(Delivered Sunday, February 11, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
This morning, we resume our study of Matthew's Gospel by turning to the story that opens chapter fourteen. And as we do, let me warn you in advance—it's more scandalous and sordid than anything you'd see on any daytime soap-opera.
But that highlights a remarkable characteristic of the Bible. It tells us the truth. It deals with things as they really are. And in doing so in this morning's passage, it helps us—as followers of Jesus Christ in a dark and fallen world—to know three important things. It helps us to know the nature and character of this world that we're in, it helps us to know what our mission is to be while living in it for a time, and it helps us to know where our hope rests in the midst of it all.
This morning's passage teaches us these things through a story that involves three characters: the evil and fearful King Herod, the bold but imprisoned John the Baptist, and—of course—our compassionate and loving Lord Jesus Christ.
I ask that we read through this morning's passage—just touching on a few points here or there along the way; and then, sum up the lessons we learn from it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Matthew's Gospel, as you may remember, is the Gospel of the King. It was written primarily for the Jewish people; and its particular viewpoint of Jesus is as the long-awaited King of the Jews.
In chapter thirteen, Jesus had taught the people at large—and His disciples in particular—many truths about His kingdom through parables. We call them “the kingdom parables” because, through them, we learn much about “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven”. And at the end of the chapter—after the parables are completed—we're told that this King then presented Himself to the people of His own hometown Nazareth. But we're told that they were offended at Him and didn't believe on Him. We're told that “He did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58).
But even though they had rejected Him as their King, he nevertheless still was the King that God had promised to them long ago. And even though He didn't do many mighty works in their midst because of their unbelief, He nevertheless did do them elsewhere.
Just consider the ways He had already proven Himself before this time. Back in chapter four, Matthew tells us that
As we read on in Matthew's Gospel, we see that He cleansed a leper in the sight of a large crowd (8:1-4), cured a centurion's servant of his paralysis (8:5-13), and raised Peter's mother-in-law from her sick-bed (8:14-15). And as we read further, we see that He exercised power over the wind and the waves (8:23-27), demonstrated authority over the demons (8:28-34), and proved conclusively that He had the power on earth to forgive sins (9:1-7). He cured a woman of a life-draining flow of blood (9:20-22), raised a dead girl to life (9:18-19, 23-26), gave sight to two blind men (9:27-31), and gave voice to a mute man (9:32-33). Everywhere He went, He demonstrated compassion to people in need—“teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (9:35).
He even did these things in the midst of those who opposed Him. The scribes and Pharisees—the religious leaders of the day—claimed that He did these miracles because He Himself was working in the power of the devil. And yet, He made their claim foolish by healing a crippled man on the Sabbath that they had brought before Him in order to trap Him—and He did it right inside their synagogue (12:9-14). They plotted to kill Him for this; and He responded to their threats by withdrawing Himself from them—and then, kept right on healing people elsewhere (12:15). And even then, they followed Him to oppose Him and accuse Him; and even then, He cast a demon out of a man and healed him of his blindness and muteness right before their very eyes (12:22-23). The Pharisees responded by insisting that this proved He operated in the power of the devil. But the crowds of Galilee were awestruck by it all; and kept saying, “Could this be the Son of David?” (12:23)—that is to say, “Could this be the long-awaited Messiah? The promised King of the Jews?”
And this leads us to the very first thing we find in our passage this morning. All of these things finally found their way to the ears of the king over Galilee—the very monarch who ruled over the district in which all these things had been happening. The fact that he hadn't heard about these things before that time simply underscores how uninvolved a ruler he was. And the fact that he so badly misinterpreted them, once he heard about them, simply shows us how spiritually dark his soul was.
In Matthew 14:1-2, we read;
* * * * * * * * * *
This man is known to us in history as King Herod Antipas. And it's fascinating that he appears Matthew's presentation of Jesus as the King of the Jews.
Perhaps you'll remember this man's father—Herod the Great; one of the most notorious men in all of history. He himself was not a Jew. He was a foreigner—being of Edomite descent. But he ruled over the Jewish people at the time when our Lord Jesus was born. It was to him that the wise men from the east came and asked, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matthew 2:1-2). And it was he who, out of neurotic fear of this new-born threat to his rule, ordered that every male child born in Bethlehem—from two years old and under—be put to death (v. 16). And that was only a mere sampling from his career of cruelty.
Herod the Great ruled over the Jewish people; but only as Rome allowed him to rule. At first, he declared his son Antipater to be the heir of his throne; but he later changed his mind and made Antipater's brother Archelaus king. After Herod the Great died, the Romans reduced Archelaus' rule to that of Judea and Samaria. They named his brother Philip as ruler over the northern districts, and Antipas as ruler over Galilee. And it is that last man who is the Herod of our passage this morning.
This man—Herod Antipas the tetrarch (“tetrarch” meaning “one ruler of a group of four”)—began his rule shortly after Jesus was born; and had been ruling for about thirty-two years at the time of our story. He ruled throughout the time of our Lord's life on earth; and his rule ended just a few years after Jesus' crucifixion—a total of thirty-seven years. He was the civic ruler over the region in which our Savior grew up, and worked, and later began His public ministry—and over the region where Jesus taught the truths of the kingdom of heaven, and performed all of those wondrous miracles.
And that's what makes it so remarkable that Herod Agrippa—as it would seem—didn't even hear the report about the miracles and wonders Jesus had been doing until this point in our story. Luke tells us that he said, “John I have beheaded, but who is this of whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:8). The Son of God was walking in the midst of his own kingdom; and yet, he was clueless about it! How could he miss such a monumental thing? Sometimes, a man's heart can be so filled with darkness that he can't even see the light when it is shined right in front of him!
* * * * * * * * * *
Though Herod apparently didn't know much about Jesus, he did know something about the one who announced Jesus' coming. He turned to his servants and gave his own interpretation of what he heard: “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.” He said this because it was he who had put John to death.
Matthew tells us the story of this diabolical crime. He says,
The whole family of the Herodians was an incestuous and immoral bunch. But Herod Agrippa's behavior in this case caused a scandal that was particularly shocking. The wife of his brother Philip—a woman named Herodias (a woman who was, by the way, Herod the Great's granddaughter, and the sister of the Herod Agrippa that we read of in the thirteenth chapter of Acts) had left Philip and had eloped with Antipas. In other words, Herod Antipas lusted after his sister-in-law while still married; then divorced his wife; and then married Herodias (who was also his relative)—all while his brother Philip was still living.
There was a provision, in the Law of God given through Moses, that called for a man to marry the widow of his childless brother and raise children through her in his brother's same—so that his brother's name would not be blotted out of Israel, and the land that had been appointed to him would not be lost to his descendent's (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). But that was not applicable to this case. Herodias was not a widow; and Antipas was not doing his brother any favors. It speaks of behavior as a great sin in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. It says, in Leviticus 18:16, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness”; and in 22:21, it says, “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They shall be childless.” The conduct of Herod Antipas, then, was nothing more than a matter of incestuous lust.
And John the Baptist had spoken out against it. He had dared to go to Herod—perhaps even pointing right at Herodias as he did so—and tell him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” What boldness this took! John, no doubt, knew what kind of a man Herod was; and he knew what Herod was capable of doing to him for this. But as Jesus once asked the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7). Whoever thought that would have been in for a shock! John was no flimsy little reed shaking in the wind. He was a mighty wind who shook the reeds! May we be more like him in our day!
* * * * * * * * * *
So; John dared to tell Herod what the law of God said. John dared to shine the light on the king's sin. And what was Herod's response to John? Luke, in his Gospel, writes, “But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison” (Luke 3:19-20). What he did with Herodias was very evil. But once John showed him the truth about his sin from the word of God, what he then did with John was even more evil.
Apparently, Herod wanted to put John to death. He wanted to silence that righteous tongue of his; and by doing so, silence the condemnation he received from the word of God. But Matthew goes on to tell us, “And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet” (v. 5). Many men today are just like Herod; they're more afraid of the judgment of men than they are of the judgment of God.
And here's were we see Herod's moral fearfulness and confusion. Herodias also wanted John dead; but as we read elsewhere in the Scripture, we find that there was a curious draw that John still seemed to have on Herod. Thus, Herod prevented her from killing him. Mark, in his Gospel, tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20). Isn't that the way some people are in their sinful and wicked hardness of heart? They hear the truth; and they hate it, and rail against it, and fight it, and argue against it with all their being. And yet, because the Spirit of God continues to convict them that it is the truth that they're hearing, they're still drawn back to hear more—always lingering and loitering near the truth, but never fully embracing it unto life. Truly, as the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
* * * * * * * * * *
How long John had to languish in prison—with Herod vacillating back and forth—is hard to say. But it was plain that God's purpose for John had been completed, and his work on earth had come to an end. He had not only pointed faithfully to the law in order to declare sin, but he had also pointed faithfully to Jesus and declared “Behold, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). And now, the time of John's release would come . . . and so had Herodias' opportunity against him.
It was Herod's birthday. He threw a great feast; and all of the nobles and high officers and all the chief men of Galilee came (Mark 6:21). The wine, no doubt, flowed freely. And it's then that a supporting character in our story is introduced. History knows her as Salome. She was the daughter of both Herodias and of the husband that she had left for Antipas. Matthew tells us;
This kind of thing was never done by a member of the royal household. Dancing girls, in those days, were considered to be very immoral. And though we're not told what sort of dancing Salome did, we can be pretty sure that it wasn't ballet!
Herod was, quite frankly, a juiced-up, dirty old man. And so, when the dance was over, he made a drunken—and, I suspect, a somewhat lustful—promise to the girl;
Mark tells us just how outlandish his promise was. He said, “'Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.' He also swore to her, 'Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom.'” (Mark 6:22-23). Just stop and consider how much this man despised the heritage of Israel—that he would give half of his kingdom to a girl who danced for him and pleased him!
Apparently, the girl then consulted with her mother. And we read of what is, certainly, one of the most notorious “requests”—certainly, the most notorious “dancer's tip”—in all of history;
Herod, we're told, “was sorry”. But “sorry” was all that he was. He was not sorry enough to repent. Herod was more concerned about keeping his drunken, hasty promise to the girl than he was about taking the life of a prophet of God. He was more concerned for admiration before men than he was about damnation from God. And so, he sent his guards; and John the Baptist—the man of whom Jesus said that, among those born of women, there had not risen greater (Matthew 11:11)—was suddenly ushered into heaven.
* * * * * * * * * *
That's the last we hear of this creepy girl and her mother. And their story explains why Herod was so fearful at the news of Jesus and the marvelous works He had been doing among the people. He was irrational because of guilt; and fearful that it was John the Baptist, risen from the dead.
But it's then that the most wonderful character in this story is brought to our attention;
Jesus loved John. And though there's no doubt that, as the Son of God, Jesus knew the end that was in store for John from the very beginning, I nevertheless believe that it still grieved Jesus deeply when that end finally came. Matthew goes on to tell us,
It may be that Jesus felt the loss of John when He was told of the execution; and that He just needed to be alone for a while. Or it may be that--because Herod had begun to wonder if Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead--Jesus and His disciples were now in danger and needed to get to safer regions. Mark gives us an even fuller view of the story when he reports that the disciples of John told the apostles; and that the apostles then told Jesus; and that Jesus then said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while”; saying this to them because there were so many people coming and going around Him that none of them had time to eat (Mark 6:31).
So; whether it was because Jesus needed to be alone for a while; or because He was sensitive to the need that the disciples might have for safety, and some peace and rest after the sad news; or, most likely, because of all these needs, they got into a boat and got away for a time of solitude.
I'm grateful for this picture we have of our Savior. He walked upon this earth as God in human flesh. And yet, He still affirmed the human need of rest and comfort. What a joy it is to serve a master such as Him.
As it turned out, whatever rest they sought didn't last long. But here's another wonderful thing about our Savior. He wasn't angry about that. He didn't lash out because rest and solitude were taken from Him. He reacted as He always does toward those who hunger for Him and seek Him. He felt compassion toward them, and welcomed them to Himself, and loved them. Matthew tells us,
* * * * * * * * * *
The Holy Spirit saw fit to lead Matthew to include this very scandalous and grotesque story in his Gospel account of Jesus. The word of God doesn't try to shield us from the truth of things. It lets us see things as they really are. But it does this so that we might know the things we need to know in order to better follow our wonderful Savior in this dark world.
I see three things that this passage teaches us—and it shows them to us through the persons in this story. Let's consider them in conclusion.
First, as we look at King Herod Antipas—and Herodias and Salome as well—we see something of . . .
1. THE CHARACTER OF THIS FALLEN WORLD SYSTEM.
Like Herod, this world is given over to the gratification of sinful desire. The apostle John warned us;
And like Herod, it does not relish being told of God's law. It does not welcome having its sin pointed out. John didn't speak disrespectfully to Herod. He didn't lash out at the king. All he did was tell him the truth of what God has said—that it was contrary to God's law that he have the wife of his brother. And that was enough for Herod to seek to silence him in prison—and for Herodias to seek to silence him by death.
Jesus warned us that this would happen. He told His disciples—and us along with them;
Praise God that He sees fit to save some from out of this doomed world. If you are a redeemed woman or man, it is because God has graciously delivered you from the power of darkness and conveyed you into the kingdom of the Son of His love (Col. 1:13).
But as a system of values and priorities—as a kingdom over which the devil holds sway—we should never be surprised by the opposition we experience when we speak the truth of God's word in it. Herod is simply a picture in miniature of how it will respond. It will love its sin. It will hate the word of God that condemns that sin. It will be irrational in its fear; and it will continually misunderstand the Savior. And it will seek to silence those who stand for Him and His gospel.
* * * * * * * * * *
As followers of Jesus Christ, you and I are called to live—for a time—in the midst of this dark world system. And so, secondly, we see in John the Baptist something of
2. THE ROLE WE PLAY AS WE LIVE IN IT.
John was called to be a prophet. He was to forth-tell the truth of God into the darkness of the culture of his day. And so are we.
Jesus Himself has told us;
We are to tell the people of this world the truth of what God has said, and we are to back that truth up by living it out in front of them. They will not like being confronted by the truth of God's word; but we are not to “be afraid of their faces” (Jeremiah 1:8). We are not to “be afraid of their words or dismayed by their looks” (Ezekiel 1:6).
We must be today like John was in his day; and speak God's law regarding the sin around us. That's one of the things that is so often missing in our message to the world. As someone has said, we are trying to bring them to Jesus without first bringing them to Moses. We need to tell people God's moral standards as they are found in His good law; so that they can see the truth of their sin. We need to be like John; and not fear to say to the sin of this world, “It is not lawful . . .” There is no other way for people to realize their need for a Savior until they realize that they are sinners against God's law, and who need to be saved. May God make us more like John in this.
But then, also like John, we need to point to the Savior of sinners. I can't think of anything more horrible to do to people than to tell them the word of the law that condemns them; and then leave them without the word of grace that saves them. May God help us to be like John; and to serve this world with the two great themes of John's message: First, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2); but then afterwards, “Behold, The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
And in all of our doing so, let's be like John in that we are so bold and courageous in speaking the saving message of Christ to this world, that we are willing to suffer with Him for doing so. God the Father has not commissioned the preaching of the message of His Son to any other. He has not given it to mighty angels to proclaim. He has given it to us—His redeemed people. It is not in His plan for the world to hear it from anyone else but us.
* * * * * * * * * *
And that leads us to consider one more thing that we should notice from this passage as we live in this dark world . . .
3. THE SAVIOR WE ARE TO PROCLAIM IN THE MIDST OF IT.
What a wonderful Savior He is! He isn't anything like the kings of this world. Who would have dared to have approached Herod for anything? But unlike such earthly kings, our Savior is very approachable.
For one thing, He understands us. He feels the pain of our humanity. He knew what it was to grieve over His beloved prophet John. He knew what it was to need to get away for rest and peace and solitude. This reminds us of what it says in the Book of Hebrews;
And for another thing, Jesus welcomes those who come to Him. Just as He welcomed all those needy people who sought Him out and came to Him in the deserted place; He will never turn any away who come to Him to day. He is never too busy for you and me; never too tired. We have a wonderful promise from Him. He said,
We have an invitation from Him that is more wonderful than could ever be offered by even the most benevolent earthly king—and invitation that is true for everyone who will hear it. May each one of us take Him up on it today.
* * * * * * * * * *
So then; let's learn the lessons this passage teaches us about how we are to live in this dark world as followers of Jesus. As we look at Herod, let's learn what sort of a fallen world this is that God has called us to live in. As we look at John, let's learn what our mission is while living in the midst of it. And finally, as we look at Jesus, let's learn what a wonderful Savior it is that we are to proclaim to the fallen people of this world.
Missed a message? Check the Archives!
Copyright © 2007 Bethany Bible Church, All Rights Reserved
Bethany Bible Church, 18245 NW Germantown Road, Portland, OR 97231 / 503.645.1436