Martyrdom of St. John the Baptizer
Just about 2 months ago we celebrated the joyous festival of the Church--the Nativity/ Birth of St. John the Baptizer; and now here we are remembering his death--being beheaded by the Tetrarch Herod Antipas. Looking at it, it seems like an anti-climatic end. After all, remember the vital role that John had in salvation history--he was the forerunner of the Savior. He was the one God had sent to prepare the way for Jesus as he preached a stern message of law and then pointed the people to Jesus [Jn 1.29], Behold, [look!, there is!] the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So important was St. John that his coming was prophesied about in the OT [Is 40.3]: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord…”; and right at the close of the OT, right before the 400 years of silence [Mal. 3.1; 4.5] the prophet writes: Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Meand Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And Jesus tells us this prophecy refers to John [Mt. 17.12]: “I say to you that Elijah has come already, and they did to him whatever they wished. Likewise the Son of Man is also about to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that [Jesus] spoke to them of John the Baptizer; and also earlier Jesus had testified about John who was, at that time, already in prison [Mt.11.11 ff.]: Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptizer….All the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. St. John was the last of the OT prophets in that he came and carried out his work before Jesus’ death and resurrection but yet he was the greatest of the OT prophets because he could literally point with his finger to Jesus, the long promised and awaited Savior, the one that all the other OT prophets could only see dimly, at a distance, and say Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
We would most likely think that such an exalted figure like St. John the Baptizer would be much heralded and respected. And yet, what do we see? --A rather ignominious death--beheaded at the request of some dancing tart influenced by her mother! By his preaching of Law even to the king for his two-fold sin of adultery [he got rid of his proper wife and estranged away his brother’s wife, Herodias]: It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife, King Herod wanted to put him to death [but] he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet [Mt 14.5]. Herod’s anger gradually subsided because when his illicit wife Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to put him to death... she could not, because Herod feared John. He knew that John was a righteous and holy man, so he kept him safe. When Herod listened to John, he was perplexed in many ways, yet he gladly kept listening to him. But Herod did not listen to the voice of truth he heard from John and choked all impressions of God’s Word and did not repent of his sin. We see the same in so many people--they are intrigued by the word of God and the Holy Spirit testifies to their conscience but they still hold to their sins. And then adulterous and blood thirsty Herodias gets her chance: An opportune day came when it was Herod’s birthday. He gave a banquet for his nobles, the military officers, and the prominent men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.” With an oath he promised her, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” Herodias said, “The head of John the Baptizer.” Herod’s sin of adultery leads also to the sin of a foolish oath and also the sin of murder.
What we see here in the account of St. John the Baptizer is the same thing that has happened and is continuing to happen today--when Christians stand with the word of God they will face opposition, backlash, hatred, persecution and even death--martyrdom. That’s why it is so vital for us today to hold up the faithful witness of St. John and all those who die on account of their faith in Christ. It is no secret that we are living in an age that is increasingly hostile to the word and will of God. We see our age very much in the adulterous Herodias. Look at how those who promote all sorts of sin and deviance are demanding that their deviance and sin become accepted. They are demanding their vice be regarded as virtue. They are demanding and gaining acceptance--after all what are we seeing? --The legalization and promotion of so-called same sex marriage, transgenderism. And this stuff they want to be taught to our children as right and acceptable! If someone stands up and says like John did to Herod It is not lawful for you to…, what happens to them in our “enlightened” society? --At the very least they are canceled! Look at what the Bishop of our partner church in Finland is facing for supporting traditional Christian views of marriage! Our nation does not even have laws to safeguard our traditional values--like places such as Hungary and Russia do --but kow-tows to the homosexual lobby that wants to teach that and transgenderism to kindergarten age children. And look at how the “west” vilifies and tries to penalize nations like Hungary and Russia for enacting laws prohibiting the pro-homosexual propganda, especially aimed at the youth. Deviancy, sexual or otherwise, dare never be regarded as a “human right.”
This is but one example of an overall point: when the Christian stands with the word of God against the prevailing culture or ideology or powers-that-be, we dare not expect the accolades of the world. St. John the Baptizer didn’t. He was imprisoned and beheaded. That has been the similar experience of Christians down through the ages and is the experience of Christians in many parts of the world today. In our nation we may not be killed on account of holding to and professing our faith, but there certainly is much blowback. That’s why it is good to remember St. John’s martyrdom. Among other things it reminds us there is a price we pay for being a Christian and living out our faith in a hostile world; it reminds us to keep relying on our Lord because we dare not expect favors from the world.
And it reminds us that there are martyrs--those who die on account of their faith in and confession of Christ. May we remember and give our Lord thanks for them. May their example of faithfulness, even to death, strengthen us in living our lives of faith. That’s where our text for today is such an encouragement because in it we find the souls of the martyrs in heaven. St. John the Apostle records of his glimpse into heaven: When [Christ] opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. By opening the “seals”, Jesus was revealing the events that would strike the Church; He was giving an overview of the conditions of the NT era--what would happen to the NT Church from the time of its birth on Pentecost until Jesus’ return on the Last Day. Christians were being killed for the word of God and for the testimony which they held by the Romans in St. John’s day and that would continue to intensify during the first three centuries of the Church in the Roman Empire. Once Christianity became tolerated and legalized in the Roman Empire, the persecution of the faithful still continued throughout time and the world--wherever Christianity spread. Once Christianity was established, the persecutions didn’t stop; once people became more “enlightened” that didn’t mean the persecutions stopped--Christians are still being martyred. In fact, low ball estimates are that more Christians died for the faith in the 20th century alone than all other centuries combined. Jesus had told His disciples to pay attention to the signs of the times [Mt. 24.9]: They will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake.
As we remember St. John the Baptizer’s martyrdom today, we see that even though he was such an important person in the history of salvation, he died, in human eyes, a rather ignominious death--one rejected and cursed by people. But He was not rejected or forgotten by God. We catch a brief glimpse of this at the end of the Gospel: When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Here was the honor and respect shown to his mutilated body. By that was the earthly image of the heavenly reality--that St. John had died in the Lord’s grace and favor.
That’s what our text describes--yes, there will be martyrs but they have not been rejected or forgotten by God. Instead--yes, their bodies are often mutilated--but their souls are with the Lord in heaven--safe with Him. Again our text: I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And then we read: a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer. This is a description of the blessed martyrs in heaven. On earth, like we see with St. John, there may be nothing but a bloodied and mutilated body, very ignominious. But what is the reality in heaven? The souls are clothed with the white robe of righteousness --that perfect righteousness of Jesus which they received in faith, with which they were clothed at their baptism. Here is a picture of their righteousness before God, their blessedness and purity in Christ. That same righteousness is also ours through faith in Christ as we were clothed with Him at our baptism. And this white robe of Christ’s righteousness they now have points us ahead to the resurrection on the Last Day. Until then, the souls of all the faithful dead--but especially the martyrs who suffered such a wretched end in human eyes--are enjoying the blessedness and joy of eternal life in heaven. God has not forsaken His faithful, nor can He ever. John’s disciples...came and took his body and laid it in a tomb but his soul was in heaven, in Jesus’ hands and under His protection--just as all the martyrs down through the ages are under the altar resting in Jesus’ hand and bosom.
And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”....And it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed. The souls of the martyrs are longing for and crying out for the Last Day. They, like us, know that He will come in judgment, but not when. Here the martyrs, like all the souls in heaven, pray for the Church--just like they did when on earth. Here they pray that the Lord would hurry up the end of the persecution and bring His plans for the world to a speedy conclusion. They have and continue to pray for the final and complete redemption of the Church and for a glorious reunion with their bodies--the same bodies that suffered and died horribly but now will be glorified. We see the saints/ martyrs in heaven longing just like we are for the Last Day. When Jesus returns on the Last Day as Judge, then the truth of the Christian faith will be undeniable. Then our witness as Christians and the witness and death of these Christians--what they held onto, the word of God, in the face of persecution and death--will be vindicated. They will be shown as correct. And in that God will be glorified.
But the full number of martyrs, known only to the Lord, will glorify Him down through the ages. The world and martyrdom will go on. But the martyrs’ comfort and ours is that the Lord is in control. We may think things are bad and can’t be any worse but He knows and sees the big picture; He knows His gracious plans. Our comfort is that Christ, our King, is seated and has subdued His enemies under His feet--even though it may not look like it to us. As we remember St. John the Baptizer’s martyrdom today, let us also pray for our fellow Christians throughout the world being persecuted for their faith; and let us pray that we remain faithful to our Lord and His word. INJ