The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
The Death of John the Baptist
14 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 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.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife,[a] 4 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.
It is appalling that neither version, Matthew’s nor Mark’s, of the death of John the Baptist — the last prophet — whom Jesus compared to Elijah and the greatest person who ever lived, is in the three-year Lectionary. Why? Churchgoers need to hear about profoundly serious sin brought about by the preference for one’s own pleasure. And Herod’s is a classic morality as well as biblical story, affirmed by the historian Josephus and the early Doctor of the Church Jerome.
The Bible tells us that we can choose to enslave ourselves to God or to sin. This story should be at the forefront of our minds as a real-life illustration — and warning — of what happens when people decide to give themselves over to the devil.
Matthew gives us the end of the story then goes back and explains what happened.
Mark has a longer history of John the Baptist and Herod. I wrote about his account in 2012 and provided a lot of historical information from John MacArthur as to why John the Baptist warned Herod about his lust and unlawful marriage with Herodias. You can read more here and here. I also wrote about the various Herods yesterday; you might find the post useful.
Now on to Matthew’s account. The first two verses tell us that Herod is convinced Jesus is a resurrected John the Baptist. He knew John was imbued with holiness, hence Herod believed he was now risen and working heavenly miracles. Herod did not know much of Jesus at this time.
We then read (verses 3, 4) why Herod imprisoned John the Baptist, who might have been held in close proximity to Herod’s home. Matthew Henry gives us a succinct explanation (emphases mine):
The particular sin he reproved him for was, marrying his brother Philip’s wife, not his widow (that had not been so criminal), but his wife. Philip was now living, and Herod inveigled his wife from him, and kept her for his own. Here was a complication of wickedness, adultery, incest, besides the wrong done to Philip, who had had a child by this woman and it was an aggravation of the wrong, that he was his brother, his half-brother, by the father, but not by the mother. See Psalm 50:20. For this sin John reproved him not by tacit and oblique allusions, but in plain terms, It is not lawful for thee to have her. He charges it upon him as a sin not, It is not honourable, or, It is not safe, but, It is not lawful the sinfulness of sin, as it is the transgression of the law, is the worst thing in it.
John the Baptist had so aggravated Herod’s conscience that he wanted to put him to death. The only thing that stopped him from doing so was the fury of the people who deeply loved and respected John the Baptist.
When Herod’s birthday celebrations took place (verses 6, 7), they were decadent. By the time Salome — unnamed in the New Testament — came in to dance, the assembled guests had enjoyed sumptuous feeding and watering. In keeping with Roman traditions, the event required a memorable party piece involving death.
John MacArthur gives us two examples:
Herodias had an ancestor by the name of Alexander Junius, and historians tell us that one time, Alexander Junius was holding a big feast, and brought in 800 rebels to make a display. He crucified all 800 of them in front of all the revelers at the feast, and then, while they were hanging on the crosses, still alive, he murdered their wives and children in front of them. It was a debauched world …
When the head of Cicero was brought to Fulvia, the wife of Antony, she spat on it, pulled its tongue out, and drove her hair pin through it. Jerome says that is what Herodias did with the head of John; we can’t verify that, but we know that Herod’s family seemed to want to mimic all of the worst atrocities of the Roman nobility. It must have been a point of derision and mocking – that dear, godly, faithful man, his head severed from his body. That is the extent of rejection that comes under the pressure of the fear of man. He was afraid to lose his throne, afraid of John, afraid of his wife, afraid of the people around him. Under the intimidation of that, he damned his soul to Hell forever.
Hell. Matthew had just mentioned Jesus’s description of it in Chapter 13, in a verse also excluded from the three-year Lectionary:
50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Anyone who doubts the existence of hell or eternal punishment is allowed to debate the issue here, however, please do give a reason why, other than, for example — speaking generally — that ‘God in His mercy will save everyone’ or ‘I never believed it’. Examples of reasons would include an underlying difficulty with authority, doubting the creeds, relying on favourite authors or revisionist professors rather than Scripture, etc.
As we saw last week, Scripture — and Jesus, in particular — warned us many times about transgressing the Father. And we transgress the Father when we transgress His Son Jesus.
Jesus’s death on the cross is satisfactory for the sins of the world but is efficacious only for those who believe in Him:
It is Satan’s studied purpose to keep souls from believing in Christ as their only hope; for the blood of Christ that cleanseth from all sin is efficacious in behalf of those only who believe in its merit.
If we were all saved, why would Jesus — and, later, the Apostles — have continually warned us in the New Testament to turn away from sin? Surely, if we were all going to heaven, it would not matter. We could do whatever we pleased, as Herod and his family did, and still be saved.
In fact, why would we need any laws at all if we were all going to share a glorious afterlife? We could all be murderous, thieving anarchists engaging in fornication and adultery.
To those who support Universalism, I recommend a solid study of the New Testament, because:
When the Godhead is denied, there is no salvation. When the dual nature of Christ is denied, there is no salvation. When salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone is denied, there is no salvation. When the Word of Truth is denied, there is no salvation. When Jesus’ second coming bodily to rule and judge the earth is denied, there is no salvation.
We are not saved on the basis of simply saying we believe Jesus existed, was a great guy, was a prophet, was a wonderful teacher … but on the basis of our continued belief that Jesus Christ is Lord and that He will ultimately save us and give us eternal life.
I suspect that those who deny hell are worried not about themselves as much as a close family member or a cherished friend, past or present.
Pray that living unbelievers are given the divine grace necessary to enable an everlasting faith. Scripture tells us that we can know God only via a firm belief in His Son Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Returning to today’s reading, Herodias had a word with Salome, who then asked for John the Baptist’s head on a platter (verse 8). Henry surmises that Herodias might have worried Herod could find a younger or more beautiful partner:
Perhaps Herodias feared lest Herod should grow weary of her (as lust useth to nauseate and be cloyed), and then would make John Baptist’s reproof a pretence to dismiss her to prevent which she contrives to harden Herod in it by engaging him in the murder of John.
Herod immediately regretted his rash and extravagant promise to Herodias’s daughter (verse 9). Henry explains the dangers of making oaths and throwing wild parties:
Promissory oaths are ensnaring things, and, when made rashly, are the products of inward corruption, and the occasion of many temptations.
Note, Times of carnal mirth and jollity are convenient times for carrying on bad designs against God’s people. When the king was made sick with bottles of wine, he stretched out his hand with scorners (Hosea 7:5), for it is part of the sport of a fool to do mischief, Proverbs 10:23. The Philistines, when their heart was merry, called for Samson to abuse him. The Parisian massacre was at a wedding. This young lady’s dancing pleased Herod. We are not told who danced with her, but none pleased Herod like her dancing. Note, A vain and graceless heart is apt to be greatly in love with the lusts of the flesh and of the eye, and when it is so, it is entering into further temptation for by that Satan gets and keeps possession. See Proverbs 23:31-33. Herod was now in a mirthful mood, and nothing was more agreeable to him than that which fed his vanity.
Herod did as his step-daughter asked and, as proof, the prophet’s head was duly brought in (verses 10, 11). Salome presented John the Baptist’s head to her mother.
Afterwards, John the Baptist’s friends buried his body, then relayed the tragic news to Jesus (verse 12).
MacArthur makes this observation:
It may speak something of the thoughtfulness of Herod in his sobriety as he would permit that.
Then, Jesus went away to be alone (Matthew 14:13). John the Baptist was His cousin. They were conceived around the same time.
The Gospels tell us that Herod wanted to meet Jesus. However, He never did. MacArthur tells us:
Once, He sent a message to him. In Luke 13:32-33, He sent a message to Herod and said, “You fox. You want to see Me? You will not be able to kill Me like you did John the Baptist until My work is done.” He called him a fox, and He never saw him, and moved, with quiet dignity, beyond the grasp of Herod. He left Herod to his guilt, his unresolved fear, his vile, wretched sin, and to the woman who was his doom, until one fateful day.
The only time Jesus saw Herod was at His trial, prior to the Crucifixion:
Look at Luke 23:6. This is the only time He ever went into the presence of Herod. This is the trial of Jesus. “When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked if the Man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” Pilate didn’t know what to do with Jesus, who was on trial, or mock trial. So he knows that He is from Galilee, and he says that He belongs in Herod’s jurisdiction, so he ships Jesus to Herod. Verse 8. “Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceedingly glad; for he had desired for a long time to see Him, because he had heard many things about Him, and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him.” Here was this strange fascination again, and now, finally, the two meet.
“Then he questioned Him with many words,” and we don’t know what he asked, but what an opportunity! The Lord can give him all the answers right now. Herod desires, longs to see Jesus, and has for a long time. The Lord could do some miracles, give him all the answers he wants, and it says, “But He answered him nothing.” Jesus never said one word. “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.”
The used to hate each other, but here, they became friends. You know how? Common mockery of the Son of God; they are two very tragic men. Listen, Herod rejected Christ, and Christ rejected Herod. It was hard, stony ground; for fear of a woman, for fear of a reputation, for fear of his peers, and for fear of his throne, he damned his soul forever. John the Baptist lost his head but lives forever in the presence of God.
Christ wants to reveal Himself to you, but if you are proudly holding onto your reputation, for fear of what others may think, for fear of the attitude and actions of those who may reject you, for fear of the loss of face or reputation, for intimidation by evil people, you have forfeited Christ and damn your soul. The day will come when you ask the questions and get no answers.
Next time: Matthew 14:34-36