John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas. King Herod had enjoyed listening to John preach; Mark recorded, "when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly" (Mark 6:20). However, once John the Baptist started publicly criticizing Herod, the ruler imprisoned the prophet.
Both the secular Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Bible record that John the Baptist was openly critical of Herod's marriage to Herodias. Herodias had been married to Herod's brother, Herod Philip. Either right before or right after the death of Philip, Herod divorced his own wife Phasaelis, and then unlawfully married Herodias. When John the Baptist rightly pointed out that this divorce and remarriage transgressed God's law, Herod imprisoned him. Herod probably had plans to execute John eventually. But Herod feared an uprising among the people (Matthew 14:5) and seemed to know John was a righteous man (Mark 6:20), or at least held to be a prophet by the people, thus John remained in jail.
Upon Herod's birthday, a great celebration took place and his step-daughter, whom tradition names Salome, performed a dance that pleased him greatly. To reward her performance and to display his great wealth and generosity, Herod promised in front of his guests to grant her any favor she requested. Having been coached by her mother Herodias, who "had a grudge against [John the Baptist] and wanted to put him to death," Salome asked for the prophet's head on a platter (Mark 6:19, 25). Thus, John the Baptist was beheaded in his jail cell and his head was then presented to Herodias's daughter in front of all the guests.
The fact that John the Baptist was imprisoned for teaching the truth of God's Word and that his execution could be carried out on the whim of a princess for the entertainment of Roman guests shows the extent of the oppression the Jews of Jesus' day suffered under the tyranny of Roman rule. It also foreshadows the death Jesus Himself would face for teaching the truth. He, too, would be executed by Roman authorities on the whim of an angry crowd who rejected His preaching.
Jesus had said of John "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). John the Baptist knew Jesus was "the Son of God" (John 1:34) and "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). He had announced this to the people while preaching about repentance. So although John the Baptist's death was a great injustice, he had fulfilled the purpose to which God called him: to be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight'" (Matthew 3:3).
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