Part 8 John the Baptist
This is the eighth in a series that examines references to prisons and prisoners in the Bible. This time we will look at John the Baptist and how he never wavered from his commitment to proclaim righteousness despite dire consequences. The story of John the Baptist can be found throughout the gospel records, but the clearest description of his imprisonment and execution is in Mark 6:14-29.
The life of John reinforces a theme that is repeated throughout the scriptures: how the godly are often persecuted and mistreated for taking a stand for what is right.
John was the fiery preacher who was called by God to “prepare the way of the Lord.” He preached throughout Judea and Galilee for Israel to repent, turn to God and be baptized. At the time of John’s ministry Herod Antipas was the “king” of the region of Galilee. This Herod was the son of Herod the Great who ruled at the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus. Herod the Great had another son, Philip, who was married to the beautiful Herodias. At some point Herod Antipas decided that he would like Herodias as his wife, something forbidden by the Mosaic law (Leviticus 18:6). Since Herod was at least trying to give the appearance of being a Jew (he went to Jerusalem for the Passover at the time of the crucifixion of the Lord) it was to be expected that he would be rebuked by a prophet such as John.
Herod was angry that John was openly preaching against his immoral behavior and so he had him thrown into prison. He did not want to execute John because he was revered as a prophet by the Jews in Palestine. This is a good example of how prisons were used in the ancient world. Unlike today in which incarceration is used as a form of punishment, jails were commonly used by kings and rulers to keep political troublemakers from stirring up the people to rebellion without creating martyrs.
While in prison John was allowed visitors. We read in Matthew 11:2 that he sent some of his disciples to inquire whether or not Jesus was the awaited Messiah.
The king was not the only one offended by John’s bold and forceful denunciation of his sin. His illegitimate wife, Herodias, was so infuriated that she wanted to see John dead. Her chance came when Herod threw himself a lavish birthday party and had his stepdaughter perform a seductive dance for himself and his guests. He was so carried away by lust and drink that he promised the young girl that she could have anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom, just for the asking. After consulting with her embittered mother she returned to the king and requested to have the head of John the Baptist delivered on a platter. Herod was forced to honor his promise since he made the statement publicly in front of his many guests.
Like so many heroes in the scriptures such as Joseph, Daniel, the three young Hebrews, Jeremiah and others, John the Baptist would not allow the threat of persecution, imprisonment or even death deter him from serving God with bold conviction. What is more, we can see that John never lost his zeal for the Lord even while he was in prison. Even in chains he wanted to know more about the Lord Jesus and his ministry. So much so that he sent his disciples to find Jesus in order to get more information about his identity and the significance of his ministry. We see that John did not spend his time moping about his circumstances and feeling sorry for himself. Even in the dark, cold prison cell he wanted to know more about the one that would be his King and savior. Such should be our attitude so that we can say with the Apostle Paul that we long only to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.