Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
November 23, 2014
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
— Matthew 14:1-12, ESV
By most accounts, Peter Kassig was a good man. He was an American, a former Army Ranger, and founder of an aid organization which worked to bring food, water, and other necessary supplies to the people of Syria ravaged by war. He converted to Islam, not out of a lust for jihad and conquest, but out of love and compassion for the people of the middle east.
By most accounts, ISIS is an evil organization. It is a radical Islamic group bent on creating their own country by terrorizing and destroying people of no religion, other religions, or who practice their religion in a different way. They have become infamous for beheading their enemies.
In the struggle between Peter Kassig and ISIS, ISIS won. They kidnapped him, held him captive, and eventually murdered him in a their gruesome, signature way. This was not the first beheading in human history, and unfortunately it will not be the last. This was not the first time evil triumphed over good in this world, and sadly it will not be the last.
One of the most significant times it happened is recorded in the Gospels. As good a man who had ever lived, John the Baptist, was arrested and killed by one of the most evil, Herod Antipas. How could such a thing happen? What are Christians to do when such things happen? And where is God, when evil triumphs over good?
The Evil are often in Power
In this world, the evil often find themselves in power. Neither Old Testament Israel nor the New Testament church were ever meant to be world powers, at least not in the geo-political sense. Most world powers were aided and abetted by evil. Egypt enslaved their enemies. Assyria and Babylon deported theirs. Rome crushed them. And it was the old Roman Empire that ruled the world with an iron fist in the days of Jesus and John the Baptist.
“Herod the Tetrarch,” or Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, held power in Galilee. The Herod clan had bribed and conned their way into the Roman power structure, and were given governorships over almost all of Palestine. They were an evil, adulterous, incestuous, greedy, murderous clan. Antipas had left his former wife and stolen his current wife, Herodias, from his own brother, Philip, and she was a niece to them both. Her daughter, Salome, apparently liked to entertain gatherings with dancing akin to modern strip tease. This is not the kind of family you would often find together in Sunday School. They were evil people. Yet, they had all the power.
Evil people are often in power because power is something evil people especially crave. There have been benevolent dictators, good kings, and honest politicians in human history, but they are the exception, not the rule. The majority of dictators have been cruel, most kings have been corrupt, and politicians lean toward being liars who will say or do anything to get elected. Oddly enough, in this present world, such character counts.
Evil people are often in power because they are aided by evil. As surely as there is a god, there is a devil, and his personal name is Satan. Under God’s sovereign hand, Satan is allowed to have sway over the governments of the world. Otherwise, he could have never offered them to Jesus during the great temptation. Since the power behind the throne is evil, the evil are often on the throne.
So, evil ruled in Jesus’ day, even over the man whom Jesus said was the best who ever lived, John the Baptist. He found himself in Herod’s prison. How did he get there?
The Good Must Speak Up
When the evil are in power, the good must speak up. John the Baptist did just that. John was on the record for stating that Antipas’ marriage to Herodias was sinful, contrary to God’s word, because it was brought about by adultery and deceit. John was aware of God’s high standards for sexuality and marriage, and disregarding those standards have damaging consequences upon persons, family, and society. John spoke up, but we should notice how and why.
John’s concern was a clear violation of God’s word. We should never criticize anyone for doing anything that is not clearly inconsistent with God’s word. I have experienced first hand the great pain and damage caused by ignorant people who have attacked others for issues clearly supported in Scripture (they even say, “Don’t bring the Bible into this?!”). So if you want to show some holy indignation, make sure it is based on the Holy Bible, not your own pet peeves, sacred cows, or legalistic interpretations of Christianity. John’s criticism of Antipas was biblical and just, so he spoke up.
John spoke to Antipas, not about him. John the Baptist did not say anything in public that he was not willing to say to Herod in private. The text tells us “John had been saying to him.” It doesn’t take much courage to stand on a stump and condemn immorality generally. It takes courage, indeed godly kindness, to visit with an immoral person and tell them, in love, that what they are doing is wrong and hurtful to themselves and others. That’s how John spoke up.
John criticized the sin, not the sinner. As evil as Herod was, John didn’t call him evil. John called his actions evil or “not lawful.” Since all men are sinners, it is superfluous for one sinner to call another sinner a sinner, at least in a pointed, negative sense. It is better to call attention to the sin, point out where it is contrary to God’s word and God’s will, then let conviction takes its course. This is how John spoke up, although conviction did not kick in the way he had hoped. Instead, for speaking up, John lost his head.
Be Prepared to Die
One of the great lines in cinema was given by Mandy Patinkin’s character in The Princess Bride: “I am Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Be prepared to die!” Are you concerned about evil in the world, about how it scars people now and can separate them from God for eternity? Are you willing to speak up about it, basing your convictions and comments upon the gospel and the word of God? Then, be prepared to die.
Herod Antipas was evil, and his adulterous marriage to Herodias was just the tip of a depraved iceberg. John the Baptist was a redeemed, righteous, really good man, unafraid to speak up about the sinfulness that was choking the spiritual life out of Israel. Herod held power over John. Herod locked John up in prison, without any due process. Half-drunk from partying and half-crazed with lust for his own step-daughter, Herod ordered the execution of John, by beheading.
John the Baptist did not lose his head and lose his life because of the control a pair of harlots had over the king. John the Baptist was not killed because Herod held more political power than peasant Jews he ruled over. John the Baptist was prepared to die, and indeed did die, because he had something that despots and other desperate unbelievers do not have. John the Baptist had love.
You cannot say you really love someone or something unless you are prepared to die. What parent who really loves their children would not die for them? What patriot who really loves their country would not die for it? What Christian who really loves the Lord would not be willing to die for Him, and not only for Him, but for the spiritual promises and moral principles of His holy word? Herod nor Herodias really cared for God, family, or country. They were evil. John the Baptist cared and loved. He was good. And on the day described here, because of John’s great love for God and the word of God, evil triumphed over good. Or, did it?
Where is God?
A question honestly asked in Scripture and often asked in life is, Where is God when it hurts? Where is God when the ungodly prosper? Where is God when evil triumphs over good?
Jesus, God incarnate, was nearby when John the Baptist was beheaded. Messengers on foot brought Him the news. He was grieved, for He loved John very much, and His sadness drove Him to a desolate place to be alone. He could have stopped it, or even raised John from the dead afterward, since He had the obvious power of deity to do so. But He chose not to directly intervene, to let nature take its course in a way, to allow evil to triumph over good.
Evil triumphed over good, unless we look at this in another way, in God’s way. Vindicate is a word associated with victory, triumph, winning. Who was vindicated in this Gospel and historic narrative, Herod Antipas, who flexed his powerful, government muscle; or, John the Baptist, who was dragged out of the dungeon and beheaded?
It seems that Herod doomed himself to a life of paranoia and guilt. This entire story is told in retrospect as Herod is touched by the fame of Jesus. Stricken with guilt over his execution of the righteous John, he wonders aloud if John has been raised from the dead in the person of Jesus. He would actually meet Jesus later, and triumph along with Pontius Pilate in having Jesus crucified, but this would only add to his infamy. Antipas was eventually stripped of power by Rome and banished to exile where he died in shame. If Hell is eternal, as Scripture seems to indicate, then Herod Antipas is currently and eternally playing the beheading of John and the crucifixion of Christ over and over in his mind, with his sins unforgiven, in constant suffering and separation from God. I really don’t call that triumph, or winning, or vindication, do you?
John the Baptist, on the other hand, lost his earthly life but gained something much more valuable. He died doing the will of God, standing for the word of God, bringing honor and glory to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He decreased so that Christ and the gospel would increase, just as he said. He is remembered still as perhaps the greatest man who ever lived and his courage has inspired a million Christian martyrs who though dead, still speak of the eternal greatness of God and the eternal life given through the gospel. This is triumph, this is vindication, this is victory in Jesus!
What is God doing when evil triumphs over good? He is winning. Believe in Him through the gospel of Jesus Christ. Take your stand upon His word. Love Him more than life itself. And you will share in the greatest victory in the history of the world.