Death of John the Baptist | Matthew 14:1-12
Topic: New Testament Passage: Matthew 14:1–14:12
Good Morning! Today is our first sermon in part 3 of our series in the book of Matthew; the Gospel account revealing Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, as the Christ, the Savior – King of God’s people. Previously our series was the Mission of the King where Jesus commissioned and sent disciples and apostles out as missionaries. This mission meets opposition from religious leaders, as we saw Jesus teach on the nature of the Kingdom through parables ultimately leading to his rejection as prophet/messiah in his hometown of Nazareth. This series has been titled the Revelation of the King as the section we will be looking at (chapters 14-20) includes Jesus showing his power and identity through a variety of miracles; including the feeding of thousands of people with a kids lunch, walking on water, more healings, and his glory revealed on the top of a mountain. Jesus is king, and as king he has specific instructions on things like divorce, church discipline, sin, discipleship. Jesus is also the savoir of His people, during this section he will consistently point his people to the height of his mission, the cross. Today we start with chapter 14:1-12 where we see the end of the story of a man Jesus calls the greatest in history. All of the Bible points to Jesus so even though we’re are focusing to day on some other people it is still all about Him.
Matthew 14:1-12 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, 4 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given.10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
V1-2 Fame of Jesus
The work Jesus has been doing is undeniable. He is healing people, performing miracles, calming storms. People are seeing this stuff and are talking about it all over the region of Galilee, even in the court of the Herod the tetrarch, the highest governmental authority in the region. Everyone has their theories. There are people saying He is Elijah (who is to come and prepare the way for the savior), some say he is a prophet from God, others a teacher, the Pharisees and religious leaders call him a servant of satan and an illegitimate child of a poor family, some the Son of God. Jesus often asks His disciples “Who do the people say that I am?” and they give him the report of all the ideas. But Jesus then asks directly “Who do you say that I am?” Peter says “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says bingo!
The question of who Jesus is demands a response. We all have to do something with Jesus, he is a real person in history. You can speculate, guess, investigate, but at a certain point you have to land on a position of who Jesus is. We all have to choose something to believe about Jesus. Regardless of what we choose to believe, Jesus is who he is. He will not be defined but us, we are defined by Him. Meaning what we choose to say about Jesus says way more about ourselves than it does about Jesus. In the face of all that Jesus was teaching and doing, Herod was asking the same question with his entourage of henchmen.
Luke 9:7-9 7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead,8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
While considering the options he heard, we see in our verses Herod ultimately he landed (as nonsensical as it was) with saying Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead who now has miraculous powers. I don’t think this was from careful analysis of evidence, from encountering Jesus personally, or what made the most logical sense. This was a gut, emotional response that shows where Herod’s heart is. He has a guilty conscience for what he did to John the Baptist, so Jesus represents to Herod the embodiment of His guilt and pending judgment. Matthew then flashes back to the death of John the Baptist to show why Herod feels and reacts the way he does.
V3-5 Shame of Herod(Herodias)
We see a complicated back story of sin leading to more sin, and ultimately death. You know things are starting to get intense in a show when main characters start getting imprisoned and then executed. While Jesus/God is at work saving, healing, and redeeming His people the daily news was filled with scandal, debauchery, moral decline, and the death of the righteous, all from the height of leadership. Who are all these people? We actually know a lot about the players in this story. These people existed and these events actually occurred in history. Herod the Great was the maniacal king (puppet of Rome) who ruled all of Judea from Jerusalem at the birth of Jesus. He is the one who ordered the murder of all the 2 year old boys in Bethlehem hoping to kill the child who would be born “king of the Jews.” He died a couple of years later, Jesus didn’t, and his kingdom was divided among three half-brothers, Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip.
Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch – He was full brothers with Archelaus, but a half-brother of Philip. His mother was as Samaritan and he was granted the region of Galilee, and part of Perea east of Jordan. He married the daughter of the neighboring Nabatean King, it didn’t last. He had eyes for his brother’s wife.
Herod Philip – Was Herod the great’s son from anther mother, making him Antipas’ half-brother. He was no saint either because he ended up marrying his niece from another side of the family.
Herodias – She the granddaughter of Herod the Great from a 4th son and married her uncle Philip. They had a daughter together (Salome), and ended up sleeping with Antipas. This was a major political and social scandal at the time. Her and Antipas (Herod) both got divorced and married each other, see Love Wins!! Except, there are a few problems, not the least of which is Philip is upset. When Herod leaves his wife Phasaelis and her dad King of Nabatea, understandably gets upset and it starts a minor war where Herod actually loses some land (Rome is not pleased) and Herod’s already questionable reputation/honor is soiled. He is leading a region that includes ethnic Nabateans with divided loyalties and he is scared.
It is in the messy political/social situation that John the Baptist, the great preacher/prophet who comes before Jesus, begins to preach. Before we’ve seen him preaching in Matt 3 “Repent the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” “You broad of vipers; what is John’s response going to be to the corruption of power?
While the Herod’s consistently acting as though there is no law or order beyond themselves, John knows there is a law and authority that is over all and greater than any earthly “King”. He knows, no one is above the law of God. It doesn’t matter if you’re the lowliest peasant or the highest authority in the land/region. When God says “Don’t mess around with your brother’s wife, he means it!” John is going to preach the truth of God’s word and commands, and what our response is, regardless of how powerful or influential the person is. “John this isn’t smart, don’t you know Herod has already gone to war over this issue, he’s really passionate about it.” “John your lifting up the values of “traditional marriage” is really interfering with the enjoyment of the political/social elites to redefine the boundaries of marriage to whatever suits them personally.” John knew his preaching would upset Herod and still preached.
“Hey Herod, I’ve got a couple verses for you. When I say repent the kingdom of heaven is at hand, for you it means you don’t get to have your brother’s wife….because she’s your brothers.” Lev 18:16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother's nakedness. Lev 20:21 21 If a man takes his brother's wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother's nakedness; they shall be childless.
We are ok when God’s word talks about sin in ways we aren’t currently engaged with. Don’t drink? We’re ok when the bible calls out drunkenness. Don’t have an issue with over eating? Gluttony doesn’t sear our hearts. Live a life of simple contentment? Call out coveting all you want, I’m clean. Excel in charitable giving and service, talk about caring for the poor all you want. Until something that applies directly to us. We hate it when God’s word calls out our sin. “I don’t like that one! I am doing that right now! You’re judgmental! The Bible is archaic, it no longer applies. Anything to avoid actually dealing with our own sin.
Herod, and Herodias are is just like us they don’t want to hear they are in sin. What are the consequences of Johns preaching? John is arrested, he is bound and imprisoned. “Your public ministry in this land is going to end because what you are saying about God, and his word, is in conflict with the practices of the highest authority in this land so we will use the power of the state to silence you.” You have freedom of speech, John until you say something we don’t like or paints us in a less than favorable light.
This is what power does when it is confronted with the conscience of the church. Listen we (I) don’t live under any fear of reprisals like John did. But down in Houston the Mayor of the city lives her life in a way that is not congruent with the teaching of the bible. Her morals dictate her mission. That led her to pass a law that tells business to remove gender restrictions on bathrooms so any man who wants to pretend he is a women can use the ladies room. Guess what some of the people, and a whole bunch of pastors said, “Ummm, no.” This lead to law suits that included the mayor’s office issuing subpoenas to the pastors for any sermons that “mention the law (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) or the mayor.” “You better not say anything about me or my morals.” Morals/ethics and politics/policies both matter greatly so they both mix greatly. Don’t believe the lie about what you believe should stay in one sphere and what we/you do is in another.
Herod and Herodias can pretend all they want what they’re doing is good and right but it is leading to disastrous consequences. Yet, Herod keeps John around. He is a pragmatist, he knows his credibility with the people is low and doesn’t want to expend and political capital (he doesn’t have) by killing a guy like John because he “feared the people” and they regard John as a prophet of God. Herod is perplexed by his teaching but still entertained listening to him.
Mark 6:19-20 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.
For Herod, while it was contrary to how he was raised, and condemned his currently life style there was still something about John’s teaching/preaching that he found attractive. He recognized in his heart John was right, which meant he was not. Herod want’s one foot in his sin and one foot in what is right. But eventually that dance has to end and you have to commit to one and give up the other. Decisions matter.
V 6-11 Blame John
Bottom line is it’s there sin, their actions, that lead to real world consequences and both Herod and Herodias would much rather blame John for speaking out against them rather than actually look at their own hearts and actions to see if they might be the actual culprit. We hate at our sin has consequences, we like to pretend that it doesn’t so we play games pretending they don’t exist, should be celebrated, or if anyone calls them out they’re the problem.
This leads us to Herod’s birthday party. This is a totally Greek thing to do and would have resembled a high class frat party with a few differences. The rooms would have been separate for the men and the women. All the guys are getting drunk in their room and dancers would come in to entertain them. These were usually hired “professionals” but for some reason Herod’s step daughter/niece Salome is there dancing. We don’t know specifically what the dance is, it likely included a pole, she has lots of duck lipped selfies on her instagram page. We do know she’s between 12-15, that the dance “pleased Herod” and if he was chatting with her today Herod would be visited by Chris Hanson from Dateline NBC. There was also OT laws that forbad sleeping with your wife’s daughter, (Lev 18:17) again the bible is so outdated.
In Herod’s drunken and lustful intoxication, in front of everyone he makes a rash vow (actually a legal oath) to give her anything she wants “up to half his kingdom” (Rome wouldn’t have approved). Salome, leaves, goes to the women’s dining room and consults with her mother. “I can have anything, what should I ask for?” Her mother doesn’t hesitate with how to take advantage of this opportunity. Herodias, more than anything Herod is able to buy or give her, wants to have what she believes is the source of shame and judgment for her sin gone. She wants to put the blame on John and she wants her sin dead. She says beheading and bring his head now because it was both the fastest and surest way to ensure the execution. She didn’t want there to be any lag time where Herod could sober up, seek wise counsel, consider how the people would react to his decision. She wanted quick, decisive action.
Again we see Herod’s fears… The people, he fears john, his wife, his guests, and his reputation. At Herod’s core he fears people more than God. This is the heart of foolishness. This is where we are more like Herod then we care to admit. We give people power and influence over us that only God should have. When we are governed by fear and shame and we act on it we will sin and harm ourselves and others. When push came to shove and Herod actually has to choose between the two worlds he wants to be in one has to die. He protected John, and engaged with John, until he could no longer play both sides. He was more concerned with his honor and his reputation then the life of another. Herod could have backed down, he could have humbled himself. But this is an all too familiar scene, He doesn’t back down he doubles down and follows through with the execution to show he’s the man! So who is responsible for John’s death, Herod or Herodias? They both are. John wasn’t the source of their sin so he’s not the one to blame…..
V 12 Claim Jesus
While we’ve been looking at Herod/Herodias, John the Baptist, this section starts and ends with Jesus.
John is martyred, and it points to the death of Jesus. John’s death didn’t solve ANYTHING. As good and righteous and just as he is, the death of the greatest man in history doesn’t solve anything for anyone of any lasting or eternal consequence. “Here mom here is head of John, He died for your sin.” Maybe for a few moments Herodias felt some relief, maybe the rest life. Her life still ended and she still came face to face with her creator. We know clearly Herod still had shame, and guilt, in fact it was added too by John’s death. John was killed to cover the shame of sin, but the sin remained. Jesus was killed and His death removes our shame of sin. John’s death leads Herod to fear God’s wrath more, Jesus death means we don’t have to Fear God’s wrath because it was poured out on Jesus in our place.
1 Peter 2:24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.
Herod feared the peoples reaction if he killed a righteous man, Pilate feared the peoples reaction if he didn’t kill a righteous man. Where Herod was concerned with his guilt, his honor and killed another to protect it, Jesus was concerned with our guilt our shame, gave up his honor, and was willingly killed to protect others. Killing John doesn’t change anything, Killing Jesus changed everything!
The disciples of John realize they have to go somewhere, they have to follow someone and when all has failed them they turn to Jesus. In grief, in pain, in senselessness we turn to Jesus.
Heb 12:2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Where are you in this story? I’ve got a hint, if Jesus says no one born of woman is as great as John the Baptizer then we are not him. Maybe you’re not as messed up and broken as Herod, maybe you’re not as enraged as Herodias, or as front and center as Salome. Maybe you’re just at the party, on the sidelines, an associate but not active. This episode isn’t the end.
Hope for Herod’s Henchman
Acts 13:1 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
Someone what there at that party was part of Herod’s inner circle. Manaen was a member of Herod’s court, saw all Herod could do. Sometime after this, rather than serving and following Herod, he chose to serve and follow Jesus. It led him out of Galilee, out of comfort and security to Antioch where he became one of the pastors/teachers for greatest church planting church in history. God uses henchmen of vile immoral leaders to preach the gospel to show there is hope for all in Christ and lead the mission because it is all he has to work with.
John is dead and his ministry is over. Herod is dead and his kingdom is no longer. Because of the resurrection, Jesus is alive, his kingdom grows, his ministry continues and his story never ends. Trust Jesus!