This study is a part of a series of studies of Mark 6:14-29. On the face of it, that text is a record of Herod's beheading of John the Baptizer. Our focus on this paragraph arises primarily from the fact that, in Mark 8:15, Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the leaven of Herod.
That phrase, the leaven of Herod, can only be interpreted by referring to this paragraph in Mark 6:14-29 because this is the only place Mark tells his readers anything about Herod. Therefore, the leaven of Herod concept can only be developed out of this paragraph. Mark wanted us to understand this warning and this paragraph is the only place he develops the concept. So, for our understanding, we must consider this text.
Additionally, the disciples would not have had the foggiest idea what Jesus was talking about if they had not been aware of the details that are recorded in this text. So the paragraph is fundamentally critical to our understanding of Jesus' warning.
Now, this warning, beware of the leaven of Herod, is apparently a very significant warning. We draw this conclusion from two facts: 1) if we take the paragraph before us and the warning in 8:15 as an inclusio, we can see that Mark dedicated a significant amount of material to the concept (the greater part of three chapters); and 2) if we accept the fact that Jesus engineered His disciples' experiences with the leaven of Herod in mind, we can see that Jesus spent a significant amount of time on attempting to get His disciples to understand it.
In a prior study we saw that regret is a serious problem; it's what makes our lives as miserable as they sometimes get. We say, "Boy, I wish I hadn't done that" or "I wish I had that to do over again." Regret is a real issue. We saw that Jesus used Herod as His example, not because Herod was the only one afflicted with this problem - obviously the disciples were in danger of being afflicted with it or He wouldn't have warned them about it - but He chose Herod deliberately because Herod was a most notable person on the stage of history in that period of time in that part of the world. Jesus chose Herod because Herod was a representative of an inescapable historical reality.
The inescapability of historical reality is a real issue. We have an enormous problem in our generation with people saying, "Well, I just don't know if all that stuff is true or not." One of the reasons they don't know whether all that stuff is true or not is because they never spent the time investigating the roots of its foundation. If they would investigate the roots, they would discover that, historically, there is no question about the fact that Herod was there, that he killed John the Baptizer, and that he had reasons for doing so. According to this paragraph, according to verse 20, Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe because Herodias was the one (verse 19) who really wanted John's head. It says in verse 20 that Herod was perplexed, but he enjoyed listening to John. This is kind of odd - John had told him, "You are an adulterer, you cannot have your brother's wife, it's unlawful" - but apparently Herod had the ability to take that, as a man, and say, "Well, you know, this guy's really got some things to say - I enjoy listening to him". But he had him in jail. According to the record, He was trying to keep his wife's murderous hands off of him. But she outmaneuvered him, and it says in verse 26 that he was very sorry, but because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her, so he had John executed.
My point in saying all of that is this: Jesus deliberately used Herod for our sake, so that we would understand that Christianity's roots are inextricably tied to history. People who don't want to believe that Jesus is who He said He was just don't want to believe it. It is not because the evidence is on their side. It is not because there is not sufficient evidence. It is because, as Jesus said, if you want to do the will of God, you will know the truth (John 7:17). So if a person does not know the truth, it is because they do not want to do the will of God.
In a prior study, we saw that God never expects men to believe Him without sufficient reason. He never asked anyone to believe Him before He demonstrated a legitimate foundation for their faith. He didn't ask the children of Israel to walk through the waters of the Red Sea without having all of those plagues in their history, so that they could recognize that, Yes, He is trustworthy; He can do this. He did not ask us to put our faith in Jesus without having a historically valid foundation for faith. Faith is not, like many people say, a blind thing. Some say, "I just have blind faith." Such blind faith is not faith at all. If we cannot understand clearly what we are believing, then we are not believing anything. When we are told that "we walk by faith and not by sight" we are not being told our faith has no foundations in visible evidence. Rather, we are being told that when our sight contradicts what God has said we choose what God has said simply because He has a track record in history that makes His claims credible.
God never expects us to believe Him without sufficient reason, but He also never lets us off the hook once He has given us the reason. So, He does not demand that we trust Him without reason, but He does demand that we trust Him once He has given us reason. Then, if we do not want to, it becomes our problem, not His. We live in a world of scoffers today who boldly declare that they do not believe because there is no evidence, but the truth is that the evidence exists, and they have been confronted with it, and they have said, "No" to it. People do not refuse to believe because the evidence is not there. The evidence is there. The reason they do not believe is because they know that Christianity is going to ask something of them that they do not want to pay, and therefore if they just deny it's true, they will not have to pay. That is the easy (and dishonest) way out. G.K. Chesterton has been quoted as saying, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried." That is the real reason people do not want to believe. They have some heart issues about the way they are living their life, and they do not want it to be changed by God or anybody else. So, if they just deny that Christianity is true, they do not have to be subject to unwanted changes.
But we are not really addressing these issues in this study. These issues are just foundations for our current study. I just want you to understand why Jesus deliberately chose Herod so that we would have evidence of a sufficient foundation so that we could believe if we were so inclined.
What I want to do in this study is move into a detailed consideration of this material about Herod. We are going to look at verses 14, 15, and 16. Jesus, and after Him Mark, thought that the leaven of Herod was so great a problem that they both spent a great deal of effort to unmask it and to tell us how to avoid it. Thus we are not going to treat it lightly, given the fact that they treated it seriously. And besides that, the leaven of Herod is the end of discipleship if a person does not heed the warning.
The focus of this study is on Herod's obsession with his guilt (verses 14-16). King Herod heard, according to verse 13, that the disciples of Jesus were casting out many demons and anointing sick people with oil and healing them, and that they were doing this on the basis of the authority Jesus gave them in verse 7. So, he heard about this Jesus, because this Jesus had these disciples who were making this huge splash in a very small country, where news traveled about as fast as it could. And he heard that there were phenomenal things going on: multiple exorcisms of demonic spirits - not showy stuff, real stuff; multiple healings of complicated diseases, leprosy, and even death. They even raised the dead on occasion. And these were verifiable things; they were not channel 44 showmanship stuff so that anyone can say, "Well, I don't believe that because there is no reason to believe it. It is just a TV thing. I mean, anybody could set that up." Jesus did not operate at that level. He operated in the reality of the day. When He healed somebody, that somebody had a whole host of relatives that lived all around and they knew that the person was not faking. Jesus did this in a country that was not large. A person could walk from the top to the bottom of it in four or five days -- even if he were a slow walker! That person could also walk across it in a couple of days. Jesus did these things. His disciples followed up in multiple villages in Galilee in an area that was not so big. Everyone was hearing, and Herod was one of the "everyone" who heard and the text says in parentheses, "for His name had become well known and people were saying John the Baptist had risen from the dead, and that is why this miraculous power is at work in Him, but others were saying He is Elijah and others were saying He is a prophet like one of the prophets, but when Herod heard, he kept saying, 'John, whom I beheaded, he has risen.'"
In this study I want to consider this obsession that Herod had with his guilt. But I want to do it in the context of Jesus' warning about the leaven. I want to identify the leaven of Herod, by way of review. In I John 2, the Bible reduces the totality of our problem with sin to three basic root causes: John said all that is in the world is: the lust of the flesh [that is physical appetites that are generated by your body]; the lust of the eyes [those emotional appetites that are generated by the soul as it uses the eyes to try to anticipate what is coming]; and the boastful pride of life [which, in technical terms, is the arrogance of functional capacity - that is the kind of arrogance a person has because he can do something well].
John says that is where all sin comes from. That is all there is. Physical appetites, emotional appetites, and spiritual lust for recognition, and status, because of the things we can do. The psychologists would do us a great favor if they would take a key from 1 John 2 and start developing their discipline of counsel on the basis of the fact that this is all there is: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life. Now, many people think that is too simplistic, but I will take God's opinion over anybody else's any day. That is all there is.
What does that have to do with the leaven of Herod? Well, Jesus called it leaven. This means that it will permeate your whole being. That is what leaven does. You put a little bit of it in some dough and in a little while it is all over in the dough. That is why we put it in there - so it will go all over in the dough. Thus, when Jesus mentioned the leaven of Herod, He was talking about one of the three root problems, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, or the boastful pride of life. It had to be one of these three things that He was dealing with, because these roots of sin are all there is. When Jesus warned His disciples in Mark 8, "Beware of the leaven of Herod", He was warning them about something that could permeate their entire way of living so that it dominated them. And what He was not warning them about was murdering God's prophet. I mean, you don't honestly believe that Jesus was warning His disciples in chapter 8 against murdering people like John the Baptizer, do you? I don't think so.
Now, that's what the leaven of Herod did in Herod's life - it motivated the murder of John - but it was a root cause, not a final effect. The murder of John was simply the consequence of a life that had been permeated by leaven. And what kind? Well, Herod's kind.
Jesus was using leaven as a metaphor of one of John's three root causes. Which one? Well, let me ask you two or three questions and you can figure it out yourself. That way, you won't have to say, "What is the leaven of Herod?" You can say, "I know what the leaven of Herod is, I figured it out all by myself!" Here is your first question: Which of the three root causes, the lust of the flesh (the body appetites), the lust of the eyes (the soul appetites), or the arrogant pride of performance or functional ability (which is the lust of the spirit of man to be able to be proud of things he can accomplish) - which of these three would motivate a man to host his own birthday party for all the big wheels in the kingdom? Was it his lust for cake (that would be the lust of the flesh)? Was it his lust for more possessions? No, he was throwing a party, spending his possessions in order to impress the wheels of the kingdom. That only leaves one, called the pride of life, but it is what I'm going to call, in another phrase, Status Lust. Herod wanted to impress the people of his kingdom, especially the power brokers of his kingdom. That is why he threw the party. It was his birthday. Somebody else could have thrown the party. But he threw it himself.
Second question: which of the three - the appetites of the body, the appetites of the soul, or the appetites of the spirit - which of those three would block a man from backing off from a foolish and public commitment simply to do what is right? I mean, this young lady came in, she was probably pretty shapely - I don't know what Herod's taste ran to - but she was the daughter of his newest wife and she was apparently a fairly accomplished dancer, maybe a belly dancer - that's a guess on my part -- but I can't imagine Herod having a sanctified party. Anyway, she came in and danced for the whole crowd. And he was wowed. Now here some of the fleshly appetites were probably at work. But at the end of the dance, he said, "Wow, young lady, you can have anything you want, you just ask. Up to half of my kingdom, you can have." Now, what would motivate a guy to make that kind of a promise? He's never going to get in bed with her. He had her mom in his bed. He wasn't going to get to eat more or less and he wasn't going to get paid - he was going to be giving out as much as half his kingdom. What would make a man make such a stupid promise? And then, along the same lines, what would keep him from backing off the promise when he discovered that he was going to have to commit murder to fulfill it? What would cause a man to do that? Well, it was not his bodily appetites. And it was not his emotional needs. It was his spirit. Lust for the status in the eyes of people. He did not want to bear the humiliation of saying, "Uh, since you asked for the head of John the Baptizer, and he hasn't really done anything wrong, I'm going to have to back off from that" because he did not want to be humiliated. He did not want people saying, "Well, you know, Herod promised her anything she wanted, but as soon as she asked, he said 'No'". He didn't want to put up with that humiliation.
Third question: which of the three - the appetites of the body, appetites of the soul, the appetites of the spirit - which of the three would motivate a man to violate his OWN wishes and interests just because of the presence of the host of wheels that were around him - power brokers. The text is clear that Herod enjoyed listening to John. He actually had put him in jail to keep Herodias' hands off of him. He did not want her assassinating this man of God in his domain. And then, once he had been outmaneuvered, it says plainly he was sorry (verse 26) and I just assign a different definition to sorry when I say, "Yes, he was." But why was he so sorry? And from my definition as well as his? Well, it was because of his commitment to this leaven.
Status lust. It is the desire to be held in high esteem by other people. It is the desire to not be humiliated in front of people because of a principle of my being wrong and something else being right. It is the very thing that often keeps us from saying a word about Jesus because of the company we are in and we know that they will humiliate us if we do. It is the same kind of thing that operates throughout our culture on this business of status and having people's opinions be well of us. Why do you think that there are so many groups today who want legal recognition for their particular 'thing'? Well, a big part of it is because they don't want to be looked down on in the culture. It used to be, if you were divorced, you were looked down on in the culture. Nobody looks down on anybody that is divorced anymore. It used to be, if you were gay, you kept that a big secret because you would be really looked down on In fact in could be dangerous to your physical life. But now we have groups that want everything to be OK. Why? Status lust. They want the official position to be that, "I'm OK". It pervades our culture.
In some of the Far Eastern cultures, it is called the problem of losing face. When my brother was a missionary in Indonesia, one of the biggest things that you always had to be aware of was that you would never get anywhere with anybody if you caused them to lose face, which meant, you had humiliated them in the eyes of somebody. And in that culture, anybody that was humiliated had to get even, and you didn't get anything if you caused them to lose face.
So this is my identification of the leaven of Herod, based on the answers to these questions. So that's what the leaven is. It is status lust. It is the desire to be thought well of by the people that are around me. Why is that a problem? Believers are eaten up with it. We are constantly saying, "Well you need to do this so you'll be a good witness, so people will think well of you as a Christian." Is that right? No. That's status lust. Why do you want to do the kinds of things you do, as a believer, so that people will look at you? The Bible says, "so that they will glorify your Father who is in heaven," not you, who are on the earth. We have it all turned around. We think if we do things to glorify our Father, everybody out there will think we're really swell. That's completely backwards and it's caused by status lust. We want to be seen as somebody. That is part of our fallenness. It's called, the pride of life. It is a serious problem. Huge problem. Jesus said, "Be careful, guys. If you let this leaven in, it will eat you up and you will never be my disciple." The apostle Paul said it this way in Galatians chapter 1: "If I try to please men, I cannot be the servant of God." Think about that. You cannot be, if your goal is to please people. "You mean we are supposed to go around deliberately antagonizing?" I didn't say that. I said: just watch your motives. The leaven of Herod is a real problem.
Well, let's look at how it affected Herod. The first thing it produced (verses 14-16) is what I call, true guilt. True guilt. Now, this is not imagined guilt. This is not just some kind of psychological problem. The text says in verses 14-16, that Herod was obsessed with his failure to stand up to his wife, to stand up to his culture, and refuse to behead this man that he knew was a man of God. He was obsessed with his failure to do that. It says, in verse 16, that when he heard of it, he kept on saying (that's an imperfect tense verb - that means, a continuing litany). When he went to bed at night, he saw John's head on a platter. When he woke up in the morning, if he slept at all, he saw John's head on a platter. Everywhere he went, every time he saw his wife after that, he thought of John. Good grief, what have I done? What have I done? What have I done? You say, "The Herod I've heard about couldn't have been that upset about it." He was, according to verses 14-16. You may have thought that Herod was a heartless kind of guy, and in a lot of ways he was, but this Herod was obsessed with his guilt. He kept on saying, "It is John the Baptizer, whom I beheaded. He has been raised from the dead."
Now I want you to notice something. According to verses 14 and 15, he did not have to take that option. It says in verse 14 that some of the people were saying (now I know that the King James says, "He was saying" - but there's a little textual variation there - verse 16 does say he kept saying so Herod did say this) but verse 14, in some of the texts, says that others were saying that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead and this is why this miraculous power is at work in him, but others in verse 15 were saying, "No, it's not John, it's Elijah" and others were saying "No, no, no, no, it's not John, it's not Elijah, it's just a prophet, like one of the prophets." So here you have three options: a raised, resurrected John, an Elijah who was promised in Malachi 4 as coming before the Messiah, and a prophet, like one of the prophets. Now, what caused Herod to obsess on John the Baptizer? Well, that's what the rest of the story is about, verses 17-29.
He went to John like a duck to water, a tick to a dog, a fly to my ears when I'm trying to work outside, a mosquito to my blood supply. He just said, "It's John" because he was guilty. He could not escape it. He was guilty. And he knew he was guilty. And even though he had an easy out - like other people he could have said, "no it isn't John, it's Elijah", or "no, you're both wrong, it's some prophet". He could have said any of those things. But he did not because his own conscience was eating his lunch. Now, the Elijah option was theologically possible. Malachi 4 had said that Elijah would come before Messiah. Some of the people were identifying Jesus with Elijah, but I think that proves two things: one, that they had this real strong Messianic hope - they wanted Elijah to come - but they didn't want the Jesus that was there to be the Messiah, which tells you something. "Yeah, we want the Lord to come, we want Him to come, we want a Lion to be here, we want Messiah to come." Well, folks, Messiah is here. The evidence is already in. He's here. "Oh, no, it can't be Jesus. He is the wrong kind of person to be the Messiah I'm looking for." Sorry. He's the only one that's coming. If you don't like Him, you don't like Messiah. He is the Messiah.
People who were choosing the Elijah option were simply saying, "yeah we want the kingdom to come, but we want to run it when it gets here, our way." And those that were saying he's just a prophet, one of the prophets -- that was theologically possible also, but it moves the issue of their desire for Messiah into a different, less developed realm. "Yeah, we want the Word of God to be fulfilled as long as it doesn't mess with our lives - doesn't make us do anything differently than we've always done them." Herod did not have to resort to his John thesis, but he did, for two reasons: the first one is based on verses 7 and 13: do you think for one minute, that if Jesus had been staging these miracles to found a new religion that Herod would not have figured that out? He had spies everywhere. If Jesus was not really doing these works of power, do you not think Herod would have discovered that? He had his own FBI, CIA, and all the rest of that. If they want to find out if you are faking it or doing the real thing, all they have to do is investigate; they have all the resources to do that. Do you think Herod would not have known that Jesus was a fraud, if He was a fraud? The statement in verse 14 is that these miraculous powers are at work. Now, the statement there means that Jesus is accepted as a miracle worker. It is not a question as to whether the works are fraudulent. The only question anybody ever raised was, "Where are they coming from?" They never said, "Are they real?" And this is another one of the historical arguments for the validity of Christianity's roots. No one ever said, "Are they real?" The Pharisees had the blind man who had been born blind - they dragged him in and said, "Tell us, how can you see?" And he said, "I told you." And they said, "Well, tell us again." And then they called his parents in and said, "Is this your son?" "Yes, he's our son." "Was he blind from birth?" "Yes." "How is it that he sees now?" "Ask him. We're not going to answer that question, it will get us into too much trouble." Nobody ever said, "Are they real?" The only question they had was, "Where are they coming from?"
And, today, instead of saying, "Where are they coming from?", we have a whole host of people saying, "Were they real?" Well, get real. Look at the roots. Look at the sources. And then ask the right question. Where did they come from?
Now, Herod had to deal with Jesus' reality. And his way of dealing with it, and guilt, was to assign Him an identification that was not His. He's a resurrected prophet of God named John that I killed. He went to that because the miracles were true. They were real miracles that had to be answered. But he also went to it because he was obsessed with his own guilt.
The focus put on John's death is deliberately tied in Mark's presentation here to his introduction back in chapter 1 where he said that John came on the scene saying that after him the mighty one was coming. Now either John was a liar, or after him, the Mighty One came. Those are real easy options, folks. When people tell you that Jesus is not really the Messiah, that we really can not have eternal life by placing our trust in that historical person, ask them, where did they come up with that? And you'll find out really quickly, if you pursue it, that they don't have a good basis for saying that. They just do not want Jesus to be real. They do not want to have to deal with their sin. They want to live like Herod lived, obsessed with their guilt and trying to show it does not even affect them - that is what they're trying to show.
But let us think about this business of being obsessed with guilt for a minute. Verses 14-16 tell us about a man who is obsessed. What did that do to his life? What does it do to yours, when you are guilty and you know it and you do not handle it correctly? Now you know what happened to Herod. It bothers you, at night, and when you can not keep busy. It bothers you whenever the preacher says anything about guilt, because it comes instantly to mind and you can not get it out of your head. It's there. It bothers you. Bothers you. What does that do to the quality of your experience? It bothers it. It ruins it. Do you think living with guilt is fun? Not on your life. Ask anyone who is trying it. It is not fun. Mental obsession is a life-wrecker. Emotional obsession is likewise a life-wrecker. Herod was not enjoying life, post John. He did not. His life was a mess. I can not even imagine him being able to go to bed with his new wife, ever again, without thinking - "Man. I killed this man, I murdered him, just because this woman who is in my bed right now outmaneuvered me." Do you think that helped his marriage? It was a life-wrecker that ruined him. Obsession with guilt can do that.
So, what do we do with all this material here in these three verses about Herod and his obsession with his guilt? Well, there are a couple of conclusions I want to draw and then we will quit. The first conclusion that I want to draw is this: there is no escape from the consequences of true guilt if there is no willingness to go to the root. God does not superficially forgive superficially acknowledged sin. Do you think He warned His disciples about the leaven of Herod because He wanted to deal with them at a superficial level? No. He said, "Look, guys. If you want to be my disciples, you are going to have to go to the roots of some of these things that drive you. And when you get there, you're going to have to deal with it." There is no forgiveness where there is only superficial repentance; there is no forgiveness if there is only superficial interest in the root of my sinfulness; and where there is no forgiveness, folks, there is no escape. Life is hell, and then you die and find out what hell is really like. No forgiveness when there is no reality in the repentance.
And, secondly, not only is there no escape from the consequences if there is no willingness to go to the root, but there is no discipleship where there is unresolved guilt. There are lots of believers who are living with unresolved guilt, and they want to be disciples of Jesus, but they can not be, because their guilt is unresolved; they have not handled it correctly. What was Herod supposed to do? There are people who say, "Well, I know God will forgive me, but I just can not forgive myself." That's where Herod was. That's an obsession. In some ways, it is a status lust obsession. I do not want to have to admit that I could be this bad, so I just can not forgive myself. Forgive yourself. Take it from me, you really are that bad! Just like I really am that bad. There are a lot of us who think, "Oh, I just couldn't do anything that bad" - given the right pressure and given the right circumstances, you would be the first one to jump on the wagon and do it, and so would I. The reality of the Bible is, that is how bad we are. Obsess about it if you want to, but you can be forgiven. God knows that we are that bad, and He still says to us, "I will forgive you if you will handle it properly. Instead of obsessing about it, why don't you just come to Me and let Me take care of it for you." People are obsessed when they don't want to give up their status lust; they don't want to admit to themselves that they are not worthy of having everybody look up to them, and they certainly don't want to admit it to anyone else. But that is the plain fact. We have all sinned. None of us deserve to be looked up to. That is why He said, "Beware of the leaven of Herod." You get launched on this status business, and it will ruin you.
Status lust creates obsessive guilt and it creates an unwillingness to let the guilt go. And nobody can be a disciple of Jesus if he will not let his guilt go. And so you say, "How to I let it go?" One easy statement: "Lord, be merciful to me, the sinner." He will be, if you ask Him to. If you are willing to take that load and dump it at the Cross, you will discover that Jesus will take it. And when He takes it, He will give you His righteousness, and He will give you His freedom, and He will give you forgiveness, and you won't have to carry it anymore.
Now most of us that are in here this morning are here because we already profess to believe all of that. Do you? How is your commitment to status lust? Are you being wary?