A tale of two kings (Matthew 14:1-21)

How do we present Jesus as king, when he’s so different to the rulers appointed by this world?

Open Matthew 14:1-21.

Jesus’ regal authority can frighten people. We’ve all experienced power being abused. So how do we announce a king who cares for his people?

We’ll need to explain the contrast. Matthew shows us how by juxtaposing the stories of two kings.

What contrast:

  • Herod has an official title: tetrarch (14:1). He’s not actually king (as his father was), but Matthew calls him a king to contrast him with Jesus (14:9).
    Jesus has received no title from Rome, Jerusalem, or Galilee. His appointment comes from another place, from his Father in heaven (3:17).
  • Herod fears things beyond his control, like the persistent influence of someone he thought he’d killed (14:2).
    Jesus faces the fear of rulers whose power comes from killing any who oppose them (14:13).
  • Herod’s authority protects him with fortified palaces where he welcomes those who celebrate him, and imprisons those who don’t (14:3, 6).
    Jesus’ authority leaves him unguarded, escaping to desolate places (14:13), protected only by his Father’s wisdom (14:23).
  • Herod feasts with endless platters of food and dancing entertainment, showing off his opulence (14:6).
    Jesus retreats to the desert, without food to offer his guests (14:15).

Herod has everything; Jesus has nothing.

So why are all these people following Jesus instead of Herod?

People aren’t silly. They know there’s no point asking Herod for justice. John was a prophet who called Herod out for his rebellion against the heavenly sovereign’s Law. There’s no justice for ordinary people, because that would mean the wealthy relinquishing their claims to power. Ordinary people aren’t invited to Herod’s lavish parties; they just pay the bill (taxes).

Thousands of ordinary people — maybe 10,000 if you count the women and children — trek for miles to be with Jesus. They know he’s a different kind of king. He has a heart for his people. His compassion focuses not on the strong and powerful, but on the weak and suffering. He sees their needs, hears their stories, and reaches out to restore them (14:14).

At day’s end, the king instructs his servants to feed their guests (14:16). They don’t have enough. Even Herod’s storerooms wouldn’t feed this crowd. What Jesus does have is a commission from higher up. As representative of heaven’s kingdom, Jesus lifts up the little they have and presents it to the heavenly sovereign, the one who provides for every man, woman, and child, every day.

Jesus gives his Father’s provision to his servants, instructing them to give it to the people in his care (14:19). What God has provided is plenty to satisfy everyone (14:20).

There’s a world of difference between the powers operating through this world’s rulers and the one appointed by heaven:

  • At Herod’s palace feast, people saw his authority — the power of Death.
  • At Jesus’ wilderness meal, people saw his authority — Divine Providence.

People will not remain subject to Death for ever.

The conflict is not over. But the crowds have begun to follow the king who cares.


What others are saying

I don’t have a single commentary that draws the contrast in the way we’ve done. Here’s the closest:

Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 402-403:

The narrative especially instructs Matthew’s audience concerning God’s caring provision for his people in this age (6:11; 7:9–10; 15:25–28, 29–39). It also stands in deliberate contrast to the drunken feast of the evil ruler Herod Antipas in 14:6–11.

Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1998), 413:

Those who murdered John are far more pitiable than is John himself. In this instance, to be “dead” is more blessed than to be “alive”; for the one murdered truly lives, while those who murdered him are in reality the dead.

William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 2 (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 2001), 117–118:

The Jewish grace before meals was very simple: ‘Blessed art thou, Yahweh our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.’ That would be the grace which Jesus said, for that was the grace which every Jewish family used. Here we see Jesus showing that it is God’s gifts which he brings to men and women.

[previous: Feeding the multitude]

[next: The Moses connection]

Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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