Matthew 14:1-13

As we begin chapter fourteen this morning we recall that this has been a time of enmity and confrontation for Jesus and His disciples.  He had sent them out on their mission to find the lost sheep of the house of Israel (in which He, Himself had participated), and there had been terrible resistance and anger.  Jesus had faced (confronted) the leadership of the nation with their sin on many occasions, and He had made it clear to them that He had come from God to separate them out unto judgment.

Jesus’ references to Himself in connection with the Old Testament prophetic Word concerning the Messiah had thrown them into fits of murderous rage.  He had turned their accusations of Satanic affiliation around on them and had not submitted to their judgments about Him.  And in chapter thirteen He fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of closing their eyes and ears with parabolic language so that they would not see and hear.  And, in doing so, He has revealed that the Kingdom is being given to the pagan Gentiles rather than to them!

So as we begin chapter fourteen it is with all of that in mind that we read the first three words, “In that time….”  Or, “In that season….”  So, sometime during that season when all this was happening Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, having heard about all of these things – especially the miracles that Jesus was doing among the crowds, as verse one indicates, he did make a connection between Jesus and John the Baptist whom he had already killed.  He even thought that Jesus was the resurrection of John!

But before we get to that, let me just recount some of the history for you once more so you can place all of this in perspective.  Herod the Great was the Edomite king of Israel who had all the boy babies killed in and around Bethlehem when he had heard that a new King of Israel had been born.  Herod had died in 6 BC and had left a number of heirs – about five that we know of – who struggled among themselves for the throne.  They had gone to Rome to get a ruling about who was to rule this tiny nation.  And, as it turned out, Israel was split into small sections, called tetrarchies, and each of the sons was given an area of the country.  That’s why they were called tetrarchs – heads of sections.

Herod Antipas, who was either the third or fourth son of Herod the Great, was given two areas separated by Samaria – Perea, which lies around the Dead Sea and upwards adjacent to the Jordan River; and Galilee.  John the Baptist centered his activities in Perea, and Jesus’ home base was Capernaum of Galilee!  Antipas had built a fortress/castle on the heights of Bashan, called Machaeus, and it was on the east side of the Dead Sea.  It had a dungeon/prison in it, and that’s where John was incarcerated after he was taken by Herod’s soldiers.

And as we pick up again at verse one, Herod had already had John killed.  So, as we read this whole thirteen-verse text we have to keep it in mind that Matthew is relating events – not as they were happening, but as events that had already happened.

During this time Herod had heard about all that was happening up in his area of Galilee – about Jesus’ miracles and His preaching, and about the great crowds that were following Him.  And, as verse two indicates, he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; surely he has been raised from the dead.  And that’s why these powerful works are operating in him!”

As these words of Matthew suggest, Herod was a highly superstitious man with an evil conscience.  Since Jesus’ operations and preaching were similar to those of John the Baptist, whom Herod had had beheaded, Herod thought “Surely this is John come back to life to haunt me!”  The very mighty deeds with which John was announcing the imminence of the Messiah, and those same miracles with which Jesus announced His Presence, were entrapments for Herod as they were for the whole nation!  Herod equated all these things with the occultic/supernatural/magical, mysticism which had so pervaded the culture of Israel.  Plus the fact that he was such an evil, lawless man, the only connection that he could make between Jesus and John was that Jesus was the resurrection of the magician whom he had murdered!

The way Matthew puts it here in verse two gives some insight into the man, doesn’t it?  “And for this reason these powerful works are operating in him.”  In other words these must be occultic powers, or spirits, which are doing these things in this man – not the Man Himself having the power over the created world!  It never crossed his mind that the Messiah, the Son of God without Whom nothing was created that was created, had come; and was exhibiting original control over sin and decay and sickness and death and weather and time and all other created things.  There was no connection at all in Herod’s mind between the Old Testament prophetic Word and this Man Jesus of Nazareth Who was the fullness of that Word.  All he saw was a magi who, somehow, had been raised by occultic authorities, and who had transferred his wizardry from Perea to Galilee; and who was doing so to haunt him!  This wasn’t just conscience working in this man – this was an evil conscience!

And so now, as we look at verse three, we begin to find out the basis for the evil conscience; because Matthew now begins to relate to us what had previously happened to bring all of this up!  And it is, indeed, a tragic story about the evil state of this nation and its leadership at the time of the coming of God’s King.  Again, all of this was events that had happened before, which caused Herod to believe that Jesus was the resurrection of John the Baptist.  Verse three: 


“For Herod, having seized John, had bound him and put him away in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Phillip his brother; for John had been saying to him, ‘It is not permitted to you to have her.’”


Now, Matthew says that Herod had seized John the Baptist because of Herodias.  John had been snatched away from announcing the imminent coming of the King of Kings because of Herodias, Herod Phillip’s wife, because John had been preaching that it was not permitted for Herod Antipas to have her!  (If you’ve already made the connection between Herodias and Jezebel, good!  Because it’s a perfect one!)  It’s the same story of a woman going to the depths of her evil nature in order to better her position; and then manipulating her husband to do the noxious and reprehensible things that he’s already quite capable of doing on his own!

Now, since John had been preaching against the relationship between the installed governor/king of this area and Herodias, his brother Phillip’s wife, it becomes necessary for us, however complicated it may be, to look into this family and see the results of the pagan mind-set!  (chaotic results of animalistic sexual behavior)  I say it’s complicated – because wherever God’s Law is not obeyed there is chaos.  And there’s no better example of family chaos than the Herod family, as you will see.  So listen carefully as I go through this, and you’ll see pagan lawlessness at its destructive worst!

First, since the text calls our attention to Herodias, Herod Phillip’s wife – now living with Herod Antipas, let me say that she was the daughter of Herod the Great’s first son Aristobulus.  And she was named Herodias because that’s the feminine gender of the name Herod.  So her name was the Patronym of the family.  (Daughter of one of her grandfather’s sons.  Married to a second of her grandfather’s sons, living with a third of her grandfather’s sons!)

But Herod the Great, who was the King of Israel at the time Jesus was born, and who was the murderer of all the boy babies in and around Bethlehem in an attempt to snatch away the Kingdom from God’s Anointed – Herod the Great had three wives at different times.  First, he married Mariamne, the daughter of a high priest in Jerusalem.  And the progeny of that relationship were Aristobulus and the first Phillip (there were two).  Aristobulus fathered Herodias, as we mentioned earlier, and she married Phillip, her father’s brother!

And he fell into disrepute in the family and moved to Rome where he and Herodias gave birth to a daughter named Salome.  Now, hold that in your minds until we get to her again in a moment.

Herod the Great’s second marriage was to a Samarian woman named Malthake.  (A side issue here is that any Samarian was looked upon as dirt in Israel, so that didn’t set well for the king.)  But Malthake gave birth to a son and they named him Herod Antipas, who is the subject of this morning’s text.  He married the daughter of Aretas, who was an Arabian king!  But on one of his trips to Rome to secure all or a part in his deceased father’s kingdom, he came together with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Phillip and the daughter of his half-brother Aristobulus.  And they ran away together back to Israel!  And his wife, the Arabian princess, finding out about the relationship, went back to her father who was the king of Arabia Petrea; and the enmity that followed resulted in a war between the two kingdoms!

But anyway, the third wife of Herod the Great was Cleopatra (of Anthony and Cleopatra fame).  And they gave birth to the second child named Herod Phillip.  And this one became a tetrarch of Israel at the same time Herod Antipas did.  And he married Salome, the daughter of the first Phillip (his half-brother) and Herodias!

So you can see why John the Baptist, a fiery preacher of the Kingdom, was haranguing the tetrarch of his district, Herod Antipas!  Apparently in his preaching, over and over and over again he was calling attention to Antipas’ sin and calling for repentance.  As verse four says, “For John had been saying to him, ‘It is not permitted to you to have her!’”

And, as verse three implies, Herodias got tired of it!  And it was at her instigation that he (Antipas) had his men pick John up and throw him in prison – and, as verse five says, he intended to kill him.

But, you see, Herod’s crime – adultery and incest – was an open, public sin of the chief public official!  Herodias, the woman he was now living with outside of marriage, had originally married her own father’s brother, uncle Phillip; and then run away with the half-brother of her father and her husband!  And this man was her half-uncle who was already married!  So there was deep-seated incest, two marriages broken, and the relationship they were now in wasn’t a marriage at all!  And the ministers of God for the public welfare – the Herodian family – were in chaotic lawlessness before God and His Holy Law!  So it’s no wonder John raised his voice against the open shame – even though Herod Antipas was his ruler!

And let me say, just as a sidelight here, that there are excellent public examples today of this same chaos and dissipation.  For whenever there is sexual sin there always results turbulence, anarchy and disorder!  The whole Kennedy family is the most prominent example in recent history although there are many, many others (including our most recent ex-president).  As a result of the lawless promiscuity among its most prominent, wealthy and kingly members, there has occurred death and dissipation and shattering!  The whole family and all it touches is a heap of rotting humanity set adrift in a chaos of lawlessness!

And that’s what occurred in the family of Herod.  The mutinous defiance and revolt against God’s Law played no small part in God’s judgmental dissolution of the entire Jewish state – reaching its total destruction in 70 AD.

And that same thing, although sometimes in lesser proportions and consequences, happens in individual lives and families when God’s order is defied and ignored.  Adultery and promiscuity and homosexuality and incest and divorce (rebellion) – and all the other lawlessness which man devises – they all result in shattering and scattering and disorder and pain and anguish and disease and death; for God will not allow men to revolt and rebel and challenge His holiness without judgmental consequences!  And, as the end of Israel suggests, it may happen on a national scale!

Now let’s go back to verse five.  “And intending to kill him he had been afraid of the crowds, that they were regarding him as a prophet.”  So Herod had John picked up, intending to kill him – and, as Mark’s Gospel informs us, all at the instigation of Herodias, who was his brother’s wife and his other brother’s daughter!  And Herod, except for the political problem of the crowds, would have indeed killed him because of Herodias.  It’s interesting to note that Mark says that Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man!  So what we have here is a man with “mixed motives”.  And wherever you find a man with mixed motives, there you also find a man with no basis at all for his judgment.  In Herod’s case he knew that John was righteous; he also wanted to please his “significant other”; and he also was politically motivated; and, in verse nine, we’ll see another motive which finally ruled his heart.  But what was “right before God” never was a motive in his actions.

Now verse six:  “Consequently, when Herod’s birthday celebration was taking place, Herodias’ daughter danced in public and she sought favor with Herod.”  The Jews abhorred the keeping of birthdays as a pagan custom, but apparently The Herod’s even outdid the Romans in these celebrations.  For “Herod’s birthday” came to be known as a proverb for excessive festival display!  But the high point of the party was the spectacular dance of Salome, Herodias’ daughter by Phillip, who was Antipas’ niece.  The exhibition was thoroughly pagan – probably learned in Rome where she lived with her mother and Phillip her father before her mother ran away with her uncle!

But, as verse seven says, Herod was so delighted with her that he was carried away and lost his reason!  His desire was to make a grandiose display of his birthday, under the influence of friends, wine, food and sensual dancing!  First he made a promise, and then he sealed it with an oath, making it absolutely irrevocable (in his mind).  And the oath, as the text says, was to give to Salome anything she wanted!

But what he did not know and did not heed was Leviticus chapter five, verses four and following, where God’s Word makes such a thing directly forbidden of God!  In the Law of God, no blind promise is binding!  In the first place it is a sin to do so, and, as the Word says, it must be confessed as sin.  And then it must be retracted and pardon must be sought!

You cannot make a blind promise, and you cannot promise to do anything which is a sin against God – both of those things are sins against God.  And then to follow through with the promise is further perpetuating the sin!  So as Herod Antipas commits sin after sin, he goes deeper and deeper into sin!

Now as Matthew continues, verse eight, he simply says that there was a provocation by Salome’s mother.  Mark more fully explains what happened.  Salome ran over to her mother and asked her what she should ask for from Herod.  And having been provoked by her, she ran back to Herod and said, “I want the head of John the Baptist right here on a plate!”  “Right here” – she said.  Right here where all this company of prominent people are gathered for your birthday!

The viciousness of Herodias is implied here.  She didn’t want to be put off any longer about this man John who was saying these things about her in public!  She wanted it done now, and she wanted the evidence of it!  And she wanted it public!

Matthew says in verse nine that the king was “grieved.”  He had been made the fool of this woman.

Now, he had intended to kill John before, so the “grief” mentioned here by Matthew isn’t grief for John!  The grief was because of his situation!  Herod had multiplied his promise against the Law of God; and instead of admitting his foolishness and confessing it before this crowd of prominent guests, he chose to protect his own pride!  The sworn promise was designed to impress all these people in the first place!  Not Salome!  So, denying the request at this stage would have disgraced him in their eyes!  So this morally impotent, helpless fool went ahead and perpetuated his greatest crime – thereby filling up the cup of his sin.  And the last Old Testament prophet had been sent to warn Israel of the impending annihilation – and he had now been put to death.

And verse ten lays the crime squarely on Herod.  And then Matthew, verse eleven, says that John’s head was brought upon a plate and it was given to the girl, and she took it to her mother.  The further indignities John’s head was subjected to we are left to our own imaginations.

Now, back in chapter eleven and verse two, we see that John’s disciples had some access to him while he was in prison.  So here in verse twelve of our text they were permitted to have the corpse for burial.  Then they automatically turn to Jesus.  So they must have been satisfied that Jesus was the one sent from God.  As we find over in the Acts, chapters eighteen and nineteen. Some of them continued by themselves, but most of them probably became disciples of Jesus.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, this whole account of John’s murder is a parenthetical account in the past tense.  And it was precipitated by the reports that Herod had received about Jesus and his reaction to those reports.  But the actual time of John’s death has been placed at around Passover – one year before the Passover at which Jesus was crucified.  And his death, of course, pointed forward to that great event.

And when the news of his death finally reached Jesus, as Matthew says here in verse thirteen, Jesus withdrew from there in a boat into an uninhabited, desert place.  Mark says that the twelve apostles went with him.  And he adds that they had all been so busy that they had had no time even to eat.

And this seems to be a turning point in the Gospel narrative.  Jesus and his apostles had all gathered back again from preaching in all the towns and villages of Israel – finding the lost sheep of the house of Israel – and the rejections and persecutions and beatings and attempts to murder them have reached a point where Jesus now begins to withdraw and prepare Himself and His apostles for his crucifixion.  The hostility and separation had reached a new height; the last prophet from God had been murdered in Israel; the Scribes and Pharisees had been openly and publicly castigated; the public display of the Messiah of God had reached its zenith.

So Jesus gets in a boat, probably with His disciples, and rows around the shore of the Sea of Galilee, to an uninhabited, Gentile desert area – probably several miles from where He cast off.  But, as Matthew says in verse thirteen, the crowds ran, on foot, around the shoreline, into Gentile Assyria, and beat them to the spot!  And by the time they all got there, the crowd had swelled to five thousand men plus women and children.  And now the withdrawal from Israel to the Gentiles was taking place.  Withdrawal from Israel (heaven and earth) and gone into the wilderness wastelands (New Heaven and Earth).

Next time we meet, we’ll continue this short chapter in which Jesus heals and feeds this huge crowd which has followed Him out of Israel.  Then He walks on the Sea of Galilee and goes to the Gentile Assyrians at Gennasaret and heals them.  The withdrawal from and rejection of Israel is made especially evident in these events; and the turning point was the hostile, vicious treatment of the last Old Testament prophet from God – John the Baptist.