The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptizer
Dear friends in Christ. Today our Lord’s Church remembers the death of John the Baptizer, the man God, in fulfillment of prophecy, sent to prepare the way for Jesus. John held a rather unique position. He was the last of the OT prophets, yet he was one who could point to the Messiah with his very finger and say [Jn 1.29]: Behold, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
What did Jesus say of John [Mt. 11.9]: I say to you [John is] more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You. John is the greatest of all the prophets. All the Old Testament prophets saw Christ from afar; they spoke in prophecy many centuries before. But now, after 400 years of no prophets and no prophecy, John bursts on the scene to announce that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, had come. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand….He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. [Mt. 3.1,11]
Jesus later says of John [Mt. 11.11]: Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. The point? Even though God had already prophesied John’s coming and work in the OT, even though John prepared the way for Jesus by preaching law and Gospel, even though John had testified of Jesus directly, baptized Him, John did not see the full salvation that Jesus brought about by His life, suffering and death; John was killed before Jesus finished His work and brought about the salvation of the world. But we live in the time after Jesus carried out His work. We can look back on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as accomplished facts; we enjoy the fullness of His Holy Spirit He sent on His Church after His ascension. We are truly in a greater and more blessed position than even John himself was.
1. Today we remember that St. John glorified Jesus in all that he did—in both life and in death. As we do so we remember that precisely because John glorified Jesus as he lived, that’s why he had to suffer an ugly death at the hands of the king’s executioner. The lesson for us is clear: although we, led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, live our lives to the glory of God and glorify Christ in all we do, does not mean that we should expect the favor of the world; it does not mean that we should expect a life of everything going “peachy” for us. If John the Baptizer, the last and most blessed of the OT prophets, who prepared the way of Jesus, who baptized Him, did not receive the world’s favor, was one whom God did not spare suffering and pain, should we expect any different?
In life, John glorified Christ by his faithfulness. He boldly proclaimed God’s word of Law, pointing out to the people their sins and calling on them to repent. By this He was preparing them for the Savior, Jesus, who had come, so that by recognizing their sin, they would all the more welcome their Savior from sin.
Being faithful to our Lord and His word is a very difficult thing. Far from faith in the Lord and faithfulness to Him as being a weak thing, as people often say, faith and faithfulness is a very strong thing. Listen to what Jesus says to the crowds about John [Mt. 11.7]: What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. John and his life of faithfulness was a strong thing; only a true whimp goes along with the crowds. St. John spoke words of harshest law to the royal family whose life was as corrupt as that seen on television today: Herod had already married the daughter of the King of Nabataea, but later fell for Herodias, the wife of Philip, his brother and ran off with her. To make matters worse, both Philip and Herod were uncles to Herodias. John stood up to the king: It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.
Faith and faithfulness are bold things; glorifying Christ by living a life of faith is a bold thing. It is absolutely weak and gutless not to live a life of faith in the Lord and glorifying Him by it. Look at Herod. He was weak—he was led around by his sinful lusts and passion; some dance caused him to make a foolish promise; he was too weak to reverse himself and undo a foolish oath: and the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. So, yes, looking at John we see that as the Holy Spirit is with us, He will strengthen us to live a life of faith and of faithfulness to Christ and so glorify Him by this. Faithfulness will never be easy; we still have our old sinful nature fighting against it, wanting to do the easy, gutless thing. But as the Holy Spirit strengthens and leads us, and as we follow His leading, we will glorify Christ in our lives as did St. John.
St. John glorified Christ in life as he pointed to Christ. Earlier St. John had said [Jn 3.30]: [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease. When we live lives of humility we glorify Christ. John was popular. People came from all over to him. It could have easily gone to John’s head had he been gutless like Herod and led around by sin. But no, John was strong—he was humble; he pointed to Christ. By his life, he showed that he was not his own but the Lord’s. Our text tells us: Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man. The point? John lived for the Lord, to point to Him; and it was precisely by that that he glorified Christ. It was obvious to one and all to whom John belonged. Here is the call for us to examine ourselves: Christ called and claimed us in holy baptism. Is it clear to one and all that we are the Lord’s, that our life and actions point to Him? Or are we like Herod, gutless, weakly following every desire of our sinful nature?
This is not to say that John never sinned or that we Christians will never sin. Far from it! But it is a bold thing to glorify Christ and so point to Him as we hold fast to the forgiveness that we have in Him. We read of gutless, weak, Herod in out text: When [Herod] heard [John] he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. Herod did not heed the voice of truth from John. He choked the impressions of God’s Word and weakly did not repent. He thus, kept wavering instead of taking the strong stand with the Lord and forgiveness in Him. He gutlessly remained in his sin, in self-deception, giving in to temptation. John and all Christians point to Christ and say: There is my forgiveness for all my sin; there is my righteousness, since I have none of my own. By the power of the Holy Spirit we now fight against sin. What we are too weak on our own to do, the Spirit leads and empowers us to do now. Now by the life we live by faith, we have the Holy Spirit given courage and boldness to stand apart and to say no to sin—instead of, like Herod, weakly and gutlessly going along with sin, fearing the ridicule of others: because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him.
In our lives we boldly glorify Christ, pointing to Him as we confess our sins and receive and hold fast His forgiveness. In this forgiveness and joy in it, and led and strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we then stand up and fight against sin.
2. St. John also glorified Jesus in his death. The Holy Spirit strengthened John to remain faithful to our Lord and to suffer all, even death, rather than to fall away from faith in Him. In this faithful endurance throughout life and even unto death, John glorified Jesus. May the same also be said of each of us one day!
To be sure, we will probably not end up beheaded like John, but we will all endure the same temptation to gutlessly give up faith in Christ and to be led around once again by the nose from one sin to the other. But as we remain steadfast to the end, we glorify Christ as John did in his martyrdom.
As we face the various trials and temptations by which Satan would want to lead us to reject faith in Christ, we glorify Christ as we place ourselves into His hands, as we confess by word and deed that we know the Lord is in control. Herod had put John in prison and had John changed his tune and given his approval to, among other things, that incestuous and adulterous marriage, had John stopped pointing to Jesus and His word, he might have gotten out. But John did the difficult thing and continued to preach and glorify Christ, placing his confidence in the Lord and in faith saying: Lord, guide and I will follow—come what may. That glorifies Christ, as does knowing and confessing by word and deed that come what may God is not evilly disposed toward me, but that He is working all things for my spiritual and eternal good. Holding fast to our Lord’s word and promise—even when everything seems to be contrary—faithfully to the end, that is a bold confession of Christ that glorifies Him.
Throughout his life John, as do all Christians, relied on the grace of God. With all Christians, John placed his life in the Lord’s hands, trusting in Him to guide, lead, protect and keep him bodily and in the faith. John could faith death at any time from Herod’s executioner. His times were in the Lord’s hands who called and appointed him to be the one to prepare the way for Jesus. He knew that with Jesus’ coming and doing His work, his job as forerunner, preparer, was over. All Christians know, in faith, that God will finish what He starts in us in baptism. In humble faith we know that our lives are in His gracious hands. So whatever the Lord works in and through us, however He works to bring us safely through this earthly life, we rejoice in His work for us and through us. Thus, strengthened by our Lord through His holy Word and Sacrament, we glorify Christ, as John did, by remaining faithful to our end, recognizing that through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of God.
And immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded [John’s] head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. And when [John’s] disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.
It looked as if St. John had a disgraceful, ignominious death. But the reality, which John and all Christians know, is that it was a victorious death; that’s St. John’s martyrdom was his crowning of victory. Jesus tells us later [Rev. 2.10]: Be faithful until death and I will give you the crown of life. John’s faithful glorification of Jesus all throughout his life—even as he leaped in his mother’s womb when Jesus, in Mary’s womb, entered—continued even in death. By it, he still preached that Jesus is the Savior of the world, his Savior from sin. By his death, John went from prison to freedom, true freedom in heaven. John’s work was now finished and he went to the eternal presence of the Savior, his Savior, whose coming he had proclaimed and whose way he had prepared. John’s respectful burial by his disciples was God’s sign that John in fact had remained faithful to the end. It was a sign that his death was precious to the Lord as even in death John and all faithful Christians glorify Him.
As we see from John’s disciples, Christians are not ashamed of the godly in death. That’s why we today still remember St. John’s martyrdom—by it he gloriously testified of Jesus. Our prayer is that, empowered by the same Holy Spirit, we may glorify Jesus now by faithfully proclaiming Him in word and deed in our lives and by remaining faithful to Him unto death. INJ Amen.