Imprisonment and Death of John
[This chapter is based on Matt. 11:1-11; 14:1-11;
Mark 6:17-28; Luke 7:19-28.]
John the Baptist had been first in heralding Christ's kingdom, and he
was first also in suffering. From the free air of the wilderness and the
vast throngs that had hung upon his words, he was now shut in by the
walls of a dungeon cell. He had become a prisoner in the fortress of
Herod Antipas. In the territory east of Jordan, which was under the
dominion of Antipas, much of John's ministry had been spent. Herod
himself had listened to the preaching of the Baptist. The dissolute king
had trembled under the call to repentance. "Herod feared John,
knowing that he was a just man and an holy; . . . and when he heard him,
he did many things, and heard him gladly." John dealt with him
faithfully, denouncing his iniquitous alliance with Herodias, his
brother's wife. For a time Herod feebly sought to break the chain of
lust that bound him; but Herodias fastened him the more firmly in her
toils, and found revenge upon the Baptist by inducing Herod to cast him
The life of John had been one of active labor, and the gloom and
inaction of his prison life weighed heavily upon him. As week after week
passed, bringing no change, despondency and doubt crept over him. His
disciples did not forsake him. They were allowed access to the prison,
and they brought him tidings of the works of Jesus, and told how the
people were flocking to Him. But they questioned why, if this new
teacher was the Messiah, He did nothing to effect John's release. How
could He permit His faithful herald to be deprived of liberty and
perhaps of life?
These questions were not without effect. Doubts which otherwise would
never have arisen were suggested to John. Satan rejoiced to hear the
words of these disciples, and to see how they bruised the soul of the
Lord's messenger. Oh, how often those who think themselves the friends
of a good man, and who are eager to show their fidelity to him, prove to
be his most dangerous enemies! How often, instead of strengthening his
faith, their words depress and dishearten!
Like the Saviour's disciples, John the Baptist did not understand the
nature of Christ's kingdom. He expected Jesus to take the throne of
David; and as time passed, and the Saviour made no claim to kingly
authority, John became perplexed and troubled. He had declared to the
people that in order for the way to be prepared before the Lord, the
prophecy of Isaiah must be fulfilled; the mountains and hills must be
brought low, the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain. He
had looked for the high places of human pride and power to be cast down.
He had pointed to the Messiah as the One whose fan was in His hand, and
who would thoroughly purge His floor, who would gather the wheat into
His garner, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Like the
prophet Elijah, in whose spirit and power he had come to Israel, he
looked for the Lord to reveal Himself as a God that answereth by fire.
In his mission the Baptist had stood as a fearless reprover of
iniquity, both in high places and in low. He had dared to face King
Herod with the plain rebuke of sin. He had not counted his life dear
unto himself, that he might fulfill his appointed work. And now from his
dungeon he watched for the Lion of the tribe of Judah to cast down the
pride of the oppressor, and to deliver the poor and him that cried. But
Jesus seemed to content Himself with gathering disciples about Him, and
healing and teaching the people. He was eating at the tables of the
publicans, while every day the Roman yoke rested more heavily upon
Israel, while King Herod and his vile paramour worked their will, and
the cries of the poor and suffering went up to heaven.
To the desert prophet all this seemed a mystery beyond his fathoming.
There were hours when the whisperings of demons tortured his spirit, and
the shadow of a terrible fear crept over him. Could it be that the
long-hoped-for Deliverer had not yet appeared? Then what meant the
message that he himself had been impelled to bear? John had been
bitterly disappointed in the result of his mission. He had expected that
the message from God would have the same effect as when the law was read
in the days of Josiah and of Ezra (2 Chronicles 34; Nehemiah 8, 9); that
there would follow a deep-seated work of repentance and returning unto
the Lord. For the success of this mission his whole life had been
sacrificed. Had it been in vain?
John was troubled to see that through love for him, his own disciples
were cherishing unbelief in regard to Jesus. Had his work for them been
fruitless? Had he been unfaithful in his mission, that he was now cut
off from labor? If the promised Deliverer had appeared, and John had
been found true to his calling, would not Jesus now overthrow the
oppressor's power, and set free His herald?
But the Baptist did not surrender his faith in Christ. The memory of
the voice from heaven and the descending dove, the spotless purity of
Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit that had rested upon John as he came
into the Saviour's presence, and the testimony of the prophetic
scriptures,--all witnessed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Promised One.
John would not discuss his doubts and anxieties with his companions.
He determined to send a message of inquiry to Jesus. This he entrusted
to two of his disciples, hoping that an interview with the Saviour would
confirm their faith, and bring assurance to their brethren. And he
longed for some word from Christ spoken directly for himself.
The disciples came to Jesus with their message, "Art Thou He
that should come, or do we look for another?"
How short the time since the Baptist had pointed to Jesus, and
proclaimed, "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of
the world." "He it is, who coming after me is preferred before
me." John 1:29, 27. And now the question, "Art Thou He that
should come?" It was keenly bitter and disappointing to human
nature. If John, the faithful forerunner, failed to discern Christ's
mission, what could be expected from the self-seeking multitude?
The Saviour did not at once answer the disciples' question. As they
stood wondering at His silence, the sick and afflicted were coming to
Him to be healed. The blind were groping their way through the crowd;
diseased ones of all classes, some urging their own way, some borne by
their friends, were eagerly pressing into the presence of Jesus. The
voice of the mighty Healer penetrated the deaf ear. A word, a touch of
His hand, opened the blind eyes to behold the light of day, the scenes
of nature, the faces of friends, and the face of the Deliverer. Jesus
rebuked disease and banished fever. His voice reached the ears of the
dying, and they arose in health and vigor. Paralyzed demoniacs obeyed
His word, their madness left them, and they worshiped Him. While He
healed their diseases, He taught the people. The poor peasants and
laborers, who were shunned by the rabbis as unclean, gathered close
about Him, and He spoke to them the words of eternal life.
Thus the day wore away, the disciples of John seeing and hearing all.
At last Jesus called them to Him, and bade them go and tell John what
they had witnessed, adding, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall find
none occasion of stumbling in Me." Luke 7:23, R. V. The evidence of
His divinity was seen in its adaptation to the needs of suffering
humanity. His glory was shown in His condescension to our low estate.
The disciples bore the message, and it was enough. John recalled the
prophecy concerning the Messiah, "The Lord hath anointed Me to
preach good tidings unto the meek; He hath sent Me to bind up the
brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of
the prison to them that are bound; to proclaim the acceptable year of
the Lord." Isa. 61:1, 2. The works of Christ not only declared Him
to be the Messiah, but showed in what manner His kingdom was to be
established. To John was opened the same truth that had come to Elijah
in the desert, when "a great and strong wind rent the mountains,
and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in
the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the
earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the
fire:" and after the fire, God spoke to the prophet by "a
still small voice." 1 Kings 19:11, 12. So Jesus was to do His work,
not with the clash of arms and the overturning of thrones and kingdoms,
but through speaking to the hearts of men by a life of mercy and
The principle of the Baptist's own life of self-abnegation was the
principle of the Messiah's kingdom. John well knew how foreign all this
was to the principles and hopes of the leaders in Israel. That which was
to him convincing evidence of Christ's divinity would be no evidence to
them. They were looking for a Messiah who had not been promised. John
saw that the Saviour's mission could win from them only hatred and
condemnation. He, the forerunner, was but drinking of the cup which
Christ Himself must drain to its dregs.
The Saviour's words, "Blessed is he, whosoever shall find none
occasion of stumbling in Me," were a gentle reproof to John. It was
not lost upon him. Understanding more clearly now the nature of Christ's
mission, he yielded himself to God for life or for death, as should best
serve the interests of the cause he loved.
After the messengers had departed, Jesus spoke to the people
concerning John. The Saviour's heart went out in sympathy to the
faithful witness now buried in Herod's dungeon. He would not leave the
people to conclude that God had forsaken John, or that his faith had
failed in the day of trial. "What went ye out into the wilderness
to see?" He said. "A reed shaken with the wind?"
The tall reeds that grew beside the Jordan, bending before every
breeze, were fitting representatives of the rabbis who had stood as
critics and judges of the Baptist's mission. They were swayed this way
and that by the winds of popular opinion. They would not humble
themselves to receive the heart-searching message of the Baptist, yet
for fear of the people they dared not openly oppose his work. But God's
messenger was of no such craven spirit. The multitudes who were gathered
about Christ had been witnesses to the work of John. They had heard his
fearless rebuke of sin. To the self-righteous Pharisees, the priestly
Sadducees, King Herod and his court, princes and soldiers, publicans and
peasants, John had spoken with equal plainness. He was no trembling
reed, swayed by the winds of human praise or prejudice. In the prison he
was the same in his loyalty to God and his zeal for righteousness as
when he preached God's message in the wilderness. In his faithfulness to
principle he was as firm as a rock.
Jesus continued, "But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed
in soft raiment? Behold, they which are gorgeously appareled, and live
delicately, are in kings' courts." John had been called to reprove
the sins and excesses of his time, and his plain dress and self-denying
life were in harmony with the character of his mission. Rich apparel and
the luxuries of this life are not the portion of God's servants, but of
those who live "in kings' courts," the rulers of this world,
to whom pertain its power and its riches. Jesus wished to direct
attention to the contrast between the clothing of John, and that worn by
the priests and rulers. These officials arrayed themselves in rich robes
and costly ornaments. They loved display, and hoped to dazzle the
people, and thus command greater consideration. They were more anxious
to gain the admiration of men than to obtain the purity of heart which
would win the approval of God. Thus they revealed that their allegiance
was not given to God, but to the kingdom of this world.
"But what," said Jesus, "went ye out for to see? A
prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he,
of whom it is written,--
"Behold, I send My messenger before Thy face,
Which shall prepare Thy way before Thee.
"Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there
hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist." In the
announcement to Zacharias before the birth of John, the angel had
declared, "He shall be great in the sight of the Lord." Luke
1:15. In the estimation of Heaven, what is it that constitutes
greatness? Not that which the world accounts greatness; not wealth, or
rank, or noble descent, or intellectual gifts, in themselves considered.
If intellectual greatness, apart from any higher consideration, is
worthy of honor, then our homage is due to Satan, whose intellectual
power no man has ever equaled. But when perverted to self-serving, the
greater the gift, the greater curse it becomes. It is moral worth that
God values. Love and purity are the attributes He prizes most. John was
great in the sight of the Lord, when, before the messengers from the
Sanhedrin, before the people, and before his own disciples, he refrained
from seeking honor for himself, but pointed all to Jesus as the Promised
One. His unselfish joy in the ministry of Christ presents the highest
type of nobility ever revealed in man.
The witness borne of him after his death, by those who had heard his
testimony to Jesus, was, "John did no miracle: but all things that
John spake of this Man were true." John 10:41. It was not given to
John to call down fire from heaven, or to raise the dead, as Elijah did,
nor to wield Moses' rod of power in the name of God. He was sent to
herald the Saviour's advent, and to call upon the people to prepare for
His coming. So faithfully did he fulfill his mission, that as the people
recalled what he had taught them of Jesus, they could say, "All
things that John spake of this Man were true." Such witness to
Christ every disciple of the Master is called upon to bear.
As the Messiah's herald, John was "much more than a
prophet." For while prophets had seen from afar Christ's advent, to
John it was given to behold Him, to hear the testimony from heaven to
His Messiahship, and to present Him to Israel as the Sent of God. Yet
Jesus said, "He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater
The prophet John was the connecting link between the two
dispensations. As God's representative he stood forth to show the
relation of the law and the prophets to the Christian dispensation. He
was the lesser light, which was to be followed by a greater. The mind of
John was illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that he might shed light upon
his people; but no other light ever has shone or ever will shine so
clearly upon fallen man as that which emanated from the teaching and
example of Jesus. Christ and His mission had been but dimly understood
as typified in the shadowy sacrifices. Even John had not fully
comprehended the future, immortal life through the Saviour.
Aside from the joy that John found in his mission, his life had been
one of sorrow. His voice had been seldom heard except in the wilderness.
His was a lonely lot. And he was not permitted to see the result of his
own labors. It was not his privilege to be with Christ and witness the
manifestation of divine power attending the greater light. It was not
for him to see the blind restored to sight, the sick healed, and the
dead raised to life. He did not behold the light that shone through
every word of Christ, shedding glory upon the promises of prophecy. The
least disciple who saw Christ's mighty works and heard His words was in
this sense more highly privileged than John the Baptist, and therefore
is said to have been greater than he.
Through the vast throngs that had listened to John's preaching, his
fame had spread throughout the land. A deep interest was felt as to the
result of his imprisonment. Yet his blameless life, and the strong
public sentiment in his favor, led to the belief that no violent
measures would be taken against him.
Herod believed John to be a prophet of God, and he fully intended to
set him at liberty. But he delayed his purpose from fear of Herodias.
Herodias knew that by direct measures she could never win Herod's
consent to the death of John, and she resolved to accomplish her purpose
by stratagem. On the king's birthday an entertainment was to be given to
the officers of state and the nobles of the court. There would be
feasting and drunkenness. Herod would thus be thrown off his guard, and
might then be influenced according to her will.
When the great day arrived, and the king with his lords was feasting
and drinking, Herodias sent her daughter into the banqueting hall to
dance for the entertainment of the guests. Salome was in the first flush
of womanhood, and her voluptuous beauty captivated the senses of the
lordly revelers. It was not customary for the ladies of the court to
appear at these festivities, and a flattering compliment was paid to
Herod when this daughter of Israel's priests and princes danced for the
amusement of his guests.
The king was dazed with wine. Passion held sway, and reason was
dethroned. He saw only the hall of pleasure, with its reveling guests,
the banquet table, the sparkling wine and the flashing lights, and the
young girl dancing before him. In the recklessness of the moment, he
desired to make some display that would exalt him before the great men
of his realm. With an oath he promised to give the daughter of Herodias
whatever she might ask, even to the half of his kingdom.
Salome hastened to her mother, to know what she should ask. The
answer was ready,--the head of John the Baptist. Salome knew not of the
thirst for revenge in her mother's heart, and she shrank from presenting
the request; but the determination of Herodias prevailed. The girl
returned with the terrible petition, "I will that thou forthwith
give me in a charger the head of John the Baptist." Mark 6:25, R.
Herod was astonished and confounded. The riotous mirth ceased, and an
ominous silence settled down upon the scene of revelry. The king was
horror-stricken at the thought of taking the life of John. Yet his word
was pledged, and he was unwilling to appear fickle or rash. The oath had
been made in honor of his guests, and if one of them had offered a word
against the fulfillment of his promise, he would gladly have spared the
prophet. He gave them opportunity to speak in the prisoner's behalf.
They had traveled long distances in order to hear the preaching of John,
and they knew him to be a man without crime, and a servant of God. But
though shocked at the girl's demand, they were too besotted to interpose
a remonstrance. No voice was raised to save the life of Heaven's
messenger. These men occupied high positions of trust in the nation, and
upon them rested grave responsibilities; yet they had given themselves
up to feasting and drunkenness until the senses were benumbed. Their
heads were turned with the giddy scene of music and dancing, and
conscience lay dormant. By their silence they pronounced the sentence of
death upon the prophet of God to satisfy the revenge of an abandoned
Herod waited in vain to be released from his oath; then he
reluctantly commanded the execution of the prophet. Soon the head of
John was brought in before the king and his guests. Forever sealed were
those lips that had faithfully warned Herod to turn from his life of
sin. Never more would that voice be heard calling men to repentance. The
revels of one night had cost the life of one of the greatest of the
Oh, how often has the life of the innocent been sacrificed through
the intemperance of those who should have been guardians of justice! He
who puts the intoxicating cup to his lips makes himself responsible for
all the injustice he may commit under its besotting power. By benumbing
his senses he makes it impossible for him to judge calmly or to have a
clear perception of right and wrong. He opens the way for Satan to work
through him in oppressing and destroying the innocent. "Wine is a
mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not
wise." Prov. 20:1. Thus it is that "judgment is turned away
backward, . . . and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a
prey." Isa. 59:14, 15. Those who have jurisdiction over the lives
of their fellow men should be held guilty of a crime when they yield to
intemperance. All who execute the laws should be lawkeepers. They should
be men of self-control. They need to have full command of their
physical, mental, and moral powers, that they may possess vigor of
intellect, and a high sense of justice.
The head of John the Baptist was carried to Herodias, who received it
with fiendish satisfaction. She exulted in her revenge, and flattered
herself that Herod's conscience would no longer be troubled. But no
happiness resulted to her from her sin. Her name became notorious and
abhorred, while Herod was more tormented by remorse than he had been by
the warnings of the prophet. The influence of John's teachings was not
silenced; it was to extend to every generation till the close of time.
Herod's sin was ever before him. He was constantly seeking to find
relief from the accusings of a guilty conscience. His confidence in John
was unshaken. As he recalled his life of self-denial, his solemn,
earnest appeals, his sound judgment in counsel, and then remembered how
he had come to his death, Herod could find no rest. Engaged in the
affairs of the state, receiving honors from men, he bore a smiling face
and dignified mien, while he concealed an anxious heart, ever oppressed
with the fear that a curse was upon him.
Herod had been deeply impressed by the words of John, that nothing
can be hidden from God. He was convinced that God was present in every
place, that He had witnessed the revelry of the banqueting room, that He
had heard the command to behead John, and had seen the exultation of
Herodias, and the insult she offered to the severed head of her reprover.
And many things that Herod had heard from the lips of the prophet now
spoke to his conscience more distinctly than had the preaching in the
When Herod heard of the works of Christ, he was exceedingly troubled.
He thought that God had raised John from the dead, and sent him forth
with still greater power to condemn sin. He was in constant fear that
John would avenge his death by passing condemnation upon him and his
house. Herod was reaping that which God had declared to be the result of
a course of sin,--"a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and
sorrow of mind: and thy life shall hang in doubt before thee; and thou
shalt fear day and night, and shalt have none assurance of thy life: in
the morning thou shalt say, Would God it were even! and at even thou
shalt say, Would God it were morning! for the fear of thine heart
wherewith thou shalt fear, and for the sight of thine eyes which thou
shalt see." Deut. 28:65-67. The sinner's own thoughts are his
accusers; and there can be no torture keener than the stings of a guilty
conscience, which give him no rest day nor night.
To many minds a deep mystery surrounds the fate of John the Baptist.
They question why he should have been left to languish and die in
prison. The mystery of this dark providence our human vision cannot
penetrate; but it can never shake our confidence in God when we remember
that John was but a sharer in the sufferings of Christ. All who follow
Christ will wear the crown of sacrifice. They will surely be
misunderstood by selfish men, and will be made a mark for the fierce
assaults of Satan. It is this principle of self-sacrifice that his
kingdom is established to destroy, and he will war against it wherever
The childhood, youth, and manhood of John had been characterized by
firmness and moral power. When his voice was heard in the wilderness
saying, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths
straight" (Matt. 3:3), Satan feared for the safety of his kingdom.
The sinfulness of sin was revealed in such a manner that men trembled.
Satan's power over many who had been under his control was broken. He
had been unwearied in his efforts to draw away the Baptist from a life
of unreserved surrender to God; but he had failed. And he had failed to
overcome Jesus. In the temptation in the wilderness, Satan had been
defeated, and his rage was great. Now he determined to bring sorrow upon
Christ by striking John. The One whom he could not entice to sin he
would cause to suffer.
Jesus did not interpose to deliver His servant. He knew that John
would bear the test. Gladly would the Saviour have come to John, to
brighten the dungeon gloom with His own presence. But He was not to
place Himself in the hands of enemies and imperil His own mission.
Gladly would He have delivered His faithful servant. But for the sake of
thousands who in after years must pass from prison to death, John was to
drink the cup of martyrdom. As the followers of Jesus should languish in
lonely cells, or perish by the sword, the rack, or the fagot, apparently
forsaken by God and man, what a stay to their hearts would be the
thought that John the Baptist, to whose faithfulness Christ Himself had
borne witness, had passed through a similar experience!
Satan was permitted to cut short the earthly life of God's messenger;
but that life which "is hid with Christ in God," the destroyer
could not reach. Col. 3:3. He exulted that he had brought sorrow upon
Christ, but he had failed of conquering John. Death itself only placed
him forever beyond the power of temptation. In this warfare, Satan was
revealing his own character. Before the witnessing universe he made
manifest his enmity toward God and man.
Though no miraculous deliverance was granted John, he was not
forsaken. He had always the companionship of heavenly angels, who opened
to him the prophecies concerning Christ, and the precious promises of
Scripture. These were his stay, as they were to be the stay of God's
people through the coming ages. To John the Baptist, as to those that
came after him, was given the assurance, "Lo, I am with you all the
days, even unto the end." Matt. 28:20, R. V., margin.
God never leads His children otherwise than they would choose to be
led, if they could see the end from the beginning, and discern the glory
of the purpose which they are fulfilling as co-workers with Him. Not
Enoch, who was translated to heaven, not Elijah, who ascended in a
chariot of fire, was greater or more honored than John the Baptist, who
perished alone in the dungeon. "Unto you it is given in the behalf
of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His
sake." Phil. 1:29. And of all the gifts that Heaven can bestow upon
men, fellowship with Christ in His sufferings is the most weighty trust
and the highest honor.
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