I’m not sure what was going through the minds of the twelve disciples when Jesus called and commissioned them in Mark 6:7–13. But he did give them authority to act in His name. They called the people to repentance, cast out the uncleans spirits, and healed many who were sick. It is possible, likely even, that they misunderstood the nature of the authority Jesus gave them. So, when Mark wrote his Gospel, he supplemented the calling and commissioning of the twelve disciples with the account of John the Baptist’s execution. And he did so to graphically demonstrate the cost of discipleship.

Mark’s technique of inserting one pericope into an entirely different pericope is what New Testament scholar James R. Edwards deems a “Markan sandwich” and includes such examples as Mark 3:20–35; 4:1–20; 5:21–43; 6:7–30; 11:12–21; 14:1–11; 14:17–31; 14:53–72; 15:40–16:8. He says, “Sandwiches are thus literary conventions with theological purposes. Each sandwich unit consists of an A1-B-A2 sequence, with the B-component functioning as the theological key to the flanking halves.” The following content is an excerpt from his excellent volume on the Gospel of Mark in the Pillar New Testament Commentary.

The Twelve Learn the Cost of Discipleship

The mission of the Twelve is the defining theme of 6:6b–30. This is signified by another Markan sandwich, in which the martyrdom of John the Baptizer (6:14–29) is placed between the sending (6:6b–13) and return (6:30) of the Twelve. Mark last mentioned John the Baptizer at 1:14, when he announced the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry in conjunction with John’s arrest. Mark has yet to report on John’s fate at the hands of Herod Antipas. The fact that Mark inserts the execution of the Baptizer in the context of the sending and return of the Twelve on their first mission journey forces readers to consider what John’s death means for discipleship and mission with Jesus.

With filial authority, Jesus summons and sends the disciples. Both summoning (Gk., proskalein; NIV: “calling”) and sending (Gk., apostellein) defined the apostolic commission in 3:13–14, and they are actualized in the present mission. The sending of the Twelve appears premature and may catch us by surprise, for the record of the disciples to-date has not been reassuring. Heretofore they have impeded Jesus’ mission (1:36–39), become exasperated with him (4:38; 5:31), and even opposed him (3:21). Their perception of Jesus has been – and will continue to be – marked by misunderstanding (8:14–21).

The Meat Is in the Middle

We now proceed to the center of the Markan sandwich in the martyrdom of John the Baptizer. There are only two passages in the Gospel of Mark that are not about Jesus. Both are about John, and both foreshadow Jesus (see 9:11–13). In the first (1:2–8) John is the forerunner of Jesus’ message and ministry. The second (6:14–29), the passage before us, might be thought of as Mark’s first passion narrative, for here John is the forerunner of Jesus’ death.

The parallels between the deaths of John and Jesus are especially clear. Both John and Jesus are executed by political tyrants who fear them but vacillate and finally succumb to social pressure. In John’s case Antipas acquiesces to Herodias, and in Jesus’ case Pilate acquiesces to the mob. Both John and Jesus die silently as victims of political intrigue and corruption, “as sheep silent before their shearers” (Isa 53:7). And, most obviously, both die as righteous and innocent victims.

John’s martyrdom prefigures more than Jesus’ crucifixion, however. It also exemplifies the consequences of following Jesus in a world of greed, decadence, power, and wealth. Mark sandwiches the brutal and moving account of the martyrdom of the Baptist between the sending of the Twelve (6:7–13) and their return (6:30) in order to impress upon his readers the cost of discipleship.

John Demonstrates the Cost of Discipleship (Mark 6:14–17)

The account begins with “king” Herod’s paranoia that John, whom he had imprisoned (1:14) and killed (v. 16), has returned in Jesus to haunt him. According to Mark, the growing reputation of Jesus was an uneasy reminder to Antipas that he had not silenced John’s message by severing his head. “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” Herod’s hearing of Jesus follows immediately on the mission of the Twelve and may have been the result of it. Herod thinks of Jesus as John the Baptizer returned to life; or as Elijah, the forerunner of the Day of the Lord who in popular Judaism was a helper of the needy (further on Elijah, see at 1:6); or as one of the great prophets long silent. These were the three prevailing opinions of the day about Jesus (also 8:28).

An Adulteress with an Axe to Grind (Mark 6:17–20)

Mark now supplies the conclusion to the story of John’s arrest that he mentioned in 1:14. Herod’s association of Jesus and John shows that even in the common mind there was a correlation between the Baptizer and the Galilean Preacher. As “the stronger one to follow” (1:7), Jesus triggers Mark’s flashback on John’s execution. The treacherous marriage of Antipas and Herodias forms the backdrop for the death of the Baptist. Antipas imprisoned John for criticizing his marriage, which was forbidden by Jewish law (Lev 18:16; 20:21).

The Baptizer himself is merely a pawn in the events leading to his death. The story is entirely dominated by the personalities of Antipas, Herodias, her daughter Salome, and the guests. Antipas is a house divided against himself. He cannot risk allowing John to remain free, but he cannot bring himself to eliminate him either. He even finds a certain fascination with his nemesis, listening with puzzlement and yet interest to an individual and message he detests. Antipas hopes to achieve an expedient end by doing a limited injustice. But like anyone who lives by such a philosophy, he can choose to do a limited act of injustice, but he cannot determine the greater injustice to which it will lead.

Antipas’s weakness of character and vacillating actions are exploded and exploited by Herodias. She is the prime mover in the story. In contrast to Antipas, who is short-sighted and impetuous, Herodias nurses her antipathy against John with shrewd and calculating patience, entirely willing to sacrifice even the honor of her daughter to achieve her design. Salome is merely an extension of her will, a compliant pawn in a game of intrigue and power. Salome, young and talented, is willing to sell her services to the highest bidder, without regard for their consequences.

An Opportunity at a Dinner Party (Mark 6:21–23)

Events come to a climax at a party thrown by Antipas. The exact translation of the Gk. term genesia (NIV: “birthday”) is disputed, meaning either the celebration of a birthday or the accession of a throne. We should not be surprised to see Antipas aping imperial custom, and “birthday” is the probable meaning of the term. The guest list includes the top brass and upper class of Galilee, “the high officials and military commanders and leading men.” They – the wealthy, powerful, prestigious – say not a word in the story, indeed do not need to, for their influence is greatest when unspoken. They are critical to the outcome of the story, however. For Salome they are a fawning audience; for Herodias, the leverage to force Herod’s trembling hand; and for Herod himself, a power bloc before whom every allegiance must be sacrificed.

This party ends not in gaiety, however, but in tragedy, in “great distress” (v. 26), and death. We can only imagine what kind of dance prompted Antipas to promise “up to half my kingdom” to Salome. If Antipas meant the promise to be understood literally it was a sham, for Rome would not allow him to part with an acre of land. The promise, which is absent in Matthew’s and Luke’s version of the story, recalls a similar promise of King Xerxes to Esther that resulted in the unmasking of Haman’s evil plot (Esth 5:3, 6; 7:2). Here the promise unmasks an equally evil plot, hatched not by Haman but by Herodias. “Up to half my kingdom” appears to be a figure of speech (see 1 Kgs 13:8), however, and cannot have been meant literally.

A Stunning Request (Mark 6:24–29)

The whole scene reeks of treachery. Herodias’s power over Antipas in plotting the death of John reads like Jezebel’s power over King Ahab in persecuting Elijah and plotting the death of Naboth (1 Kgs 19, 21).

Family affairs in the Herodian line could supply the grist for a long soap opera series. Given the widespread decadence of the Herodian lifestyle, one is somewhat amazed that John bothered to challenge it in the first place. Should he not have played his hand in a more important game? John, however, was a prophet without price whose thundering call exposed unrighteousness in any quarter. Like the courageous prophets before him, John understood that the proclamation of God’s word included moral responsibility. There were no sacred cows in his herds; he did not read the polls before speaking and acting; he protected no special interests; nor did he predicate what he said and did on chances of success. John’s was a costly courage. In so doing, he risked a swift end, which came from a cold sword wielded by petty functionaries.

Mark focuses solely and dramatically on John’s beheading. A suspensefully constructed v. 25 has Salome making her deadly request of Antipas by withholding the object of her desire until the very end of the sentence: “I desire that you give me immediately on a platter the head of John the Baptizer!” Stunned alike by the malevolence of the request and his own entrapment, the king nevertheless “beheaded John in prison” and brought “his head on a platter to the girl.” It is a bitter commentary on the inability of tyrants to tolerate righteous individuals – a fact no less true today than in John’s day. The one whom Jesus called the greatest man born of woman (Matt 11:11) is sacrificed to a cocktail wager!

The Return of the Twelve (Mark 6:30)

Mark follows the martyrdom of the Baptizer with a one-sentence summary of the mission of the Twelve: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.” Mark normally refers to Jesus’ followers as “disciples” rather than as “apostles,” which he does only here and at 3:14. “Apostles” may be accounted for in the present context as a specific link to the Twelve (apostles, so 3:14) who have returned from the mission of 6:6b-13.

The report of their return, which one would expect after v. 13, has been placed following the death of John, producing an A1-B-A2 sandwich construction. What does Mark intend by bracketing the martyrdom of the Baptizer by the mission of the Twelve? The sandwich structure draws mission and martyrdom, discipleship and death, into an inseparable relationship. This is precisely what Jesus will teach in 8:34, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” There, as here, both words are addressed to disciples. Whoever would follow Jesus must first reckon with the fate of John. John’s martyrdom not only prefigures Jesus’ death, it also prefigures the death of anyone who would follow him.

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    • Brad Hoffman Reply

      Hi John! I totally agree. Edwards’ commentary on Mark has been one of my favorite commentaries. Great for both study and devotional purposes! May the Lord bless you!

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