Half or All?

Mark 6:14–29  records one of the saddest stories in the Bible, the death of John the Baptist:

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” [15] But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” [16] But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” [17] For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. [18] For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” [19] And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, [20] for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

[21] But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. [22] For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” [23] And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” [24] And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” [25] And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” [26] And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. [27] And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison [28] and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. [29] When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (ESV)

As this passage indicates, when word about what Jesus was doing reached the ears of King Herod, the king thought he knew exactly who Jesus was. He thought Jesus was John the Baptist who had risen from the dead. Other people speculated that Jesus was someone else but Herod was convinced that Jesus was John the Baptist.

As someone pointed out, “That was King Herod’s guilt speaking.” King Herod had every reason to feel guilty about John the Baptist. King Herod had put John in prison because John had spoken out against Herod taking as his wife, Herodias his brother’s wife.

To silence John, Herod had put John in prison but out of respect for John he did not kill him. As our Lutheran Confessions point out, “King Herod took his brother’s wife while his brother was still living and yet posed as an honorable, upright man.”

Then came Herod’s birthday. Herodias’ daughter danced and it pleased Herod and his guests so much he promised the girl anything, up to half his kingdom. The girl’s mother, who held a grudge against John, convinced her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod could not go back on his word in front of all these important officials so he sent the executioner to the prison and had John beheaded.

This is one of those stories that remind us how things really have not changed. It is still true today that if you speak out against adultery or other sexual sins you can get your head chopped off. It might not happen literally, as with John, but you will face lots of opposition for speaking out against all the different ways that people have perverted God’s good gift of sexuality.

As a result, so many people who know that our society is abusing God’s good gift of sexuality are silent. They don’t want to speak up and risk getting their heads chopped off. If people don’t try to chop our heads off they do what they did to the Old Testament prophet Amos: “And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, and eat bread there, and prophesy there.” (Amos 7:12)  They tell us, “We don’t mind if you spout off all that God stuff, just don’t do it here.”

Another thing that has not changed is that our leaders can do horrible things but they always want to appear as though they are honorable and upright. They want to appear honorable and upright so they can sleep at night. Herod obviously still felt guilty over what he did to John which is why when Jesus started doing so many miraculous things he thought John had been raised from the dead just to haunt him.

I also wonder how this changed the relationship between King Herod and Herodias. They must have loved each other a lot for Herod to steal Herodias from Philip. But when Herodias suggested to her daughter to ask for John’s head, a request that distressed Herod, it must have had an effect on the relationship.

Herod was so pleased with the girl’s dancing that he promised her half of his kingdom. But as the Apostle Paul points out in Ephesians 1 God does not promise us half his kingdom, he promises us all of his kingdom:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, [4] even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love [5] he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, [6] to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. [7] In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, [8] which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight [9] making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ [10] as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

“[11] In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, [12] so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. [13] In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, [14] who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:3-14)

God gives us every spiritual blessing in Christ, not half the kingdom, everything. And Paul lists off those spiritual blessings.

First, we are chosen before the foundation of the world. Even before we were born God knew about us and chose us. Then, when we were born, he confirmed his choice of us by Holy Baptism.

God predestined us before the foundation of the world. It says he predestined us for adoption. Predestination is a hard word to understand sometimes so I like that Paul combines it with adoption.

When a couple wants to adopt a child they go through all the application process always wondering who they receive as their child. Then the big day arrives and they finally get their child. Many times I’ve heard the parents say, “It’s like it was always meant to be, like the child we adopted was always meant to be ours.” So too with predestination; God is saying it was always meant to be that we would belong to him.

The next spiritual blessing that is mentioned is redemption, that is the forgiveness of our sins. Redemption is a spiritual blessing but it comes to us through physical means, through the blood of Jesus. Jesus shed his blood for us on the cross to redeem us according to the riches of his grace.

Then there is our inheritance. Inheritances are granted through a will but a will doesn’t go into effect until the one who made it dies. Jesus did die for us on the cross so we have received our inheritance: eternal life in heaven.

Finally we have been sealed by the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of the our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.

These are the spiritual blessing we have in Christ. As you can see, in Christ God has not given us half his kingdom, he has given us the whole kingdom. And we don’t even have to be good dancers in order to receive these blessings, they are give to us freely in Christ!

The interesting thing is that Paul wrote these words while he was in prison. His letter to the Ephesians is one of several “prison letters” that he wrote. Paul was such a busy guy that it’s almost like from time to time God would have him put in prison so he would have time to sit and write. Some of his greatest writings were written while he was in prison.

I’m sure that as he was sitting in prison he thought about what happened to John the Baptist. He realized that he could end up with his head chopped off. But still he wrote about sexual sins in his letter:

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. [4] Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. [5] For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God…Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. [12] For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.”(Ephesians 5:3-5, 10-11)

It’s true, Paul was not speaking out against the sinful actions of a powerful ruler as John the Baptist did. But as a prisoner, he knew that what he wrote would probably be read by his captors and they might not take too kindly to what he wrote.

But Paul was willing to take that risk because he knew that he had already had every spiritual blessing in Christ. And nothing that any earthly ruler could do or say could take those eternal blessings from him. John, too, was willing to speak out against King Herod because he knew that in Christ he already had every spiritual blessing.

The same is true for us. We can have the courage to speak up when necessary because nothing can take our spiritual blessings from us.

In Christ, God does not give us half his kingdom, he gives us his whole kingdom. Every spiritual blessing in ours in Christ.

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