Goodness knows why the compilers and editors of the three-year Lectionary omitted two verses of the readings from Luke 3 used in public worship.
A good clergyperson should be able to explain them, thereby adding greater meaning to John the Baptist’s ministry, his interactions with Herod and subsequent imprisonment. It would go some way to explaining the troubled souls — Herod’s and his family’s — that serious sin creates. Without these troublesome verses being read aloud in church, is it any wonder that many so-called Christians today look the other way when it comes to adultery and seduction?
Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.
19But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, 20added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.
Before looking at these two verses, it might be helpful to analyse the times in which John the Baptist lived.
It is no accident that this Nazirite monk (according to Matthew Henry) was the first Old Testament-style prophet in 400 years and, as such, was widely welcomed by the Jewish people.
It is also worth noting that, unlike other prophets, John the Baptist preached to Gentiles as well as his own people.
John MacArthur’s sermon (linked above) has a lengthy explanation of Herod’s lineage, his marriage and his political career. Anyone who is preparing a sermon or Bible study lessons about John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s time will find it useful in their research.
Matthew Henry has a more concise explanation which follows. First, however, notice that Luke lays out the political and religious situation in the first two verses of this chapter:
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
This is important historically, as Henry’s commentary explains (emphases mine):
1. By the government of the heathen, which the Jews were under, to show that they were a conquered people, and therefore it was time for the Messiah to come to set up a spiritual kingdom, and an eternal one, upon the ruins of all the temporal dignity and dominion of David and Judah.
(1.) It is dated by the reign of the Roman emperor; it was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, the third of the twelve Caesars, a very bad man, given to covetousness, drunkenness, and cruelty; such a man is mentioned first (saith Dr. Lightfoot [to whom Henry refers frequently]), as it were, to teach us what to look for from that cruel and abominable city wherein Satan reigned in all ages and successions. The people of the Jews, after a long struggle, were of late made a province of the empire, and were under the dominion of this Tiberius; and that country which once had made so great a figure, and had many nations tributaries to it, in the reigns of David and Solomon, is now itself an inconsiderable despicable part of the Roman empire, and rather trampled upon than triumphed in.
-En quo discordia cives, Perduxit miseros
-What dire effects from civil discord flow!
The lawgiver was now departed from between Judah’s feet; and, as an evidence of that, their public acts are dated by the reign of the Roman emperor, and therefore now Shiloh must come.
(2.) It is dated by the governments of the viceroys that ruled in the several parts of the Holy Land under the Roman emperor, which was another badge of their servitude, for they were all foreigners, which bespeaks a sad change with that people whose governors used to be of themselves (Jer. 30:21), and it was their glory. How is the gold become dim! [1.] Pilate is here said to be the governor, president, or procurator, of Judea. This character is given of him by some other writers, that he was a wicked man, and one that made no conscience of a lie. He reigned ill, and at last was displaced by Vitellius, president of Syria, and sent to Rome, to answer for his mal-administrations. [2.] The other three are called tetrarchs, some think from the countries which they had the command of, each of them being over a fourth part of that which had been entirely under the government of Herod the Great. Others think that they are so called from the post of honour they held in the government; they had the fourth place, or were fourth-rate governors: the emperor was the first, the pro-consul, who governed a province, the second, a king the third, and a tetrarch the fourth. So Dr. Lightfoot.
2. By the government of the Jews among themselves, to show that they were a corrupt people, and that therefore it was time that the Messiah should come, to reform them, v. 2. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. God had appointed that there should be but one high priest at a time, but here were two, to serve some ill turn or other: one served one year and the other the other year; so some. One was the high priest, and the other the sagan, as the Jews called him, to officiate for him when he was disabled; or, as others say, one was high priest, and represented Aaron, and that was Caiaphas; Annas, the other, was nasi, or head of the sanhedrim, and represented Moses. But to us there is but one high priest, one Lord of all, to whom all judgment is committed.
One can imagine the dinner conversations the ordinary Jews must have had. They would have been similar to ours today, critical of both politicians and clergy. There is nothing new under the sun. They awaited deliverance; however, what they thought would be temporal proved to be spiritual and, for them, an eventual disappointment.
Henry tells us that, like Jesus, John the Baptist grew up in an obscure area, Jordan. No big city boy he. At the age of 30, Henry writes, John would normally have been expected to begin serving as a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, following his father Zechariah’s vocation. However, John left home to preach and baptise.
He adds that the Jews to whom John ministered accepted baptism easily. They had — as is true today — a tradition of ritual baths, or mikva. For them, water signified spiritual as well as physical cleansing. John’s baptism cleansed them of their past sins; however, with that went his exhortation — a strong plea — to go and sin no more. Through baptism, he called them to repentance.
In Luke 3:4-6, the Gospel writer tells us that John’s message borrowed from the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah 40:3-5, Isaiah 57:14, Isaiah 49:11, Isaiah 42:16, Isaiah 52:10 and Psalm 98:2-3.
John’s counsel (Luke 3:7-14), read during Advent in Lectionary Year C, concerns those in public life — particularly civil servants and the military. He urges them to treat each other and the public fairly. He also advised the Jews not to excuse themselves from sin by citing their Abrahamic heritage.
When the Jews saw John’s piety and heard his preaching, they wondered aloud whether he indeed was the Messiah (Luke 3:15). He answered that One much greater than he was coming, of Whom he was unworthy. Recall that John and Jesus were probably cousins, related via Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:36).
John’s prophecy of Jesus was exact. Indeed, the New Testament carries this message throughout. It was true then and is true today (Luke 3:16-17):
16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
During this time, Herod had married his half-sister and half-brother Philip’s wife Herodias — and later was seduced by her daughter, Salome, causing John to be beheaded. Herod had heard of John early on and invited him to his palace. This was similar to American presidents inviting clergy to the White House. Billy Graham was the primary clergyman for several administrations. Famous leaders sometimes seek the counsel of holy men for guidance — Herod, dead in sin as he was, being no exception.
As I mentioned earlier, John MacArthur’s sermon explains more about Herod. MacArthur has given others which also explain the tetrarch’s lineage, intrigues and lifestyle. I have cited one of them in my post on Mark 6:14-20 and another in my post on Mark 6:21-29. Again, if you are preparing material on which to preach or teach, they contain much information on Herod and John the Baptist.
A few days ago, I wrote about Christians wrongly clamming up about socio-political sins, some of which John the Baptist discussed (Luke 3:12-14). John did not mince words, yet he was winsome enough in his manner to interest the whole of society. Yet, he also delivered home truths to Herod. This is why we, as Christians, should not sugar coat or shy away from expressing the truth about the horrors of our world.
MacArthur, in today’s sermon, discusses this point in light of John the Baptist’s ministry:
And so John just confronted [Herod's sin] head on. It all kind of happened because Herod apparently, if we put the history together, made a trip to Rome and he met his brother’s wife who was also his near relative and he persuaded her, he seduced her and then he persuaded her to leave Philip and be his wife. And to do that he had to divorce his wife, she had to divorce her husband. And they went through all of that stuff and he wound up with her, took her back to his area in Galilee.
MacArthur explains that Herod had been married before. His first wife was the daughter of of the king of the Nabataean Arabs, whose name was Aretas. Aretas was so incensed about the divorce that he declared war against his former son-in-law and won. This happened after John the Baptist’s death:
And Josephus, the historian, says some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God and that very justly as a punishment for what he had done to John. Interesting, you find that in Josephus Antiquities that the Jews thought that the reason Aretas came in and was so easily able to defeat Herod was because God was using him as an instrument of judgment for what he had done against John.
Back to John the Baptist’s preaching of the truth to Herod. MacArthur continues:
all you need to know is divorce, seduction, incest and John goes face-to-face with this, confronts it. And he does it repeatedly. A.T. Robertson said, “It cost him his head but it’s better to have a head like John and lose it, than have an ordinary head and keep it.”
He who loses his life shall gain it. Without taking foolish risks, this is what Christians are called to do.
In verse 19 of today’s passage, Luke tells us that Herod was incensed by John’s godly rebuke of the tetrarch’s sins. No doubt John had passed muster in earlier conversations which might well have been of a general nature about goodness. Herod might have applied those exhortations to his enemies rather than himself. It was clear he did not understand John’s message. Supposing that John went from the general to the specific — not just once but many times — it was at that point when Herod became incensed. And he no doubt told Herodias what John had told them of their immoral union. That must have angered her enormously. Herodias then most likely told Salome what John said about her. The girl would have been incensed that John had dared to criticise her mother.
Verse 20 says that Herod imprisoned John. That is the last time Luke mentions John the Baptist. The first part of the verse — ‘added this to them all’ — could be read two ways. Some interpret it as yet another heinous sin that Herod committed (John’s imprisonment for telling the truth). Others say that the words refer to Herod’s adding John’s ministry to the people as another reason he was imprisoned. Herod wanted rid of the man who not only discussed his sins with him privately but who might actually turn the populace against him. Or so he feared. John in his godliness was threatening to Herod on several levels. Herod couldn’t stand it.
Of John’s death by beheading at Salome’s request, MacArthur says:
John was murdered. Murdered about a year after he had been in prison and murdered and his ministry and his life was over. But, believe me, he went to his glorious reward and he stands as a model, a permanent model for faithful, uncompromising preaching, doesn’t he? …
Herod wound up with all the earthly power and went to hell. John had all the heavenly power and went to heaven. Very often, you know, the price of boldness is public rejection, but it’s also divine glory, isn’t it? And I don’t think…just as an epilogue…I don’t think any true preacher is concerned about popularity, that’s never been the goal of a true preacher. The goal of a true preacher is to speak the truth at any price, right? That’s why John provides such a great example for us. So John, who came on the stage in such a prominent way goes off the stage and next time the story begins with Jesus.
That is a call for clergy to preach the truth — engagingly but honestly. Yes, some people will be offended, anyway, but that is the clergyman’s — and, to a lesser extent, our own — calling.
In closing, readers who have been following the Gospel accounts of John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s ministries might wonder why they overlapped for six months, as MacArthur tells us. The reason is that Jewish tradition incorporates transition periods where religious practice and ceremonies are concerned. He explains how this works in Jewish weddings where, at the end of the reception, the best man places the bride’s hand into the groom’s, then takes his leave. John the Baptist was handing the Church to Jesus Christ — Bride to Groom.
He explains, referring to John 3 (also see my link in the preceding paragraph on the same chapter):
John gives this monumental speech on the essential nature of Christ which sets Him apart from himself. He is of heavenly origin. He is omniscient regarding truth. He knows God’s mind and God’s Word. He has the Spirit of God without measure, that is He is one with the Spirit of God. He is God’s true heir and He alone is the Savior. And so there is a transition going on as John’s life and ministry begins to fade and Jesus begins to ascend and that’s exactly the way it should be and John sums it up by saying, “He must increase and I must decrease.”
Now in Matthew, turn to Matthew 4 for a moment as we construct to the story. One of the things that I enjoy, you probably know this, is studying the gospels like this and putting together the puzzle. That was what I did most of this week, was put all the pieces of this puzzle together so that we could get the chronological flow of this ministry of John and how it interfaced with the work of Jesus.
The ministries are overlapping. Jesus goes through His baptism. Jesus after His baptism went through His temptation. Then He had some early time of ministry and they ministered mutually in two different places. There was a descending ministry in John’s case and an ascending ministry in Jesus’ case. And then…Matthew 4:12 says, “Now when He heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee.” That’s a key verse. This is where Jesus launches His full public ministry. He had ministry, it was the early stages of ministry overlapping with John, but once John went into prison and that was the end of John’s ministry, he never came out of prison, once he went into prison, Jesus then stepped into a full public ministry. The work of the great prophet was over.
John the Baptist was a holy man, courageous and bold in his ministry. He excluded no one, he preached to the Gentiles as well as the Jews and, most importantly, he did not shy away from the truth.
May we see him as an example for ourselves, not just as a figure of biblical history.
Next time: Luke 3:23-38