THE DEATH OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
THEME: John’s Trust
In this week’s study we see a contrast in character.
At that time wHerod 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 ehis disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
When people read the gospels for the first time, especially if they do so superficially, as most do, the gospels seem to be mere collections of stories and teachings with little to connect them besides the obvious flow of events that marked the life of Jesus Christ, and even the order of events is sometimes puzzling. Yet there is far more to the arrangements of the gospel material than this, and the more we study the gospels the more intricate and profound the arrangements of the material seem to be.
That is what happens as we come to Matthew 14. The chapter begins with the death of John the Baptist, which does not seem to have much to do with the ongoing story of Jesus. And what is worse, John’s death is not in the right sequence historically since the account indicates by means of a past tense in verse 3 (“had arrested”) that the death of John occurred not at this point but earlier. All that happens here is that Herod Antipas, the one who had John killed, hears about Jesus and thinks that Jesus is John somehow returned to life. The best handling of the facts would suggest that John was probably killed about a year before this in 29 A D.
Yet there is more to the account than appears at first. To understand what is going on we need to remember several things.
First, we have just worked through a chapter in which Jesus predicted that there would be opposition to his kingdom. The parable of the sower taught that only a part of gospel preaching will bear fruit. The parable of the wheat and tares pointed to the work of Satan as the kingdom’s enemy. If my understanding of the stories of the mustard and yeast are right, even more insidious opposition could be expected. Now, this is exactly what we find. At the end of chapter 13 we are told that the people of Jesus’ hometown were offended by him and so rejected him, and here in chapter 14 we are reminded that Jesus’ forerunner was likewise rejected even to the point of being killed for his brave speaking. Are we to suppose that Jesus will experience any different treatment from the authorities himself?
Second, we have noticed a change in Jesus’ teaching. He has turned away from the public preaching that had marked his work earlier to teach his own disciples in private. The parables of chapter 13 show this themselves, for only the first four were spoken in the hearing of everyone and even they were not understood by the crowds. Jesus explained them to his disciples later. The last three parables were spoken to the disciples only.
What we have here is an important transition, and the reason Matthew includes the account of John’s death becomes clear by the way the last verse of the account leads into verse 13. Verse 12 explains that after they had buried John, his disciples “went and told Jesus,” after which we read, When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” This means that after the death of John, the handwriting was clearly on the wall, and Jesus responded by withdrawing and beginning privately to teach those he was going to leave behind.
Who was Herod? There are several Herods in the New Testament, the best known being Herod the Great, the founder of the Herodian dynasty. Herod the Great ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth and was the one responsible for the murder of the infants of Bethlehem. The man who killed John was Herod Antipas. He is called a “king” (v. 9), but he was actually the tetrarch of Galilee, which means that he had a lower status than a king. “Tetrarch” is from the Greek word tetra, meaning “four.” Originally it meant “a ruler over a fourth part of a kingdom,” but it had come to mean only a lesser prince or governor. Herod’s territory included Galilee and Perea. Since John’s work had been in the area of Perea (see John 1:28) and Jesus’ early work was in Galilee, both fell under Herod’s official jurisdiction.
What is the connection between John’s death and Jesus’ parables?
How did Jesus’ ministry change after John’s death?
Who was Herod?
Has the death of someone affected you deeply?
How has it affected your relationship with the Lord?