An event that took place last year near the shores of Tripoli has become somewhat iconic in the minds of many westerners. The image of 21 Egyptian Christians, all male and clad in orange jumpsuits, kneeling in front of their knife-wielding captors has become immediately recognizable due to social media, newspapers, and television. A simple internet search for the word beheading yields ghastly results. I say this not only because of the images but also because of the increased amount of content. Only in my mid thirties, I can already look back in the previous decade and a half and recall essentially no conversations in my personal life nor in the media at the time of such a barbaric and seemingly other-worldly issue such as decapitation. The words beheading and decapitation still, despite the media coverage, seem to be foreign and distant. Yet, we are being faced with its reality in increasing measure. Designed to intimidate and threaten, the gruesome practice circumvents the relative ease of a gunshot and opts instead for the fear-inducing shock of torture and dehumanization. As Christians, we clamor to understand and respond to such a thing. I myself struggle to know how to think biblically about something as repulsive as the modern threat of losing one’s head in the most literal sense. However, a sweet providence occurred as I was reading the Gospel of Mark.
On an uncommonly cool, overcast July morning I was sipping coffee on my front porch around 6:45am. Having returned to the Gospel of Mark the day before during my morning devotions, I picked up where I had left off. In all honesty, I decided to return to Mark simply to supplement my preaching venture through the Book of Romans in an effort to feed myself not only on the epistles but also on the synoptic gospels. A sweet providence came to me that morning. As I read through chapter 6, I happened upon the account of the death of John the Baptist. Verse 27 leapt off the page: “And immediately the king [Herod] sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in prison.” There it was. Moreover, it had been there the entire time. I had read through Mark before but that word seemed to fade into the fabric of a first century world that I was far removed from in my suburban comfort. This particular morning, however, it seemed to be painted in neon colors. Without suffering the contextual details of the entire passage (which I highly recommend you undertake), I will simply offer the following quote: “This episode [John’s beheading] is more than a digression to explain what happened to John after he was imprisoned (cf. 1:14); it highlights the cost of discipleship and foreshadows the ultimate model for discipleship, namely, Jesus himself” (Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, p. 783). Both John and Jesus were arrested, brought before corrupt leaders, killed, and buried. Although John was a forerunner to Christ with Jesus being the superior, there is another common element in their accounts: God’s sovereign rule.
The question “Who holds the blade?” is not as simple as it may seem. To illustrate what I mean, let’s quickly turn to the Book of Isaiah to survey another passage that, when I first studied it, took my breath away: “Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!” (Isa. 10:5). Assyria was planning to invade and pummel Israel in an effort to expand their territory, period. From their vantage point, this was their sole aim. They had no insight beyond their human initiative. However, Isaiah gives us a glimpse into the transcendent purposes of God in the actions of wicked Assyria: God was working in and through their actions for his purposes. Although God is not the author of sin, he certainly holds sovereign jurisdiction over it. Where else do we see such a profound reality? Of the greatest display of God’s sovereignty over sin Peter declares, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). Who held the blade? From a human standpoint, it is the executioner (in John’s case) and lawless men (in the Master’s case). In truth, however, it is the planet-sustaining hand of God that directs and fulfills his perfect, Christ-exalting purposes.
This is good, comforting, faith-sustaining news for the Christian. Although we certainly do not invite suffering into our lives in a foolhardy manner, we are able to live with peace in the face of barbarism because our God, the only God, rules the affairs of men. God’s sovereignty and human responsibility have been debated for centuries, but the Scriptures stand: man is culpable and God holds magisterial rights over his creation. If suffering comes to the child of God, it comes only by his Father’s decree. Moreover, Romans 8:28-39 tells us that everything that befalls those who are unified to Christ by faith works for their ultimate good and cannot separate them from the love of their Savior. The apostles knew this fact. James, the son of Zebedee, was beheaded in Jerusalem around A.D. 44. Matthew (Levi) was pinned to the ground and beheaded in Ethiopia around A.D. 60. Paul was beheaded in Rome around A.D. 69 (for reference, see Foxe: Voices of the Martyrs A.D. 33 to Today). The beheaded saints hold a unique place in John’s vision too: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” (Rev. 20:4). Although western Christians may be encountering and processing the idea of beheadings for the first time, the Word of God has offered comfort to timid Christians all along. Though the nations rage, we know who holds the blade. Though we may suffer in this life, we long to be with Christ. For now, let us pray fervently that the Lord would stay the hand of persecution for our brothers and sisters around the world. However, let us also cling tenaciously to the promise that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).