Today’s passage is the backdrop to the beheading of John and really belongs with vv 17-29. I have isolated it since, a) it’s rare that attention is paid to these verses other than as introductory to the bigger story of Herod; b) they demonstrate that Jesus was being seriously discussed by different groups of people, including Herod, yet few could figure out who he was; and, c) Mark will refer to these verses in one of his most critical passages (8:27ff).
Prepare to listen. Sit still, take a few deep breaths then pray: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. (Psalm 25:4)
Read Mark 6:14-16
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15 But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It 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.’
In a book devoted to telling the story of the life and mission of Jesus, it’s intriguing that we have a story without Jesus at the center of it. It begins with what the local (‘some where saying’) social media’s ideas and gossip about the identity of Jesus. Even King Herod weighed in.
The three most popular suggestions were: i) John the baptizer risen from the dead, ii) Elijah, iii) a prophet like the old ones. The third suggestion was the least flattering, implying people didn’t think Jesus special, someone like other ancient prophets. The second suggestion came closer to the truth, but still incorrect. It was a common belief among Jews that Elijah would return to prepare the way for Messiah and God’s imminent judgment on the world. There is no record of Elijah’s death since he was ‘taken up into heaven in a chariot’ (see 2 Kings 2). If Jesus was Elijah it would mean, they believed, Messiah’s arrival was imminent. The first suggestion, a risen John, was favored by Herod, who becomes the main character in the strange episode that follows. Perhaps it was his guilty conscience that made him say, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ This would be the worst-case scenario for Herod. Capital punishment was a symbol of his power, therefore, if John had risen from the dead, Herod’s power was over (Myers, 2015, p. 217).
There is one suggestion noticeably absent from the local gossip. It seems no one was willing to suggest that Jesus could be the Messiah. This is surprising since, a) Jews of that day lived in eager anticipation of the soon arrival of Messiah; b) what Jesus did and said closely resembled what the ancient prophets said a Messiah would do and say. I wonder why the people failed to name Jesus as their Messiah. The average person either didn’t have a clue who Jesus was or were too afraid to say ‘Messiah.’ Perhaps people feared, as Herod did, Jesus’ remarkable power and they opted for less disturbing identities.
These verses are an indication of the impact Jesus was having in Israel. The fact that no one was able or willing to correctly identify him is because Jesus kept doing his transforming work under the radar and maintaining ‘secrecy.’ He made no attempt to proclaim who he was or what he came to do. Not even to his disciples. He was taking on the powers of darkness in preparation for their decisive defeat in Jesus’ climatic act—the cross and resurrection. Since no one expected Messiah would suffer and die, Jesus intentionally resisted identifying himself until his work was done.
Imagine being part of an audience rather like the one in this story—curious about Jesus, not knowing much about him, attempting to identify him but reluctant to admit he is Messiah (think Savior of the world). Based on what you’ve learned thus far in Mark’s Gospel, what identity would you give Jesus? Why do you think Jesus made no attempt to help the masses correctly identify him?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Lord Jesus, sometimes I’m surprised at your seeming reluctance to make yourself known to those who gossiped about you. I’m deeply grateful that your identity was revealed in the end, and I’ve been able to know you today. Help me grow in my knowledge of you so that I live your way in the world today.
Go and live obediently in the world knowing that Jesus is the Messiah.