Open Matthew 14:1-12.
As you read the Bible, do you notice how the stories fit together? Why would Matthew stop talking about Jesus and tell a story about Herod instead? What’s his point?
The question is especially relevant when something that happened earlier is told now. The connection between this story and the previous one reveals what Matthew was saying:
- Jesus’ own people (13:54) reacted badly to the message (13:54) delivered by the prophet Jesus (13:57).
- Their rulers (14:1) reacted badly to the message (14:4) delivered by the prophet John (14:5).
These twin stories build narrative tension as the plotline unfolds towards the cross. Is Jesus in danger from his own people? Or from those who claim to rule them?
But Matthew’s main point is to contrast Jesus’ reaction with Herod’s. There could scarcely be a greater difference between the king appointed by heaven and the kings of this world:
- When Jesus’ regal authority was rejected in his homeland (patris in 13:52 and 57), he responded to their mistrust by withholding his restorative power (13:58).
- When Herod’s suitability to rule was questioned by John (14:4), he responded by using his power to annihilate the threat (14:10).
Dig beneath the rulers of this world, and you see their power rests on force. Ultimately it’s the power of death. But Death is masked with pomp and pageantry.
It’s Herod’s birthday, and he’s in great spirits. His daughter puts on such a good show for their guests that Herod feels like the great entertainer. He wants to be seen as the great benefactor too, so he publicly vows to give the girl whatever she wants.
What does a young teen want if she can have anything? A property? A position? A holiday at the coast (Caesarea)? A trip to exotic Rome, and an audience with the emperor?
But beneath the skin-deep glamour are seething issues of power. John the Baptist has portrayed Herod Antipas as unfit to rule. According to Josephus, he had stolen his brother’s wife on a shared trip to Rome. Brothers sharing the same woman was seen as incest (Leviticus 20:21; 18:16).
So Herod arrested John and held him for more than a year at Machaerus (east of the Dead Sea) because he “feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion” (Josephus, Antiquities 18.118). But Herod also feared that executing John might turn him into a martyr and trigger a rebellion from those who viewed John as a prophet (14:5).
Herodias probably viewed Herod’s inaction as weakness. She wanted to be rid of the prophet who shamed her for divorcing Philip to marry Herod. Now she had Herod trapped. He’d given his word in front of his guests. He could not back down.
The scene reverberates with Jewish attitudes to power. In the Book of Esther, Persian rulers were portrayed as playboys with no idea how to use their power. They spent their time partying, treating their women shamefully as public entertainment. Nevertheless, they were dangerous: threatening the very existence of God’s people as Esther’s story unfolds.
The next serving dish at Herod’s birthday party shatters the illusion. The enchanting dancer receives what she asked for, the decapitated head of the one who spoke for God.
John will never speak again. Yet this macabre scene functions as prophecy, revealing Death as the power behind the kingdoms of this world.
Herod is mortified. He’s responsible: he ordered the execution (14:10). Yet, he’s a puppet of a power beyond himself, a servant of Death.
The rulers of this world who resist God’s kingship will do anything to keep their power. Yet, they’re not our enemy. Our fight is not against flesh and blood people, for they themselves are slaves to the powers of Sin and Death (compare Ephesians 6:12).
The rulers of death do harm God’s people. What happened to John happens to Jesus too before Matthew’s story is over. That’s why Jesus avoids Herod.
The kingship that comes from this world serves Death. The kingship that comes from above serves the Life-giver. That’s why the kingdom of God takes so long to restore: heaven’s appointed king refuses to force himself on his people.
See if that’s how you read Matthew’s story, picking up from Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth:
Matthew 13:57 – 14:13 (my translation)
57 They were offended at him. Jesus told them, “A prophet isn’t shamed, except at home, in his own household.” 58 He didn’t do many powerful acts there, because of their mistrust.
14 1 Around that time, Herod (ruler of one of the four regions) heard about Jesus. 2 He said to his servants, “This is John the Baptizer, back from the dead. That’s why these powers are at work in him.”
3 For Herod had arrested John and locked him away under guard because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 John had been saying to Herod, “It’s illegal for you to have her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill him, but feared the crowd that held John to be a prophet.
6 Herod’s birthday arrived, and Herodias’ daughter danced in front of everyone, delighting Herod. 7 With an oath, he promised to give her whatever she asked for. 8 Impelled by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a serving dish, the head of John the Baptizer.”
9 The king was distressed, but because he’d given his oath in front of his guests, he issued the command 10 and decapitated the imprisoned John. 11 His head was presented on a serving dish and given to the girl who presented it to her mother.
12 John’s followers came and collected his corpse and buried him. Then they came and told Jesus. 13 When Jesus heard, he withdrew from there by boat to a desolate place on his own.
What do you say to John’s disciples? Of all their hopes, nothing is left — only a dead body, and an unspoken question:
How can evil ever be defeated and God’s reign restored when the rulers of this world destroy God’s servants? Why doesn’t the Messiah confront them?
Jesus had no plans to sort the wheat from the weeds in God’s field, or to remove the bad fish from God’s net (13:42; 49). He withdrew, leaving it to God to sort out when the time was right.
And that was Herod’s worst fear (14:2). Instinctively, he knew: if God raised the prophet from the dead, he would be powerless to respond. The resurrection is “game over” for rulers who rely on death. God didn’t do this in John’s case, but Matthew’s story isn’t over yet.
What others are saying
W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, ICC (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 475–476:
Although it stands out from the rest of the gospel by being a story about someone other than Jesus, the episode of John’s imprisonment and martyrdom is not simply an interesting aside, an odd, slack moment in Matthew’s narrative. … First of all, by illustrating the fate of a true prophet (martyrdom), John’s sad end foretells what is in store for Jesus. Hence the juxtaposition with 13:53–8, where Jesus the prophet is rejected by his own, is hardly accidental. 14:1–12 discloses the true meaning of the previous pericope: the Messiah will surely die. Secondly, 14:1–12 not only sheds light upon what has gone before (13:53–8), it also portends in some detail exactly what is to happen in the passion narrative.
Kate Shellnutt, Nigerian Mass Becomes a Massacre (Christianity Today, 25 April 2018):
An attack on morning Mass at a Catholic church in central Nigeria yesterday left 2 priests and at least 17 parishioners dead, adding to the hundreds killed by herders in the region so far this year. …
A recent report on Nigeria released by Open Doors concluded that the government has historically failed to protect Christians, particularly women and children, from Fulani violence. Researchers found that more than 700 Christians had been killed in an 18-month period ending last October.
Australian Broadcasting Commission, Indonesian President orders investigation after single family bombs three churches in radical attack, (13 May 2018):
Indonesia’s President has ordered a full investigation into the roots of the organisation blamed for three church bombings in the nation’s second-biggest city, Surabaya, on Sunday.
Six people from the one family, including a nine-year-old girl, blew themselves up in coordinated suicide attacks, which left 13 dead and dozens more injured.
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