v.2 We have said that Matthew is treating us to a succession of responses made to Jesus by various people or groups. Now we have the response of Herod Antipas, though his response to Jesus is somewhat indirect, being couched in comments that Herod made about John the Baptist.
A tetrarch, which term means literally a “ruler over a fourth part,” was a minor ruler, not nearly so grand a position as that held by this Herod’s father, the King Herod of chapter 2 who figured in the account of the Lord’s birth. Herod the Great, as he is sometimes called, divided his kingdom into three parts which he divided among his three sons. So this Herod, Herod Antipas, actually ruled over a third, not a fourth. He ruled over the area of Galilee and Perea (the area across the Jordan south and east of the Sea of Galilee) from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39 and so ruled over the territory in which Jesus grew up, lived most of his life, and conducted most of his ministry. Tetrarchs like to be called “king,” and in v. 9 Mathew will refer to him as a king, but they were kings only in an attenuated sense. They were assistant kings, if you like.
Here is a backhanded acknowledgement of the stir that Jesus caused by his miracles. Even those not at all interested in his message knew very well what he had done and knew that no natural explanation was possible. Josephus tells us that Herod’s execution of John the Baptist was very unpopular (Ant. xviii, 116-119), and we will read later in v. 9 that Herod himself was not happy about it. His uneasy conscience may explain why he was so ready to believe that John had risen from the dead. Superstition and a bad conscience can lead to bizarre thinking.
v.4 Herod had divorced his first wife, and so provoked a war with her father, the king of Petra, in order to marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip. Herod had actually lost the war with his father-in-law, but the Romans had intervened and put a stop to any further unrest. Such a marriage violated the laws of incest (Lev. 18:16). In his condemnation of the marriage, then, John would have been supported by the general Jewish population, which no doubt made John’s criticism even more galling to Herod. The Herods had little regard for biblical law and their marriages and intermarriages make for bewilderment for first year students of New Testament history. I won’t explain how, but Herodias’ daughter, of whom more in the next verses, married another Philip, half-brother to Herod Philip, Herodias’ first husband, and became both aunt and sister-in-law to her own mother! [Morris, 370n]
The verb in v. 4, rendered by the NIV “had been saying” is a verb of continuous action and indicates that John had not simply once delivered himself of the opinion that Herod’s second marriage was unlawful, but had engaged in a public campaign of criticism.
v.5 In Mark’s longer account of this history we read that Herod had an ambivalent attitude toward John. He deeply resented the criticism, of course, and his anger was further fueled by Herodias’ hatred of John, but Herod also knew that John was a righteous man and feared the consequences for himself should he do harm to a holy man.
v.6 This girl, Salome was her name, was Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage.
v.7 The drinking at this feast may well explain the foolishly extravagant oath. The inebriated king scarcely knew what he was saying.
v.8 Her mother was not present at the feast. It was likely a men-only affair. Mark tells us that Salome left the room to consult with her mother. The request that this be done now, the sense of “here” in the phrase, “Give me here…” may indicate that Herodias feared that if Herod was given time to think about it, he wouldn’t carry through on his promise.
v.9 “Honor among thieves” we often say. Even genuinely evil men have a conscience and have a moral code, made as they are in the image of God. Herod did not want to be known as a liar. I was reading recently about the Incas and their highly developed civilization in the mountains of Peru prior to the arrival of the conquistadors. In many ways it was a brutal, vicious society, but they laid great stress on three virtues, or better, they made a great point of condemning three sins: lying, stealing, and laziness. We find this in our society as well. Those who do great evil at the same time are always champions of some virtue or another. It is the divine mark on human life, this moral code that we can corrupt but cannot escape.
v.11 This episode comports all too well with what is known about the licentiousness, sensuality, and cruelty of oriental courts in those days. Here is Herod’s step-daughter, a comparatively young woman, perhaps a teenager, dancing before a crowd of men most of whom would be drunk. She asks and receives a murder as her reward. John’s execution was a violation of Jewish law both because he had no trial and because he was beheaded.
By the way, birthdays were celebrated in those days in the Greco-Roman world but not, so far as the evidence goes, among the Jews. [Morris, 371]
v.12 Though when we were in chapter 11 we wondered about the fact that John continued to have his own disciples and there continued to be a movement centered on his person even after the commencement of the Messiah’s public ministry, here is further evidence that the two ministries were closely connected. Perhaps we may infer from this short statement that John’s disciples now realized that Jesus would be their new leader.
“They told Jesus…” In a funeral sermon preached in 1741 and based upon Matthew 14:12, Jonathan Edwards comforted the congregation and the bereaved family with the refrain “go and tell Jesus.” “Go and tell Jesus; tell a compassionate Saviour what has befallen you.” [In Marsden, 230]
From the vantage point of Jewish faith, even the most pious and evangelical of Jewish faith, John’s death, all the more his death by execution, must have been utterly unexpected. The most unexpected thing in all the world.
Here was the forerunner of the Messiah, the coming King, the prophet who announced the dawning of the consummation of the ages. Of all men ever born of women, John the Baptist, they thought, they would have thought, was the least likely to die unjustly and so cruelly and pointlessly.
But looked at from the vantage point of the end of the Messiah’s ministry, his death and resurrection, and the beginning of the Gentile mission, John the Baptist’s murder seems almost predictable. If the Savior of the world was murdered so cruelly, why should we expect less of his forerunner and prophet? If the means of salvation was the death of Christ then it is much less surprising that the principle of life through death should characterize the Christian life.
John is to us, of course, to us who follow Jesus Christ, who confess him Lord and God, who trust ourselves to his death and his righteousness for our own everlasting life, I say, to us John is a hero of the first order. Jesus himself said, while John was still alive, that John was the greatest man ever born to a woman. But the fact is, he was a political failure. His career was like a meteor that blazes for a moment across the night sky and as suddenly disappears. He created an immense stir. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the period could not tell the story of the Jewish people in the first century without mentioning the impact of John the Baptist. But the impact was short lived, at least as the world measures such things. He was murdered and soon forgotten. He is our spiritual hero, but as the world measures such things he was a political failure. And, of course, in that he was a typical prophet.
When we read the biblical accounts of Elijah and Elisha, the great deeds of daring that they performed, the remarkable God-given powers that they displayed, it is hard for us to believe that they accomplished as little as they did – as the world measures such things. They did not reverse the spiritual decline in the Israel of their day; they hardly even slowed it down.
I say, is there a more typical moment in all of believing history in this world than that moment when the disciples of John the Baptist go to tell Jesus that their leader and his hero is dead? It is the story of believing life in this sinful world. It is a story of disappointment and death. Death leading to resurrection to be sure, but death nonetheless. Suffering and death. There have been very few times when the kingdom of God has enjoyed any great measure of political success in this world. There has probably never been a time when it has enjoyed anything like as much political success as Christians have hoped for it. Christians and their faith and life have profoundly influenced this world for better, but it was not because there was a Christian political party that succeeded in gaining power, or because there was a Christian political movement that imposed its will upon a people or a nation. It was rather because there was a Christian conscience let loose in society and every political party had to take that conscience into account. [Cf. Lewis, God in the Dock, 199]
That is what has happened to some degree in our own nation. Biblical Christianity has never been the majority conviction of the political leadership of our land, but a Christian conscience abroad in the land has tempered the evil that might otherwise have been done and promoted the good that otherwise politics would have little cared for.
And time after time that Christian conscience in a society was paid for in suffering and blood as John the Baptist paid for it in his day and as Jesus did supremely shortly thereafter. George Wishart and Patrick Hamilton hardly lived long enough to influence events in the earliest days of the Scottish reformation, but their blood was the seed of a renewed church. And that story has been repeated countless times in virtually every nation of the world. Someone has referred to this history of Christian suffering and death in Christ’s name as “faith’s grim heredity.” [J.S. Stewart, The Strong Name, 153]
As Augustine put it long ago, the world was not conquered by fighting, but by suffering. And somehow, in someway, John’s death became the means by which the gospel advanced in this world. It is the way in which God has seen fit to save the world and to save each individual who is being saved. It is the way our Savior went. The Son of God came into the world to suffer and to die and, in that way, to win our eternal life. And he told us himself that as the world hated him, it would hate those who followed and served him. As the master, so shall the servant be.
And so it is no surprise that “death” is written large over the description of the Christian life that we have in the rest of the New Testament. There is a heroism in Christian living in a sinful world – a heroism of great sacrifice, loss, suffering. Regularly the Christian life is described by a death for Christ’s sake, because death, the ultimate sacrifice, stand for all the sacrifice believers make to remain faithful to Jesus Christ. We are to die to ourselves, die to sin, die to the world, die daily. That is what Paul said in 1 Cor. 15:31:
“I die every day – I mean that brothers – just as surely as I glory over you in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It sounds strange to modern ears, to American ears accustomed to a steady stream of messages about life, not death; about prosperity, not suffering; about fulfillment in this world rather than an exhausting pilgrimage through this world for the sake of happiness in the next. But the cross is our way of life, taking up our cross every day as Jesus said, and following him. We die in this world for the sake of living in the next.
See this world as it must appear from the unseen world, see human life as it appears from the vantage point of each and every man’s soon-coming future, and how different everything looks. How wise is the man who dies – to himself, to sin, to this world, to the devil – however hard that dying; how wise the man who takes up his cross and whose life in a continual crucifixion; and how foolish the man who lives for the pleasures of this world which he is so soon to leave, how foolish the man who will not die here and now that he might live there and forever.
John did the right thing and died for it. In loyalty to Christ he said the right thing and was executed for his pains. He lives forever in the heavenly realms and the world of joy and lives with the honor of having been, while in this world, a most faithful servant of the Lord Christ: the only true, lasting honor this world can bestow on any of its citizens.
We said at the outset that the Gospel of Matthew is concerned with the nature, the character, the marks of faithful, authentic Christian discipleship. Matthew is writing for a generation that lived years after the ascension of the Lord Jesus to heaven. The original readers of this Gospel were people like ourselves living in the same world that we live in. They didn’t see miracles. The day for miracles had come and gone. They had to live by faith as we must today. They had to apply the truth of the gospel of Christ to their hearts and then live it out in a world that was not congenial or welcoming to their convictions and their commitments.
The account of the death of John the Baptist is not included in Matthew’s Gospel simply to complete the story of John’s life. It is here because it is a magnificent, flesh and blood example of what the Lord had been talking about throughout the Gospel to this point. John is a man who was persecuted for righteousness’ sake. He was a man who took up his cross and followed Jesus. He was a man who acknowledged Jesus before men and paid the price for that acknowledgement. Now he will receive the great reward in heaven that is reserved, Jesus said, for those who are persecuted for his sake. Christ will now acknowledge him before God, as Jesus promised he would do for all who acknowledged him before men. John is an exemplar of the Christian life in both its difficulty and its way of triumph through cross and death. We are being shown here what kind of people we ought to be, we must do if we would be true Christians. So when you read this text about the death of John the Baptist, in a Gospel such as Matthew’s Gospel, you are to ask yourself this question: Do I see myself in this great man? Can I find myself in his hard circumstances? Can I even see something of his terrible death in me, in my life, in my living these days? Am I like John in the way every Christian must be like him? And to the extent that I am not like him as much as I ought to be, am I aspiring to be more and more like him?
A fascinating story came across my desk the other day in the regular email report of a missionary friend of mine. I read such reports all the time as you do, I’m sure. I don’t think but a few of you would ever have met this man or even know anything of his mission organization, but he has many PCA connections. He has become in the last few years involved in gospel work in Italy, among other places in the world. In this last report he told the story of a recent romance and wedding of a young Italian couple and, lo and behold, the young man, the groom, was the son of an Italian couple I had met years ago in Calgary. In fact, they hosted me at their family table during a visit I made to Calgary and I remember still both the pleasure of that fellowship and the discomfort of that meal: I was absolutely full after the second course and we still had three or four courses to go!
Dawn Darby will also know this family because they became Christians through the ministry of Glenmore PC, a church of our Presbytery, the church that Dawn’s father, Bill McColley, pastored in those years. Georgio and Sabrina Modolo had come to Canada for a few years for Georgio’s work and there Christians shared the gospel with them and they were converted. In fact, in my missionary friend’s report there are pictures of Bill baptizing Georgio and his infant son, Andrea, in 1976. I hadn’t heard about them for years.
The Modolos went back to Italy years ago and raised their family in convictions that not very many Italians share. Their son, Andrea, now an earnest Christian young man, works as a criminal lawyer. My missionary friend got to know this young man and to talk with him about the trials of being a Christian in Italy. One of them, one of the heaviest of them, was that he was looking for a Christian woman to marry and had not been able to find one. There were hardly any women with his convictions of his acquaintance. But he was sure that he simply had to wait upon the Lord. He could not marry a woman who did not share his loyalty to Christ.
But the story also concerns a beautiful and accomplished Christian woman, Piera Emili, who was known to my missionary friend as a member of a church associated with Franco Maggiotto, a former RC priest, now a Calvinist pastor, whose ministry is known to us in this congregation. Piera was an accomplished teacher. She was chosen by her peers to represent the Italian school district in which she served when it was honored recently as among the ten best in Europe. Into her early 30s she suffered the fate of many Christian women in Europe these days, who long for a Christian man to love and marry but can’t find him. And then she suffered still more. Her alliance with an evangelical congregation, especially one pastored by a converted RC priest, became a controversial issue to her employer and she had to resign her post and her chosen profession in order not to be fired. She resisted intense social and economic pressure in order to remain loyal to her faith in Christ.
To make a long story short, my missionary friend served as a matchmaker, introducing Andrea Modolo to Piera Emili and, falling in love almost immediately, they have recently married. It was amazing to me to read this account of an Italian romance and marriage and to realize that I had met myself some of the principle figures in the story years ago. I sat at table with Andrea himself when he was a baby. It is a small world!
Just an ordinary missionary newsletter. But the ordinary stuff of Christian discipleship. The same for Italians as for Americans, and the same as it had been for John. He could not change his convictions because they came from God. So he suffered for them. John lost his life in the prime of his life. He was executed a man perhaps just barely into his thirties. These Italian Christians, had died in another way – renouncing their longings for love and for a partner if they could not find someone who loved the Lord Jesus. Those who have renounced the desires of their heart in that way know how much like death that is. In that they were just like John the Baptist who could not keep quiet about the Word of God and suffered the consequences of his faithfulness to God. Think of that great man, alone in that dungeon. Completely unawares he is summoned by the jailer and hears he is about to die. No time to jot a last note to loved ones or to his disciples. He is taken from his cell and moments later he is dead. His last suffering for Christ is solitary.
How are you like John the Baptist? If he is the most perfect example of a disciple of Jesus Christ, can you see yourself in him: in his steadfast loyalty to the Lord, his suffering for the Lord, and the outcome of that suffering in some form of death – death to sin, death to your reputation, death to some prospect that you forsook because of your love for Christ, death to the world and its allurements, death to an easy life of pleasure, the painful exhausting death to the temptations of the Evil One – I say, in what can you liken yourself to faithful John the Baptist in prison and then beheaded? If you were at the Allison home these last weeks, you know what hard work it is to die. And we are to die every day.
There is a lot of happiness in the Christian life – glorious happiness: love in marriage and family, joy in salvation, the fellowship of the saints, the pure enjoyment of what is best in this world, and much, much more. The death we die to sin does not usually lead to our beheading. Far from it. It did not for that happy couple in Italy. But much joy as there will be in any faithful Christian life – much more real, true, pure, lasting joy than any unbeliever ever knows – there is always this death. There must be this death. There must be this taking up of Christ’s cross for his sake; this fellowship in his sufferings; this following in the steps of the Man of Sorrows who conquered the world not by fighting but by suffering and enduring. We will, we must, we can serve him only in the same way.
Look at this good, this great man in prison. Look at him so cruelly used by such small and petty people. Look at his lonely and sudden end. Look until you are sure you can see yourself in that prison cell and your head on that platter. Then look at John as he is now, in the company, perhaps at the head of the company of the triumphant saints in heaven. And look until you can see yourself there too.