"Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly." (Mark vi, 20).
This caused me to change my views about Herod. I saw that he was not only brought within the sound of John's voice, but under the power of the Spirit of God; his heart was touched and his conscience awakened. We are not told under what circumstances he heard John; but the narrative plainly states that he was brought under the influence of the Baptist's wonderful ministry.
Let me first say a word or two about
I contend that John the Baptist must have been one of the grandest preachers this world has ever had. Almost any man can get a hearing nowadays in a town or a city, where the people live close together; especially if he speaks in a fine building where there is a splendid choir, and if the meetings have been advertised and worked up for weeks or months beforehand. In such circumstances any man who has a gift for speaking will get a good audience. But it was very different with John. He drew the people out of the towns and cities away into the wilderness. There were no ministers to back him; no business men interested in Christ's cause to work with him; no newspaper reporters to take his sermons down and send them out. He was an unknown man, without any title to his name. He was not the Right-Rev. John the Baptist, D. D., or anything of the kind, but plain John the Baptist. When the people went to inquire of him if he were Elias or Jeremiah come back to life, he said he was not.
"Who are you then?"
"I am the Voice of one crying in the wilderness."
He was nothing but a voice -- to be heard and not seen; he was Mr. Nobody. He regarded himself as a messenger who had received his commission from the eternal world.
How he began his ministry, and how he gathered the crowds together we are not informed. I can imagine that one day this strange man makes his appearance in the valley of the Jordan, where he finds a few shepherds tending their flocks. They bring together their scattered sheep, and the man begins to preach to these shepherds. The kingdom of heaven, he says, is about to be set up on the earth; and he urges them to set their houses in order -- to repent and turn away from their sins. Having delivered his message, he tells them that he will come back the next day and speak again.
When he had disappeared in the desert, I can suppose one of the shepherds saying to another:
"Was he not a strange man? Did you ever hear a man speak like that? He did not talk as the rabbis or the Pharisees or the Sadducees do. I really think he must be one of the old prophets. Did you notice that his coat was made of camel's hair, and that he had a leathern girdle round his loins? Don't the Scriptures say that Elijah was clothed like that?"
Says another: "You remember how Malachi says that before the great and dreadful day of the Lord, Elijah should come? I really believe this man is the old prophet of Carmel."
What could stir the heart of the Jewish people more than the name of Elijah?
The tidings of John's appearance spread up and down the valley of the Jordan, and when he returned the next day, there was great excitement and expectation as the people listened to the strange preacher. Perhaps till Christ came he had only that
"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Day after day you could hear his voice ringing through the valley of the Jordan:
"Repent! repent! repent! The King is at the door. I do not know the day or the hour, but He will be here very soon."
By and by some of the people who flocked to hear him wanted to be baptized, and he took them to the Jordan and baptized them.
The news spread to the surrounding villages and towns, and it was not long before it reached Jerusalem. Then the people of the city began to flock into the desert to hear this prince among preachers. His fame soon reached Galilee, and the people in the mountains began to flock down to hear him. Men left their fishing-smacks on the lake, that they might listen to this wonderful preacher. When he was in the zenith of his popularity, as many as twenty or thirty thousand people perhaps flocked to his ministry day after day.
No doubt there were some old croakers who said it was
"Catch me there! No, sir; I never did like sensational preaching."
Just as some people speak nowadays when any special effort is made to reach the people!
"Great harm will be done," they say.
I wish all these croakers had died out with that generation in Judea; but we have plenty of their descendants still. I venture to say you have met with them. Why, my dear friends, there is more excitement in your whisky shops and beer saloons in one night than in all the churches put together in twelve months. What a stir there must have been in Palestine under the preaching of John the Baptist, and of Christ! The whole country reeled and rocked with intense excitement. Don't be afraid of a little excitement in religious matters; it won't hurt.
One might hear those old Pharisees and Scribes grumbling about John being such a sensational preacher. "It won't last." And when Herod had John the Baptist beheaded, they would say, "Didn't I tell you so?"
Do not let us be in a hurry in passing judgment. John the Baptist lives to-day more than ever he did; his voice goes ringing through the world yet. He only preached a few months, but for more than eighteen hundred years his sermons have been repeated and multiplied, and the power of his words will never die as long as the world lasts.
I can imagine that just when John was at the height of his popularity, as Herod sat in his palace in Jerusalem looking out towards the valley of the Jordan, he could see great crowds of people passing day by day. He began to make inquiries as to what it meant, and the news came to him about this strange and powerful preacher. Some one, perhaps, reported that John was preaching treason. He was telling of a king who was at hand, and who was going to set up his kingdom.
"A king at hand! If Caesar were coming, I should have heard of it. There is no king but Caesar. I must look into the matter. I will go down to the Jordan, and hear this man for myself."
So one day, as John stood preaching, with the eyes of the whole audience upon him, the people being swayed by his eloquence like tree-tops when the wind passes over them, all at once he lost their attention. All eyes were suddenly turned in the direction of the city. One cries:
"Look, look! Herod is coming!"
Soon the whole congregation knows it, and there is great excitement.
"I believe he will stop this preaching," says one.
And if they had in those days some of the compromising weak-kneed Christians we sometimes meet, they would have said to John:
"Don't talk about a coming King; Herod won't stand it. Talk about repentance, but any talk about a coming King will be high treason in the ears of Herod."
I think if any one had dared to give John such counsel, he would have replied: "I have received my message from heaven; what do I care for Herod or any one else?"
As he stood thundering away and calling on the people to repent, I can see Herod, with his guard of soldiers around him, listening attentively to find anything in the preacher's words that he can lay hold of. At last John says:
"The King is just at the door. He will set up His kingdom, and will separate the wheat from the chaff."
I can imagine Herod then saying to himself: "I will have that man's head off inside of twenty-four hours. I would arrest him here and now if I dared. I will catch him to-morrow before the crowd gathers."
By and by, as Herod listens, some of the people begin to press close up to the preacher, and to question him. Some soldiers are among them, and they ask John:
"What shall we do?"
John answers: "Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages."
"That is pretty good advice," Herod thinks; "I have had a good deal of trouble with these men, but if they follow the preacher's advice, it will make them better soldiers."
Then he hears the publicans ask John, as they come to be baptized:
"What shall we do?"
The answer is: "Exact no more than that which is appointed you."
"Well," says Herod, "that is excellent advice. These publicans are all the time overtaxing the people. If they would do as the preacher tells them, the people would be more contented."
Then the preacher addresses himself to the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the crowd, and cries:
"O generation of vipers! Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruits worthy of repentance."
Says Herod within himself: "I like that. I am glad he is giving it pretty strong to these men. I do not think I will have him arrested just yet."
So he goes back to his palace. I can imagine he was
NOT ABLE TO SLEEP MUCH
that night; he kept thinking of what he had heard. When the Holy Ghost is dealing with a man's conscience, very often sleep departs from him. Herod cannot get this wilderness preacher and his message out of his mind. The truth had reached his soul; it echoed and re -echoed within him: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." He says:
"I went out to-day to hear for the Roman Government; I think I will go to-morrow and hear for myself."
So he goes back again and again. My text says that he heard him gladly, that he observed him, and feared him, knowing that he was a just man and a holy. He must have known down in his heart that John was
A HEAVEN-SENT MESSENGER.
Had you gone into the palace in those days, you would have heard Herod talking of nobody but John the Baptist. He would say to his associates:
"Have you been out into the desert to hear this strange preacher?"
"No; have you?"
"What! you, the Roman Governor, going to hear this unordained preacher?"
"Yes, I have been quite often. I would rather hear him than any man I ever knew. He does not talk like the regular preachers. I never heard any one who had such influence over me."
You would have thought that Herod was a very hopeful subject. "He did many things." Perhaps he stopped swearing. He may have stopped gambling and getting drunk. A wonderful change seemed to have passed over him. Perhaps he ceased from taking bribes for a time; we catch him at it afterwards, but just then he refrained from it. He became quite virtuous in certain directions. It really looked as if he were near the kingdom of heaven.
I can imagine that one day, as John stands preaching, the truth is going home to the hearts and consciences of the people, and the powers of another world are falling upon them, one of John's disciples stands near Herod's chariot, and sees the tears in the eyes of the Roman Governor. At the close of the service he goes to John and says:
"I stood close to Herod today, and no one seemed more impressed. I could see the tears coming, and he had to brush them away to keep them from falling."
Have you ever seen a man in a religious meeting trying to keep the tears back? You noticed that his forehead seemed to itch, and he put up his hand; you may know what it means -- he wants to conceal the fact that the tears are there. He thinks it is a weakness. It is no weakness to get drunk and abuse your family, but it is weakness to shed tears. So this disciple of John may have noticed that Herod put his hand to his brow a number of times; he did not wish his soldiers, or those standing near, to observe that he was weeping. The disciple says to John:
"It looks as if he were coming near the kingdom. I believe you will have him as an inquirer very soon."
When a man enjoys hearing such a preacher, it certainly seems a hopeful sign.
Herod might have been present that day when Christ was baptized. Was there ever a man lifted so near to heaven as Herod must have been if he were present on that occasion? I see John standing surrounded by a great throng of people who are hanging on his words. The eyes of the preacher, that never had quailed before, suddenly began to look strange. He turned pale and seemed to draw back as though something wonderful had happened, and right in the middle of a sentence he ceased to speak. If I were suddenly to grow pale, and stop speaking, you would ask:
"Has death crept onto the platform? Is the tongue of the speaker palsied?"
There must have been quite a commotion among the audience when John stopped. The eyes of the Baptist were fixed upon a Stranger who pushed His way through the crowd, and coming up to the preacher, requested to be baptized. That was a common occurrence; it had happened day after day for weeks past. John listened to the Stranger's words, but instead of going at once to the Jordan and baptizing Him, he said:
"I need to be baptized of Thee!"
What a thrill of excitement must have shot through the audience! I can hear one whispering to another:
"I believe that is the Messiah!"
Yes, it was the long-looked-for One, for whose appearing the nation had been waiting these thousands of years. From the time God had made the promise to Adam, away back in Eden, every true Israelite had been looking for the Messiah; and there He was in their midst!
He insisted that John should baptize Him, and the forerunner recognized His authority as Master, took Him to the Jordan, and baptized Him. As He came up from the water, lo! the heavens opened, and the Spirit of God in the form of a dove descended and rested on Him. When Noah sent forth the dove from the Ark, it could find no resting-place; but now the Son of God had come to do the will of God, and the dove found its resting-place upon Him. The Holy Ghost had found a home. Now God broke the silence of four thousand years. There came a voice from heaven, and Herod may have heard it if he was there that day:
"This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
Even if he had not witnessed this scene and heard the voice, he must have heard about it; for the thing was not done in a corner. There were thousands to witness it, and the news must have been taken to every corner of the land.
Yet Herod, living in such times, and hearing such a preacher, missed the kingdom of heaven at last. He did many things because he feared John. Had he feared God he would have done everything. "He did many things"; but there was one thing he would not do --
HE WOULD NOT GIVE UP ONE DARLING SIN.
The longer I preach, the more I am convinced that that is what keeps men out of the kingdom of God. John knew about Herod's private life, and warned him plainly.
If those compromising Christians of whom I have spoken had been near John, one of them would have said:
"Look here, John, it is reported that Herod is very anxious about his soul, and is asking what he must do to be saved. Let me give you some advice; don't touch on Herod's secret sin. He is living with his brother's wife, but don't you say anything about it, for he won't stand it. He has the whole Roman Government behind him, and if you allude to that matter it will be more than your life is worth. You have a good chance with Herod; he is afraid of you. Only be careful, and don't go too far, or he will have your head off."
There are those who are willing enough that you should preach about the sins of other people, so long as you do not come home to them. My wife was once teaching my little boy a Sabbath-school lesson; she was telling him to notice how sin grows till it becomes habit. The little fellow thought it was coming too close to him, so he colored up, and finally said:
"Mamma, I think you are getting a good way from the subject."
John was a preacher of this uncompromising kind, for he drove the message right home. I do not know when or how the two were brought together at that time, but John kept nothing back; he boldly said:
"Herod, it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife."
The man was breaking the law of God, and living in the cursed sin of adultery. Thank God, John did not spare him! It cost the preacher his head, but the Lord had got his heart, and he did not care what became of his head. We read that Herod feared John, but John did not fear Herod.
I want to say that I do not know of a quicker way to hell than by the way of adultery. Let no one flatter himself that he is going into the kingdom of God who does not repent of this sin in sackcloth and ashes. My friend, do you think God will never bring you into judgment? Does not the Bible say that no adulterer shall inherit the kingdom of God?
Do you think John the Baptist would have been a true friend of Herod if he had spared him, and had covered up his sin? Was it not a true sign that John loved him when he warned him, and told him he must quit his sin? Herod had before done many things, and heard John gladly; but he did not like him then. It is one thing to hear a man preach down other people's sins. Men will say, "That is splendid," and will want all their friends to go and hear the preacher. But let him touch on their individual sin as John did, and declare (as Nathan did to David), "Thou art the man," and they say, "I do not like that." The preacher has touched a sore place.
When a man has broken his arm, the surgeon must find out the exact spot where the fracture is. He feels along and presses gently with his fingers.
"Is it there?"
"Is it there?"
Presently, when the surgeon touches another spot, "Ouch!" says the man.
He has found the broken part, and it hurts. John placed his finger on the diseased spot, and Herod winced under it. He put his hand right on it:
"Herod, it is not lawful for thee to have thy brother Philip's wife!"
Herod did not want to give up his sin.
Many a man would be willing to enter into the kingdom of God, if he could do it without giving up sin. People sometimes wonder why Jesus Christ, who lived six hundred years before Mohammed, has got fewer disciples than Mohammed to-day. There is no difficulty in explaining that. A man may become a disciple of Mohammed, and continue to live in the foulest, blackest, deepest sin; but a man cannot be a disciple of Christ without giving up sin. If you are trying to make yourself believe that you can get into the kingdom of God without renouncing your sin, may God tear the mask from you! Can Satan persuade you that Herod will be found in the kingdom of God along with John the Baptist, with the sin of adultery and of murder on his soul?
And now, let me say this to you. If your minister comes to you frankly, tells you of your sin, and warns you faithfully, thank God for him. He is your best friend; he is a heaven-sent man. But if a minister speaks smooth, oily words to you; tells you it is all right, when you know, and he knows, that it is all wrong, and that you are living in sin, you may be sure that he is a devil-sent man. I want to say I have a contempt for a preacher that will tone his message down to suit some one in his audience; some Senator, or big man whom he sees present. If the devil can get possession of such a minister and speak through him, he will do the work better than the devil himself. You might be horrified if you knew it was Satan deceiving you, but if a professed minister of Jesus Christ preaches this doctrine and says that God will make it all right in the end, that though you go on living in sin, it is just the same. Don't be deluded into believing such doctrine -- it is as false as any lie that ever came from the pit of hell. All the priests and ministers of all the churches cannot save one soul that will not part with sin.
There is an old saying that, "Every man has his price." Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage; pretty cheap, was it not? Ahab sold out for a garden of herbs. Judas sold out for thirty pieces of silver -- less than [USD]17 of our money. Pretty cheap, was it not? Herod sold out for adultery.
WHAT IS THE PRICE
that you put upon your soul? You say you do not know. I will tell you. It is the sin that keeps you from God. It may be whisky; there is many a man who will give up the hope of heaven and sell his soul for whisky. It may be adultery; you say:
"Give me the harlot, and I will relinquish heaven with all its glories. I would rather be damned with my sin than saved without it."
What are you selling out for, my friend? You know what it is.
Do you not think it would have been a thousand times better for Herod to-day if he had taken the advice of John the Baptist instead of that vile, adulterous woman? There was Herodias pulling one way, John the other, and Herod was in the balance. It's the same old battle between right and wrong; heaven pulling one way, hell the other. Are you going to make the same mistake yourself? We have ten thousand-fold more light than Herod had. He lived on the other side of the cross. The glorious gospel had not shone out as it has done since. Think of the sermons you have heard, of the entreaties addressed to you to become a Christian. Some of you have had godly mothers who have prayed for you. Many of you have godly wives who have pleaded with you, and with God, on your behalf. You have been surrounded with holy influences from year to year, and how often you have been near the kingdom of God! Yet here you are to-day, further off than ever!
It may be true of you, as it was of Herod, that you hear your preacher gladly. You attend church, you contribute liberally, you do many things. Remember that none of these avail to cleanse your soul from sin. They will not be accepted in the place of what God demands -- repentance and the forsaking of every sin.
A child was once playing with a vase, and put his hand in and could not draw it out again. His father tried to help him, but in vain. At last he said:
"Now, make one more try. Open your fingers out straight, and let me pull your arm."
"Oh, no, papa," said the son, "I'd drop the penny if I opened my fingers like that!"
Of course he couldn't get his hand out when his fist was doubled. He didn't want to give up the penny. Just so with the sinner. He won't cut loose from his sins.
Your path and mine will perhaps never cross again. But if I have any influence with you, I beseech and beg of you to break with sin now, let it cost you what it will. Herod might have been associated with Joseph of Arimathea, and with the twelve apostles of the Lamb, if he had taken the advice of John. There might have been a fragrance around his name all these centuries. But alas! when we speak of Herod, we see a sneer on the faces of those who hear us. If one had said to Herod in those days, "Do you know that you are going to silence that great preacher, and have him beheaded?" he would have replied, "Is thy servant a dog that he should do such a thing? I never would take the life of such a man." He would probably have thought he could never do it. Yet it was only a little while after that he had the servant of God beheaded.
Do you know that the Gospel of Jesus Christ proves either a savor of life unto life, or of death unto death? You sometimes hear people say: "We will go and hear this man preach. If it does us no good, it will do us no harm." Don't you believe it, my friend! Every time you hear the Gospel and reject it, the hardening process goes on. The same sun that melts the ice hardens the clay. The sermon that would have moved you a few years ago would make no impression now. Do you not recall some night when you heard some sermon that shook the foundations of your skepticism and unbelief? But you are indifferent now.
I believe Herod was seven times more a child of hell after his conviction had passed away than he was before. There is not a true minister of the Gospel who will not say that the hardest people to reach are those who have been impressed, and whose impressions have worn away. It is a good deal easier to commit a sin the second time than it was to commit it the first time, but it is a good deal harder to repent the second time than the first.
If you are near the kingdom of God now, take the advice of a friend and step into it. Don't be satisfied with just getting near to it. Christ said to the young ruler, "Thou art not far from the kingdom," but he failed to get there. Don't run any risks. Death may overtake you before you have time to carry out your best intentions, if you put off a decision.
It is sad to think that men heard Jesus and Paul, and were moved under their preaching, but were not saved. Judas must many times have come near the kingdom, but he never entered in. I saw it in the army -- men who had
to become Christians cut down in battle without having taken the step that would have made them sure of eternal life. I confess there is something very sad about it.
In one of the tenement houses in New York city, a doctor was sent for. He came, and found a young man very sick. When he got to the bedside the young man said:
"Doctor, I don't want you to deceive me; I want to know the worst. Is this illness to prove serious?"
After the doctor had made an examination, he said: "I am sorry to tell you you cannot live out the night."
The young man looked up and said: "Well, then, I have missed it at last!"
"I have missed eternal life. I always intended to become a Christian some day, but I thought I had plenty of time, and put it off."
The doctor, who was himself a Christian man, said: "It is not too late. Call on God for mercy."
"No; I have always had a great contempt for a man who repents when he is dying; he is a miserable coward. If I were not sick I would not have a thought about my soul, and I am not going to insult God now."
The doctor spent the day with him, read to him out of the Bible, and tried to get him to lay hold of the promises. The young man said he would not call on God, and in that state of mind he passed away. Just as he was dying the doctor saw his lips moving. He reached down, and all he could hear was the faint whisper:
"I have missed it at last!"
Dear friend, make sure that you do not miss eternal life at last. Will you go with Herod or with John? Bow your head now and say:
"Son of God, come into this heart of mine. I yield myself to Thee, fully, wholly, unreservedly."
He will come to you, and will not only save you, but will keep you to the end.