When people read the Gospels for the first time, especially if they do so superficially, as most do, the Gospels seem to be mere collections of stories and teachings with little to connect them besides the obvious flow of events that mark the life of Jesus Christ. Even the order of events is sometimes puzzling.
That is what happens as we come to Matthew 14. The chapter begins with the death of John the Baptist, which does not seem to have much to do with the ongoing story of Jesus. John’s death is not in the correct sequence historically. The best handling of the facts would suggest that John was probably killed about a year before this, in a.d. 29.
Yet there is more to the account than appears at first. To understand what is going on, we need to remember two things. First, we have just worked through a chapter in which Jesus predicted there would be opposition to His kingdom. The parable of the sower taught that only a part of Gospel preaching will bear fruit. The parable of the wheat and tares pointed to the work of Satan as the kingdom’s enemy.
Second, we notice a change in Jesus’ teaching. He has turned away from the public preaching that had marked His work earlier to teach His own disciples in private.
What we have here is an important transition, and the reason Matthew includes the account of John’s death becomes clear by the way the last verse of the account leads into verse 13. Verse 12 explains that after they had buried John, his disciples “went and told Jesus,” after which we read, “When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” After the death of John, the handwriting was on the wall, and Jesus responded by withdrawing from the crowds and beginning to teach privately those He was going to leave behind.
Who was Herod? There are several Herods in the New Testament, the best known being Herod the Great, the founder of the Herodian dynasty. Herod the Great ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth and was the one responsible for the murder of the infants of Bethlehem. The man who killed John was Herod Antipas. He is called a “king,” but he was actually the tetrarch (Greek “four”) of Galilee, which means that he had a lower status than a king. Originally it meant “a ruler over a fourth part of a kingdom,” but it had come to mean only a lesser prince or governor. Herod’s territory included Galilee and Perea. Since John’s work had been in the area of Perea and Jesus’ early work was in Galilee, both fell under Herod’s official jurisdiction.
Herod ruled for more than thirty years, most of the time from Tiberias on the southwest shore of Galilee, not far from Capernaum or Nazareth. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king of the Nabateans, whose land bordered Perea. Herod divorced this woman to marry Herodias, the wife who appears in this story. Herodias had been married to Herod Antipas’ half brother, and when Herod divorced his first wife to marry her, he created an explosive political situation. In fact, some years later it led to a war between Herod and Aretas in which Herod was defeated and was only saved from total disaster by the Romans. Any criticism of Herod’s second marriage would have been like throwing sparks on dry tinder. It explains why Herod was so sensitive to John’s words.
When John denounced Herod for his immoral behavior, it probably had very little to do with his divorce, which was allowed under both Jewish and Roman law. The problem was Herod’s incestuous second marriage to Herodias, who was his half brother’s wife. A marriage of this nature is explicitly condemned. Moreover, John did not just speak out once against the marriage of Herodias and Herod. The text says that John was continually speaking out against it. We can suppose that Herod was stunned by John’s forthright denunciation of his marriage, and kept him in prison, wanting to kill him but afraid to do so because of the people who thought John the Baptist was a prophet.
We can also understand that Herodias hated John for criticizing her marriage in this way. Herodias may have been urging the king to kill John, but Herod was resisting. One day, however, Herodias’ opportunity came. Herod threw a party for his birthday, and Herodias sent her daughter, Salome by Herod Philip, her first husband, to dance before Herod and his guests. She would have been very young, in her early teens. What is worse, it was highly improper for a girl of her class to dance in such a setting. Women performed at all-male parties, but they were slave girls who were subject to the desires of the men who attended such banquets. Matthew does not say that Salome’s dance was sensual in nature, but the debased moral standards of Herod’s court lead us to think it was.
Herod could have been offended. But Herodias understood men and reasoned that Herod and his drunken friends would be aroused by the young girl’s dancing, which is what happened. The dance pleased Herod to such an extent that he rose to pompous extravagance before his guests and promised Salome anything she wanted – Herod had made a foolish vow. He should never have made it, and having made it, he should never have kept it. But he wanted to save face and therefore granted Salome’s request and had John beheaded in the prison.
So died the last of the Old Testament prophets. The old age ends in violence, and the stage is set for the unfolding of the new covenant of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.