The Crime Scene
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the news about Jesus,
2 and said to his servants, "This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him."
3 For when Herod had John arrested, he bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip.
4 For John had been saying to him, "It is not lawful for you to leave her."
5 Although Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded John as a prophet.
6 But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod,
7 so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever he asked.
8 Having been prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist."
9 Although he was grieved, the king commanded it to be given because of his oaths, and because of his dinner guests.
10 He sent and had John beheaded in prison.
11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
Compared to the writing styles we're used to in the Western World, this passage may seem distractingly non-chronological. But it seems that Matthew wanted to emphasize the important point first - that Herod thought Jesus might be John the Baptist back from the dead - before going back and explaining how John the Baptist died. He blurts out the critical information first, then explains the backstory.
To start out with, Herod was a Roman tetrarch. The Roman Empire was far too enormous for one man to effectively rule by himself, especially in an age before airplanes and e-mail. So, the government was set up so that the Caesar indeed had ultimate authority, but a number of rulers were set up over different regions of Rome in a stratified ruling system. The tetrarchs, like Herod, were directly under Caesar. But rather than being Vice Presidents, they were kings in their own right, and only really answered to Caeser when something major happened. Therefore, Herod's role was a volatile mix of the power of a king to do whatever he wanted, with the fear of what Caesar would do to him if he screwed up. Both of these elements would influence his behavior to his detriment, as we shall see.
The problem started when Herod decided he fancied his sister-in-law Herodias. They began an affair, then Herod divorced his own wife, brought about a divorce for Herodias, and then the two of them married. By God's established standards for marriage, this is atrocious. His overall depravity (still relatively mild by ancient Roman standards, however!) is even more clear later in the passage, when he gets so turned on by his step-daughter's strip-tease that he makes the terrible mistake of promising her anything she wants. As you can see, this entire situation was an abomination - it's no wonder John the Baptist called Herod out on his behavior.
But this brings up an interesting controversy: How are WE to handle similar situations today? On one hand, we see numerous Biblical instances, like here, of God's followers standing up for what is morally right and calling rulers out on it. Yet, 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 makes it clear that we are to call out individual sins only in other believers, not in unbelievers. You see, telling your unbelieving friend that it's wrong to lie (for example) won't really do any good - even if they stop lying, becoming morally better doesn't bring them any closer to God. It's a spot clean, with no real effect on their eternal soul. So, how do we reconcile these? I offer a few Biblically-based ideas about this issue. Note that these are my opinions; I do not think the Bible anywhere specifically spells out this issue, so I have done my best to come up with some guidelines. If you have more to add, or disagree with me, please share in the comments. :-)
- All the instances I can think of where an individual is called out (not just behavior condemned in general) is when they are a very public figure who serves as an influential example. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to do so in such an instance.
- When dealing with "regular" people who are unbelievers, however, I highly recommend condemning sinful behavior in general, but not individual people. For example, I fully believe that abortion is the murder of a baby, but if I were to meet a woman who had an abortion, I would certainly not call her a murderer! It's is love, not hate-speech, that brings people to repentance.
- Follow the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Seriously. This is extremely important every single time we communicate with others about God, because we Christians misrepresent Him so often. Pray for Him to lead you in each encounter, and tune your spirit to listen to Him.
Okay, so Herod hated John's guts for condemning his behavior (thus humiliating him, destroying the people's respect for him, and usurping his power), but he had a problem - the people loved John, viewing him as a prophet sent from God. If he killed John, the people would revolt - and the one thing that everyone (the people, the Jewish leaders, and the Roman leaders) feared most at this time was a revolt. Mass casualty would occur, leaders could be executed for "failing," and the entire social system would become chaos. It would be bad for everyone, plain and simple. But it seems that his sister-in-law/wife Herodias didn't think, or perhaps didn't care, about the consequences. John was humiliating her too, and she wanted him dead. So, knowing Herod's lust, she devised the little scheme...and we see what happened.
Although there were plenty of reasons for Herod not to kill John the Baptist, he ultimately went the way that all the Old Testament prophets did, and that so many people who have spoken out on moral issues throughout history go - a grissly death. We should keep in mind that if we choose to be bold for Christ, too - as we are commanded to be - we risk this same fate. 2 Timothy 3:12 tells us, "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Are you willing to suffer for the Truth?
The Emotional Aftermath
12 His disciples came and took away the body and buried it; and they went and reported to Jesus.
13 Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities.
14 When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.
We catch a beautiful glimpse of Jesus's deep love in this passage. I find it so stirring that our God can relate to our every emotion.
First off, it seems obvious why Jesus was so emotionally torn-up when we consider that John was His cousin. But, then take a look at Matthew 12:46-50 - we are Jesus's family! Take a moment to think about what this means - whenever you're going through something, God isn't detached or indifferent - He suffers right alongside you.
Second, He was clearly so depressed that He just wanted to be alone, yet when the crowd followed Him, He had compassion and ministered to them anyway. Not only does this demonstrate His love, but it's also a wonderful example of how we should strive to act, as well.
Questions for You
What thoughts do you have on the issue of calling out sin, like John did to Herod?
Is there anything else you noticed in the passage, or that it made you think about, that you'd like to share?
Any questions? Do I need to clarify something? :-)
Giving Credit Where It's Due
Image Number One: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Carvaggio. Wikipedia. Public domain in the United States.
Image Number Two: Sea of Galilee, by Pacman. Wikipedia. Public domain.