Life does not always go the way you expect it to go. Sometimes good people die young and mean people live long. Sometimes justice is served, at other times it is perverted. Some days are delightful and other days are discouraging. This morning we are going to look at an example of this in Matthew 14:1-12. It is the story of the death of John the Baptist.
You remember John. John the Baptist was born 6 months before Jesus to Zechariah the priest and his wife, Elizabeth. Mary (the mother of Jesus) and Elizabeth were related. John’s birth, like the birth of Christ, was announced by an angel. John faithfully proclaimed the Word of the Lord. He called people to repentance (in other words to turn from their sin and run to the Lord for mercy and grace.) When Jesus came on the scene, John said, “He must increase and I must decrease”. He understood his role as the forerunner to Christ. He did it well. You would have thought he would have had a better fate than what happened.
When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus, 2 he said to his advisers, “This must be John the Baptist raised from the dead! That is why he can do such miracles.”
3 For Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias (the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip). 4 John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet.
6 But at a birthday party for Herod, Herodias’s daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, 7 so he promised with a vow to give her anything she wanted. 8 At her mother’s urging, the girl said, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a tray!” 9 Then the king regretted what he had said; but because of the vow he had made in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders. 10 So John was beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a tray and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. 12 Later, John’s disciples came for his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what had happened.
When you read the name Herod (and it is present a great deal in the New Testament) it is confusing. There were several men named Herod. A commentary or study Bible will help you know which Herod we are talking about. Here are three of the Herod’s you read about in the Bible.
- Herod the Great (the Herod when Jesus was born and the one who murdered all the babies to try to kill Jesus)
- Herod Archelaus was the Herod on the throne when Mary and Joseph felt it was safe to return from Egypt.
- Herod Antipas When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four parts. Herod Antipas was given the area of Jerusalem. He is the Herod alive during the life of Jesus and the one involved in the trials of Jesus. This is the Herod that we read about this morning; the one who was responsible for the death of John the Baptist.
- Herod Agrippa (Acts 12) was ruler when James the disciple was killed.
- Herod Agrippa (ruled during the time of Paul)
Herod Antipas was a bit of a playboy. He became ruler at the age of 17. He married the daughter of the King of Petra. However, Herod became interested in his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Herodias was also Antipas’s niece, the daughter of another half-brother, Aristobulus. (Are you keeping up? Herod Antipas wanted to divorce his current wife and marry his sister-in-law/niece!) This did not set well with the King of Petra (the father of the wife cast aside) who later in 36 AD started a war that led to Antipas’ downfall.
When John the Baptist heard about what was going on, he condemned these actions. Some may say it wasn’t the most prudent thing to do, but sometimes, if you don’t speak up, you appear to condone a behavior. John saw himself in a prophetic role. He declared the marriage condemned by God.
Both Herod and Herodias were upset by the words of John the Baptist. How dare this prophet speak against them!!! So, Herod had John arrested and thrown in prison. Surprisingly, it appears that Herod found John to be basically a good guy. He liked visiting with him.
Herod’s birthday comes and Herodias’s daughter, Salome (born to Antipas’ brother, Philip) decided to put on a little dance/show for the guests. It is estimated that Salome was probably 12-14 years old. (Because women were given in marriage so much earlier in that day, some have suggested that her dance would be like an 18-20- year-old girl coming out and doing what most believe was a seductive dance).
The room was likely filled with drunk men. The dance was effective, it got youthful juices going. When she finished dancing, Herod decided to show off just a little. He told Salome that she did such a good job He would give her anything she wanted, up to half the Kingdom.
Salome talked it over with her mom and came back requesting the head of John the Baptist — on a silver platter no less! Herod’s heart sank. He had been outmaneuvered and couldn’t do anything about it. Herod liked John and did not want to execute someone who was so popular with the people. However, Herod’s ego was much larger than his embarrassment. He had no choice, if he wanted to save face, but to call for the order to execute John. It was a travesty of justice. A cruel end for a godly man.
So far, this has been a history lesson. You may be wondering why in the world are we talking about this text? It is because we believe the best way to grow in the faith is to study the Bible systematically. In other words, we start at the beginning of one of the Bible books and then work our way all the way through the book. We believe the whole Bible is inspired and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Some passages (like this one) test that a little, but here we are. Certainly one of the main points of this text is to give us background but I do believe there are some things to learn
The Lengths We Go to Conceal Sin are Staggering
One of the biggest barriers to reaching people with the gospel is the belief that we are basically good people. You hear it all the time and, we believe it about ourselves. As a result, we don’t like it when people show us our own sin and failures.
If someone points out an inconsistency or sin in our life we will instinctively defend ourselves with,
- Justifications– “everybody is doing it”; “it didn’t hurt anyone” (which is usually very short-sighted), or “I meant well” (which often is an outright lie)
- Reframing – this is when we try to make what is sinful sound noble. “But we love each other”, or “I was just protecting my family” or “these people don’t kmow what they are doing.
- Counter-attack. When justification and reframing doesn’t work, you attack and try to divert attention from your sinfulness by saying things like, “What about you? I remember the time you did . . . “ or “Who are you to be so judgmental?” “What right do you have to criticize me?”
And if none of these things work we just end the relationship. There are families, siblings, and friends who have not spoken since a time when sin was confronted and it didn’t go well.
The Bible tells us that we must confess and repent before we can be forgiven. The rationale is easy to see. Until you acknowledge a problem there is no remedy to apply. Until we admit we are broken and unable to save ourselves, the gospel is of no use to us. The message of the gospel is not given to good people as a reward. It is given to broken people to make them whole!
The first step in growing in Christ is facing your own sinfulness. It is not that we must beat ourselves up and grovel. We must be honest! Many people are turned off by Christians because we come across as self-righteous. Why do people feel this way? It is because too often Christian people DO believe they are better people than those who do not know Christ as Savior. We are NOT better, we are simply better off!
If we want to help people face the rebellion in their lives we must talk to them humbly an as one who is also a fellow struggler.
There will always be times we must choose between truth and what is politically correct
Martin Luther saw a problem in the church and tried to fix it by nailing 95 theses (or items for discussion) on the door in the church in Wittenberg. Luther wasn’t trying to cause trouble; he was trying to turn the church from sinful practices. He ended up excommunicated and the Reformation was born.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood against the abuses of the German government. He broke the law (willing to take punishment to make a point). He served as a spy for the allied armies. He even helped in a plot to assassinate Hitler. I don’t know whether he always approached things in a way that honored God, but, he believed he had to do something to stop the evil that was around him. While other churches simply did what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis said, Bonhoeffer tried to stand for what was right and true. He was subsequently arrested and executed.
William Wilberforce campaigned for years in England against the slave trade. He argued for the equality of all men regardless of color. He was ridiculed but he persevered.
Martin Luther King Jr. campaigned in our own country for equality and the dignity of all men. People who stood with him were willing to be arrested and beaten. They were non-violent but their protests awakened a nation.
Do you remember the story of Cassie Burnall? She was one of the students at the Columbine High School shootings years ago. One of the student gunman asked Cassie if she was a follower of Christ. She said she was a believer and he killed her. Her story, as tragic as it is, stirred the Christian community. It reminded us all that Jesus never said it would be “safe” to be a believer. He said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.”
Over the years, believers have been burned at the stake, beheaded, exiled and more because they held to the truth of the Word of God. This very thing is being is still happening in various places around the world. They likely could have saved themselves if they just kept quiet and said what was socially acceptable, however, some of the most important movements in history would have never taken place. The point? If you stand for Christ, some people are going to shoot at you. Sometimes with words, sometimes with actual guns.
Having said all this, it is important to add: This does not give us license to blast away at people. We are to confront sin in a way that tries to open doors of communication and repentance rather than cause people to take up arms against us.
In a world of political correctness, it is unpopular to say Jesus is the only way to Heaven. You will be called narrow-minded, a bigot, a hate-monger and possibly much worse. But which is worse: to say nothing, and allow someone to continue the delusion that they are “fine with God”; or to say something and risk anger? I would contend it is far worse to know what is right and to remain silent.
If you knew someone was sick (but they were in denial) and you had a cure for the sickness, would you keep trying to convince them that they could be well? You would do everything you could to communicate the truth to this person. If you would do this to save them from cancer, what should you do to save them from eternal condemnation? In our desire to avoid offense, we are not being kind . . . we are being selfish! We are protecting ourselves rather than showing concern for the other person.
But this is dangerous work. It is dangerous, because of hostility, but it is also dangerous because pride sometimes steps in when we take a stand. Some people love the conflict, the attention, the power. Unfortunately, when we lose our focus, we try to start fighting with the weapons and tactics of the world: we attempt to show we are more powerful than the other person. We resort to coercion rather than reason and discussion. Now it is no longer about right and wrong, it is about winning and losing! That is a recipe for disaster. That approach will still bring persecution but it is not a god-honoring persecution!
Here are some simple guidelines for taking a stand for truth
- Be clear on the truth you are defending or the wrong you are trying to right. It is easy to lose sight of the issue and start demonizing people and beat them up either physically or verbally. That will not advance the truth, it only leaves bruised people. Focus on the issue not the person.
- Approach the matter prayerfully and with wisdom. Rather than re-acting think about the best way to make your point. Remember the goal is not to “win” (it is not a contest), but to awaken. A 10-count is never a bad idea.
- Come at the issue with humility rather than with arrogance. Humility will lower walls, arrogance erects them.
- Keep focused on the point of conflict and not the fight. Sometimes we are like feuding families (Hatfields and McCoys) we feud because that is what we do! No one knows what started the feud. They only know that they aren’t supposed to like the other people.
- Be prepared for consequences. There is often a price to be paid for standing for the truth. If you stand against an employer you should be prepared to lose your job. If you stand against evil people you should be prepared for attempts at intimidation. You should be prepared for a lawsuit or even a visit from law enforcement. You should not be surprised when this happens and you should be willing to take what comes without giving in to the pressure.
- Most of all, we should seek to honor the Lord in the way we confront a problem. That means we treat people with respect and honor. We must constantly guard ourselves to make sure we are behaving as a Christian and not as a pagan.
John the Baptist went to jail. He likely knew it was a possibility when he spoke up. Paul and the other apostles were imprisoned many times. It comes with the territory. If you tell the truth, there will often be a price to pay. You can do everything right and still face the angry mobs or the vindictive people who want you to be silenced. However, like John the Baptist, when people look back on what happened, they will see that you conducted yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel.
The Best Place to Run in Times of Conflict is Jesus
So John was beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a tray and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. 12 Later, John’s disciples came for his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what had happened.
I love the final words, “they went and told Jesus what had happened.” Why did they do that? Were they warning Him to be careful? Did they come to Him for sympathy (knowing John was his friend and relative)? Or did they come to Jesus to find meaning in the mess of it all? I don’t know but they are all good reasons to turn to Jesus.
To find the courage of John the Baptist we must run to Jesus for strength. Our instinct is to protect ourselves. The Lord will help us defend the truth! He will help us to see beyond ourselves to the greater issues.
In the times when we are facing attacks from others, we turn to the Lord to vindicate us, to defend us, and to give us strength to honor Him in the conflict. It is tough today to
- Take a stand against those who want to silence Christians
- Resist those who want to treat life as disposable (abortion, human trafficking, “mercy killings” and more).
- Build bridges to hurting people while not compromising on what the Bible says about sin.
- Stand firm when school and organizations continue to schedule activities that prevent families from being in worship. Or as a student when you are told you cannot talk about your faith.
- Love when others spew hatred and threats
- Engage the teachers who make unfounded claims against Christianity
All these things are difficult and we must turn to the Lord for strength and courage.
John the Baptist serves as an example of what it means to stand with Christ. He calls us to a discipleship that reaches beyond what is convenient. His example challenges us to stand up and stand firm.
May we all be found as faithful as John.