What did you make of that reading? It’s a strange story. One that some people find hard to relate to.
We’re looking at it because today we return to Matthew’s Gospel. A year or so ago we got to the end of Matthew 13, and today we pick up at the start of Matthew 14. This is a bit of a turning point in his gospel. This story is also recorded by Mark. It’s clearly a very important story. The beheading of John the Baptist.
In fact, we’re not meant to this story hard to relate to. We’re meant to identify with it. We’re meant to see ourselves in Herod, and in John, and probably in John’s disciples too.
It’s certainly a dramatic story. It draws us in.
Herod hears the reports about Jesus’ miracles. And he has a flashback. Perhaps this is John the Baptist, returned from the dead.
Matthew is brief. He expects us to know the background. Herod was the Roman ruler for this region of the empire. He’s not the same Herod who killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem after Jesus was born. This was his son, Herod Antipas.
Herod had a brother, named Philip, probably ruler of a neighbouring region. Philip had a wife whose name was Herodias. Our Herod had divorced his own wife, and brought Herodias back to live with him as his wife.
And John the Baptist had been telling the world that this wasn’t right. It wasn’t right for two reasons. First, he shouldn’t have divorced his own wife and taken another. Second, his new wife was previously married to his own brother, and the Old Testament law put her off limits.
To criticise the marriage life of a powerful ruler like that was never going to end well. Herod had John arrested and put in prison. He wanted to go the whole way and kill him, but he was too scared to do it. All the people loved John. They thought he was a prophet, come to announce that God had come to rescue his people. If Herod killed John, he’d have a riot on his hands. So he kept him in prison.
Until, one day, it was his birthday. There was a lavish party. Doubtless everyone got very drunk. The centrepiece was a dance by the daughter of Herodias. Everyone loved it, and Herod wanted to reward her. So he promised her whatever she wanted, up to half his kingdom. I don’t know what he was thinking. This was the kind of reward promised by the great Persian rulers, who ran vast empires. Herod ran little more than his own bath. He just ran a backwater of the Roman empire. The Romans had refused him the title of king.
Unfortunately for Herod, the girl was ready. Quite possibly, this was the outcome she’d been trying to engineer with her scheming mother. Out came the request: “I’d like the head of John the Baptist.”
All the cheering and clapping and dancing must have stopped very suddenly. I’m sure you’d have heard a pin drop. Herod wanted John dead but had been too weak to give the order. Now he’s asked for just that, but he’s too weak to say no. Once again, he’s frightened for his reputation. He doesn’t want to be thought a coward, so he’s a complete coward. He sends an executioner, who returns with John’s head.
It’s one of those dramas where things began to go wrong, and every time there’s a choice to be made you get the wrong choice. Things go from bad to worse. It ends up with John dead. John’s disciples were loyal. They took a great risk, and asked for the body so it could have a proper burial.
Why is this gripping drama in the Bible? Why does Matthew include it in his book?
The Jehovah’s Witnesses quote this as one of the reasons why we shouldn’t celebrate birthdays. They say: “Here’s a birthday party in the Bible, and look what happened!” That’s not why Matthew included this story!
Hating Jesus. Killing People.
This story is here to tell us that some people hate Jesus enough that they will kill in order to silence him. Some people hate Jesus enough that they will kill in order to silence him.
What happens to John is not an isolated incident. It’s anchored in the flow of the whole gospel
We need to read back, earlier in Matthew. John is killed by a ruler called Herod. In chapter 2, Matthew told us about Herod’s father, who was also called Herod. He was the one who felt threatened when the Magi told him that the king of the Jews had been born. So threatened, that he ordered the death of every boy in Bethlehem under the age of 2. John the Baptist isn’t the first person to be killed by a man called Herod, to try and silence Jesus the one true king.
But we also need to read on. Matthew tells this story as a flashback. Herod’s heard about Jesus’ miracles, and he wonders if Jesus is John come back to life. Is John back, to haunt Herod? He confuses John and Jesus.
It’s understandable. John and Jesus had plenty in common. Jesus started his public ministry when John was arrested; he picked up where John left off. At the end of Matthew 13, we saw Jesus being rejected in Galilee. Soon, he will head towards Judea, towards Jerusalem. So the flow of Matthew runs like this: Rejected in Galilee, John the Baptist killed, Jesus heads to Jerusalem. It all gives you a sinking feeling as to where Matthew’s gospel is heading, to where Jesus is heading. It’s not going to end well for Jesus either.
Jesus is a threat. So one Herod kills lots of baby boys. Another Herod kills John the Baptist. In time, Jesus himself will be killed. This trend doesn’t end with Jesus. Things can go badly for his followers, too. Here are some verses from Matthew chapter 10: “Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. … Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me … The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household! … Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. … Whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”
From time to time, violence breaks out after a football match. Not often, happily, but sometimes. The aggression is felt against the opposing team, and its players. “They just thrashed our players.” But then they find some supporters of the other team. They’re wearing the wrong colours, identified with the enemy of the moment. So the aggression gets taken out on them.
There’s a consistent theme here: Some people hate Jesus enough that they will kill in order to silence him. The Bethlehem toddlers, John the Baptist, Jesus and Jesus’ followers.
That’s what this story is here to tell us.
The question is: What effect does this have on you?
It could quite easily repel you from Jesus. Put you off following him. If you follow Jesus, there’s a cost. In fact, this story gives you two possible costs.
Cost 1: Repentance
The first cost to following Jesus is repentance. Repentance.
Why did John get killed? Verse 4 tells us: “For John had been saying to him: ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’” John was calling on Herod to repent.
God calls us to turn from behaviour that is wrong, and to turn back to him. What got John the Baptist into trouble was that he wasn’t content to stay vague and general. He didn’t tell people that they knew the kinds of things they shouldn’t be doing and they ought to stop. He was very specific.
Here’s Luke chapter 3, verses 10 to 14: “‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked. John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’ ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’ He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’”
And he was specific with Herod, too. For him, repentance meant leaving the woman he should not be with.
The trouble is, Herod was a leader, and they don’t like being told what to do. But worse than that, John’s challenge addressed the area of Herod’s marriage.
If there’s one area of life where we’re all inclined to not appreciate people interfering, it’s our most intimate relationships. What we do is our business. We don’t want other people sticking their noses in. Marriage, sexuality, relationships are thoroughly off-limits.
But the Christian gospel, the Christian message of good news is that Jesus Christ is Lord. That means he is Lord of all of life. He wants to take charge of every area of life. Including our relationships, and our family life.
Do you see how this could put you off from following Jesus. Once you see that Jesus is going to expect to take charge there of all places, we’re tempted to run a mile.
Picture it this way: You let Jesus into your life. Imagine your life as a home. In he comes, and he starts opening doors, going into rooms, moving things around, tidying things up. Then he goes upstairs. He puts his hand on the door to one of the bedrooms, or one of the cupboards. And instinctively you cry out: “Not that room! You can’t go in there.”
But he can. He’s Lord. And he will.
There’s the first cost to following Jesus: Repentance.
Cost 2: Rejection
This story shows us a second cost, too. That is the cost of rejection. Rejection.
This one doesn’t take so much explaining, but it does need us to pause for a moment and name the fear that some of us feel.
We hesitate to run to Jesus. We hesitate to be known as one of his followers. Because if we do, we risk being treated as he was.
We’ve seen that Jesus says that this will happen. Some people didn’t like Jesus. So lots of toddlers lost their lives, John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was crucified.
John’s disciples bravely collected the body. “I’m with him”, they said. Joseph of Arimathea bravely collected the body. “I’m with him,” he said.
Now: It’s your turn. Will you be known as one of his disciples? Will you be identified with Jesus the crucified? Will you take the risk that you might be treated as he was treated?
Or will you keep your distance from Jesus, because you fear the rejection.
Come to Jesus
This story about John the Baptist losing his head could easily put you off.
But in fact, it’s a reason to run to Jesus instead.
We have to see this in the context of the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew has painted a very careful picture of Jesus. He’s the promised Messiah that the Jews had waited centuries for. He came to bring God’s blessings. He came to restore the whole world to how it was always meant to be. He came to be king over his people, in a renewed world, free of pain and suffering, marked by perfect joy.
You get a tiny foretaste of this in Jesus’ miracles. As Jesus put people’s lives back together, heaven was breaking through. We see the future Jesus came to bring, being worked out in miniature in his miracles.
Now, we all know that when you give someone a present, you should never leave the price label on. If it’s a cheap present, you don’t want them to think you don’t value them. If it’s expensive, British modesty says they should have no idea what you just spent.
With Jesus, he left the price on. We can all see what it cost, and it’s here in this story. Jesus came to bring in a new world order for all of his people. And it wasn’t cheap.
It cost John the Baptist his head to be the one to announce it.
It cost Jesus his life to purchase new life for us.
It cost Jesus’ first followers who wrote down the gospel in what we now call the New Testament. Many of them died as martyrs rather than peacefully in their beds.
Those who first told me the gospel paid a high price for their loyalty to Jesus the king.
The kingdom Jesus came to bring is something so precious. And it came at great cost.
So this story is an invitation to all of us to follow Jesus.
Yes, it will cost us.
Jesus will call us to repent, and he may put his finger on areas of our lives that we’d rather he didn’t.
Others may reject us, as they did John and Jesus before us.
But look at John the Baptist. Through him, look at Jesus himself. We see someone who paid a high price to bring us the gift of the kingdom of heaven.
The invitation to follow Jesus comes through that grid. No price you are asked to pay becomes too high. He holds his arms out, and invites you to come. Because the real price has already been paid.