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. (Matthew 14:1-5)
The beginning of chapter 14 is a bit like one of those TV episodes where they start at the end, the go back to the beginning and work their way forward to the end they had already shown you. In verses 1-2, John the Baptist is already dead, but in verse 3, he’s alive and the following verses explain how he ended up dead in verses 1-2. It tweaks this former history teacher’s desire for things to be in proper chronological order, but it’s God-breathed so I guess that supersedes my preferences.
The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas or Herod the tetrarch (due to his ruling over 1/4 of Palestine). He was the son of Herod the Great, who earlier in Matthew’s gospel had ordered all the baby boys to be killed in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus. It is this Herod to whom Jesus will be sent on the night he was betrayed, before being sent back to Pilate.
Herod the tetrarch had divorced his first wife in order to marry Herodias, who herself had just divorced Herod’s half-brother. Salome, who we meet a few verses later was Herodias’ daughter with her first husband. (In case this isn’t soap-opera-ish enough for you, Herodias was actually the daughter of her husbands’ half-brother, thus making her the daughter-in-law of her own grandfather and the half-niece of both her husbands.) John the Baptist (correctly) saw something wrong with this relationship and publicly condemned Herod and Herodias for it. Herod wanted to kill John, but his fear of John’s followers revolting outweighed his desire for vengeance. Herodias, however, was willing to risk the revolt in order to get rid of John and his public declarations of the sinfulness of their marriage. John’s arrest takes place in Matthew 4:12, he sends messengers to Jesus from prison in Matthew 11:2, and Jesus learns of John’s death in Matthew 14:12-13.
The first 12 verses of chapter 14 comprise a sordid tale and serve mostly to set up what comes next in Matthew’s gospel. This passage can be a tough one to apply because Herod’s actions are so extreme that it’s easy to chalk it up to a historical passage about a person much more sinful than me, but I think there are still some things we can learn because it shows us truths about our own sin nature.
1. Believing something isn’t the same as having faith.
We saw this earlier in Matthew with Herod’s father as well. Herod the Great believed the prophesies about the Messiah’s birth to be true, but his response was to try and have the Messiah killed. Right belief, wrong response. Here, Herod Antipas believes in Jesus’ miraculous works and declares that he must be John the Baptist risen from the dead (a belief, by the way, that he was not alone in [cf. Matthew 16:13ff; Mark 6:14ff; Luke 9:7ff]). He obviously doesn’t have it completely right, but by believing Jesus was a miracle worker who resurrected from the dead, he was a lot closer to the truth than many other leaders we encounter in the gospels. But again, like his father, his response to this belief is fear instead of faith, and he too makes plans to kill Jesus (cf. Luke 13:31).
For belief to result in salvation, it must produce a faith response. James 2:19 states, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe–and shudder!” Earlier in Matthew we saw a demon recognize Jesus as the Son of God (8:29). It is not enough to intellectually recognize Jesus as a prophet, or a great teacher, or even the Son of God. As my pastor in NJ would say, for belief to become saving faith, it has to travel the 18 inches from the head to the heart. It has to generate the proper response.
So how do we know if our belief is producing a proper faith response? I think it’s connected to what Jesus said in the previous chapter in the parables of the treasure and the pearl. A heart that truly believes and has faith in Jesus holds him in high value. Herod believes Jesus is a resurrected miracle-worker, yet plans to kill him. His belief doesn’t change his heart or what his heart values. In fact, it just further hardens his heart against Jesus.
2. The human heart will do almost anything to avoid having to admit its sin.
I’m taking a wild guess that most of us aren’t divorcing our wives to marry our brother’s ex-wife, who also happens to be our niece, but man’s response to sin isn’t really dependent on the sin. Here we see John the Baptist confront Herod with his sin, and Herod’s response is to having John jailed and eventually killed. Sin hardens our heart, and without God’s intervention, our hardened heart will continue to sin rather than admit the sin. (To see the heart’s response to sin when God does intervene, read Psalm 51, which is David’s response to Nathan confronting him about the Bathsheba incident.) Our human instinct when faced with our sin is to commit other sins to somehow justify or hide the original sin. This just compounds the problem, however. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the official reason given for John’s arrest and murder was sedition. When confronted with his own sin, instead of confessing it Herod accused his accuser!
The only real way out of a sin problem is to admit the sin and deal with it through Jesus. Admitting our sin (and making restitution when appropriate) is tough though because it forces us to be humble and vulnerable, which is distasteful to sinful human pride. Herod and Herodias find it so revolting that John would confront them that it drives them to murder, which leads us to:
3. Sin is a slippery slope.
A summary of Herod’s track record in Matthew 14:3-12 (and it’s surrounding historical context):
1. Unjustified divorce
2. Unlawful marriage (both because the divorce was unjustified and because the marriage was incestuous)
3. Murderous heart toward John the Baptist
4. Lustful heart toward his step-daughter
5. Murder of John the Baptist
Herod’s sins build throughout this passage, not only becoming progressively worse (at least from a human perspective), but also with one sin leading to the next. Each sin compounds the previous one and pushes Herod toward the next one. Sin does not happen in a vacuum. When we do not deal with sin immediately, it builds and festers in our hearts and develops into something much bigger.
4. Our sin impacts the way we view Jesus.
As I said before, Herod was not the only one who thought Jesus was John the Baptist risen from the dead. I don’t, however, think the context here in Matthew allows us to view this as Herod just going along with a common belief of the day. And although both Mark and Luke indicate that Herod did not come to the conclusion that Jesus was John-resurrected on his own, it was only one of the possibilities presented to him.
That little word “For” at the beginning of Matthew 14:3 speaks volumes. I believe that Herod thought Jesus was John because of his guilty conscience. His previous sin colored his perception of Jesus and did not allow him to see Jesus for who he truly was. All he could see was John, back from the dead to condemn him for his sin.
Habitual sin keeps us (even believers) from seeing Jesus as we ought. I can think back on my middle and high school years and recognize that the times when I was living as my parents would not have wanted were the same times I saw them as overbearing hindrances that I needed to fear. I was looking at them through glasses colored with guilt and fear so that is how I saw them. The same thing holds true with our heavenly Father. When we habitually live contrary to his commandments, we begin to see him as Adam did in the Garden after the Fall: as someone we need to hide from because of our guilt and shame.
Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:
1. Is there any sin in my life that I need to confront and confess?
2. Am I open to the Nathans and Johns that God has put in my life to show me my sin or do I hide and excuse my sin while accusing the Nathans and Johns?
3. Am I allowing my view of Jesus to be affected by my own sin or the sin of others?
4. Am I thankful (and do I show that thankfulness) for Jesus intervening before my heart became as hard as Herod’s?