If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Matthew chapter 14. You'll remember over the last few months we've looked at Matthew 11, 12 and 13. Highlighting the majesty of Christ in Matthew 11, highlighting the character of Christ in contrast to His opponents in Matthew 12 and highlighting the parables of Jesus in Matthew 13 and especially those kingdom parables which are recorded there. We also saw in Matthew chapter 13, that a major shift in Christ's teaching ministry occurs. Beginning in Matthew 13 we see more and more throughout the gospel of Matthew a rejection of Jesus' public ministry not only by the Pharisees but even by the crowds who were following after Him.
Matthew 14 continues in that vein. In this passage, we open in the first 12 verses with the account of the death of John the Baptist. J.C. Ryle says we have in this passage “A page out of God's book of martyrs.” The history of the death of John the Baptist is recorded here. In the wake of the disappointments of the crowds with Jesus he wasn't the kind of Messiah they were looking for, and in the wake of His rejection in Nazareth by His own townspeople, we come to Matthew 14. And in verse 13 we find that Jesus withdraws from the public domain of Herod and begins to concentrate His teaching ministry on discipling His disciples. Why? Well, Matthew is going to tell you in the first 12 verses.
He opens in the first two verses and tells you that Herod thought that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead. Now you and I wouldn't understand what Matthew was talking about if he didn't tell you what he tells you in verses 3 through 12. But he's heading to verse 13, because in verse 13 he's going to tell you what Jesus did in response to Herod's words about Him. And so this passage sets the tone for what Jesus is going to do in His teaching ministry from this point on.
Let me mention in passing that even though the crowds themselves become more and more skeptical about the teaching of Jesus and the claims of Jesus, Jesus still shows compassion on the multitudes. It is in this passage that we will learn about the Lord Jesus' feeding of the 5,000. He still has compassion for the multitudes, though the multitudes are now by and large rejecting His message. So lets hear God's holy word beginning in verse 1 of Matthew chapter 14.
Our Father, we thank You for this word. We acknowledge it to be Your holy inspired and authoritative word. We ask that even as we prepare to come to Your table that You would instruct us from this Your truth. Cause our hearts to be tender before Your word, being corrected and built up and righteousness by it. And we ask that You would give us spiritual eyes and spiritual understanding so that we might not only be active hearers of this word but doers of it. We ask these things in Jesus' name. Amen.
This brief passage that recounts for us the tragic end of the life of a very faithful servant of God, John the Baptist, also has lessons for us in it. For in this passage we are reminded of the importance of keeping our consciences tender before the Lord and for hoping in a city which has foundations rather than in temporal blessings and successes in our life, even for temporal successes in our ministry. And I'd like for you to look at two things with me this morning that we see in the passage.
I. God uses our consciences to call us to repentance, and we ignore this at our own peril.
First of all, in verses 1 through 5, we have recounted for us how Herod came to hear of the ministry of Jesus Christ and what his response to that ministry was. And in that passage we learn the importance and the power of conscience for Herod’s conscience is nagging him. But it’s not nagging him in a saving way. He's guilty of things and he's bothered by those things in his heart even if he doesn't admit them openly, but he's not bothered enough to seek a Savior. And so in this passage, which recounts Herod’s reaction to the news of Jesus' ministry, we are reminded that we need to recognize the importance and the power of conscience.
In verse 1 of chapter 14 we see that word of Jesus' ministry had reached even into the courts of Herod. Now that's important because we need to understand that though Jesus often did His ministry in the wilderness, that it was known all over Israel – even in the courts of the kings. Even in the halls of authority and power the ministry of Jesus was known. The evangelist wants you to know that Jesus was not doing His ministry in the corner somewhere. Everyone who was anyone knew what Jesus was saying and doing in Israel. It had gotten even to the halls of power where normally those kinds of men are not concerned with matters of spiritual importance. That is an indication of how widespread was the knowledge in Israel of Jesus' ministry. And in this context, Herod responds to this news of Jesus' ministry with fear. He was superstitious, and so he feared that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead to continue to hound him and he was worried about this. He announces to those around him this is John the Baptist, he is risen from the dead and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him. We remember from our previous study that John did not perform miracles. He was a faithful minister of the gospel, he preached in the power of the Holy Spirit and yet he did not do miracles. But now Herod hears a report about Jesus doing miracles and his answer to that is well this must be John risen from the dead and therefore he now has miracle power. He's now able to do signs and wonders that's what going on here. It's John come back from the dead to harry me. Bishop Paul says of Herod these words: “A wicked man needs no other tormentor. Especially for sins of blood than his own heart.” And that was true of Herod. Herod knew that he was wrong in the murder of John the Baptist. He knew that he was wrong in the foolish vow that he had made during his own birthday party and that still continued to nag at his conscience and so when he hears word of Jesus' ministry that superstitious response of Herod is to think that John has come back to bother him again.
Now we learn in verses 3 through 12 why Herod responded to Jesus' ministry in this way. If we didn't have verses 3 through 12, we'd be wondering, “Why is Herod talking about John the Baptist when he hears about Jesus' ministry?” Well verses 3 through 12 tell us why Herod was thinking about John the Baptist when he heard about the miraculous ministry of Jesus in the area. Verses 3 through 12 also explain to us why Jesus would remove Himself from public ministry in Herod’s domain and give Himself to teaching His disciples. Because Herod had already acted in a rash and a wicked way against the faithful servant of the Lord and Jesus knew that it was not yet His time and therefore He removes His way from open conflict with Herod in that particular region.
Now we learn in verses 3 through 12 that John had openly denounced Herod for his what we would call today lifestyle. Herod was not only living in an adulterous relationship, he was living in an incestuous relationship and John had apparently confronted him to his face about it. You can see the bravery of John. It would have been in John's best interest to keep his mouth shut and yet he speaks the truth to Herod. Let me say in passing that no prophet of God ever speaks the truth out of hatred for a person. Out of love for Herod and desire to see him converted, out of a desire to see him repent of his sin and restored in fellowship with God, John bravely denounces the sin in which he is engaged. It would have been a lot easier for John to just skirt over that. To never get involved in that matter. He could have said to himself, “Well, I mean Herod is not a member of my congregation. I'm not out there baptizing people like Herod. I'll just leave Herod to himself.” But John bravely pronounces God's word against Herod.
Of course Herod was in a prominent place in Israel. He was a leader of god's people and it was his responsibility as a leader of God's people to uphold the standards which God has set down in his word. And Herod was obviously not doing that and so John bravely denounces him.
Let me recount for you this bizarre relationship which obtained in Herod’s own family and the effect that it had on his offspring. Herodias, Herod’s wife, (the Herod of this passage) Herodias had married her half-uncle, a man named Herod Philip who is just called Philip in this passage. She had married her half-uncle, Herod Philip, and she had born him a daughter. The daughter is the one who is dancing in this passage. Josephus tells us her name, Salome. Now, this daughter, the daughter of Herodias would herself later marry her half-uncle thus becoming her mother's sister-in-law and aunt. Now, you can see how the bizarre life-style of Herod and Herodias has its effect on the next generation? Herod on a visit to his brother, Herod Philip, had met Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias. He became infatuated with her. She became infatuated with him. Herod divorced his wife. Herodias divorced her husband and they married. And so, Herod was not only involved in an adulterous affair, he was involved in an incestuous affair having married his living brother's wife. And so, both the laws of Leviticus and the Ten Commandments and the commandment which speaks against adultery condemned Herod for what he was doing. John had simply preached that to Herod. And Herod, we are told in this passage, hated John for having brought that to his attention.
And that is so often the response of people who are already in the grip of sin. When someone for their good speaks to them about their sin desiring only their best interest, the response is to hate them. And that's exactly what Herod did. In fact, we're told in this passage that what Herod wanted to do was kill John immediately. But you'll see what a weak man Herod was. We're told that the reason Herod didn't kill John immediately was because he was afraid of what the multitudes would think. Herod did what he did, not because he thought it was right, but because he thought that it was expedient. And there you see a key to the heart of Herod. He was not moved by doing that which was right. He was moved by doing that which was expedient. That which would give him favor with the multitudes. He no doubt feared that there might be some sort of rebellion because John was still popular amongst the multitudes and were he to kill John there would be some sort of uprising incident so he throws him in prison. And yet, John's words come back to haunt Herod, don't they. Long after God's witnesses are gone, their witness remains. Long after God's messengers are gone, their message still speaks. And so when Herod hears of Jesus' ministry, he immediately remembers John. He remembers what John had said and he remembers what he had done to John. And his conscience is bothered. J.C. Ryle says “God's witnesses may be put out of the way, but their testimony often lives and works on long after they are dead.” God's prophets do not live forever, but their words often survive them. And that's exactly what happened in Herod’s context. And yet, his conscience though bothered was not to be tender before the word of God. Herod, when he hears of Jesus' ministry, reacts with the same kind of terror, the same kind of anxiety that he had reacted to John's ministry.
Now Herod’s conscience, his nagging conscience and the hardness of his conscience before the word of John is a reminder to us to look at our own consciences. Are our consciences tender under God's word? Or do we harden them when God's word pricks them? Are we sensitive when we realize that we're out of accord with God's word? Do we desire the sweetness of being corrected for our own eternal good in God's glory or do we reject the counsel of those who love us but who speak the truth? That is a great marker as to what the work of the Holy Spirit has been in our hearts. Those who have been changed, though they may find it painful and hard to accept the rebuke of a brother or a sister to conscience, yet they eventually are able to receive that for their own spiritual welfare. How are our consciences before god's word? Looking at the life of Herod ought to make us ask that question.
II. Christians should not expect reward in this life, but our hope is in the life to come.
In verses 6 through 12, though, we see a different thing. A totally distinct lesson we learn in that section. There we have the account of John's murder. And we learn in that passage that Christians must not expect our reward in this life but we must put our hope in things to come. Matthew now recounts exactly for us how Herod came to murder John the Baptist. And it all began with a birthday party. Now, there's nothing wrong with birthday parties, but this was a very out of control affair. It was an affair in which normally women were not invited. It was going to be a raucous party – there was going to be drinking and there was going to be other unsavory activity and normally even in the Near East in this time women were not invited in to such an occasion. It is instructive then that a young girl was brought in to dance at this kind of occasion. And again, it shows you the kind of the household Herod’s household was and in this context with Herod’s mind weakened by drunkenness and his lips ready to speak things that he would have been wiser not to have spoken in other times, his guard is let down. And so this party becomes an occasion for great evil and sin.
I hasten to add that after denouncing Herod for his involvement in this kind of a party for about a half paragraph, Calvin himself goes on to say not that it is wrong in itself to have a good party. I know that my wife and many others will be very relieved by that because she really likes a good party. The party itself was not the problem. The attitude of those who were involved was the problem. The things that went on there were inappropriate and so Herodias' daughter comes out and dances for the party even though women were not present at such occasions usually. And she extracts from Herod an oath promising to her the head of John the Baptist. And so John is finally executed as a result of a fleeting promise made by a drunken monarch to a dancing girl. What an ignominious end for a faithful prophet of God. We're stunned when we get to the end of this passage. When we get to verse 11, we can't believe that God would have let John's life end this way. Your faithful servant of the Lord imprisoned for months and then beheaded and the request of a dancing girl. Lord, surely this isn't what You intended. Surely this is a mistake. But as J.C. Ryle reminds us, “God's children must not look for their reward in this world.”
If ever there was a case of ungodliness of godliness unrewarded in this life, it's John's case. Here's a man who deserved, if anyone deserved, the reward of a faithful servant and yet, here his life ends in such a way. J.C. Ryle says, “Truly there was an event here, if ever there was one in the world, which might make an ignorant man say what profit is it to serve God?” But even in this event we learn that our hope must be placed on the city which has foundations. That's where John's hope was. And though surely this must have been the most disappointing of ways to end the ministry. I can imagine not so much the martyrdom but the imprisonment in the last months of his life when John would have been wanting to be useful in god's service. It must have been terribly frustrating for that man. He would have wanted to be preaching repentance and preaching and preparing the way for Christ and here he is confined and then finally executed. And yet God's plan is perfect. And John had put his hope on those things to come. Ryle again says, “Let all true Christians remember that their best things are yet to come. Let us count it not strange if we have sufferings in this present time.” It is a season of probation. We are still at school. We are learning patience, long suffering, gentleness, meekness which we could hardly learn if we had all our good things now. But there is an eternal holiday yet to begin. For this, let us wait quietly. It will make amends for all. Our light affliction which is but for a moment works for us a far more exceeding and eternal way to glory, Paul says.
Many of you may be facing those kinds of trials or afflictions as you come this morning. The message of this passage is that our hope must be on those eternal things. Even as we come to this table, we remember that our Lord also suffered a death which He did not deserve and yet it was the stratagem of god for our good and for His glory. Let us believe that as we come to this table, trusting Him in all the providences, of life for He is in control and He is good and He is wise and He will make it right in the end. Let us prepare to come to the table.
Our heavenly Father, we thank You for the truth of Your word. And we thank You for this passage as dark and horrid as it is, for there is no work of yours which will not ultimately make sense in the light of glory. Help us then to trust You until that day. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.