The Old Testament promises in its final book that before the coming of our Lord He will send “Elijah” to initiate a New Covenant work among His people (Mal. 4:5-6). Based on how this passage is used in the NT, it appears quite obvious that John the Baptist was the initial fulfillment of this great promise—as the final OT prophet laying the foundation for the full work Christ would do in His first and second advents—yet with a future fullness to be completed in that final day of our Lord (vv. 1-3; cf. Rev. 11:1-14—while we cannot be dogmatic about the identity of these future men, I believe a strong case can be made that they are Elijah and Enoch, and that has been my own view for some years).
As the prophesied forerunner to our Lord Jesus, John pointed away from himself and to the work that God was about to do for Israel and the whole world. In true prophetic fashion, he called the people to radical repentance in view of God’s promises being fulfilled and His glorious kingdom work. But John’s demise offers a clear lesson for us: Fidelity to Christ and His ways will earn us the ire of an ungodly culture. This is especially true in our day, as the world around us (even in America!) is particularly aggressive in its rejection of Christianity and its advance of secularism. The full-throated proclamation of the whole counsel of God, particularly regarding hot-button issues that cross the will of social progressives in the highest echelons of media (both journalism and the arts/entertainment industries), politics, and academia, will create significant cultural and social cost. This will be true regardless of how winsome we are, or how non-threatening we attempt to be. (Those churches and ministries that wimpily pander to the lusts and carnality of the wider culture may find themselves able to delay the opposition for a significant time, but unless they become full-bore advocates of the new morality, especially regarding sexuality and gender, they too will sooner or later come under fire from the elite, if only for being associated with backwards evangelicals.)
John reminds us that proper faithfulness to the truth of Christ, while never compromising true love for people and extending the transforming grace of God, will not win us the accolades of a watching society (apart from the common and special grace of God, of course). While we may not find our heads on a platter given to a harlot queen, we well may be crucified in the media, attacked in opinion pieces, slandered on Twitter, and lose jobs, friendships, privileges, and opportunities. Far less than our brethren in the Third World lose, and yet many of us cave when someone blocks us on Facebook! How desperately we need the consecrated faithfulness of John! It is to his story we now turn.
A. Herod’s Concerns About Jesus (vv. 14-16)
A helpful note to understand before reading the narrative is that verses 14-16 cover the present time in the ministry of Christ (just after He sent out the Twelve), while the rest of the passage looks backward to explain something that happened in the past. You see, Jesus was an endless source of speculation and interest for the many people that heard Him during His ministry. Rather than accept what He said about Himself (that He was Messiah and God in flesh), many people thought all kinds of odd things about Him. Some felt He was Elijah (v. 15a) or another one of the OT prophets resurrected (v. 15b). But a good number were convinced He was John the Baptist raised (v. 14). And this is precisely what Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and despotic tetrarch of Galilee until his AD 39 banishment by Emperor Caligula, thought as well (v. 16). His guilty conscience coupled with his ignorance conspired to torment him. Herod says over and over to himself that John whom he beheaded has risen. How did this come about? The rest of the narrative explains why.
B. The Clashing Conflict (vv. 17-20)
The family of Herod appeared to have an unusual concentration of ungodliness. Perhaps this was chiefly manifest in the complex incestuous relationship between several members. Herod Antipas had a half-brother, Philip; Herodias, Philip’s wife, was the daughter of a third half-brother, Aristobulus, and therefore Herodias was Philip’s half-niece as well as his wife! Yet for some reason, Herodias left Philip and attempted to marry Herod Antipas—assuming, of course, that he ditched his current wife (a Nabatean princess).
John enters this story because in the course of his preaching and public ministry, he did not shy away from the public ungodliness of the leadership—which included Herod’s grossly immoral relationship with Herodias. He repeatedly rebuked the two to their faces. The kingdom was coming and judgment would fall on them, too; they were not exempt because they were famous and powerful. Nor was John allowed to soften his message or not present the whole truth of God because it might offend the man with great political power over his life and freedom! And lose his freedom he did—for he has spent the last several months in jail at the insistence of the tetrarch’s wife.
Herodias loathed the godly man, and attempted more than once to put him to death (likely by underhanded and illicit means). But she was frustrated by her uncle-husband, who protected John from her attempts on his life. Herod had enough superstition and fear in him to be afraid of what might happen if they executed such a godly man. He often found himself perplexed by John’s preaching (worldview clashes tend to do that), but enjoyed listening to him (doubtless John’s depth, passion, and courage were most fascinating).
Torn between his wicked wife and the pressure of a godly man’s ministry upon his heart, Herod was in the perfect place to be manipulated by Satan himself.
C. The Cooked-Up Scheme (vv. 21-25)
We must not forget the manipulative, scheming agency of Herodias in this story. She typifies the worst ungodly hearer of the gospel—the one who is so given over to sin and imprisoned in a worldview of unbelief that they attempt to destroy the person proclaiming the gospel, rather than yielding to its claims on their life. She wanted her sin; she did not want to be constantly told she was a sinner who needed to repent. Her opportunity came when Herod’s birthday celebration arrived.
A lavish party was thrown for all the glitterati of the political, military, and cultural worlds. Rich food and much wine was had, and then came the surprise: Herodias’s daughter, the lovely Salome, entered the room and danced for the guests. The Greek term behind “danced” tells us it was a highly erotic, sexual, sensual dance intended to arouse and seduce—one more fitting for a dimly-lit club in Las Vegas than a room full of dignitaries! Herodias knew her husband’s weakness for beautiful women and the lust of the flesh, and she knew how putty-like men are when under the control of their sexual passions. (O how terribly important it is to consecrate our sexuality to the Lordship of Christ and seek to be constantly filled with His Spirit!)
It worked. Drunk with wine and sensual stimulation, Herod exclaims to the woman who has trapped him: “Ask me for whatever you want, and I’ll give it to you—anything, up to half my kingdom” (v. 23—a bit ironic, given that as an appointed political leader Herod had no kingdom to give!). Seeing her opportunity, Salome slips away to her mother, who has orchestrated the whole thing, and asks what to ask for. Herodias, of course, has wanted only one thing.
Salome goes back into the party and, in view of all, says: “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter!”
Imagine the shock and sobriety that rushed into that room, likely inhaled by the gasps coming from hundreds of mouths. None was more overwhelmed than Herod, who immediately realized the trap he had just walked into. Consumed by passion and inebriation, he had exposed himself to the control and designs of an ungodly woman, and now he had to pay the price. After all, he couldn’t very well say no—not with many important people watching him. He would lose face, and what was a man’s lost life if it prevented Herod from losing that? (Do you see what a snare the fear of man is?)
D. The Execution of John and Conclusion (vv. 26-29)
So Herod sent an executioner to the prison and immediately, without fanfare, had John beheaded. His spirit instantly entered the presence of God, awaiting with the godly men and women of old the resurrection (could it be that John was one of those raised at the crucifixion of our Lord in Matthew 27:52-53?). Doubtless he received rich commendation and reward from God, and it will be our privilege to see him publicly lauded and rewarded on the last day.
But in the meantime, there is only blood, and gore, and a slumped headless body lying on the floor of a dirty prison. And, of course, there is the ghastly satisfaction of a terrible woman, who looks at her prize dripping blood off a platter onto a palace floor, and has neither the heart nor eyes to see the climax of her unbelief and ungodliness for what it is.
We are left with a cowardly, wicked, shamed man, tormented by his conscience and knowing exactly what he did, but without grace from God to repent and receive the forgiveness of the One he ultimately offended.
What a contrast with the godly men and women who followed John. Their hearts had been arrested by the grace of God, and they had repented in preparation of the coming King and His Kingdom. With tears and mourning and shock they collected their fallen leader’s body and laid it in a tomb. We learn from Matthew’s account that they told Jesus about it—they knew of the special relationship John had with Him—and that when our Lord heard it, He immediately got into a boat and withdrew to a secluded area to be alone with His Father in grief. Of course, the crowds found out, and Jesus once again died to Himself and welcomed them, healing them and working one of the most well-known miracles of His ministry (the feeding of the 5,000).
Will our faithfulness cost us our heads? At this point, probably not. But it will always cost us something (even something as “small” as death to self!). God does not shy away from telling us the cost of following Him. But He assures us that it does not compare with the endless reward we shall have as sons and daughters in His kingdom. May God grant us grace to be faithful until the day we see Jesus Christ!