This morning we're returning to Matthew's Gospel, and we've come to the beginning of chapter 14. The passage we're looking at is 14.1-12, and it relates the events that lead up to the execution of John the Baptist. What happens when the power of a power-hungry man comes under threat? What happens when immorality in the life a national leader is brought into the open?
We don't need to use a great deal of imagination in order to bring to mind numerous situations like that in recent times. We've watched the likes of Idi Amin in Uganda, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Causescu in Romania and now Milosovic in Yugoslavia clinging to power and reacting to threats from within and from outside their populations. In the last few years our newspapers have reported in lurid detail on the sexually immoral behaviour of an American President, a British Prince and Princess, and a string of cabinet ministers in both conservative and labour governments.
There's nothing new under the sun, and threatened power alongside publicly exposed immorality were characteristic of the rule of Herod Antipas. He was the puppet ruler – the tetrarch – of the region of Galilee and Perea, within the Roman Empire.
It is the dealings of the tetrarch Herod Antipas with the prophet John the Baptist that are the subject of this passage. In fact, of course, it is neither Herod nor even John who is really at the centre of the action here. It's Jesus. And the reason that this incident comes up is that Herod's reaction to hearing about Jesus is one example of the range of different responses that Jesus is provoking at this point in his earthly ministry.
Just before this passage, at the end of chapter 13, Matthew tells how the people of Nazareth, Jesus' home town, took offence at him. And now at the start of chapter 14, Matthew tells us about Herod's response, as one example of how the political and social elite reacted to Jesus. Verses 1-2:
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, 'This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.'
You might think that sounds pretty bizarre and irrational, and I wouldn't disagree with you. But Herod had John the Baptist on his mind and on his conscience. And Matthew digresses from his main narrative about Jesus to explain why that was, in verses 3-12. It's an account that's very revealing about Herod's character and patterns of behaviour. It also tells us a good deal about John.
Herod needs to be held up before us as a warning. John should challenge us by his example. So you'll see that on the sermon outline at the back of the service sheet I have two simple headings: first, Herod's Wickedness; and secondly, John's Witness.
First, HEROD'S WICKEDNESS
Let's just remind ourselves of the bare bones of what had happened. Herod divorced his wife and married Herodias, who had been the wife of his half-brother Philip until Herod stepped in. John publicly criticised him for his behaviour. Herod didn't like it. Herodias liked it even less. Herod had John arrested and locked up.
At his birthday banquet, Herod was so thrilled by the dancing of his new teenage step-daughter Salome that he promised her anything she wanted. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Herod ordered it done. The severed head was given to the girl, who presented it to her mother. Verse 12:
John's disciples came and took the body and buried it. then they went and told Jesus.
Jesus had a very high regard for John. As for his view of Herod: when Jesus was warned that Herod wanted him dead, Jesus contemptuously called him 'that fox'. Herod is a case-study of wickedness, and I want to draw attention to some of the elements in the character and behaviour of Herod that combined to make him the wicked fox that he was.
To begin with, he pleased himself.
Self-gratification seems to have been the guiding principle of his marital affairs. He discarded one wife because he wanted another, irrespective of the scandal it might cause and the price that others might have to pay. And there seems to be more than a hint of self-gratification in the spectacle of Salome dancing in front of what was a decadent court as they feasted in honour of the great man. Verse 6:
On Herod's birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for them and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked.
It is the nature of ungodly living that our own pleasure becomes a greater priority to us than the price that others will have to pay for our self-gratification. But a wicked lifestyle is always an unstable thing, and Herod was an anxious man. He pleased himself, but at the same time he also feared rejection.
Clearly Herod was very sensitive to what other people thought of him, and to how that would bear on his status and his power. There are two examples of that here. One is in verse 5:
Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.
In fact it seems that Herod was in a double bind. The contemporary history by Josephus says that the reason Herod imprisoned John in the first place was that John's following among the people had grown to the point that Herod was afraid there would be a popular uprising against him. So John had to be eliminated. But on the other hand the very elimination of John could have sparked just the very uprising that Herod feared. He was a man torn by fears for his political and personal safety.
Herod was also torn by fears for his personal reputation and standing. That is clear from his reaction when he realises that he has painted himself into a corner by his ridiculous oath to Salome. Verse 9:
The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted…
What other people thought of him mattered more than what was right. It is a pathetic thing to see in a self-styled so-called 'king'. As someone has said, 'like most weak men, he feared to be thought weak'. But I don't imagine there is a single one of us who is unfamiliar with the temptation to sacrifice principle on the altar of peer pressure. Herod Antipas craved human approval more than the approval of God. He is not alone in that.
Herod pleased himself; he feared rejection. What is more, he sinned wilfully.
This is the essence of wickedness: a deliberate choice to do what we know to be wrong; a calculated decision to throw off God's rightful rule and make up our own rules to suit ourselves. Herod knew what he was doing. He had a Jewish education. He had a conscience. He had John the Baptist making crystal clear to him what he must have known already: that he was living in flat contradiction of the law of God in abandoning his wife and taking a woman who was the wife of his brother. Leviticus 18.16:
Do not have sexual relations with your brother's wife…
Herod knew right from wrong. He was without excuse. He sinned wilfully and deliberately, giving himself up to evil, and setting himself against God, as if he was a greater king than the Creator of the universe. We shouldn't be astonished when we see the wicked and powerful of the world behaving in that kind of way. We can recognise the same process in our own hearts.
So Herod pleased himself; he feared rejection; he sinned wilfully. To that you can add: he responded stupidly.
He was apparently, humanly speaking, an able man, of considerable accomplishments. But boy, was he capable of sheer stupidity. How ridiculous it was to promise to that teenage girl anything she wanted. It was an oath that should never have been made. And having been made, it should not have been kept. Herod was stupid. He was stupid too in accepting the suggestion that some were putting about that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. If he had troubled to gather any information at all he would have known that they were contemporaries and knew one another. The ministry of Jesus predated John's captivity, let alone his execution.
Herod thought and did stupid things. That too is a characteristic of wickedness. Intelligent and able people think and act stupidly when they believe they can live without reference to God and the practical wisdom that he gives. Then there is one last element of Herod's wickedness that really crowns it all. He rejected Jesus.
He rejected Jesus by killing the one who had come to prepare the way for Jesus: John the Baptist, who said he wasn't worthy even to undo Jesus' shoes. He rejected Jesus by being so confident of his own importance that he was shut away in this palace with no first-hand knowledge of Jesus' teaching and ministry. He couldn't be bothered to get accurate information about him for himself. He rejected Jesus when he completely failed to grasp who he was.
And finally – frighteningly - he rejected Jesus to his face when Pilate sent Jesus to him just before the crucifixion. Wickedness ends with the outright rejection of Jesus. We need to be warned by Herod. Beware of Herod in others. We should not be surprised when we find wickedness in the establishment, amongst the political and social elite.
But let's not kid ourselves. We need to beware of Herod in ourselves as well. There is not a single one of those characteristics of wickedness that we are incapable of. Every one of them has its own niche in our unredeemed human nature. In our sinful natures, we please ourselves. We crave human approval and fear rejection. We sin wilfully. We think and act stupidly. We reject Jesus. We should be warned by Herod's wickedness. Remember John's own words:
Produce fruit in keeping with repentance… The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
John himself is like a blazing fire in the starkest of contrasts with the darkness of Herod. I want to make three simple points about him, under my second heading. So:
Secondly, JOHN'S WITNESS
The first thing to say about John is just this: he spoke the truth consistently. Verse 3:
Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, for John had been saying to him: 'It is not lawful for you to have her.'
The implication is that John had denounced Herod's behaviour repeatedly. He didn't just say it once and leave it alone. And he certainly didn't keep quiet about it. Things would have been a great deal easier for him if he'd simply kept his mouth shut. But John's whole purpose was to call the Jews to repentance in preparation for the coming of Jesus. Herod's behaviour was a public scandal. It was not just a private domestic matter. Herod ruled the region in which John was exercising his prophetic ministry. His marital affairs were common knowledge. For John to remain silent about Herod while he was calling on the common people to turn from their sins would have meant one rule for the poor and another for the rich and powerful.
No doubt John's ministry would have become acceptable to the powers that be. I'm sure that Herod and his circle would have been more than happy for John to ensure that everyone else was honest and law-abiding. It would have been good for the economy and the tax receipts into the treasury. It would have reduced the cost of policing the community. But John's words would have lost their integrity and their cutting edge if everyone knew that he was leaving Herod alone to enjoy the fruits of his immorality unchallenged. John wasn't gratuitously insulting to Herod. What is reported here is just a plain statement of the facts of the situation: 'It is not lawful for you to have her.' John said it to Herod's face, though clearly it was widely known that he was saying it.
The challenge to us is obvious. We too need to be ready to speak the truth about not only about the gospel but also about the law of God.
John's proclamation of God's law and of the need for people to turn away from wrong behaviour was part of the preparation for the coming of the Saviour. If the difference between right and wrong is not drawn to people's attention, they will not grasp their need of someone to rescue them from the coming judgement. Speaking truth about what is right and wrong in God's sight is part of the process of leading people to Christ. So are we prepared to speak the truth consistently, without fear or favour? Or will we trim what we say so as not to cause offence to those who could make life difficult for us?
And that brings me to the second thing to notice about John: he suffered unjustly.
Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison… The king … had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother.
If we are bold with the truth, some people won't like it. We won't need to raise our voices, or be aggressive or rude. But there may well be occasions when in a more or less public way we have to say things that people more powerful than us would rather remained unspoken.
We're not very likely to have our heads cut off and presented to the king's consort on a platter, as happened to John. But if we are prepared to speak the truth even when it's unpopular, there may well be a price to pay for us, as there was for John. Around the world many of our brothers and sisters suffer unjustly because of their consistent testimony about Jesus. Are we ready to suffer unjustly along with them?
The price we pay may be social isolation. It may be that we are excluded from consideration for some promotion. It may be that we find ourselves on the receiving end of insults. We may get marginalised and feel that we have lost our influence. But no-one ever said that bearing witness to the truth would be comfortable and easy. And what we need to keep constantly in mind as we meditate on the ultimate price that John paid is this third point about him: he was approved by Jesus.
All that we get here is the comment on Jesus' reaction in verse 13:
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.
John's death foreshadowed the cross towards which Jesus was inexorably moving. John was on the side of Jesus. If I can put it this way, he was part of Jesus's team. And Jesus was glad to have him on board. He endorsed what John had been doing. He submitted to his baptism. And back in chapter 11 Matthew records the verdict of Jesus on John's life:
'I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…'
Of course John had a specific and unique role as the prophet who would be the forerunner of Jesus. That was a privilege with a price tag. But Jesus adds an amazing rider to his comment on John. He goes on:
'yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.'
The privilege that John had as the forerunner is overshadowed by the blessing and privilege that we have as disciples of Jesus. And with the privilege comes the responsibility. Janani Luwum was the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda during the rule of the tyrannous and murderous Idi Amin. He said at that time (this was 1977):
"I do not know for how long I shall be occupying this chair. I live as though there will be no tomorrow. I face daily being picked up by the soldiers. While the opportunity is there I preach the gospel with all my might, and my conscience is clear before God that I have not sided with the present government, which is utterly self-seeking. I have been threatened many times. Whenever I have the opportunity I have told the President the things the church disapprove of. God is my witness."
A short time after he spoke those words, Amin had him killed. Janani Luwum understood both the privilege and the responsibility of knowing Jesus. Like John the Baptist, Luwum was called to an especially public and obviously influential situation in life. But each of us is given by God our own sphere of influence.
John was approved by Jesus. Is that what we want? John suffered unjustly. Are we ready for that? He was faced with a wicked man who had the earthly power to end his life. But John spoke the truth consistently. Will we?