Don’t Miss the Point

Posted: July 1, 2012 in Matthew

Matthew 14:1-12, “Don’t Miss the Point”

Have you ever looked at someone & thought, “You just don’t get it!”  It’s like the comic of a man pushing his bed with his wife still asleep in it into the kitchen, and when his wife wakes up, he says, “I figured you should have breakfast in bed on your birthday.  Can you reach the stove okay?” 🙂  Some people just miss the point.  Such is the case with Herod, as Matthew details in Ch 14.  To a much more tragic result, Herod missed the point about Jesus & John the Baptist lost his life.

We last heard about John a bit back in Ch. 11 when it was first told us he was in prison, but otherwise there has been virtually no mention of him (in Matthew) since Jesus’ baptism in Ch 3.  Keep in mind, although we’re not told about the outcome of every Biblical character, John served a major role in that he was the last of the OT prophets, and the forerunner of the Messiah.  Here, we find out his end.  John was caught up in a political drama as he stood firm for the truth of God, and was eventually killed.  As a result, we get quite a contrast between two men: John, who proclaimed the Messiah & faithfully served the Lord, and Herod Antipas, who completely missed the Messiah, and only served himself.

Interestingly enough, Jesus is only mentioned at the beginning & the end – which just goes to underscore how badly Herod missed it.  He had the forerunner of the Messiah at his fingertips, and yet still completely misunderstood Jesus.  May we be careful not to make the same mistake.

Matthew 14:1–12 (NKJV)
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus 2 and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.”

  • The first question many of us might ask is “Which Herod?”  There were several!  Herod the Great (who had attempted to destroy the baby Jesus in Bethlehem) had died, and his kingdom was allowed by Rome to be divided into three parts.  Half of the kingdom went to Archelaus, who later fell & his kingdom was converted into a standard Roman province, to be governed by Pilate.  One-quarter of the kingdom was given to Philip, which was eventually given over to Agrippa (who had been confronted by Paul).  The final quarter of the kingdom (comprising the region of Galilee) was given to Antipas.  A “quarter ruler” was a “tetrarch.”  He would later oversee part of Jesus’ kangaroo court when he would attempt to get Jesus to perform some of the miracles that he had heard so much about.
  • The word about Jesus had indeed been spreading.  It’s easy to understand – after all, news about verifiable miracles have a way of attracting attention.  Today, people think they see a portrait of Jesus in a tortilla & it makes headlines on CNN.  Just think what would happen if known demoniacs were cleansed, the verifiably blind were truly given sight, known lepers were medically known as healed, and those who had been pronounced medically dead were raised back to life?  That would be sure to grab attention!  (Which goes a long way to question the validity of many of the so-called “healing crusades” today.  If the miracles were able to be medically verified, news would spread rapidly!  Please note: God CAN and still DOES heal.  It just usually doesn’t take place upon a stage with someone who spouts out heresies about God for the entire performance.)
    • When God moves, people can’t help but notice.  Certainly there are many who try to ignore, downplay, or distract from the wonderful things God does, but in the end, people will always notice.  The former addict who comes to Christ and lives a life of sobriety is a powerful witness to those who knew him.  The destroyed marriage that is now reconciled because of the work of God is an undeniable witness to the grace of Jesus.  God does miracles every single day in the lives of His people.  Every time someone repents from their sin & trusts Jesus as their Lord for salvation is a major miracle in itself!  (Someone who was spiritually dead is now spiritually alive!)  Someone is going to notice how your life has changed because of Jesus Christ!
  • Herod had a personal reason to pay attention to reports about Jesus.  His family had been involved with the events surrounding the prophesied Messiah for a long time.  Again, his father had ordered the systematic massacre of every male child 2 years old and under throughout Bethlehem & the surrounding area (Mt. 1:16).  This was specifically due to the fact that he feared the prophesies about the Messiah, which had been attested to by the wise men coming from the east (Mt. 2:3-4).  No doubt Antipas had known about the events, as he was in his early 20’s at the time Jesus was born.  Antipas was well acquainted with John the Baptist (as our text makes plain), and John’s whole mission was to serve as the forerunner to the Messiah.  Certainly Antipas was paying attention to the events around him.
  • Herod may have heard the news about Jesus, but he missed the point.  Instead of paying attention to the miracles which testified of Jesus as the Messiah (the anointed king of Israel – the Son of God), Herod thought that somehow these miracles (“powers”) were evidence that Jesus was a resurrected or reincarnated John the Baptist.  This wasn’t even logical!  After all, Jesus was already a grown man by this point; it’s not like He just stepped out of heaven as a fully grown adult.  Herod Antipas would have known much about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth.  To be sure, people were confused about Jesus.  Rumors had followed Him, with some people thinking Jesus was Elijah, one of the prophets, or even the one Prophet spoken about by Moses. (Mk 6:15)  Yet Herod Antipas was insistent that Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead.  Perhaps Herod had something in mind along the lines of Elijah & Elisha, when Elisha received the mantle (position/power) of his former mentor, Elijah.  Whatever was going through the mind of Herod, it’s clear that he had no understanding of what was going on.  This is seen in several areas:
    • He had no understanding of the Bible.  The Jews were the people he attempted to rule (and even had some ancestry to), but he had no knowledge of their faith.  He may have been curious about various parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, but he had obviously never taken the time to actually study them.
      • Many people today make exactly the same error!  They know a few key facts about the Bible, but they never actually crack the book open to read it for themselves.  Even Christians engage in this same mistake – and it leaves them vulnerable to all sorts of false ideas and heresies that filter through popular media.  If we want to stay clear of misunderstanding, we’ve got to read the Bible for ourselves!
    • He had no understanding of John the Baptist as a person, thinking that Jesus somehow inherited John’s supernatural powers.  John had been respected all over Judea, but there is not one Biblical report of him ever performing a miracle. (In fact, the Biblical record is that he didn’t do any!  John 10:41)  John certainly had a life surrounded by the supernatural.  (1) His role was a fulfillment of prophecy.  (2) His birth was supernaturally announced.  (3) He was a personal witness of the testimony of God the Father and God the Spirit regarding Jesus.  Those are all huge events!  Yet not one miracle is recorded in the Bible regarding healings, exorcisms, supernatural manifestations, etc. from John.  The people recognized John’s power and authority through his teaching; not in miracles.  For as much as Herod feared John, he didn’t really have a clue about him.
    • He had no understanding of John’s mission and purpose.  John had been sent to as the forerunner of the Messiah – to announce the coming of the prophesied King.  It’s not as if John was secretive about it…he was very open regarding his mission from God. [John 1:19-23]  John made it clear that he proclaimed the Messiah; he himself was not the Messiah.  To look at Herod’s reaction, it seems he got John & Jesus reversed.  Herod was afraid of John & John’s powers, rather than fearing the One who is infinitely more powerful than John.
      • This is where the idea of Elijah & Elisha breaks down.  Elijah was the teacher; Elisha was the student.  Again, we certainly don’t know what was going through Herod’s mind, but this much is obvious: he put the greater glory on to John.  He thought of John as the powerful and authoritative teacher, whereas Jesus was just the student.  In reality, ALL of the power belonged to Jesus.
      • How careful we need to be to give glory to Jesus alone!  We see the work of a fellow Christian, and sometimes we can be so impressed that we start lifting up the Christian instead of Christ.
    • He had no understanding of Jesus at all!  Herod had heard about a report about Jesus which had surely included some of Jesus’ miracles and teachings.  The purpose of Jesus’ teachings & miracles was to show Himself as the True King of Israel, yet to Herod it was all a sideshow.  He was so consumed with John the Baptist that he didn’t recognize the One to whom John always pointed.  Herod wasn’t looking for a deliverer; he just wanted to be free of a guilty conscience.
      • How important that we don’t miss out on Jesus!  And make no mistake, people misunderstand Jesus all of the time.  They’ve heard about His love and power, and they think He was just a misunderstood prophet.  They’ve heard about His compassion and teaching, and they think that He’s a wonderful self-help guru.  Or they know Jesus had power, so they seek the same sort of power, only without the desire to surrender themselves to God.  All of them (and many more examples) miss the point!  Jesus did all of these things: He loved, He taught, He did miracles…but none of those things were the point of His coming.  The point was to show Himself as the King – to show Himself as Lord – to pay the price for our sin & to reconcile men & women back to the God from whom they are estranged.
      • Don’t miss the point about Jesus!  Don’t see Him just on the peripheries – don’t hear the teaching but miss the Teacher.  Look upon Jesus – look upon the Lord, God in the flesh who came for you.
  • Why did Herod mistake Jesus for John?  If anything, the mistaken identity goes to underscore how Herod’s conscience convicted him of his sin.  He had been responsible for John’s death (as we’ll see); now he seemingly fears that the time of retribution had come.  If Herod got anything correct, it was this: he was right to fear the eventual justice he would face because of his sin.  All sin has a price.  It’s easy for us to look at someone like Herod and proclaim him to be a sinner.  After all, he was a lust-consumed incestuous brutal murderer who oppressed the people he ruled.  Certainly he deserved the justice of God!  Yes…and so do we.  Our crimes against God might not be as obvious to us, but they are still crimes of rebellion against Almighty God. Justice is equally deserved of our sin as for any other.  The wages of sin is death, and that is the penalty all of us rightly face.
    • Praise God for Jesus who took our penalty for us!  This is why the good news is so good!
  • What exactly had happened between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist?  Matthew gives us the backstory…

3 For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 Because John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”

  • Notice the past tense here.  This is a literary flashback, showing something that had already taken place.  In vs. 2 Herod had acknowledged the fact that John was already dead, now we’re getting the story of the events that led up to the execution.
  • Basically, John was a political prisoner.  He had spoken against the king, and the king didn’t like what he had to say.  John (rightly) spoke against the king’s incestuous relationship with “his brother Philip’s wife,” and Herod Antipas persecuted him for speaking the truth.  The Sadducees and Pharisees & others of the ruling class may have been willing to look the other way & not risk the wrath of the king, but John was bold enough to speak up & label the scandal as unlawful.  Antipas (rightly or wrongly) was a king over Jewish people, and he was thus bound by the Hebrew Scriptures for his marriages (and every other area of his life).  Incest was strictly forbidden by the OT Law (Lev 18:16, 20:21), and just like prophets of old would confront Israel’s kings in time of sin, so John confronted King Herod. 
  • We certainly don’t live in the same sort of culture in which John lived, but we ought to be willing to take the same stand that he took.  John was persecuted because he stood for God’s truth.  God’s truth is still worthy of being represented by God’s people, and persecution may very well follow those who represent it.  Our own culture is shrinking away from the Biblical foundations it once held, and who will stand for God’s truth apart from God’s people?  What happens when we do so?  Persecution is the inevitable result.

5 And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.

  • Be sure to notice this wasn’t an act of mercy or compassion on Herod’s part.  He certainly was brutal, but he was also calculating.  He didn’t mind killing John (in fact, “he wanted” to do exactly that!); it’s just that he didn’t want to pay the political cost.  Although misunderstood by the people, the people still respected John and recognized him as a prophet of God.  Herod just didn’t want to risk riots in the street due to John’s execution.  Just as Pilate was willing to send Jesus away to be crucified in order to prevent a riot, Herod was willing to keep John alive for the same reason.
  • Apparently, John had been kept in prison for some time.  Back in Ch. 11, John had sent some of his disciples to Jesus with questions, when John went through a season of doubt.  John had been in prison for a while (likely for the very reason Ch. 14 describes), and he had started to question whether or not Jesus really was the Messiah.  Obviously John had personally witnessed the testimony of God, but it’s easy to understand his cause for doubting.  After all, he was the forerunner of the Messiah, but it hadn’t seemed that the Messiah had done anything yet, and here John was, rotting away in prison.  Had John gotten it wrong?  Would God keep John alive until the Messiah came?  Of course, Jesus assuaged his doubts (Mt 11:4-6), pointing John back to the things he had already seen, encouraging him to continue trusting God.  John may have been suffering, but God’s plan for the Messiah was for the Messiah to suffer as well.  John seemed to be waiting for the moment when the Messiah was going to rule in glory & free John from prison; Jesus reminded him that before the Messiah would rule as King, first He had to suffer as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

6 But when Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. 7 Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask.

  • The historian Josephus tells us the daughter’s name was Salome, and it seems she was a teenager when she danced before Herod Antipas on his birthday.  At first glance, this may seem to be a rather innocuous event, not unlike parents watching a dance recital of their daughter.  The reality was far more seedy.  Most scholars agree that this dance was very sensual, and thus Herod lusted after his stepdaughter in a similar way as he lusted after his sister-in-law.  This was a dance that got all of his attention because he rashly swore an oath to “give her whatever she might ask.
  • Lust clouds judgment & makes people do terrible things.  For the result of a few moments of lust, marriages & ministries are lost & scores of people are hurt.  For the result of lust, some people commit terrible crimes & lives are almost irreparably scarred.  Sometimes we tend to limit lust to teenagers acting in ways they shouldn’t – and as harsh as those realities can be, lust can have a far darker impact.  Instead of following after lust & the base passions of our flesh, men & women of Christ are to live soberly and exhibit the fruit of the Spirit of self-control.  (NOT asceticism!  Self-control is different.)  Herod is a clear example of everything a Christian is not.  Herod was rash, lust-filled, politically calculating, proud, murderous, and much more.  Why?  He was obsessed with himself, and totally rejected Jesus Christ.  The Christian lays self aside (actually considers him/herself to be dead), and seeks Christ first.  The Christian’s identity is found in Christ; the lust-filled person’s identity is found in self.  It makes sense, if we stop to think about it: someone who is consumed with lust (be it sexual or otherwise) seeks after those things which please his/her own desires.  Whatever it takes to fill the desire, that’s what that person wants.  The Christian is the person who has received Christ as Lord, so he/she does the things that Jesus wants and desires.  We do not seek after ourselves; we seek after Christ.
    • What do you find yourself seeking: your desires or Jesus’?  That goes a long way to determining whom it is you follow.  If you find yourself slipping back into old habits, or self-centered ways, confess those things to the Lord and receive His cleansing & forgiveness.

8 So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter.”

  • Obviously she & her mother Herodias had colluded together to ask for John the Baptist’s head.  Mark’s gospel fills in some gaps here, showing that she took the offer from Herod back to her mother & asked for what she needed to do. This wasn’t Salome’s idea, but she had no regard for life, nonetheless.  She is no less guilty of this than her mother & Herod. 

9 And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her.

  • We get the idea that Herod didn’t want to do this (Mark says he was “exceedingly sorry”), but we need to remember it wasn’t due to a sudden burst of compassion for John.  Herod had a political prisoner who was also a political liability.  To execute John risked an uprising among the people.  We’re not told of any riots that took place, but Herod was right to fear it.  He seemed to think that John was just a much a prophet as any of the multitude did, and he was unsure of the consequences that would come from his death.  (IOW, he didn’t mind illegally & immorally allowing John to rot in prison to die; he just didn’t want to sign a death warrant.)
  • Why did he do it & not just ignore the girl’s request?  Pride.  He had sworn an oath in front of an audience.  To break his word would be to risk losing respect.  It’s a pretty sorry reason for causing someone to be killed (what’s a life worth in comparison to a petty oath?), but it was the reason he used.

10 So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. 11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.

  • John was martyred & according to legend (as picked up by Jerome, 347-420AD) the head was defiled by Herodias by spitting on it & sticking a pin through his tongue.  This simply wasn’t a nice woman!   Not unlike ancient Queen Jezebel who goaded her evil husband King Ahab to worse & worse things, so Herodias seemed to do with Herod Antipas.
  • Question: “But where’s the happy ending for John?!  Why wasn’t he freed by a miracle of God like Paul and Silas?”  We read the accounts in the book of Acts of Peter being freed in prison by an angel taking off his shackles & leading him out, or of Paul & Silas, and sometimes we think that’s just the way all of our suffering ends…via miracle.  Yet that’s simply not the case.  Neither Peter nor Paul were always freed from prison – eventually they were both killed for their faith, just along the lines of John the Baptist.  And obviously it’s not just people from the pages of the Bible.  The early church father Ignatius was given to wild beasts to be eaten.  The early reformer Jan Hus was burned at the stake for daring to preach against the excesses of the clergy & papacy.  Thousands of men & women, named & unnamed, have been killed for their faith in Christ after much suffering.  Martin & Gracia Burnham were missionaries in the Philippines who were kidnapped by the Muslim group Abu Sayyaf in May 2001 & held captive for over a year.  It was during the final rescue attempt from the Philippine army that Martin was shot three times and killed.  To be sure, some accounts of suffering end happily; others plainly do not. 
  • Our faith in Christ does not exempt us from suffering.  When we’re told that God has a wonderful plan for our life, He does…but ultimately that includes the wonderfully glorious plan of us being reconciled to God and adopted as His own children, completely forgiven in Christ.  It does not mean that every day on earth will be more “wonderful” than the last.  Some of days on earth will be quite hard, and some people will even die as a result of their suffering.  That is the honest truth.  But so is this: God still loves you & God is still in control.  The fact that John was beheaded in prison did not mean that God had turned His back on John; it only means that this was the method by which God allowed John to die…and then John would be forever with God in eternity.  When we suffer, our God absolutely does NOT abandon us; on the contrary – we find that He strengthens us for the suffering we face.  As God would later tell Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you,” likewise it is for us.  We may suffer & we may suffer long – but when we are in Christ, we are loved by God & we are empowered by the Holy Spirit.  His grace will truly meet us in that hour of deepest need.

12 Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.

  • John’s disciples were faithful in death, just as they were faithful in John’s life.  They may not have had access to the head, but they were able to take the rest of the body & bury it.  There’s no indication that John had ever married or had any siblings & his parents would have been long-deceased (they were elderly at the time of his birth), so his disciples simply took on the duties of family.
  • In addition to burying the body, they also told Jesus.  Of course, Jesus knew what would happen, but it’s a good reminder to us that Jesus knows our suffering.  He is not ignorant about the trials that we endure.  And we also know that He is not ambivalent to them either!  He continually intercedes unto God on our behalf, and He promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age.  Our Lord is personally involved in the lives of His people, and He knows exactly what it is we endure.

Conclusion:
At just a glance, it would seem that this turned out so wrongly.  John was left in prison and beheaded, Herod reigned in his lust and riches, and Jesus is seemingly uninvolved. We’ve got to go beyond the first glance and look at the bigger picture: God’s plan was unfolding & He wasn’t yet finished. 

  • Yes, John was left in prison & unjustly killed – he suffered immensely.  Yet Jesus would go through similar suffering.  The forerunner to the Messiah shared much of the same rejection as the Messiah Himself.  John shared in the fellowship of the sufferings of Christ.  Yet there’s no doubt he also shares in the reward (as will all of us), when he entered into the glory of God upon his death. 
  • True, Herod continued to reign as tetrarch, even past the point of Jesus’ own mock-trial and death.  Yet for as much comfort as he experienced on earth, it’s certain he did not enter into comfort when he entered eternity.  He misunderstood John, missed out on Jesus (both through John’s witness, and during Jesus’ trial), and thus missed out on his only chance for salvation.  Herod had many opportunities to see Jesus for who He really is – and he missed out on them all.  As a result, he may have gained the world, but he still lost his soul.
  • Yes, Jesus was barely seen in these events, but that does not mean He was absent from them.  Jesus was well-acquainted with John’s sufferings, and God was sovereign the entire time John was in prison (just as God is still sovereign today).  John’s whole life was spent pointing people to Jesus as the King, testifying that Jesus is the Son of God sent to take away the sin of the world.  When John died, Jesus had yet to go to the cross – and He absolutely had to do it.  The plan of God had to be fulfilled in order for salvation to be extended to the world, and that’s exactly what happened.

Some of you might be like John, and in a season of extended suffering.  You’ve sought the Lord for relief, but to date, haven’t found any.  Please know that Jesus has neither forgotten you, nor has He abandoned you.  Our Lord is still risen from the dead, and God still reigns in heaven.  There will be times of suffering in this life – in fact, the Lord Jesus assures us of that fact.  But we’re also told that His grace is sufficient for us to endure that suffering, and that a reward awaits us in the end.  Keep your eyes upon Jesus, continually looking to the One who suffered for you, and then (like John) persevere!  Don’t miss out on the power available to you in the moment, as you look to the Lord Jesus for strength.

Herod could not be more of a contrast to John.  Blinded by his guilty conscience, his lust, and his general selfishness, Herod completely missed the point about Jesus.  He had every opportunity to know and receive the truth, but he missed out and threw away his only opportunities to be saved.  Be careful not to do the same!

Some people look at Jesus as a curiosity – some people look at Him as a guru – others look at Him as a nice storybook character…ALL of them miss the point.  Jesus is GOD.  Jesus is the Savior sent to pay the penalty due because of our sin, and offer us peace and reconciliation with God.  Maybe like Herod, you’ve heard a lot about Jesus, but to date you’ve completely misunderstood him for whatever caricature has existed in your mind.  Don’t miss out on Jesus!  Don’t miss out on who He is & what He offers.  In His love & grace He offers to forgive you, fully & completely.  Every sin, every act of selfishness & act of rebellion against God – all wiped out, forgiven!  Today, you can be clean, and made a new creation by the supernatural work of God.  Don’t harden your heart and miss out on what’s available to you in Christ. 

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