From Prison to Platter

Our Scripture passage today, Mark 6:14-29, tells us what happened to John the Baptist.  King Herod put John in prison because John kept telling Herod he was abusing his power by taking his brother’s wife, Herodias.  One day, during a party, Herodias’s daughter danced so well for King Herod that Herod promised to give her anything she asked.  Upon consulting her mother, the girl asked King Herod for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.  Even though Herod really didn’t want to kill John, because he was quite fond of him, he did anyway, because his guests heard him give an oath.  So John’s head was removed from him and served up on a platter for King Herod and all his guests.  

I want to talk about the law today, and I promise you, it won’t be too boring.  If you can begin to grasp these fundamental truths about the law, you will grow in your understanding of God’s love.

John the Baptist Represents the Law

John the Baptist represents the law.  It was his role to show people their sins, tell them to turn from them, and urge them to flee to Jesus for help.  This is exactly what we see John doing in this passage, “For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:18).  As a representative of the law, John pointed out sins.

What is NOT the purpose of the Law?

What is the purpose of the Law?  Have you ever thought about that?  Most of us have a dysfunctional relationship with the law, much like an alcoholic has a dysfunctional relationship with booze.  And if this is the case, we’d better pay attention to what this passage of Scripture can teach us about the law.

Let’s answer the question from the negative first or What is NOT the purpose of the law?  Here are four answers from the negative.

First, the purpose of the law is NOT to save you.  

Some people think God expects them to keep his rules, to behave, and if not, he’ll send them to hell.  Likewise, some think if they can keep God’s law, do what is right, then they will be saved.  This is wrong, for the purpose of the law is not to save you.  Even if you kept the law perfectly, which you can’t, it could not save you.  We fall into a trap when we think we just need to be better to merit salvation.      

Second, the purpose of the law is NOT to give you power to fight sin.  

We are surrounded by laws from humans and laws from God, telling us what we should and should not do.  We think that if we can follow the rules, then we’d get the upper hand on sin.  Don’t look at porn.  Don’t eat too much.  Don’t lie.  Don’t complain.  Don’t get drunk.  

While it is true these laws can benefit your life, they will not help you to fight sin.  On the one hand, if you’re an alcoholic, “Don’t drink” is probably the best rule for you, but on the other hand, the rule itself will not help you fight the urge to drink.  Again, the law only can point out sin, but the law cannot give you the power to fight sin.  Why?  As soon as I tell you, “Don’t do that sin,” then you either think one of two things: one, I can do it; or two, I cannot do it.  In other words, you either fall into the state of pride (I can do it) or despair (I cannot do it).  

In both of these conditions (pride or despair), you are powerless and ineffective.  Why?  Because you’re looking to yourself for the answer, either the self who can or the self who can’t.  That’s why the Twelve Steps programs for alcoholics teach us to look to a Higher Power for help, because the answer is not within us.  All sinners are addicted to their sin and keeping the law will not give you the power to get free.   

Third, the purpose of the law is not to help you impress God or win his favor by keeping it.  

We often think God smiles when we manage not to sin and frowns when we fall into sin.  This is wrong.  So long as I am trying to keep the law in effort to win God’s favor or impress him, then God is frowning.  

God frowns at us when we try to live life on our own, apart from his help.  God frowns when we think he will not love us when we sin.  God frowns when we think we’ve lost his favor when we fail to keep the law.  Can you see why?  The law is getting in the way of my relationship with God.  Some of us are more in love with keeping the law (being good, impressing God) than we are in love with God.  Again, the law can only drive us to pride or despair, not to the love of God.  As we’ve seen so far in the book of Mark, because the Pharisees kept the law and thought they were “healthy,” they did not seek the Great Physician Jesus for a remedy.      

Fourth, the purpose of the law is not to improve your life.  

Rather, those who try their hardest to keep the law will only make their lives worse.  I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it’s something we need to come to terms with.  If you’ve ever said to yourself, “I will never do that,” then watch out, because saying such things is how you bind your will and inflame the desire of sin within you (see Romans 7:9).  The presence of the law causes sin to come alive in prideful hearts.      

Consider King Herod.  He first put John the Baptist in prison, which was terrible to do, but it only got worse.  Because Herod refused to listen to John, greater sin came alive in him, for soon he murdered John!  Can you see how Herod’s sin grew worse?  We’re told Herod respected John and didn’t want to harm him, but he ended up killing him!  So what happened?  Wasn’t Herod in control of his own will?  This is the power of the law to inflame our sin nature and get us to become worse, rather than better.  

For us today, if we think we do not need God’s help, thinking we can just live the best lives we can and everything will be fine, then we had better watch out. 

Sin Is Like Mold

Sin is like mold, so long as it’s kept undisturbed in the dark, it’s going to grow and get much worse.  You need to expose sin, shine light on it, and vigorously disturb it.  You need to open yourself up to someone about it, because if you can’t, then it will grow in power.  When it comes to dealing with sin, we cannot rely on ourselves, but we must rely on sources external to ourselves, such as God and other people.  

The law is a mirror that will show us the mold in the basement of our souls, but it does not have the power to improve the condition. 

What IS the Purpose of the Law?

So what is the purpose of the law?  The purpose of the law is to show us our sins.  The purpose of the law is to attack our confidence and trust in ourselves, in order to get us to trust in Jesus.  When the law is attacking you, causing you to throw up your hands in despair, then turn to Jesus.  Go to God.  Tell another person and stop trusting in yourself.  The whole purpose of the law is to expose our sins, not remedy them, and to cause us to run to Christ for help, not whiteknuckle it and keep trying harder.  

We’re not suggesting that you should go on sinning without a care in the world.  We’re not encouraging you to break God’s law and do whatever you wish.  We’re assuming you want help fighting sin.  We are urging you to stop looking to the law for help, for it has been beheaded.  Instead, look outside of yourself for help.  Depend on God in prayer, engage in honest confession to other people, and repent, returning to your loving heavenly Father for rest.

You Don’t Need to Fail Less

Both John the Baptist and Jesus were killed, John was beheaded and Jesus was crucified, but only one of them resurrected from the dead, demonstrating the power of Jesus over the power of the law.  You don’t need a better ability to keep the law, you need Jesus.  You don’t need to fail less, but you need to flee to Jesus more.  

Fail into his arms.

And think about it, it may not be good for you to have “victory” over a particular sin, so long as having victory would keep you from resting in Jesus Christ.  As a parent, I would rather my child come to me with a problem than keep his distance because he doesn’t need me.  To have a relationship with God does not mean to keep rules, but to come to him with our heavy burdens.  

I once had the opportunity to hear Korn founder and band member Brian “Head” Welch share his story.  Speaking of addiction, he struggled a great deal with drugs and alcohol.  In all his struggles, he did not find freedom by cleaning up his life, but by coming to Jesus as he was.  The Bible verse he got tattooed on the right side of his neck is the perfect summary: 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30).  

Keeping the law will not give you rest, only Jesus will.  

The Breakdown

  1. Are you a perfectionist?  How might a perfectionist struggle with this teaching about the law?
  2. Are you NOT a perfectionist?  How might you struggle with this teaching?
  3. How does the law inflame sin in us?  
  4. How are you doing with prayer, honest confession, and repentance?  Grade yourself on a scale of 1 to 10.  Now come up with a way to improve your score by just 1 percent this week.

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