Fear of Man, or Fear of God?

Matthew 14:1-12


In the 1600’s, there was a great question in England and Scotland concerning the rights of kings to do whatever they wanted to do. Did kings have that right, or were they subject to the law of God? One of the great Scottish theologians of the day was named Samuel Rutherford. He wrote a book that almost everyone in Scotland purchased. It was named Lex Rex. Lex Rex is Latin for “Law King.” In fact, you could translate it “the law is king,” or at the very least “law and king.” The point is that the word “lex” was first, meaning that the law had priority and power over the king. This was Rutherford’s main point. He argued that the king was subject to the law, and that he was required to obey the law of God. In today’s world, we can see how many politicians think that they are above the law, that they are a law unto themselves. We see it in government corruption at almost every level. We see senate seats being sold for money. We see more votes in a county than there are registered voters. The question then is this: is law king, or is the person in power king? We might also put the question this way: should we fear man or should we fear God? This is one of the main questions that our passage raises.

In the immediately preceding passage, we heard that Jesus had been rejected in His hometown. In this passage we learn what Herod thinks about Jesus. The entire story about John the Baptist is recorded here not for its own sake, but as the necessary background information to explain why it is that Herod thought of Jesus as John the Baptist come back from the dead. Here we see John the Baptist being rejected in such a way as to lose his life. Every aspect of the story looks forward to an almost identical rejection of Jesus Christ. This is ironic, because in a way Herod was right. Jesus did look like John, and their stories were indeed connected. This story also looks back to the story of Elijah being persecuted by Ahab and especially by Jezebel. For instance, both this story and the story of Elijah have a bad king being influenced by an even worse queen to get rid of a prophet who had been telling the royal couple that they were doing something wrong. Elsewhere, of course, Jesus actually says that John the Baptist is the Elijah who was promised. So it stands to reason that John’s story would look something like Elijah. Of course Elijah did not die like John the Baptist. Nevertheless, the parallels are helpful for us in connecting the storyline of the Bible together. Things that happen earlier in the Bible foreshadow things that happen later. The storyline of the Bible is very much like an unfolding, growing flower.

Later in the flowering, we see that Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate have some similarities. They both have wives who work behind the scenes, even if for very different reasons. Both Herod and Pilate were reluctant to execute their prisoners. In both cases there was fear of the crowds, who held both John and Jesus to be prophets. Also, both John and Jesus were buried by their disciples after they died.

It is necessary to give some background information on Herod, so that we can see why he did what he did. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of a local king named Aretas IV. However, on a trip to see his brother Herod Phillip (both he and his brother were sons of Herod the Great), he fell in love with his brother Phillip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. Herodias divorced Herod Phillip, and Herod Antipas divorced his wife so that he and Herodias could get married. Now the law of Israel stated that a man could only marry his brother’s wife if the brother died. But in this case, the brother was still alive. Therefore, Herod Antipas was committing incest, not to mention adultery, by marrying his living brother’s wife. That, of course, is why John the Baptist was telling Herod that it was unlawful for Herod to have his brother’s wife. Politically, Herod’s divorce and remarriage caused enormous problems with Aretas, whose daughter had been Herod’s first wife. So the situation between Herod and Aretas was tense enough as it was, even aside from this well-known prophet named John the Baptist speaking his mind on the matter. In other words, Herod would have feared the result of John’s preaching, since the people were very much in favor of upholding the law, which he had broken. By some means, therefore, he wanted to silence John the Baptist. However, he did not want to kill John because he feared the people. The people considered John to be a prophet.

Herodias, however, has no such fear. She plotted and planned, and when her husband got a little drunk at the party he was throwing, she saw her chance. She got her daughter, whose name we know from the historian Josephus to be Salome, to dance for Herod. This was probably not on the order of ballet, but quite a bit more sensual in nature. It certainly got Herod’s attention. He gave an oath to give whatever she wanted. So Salome went to her mother, who told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This gruesome detail is added because Herodias wanted to make sure that John the Baptist was really dead. Verse 9 is really telling here. Herod is said to have feared breaking his own word more than breaking God’s Word. He was more afraid of offending his guests than he was of offending God Almighty. In fact, all through this story, Herod is acting out of fear. As one author puts it: “Throughout the story Herod acts in fear and cowardice; he fears John; he fears the Jews who approve John’s preaching; he fears to break an unholy oath; he fears to seem weak before his guests; and he fears Herodias. In fact, he fears everyone except the One Person he really should have feared, which is God Himself.”

As we have noticed, the story of John the Baptist looks a lot like the story of Jesus later in Matthew. This is no accident. What Herod thought of Jesus was not as far out as it might seem to us at first glance. For one thing, Jesus did have the power of the resurrection residing in Himself. This is why John the Baptist was content to obtain his reward in the next life rather than in this life. The reason for that is that he believed in the resurrection power of Jesus. Do we believe in that power? Do we believe that the miraculous resurrection power of Jesus is at work in us?

When we look at John the Baptist, two main applications present themselves. The first is that John feared God rather than man. He was not afraid to tell Herod Antipas that Herod was sinning and needed to stop sinning. Chuck Colson tells us about the fear of man in his account of the Watergate scandal, in which he was involved. Many people would say brave things about Nixon behind his back. They were free in their criticisms. However, as soon as they entered the Oval Office, they feared to say those same things. Something about the impressive carpet, the wood desk, and the imposing presence of Nixon himself made them fear him rather than God. No one had the courage to rebuke Nixon for the unlawful activities in which he was engaged. In our passage, however, we see John fearlessly proclaiming the truth of God’s law, and by implication he was telling Herod to repent for the kingdom of God was at hand. So also do we need to fear God and not man, and not be afraid to tell those in authority over us what the law states, and that they need to obey that law.

Secondly, we learn that we may not look for our reward in this life. John knew this. His entire life was one of poverty and the very opposite of comfort and luxury. He looked forward, however, to the reward he was to have in the next life, as he trusted in the power of the resurrection. I wonder how much we look to a future reward rather than present luxury and comfort? We sure love our comforts, don’t we? I know I do. I wouldn’t want to give up the warm home, the fast and economical transportation I have, the fine clothes, the great food that actually fills me up rather than merely keeping me alive, the music, the books, and so many other things. Life is extremely comfortable. Too comfortable sometimes, isn’t it? For how difficult it is to look forward to a future reward when we are so rich now! That is one of the reasons why Jesus said it is so difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. May we not be so blinded by present comforts that we forget to look forward to future rewards, and to value those far higher than our present comforts.

When we look at Herod, we can learn things from him as well. We can learn that we should never fear man more than God. Herod was completely blind to the one Person he should have feared above all others. In this respect there is a strong contrast between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist. Herod feared everyone and therefore did not fear God. John feared God and therefore did not fear anyone else. Herod was therefore blind to the law that that One Person had given to the world. He made a law unto himself. We must not do this. The Lord our God is the one whom we need to fear, and it is His law which must rule over our lives.

Furthermore, God wants us to keep His Word, rather than break His Word in keeping our own word. It does no good to say that we are keeping our own word if we are breaking God’s Word in the process. Here we learn then that there are times to break our own oaths if it means that we must break God’s law to keep them. Here we learn just how hideous it was that Herod broke God’s law because of his own oath and because he did not want to offend his dinner guests. He would rather commit murder than offend his dinner guests! It is better to break our vow if by it we are forced to sin. Normally, of course, we must keep our word. However, there may come a time, like Herod, when we promise too much, and it comes back to haunt us.

So let us fear God rather than man. Let us keep our word, but not if that means breaking God’s word. Let us trust in the resurrection power of Jesus, and thus look forward to our reward in the new heavens and the new earth rather than looking for our heaven here on earth.

Wayne Grudem’s 2008 Letter Regarding Pete Enns

Letter to Dr. Peter Lillback, President of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, regarding Dr. Peter Enns:


Feb. 10, 2008


Dear Dr. Lillback,


I am writing, as a Westminster Seminary alumnus, to express deep concern about Dr. Peter Enns.


During my senior year as an undergraduate at Harvard (1970), I struggled to decide between doing an M.Div. at  Westminster or at Fuller.  After visiting both campuses I chose Fuller and attended for a year. But I found compromises on biblical inerrancy in class after class, and therefore, in order to learn more about a sound view of Scripture, I simultaneously read E. J. Young’s book Thy Word is Truth along with other books by WTS faculty. At the end of that academic year I left Fuller, disappointed with their departure from belief in inerrancy, and transferred to Westminster (1971).


At Westminster I received an incredibly rich grounding in Scripture and theology, and my years there as an M.Div. student (1971–1973) were more influential in forming my lifetime theological commitments than any other years of my life. I went on to get a Ph.D. in New Testament from Cambridge, but it was my Westminster training, more than anything else, that prepared me for the teaching and writing that the Lord has enabled me to do for the last 30 years.


Now I am writing to you because I have just finished reading the book by Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005). I find the book to be deeply troubling, for the following reasons:


Enns repeatedly delights in presenting interpretations of the Bible that make it appear more problematic and more filled with unresolved and irresolvable problems than it really is (pp. 72, 79, 92, etc.). He insists on translation options that make Scripture internally contradictory with itself (pp. 92-93), or simply false (pp. 54, 98).  He repeats the same kind of anti-inerrancy rhetoric that I heard at Fuller in the 1970s, characterizing belief in the Bible’s complete truthfulness as “defensive” or as coming close to “intellectual dishonesty” or as simply “preconceived notions” (pp. 14, 107, 108), but speaking of views that take the Bible as contradictory as “creative,” “refreshing,” and “listening to how the Bible itself behaves” (pp. 15, 66; see also 73, 108). He frequently represents conservative evangelical scholarship as unreliable and untrustworthy (at least pre-Enns), but, remarkably, he impugns conservative scholarship not by documented quotations but by using undocumented, straw-man arguments (pp. 47, 49, etc.). The overall result of this approach will be to lead readers to distrust both the Bible and much evangelical Old Testament scholarship.


He implies that he thinks there is no difference in the truthfulness we should ascribe to the Bible and to ancient Akkadian stories: “How can we say logically that the biblical stories are true and the Akkadian stories are false when they both look so very much alike?” (p. 40). It apparently does not occur to him that believing the Bible to be the Word of God (as I thought Westminster faculty we expected to do) is a very good reason for saying that the Bible is true, and the Akkadian flood stories are unreliable. He fails even to consider the possibility of God’s special revelation to Moses, and of his providential guidance and protection of the truthfulness of the records, so that the Bible’s stories of creation and the flood are absolutely truthful, historical and reliable. He gives no indication here that he thinks God was any more involved in the biblical accounts than in the Akkadian myths.


He says that “what makes Genesis different from its Ancient Near Eastern counterparts is that it begins to make the point to Abraham and his seed that the God they are bound to . . . is different from the gods around them” (p. 53). But this is in the context of discussing the category of “myth” (which he opposes to “historical,” p. 49), and so the implication seems to be that truthfulness or historical accuracy of the account is not something that makes Genesis different from other Ancient Near Eastern creation myths.


He says that “Genesis – as other stories of the ancient world – thus portrays the world as a flat disk with a dome above” (p. 54). But what is a reader to do with this? We know today that that view is false: the world is not a flat disk. But I do not see how readers then can avoid the implication that they should not believe what Genesis tells them about the world. Genesis according to Enns is simply untrue.


He claims that Hebrew (or an earlier version of written Hebrew) may not have even existed at “the end of the second millennium B.C.” (p. 51), and thus implies a chronology that makes it impossible for Moses (died 1400 or perhaps 1180 B.C.) to have written the Hebrew words of Genesis – Deuteronomy (p. 52).


Though the Bible directly quotes words that Nathan said to David, but with slightly differing accounts in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, Enns says, “What did Nathan actually say? . . . . I don’t know, and neither does anyone else” (p. 66). The implication (from his following sentence) is that the Bible is not written to give us this kind of historical information, and that doesn’t matter. I take this to mean that accuracy in historical details does not matter. And that to me is the same as saying that biblical inerrancy doesn’t matter. (I don’t understand him here to be getting into a discussion of ipsissima verba vs. ipsissisima vox, but to say that even ipsissima vox cannot be known, and it does not matter. If his meaning was other than this, he did not make that evident).


He questions the uniqueness of the moral commands of Scripture (pp. 57-58) without considering the possibility that God’s moral laws not only resemble but also correct, supplement, and differ with the moral standards of surrounding cultures, because they are the words of God himself.


He implies that the Bible affirms a false idea, the existence of multiple gods: “We may not believe that multiple gods ever existed, but ancient Near Eastern people did. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people . . . . We should not be surprised, therefore, when we see the Old Testament describe God as greater than the gods of the surrounding nations” (p. 98; he then quotes from several Psalms that talk about other “gods”). But he says the Bible does this in the same way parents might tell their children, “Don’t be afraid of the dark. God is greater than the Boogey Man” (which the parents know does not exist, p. 99). In other words, the Bible affirms the existence of other gods but this affirmation is in fact false. It apparently does not occur to Enns that these “other gods” are demons (Deut. 32:17) that did exist, but they were not true Gods like the one true God.


He says that attempts to reconcile the apparent differences between Bible texts, which has been the task undertaken by some of the greatest professors in the history of Westminster Seminary, and by many of the greatest evangelical scholars in the world at least since the time of Augustine, is “close to intellectual dishonesty” (p. 107).


He says, “It is a distortion of the highest order to argue that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice” (p. 65). What troubles me here is not that he holds to only one cleansing of the temple (which I think is possible but unlikely, because of internal evidence in John), but that he so condescendingly dismisses what is by far the dominant evangelical position in NT scholarship for centuries (Luther, Calvin, Westcott, Leon Morris, D. A. Carson, Hendricksen, Tasker, and Köstenberger, for example). Are all the evangelical world’s greatest Johannine scholars guilty of “distortion of the highest order”? Such a sentence indicates to me a man who is embarrassed by conservative evangelical scholarship and looks for opportunities to disparage it. That is not a healthy thing for an evangelical seminary.


The result of a book like this is to undermine the reader’s confidence in the truthfulness and moral excellence of Scripture again and again. No matter what subsequent explanations or “spin” Dr. Enns may want to put on these words and others like them, the inevitable effect of this book on its readers will be to undermine their belief in the truthfulness of Scripture. I do not think that should be the goal or the result of any book published by a Westminster Seminary professor.


Even if Dr. Enns were to disavow or reinterpret the specific sentences that I quote, the overall impression I have of him from this book is that of a man whose deepest attitude toward Scripture is not  reverence and submission and awe at God’s Word (Isa. 66:2), but rather delight in using his technical skills to baffle students and lay readers with problems that they cannot solve, all with the result of eroding their trust in Scripture. That is deeply disappointing. Such an underlying tone and attitude are not appropriate for a Westminster faculty member, nor for any elder in Christ’s church.


I have been recommending Westminster Seminary to prospective students for over 30 years. But now I have decided, with regret, that I can no longer recommend Westminster. The reason is that any seminary that continues to tolerate a faculty member with Enns’s views does not, in my understanding, uphold the strong commitment to inerrancy that persuaded me to transfer to Westminster in 1971, and that Westminster previously upheld throughout its history. In fact, beginning next week, I intend to incorporate a critique of Enns’s book into my lectures on inerrancy for first-year seminary students, along with examples from the writings of Fuller Seminary professors.


Nor do I find Enns’ views consistent with the position of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (I was at the first ICBI conference and one of the original signers). Nor does it hold to the view of inerrancy expected of members of the Evangelical Theological Society, in my judgment (I am a past president of ETS).


I have probably participated in around 100 interviews of prospective faculty members in my four years at Bethel College, St. Paul, my twenty years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and now six years at Phoenix Seminary. I have always asked candidates about their views of inerrancy. If someone with Dr. Enns’s views had come to interview at any of these institutions, I would have strongly opposed him both in committee and (if it got that far) on the floor of faculty, on the grounds that he clearly does not hold to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. My sense of the faculty at TEDS and here at Phoenix Seminary is that any motion to hire Enns would lose by nearly unanimous vote. Under the guise of treating the Scripture “honestly,” and “as it actually is,” he in fact denies its internal consistency, its historical reliability, and its moral excellence again and again.


I am sorry to have to write this letter. I have loved Westminster Seminary and all it represents for many years. I hope that you will take the appropriate steps to dismiss Dr. Enns and once again make clear to the evangelical world that Westminster Seminary remains a stalwart defender of “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).


Sincerely yours,


Wayne Grudem, Ph.D.

(Westminster M.Div. 1973)

Research Professor of Bible and Theology, Phoenix Seminary

General Editor, ESV Study Bible