Imprisonment and Death of
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 into prison.
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
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
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
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
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
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 self-sacrifice.
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
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
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 than he."
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
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. V.
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 woman.
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 prophets.
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 wilderness.
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 manifested.
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