Elijah, John and You (Matthew 14:1-12)
We are in the section of the Book of Matthew we may entitle “growing rejection.” Ministry is not going as some might have expected for the Lord Jesus. The religious leaders of Israel are bent on murdering Jesus. The crowds are beginning to grumble at the things Christ is preaching. Even Jesus’ own disciples begin to question some of his words.
In the previous Jesus declared that a prophet is not without honor except in his hometown. The Lord’s neighbors refused to believe that their hometown boy could be the Messiah.
Our passage records the circumstances surrounding John the Baptist’s death. This story of John’s death foreshadows what would soon happen to Christ. The Lord himself makes this connection in Matt 17:12 when he says of John; “they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” As they treated John, so shall they treat Jesus.
Those familiar with the Old Testament would immediately see a similarity between Herod and his wife and a certain married couple in Israel that persecuted Elijah. Both Elijah and John announced coming judgment on the nation Israel. A cowardly king and his manipulative wife persecuted both John and Elijah. I am referring to Ahab and Jezebel. As Ahab and Jezebel persecuted the Old Testament Elijah, Herod and his wife persecuted the New Testament Elijah, John the Baptist.
Now you see why John’s death foreshadows Christ’s death. Yes, Ahab and Jezebel persecuted Elijah, but Jesus came to change all that, didn’t he? The Messiah was supposed to come and rid Israel of people like Ahab and Jezebel so God’s people would no longer be persecuted. But Jesus does nothing to stop John’s death. What does that tell you? Since John and Jesus proclaimed the same message, and Jesus did not stop John from being killed, what would soon happen to Jesus?
Now Herod, whose name was Herod Antipas, ruled the province of Galilee. When Herod heard of the miracles Christ was performing, he feared that John the Baptist, whom he had executed, had risen from the dead. Herod was a Jew and was mixing a belief in the afterlife with superstition and fear.
Matthew takes us back a few months to explain how John was murdered. Matthew does not omit the offensive details of the drunken feast that led to John’s death. This whole account is filled with a litany of vile sins of Herod and those around him.
The account begins with the sin of adultery. Though Herod was already married, he had an affair with the wife of his half brother, Philip. Eventually Herod and Philip’s wife eloped, and Herod then divorced his first wife.
John’s ministry was to show the Israelites that they needed Christ. He warned the Jews that being Jewish would not save them; that they were sinners in God’s sight ripe for judgment, and that they must repent and trust in God’s Savior, who was now alive in Israel. John’s message did not change no matter whom he was speaking to.
John would often courageously confront Herod with the fact that he was an adulterer who needed to repent. John spoke to the rich and powerful the same way he spoke to the poor and powerless. Unlike America, there was no religious and political freedom of speech in Israel, so Herod had John arrested.
In v. 5 you see Herod’s fear of man. Herod was a political animal; he was afraid to put John to death because John was popular. Instead Herod kept John in prison. Herod was a people pleaser with no backbone.
As the story develops, the sins surrounding Herod become more perverse. Herod “humbly” throws a birthday party for himself, which were usually drunken feasts for men only. For those invited, attendance at these parties was mandatory if you knew what was good for you.
Matthew informs us that Herod had his own daughter come and sensually dance for his male guests. V. 6 suggests the incestuous perversion of Herod himself, who was aroused by his own daughter’s dancing. Matthew does not want to shield from you the vileness of this feast.
In an attempt to show off in front of his guests Herod promises to give his daughter anything she asks, up to half his kingdom. There is some comedy here. Usually the true kings would make such promises. Herod was not really a king; he was a tetrarch, a local ruler over Galilee, a rather poor province. Matthew calls him a king because local rulers were called kings even if they were not kings in the technical sense. So here is this small time, local ruler acting like he’s Caesar.
After hearing the offer from her father, Herod’s daughter runs and asks her mother what she should ask for. It seems like mother and daughter had planned for something like this. Herod’s daughter shows no conscience about the murder of an innocent man at her request.
So we go from adultery, to cowardliness, to pride, to perversion, to planed homicide, to the revengeful and manipulative wife of Herod, to the actual murder of John. Herod’s daughter publicly asks for John’s head on a platter. Since all cowards fear what people think over what God thinks, Herod gives in to her request so as not to be embarrassed in front of his guests.
Matthew does not spare the details; he wants the full horror of this scene to grab you, so he describes a young girl holding a platter with John’s decapitated head on it, handing the platter to her delighted mother.
Now, can you imagine a starker contrast than between Herod and John? Herod is a people pleasing, cowardly, lustful, arrogant, manipulator, with no fear of God, living only for the wealth and praise of this world.
And then you have John; a man of courage; a man who does not want personal glory, but seeks to follow the Lord and bring people to Jesus Christ. When the opportunity came for John to remain quiet and stay out of prison, John courageously speaks the truth to Herod, entrusting himself to the Lord.
Now, we said this story foreshadows the death of Christ; what happens to John will also happen to Jesus. But this story not only foreshadows what would happen to Christ; this story foreshadows what would happen to the followers of Christ. This story is here to warn you of the cost of standing for Jesus, the cost of discipleship. This story is here to encourage you to courageously stand for Jesus Christ even as you suffer the consequences.
We see this type of courage exemplified by John’s disciples in v. 12. By retrieving John’s body and giving him a proper burial, these men were identifying themselves as John’s followers, which would be very dangerous.
Throughout the Bible the Lord encourages you to be strong and courageous, for the Lord is with you wherever you go. Jesus said to his disciples, “if the world hated me, it will hate you also.” As Jesus’ disciples, you are called to stand for Jesus with courage. There are only two types of people in the world, man-pleasers and God-pleasers.
Now, you are not given the same ministry as John the Baptist, so you are not to go down to the State Legislature and call on the Governor to repent of his sins, nor are you called to always share your opinion when not asked.
But in your station in life, in your relationships, at your jobs, you are to be courageous and stand for Christ. That means refusing to join in the gossip when everyone around you is gossiping. This means not telling those little white lies you tell to get out of trouble. Living courageously means honestly dealing with issues instead of living in denial.
I have known many men who call themselves Christians who from the world’s perspective are very strong and brave. They are physically strong, willing to fight others; they might have even fought in the military.
And yet when it comes to standing for Christ among their friends they are complete wimps. These men are afraid of speaking the truth to others, and deathly afraid to admit their weaknesses.
Yet I have known many quiet, timid men who do not seem brave by the world’s standards, yet they do not flinch when it comes time to standing for Christ and be honest with others. The Lord knows what comprises true courage.
As I have mentioned before, the political climate of our country is such that it is fairly easy to tell others you are a Christian. It does not take much courage to say that. But it takes courage to tell the truth, to stand for righteousness, to be people of integrity; to be truly honest; to be God-pleasers instead of man-pleasers.
There are two results of living a courageous life for Jesus Christ. First, note in v. 12 that the disciples of John end up going to Jesus. Even in his death John brings people to Jesus. In the same way, your courage and integrity glorify Jesus in front of the world. Your lies, your compromises, etc. point people away from Jesus.
Secondly, those who stand for Christ partake of the true feast in heaven. By manipulating, lying, seeking to please men, and fulfilling his lusts, Herod enjoys a grand earthly feast; a feast most unbelievers would only dream of. Herod has wealth, power, influence, and is able to fulfill his carnal desires.
But you know what will happen to Herod. Herod will stand before God; then his rejoicing will turn to mourning; his laughter to weeping, and his feast will end up a famine.
For God’s people the reverse is true. In this life, because you believe in and live for Christ, you are often mocked, left out of certain things, etc. Because you do not live to fulfill the lusts of your flesh; you suffer loss and rejection. Living for Christ in many ways can seem like a famine.
Yet one day you will enjoy a glorious feast as you sit with Jesus Christ in glory at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb; the feasts of all feasts. Until then God promises you that as you stand for him, he is with you, he feels for you as you hurt from taking courageous stands. God is preparing a great feast to reward you for your courage and faithfulness.
In this country we do not suffer much for Christ. In many ways we cannot relate to what John went through, or what many of our brethren are going through in other parts of the world.
But when you do suffer for standing for Christ; when you receive the anger of a co-worker, a boss, a family member, a neighbor, or a fellow Christian, the Bible says “rejoice.” Say, “I have been privileged to suffer for Christ. I am not worthy of such a privilege.”
Jesus Christ spoke the truth before Pilate, which resulted in his crucifixion. He remained courageous because you needed him to offer a perfect sacrifice for your sins. Now you belong to God forever. He was the only true faithful one.
Because he lived and died for you, be courageous for Jesus. God is watching out for you, giving you strength, and preparing great rewards. Do not shrink back. Be strong and courageous, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.