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.