Matthew 14 teaches us several things about John’s character. Mark makes the point that John was a righteous man, explaining that “Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.” Although Herod was far from righteous himself, he recognized righteousness in John and tried to protect him. Matthew tells us that Herod imagined that God had vindicated the character of His prophet by raising John.
It is one thing to be righteous; it is another thing to be outspoken about it, especially when standing before the great and powerful of this world. John was both.
Charles Colson tells what he witnessed when he would bring visitors to meet Richard Nixon when Nixon was president of the United States and Colson was special legal counsel to the president. Colson would gather the guests in a room outside the Oval Office, where they would talk to each other about what they were going to tell the president when they were face to face. “It was always the same,” Colson wrote. “In the reception room they would rehearse their angry lines and reassure one another. ‘I’ll tell him what’s going on. He’s got to do something.’
“When the aide came to escort us in, they’d set their jaws and march toward the door. But once it swung open, the aide announcing, ‘The president will see you,’ it was as if they had suddenly sniffed some intoxicating fragrance. Most became almost self-conscious about even stepping on the plush blue carpet on which was sculpted the Great Seal of the United States. And Mr. Nixon’s voice and presence—like any president’s—filled the room.
“Invariably, the lions of the waiting room became the lambs of the Oval Office,” said Colson.
It is sad to say that none were more meek than the religious leaders. Of all people, they should have been the most outspoken. But they too wilted in the face of worldly power. Such is the awe of majesty that high office evokes. But John the Baptist did not cower before worldly power. He spoke out boldly and continued to do so, repeatedly saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
John was also courageous, for he could not have failed to know the danger he was placing himself in by continuing to denounce Herod for his marriage. Kings do not like to be confronted. Even more dangerous was the hatred of Herodias. John knew people well enough to know what was happening, but he continued to speak out and eventually died for his convictions.
John’s fate reminds us of the kind of world in which we live. It is a world that has rejected Jesus and will reject His best disciples too. The world does not want to be told that it is sinful, that it has broken the holy law of God, that it needs a Savior, who is Jesus. But those who walk in the footsteps of John and the other saints who have preceded us will be as bold as these men were. How are any to be saved if we do not speak the truth about sin and preach the Gospel boldly?
The story does not tell us only about John, however. It also tells us about Herod, and what it reveals is that he was the exact opposite of John at every point. John was righteous, but Herod was an evil man, even though he was not a particularly bad king as kings go. Herod had seduced his brother Philip’s wife, had wrongly imprisoned John, and now in a weak and drunken moment consented to John’s murder without any kind of a trial. The execution was an outrage by Roman as well as by Jewish law. Moreover, it was Herod’s knowledge of this wrong that caused him to suspect John had somehow come back to life after his unmerited execution. Herod was a Sadducee; Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. But Herod’s guilty conscience reduced his skeptical creed to dust, and he trembled at the thought of God’s final judgment of him for this and for what had certainly been other evil actions.
John was outspoken, but Herod was crafty, shrewd, sly, deceptive, hypocritical, and devious, wanting to kill John but afraid to do it for fear of the people. Matthew says that Herod actually wanted to kill John and would have done it earlier except that he was afraid of the people who considered John a prophet.
John was courageous, but Herod was feeble and weak, as many are who are more concerned for their reputations than for what is just or right. Herod knew that John was a righteous man. He knew that ordering his execution was an evil act. He knew that he had blundered in promising Salome anything she wanted because he had been infatuated with her dancing. But he was too weak to admit his mistake and too frightened of his wife’s tantrums to uphold the moral law, which was his duty as the tetrarch. Herod could take a firm stand on wrong things, but he was weak on right things. Even his stand for the wrong betrayed his weakness.
Many people who reject God’s truth but nevertheless have an awareness of right and wrong become superstitious when they do wrong, because they sense that this is a moral universe and things cannot possibly go well for evildoers. Many follow horoscopes and believe almost any bizarre “spiritual” idea that comes their way. This is sad, but it always happens when people reject God and His written revelation in the Bible. When people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing. They believe anything.