The Passion and Martyrdom of John the Baptist


The Church celebrates every year the birthday of John the Baptist on June 24 and his martyrdom on August 29. Thus John the Baptist is honoured twice every year in the Church’s Liturgical Calendar. This is quite understandable because John the Baptist was the forerunner to Christ both in birth and in death. John the Baptist plays a prominent and irreplaceable role in our salvation history. Our Lord himself speaks glowingly of John the Baptist: “In truth I tell you, of all the children born of women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28). I wish to focus on the arrest and martyrdom of John the Baptist at our adoration this evening.

The Arrest of John the Baptist

John the Baptist was arrested and imprisoned because he rebuked Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip. John the Baptist made it clear that it was against the Law for one to marry his brother’s wife. The Herod family was a complicated and diabolical family. Herod the Great, who killed innocent children at the birth of Jesus, had married as many as eight wives over a period of time and had many sons who bore the name Herod. Herod the Great was a wicked and diabolical King who murdered even members of his own family. Herod the Great had Herod Philip and Herod Antipas by two different women. Herod Philip married Herodias who was the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus. Herod Philip essentially married his own niece Herodias. Herod Philip and Herodias had a daughter named Salome, the one who danced which led Herod Antipas to make her promise. Herod Philip did not inherit any of his father’s dominion. Instead, he lived a private life in Rome where he became wealthy. According to William Barclay, “Herod Antipas visited him [Herod Philip] in Rome. There he seduced Herodias and persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him” (The Daily Bible Series. The Gospel of Mark, p. 150). John the Baptist denounced Herod Antipas for seducing and marrying his brother’s wife. Despite his rebuke, Herod Antipas had great respect and admiration for John the Baptist and even feared him: “Herod was in awe of John, knowing him to be a good and upright man, and gave him his protection. When he heard him speak he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20). But that was not the case with Herodias. She despised John the Baptist and was bent on eliminating him. Herodias was like Jezebel who was bent on killing the prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:2-3) though Jezebel did not succeed in her evil plan.

The Martyrdom of John the Baptist (Mark 6:17-30) 

Herodias got her wish to eliminate John on the occasion of Herod’s birthday when her daughter danced provocatively to the admiration of Herod and his invited guests. This made Herod to promise Salome whatever she wanted including half of his kingdom. Herodias requested for the head of John the Baptist in a dish. Herod who was torn between sparing the life of John and keeping to his promise chose the latter. He had John beheaded in prison and his head given to Salome who in turn gave it to her mother.

This great man John the Baptist, the forerunner to Christ both in birth and death, the one who announced Christ to the world, an epitome of humility, who says that he was not worthy to undo the sandal strap of Jesus, this great ascetic who lived austere life by wearing a garment of carmel-hair and who ate locusts and wild honey, this great man of whom Jesus paid glowing tribute, the man who pointed Christ to his disciples, etc., was killed without hesitation in order to satisfy the wish of an evil and sadistic Herodias. Herod and Herodias typify the powerful in our society who kill with impunity. And Herodias shows us what an embittered woman can do. After his death, John’s disciples took his headless body and buried him thus bringing the ministry of John the Baptist to an end. The WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY draws a parallel between John the Baptist and Jesus Christ: “The curtain falls as John’s disciples take the beheaded ‘corpse and place it in a tomb.’ In a similar manner, Joseph of Arimathea will get Jesus’ corpse from Pilate and place it in a tomb. The role of the forerunner has ended” (WORD BIBLICAL COMMENTARY, p. 332).

John the Baptist died for the Truth

Jesus declares, “I am the Way; I am Truth and Life” (John 14:6). Our Lord also says, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Jesus is the truth because he revealed the Father. John the Baptist died for Jesus because he died for the truth. John the Baptist was a man of truth who spoke the truth and died for the truth. John the Baptist was a courageous man. He knew that Herod had power to kill him; yet he spoke the truth and shed his blood for the truth. He endured the cruelty and chains of prison in order to bear witness to the truth. He could have been silent to the truth. But he chose to live for the truth, spoke the truth and died for the truth. He prefigured Christ not only in birth but in speaking the truth. Herod and Herodias may have won the battle but John the Baptist won the war; he was victories because the truth lives forever. Lies and falsehood can only last for a while but the truth lasts forever.

A Call to Live the Truth

A Christian is called to live the truth always; a Christian is to further the cause of justice and truth in the society. Since Jesus is the truth, all Christians should live by the truth. Like John the Baptist, all Christians should live the truth, speak the truth, and be prepared to die for the truth. St. Ambrose of Milan notes: “Truth by whom ever spoken comes from the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth. In our Christian lives, we should strive to uphold the truth and always stand on the side of truth. We should be willing to endure torments like John the Baptist for the sake of the truth. We live in a country and in world today in which the truth is a very expensive commodity; the truth is hard to come by. But thanks be to God, there are still countless men and women on the side of the truth. We should strive to be counted among those on the side of truth. Ultimately, it is the truth that will set us free.


I wish to end with a prayer from the Breviary on the martyrdom of John the Baptist: “God our Father, you appointed Saint John the Baptist to be the herald of the birth and death of Christ your Son. Grant that as he died a martyr for justice and truth, so we also may courageously bear witness to your word.” Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

GSI Admin

GSI Admin

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