In this passage, Mark informs us, in what may seem like an afterthought, how John the Baptist was unjustly executed by Herod. In fact, however, this brief aside is closely connected to the two-by-two mission of the Twelve that Mark has just narrated.
John was responsible to deliver God’s message—he was a prophet, after all—and so, “John appeared … proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). Because God is just and doesn’t apply a double standard to the wealthy and powerful, John had the uncomfortable duty to deliver a hard message to Herod as well. Herod’s high position and the fact that his sin was a public scandal that undermined the holiness of God’s law in the eyes of the people meant John needed to rebuke Herod publicly. This led Herod, in order to silence John (John “had been saying,” v. 18, i.e., he wouldn’t shut up about Herod) to lock him up in prison. Sometime later, John was beheaded. This can happen when you speak truth to power.
The disciples, meanwhile, had just been sent out by Jesus with a message uncomfortably similar to John’s: “[they] went out and proclaimed that people should repent” (6:12). The disciples would have known about John’s death. As they went from village to village, would they show the same courage and faith that John had? What if their mission took them as far as Jerusalem? Or even to Rome itself, the seat of earthly power? Eventually it would.
Mark probably wrote this after ministering with Peter in Rome, and, in fact, Peter had probably been martyred for Christ not long before. Mark’s readers would have known what happened to Peter, just as the disciples had earlier known what happened to John. Would those early Christians in Rome and beyond show the same courage and faith as John and Peter?
We need to ask ourselves the same question: what will you do when (not if) following Jesus means walking through the valley of the shadow of death? Do you trust him to lead you, to protect you, and to lead you safely to your eternal home? John and Peter may have died for Christ—but because Christ died and rose again, they too, and all who belong to Christ, will rise again to live forever in a new creation. Let God encourage you with that unalterable promise when you feel vulnerable and afraid.