This passage is the third of Mark’s “sandwiched” stories. It comes in the middle of Jesus sending the twelve out on a mission, and ends as they are returning. When Mark structures his stories this way, I always look for the teaching or element in the inner account that relates to the framing one. That may not be the intent of Mark’s composition—in this case it feels like John’s death is mostly related to the disciple’s mission by the reactions of the masses—but I still look to see if there is something deeper to be found.
And here is what jumps out at me. The mission of the Disciples was an evangelistic one. They were heralding the coming Kingdom and calling people to repentance. Today we would say they were calling people to faith, but in doing that we would be missing a vital point, and Herod illustrates that for us.
You see, Herod had belief. He was very interested in spiritual things. Mark tells us that clearly in verse 20:
“For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”
Herod had John arrested because John was calling him out for the sin of marrying his own sister-in-law. She wanted John killed for such talk, but Herod knew John was right. He was also fascinated by John’s teaching. He was very interested in spiritual things. Herod was curious and he had a level of belief, but he had no interest in changing his ways.
Today we have a lot of believers who are trying to do an incomplete evangelism, and we wonder why we are not seeing results. In a majority of cases the problem is unrelated to the story here. We have people spewing a pre-packaged, bullet point, advertising jingle version of a gospel that simply does not communicate at a level people can understand. However, there are also two other failings on the mission Jesus has charged us to be on.
On the one hand a lot of Christians use a “scorched earth” approach to the good news. They call out loudly and indiscriminately for repentance. Announce to the world at large that they are no good sinners and need to repent. There is no attempt to find people who are interested and seeking, to reach these people with the story of God’s love, to achieve repentance through faith. The result is not reconciliation, but a strengthening of the battle lines between mankind and God.
The other approach is a naïve one, where we find people who are indeed curious about God and spiritual matters. But when we find them we are content to simply tickle their ears and are happy that someone likes us. We forget completely that salvation is not just “believe” but rather, “repent and trust.”
Half of the Christians I know today would be calling Herod “close to God” and rejoicing about all the good talks they were having with him. The other half would be celebrating the fact they were in jail for sticking it to him about his sin. Either way, in concentrating on a house that should have had them “shaking off the dust from the soles of their feet” and looking for more houses to engage, they are not able to give Jesus much of a report from their mission.