Scripture: At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 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.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Matthew 14:1-12 ESV
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Observation: This familiar story finds its parallel texts in Mark 8:14-29 and Luke 3:19-20, 9:7-9. It is a tragedy that juxtaposes courage versus corruption and good versus evil. The backstory progresses as follows:
- John the Baptist calls out Herod Antipas for divorcing his first wife (the daughter of Aretas, the king of the Nabateans, whose land bordered Perea) to marry Herodias (the divorced wife of Herod Antipas’ half-brother Philip).
- Herodias was not only Herod Antipas’ sister-in-law but his niece (the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus).
- Thus, this was an incestuous marriage on two counts, for Levitical law also deemed marrying the divorced wife of a brother incestuous (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21).
- Herod Antipas was the tetrarch (ruler of one-quarter of Israel that comprised Perea and Galilee). Aretas would later exact revenge on Herod Antipas for divorcing his daughter, spurring Antipas to call on Rome to rescue him.
- Herodias despised John’s persistent public censoring of her illegal marriage to Anitpas. So she revengefully seizes the opportunity to scheme John’s execution even though he can no longer speak out against their unlawful marriage while imprisoned.
- At Antipas’ birthday feast, Herodias’ daughter from her previous marriage, teenage daughter Salome (age ranging from twelve to fourteen according to scholar Harold Hoehner), dances in a provocative manner that pleases Herod and his guests.
- Being a weak-minded ruler who sought to impress his guests, Antipas offers Salome whatever she desires. Prompted by her mother, she requests John’s head on a platter.
- Even though Herod earlier wanted to put John to death to silence him, he feared incurring backlash from his people, who held John in high esteem. Thus, he regretted having to execute the order to behead John. Nevertheless, he makes good on his vow to Salome to save face with his guests.
Matthew concludes this story in a loosely chiastic structure that echoes the opening theme: Herod hears the fame of Jesus (verse 1), and Jesus hears of his cousin’s death (verse 12). Also, Herod apparently believed in the resurrection of the dead, for he expressed to his servants that Jesus must be John the Baptist based on Jesus’ miraculous powers (verse 2). But John the Baptist never performed any miraculous signs (see John 10:41).
Takeaway: As mentioned above, Herod Antipas was a weak leader, and his apostate wife, Herodias, was a strong-minded and ruthless woman. To Matthew’s Jewish audience, the similarities between these first-century CE monarchs and ninth-century BCE Monarchs Ahab and Jezebel would not go amiss. Nor would they miss the parallel of John the Baptist’s strength in facing persecution for prophetically speaking the truth against Herod and Herodias with Elijah’s courage in calling out Ahab and Jezebel.
However, unlike John the Baptist, God would extend Elijah’s years on earth until Elisha was ready to take over his prophetic ministry (2 Kings 2:1-12). In contrast, John’s exit would be swift because he had completed his mission of preparing the way for Christ. And as Matthew earlier chronicled, Jesus understood the supernatural connection between these two great prophets and his Father’s calling on their lives (Matthew 11:7-11). For John fulfilled the prophesied role of the Elijah archetype who prepared the way for the Messiah, and the heavenly spirit of Elijah would soon minister to Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).
So what’s our takeaway? While self-preservation has a place in our Christian journey regarding being good stewards of our health and well-being, the Father and Son call us to move beyond our worldly fears of failing and suffering to a higher calling of trusting in their grace and love for us, even in the face of persecution and life-threatening situations. Herod, being a people-pleaser, feared failing as a ruler and consequently would fail at what matters most: loving and pleasing his Creator. Indeed, spurred by fear of backlash, Herod proved not to be genuinely sorry about beheading John. In contrast, John, not sorry for speaking out against Herod, would tap into the grace of God to persevere imprisonment and execution and enter into eternal glory. And Jesus, not sorry for speaking out against the scribes and Pharisees, would complete his mission and return to eternal glory where he triumphantly reigns over all his creation.
In sum, Jesus calls us to unapologetically pursue the good life in him, seeking to come under his will and blessings. He calls us to follow him and live large, even if we must lay down our lives for others as he did for us. But this is not a virtue we pursue with reckless abandon. Like John the Gospeller (who lived into his nineties), Christ may want us to follow him on a longer earthly path. So we must also resist comparing ourselves to others. When Peter questioned Jesus about John’s mission, Jesus responded, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” (John 21:22 ESV). That’s what is critical: we follow him regardless of how arduous or long the journey may be. And with the help of the Holy Spirit, we will resist comparing ourselves to others or seeking their approval, which otherwise makes our lives small. Instead, we “live large,” not sorry for following our Lord and Savior onward and upward.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, who unapologetically bore our sins in his body to redeem us from son’s grip on us. So would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit to deepen our understanding of your and your Son’s love and grace for us so that we might faithfully follow your Son onward and upward—not regretting temporal trials along the way? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling