Let’s turn together in our Bibles to the fourteenth chapter of Matthew. Matthew chapter 14. This text in verses 1 through 13 is one of the most fascinating, while tragic, and yet triumphant texts in all of the Word of God. It tells the story of the murder of John the Baptist; but there’s far more to the story than just that. As a story by itself, it has more intrigue than the most bizarre soap opera imaginable. It’s an incredible story; true in every word. But beyond just the events, and the plot, and the characters, there is an amazing picture of how a man, through fear, forfeited the kingdom of God, forfeited the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
The Bible says the fear of man brings a trap, or a snare; and we see how true that is in this account. Now as we come to the fourteenth chapter, the Messiah has been rejected, but with His disciples, continues to preach the kingdom. I think Scofield aptly calls this section of Matthew “The Ministry of the Rejected King.” Jesus has arrived, presented Himself as King, announced His kingdom. He is the long-awaited, long-promised Messiah, the King. He has been, however, rejected by His people. But among the people, there are some who will believe; and so the Lord and His twelve are moving among those people to present the kingdom and its truth.
Now as we come to chapter 14, we have one of the eight incidents that are recorded from the end of 13 through the beginning of chapter 16; eight instances that show us how people responded to the preaching of the kingdom. Now you’ll remember that the parables of chapter 13 describe the fact that some will believe and some will reject; and that’ll be the way it is in this age. Now we have illustrations of that.
As I told you in our last study, there are eight incidents. Two of the eight show people who believe, six of the eight show people who do not believe, paralleling the soils parable in the beginning of chapter 13. In our last look at chapter 13, we saw the city of Nazareth, the first illustration of an unbelieving, rejecting people. And now we see the story of Herod the tetrarch, as he is called in verse 1, who also is an illustration of stony ground, hard soil, unbelief, resistance, and rejection. And so this is a select incident, chosen by the Holy Spirit, so that we may see that in this day, in this age, as well as the time of our Lord, there will be many who hardheartedly will reject the message of the kingdom.
Now as you look at Matthew 14, you want to keep in mind that Luke 9 and Mark 6 also feed in from parallel perspectives more information to make this story full, and so we’ll be appealing to them periodically as we look at this story.
The last passage dealt with a town that rejected Christ; this one deals with a man who rejects Christ. The last passage dealt with common people who opposed the King; here we see a king who opposes the true King. The last passage revealed the treatment of the Messiah; this one, the treatment of the forerunner, or the messenger, or the agent of the Messiah. The last passage showed rejection and resistance based primarily on jealousy; this one shows rejection and resistance based primarily on fear. But both of them have, at the bottom pride, selfish pride; and in all cases, that is usually what damns the soul – an unwillingness to give up what a person is to embrace Jesus Christ.
Now the story here is told in a flashback. We look, first of all, at the reaction in verses 1 and 2, and then the story in flashback from verses 3 and following. Let’s look at the reaction in verses 1 and 2.
Remember now, Christ is preaching, the twelve are trained, and they’re out two by two, preaching, proclaiming the kingdom. The message is going out. Signs, and wonders, and mighty deeds, miracles, healings, casting out of demons, raising the dead – all of this is going on; and the word finally reaches Herod the tetrarch, and we see his reaction.
“At that time,” – and by the way, that is an indefinite phrase. “Time” is kairos, not chronos. Chronos means “a specific time.” Kairos, “a general season.” “At the general time of Christ’s preaching and the disciples’ preaching, at the general time when He was being rejected, at the general time when hostility was beginning to grow, Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus.” And now we meet this main character, the one who is the rejecter in the passage, the one who is the stony ground.
Now he is called the tetrarch. Now, technically, that term means it’s a mathematical kind of word. It means “a ruler of a fourth part,” tetra having to do with a fourth of something. But it came to be a term used of any subordinate ruler in a section of a country.
And there were many subordinate rulers in Israel at that time; he was one of them. In verse 9, by the way, he is called “king.” “And the king” – it says – “was sorry.” That’s a very generous use of the term. He was not a king. In fact, he sought to be a king. On one occasion, he went to Rome to ask Caligula to make him a king, primarily because his wife wanted to be called “queen.” That wish was not granted to him. But he wasn’t really a king, he was sort of a petty potentate – and it’s a very generous use of the term “king,” which was frequently used for people of lesser stature than we would imagine a king to have.
Now the name “Herod” immediately is familiar to us, because if we go back in Matthew to chapter 2, in verse 1, when Christ was born, we remember that there was a king then by the name of Herod. That was a different Herod. That was Herod the Great. And Herod the Great was an Idumean; he was a descendant of Esau. And it was quite interesting that a descendant of Esau should rule over the sons of Jacob. He was an Arab, if you will.
Herod the Great was also, to compound matters, married to a Samaritan; so you can imagine how a non-Jew, a son of Esau, married to a Samaritan would be unpopular in the hearts of Jews. And yet he was their king, appointed by Rome, over the whole area. And it was he who was so fearful when he heard the word that a King had been born; and as a result, slaughtered, in a massacre, all of the babies, in order that he might eliminate anyone who would pose a threat to his throne.
Herod the Great has long been dead, however, by this passage; and this is one of his sons. History tells us that he was known as Herod Antipas, Herod Antipas. When Herod the Great died, his dominion, which was all of Palestine – north of it, east of it, and even south of it in part – was divided among three of his many sons. And it’s hard to keep track of his sons, because he had them by different women; and so some of them were half-brothers. Some of them even had the same name – as we shall see – having different mothers, but the same father.
But he had three sons: Archelaus, Philip, and Herod Antipas. Archelaus was assigned the area of Judea and Samaria, over which he ruled. Philip was given Trachonitis and Iturea, which was the northernmost part of the land of Palestine. So you have Archelaus in the south, Philip was in the north, and Herod got the middle, which was Galilee, and into the east of Galilee, the area known as Perea. So this man had become a sort of a petty potentate, a small-time king, a subordinate ruler of Rome, there to leave some kind of imprint of power and control on the society of Jews.
Now there are two other Herods that appear later in the New Testament, and you need to understand that they come in the same line. The next Herod we meet is a man named Herod Agrippa. And if you want to know about that Herod, just read Acts 12. He declared it Herod Day, celebrated his power, and gave not God the glory; so God smote him, and he was eaten by worms, and died.
There is, following him, a second Herod Agrippa. This one is Herod Agrippa II, we find him in Acts 26; and Paul, you remember, preached to Agrippa. So basically you have these four: Herod the Great, Herod Antipas, Herod Agrippa I, and Herod Agrippa II. Herod the Great has long been dead, and at this time, Herod Antipas is in his thirty-second year of rule. So he is the one who ruled Galilee and the area during the ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the Herod then most familiar to the time and place in the text of Scripture. His area was from the Sea of Galilee down to the northernmost tip of the Dead Sea; from the coast to east, beyond the Jordan. That was the area which he ruled.
He had lived in Tiberius, and Tiberius is a city on the southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. I’ve been there, it’s still there, a very lovely place. He had built a palace there. His father also had built a massive fortress at a place called Machaerus, and that was his summer home, because it had natural mineral springs and so forth. And so he spent much of his time out in Machaerus, and the rest of his time in Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Now what is interesting about this is that Jesus, in all of His ministry in the Gospels, at no time is indicated to have ever visited Tiberius. All of the places He went – and by the way, you could walk from Capernaum to Tiberius; and Jesus did so much in Capernaum. You could walk from Nazareth to Tiberius. You could walk from Cana, where He did His first miracle, to Tiberius. And yet Jesus is never indicated to have gone there.
It’s almost as if there was a very obvious effort to avoid a confrontation with Herod. He’d already had a confrontation with Herod the Great as an infant, who tried to massacre Him. And this man came out of the same basic style of rule; and there was no sense in putting Himself in a jeopardizing situation. And so there’s no indication that He ministered in Tiberius, which is where this man lived. Therefore, the man was not particularly aware of the ministry of Jesus at first. And by the time, it says in verse 1, that he heard of the fame of Jesus, it’s two years since our Lord’s baptism, or somewhere between one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half, depending on your chronology. So a couple of years have gone by and he hasn’t heard.
And it may have been because the Lord never came there. It may have been because he was at Machaerus much of the time. It may also have been because he lived in his ivory tower, and the Jewish people weren’t about to make him privy to what was going on. It may have been that he was so consumed with his luxurious living and his decadence and all of the rest of it, that he never bothered with such petty matters. But finally, he heard of the fame of Jesus; this after the Lord is out ministering. He has trained the twelve. They are out ministering, so the word is spreading rapidly, and the hostility is growing; and the conjunction of all of those things brings this to his attention.
Now his reaction is very startling reaction, verse 2: “He said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him.’” Now this was a great concern to him, because he had murdered John the Baptist. And I suppose the fear of any murderer would be most realized in the possibility of the one he murdered coming back from the dead. I have heard of those who have done such things, and been haunted in the nights for years after with the image of that person rising before their consciousness. And the tremendous guilt that he had for murdering John the Baptist, that morbid kind of guilt, added to his amazing curiosity, brought him to the conviction that this was John the Baptist raised from the dead.
Now if you compare the other accounts, for example, in Luke, this was not what his first reaction was. In Luke 9 and 7, it says, “Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was done by the Lord. He was perplexed, because it was said by some that John was risen from the dead; and some others said Elijah had appeared; and others said one of the prophets was risen from the dead.” So at first, he got the same kind of report that the disciples gave Jesus when He asked them who He was in Matthew 16. “Some said You’re John the Baptist, some said You’re Elijah, and some said You’re one of the prophets.”
And so all of this is coming in on him, and he doesn’t know what it is. But as time goes on, and as he thinks it through, and as the word keeps coming, he sees the similarity between Jesus and John, and assumes it’s John raised from the dead. And that’s what his morbid, fearful kind of guilty conscience would conjure up in his thinking.
“Herod said” – in Luke 9:9 – ‘John have I beheaded. But who is this of whom I hear such things?’ and he desired to see him.” Although he was certainly afraid, there was that same morbid curiosity that wanted to see Jesus to verify whether his fear was legitimate. And so he settles – Matthew shows us – on that fact that it’s John the Baptist; and he makes that note, at the end of verse 2, that the mighty works that He does verify that. That’s a very important indication, because it tells us that John had done some mighty works.
“If he came” – it says in Luke 1 – “in the spirit and power of Elijah,” – and Luke 1 says John would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. The spirit and power of Elijah was that of a miraculous power. Elijah was one of those men in God’s Old Testament economy who was given the power to accomplish miracles. And it is not without convincing argument that John the Baptist may well have been able to do some of the same. And so when Herod hears that Jesus has this miraculous kind of power, which he knew to be demonstrated in John, he is assured in his mind by his guilty conscience that John is back from the dead, and his curiosity demands that he find out for sure.
Now let’s look at the reason for that reaction, verse 3: “For Herod” – and now comes the flashback; the story is told in flashback. Herod, in 1 and 2, is reacting to Jesus; and here’s why he assigns to Him the similarity with John the Baptist.
“For Herod had laid hold on John, bound him, put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife.” And why did he put him in prison? “For John said unto him, ‘It is not lawful for thee to have her.’”
Now Matthew flashes back to the event that caused him to react the way he did to Jesus. This is how it happened. And, folks, this is some kind of story. In order for us to understand it, I want to introduce you to the characters.
First, John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet. A great, holy, righteous man of God. Herod even said that of him. He knew that, it was obvious. Jesus said, “Of them that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist.” Matthew 11:11 indicates, therefore, that he was the greatest man who ever lived, the greatest prophet who ever prophesied. A marvelous, incredible man; the forerunner of the Messiah; the cousin, as it were, of the Lord, through the relationship of Mary and Elizabeth. This man’s job in the world was to announce and introduce the Christ.
In Luke 1, it says he would be great in the sight of the Lord. He would drink neither wine nor strong drink. He would come in the spirit and power of Elijah. He would turn many of the hearts of the people to the Lord their God; and he did. And when he came, his message was very clear: “Repent.” And what does repentance presuppose? Sin.
He was a confronter. He called people to confess their sin. Matthew 3:6 says that he was there, and he was coming and calling them, and they were coming to him confessing their sins, and he would then baptize them as a symbol of their desire for cleanliness of spirit. And so he confronted sin, and he called with a strong message for holiness, to prepare a people for the arrival of the Messiah. He was very popular. The whole country was going out to see him, and multitudes responded to his message.
Now in contrast to this man of God, we meet Herod. We’ve already talked about the biographical data; maybe a word or two about his character. As I said, he was a descendant of Esau, ruling the sons of Jacob, which put him in a very difficult position. He was evil; he was debauched; he was shameless. He was hen-pecked, pushed around by an overbearing woman; given to all excesses. He was troubled, to be sure, in his conscience, but refused to obey. And John the Baptist, little doubt, really disturbed him.
Here was a man with tremendous popularity. Here was a man to whom the multitudes of people were moving. And Josephus, the historian of the time, tells us that Herod Antipas was really nervous about John. He writes, “Now when many others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared, lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power an inclination to raise a rebellion, thought it best by putting him to death to prevent any mischief he might cause.”
So Herod, no doubt, realized that the best thing to do with this guy was to kill him, just like his father had tried to do with the Messiah originally when he slaughtered all the babies. He was like every other weak, fearful, impotent, suspicious, frightened tyrant who can only think of killing a rival; and he had learned it well from his father.
So he puts John in prison, it says in verse 3; and behind this was his wife, Herodias, pushing the issue. Machaerus was a huge place – fortified by Herod the Great, incorporating a summer palace, as well as a fortress. It was on a mountain higher than the city of Jerusalem, and so you could see for miles around. Archaeologists have dug that area up and found there was a great dungeon there, plunging deep into the earth; and in that dungeon made out of masonry, there were holes in the masonry where wood and iron were attached, in order that a prisoner might be chained to the very dungeon wall. And they believe that is the place that, no doubt, was the prison of John the Baptist. And so he was put in prison to be kept there approximately a year.
Now we also meet Herodias in verse 3, and it introduces Herodias as “his brother Philip’s wife.” Now Herodias is one of the worst people in the Bible. She is really wretched, as you will see. She is not designated as his wife; however, she was married to him. But the Bible says she was his brother Philip’s wife. So the Holy Spirit refuses to recognize her marriage to Herod. The Holy Spirit refuses to call her the wife of Herod. Why? Verse 4, because John said what the Holy Spirit felt: “It was unlawful for him to be married to her.” So God wouldn’t recognize that.
Now the facts are mind boggling. Hang on to your seat. Here’s where the plot thickens.
Herod Antipas was married to the daughter of King Aretas. Now there was an area south of where we’re speaking, southeast of the Dead Sea called Nabatean Arabia. It’s where Paul went during those years when he was silent and God was preparing his heart before he came back to minister. But Nabatean Arabia had a king named Aretas. Aretas had a daughter; Herod married the daughter of Aretas, that was his wife. Herod also had a brother named Philip. Not Philip the tetrarch; that was another brother named Philip. This is another Philip, by a different woman, but the same Herod the Great father.
Well, Herod went to Rome to visit his brother Philip, because Philip lived in Rome. He was a private citizen. He lived over there. He didn’t get any place to rule. Some historians believe because of some treachery on the part of his mother, he wasn’t given a rulership. So he lived as a private citizen over in Rome; and he had a wife named Herodias.
So Herod went on a trip to see his brother Philip in Rome. And while he was there, he seduced Philip’s wife; and apparently she responded positively to the seduction, and he said to her, “Why don’t you divorce Philip and come be my wife? And I’ll divorce the daughter of Aretas. And when we get our decks cleared of our present mates, we’ll consummate a marriage.” And that is exactly what happened.
Now it’s somewhat complicated at this point, folks. Herodias was the daughter of another brother of Herod. So he’s one son of Herod the Great; Philip is another son of Herod the Great. There was another son of Herod the Great who had a daughter who was Herodias. So he’s marrying his brother’s daughter. There’s so much in this that can confuse you; just try to hang on to that.
Philip, Philip and Herod Antipas were one generation from the loins of Herod the Great, Herodias was two generations; so she married her uncle. Now that’s incest. By the way, she had another brother named Herod Agrippa, who was the one eaten by worms in Acts 12 – just thought I’d throw that in. I mean this is a really fouled up family. There’s just all kinds of incest; and that’s the simple version. Well, they decided to go through with their divorces, come together in marriage.
Now John the Baptist confronted the situation. Some believe that it may have been that Herod Antipas called him because he wanted his stamp of approval. Josephus says the Jews were up in arms. They were irate over this illegitimate marriage, because here a man had married by causing a divorce; he had divorced his own wife.
And Aretas was really upset. He was so upset he came in and destroyed Herod’s entire army, and Herod would have been killed, except the Romans saved him. Aretas was so upset. The Jews could see the evil of the whole thing, and they really felt that what was happening when Aretas came and devastated the whole thing was punishment for this terrible thing that he had done.
Well, they’re now married – Herod and Herodias – by the time we come to this scene. And another Philip, the brother of Herod, dies – the one who ruled Trachonitis and Iturea, the northern area.
Well, immediately, Herodias wanted that area. She wanted to be the queen, and more territory. However, Caligula, who was a Roman Emperor, gave it to Agrippa; and she was so upset, she said to Herod, “You go to Rome, and even though you didn’t get the other territory, you make him make you a king; I want to be a queen.” So he hemmed and hawed and fooled around and tried to talk her out of it, but he couldn’t handle her at all. And so with his tail between his legs, he makes a trip to Rome, and he’s going to ask if he could be a king and she could be a queen.
However, Agrippa doesn’t like him at all, and so Agrippa sends a faster messenger to Caligula, and tells Caligula that he has a rebellion, that Herod Antipas is planning a rebellion, and all of this is a ruse. So when Antipas comes in to ask to be made a king, Caligula already believes he’s got a revolution and a rebellion on his mind. So he takes away all of his throne, and puts him in exile till his death. And the worst of it is, he exiled Herodias with him. That’s tough; but that happens a little in the future.
At this point, however, we meet this wretched woman. Oh, what a bitter, bitter thing when he seduced Herodias. That’s the basic cast of characters. There’s one more to meet in a moment. But all of this wretchedness was brought to John’s attention, and he comes before Herod. You know what he says? “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And he didn’t just say it here; that Greek text kind of indicates he kept on saying it. He probably said it all over every place. “It is not lawful. That is an ungodly, sinful union.”
Now that is what I see as confronting the issue head-on. He didn’t say, “O great king, why, we want to minister to you, so we don’t want to say too much, you know, we want to preserve the right.” No. He just said what was true. In the spirit and power of Elijah, he just plain said it, and it did not make Herod happy to hear that; and it made Herodias livid. She was furious that he said it, and they were angry, and as a result, they threw him in prison, verse 3 says.
There’s a great word here. This is the mark of greatness, I believe it with all my heart. This is the mark of prophetic greatness. This is the mark of the man of God: fearlessly confronting the sins of men, even though they be the highest leaders in the nation or in the world. You don’t piddle around with leaders of the world. When there is sin to be confronted, you confront it. They hold your life in their hands, but that’s okay; you’re God’s man. Christ confronted it; Stephen confronted it; Paul confronted it; Peter confronted it; John the Baptist confronted it. It’s the only right thing to do.
A. T. Robertson said, “It cost him his head; but it is better to have a head like John the Baptist and lose it, than to have an ordinary head and keep it.” It’s dangerous, you know, to rebuke an Eastern despot. You can imagine what would happen to you, for example, if you did that today to some Arabian king. Same culture. And John signed his death warrant; but he was in the hands of God.
Verse 5: “And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.” This guy lives by fear. He fears his wife. He fears the loss of his throne to John the Baptist; but he’s afraid to kill him, because he is afraid of the people. He’s paralyzed. He’s afraid of everything. So he just keeps him in prison just to try to buy time.
But something very interesting happens. As he’s got John the Baptist in prison, he becomes fascinated with him. He’s afraid of him; but because he’s incarcerated and he can’t do him any harm, his fear turns to fascination, and he becomes enamored with this man. He was dynamic. There was never a man in the history of the world like him, Jesus said. He must have been a marvelous, incredible kind of person; and he was so drawn to him, that he began to have rather regular conversations.
It says in verse 20 of Mark 6: “Herod feared John;” – he was in awe of him – “he knew he was a righteous man, a holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” He was responding to John; he was listening to John; he was fascinated by him. And so his fear was turning to fascination, although the fear would have immediately emerged had John escaped, I’m quite sure.
But Herodias was seething. She was a woman of immorality, of infidelity, of vice. She was vindictive. She nursed her wrath to a boiling point; she wanted revenge. She wanted John condemned; she wanted him dead. And she became a parent so incensed with anger and fury that she would stain her child with guilt beyond description.
That introduces us to the last character, verse 6: “When Herod’s birthday was kept,” – and by the way, only Pagans held birthday celebrations; Jews never did. And the Jews used to look on the Pagan birthday celebrations as a terrible act of shame. In fact, there was a phrase, “Herodis dies” in Latin, which means “Herod’s birthday,” and it came to be a proverb for excessive, orgiastic festivals. In those days, the Romans held stag birthday parties. All the birthday parties were stag parties; only men came – and they were gluttonous, and they were drunken brawls, and they were climaxed by women who came in and danced immoral, lewd, seductive dances; and then the thing became an orgy; and that was Herod’s birthday.
“So it was Herod’s birthday” – in verse 6 – “and the daughter of Herodias” – Josephus tells us her name is Salome – “danced before, them and pleased Herod.” Now Herodias has got this all planned. She wants John dead, and she knows that by the time you get to the end of this party, he is drunk, he is gluttonous, stuffed to the gills, and just primed to really be vulnerable. And when it’s time for the dancing girls, the immoral, suggestive, shameless women to come in in their lewd dances, she brings in this young, probably 16 or 17-year-old daughter of hers named Salome, to do this dance to really accomplish her goal.
And when it says, at the end of verse 6, “It pleased Herod,” – it means it turned him on, in our vernacular. He fell to the lust and the lewdness. He became a leering, lecherous, vile, drunken sot. And verse 7: “Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.”
He was really suckered into this; and in his drunken, gluttonous stupor, in his state of sexual seduction, he lost all dignity, he lost all sensibility, he lost all desire to do what was right and sane; and wanting to be the magnanimous, magnificent benefactor, he makes a stupid promise, and then makes an oath to sign himself to it, that she can have anything she wants. And Mark adds in verse 23 of chapter 6, “up to half of his whole kingdom.” That’ll tell you how far gone he was. And the plot hatched at that moment.
Verse 8: “And she, being before instructed by her mother, said, ‘Give me here’ – now, right here – ‘the head of John the Baptist on a platter. I want his head.’” Herodias didn’t want to wait till Herod sobered up; she wanted it now.
And the fool was too proud to break his stupid oath, because he wanted to come off as a magnificent, magnanimous benefactor. He wanted everybody to think his word was pure gold. He wanted people to think he knew what he was doing, and hadn’t made a foolish statement. And so out of fear of losing his reputation, out of fear of losing the respect that you can be sure he never had – because all of those kinds of people despise each other – out of the fear of losing face with the captains, and the chiefs, and the famous men that were at the party; instead of saying how enormously stupid such an oath was; instead of saying, “There’s no reason to commit an enormous crime; that’s not what I had intended by the promise;” the morally impotent, witless, weak fool, in pride, fear of his wife, fear of John the Baptist, fear of the people there, filled his cup with iniquity. And as Congreve once said, “Hell has no fury like a woman scorned,” she got her way.
Verse 9, it’s an interesting statement: “The king was sorry.” He was trapped, and he knew it; but his pride wouldn’t let him do what was right. He was just like Pilate. Pilate was trying to hold on, until they said to him, “Well, if you don’t kill Jesus, you’re no friend of Caesar.” And afraid of losing his name and reputation and throne, he killed the Son of God. So does this man kill the messenger of God, for fear of losing his face.
“For the oath’s sake, and for the sake of them who sat dining with him, he commanded it to be given to her. And he sent, and he beheaded John in prison.” Cut off his head. Silently, privately, in the depth of that dungeon, John the Baptist was murdered. This happened, you know, in these days.
Herodias had an ancestor by the name of Alexander Junius, and historians tell us that one time, Alexander Junius was holding a big feast, and he brought in 800 rebels to make a display, and he crucified all 800 of them in the view of all the revelers at the feast. And then while they were hanging on the cross still alive, he murdered their wives and children in front of their gaze. It was a debauched world. I think today we see some remnants of this kind of approach to human life still in that part of the world.
Broadus writes, “When the dish was brought in with the bleeding head on it, no doubt she took it daintily in her hands, lest a drop of it should stain her; and she tripped away to her mother as if bearing her some choice dish of food from the king’s table. It was not uncommon to bring the head of one who had been slain to the person who ordered it as a sure proof that the command had been obeyed.”
When the head of Cicero was brought to Fulvia, the wife of Antony, she spat on it, she pulled its tongue out and drove her hairpin through it. And Jerome says that is what Herodias did with the head of John. We can’t verify that, but we know the Herod family seemed to want to mimic all of the worst atrocities of the Roman nobility. It must have been a point of derision and mocking – that dear, godly, faithful man, his head severed from his body.
That’s the extent of rejection that comes under the pressure of the fear of man. He was afraid to lose his throne. He was afraid of John. He was afraid of his wife. He was afraid of the people around him. And under the intimidation of that, he damned his soul to hell forever.
So after a year imprisonment, John the Baptist is dead. His work is done. He’s gone to his reward a faithful man, uncompromising. That’s the true prophet of God – no compromise.
Somebody handed me a letter this morning, said, “Pray for a Pakistani Christian suffering for his faith in Christ, and willing to die for the Lord because he won’t compromise. We’ll call him Mr. Q. He’s the peanut butter man.
“He finds another placard tacked to his house each night. This one declares that a victory front of zealous Muslim men has been formed to harass him by spying on his house 24 hours a day. They forbid any Muslim friend to visit him, forbid any shopkeeper to sell food or supplies to his family. They plot to kill him by a certain date if he doesn’t recant and return to Islam.
“After living in his village for more than twenty years as a vibrant, witnessing Christian, making his living by making and selling peanut butter, this is the most protracted and dangerous persecution he and his family have undergone since they left Islam. It was seemingly provoked by the marriage of his Christian daughter to a fine young Christian. By tradition, she should have been given to some Muslim cousin.
“Mr. Q, beloved by all the Christians in Northern Pakistan, is a blessing wherever he travels in the course of his business. Our churches have been stimulated to fast and pray for his family in this crisis. At least one young Muslim man, seeing his faith under stress, has accepted Christ. They’ve offered $10,000 to him if he rejects Christ. He said $10,000 is the price of hell, and affirms he’s ready to die for his Savior, should he be deemed worthy of that privilege.” That comes to us from one of the team missionaries. The courage of the one who speaks for God.
Look at verse 12 and see a beautiful ending to an ugly scene. “His disciples came,” – that is the disciples of John the Baptist, his followers – “took up the body, and buried it,” – I love this – “and went and told Jesus.” You can imagine how it was to pick up that headless body of that man whom they loved, who was the voice of God to them, the greatest man they’d ever known, who made such a profound impression, who preached repentance, under whose preaching they had confessed their sins, repented, and been baptized in preparation for the Messiah. They took his body, and they buried it. And it may speak something of the thoughtfulness of Herod in his sobriety as he would permit that.
And then that lovely note at the end of verse 12: “That they told Jesus.” Jesus would have wanted to know that, for John was so beloved to Him. And then verse 13, most interesting: “When Jesus heard, He departed from there by boat into a desert place privately.” And you can stop there.
Luke tells us His disciples were with Him, and they were alone. Somebody suggested that He got out of town because He was afraid of Herod. Hardly. Hardly. But then it wasn’t in the plan to confront Herod. This was not the time to see Herod and be thrown in prison, or the Gospels wouldn’t be the Gospels.
The timetable did not involve Herod, and so Jesus doesn’t go to Tiberius, or Machaerus. He doesn’t confront the man. But it would have been a very important time to be alone with the twelve to talk about what it’s going to cost them to preach the kingdom. Here was the first preacher and he was killed. Christ would be the second, and He would be killed. And the majority of the twelve would be martyred for their faith as well. And so this was a very important time to be together to talk about the price, the cost; and a time of instruction.
Now this final note. Listen very carefully; here’s the climax of the whole thing. Herod wanted to see Jesus. He thought He was John the Baptist risen from the dead, and he really wanted to see Him. He wanted to resolve in his mind that anxiety, and he wanted to see the power of Jesus. Luke 9:9 says he desired to see Him. There was that morbid fascination, that curiosity with the miraculous and the supernatural, and that incredible guilt and anxiety over who it might be that made him want to see Him.
You know something? Jesus never saw him, never saw him. In the intervening period of time, He ministered, but he never saw the man. Once, He sent a message to him. In Luke 13:32 and 33, He sent a message to Herod, and He said, “You fox. You want to see Me? You will not be able to kill Me like you did John the Baptist until My work is done.”
He called him a fox; and He never saw him. And He moved with quiet dignity beyond the grasp of Herod. And He left him to his guilt; and He left him to his unresolved fear; and He left him to his vile, wretched sin; and He left him to the woman who was his doom, until one fateful day.
Look at Luke 23, verse 8. This is the only time He ever went into the presence of Herod. Luke 23, verse 6, this is the trial of Jesus: “When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time.”
Pilate didn’t know what to do with Jesus. He’s on trial now, mock trial. And so he knows that He’s from Galilee, and he says He belongs in Herod’s jurisdiction, and he ships Him to Herod. Verse 8: “And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad; for he was desirous to see Him for a long time, for he had heard many things about Him; and hoped to have seen some miracle done by Him.” Here was this strange fascination again. And now, finally, the two meet.
Verse 9: “Then he questioned Him in many words.” Now we don’t know what he asked. You say, “What an opportunity. Oh, boy, the Lord can give him all the answers right now. He desires to see Him, he longs to see Hi; has for a long time. The Lord could do some miracles. The Lord could give him all the answers he wants.”
It says, “But He answered him” – what? – “nothing.” He never said one word. “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. And Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt, and mocked Him, and arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him again to Pilate. And the same day, Pilate and Herod were made friends together; for before they were at enmity between themselves.” They used to hate each other, but now they became friends. You know how? Common mockery of the Son of God. They’re two very tragic men.
Listen, Herod rejected Christ, and Christ rejected Herod – hard, stony ground. For fear of a woman, for fear of a reputation, for fear of his peers, for fear of his throne, he damned his soul forever. John the Baptist lost his head, but lives forever in the presence of God.
Christ wants to reveal Himself to you, but if you proudly are holding onto your reputation for fear of what others may think, for fear of the attitude and the actions of those who may reject you, for fear of the loss of face or reputation, for intimidation by evil people, you have forfeited Christ; you damn your soul. And the day will come when you ask the questions and get no answers. Let’s pray.
Father, we are struck by that incredible verse, “Pilate and Herod were made friends.” The only basis they had was a common rejection of Christ. So it is in the world: they have their own, and they are friends with those who choose to live without the blessed Son of God; who choose to live for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Oh, God, what a tragic statement. They couldn’t agree on anything except that they both had contempt for Jesus. May we know that such friendship with the world is enmity with God.
Father, we come again this morning with thankful hearts, because of all that You’ve done for us, because of Your great grace to us. Thank You for the beloved Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we live, by whom we are forgiven and have grace. We pray, Father, that there might be no one who leaves this place who has not known Christ, to come to know Him. We pray that You’ll fill that prayer and counseling room with those who come with eagerness of heart, to embrace the King, to find forgiveness and cleansing. Bring us together again tonight with anticipation that You will meet us here, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
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