The Hometown Kid, The Disciples, and The King

This sermon breaks down the first half of Mark 6 into three sections. I’m going to take each one and make some observations about the meaning of the passage and then apply it at each stage. We’ve got Jesus the Hometown Kid, the Disciples’ Mission, and Herod and the Baptist.

The Hometown Kid

The first half of this passage revisits a number of themes that we saw back in Chapter 3, in Pastor David’s sermon on Liar, Lunatic, and Lord. First, there’s the issue of Jesus and his hometown. Back in chapter 3, after the great crowds follow Jesus to hear him teach and to be healed, his family comes to him and tries to seize him because they think he’s out of his mind. You get the sense of some embarrassment. “I’m sorry; my brother just isn’t himself lately. He’s not feeling well. We’ll take him home and get him some rest and help.”

Now, in the present passage, Jesus returns back home, and given his newfound fame, he’s invited to preach in the synagogue. But he’s received differently here than he is elsewhere. People have been astonished by Jesus before. “What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him” (1:27). Astonishment leads to fame and crowds. Here, it’s a different kind of astonishment, a kind of skepticism. “Where did this guy come from? Who taught him all this stuff? We know him. He’s Mary’s boy, the woodworker. He wasn’t trained to be a rabbi; he was trained to work with his hands. His brothers and sisters are still here in town.” And the people of the town stumble over this; they take offense. They can’t get past the fact that they know him from growing up. Familiarity breeds contempt. No doubt it was fear of this type of reaction from others in town that led his family to try and seize him in chapter 3. They knew the whispers, the gossip, the looks that they would get. “Mary, little Jesus wants to play prophet, huh? Thinks he’s Elijah or something? Ha!” And now when Jesus comes back, they don’t lose their skepticism; they marvel at him, perhaps with a kind of curiosity. “Well, I’ll be. Little Jesus got educated. When did that happen?” Or maybe it’s a bit of a grudge and envy happening here. “Who does he think he is? He’s getting a little big for his britches. How did he get that power? I don’t know about that.” And so because they know him, they stumble over him. They have Jesus pegged in a nice little box: carpenter; Mary’s boy; James’s brother. And they’re not going to let him out of this box. Instead they stumble over the box.

And notice Jesus’s response. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” In other words, normally a prophet gets honor. He’s esteemed and valued and respected and heard. But not in his hometown. There, he’s just little Jesus, Mary’s boy. And because of this reaction, it’s Jesus’s turn to be astonished, to be amazed, to marvel. But Jesus marvels at their unbelief. This accents the true humanity of Jesus. Thus far, we’ve seen him have compassion on a leper (1:41). We’ve seen him grow angry and grieved at the hardness of heart of the scribes and Pharisees (3:5). We’ve seen him sleep in the back of a boat (4:38). And now we see him marvel at the unbelief of his hometown.

Now there are a number of applications here. For one, if you’ve ever felt trapped by the perceptions of those who know you best, if you feel like your family and those who knew you growing up don’t take you seriously. Like, if here among your friends and peers you feel like an adult, but when you go back home, you feel patronized and treated like a child, Jesus knows what that’s like. He’s been there. He’s felt the skepticism and the contempt. And he’s Jesus. No matter what you’ve done with your life, you haven’t traveled around healing diseases, casting out demons, and teaching with a world-defying wisdom and authority. You’re not Jesus. But even Jesus’s family and his hometown were skeptical. So don’t be surprised if they’re skeptical of you. Take it to Jesus. You have a high priest who is able to sympathize with you (Hebrews 4:15).

A second application is this: Notice that they put Jesus in a box (Mary’s son, carpenter, we know this guy), and Jesus calls that “unbelief” (6:6). And we can do the same. We can put Jesus in a familiar box, especially if you’ve been raised in church. We can put Jesus in a safe, familiar box and refuse to let him out. It won’t be the carpenter box, or the Mary’s son box. But it might be the “Answer my prayers in the way that I want in the timing that I want” box. It might be the “Deliver me from every hardship and suffering” box. We try to make him conform to our expectations. And then we stumble, we take offense, when he won’t stay in the box. Jesus is not a tame lion. He is not safe, but he’s good.

The Disciples’ Mission

The next section of chapter 6 picks up another thread from chapter 3. Jesus had gathered 12 disciples and appointed them and named them apostles (3:14). And there were two aspects of this appointment: “that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (3:14-15). For the last few chapters, we’ve seen the first part. The disciples have been with Jesus at every point. They’re with him when the Pharisees accuse him of being the servant of Beelzebub. They’re with him when his family tries to take him home because they think he’s crazy. They’re with him when he’s teaching, asking questions about the meaning of the parables. They’re with him in the boat, when he calms the storm with a word. They’re with him with demoniac, when sends the dark spirits into the pigs. They’re with him when Jairus comes to beg for help for his little girl, and when the woman touches his garment to be healed of her bloody discharge. And they’ve been with him when he can’t do many miracles in his hometown because of the unbelief of the people there. They’ve been with him. And now, in chapter 6, he sends them out. He gives them authority to cast out spirits and to heal, and they travel around proclaiming that people should repent.

Now Jesus’s instructions about how they should go on this mission are, I believe, context-specific. I don’t believe that these commands apply to all of Jesus’s disciples at all times and in all places. They are a command to the twelve (6:7) for this season of Jesus’s ministry, as a part of their training. But it does reveal something about Jesus’s orientation to ministry in Galilee. First, he expects hospitality. That’s why they aren’t to take money bag or bread or their own provisions. Traveling, itinerant teachers were a normal sort of thing in 1st century Israel, and there were expectations on villages and towns for receiving them. So Jesus sends out his disciples, expecting hospitality. But, he also wants them to expect hostility. They are following in the train of John the Baptist and Jesus; they are in the tradition of the prophets of old, like Elijah and Elisha and Isaiah who proclaimed that the people should repent of their sins and turn to God. And sometimes, that’s not a popular message. And so, it’s possible (and even likely) that some villages won’t receive you. And so the disciples are to go on their first mission expecting hospitality and hostility, and they can’t let their fear of hostility lead them to hedge against dangers. In other words, Jesus is encouraging these disciples to take some risks. “Yes, they might reject you and your message and not show you the standard hospitality. But you shouldn’t have a fallback at that point.” Don’t think, “It’s okay; we’ve got our own money and bread, and two tunics so we can stay warm at night.”

And though these specific instructions are particular to the first century context, I do believe we can learn from them. For one, it’s good to recognize the pattern of Jesus’s ministry. He calls his disciples to him; he brings them along to see what he’s all about. They hear the message over and over again. I’m sure they heard those parables dozens of times. They hear him preach repentance and the arrival of God’s kingdom. They have their faith strengthened again and again as they see him show compassion to outcasts like lepers and prostitutes. They’re reminded of Jesus’s openness to the outcasts every time they talk with Levi the tax collector. They see his compassion and mercy; they see his grief and anger at hardness of heart. They see him keep his cool in the face of accusations and storms. They see his power in healing and his authority in casting out demons. And then, having spent time internalizing the way of Jesus, Jesus sends them out, in pairs, temporarily to do what they’ve seen him do, and then to report back, which they do in 6:30. So there’s a pattern of discipleship here, that applies to the spiritual life and to other areas of life (like work or parenting). Watch me do it. Do it with me. Do it on your own and report back.

And the reason for this pattern is simple: Jesus intends to multiply himself. He’s a fisher of men, and he intends to make other fishers of men. Now these men won’t be able to do everything that Jesus does; they’re not Jesus. Teaching, casting out demons, healing—Jesus is better than they are. But, in the long run, given God’s plan, it’s far better that Jesus include these disciples in the mission and train them for the mission than it is for him to do it all by himself. Because this is what Jesus knows: a day is coming when he won’t be there to help Peter, James, and John and the rest do the mission. Eventually, they will be doing this mission on their own. And Jesus is going to get them ready.

King Herod and the Baptist

Now the story of Herod and John the Baptist is an interruption of the narrative. You could read straight through from 6:13 to 6:30 and the story would make sense. But Mark will frequently interrupt one narrative and place a different but related narrative in the middle of it. So back in chapter 3, the story of Jesus’s family coming to get him because he’s crazy is interrupted by the Pharisees accusation that Jesus himself is demon-possessed. And the purpose seems to be to highlight these two different but related reactions: his family thinks he’s crazy; his enemies think he’s evil. Or again in last week’s sermon, the story of Jairus and his daughter is interrupted by the woman who touches his robe. And as Pastor David noted, there are commonalities between the two stories (two women, one young girl and one older lady, are desperately in need of healing) and to show the importance of faith. It is faith that makes the older woman well, and Jesus exhorts Jairus to believe, even after word comes that his daughter is dead. So Mark likes to do this—to interrupt one story with another related story. In this case, he gives us a flashback.

The connection is that Jesus’s fame has spread and has reached the ears of King Herod, or Herod Antipas. We see the confusion about Jesus’s identity, a confusion which, by the way, Jesus has been encouraging, by instructing those he heals to keep it quiet, or silencing the demons who want to identify him. Jesus is still keeping the Messianic secret. But the word going around is that Jesus is a prophet. Maybe even Elijah, who never died but was taken to heaven in a chariot. Or maybe even John the Baptist, raised from the dead. And the mention of John’s death prompts a story about how he died. Up to this point, all we know is that John was thrown in prison (1:14). Now we hear what happened to him.

So Herod Antipas is the son of Herod the Great (his sons seem to have tried to turn Herod into a throne name like Pharaoh or Caesar). Herod the Great was the Jewish ruler when Jesus was born, responsible for the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem. Herod the Great had many sons by many wives. One of those sons has a daughter named Herodias. But that son then plots to kill his father Herod the Great, and Herod the Great kills him (and his brother). Herod then has another son named Antipas with one wife, and another son named Phillip with yet another wife. Phillip then marries Herodias (his half-niece), and they have a daughter. Antipas marries a neighboring princess. But then Herodias and Antipas fall in love and divorce their spouses and marry each other. So Antipas has married his half-niece who was also his half-brother’s wife.

Now this sort of inter-family wife-swapping is specifically condemned in Leviticus. “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness” (Leviticus 20:21; 18:16). The only exception is what’s called Levirate marriage, in which one brother agrees to marry the childless widow of his deceased brother in order to produce heirs for his brother’s line (something which if very important in a society in which genealogy and inheritance were tightly bound). This isn’t a Levirate marriage; Herodias’s first husband Phillip is still alive, and so this is contrary to God’s law.

Enter John the Baptist, the prophet who preaches repentance in order to prepare for the coming of God’s kingdom. Apparently John’s fame had reached Herod’s ears, and so Herod invites him to speak to him. When John comes, he makes the most of the opportunity. He doesn’t back down from the call to repentance. In fact, he gets more specific. “King Herod, I’m the voice calling in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord.’ Your preparation is repentance. You have done what is not lawful. You have unlawfully and immorally taken your brother’s wife. You must repent of this wickedness, and turn back to God. The kingdom of God is near.”

Now this story has echoes elsewhere in Scripture: Elijah confronting Ahab and his wicked queen Jezebel; Jesus before Pilate, who wants to set him free, but feels the pressure of the mob crying for his blood; Paul before Felix and Festus in Acts, who hear Paul preach, but feel the pressure from the Jewish leaders who want to kill Paul. In each case, the common thread is a weak, opportunistic, and morally compromised ruler, who is willing to listen to God’s messenger, but refuses to respond to the message out of regard for some other person or group.

In the present passage, Herod hears John gladly, even if he’s perplexed by him (6:20). He recognizes John’s holiness and righteousness, and fears him as the prophet of God, but he’s torn between his regard and fear of John and the pressure put on him by Herodias, who hates and holds a grudge against John for publicizing their great sin. So Herod is pulled in two directions, and then one day, at his birthday party, Herodias sees her opportunity and takes it. Her daughter (probably a teenager) dances for Herod’s drunken and debauched party; Herod enjoys it and in drunken hyperbole promises to give her whatever she wants. The daughter asks the mother, and the mother seizes the opportunity. Now Herod is trapped; you can imagine the awkwardness and confusion when the daughter makes the request. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, but he’s made this boast and oath, he doesn’t want to make a scene at the party, he’s afraid of his wife, and so, like Pilate will before the Jewish leaders, he gives in. And he executes John.

What can we learn from John’s witness here? First, we can be encouraged and perhaps convicted by John’s faithfulness and courage. He was faithful to preach the word that God had given him to Israel. Because of that, God gave him a promotion; he got an audience with the king. And he took the opportunity when he had it. When God gave him the shot, he took the shot. Notice: the message didn’t change just because he was in the presence of earthly power. He demonstrates the same courage and clarity about sin and repentance that we see in Jesus and in the apostles in Acts. We may not all stand before rulers, but at some point, God may put us in a position where courage will be required, where it will be easy to muzzle ourselves out of concern for our safety or reputation. John the Baptist is a model for us of what faithful courage and boldness looks like.

Second, one of our core commitments at Cities is that we aim to seek the good of the Cities. We want the good of the Cities. We want to do good to our neighbors and coworkers and friends. This story shows us what seeking the good of the Cities may get us. John was seeking the good of Israel and her people and the king. And because he faithfully sought the good of Israel, he lost his head. Now, I don’t think any of us is in danger of that; there are places in the world where seeking the good of others will get you killed. But even here in the Twin Cities, we need to know that seeking the good of the Cities does not mean that everyone will like us. It may mean that they hate us and hold a grudge against us and seek our ruin. And so John the Baptist is a reminder: don’t be surprised if and when they hate us. Seek their good. Do good to them. But don’t be surprised if they hate us. Like Elijah who sought the good of Israel but was called the troubler of Israel; like Daniel and his friends who sought the good of Babylon and who were thrown to the lions and into the furnace for it; like the apostles who were sent to bless the world with the good news of Jesus and were imprisoned and beaten for it; Don’t be surprised.

Finally, I want to say something about prophetic speech in relation to politics and the public square in terms of three levels. First, notice that John addresses Herod’s personal sin. This is a personal call to repentance. He may have spoken about Herod’s policies as well. But he didn’t ignore the personal. God’s call to every human ruler is not first about their public actions; his first call addresses them, not as a king or a governor or a senator or a president, but as a human being, created in God’s image and dead in trespasses and sins. “You may not do this. Turn from your wickedness.”

Second, when it comes to issues of public concern, where Scripture and nature are clear, we may speak clearly and prophetically. The church must say things like, “You may not. It is not lawful.” And this is one of the places where the 10 commandments, and especially the 2nd Table of the Law can guide us in discerning which issues are clear. Honor your parents. Respect and protect human life. Respect and protect marriage and the family. Respect and protect other people’s property. Respect and protect other people’s reputations and the integrity of the legal system. Be content with what God has given you and don’t grasp after what others have. The nearer that any public action comes to clearly and flagrantly violating any of those commandments, the clearer we ought to speak about what God says about it. Thus, when it comes to issues of human life, or human dignity (regardless of race or ethnicity), or to human sexuality and the family, you should expect your pastors to speak more clearly about such things.

But this brings me to the third implication, which is particularly relevant in our present cultural moment. There are many areas of politics and law-making and public policy that don’t infringe obviously and directly on these fundamental rights. Much of public policy is a matter of prudence and wisdom in which lawmakers are seeking to balance competing goods. Here’s what I mean. The ability to defend oneself and one’s family from harm is a good. The ability to keep wicked men from having easy opportunities to inflict violence on the weak is a good. And debates about the right to bear arms and gun control ought to be about prudently and wisely navigating those goods. Or, the disposition to welcome foreigners and refugees is good. And upholding the rule of law and preserving the stability of society is also good. And debates about immigration ought to be about prudently and wisely navigating those goods. And the same is true about health care and tax rates and deficits and environmental protection. These are areas of prudence and folly, not necessarily of clear righteousness and wickedness, and they are areas where people of good will can and will disagree. And so we must not turn every speech into prophetic speech. There is no “Thus sayeth the Lord” about the appropriate tax rates or immigration rates or environmental regulations. There are general principles of justice and equity and priorities, and then there is space for human beings to use wisdom and prudence to apply such principles in a variety of situations. And our orientation to such debates and to those who disagree with us in such debates must reflect that difference.

So consider this an exhortation as you evaluate your orientation to the hot political topics of the day. All of these issues are important. And you should care about them, and develop informed views on a whole host of topics. But it’s vital to make distinctions. There is a time to say, “You may not. It is unlawful. This is wicked.” And there is a time to say, “These issues are complicated; let’s reason together.” And in a hyper-reactive age in which social media rewards tribalism and amplifies the most extreme rhetoric, Christian faithfulness means learning the difference between when we must be John the Baptist and when we must not.

The Table

Earlier I said that Jesus was preparing his disciples for the day when they would be on their own. But that’s a bit misleading. The truth is, Jesus never leaves us alone. “He is with us, to the end of the age.” And this Table represents that fact. Here Jesus, Mary’s boy, the carpenter, who like John the Baptist confronted the earthly powers and was executed, shows us his uniqueness. John’s disciples laid his body in the tomb. So did the disciples of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t stay there. He is risen and reigning, and because of that, he is with us, here, spiritually present to us by faith in the bread and wine. So come and welcome to Jesus.