Week 5: READ: Mark 6:14-29
John the baptizer was in the line of the great Jewish prophets of the Old Testament. As Mark 1 tells us, God sent John to get people ready for the coming of the LORD. He was like a herald in the Roman Empire who came to announce the coming of the king. John came from the wilderness to the banks of the River Jordan calling for the Jews to turn their life around and back toward God. This action of spiritual turning is called “repentance.”
What John offered to any who repented and wanted to begin a new life with God was a washing of repentance in the Jordan. The time was ripe for a rather eccentric personality like John for it had been almost 100 years since the Romans had occupied Israel. John’s appearance was unique as one dressed out in a camel costume and eating a diet of roasted locusts and honey. He lived simply. He ate whatever he could find and as a result John owed no one anything. John was debt free. The Jews saw and experienced a man of faith who lived like a rebel in the face of the oppressive Romans.
Many of the Jews were captivated by what they heard about this wild man at the Jordan River. What started as a curiosity soon turned into a movement. Curious people came to see John only to find that he somehow touched their lives and they too wanted to turn their life back to God. Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. Jesus’ baptism was like no other. The Spirit of God descended like a dove and a voice from heaven claimed Jesus as the beloved son of God.
The narrative in Mark turns from John, at this point forward, to Jesus. The last word given about John is in Mark 1:14 which says that he was arrested. What did John do to cause him to be arrested? The gospel gives no evidence at this point. John fulfills his role to prepare the way for Jesus and after Jesus’ baptism, John is removed from the scene by his arrest. This holds true until Mark 6.
What we learn in Mark 6 is that John was arrested because he had a moral compass and he challenged the provincial leader, King Herod. It could be argued that John was not very politically savvy in poking at King Herod. If you happen to know anything about Jewish prophets, being soft spoken or politically correct was never their calling. Earlier, John had called Herod out for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As an aside, history tells us that Herodias was not Herod’s brother Philip’s wife (6:17) but rather Herod’s half-brother Herod II’s wife. John’s words of judgement stung Herodias and she begged her new husband Herod Antipas to have John arrested. The irony in the story is that Herod Antipas had a deep respect and enjoyed listening to the wisdom and challenges uttered by this holy man.
It was during the birthday of Herod that Herodias found the opportunity to have John killed once and for all. Her daughter came to the party and danced for the guests. This so pleased Herod that he asked the girl what she might like in return? Her mother bent her ear and she asked for the head of John on a silver platter. The plotting and trickery worked. Herodias received John’s head.
This whole section (6:17-29) was a flash back triggered by 6:14-16. This is the first time that Herod is mentioned in Mark’s gospel. Similar to 1:28, the fame of Jesus continued to spread. In this instance, the fame was tied to the work of the disciples who had been sent out by Jesus throughout the region to continue the work he had been doing of casting out demons and healing many who were sick (6:13). The flashback pertains to a rumor that identified Jesus with John: Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him”…But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (6:14, 16). This statement sets up the narrative that follows relaying the story of John’s beheading.
John Mark, the cousin of the evangelist of the early church named Barnabas, an early companion of the Apostle Paul, is named as the evangelist who brought the gospel to Egypt somewhere in years 42-50 C.E. The historic church in Egypt is called the Coptic Church, Coptic meaning “Egyptian.” Mark the evangelist is the first Patriarch or Bishop of the Apostolic See of Alexandria in Egypt.
The story of the Coptic Church is a powerful witness to the gospel in the midst of a long history of martyrdom. The pairing of the beheading of John the baptizer with the Coptic Church is fitting because of the recent killings and even beheadings of Coptic Christians. As an ancient church, Copts know the story of how Christianity from its beginnings suffered persecution and martyrdom for refusing to denounce Jesus as Lord. In fact, the Coptic Church boldly tells that the blood of the martyrs is greater than preaching or teaching. The word in Greek for witness and martyr come from the same root.
Like all Christians, the Coptic Church looks to the cross of Christ as the symbol of life, hope and victory. In the cross is demonstrated the sacrificial love of God in Christ. In Christ and his suffering and death, a church that has a long history of suffering finds mystic sweet communion. As a result of the roots of many of the ancient churches based on the blood of Christ and the early martyrs of the faith like Stephen (Acts 7:54-60), James, the disciple (Acts 12:1-2), and from Christian tradition, Peter and Paul (about 64 CE), churches like the Coptic Church find affirmation for their suffering that God is not only with them but their suffering is a blessing.
The following Scriptures are found on the Web site for the Coptic Church:
- “It is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” Romans 8:16-18.
- “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in death,” Philippians 3:10.
- “Now you have observed my…persecutions and suffering the things that happened to me in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. What persecutions I endured! Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,”
- 2 Timothy 3:10a, 11-12.
- “For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal,” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18.
The story of persecution and suffering among the Copts began with the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans, more recently, ISIS and other radical groups. Here is a brief overview of recent suffering: in July 2013, Muslim Brotherhood supporters burned dozens of churches. In February 2015, 21 Coptic migrant workers were beheaded on a Mediterranean beach in Libya by ISIS. In December 2016, the Botroseya Church bombing killed 29 and injured 47 others. On Palm Sunday 2017, two bombings of Coptic Churches (St. George’s in Tanta region and St. Mark’s in Alexandria) resulted in the death of 45 people and injuring over 130 more.
The power of the cross in winning the victory over sin and death becomes a powerful source of hope and confidence in eternal life when death may strike at any time especially in and near the church. The metal of faith among the Copts is tested every day. Because they are fully aware of their mortality and weakness, they lean on the strength of God. When the threat of death is in your face, eternal life becomes ever central in faith. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God, 1 Corinthians 1:18.
- What grabbed your attention in today’s readings?
- What question or new thought do you want to explore more fully?
- What encouragement do you find for your witness to Jesus with others?
- How is God calling you to respond?