Read the passage here.
The passage we’re looking at today is a little bit of an odd one. It’s one of the few passages – if not the only one – in the gospel of Matthew that has nothing to do with Jesus. It’s subtitled “The death of John the Baptist” in my bible (ESV; “John the Baptist beheaded” in the NIV), but it seems that the subtitle could just as well focus instead on Herod.
The Herod that we’re reading about here is Herod Antipas, one of the children of Herod the Great who ordered the death of all the young males at the beginning of the chapter. Herod the great was the ruler of Judea, under the Roman Empire, during the turn of the century (i.e. the shift from BC to AD, or BCE to CE).
After Herod’s death, the kingdom was divided among his four children – Archelaus, Philip, Salome (his daughter), and Antipas. Now it’s a little bit complicated, but Herodias (in verse 6) was the granddaughter of Herod the Great (by another son) and had been married to Philip (that is to say, Herodias was Philip’s niece). Herod Antipas had been married to someone else. However, Antipas and Herodias fell in love and left their respective spouses, and married one another.
Obviously, this was a complicated situation, but it’s enough to know that this is what Matthew is talking about when he reports John saying to Herod Antipas, “It is not lawful for you to have her” (v. 4). In short, Antipas, in a particularly egregious way, was guilty of disobeying the Mosaic Law.
Now this is the situation under which Herod Antipas had John the Baptist arrested and put in prison. And at this point it’s worth noting something of the political religious situation in Israel. In previous sermons, we have talked about the corruption of the temple system, the High Priesthood being auctioned off to the highest bidder. On the political side, things were much the same. Herod the Great was ostensibly Jewish, but his rule was firmly under the control of, and with the support of, the Roman Empire. This was a departure from the Hasmonean Dynasty which ruled before, who (again, ostensibly) were desiring an independent kingdom under God. The Hasmoneans were defeated by the Romans who, according to their custom, established a ruler who might appear local or native, but was very much under the control of the Roman Empire.
At any rate, what we see then is that the nation of Israel was once again under the control of a foreign power. Herod the Great, and his children, were therefore symbols not of Jewish rule under God (think the kingdom under David) but symbols of defeat and capitulation.
Therefore, in order to maintain power and keep the populace complacent, it was very important that the rulers had the support of the religious institutions (i.e. that High Priest). The relationship between someone like Herod Antipas and, especially the High Priest, but also religious figures like John the Baptist (who enjoyed popular support) was critical.
What we can understand, then, is that John the Baptist’s speaking out against Herod Antipas, and that on the basis of faithfulness to Scripture, on the basis of Mosaic Law, would have been seen as a threat not only to Antipas’ moral reputation, but to his control over his kingdom.
At this point, it’s worth recognizing how this fits into the story of Jesus. We read at the beginning of this passage (vv.1-2) that Herod, when he heard the reports about Jesus, was afraid that this was John the Baptist come again. Similar to John the Baptist, here was Jesus, preaching and teaching, and even more, performing amazing miracles. Jesus was stirring up people with proclamations of the kingdom of God. In other words, Herod was (probably) afraid for the security of his rule, worried about yet another person challenging the legitimacy of his power (which is supposed to be based on being chosen by God).
So what we see in this passage may be setting the stage, so to speak, for the crucifixion of Jesus that we will see in the next several chapters. In the previous chapters, we saw how Jesus’ teaching was challenging the religious establishment. And we can appreciate how it would also shake up the political establishment. When the kingdom of God appears, all the kingdoms of the world are threatened. Because, in the end, there can be only one King.
So I think this is (at least part of) what this passage is doing in Matthew’s gospel – that is, how it functions. But I also want to talk about something else. And at this point, I’d like to make clear that we are moving firmly into the realm of personal reflection.
For this, I want to take a moment to consider John the Baptist. As we probably know, John the Baptist is a pretty prominent figure in the gospels, and is closely tied to the ministry of Jesus – especially as the one who prepares for and proclaims the coming of the Messiah. But we don’t actually know a lot about him. What we know about John the Baptist only comes from two sources. The first is the bible.
We know from the gospel of Luke that John is related to Jesus, born to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah.
We see that John’s ministry involved preaching repentance and baptising people for the forgiveness of sins. The gospels tell us that John is not the Messiah, but was sent to prepare the way for the Messiah. He is:
[The] voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.Isaiah 40:3
We know that John was sent to prison, as we see in today’s passage, and read about earlier in Matthew (ch. 11). And we’ve learned that this is directly related to challenging Herod as to his faithfulness to the Law.
Now, apart from the biblical record, there’s also an account of John the Baptist in the work of Jewish historian Josephus. It only accounts for a paragraph, but this Josephus passage corroborates the account of John’s death that we find in the gospels – which is to say that Josephus indicates that Herod put John to death because of fear that John was a threat to his political career.
This is what Josephus reports about John:
“…John, that was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism…”Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5.2
Now I point this out because of how it aligns with Jesus’ own witness regarding John. Remember that, earlier in Matthew, Jesus said about John:
10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…Matthew 11:10-11
In short, what we know about John the Baptist is that he played an important part in the work of God that is fulfilled in Jesus. It seems to be fairly reasonable to conclude that John was extremely zealous (that is passionate) about faithfulness to God and His calling. He was dedicated to a life of holiness and to calling Israel back to holiness.
In other words, John seems to be someone who was faithful.
So what do you think it means that someone who was so faithful to God, so important to the ministry of Jesus, so committed to the restoration of Israel, spent his final days in prison and then executed?
Again, I am merely reflecting here. We’ve already talked about how this passage might fit into the gospel of Matthew from a literary point of view. And we’ve talked about some of the historical-cultural considerations. But when we read scripture, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about real people. We’re not merely talking about archetypes or symbolic figures or whatever. The characters in scripture do not merely function in terms of what we, today, learn from them. We’re talking about actual people in history – in time and place. And what we get in the bible is a glimpse into their lives and how they participate in the biblical story. But these are people with histories, feelings, hopes, and dreams. And, I think it’s fair to say, we don’t know most of what God has done in and through them.
So, in reading this passage, I was forced to think about John the Baptist as an actual person in history. A person who, I believe (and believe Scripture attests), sought to serve God and His purposes with all his heart, mind, and strength.
But in the end, he was accused unjustly, imprisoned, and executed.
Now I want to be clear here. I have no reason (that is to say, no evidence from which to believe) that John the Baptist felt anything less than devoted to what God was doing in and through him. We have no reason to believe that he felt that his faithfulness was unrewarded or that he did not see the results of his life’s work that he might have hoped for. However, I have often felt that way. I imagine many of you have often felt this way too.
We all might, at various points of our lives, feel that we have done everything we’re supposed to do, been obedient to God to the best of our abilities, and yet not gotten what we hoped for or expected.
And we’ve talked about this a fair amount so I’m going to assume that we don’t need to repeat everything that we’ve talked about before – about how, for example, expectations are formed or informed by the culture. But I’m just going to talk about a couple of things that I hope might be helpful if you’re going through something like this, or have gone through something like this.
Firstly, I want to remind us that our story is part of a larger story. Each of us is part of, and participates in, the greater story of God’s redemption restoration of creation. Now I know that we all know this. But what I also want to say is that being part of a larger story doesn’t mean that your own story is smaller, or that it doesn’t matter.
But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say that there is a larger story. Our lives have real meaning, our sufferings have real significance, things really do matter. But what we need to understand is that there is more going on than we can often comprehend or appreciate. God is doing more.
Now that’s all well and good, especially when we’re talking about somebody like John the Baptist. We at least can see how he fits into the story. But what about each of us? So the second thing that I’d like to remind us all, if you’re feeling discouraged or confused (as John might have felt), is that the goal is not the getting, but the becoming or the being.
Again, I’m not saying anything new. But what I mean is that we don’t have the perspective or the ability to understand the scope of what God is doing – or perhaps rather, how He is doing it. We often may not understand how He is using us in the time and place and circumstance He has placed us. And if we can’t understand His purpose, we cannot understand what it is we’re supposed to get – we don’t really understand what success looks like.
But what we do know is that we are called to be a particular kind of people, witnessing to the particular God, living out the kingdom for which He has called us. We can know that, whatever situation we find ourselves in, we are made in the image of God and called and enabled to bear that image.
Who we are is much more important than what we achieve or what we receive.
Again, this is just reflection. Oftentimes we might find ourselves in a situation like John, facing an enemy like Herod, wondering where God is in the midst of all of that. But what we know, even with John’s death, is that John’s story doesn’t end there. It continues with, and is contained within, the story of Jesus. Because John is part of Jesus’ story, John shares in the victory of Jesus on the cross and in the resurrection. He shares in the same kingdom that we are promised and await with great anticipation. We can see that, even if John couldn’t (at least fully). In the same way, we may not be able to see how our trials and sufferings fit into what God is doing. But if we have faith, as we enter into and trust in what Christ has done and is doing, we will find that our stories also fit. And we will find that all of our stories are made complete in Him.