, although it left him perplexed. The problem, obviously, is what John preached. And that brings me to the point. John could have preached any number of things . . . and kept his head.

John could have talked all day about God’s love and grace. Doubtless he covered that. He could have pointed to Jesus as God’s Son, something he was in a unique position to do (John 1:29-34). I am confident he did that, too. John preached that the kingdom was at hand (Matthew 3:2), and although Herod was a king himself, the nature of Jesus’ kingship was such that Herod would not have beheaded John for predicting it. These things were all true, and John could have gone over and over them in broad terms without endangering himself.

The problem came when John preached what Paul called “the whole counsel of God.” He preached that in order to receive God’s mercy Herod would have to repent. He preached that God’s kingdom would not be made up of the half-hearted or pretenders but those who committed themselves to obeying God. And he was specific. He said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18). You see, Herod had divorced his wife and persuaded Herodias to leave her husband (who was Herod’s half-brother) so they could marry. Their relationship was both incestuous and adulterous. They needed to repent, which meant ending the relationship. And when John said that, well, you know the rest of the story.

The fault in a man’s preaching isn’t always in what he says; sometimes it lies in what he doesn’t say. He may preach the truth as far as he goes, he just doesn’t go far enough. It does little good to tell people what God offers if you don’t ever get around to telling them the specifics of what He requires. Such preaching may keep audiences content and preachers’ heads intact, but it neither pleases God nor saves souls.

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