Mark 6:14-29 | The Cost of Discipleship
14 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.
The Bible says, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6). What does it mean to be sent from God? We saw the beginning of it last week, as Jesus sent out his twelve apostles. Why did they go? To spread the word that King Jesus is here, and everything is different now! But then, Mark makes what seems to be a diversion to talk about the death of John the Baptist. It’s not until verse 30 that he tells us about the apostles coming back from their mission. So we have what commentators call a Markan sandwich. Jesus sending the twelve in verses 7-13 and receiving the twelve back in verse 30 are the pieces of bread, and the story of John the Baptist’s death is the meat that makes it a meal. It tells us, in blunt and honest terms, what it means to be sent from God. It tells us about the cost of discipleship.
In calling his first disciples, Jesus made certain they understood the cost of following him. He said that God’s kingdom, for God’s people, must be the first priority.
Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:25-32).
He also said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23).
He said, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
One day a scribe came to him and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:18-22).
He said, “In the world you will have tribulation.”
So to be sent by God is to be sent into hardship. On the front end of it all, he calls us to deeply accept that as part of the deal. We saw last week how Jesus prepared the twelve to go out. He prepared them for hardship, but he gave them his power. He does the same for us. It’ll be hard, but we’ll be with Jesus, and doing anything with Jesus, no matter the hardship, is a privilege we do not earn. Even suffering for Christ is undeserved grace. And we are not suffering pointlessly. When we suffer for Christ on his mission, we’re suffering for the sake of all who will hear. We are, in a small way, playing out the very gospel story that we preach. That’s why the apostle Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Colossians 1:24).
When we suffer with Jesus, we are standing right smack-dab in the middle of historical Christianity. We are standing with the apostles, who gladly suffered for Jesus’ sake. We’re standing with the Reformers who risked their lives to bring the gospel back to the central place in the church. Today is Mother’s Day, and throughout history the suffering labor and love and prayers of mothers has shaped the world for God’s glory. Augustine’s mom never gave up praying for his salvation, weeping over him, pleading him to come to Christ. Amy Carmichael, who for years despite poor health and no biological children became a spiritual mother to hundreds of rescued kids in India. Alberta King taught her son, Martin Luther, that his “somebodiness” in Christ was something glorious. Her words stuck in his ears as he fought an unjust racial system in America. Elizabeth Elliot, after losing her husband to the natives he went to share the gospel with, went back with their small children to finish the mission. What we’re talking about is not something reserved for super Christians, it is basic discipleship.
So when we talk about the cost of discipleship, we are not throwing a pity party, nor are we boasting as little heroes. We’re talking about it because it’s normal Christianity, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. If we want to see the world come to Jesus—and we do—then we’re going to have to suffer because in a world at war with God, there is simply no other way. And we want to say right now, that’s just fine with us. We want to fight for Christ.
There’s a scene in the WWII mini-series Band of Brothers where two soldiers are talking about the day’s events. Dick Winters says to Lewis Nixon after he returns from an airplane jump, “You’re probably the only man in the 101st with three combat stars over his jump wings.”
Nixon replies, visibly frustrated, “Not bad for someone who’s never fired his weapon in combat, huh?”
Winters can’t believe he’s never fired even a round. Nixon then tells him how after he jumped, the plane took a direct hit and all others were lost. He doesn’t seem happy to still be alive. Instead, he seems angry and depressed. Why? Because in his mind, he was never really in the fight. He never fired a round, and maybe he’d never get to. He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself because he was in the war, he was sorry because he never actually was.
We Christians are like that. When we, by grace, are drafted into God’s holy army, we want to be in the fight, to be on the front-lines sharing the gospel, taking our shots, because Jesus is there saving people, redeeming the world, doing what only he can do. It’s where the glory is.
We don’t want to reach the end of our life without firing a shot for Jesus! There’s an old hymn that says:
Shall I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?
What we’re talking about today is basic discipleship to Jesus, being willing to suffer so that others may hear. And God doesn’t want us to be surprised, so he gave Mark the story of the death of John the Baptist to prepare us for the road ahead.
What does it prepare us for? Three things:
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but repentance gets us there
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but there is a higher cost
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but the road is already paved
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but repentance gets us there
The first of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he meant that the entire life of believers should be repentance.” Why? Because we cannot follow Jesus anywhere without it. Our pride is strong, and the only way to break it down is through daily repentance.
What is repentance? Here’s how the Westminster Shorter Catechism defines it: “Repentance unto life is a saving grace by which a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, does, with grief and hatred of sin, turn from it toward God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.”
In other words, repentance is simply turning from ourselves to God, asking him to help us obey. All we have to do to repent is trust that God has more mercy than we have sin.
Repentance is part of the good news of the gospel. It’s how we get free. And we need that kind of freedom over and over again. Repentance is saying, “I was wrong” every time we sin to the One who has never been wrong and cannot sin, and, therefore, can help us get out of the mess we’re in. And God is not a “told you so” disappointed father, waiting for us to shuffle home so he can tell us how it really is. No, the gospel shows that when we come to our senses and leave the pig sty for the Father’s house, he runs to meet us with a party and a fatten calf and a robe and ring. He treats us as if we never left and gives us what we never deserve.
Repentance gets us into God’s grace. But it’s not only seeking forgiveness. True repentance is also seeking to obey from a forgiven heart. We are not after what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” Cheap grace is being forgiven without changing directions. “Cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to say the grace we need, and the grace Jesus offers, is costly grace. “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his son: You were bought with a price, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
The way we experience the costly grace of Jesus is through true repentance. It’s one of the sweetest graces God offers to us in Christ, by his Spirit. As we stop coddling our sin and turn to Christ, we find his smile upon us. And he sends us out to find others who need that smile. God calls his people to repentance because he’s sending us heralds of the King, and the message we carry is best expressed from forgiven sinners, not prideful do-gooders. Repentant sinners show the watching world the kind of king Jesus is. Repentant sinners invite others in because they just can’t get over his grace. They’ve heard the good news and they must share it, whatever the cost. The world must know of this Savior who went to such lengths to save a wretch like me!
Repentant sinners are contagious, spreading the aroma of Christ wherever they go. That’s all God’s asking us to do. Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but repentance will get us there because in repentance we’re laying down our pride for his grace.
Here’s what a repentant sinner looks like. Remember Romans 7? Paul said, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
Jared Wilson wrote about this in his book, The Imperfect Disciple.
Every day, I wake up into Romans 7. Every dadgum day. My alarm goes off and I sit up in bed, gearing up for sins—both of omission and of commission. I’m engaged in the flesh before I even get my feet on the carpet.
And yet, right there beside me, laid out like the day’s outfit for school, are new mercies. Romans 8 lies right there, spooning Romans 7 in a full-size bed, no wiggle room.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” (Romans 8:1-3)
Every day you drift naturally into Romans 7. You don’t need any help with that. It’s just that your wheels are naturally out of alignment. You’re just wobbly, okay? So here’s what you do.
As early in the day and as often as you can, you turn on the light of Romans 8. You bring Romans 8 into Romans 7 and you say, “look what I found, everybody!” You’re the gal who’s brought your fiance home to meet the family, and it turns out he’s a much better catch than anybody, including yourself, ever thought you’d end up with. He’s a rich doctor-slash-fighter pilot who spends his summers digging wells for orphans in the Congo or something, okay? And Aunt Bitterness is sitting over there in the corner of the living room strewing away, ready to take you on a trip down angry memory lane, and you’re like, “Aunt Bitterness, I’d like you to meet my fiance, Dr. Gospel. Isn’t he dreamy?” And there’s Uncle Lazy sitting at the table medicating his feelings with three Egg McMuffins, and you bring Dr. Gospel over, and Uncle Lazy instantly perks up and realized how embarrassing he looks in the face of such accomplishment. And there’s your twin sister Pride sitting there in the middle of the room, like she owns the place, but when Dr. Gospel walks up to her, she gets up and offers him her seat without a word.
It’s a little like that. You introduce the truth of Romans 8 to every corner of the room, every dark place in your heart, as often as you can, as much as you can, as fiercely as you can.
Every day. It has to happen every day.”
God is not calling perfect people to be his ambassadors in this world. There wasn’t a perfect man among the twelve apostles. There is only one kind of disciple Jesus really has, and that’s an imperfect one trusting in his perfection. If you’re so weak you can’t get out of the bed in the morning without wondering who will deliver you from this body of death, but you’re turning to Jesus for the strength you need, you’re the perfect disciple for Jesus! You are exactly the kind of person Jesus is looking for, exactly the kind of person Jesus will use, and is using. You are not only tolerated by Jesus, you are accepted by him. He is not ashamed to call us his brother or sister. He can’t wait to introduce you to everyone else.
And he will introduce you. That’s why he sends you. But he won’t send you before you’re repentant. Cheap grace sends no one. But costly grace does. Romans 7 people floored by the Romans 8 God have something to say to the world, and are willing to die to get it to them.
Jesus commissions repentant people because they understand the fight is not against flesh and blood but against spiritual forces. They understand the person on the other side isn’t an enemy, but they have one, and they’re trying to introduce them to Jesus so he can save them from the spiritual evil they can’t yet see.
That’s what we see in John. Why did he go to Herod proclaiming repentance? Because John himself was a repentant man. Herod was not his enemy. He wanted Herod to be his friend. But more than that, he wanted Herod to be Jesus’ friend. John’s call to repentance came from a heart of repentance, and it took him places.
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but repentance gets us there.
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but there is a higher cost
What does all this talk about repentance have to do with the death of John the Baptist? Everything, actually. Mark 1:4 says John proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John never forgot his mission. He never outgrew it. He endured to the end. He just happened to run into someone who didn’t want to hear it and did something about it. And here we see a profound truth: There is something more costly than following Jesus, and that is not following Jesus. We see this truth in John and Herod. John followed Jesus. Herod didn’t. And as much as John paid, Herod paid more.
Who was Herod? Herod Antipas was the 7th son of Herod the Great. When his father died, he split his territory among his children. Mark calls him “King Herod,” but he wasn’t really a king. He wanted to be, and got into trouble later in life because he pushed that matter too far. Mark might actually be using that label as a kind of a dig at Herod. He was too big for his breeches. He was no king. He was just an administrator under Roman rule..
When Herod heard what was happening in the name of Jesus, he believed it was the resurrected John. Why? Look up at verse 12, when Jesus sent the apostles, what did they do? “They went out and proclaimed that people should repent.” He’d heard that message of repentance before from John. It worried him because what he did to John was wrong, and he knew it.
Mark tells us what happened in verses 17-20.
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.
Herod’s life was like a soap opera, full of marriage and adultery and divorce and remarriage. And John the Baptist came saying, “No! You can’t do that. You’re violating the law of God.”
Herod didn’t want to obey God. So he didn’t. He didn’t want to turn from sin. So he didn’t. And eventually his little sins grew into big sins, as they always do. He made a life with his new wife. But John wanted to obey. So he did. And he suffered for it. Both suffered, but only one found peace.
Look what happened to Herod. He had multiple opportunities to repent, but he wouldn’t. And one night, he had a party. All the important people were there. Herodias’s daughter came and danced (probably not one safe for prime-time TV), and it pleased them. So, he said, “Ask me for whatever you want, up to half my kingdom, and I’ll give it.” Of course, the kingdom wasn’t his to give. His pride inflated what he truly had.
The girl runs to her mother to see what she should ask for. It’s like she was waiting for this opportunity. She replied immediately, “The head of John the Baptist.” Herodias didn’t like John’s call to repentance. She wanted freedom from this man of God.
And because Herod refused to fear God, he feared man. He didn’t want to kill John. Verse 26 says, “the king was exceedingly sorry.” But even more, he didn’t want to disappoint his guests. So he sent the executioner and that was it for John.
Who paid the ultimate cost? John was imprisoned but his conscience was free. Herod was on the throne but his conscience was troubled. Through repentance John found a message of grace while Herod found a stumbling block. When John died, his disciples came and took his body and cared for it, laying it in a tomb. When the party was over, all Herod’s important guests left him, without a thought or care for his soul. John paid the cost for following Jesus, but Herod paid a greater one for not. Herod’s little sins grew into one big sin, and his heart hardened even more. John paid in this life, but Herod in the life to come.
Here’s the point: when you follow Jesus, even if you die, you live. But when you don’t follow Jesus, even when you live, you die. We cannot escape the reality that we gotta follow somebody. Herod wouldn’t follow Jesus, but that doesn’t mean he followed no one. He followed his father the devil and he led him to death. John followed Jesus, and even in death, he led him to life. We gotta follow somebody. So let’s make sure it’s somebody who can take us through death to life on the other side.
The cost of following Jesus is high, but there is a higher cost. And the path we walk isn’t a lonely one. It’s well paved, which is our third point.
Discipleship to Jesus is costly, but the road is already paved
I read somewhere that in the 1680s in England, there were three books read in every Christian home: the Bible, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Needless to say, they were probably not surprised by suffering for Jesus. Our homes have a Bible but what about the other two? Is suffering for Christ’s cause a conversation in our house?
I know for many of us it is, and for that I’m thankful. This church wouldn’t be here without it. But one thing I know: we need more, because we will not make an impact on this world for Jesus without paying a price. No one ever has. History bears that out.
John Bunyan was imprisoned for preaching the gospel. His release was contingent on his promise not to preach in public anymore. His reply was, “If I was out of prison today, I would preach the gospel again tomorrow by the help of God.” Why? Because when Christ opens a mouth, not even prison can shut it.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells of a man set for execution for his faithfulness to Christ. His son went to him, begging for him to recant so he would not be fatherless the rest of his life. Here was his response. “A good Christian is bound to relinquish not only goods and children, but life itself, for the glory of his Redeemer: therefore I am resolved to sacrifice every thing in this transitory world, for the sake of salvation in a world that will last to eternity.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the author of The Cost of Discipleship, which I quoted earlier, was hanged by the Nazi’s in 1945 because while everyone else followed Hitler, he followed Jesus. He said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
Moreover, Jesus isn’t asking us to pay any cost he wasn’t willing to pay himself. That’s another reason Mark includes this story here. It’s a foreshadowing of the sufferings of Christ.
John’s confrontation wasn’t Herod’s last chance to repent. God’s word came to him again, this time in the flesh. Jesus was on trial. Herod could have saved him but, as with John, he didn’t. Luke tells us about it.
“When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate.” (Luke 23:6-11)
When Herod ordered John to be executed, he was exceedingly sorry. Maybe he had some Romans 7 thoughts. But when Romans 8 walked through the door, he didn’t step into the light; he turned it off. Instead of seeing a Savior, he sought a sign. He had another chance to turn to God and instead turned God away to the cross.
We live in a world that will reject Jesus. But that didn’t stop Jesus from coming, and it doesn’t stop Jesus from sending us out. Some we find will accept him. Even at the cross, there was one centurion who, when Jesus breathed his last, said, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”
Jesus wants us to know following him means cost-paying—maybe even death—but it’s worth it because he’s in it. Our cost is not his. He paid the full penalty of our sin, and all he’s asking in return is to tell people that he’s that kind of Savior—the love of Christ compels us. His grace motivates us. He’s paid for our sins on his cross and he’s given us his life in his resurrection, and our life isn’t really ours anymore. It belongs to him, and if he wants to use us to bring his gospel to the world, who are we to say no to that honor?
In conclusion, here’s what this means. Two things.
First, we must be repentant people. We need to get low before God. Maybe we need to discover the gospel again. When we do, he’ll send us as heralds of his grace, and we will never be happier.
Second, let’s go where Jesus sends. You belong to him, and he has fully authorized you to share his gospel. So where is he sending you? Let’s go faithfully into the places we work, live, learn, and play. Maybe he’ll call some of us to global missions in the future. But I know he’s calling us all right here, right now. It’ll be costly, but Jesus is with you. All the reward you need is in him.
Paul called suffering “a light momentary affliction preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). The cost may not feel light or momentary, but one day, when we’re with Jesus in the New Earth a trillion years from now, we’ll look back on it all and agree: it was light and momentary, but this glory is eternal. Maybe we’ll look across the room and our eyes will meet with another’s who is there because we accepted the cost of discipleship and shared the gospel with them. Then we’ll look at Jesus, and he’ll know what we’re thinking, and he’ll come around, put his arm around us, and with a smile say to us, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”