What a collection of characters we have encountered in this story: At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus (Matthew 14.1-12).
They provide a sad glimpse into the high life of antiquity, as well as what people are like today. There is Herod with his evil conscience. There is Herodias, a wicked, vengeful woman. There is Salome, already corrupted at a young age by her evil mother. There are the sensuous friends of Herod. And against them all is John the Baptist, whom everyone knew to be an upright, outspoken, and courageous man.
There is one character we have not talked about. He does not enter into the specific action of this story, though He is the most important person of all. He is Jesus Himself, mentioned in the first verse of the story (“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus”) and in the last verse (“Then they went and told Jesus”).
Several commentators have pointed out that every time someone is “scandalized” or “offended” by a person in the Bible, “And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household” (Mt.13.57), that person is always Jesus. We have a good example of it here. Neither the citizens of Nazareth, nor Herodias, nor Salome, nor the drunken guests of Herod were offended by King Herod, because they were all like him to one degree or another. Nor were they offended by one another, for the same reason. Sinners like other sinners because they feel at home with them, and if their consciences bother them for some past evil acts, they can always point to some other sinner who is worse. It is comforting to have someone as evil as King Herod around.
True. But you do not get help from other sinners. Other people do not enable you to live an upright life, nor do they provide salvation from your sins. Only Jesus does that. Only Jesus can. The Church of Jesus Christ is under attack, just as Jesus predicted it would be. He warned, “In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Paul said, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” and to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. Not surprisingly, the Church has faced persecution from its inception.
All of this means that in the final analysis the real contrast in this story is not between Herod and John the Baptist, as interesting as that is, but between King Herod and King Jesus. What happened to Herod? Herod killed John. But a few years after this, when Herod’s brother Agrippa (the Herod of Acts 12) had been appointed king over the former tetrarchy of Philip, Herodias, who was always ambitious, pestered her husband until he went to Rome to see if he could not also be appointed a king. Unfortunately, Agrippa wrote to Emperor Caligula accusing Herod of treasonable dealings with the Parthians, and instead of being made a king, Herod was deposed and banished to Gaul, where he died.
Think of the contrast. Herod did what those in power do. He used his power to preserve his power, but in the end he lost it and died a pauper’s death. Jesus laid His power aside to die for His people, but today He rules in glory and will rule forever.
Herod was a petty king, but he looked kingly. Jesus was the King of kings, but He appeared in the days of His flesh as a humble Galilean peasant. Deceiving, if you look only at the outward appearance! Yet if you look beyond the appearance to who Jesus really was and listen attentively to what Jesus said, you will find yourself agreeing with John’s testimony about Him. John said, “I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God” and “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (v.29). John trusted in Christ and stood for righteousness. He died for it. But now John is with Jesus and will rule with Him one day along with all who willingly and joyfully confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
First Corinthians 1.18 speaks of the “foolishness” of the cross, which is the way it seems to unbelievers. But the cross is actually the power of God for salvation for those who are being saved. It is for you if you will have it. It is for all who believe on Jesus.