The Baptist Beheaded
“At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, And said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him, It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.” (Matthew 14:1-12)
What thoughts arise from this short narrative of the death of John the Baptist! The cruelty and implacable hatred of Herodias toward that faithful prophet, the savagery of Herod, his guests, and his family are as disgusting as they are inexcusable. Yet, by the order of divine providence, they were but the executioners of God’s appointed means of bringing one of his elect home to heaven.
It is written, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:15). It matters not where they die, by what means they die, or when they die, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Here we are told about the death of one of his saints. John the Baptist was brutally beheaded by Herod. Why? He was beheaded for faithfully serving God and for being faithful to Herod as God’s messenger. The things we have before us in these twelve verses are written for our learning. May God the Holy Spirit, whose Word this is, write its lessons upon our hearts.
First, Herod stands before us as a glaring example of human depravity. He was the vile son of a vile man. Faith and godliness are never passed from father to son. Only God can give a man faith. And only God can make men righteous. But ungodliness and wickedness fathers do pass on to their sons generation after generation.
The Herod mentioned in Matthew 14 was Herod the tetrarch, also known as Herod Antipas. He was the son of Herod the Great, a Gentile, a descendant of Esau. Herod the Great was infamous for his cold-blooded atrocities. He murdered the entire Jewish Sanhedrin because they dared challenge his authority. He murdered one of his wives on a whim. He murdered two of his sons for fear that they might take his throne. And he had all the male children in Bethlehem slaughtered in a vain attempt to destroy the Lord Jesus in his infancy. Herod the Great was a vile, detested man.
His sons were just like him. After Herod’s death, the Roman government divided his province into three parts, giving three of Herod’s many sons authority. Archelaus was given the southern province of Judea and Samaria (Matt. 2:22). Philip was given the northern provinces of Trachonitis and Ituraea. And Herod Antipas was given the area that included Galilee and Porea. This Herod the tetrarch, Antipas, was a ruthless, shameless, henpecked, lustful man, given to every imaginable evil. He was no less beastly than his vile father, only less defiant and courageous.
While visiting Rome with his half-brother Philip and his wife Herodias, Herod and Herodias became involved in a sordid, promiscuous affair. When Herod returned to his province, he was married to Herodias. In order to have her, he betrayed his brother and divorced his wife, and almost lost his kingdom. His enraged father-in-law, King Arêtes, would have killed him had not the Roman army intervened.
Let us ever beware of our behavior in our homes. Our sons and daughters will most likely imitate us in our most unbecoming traits. Godliness does not breed godliness. But wickedness does breed wickedness.
Shocking as it is to read of the brutality of Herod, Herodias, and her daughter, they stand before us as glaring examples of the depths of that depravity to which all Adam’s race has been reduced by the fall. That which one person is capable of doing, all are capable of doing. If you and I do not act out the depravity of our hearts as fully as these did, it is only because of God’s restraint. Robert Hawker wrote…
“The seeds of every sin are in every heart, the same by the fall. Reader! do you believe this? Yes! if God the Holy Ghost hath convinced you of sin. And until this is feelingly known in the heart, never will the infinitely precious redemption by the Lord Jesus Christ be understood or valued. Oh! how precious to them that believe is Jesus! 1 Pet. 2:7. Hence a child of God reads this account of Herod, therefrom to abhor himself, and to love Jesus! 1 Cor. 4:7.”
Second, adultery is a crime against God and man. Herod’s adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife was a matter of public scandal and wickedness that had to be reproved. The gospel writers do not tell us how or where John and Herod were brought together. It is possible, if not likely, that Herod summoned John to come into his court that he might hear him preach, or see him perform some miracle. Kings and rulers often summon religious leaders.
Being summoned to preach to the king, had John not rebuked him for his publicly known snub of God’s law and demanded repentance of him, had he not demanded that Herod bow to the throne of God, acknowledging his sin and seeking God’s mercy through Christ, the Lamb of God, he would not have been faithful to God or to Herod. Whatever the occasion, John said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Although Herodias had been divorced from Philip for a number of years, in so far as Roman law was concerned, she was Herod’s wife. But John did not recognize Roman law when it contradicted God’s law. He refused to recognize the marriage. Though she was sleeping with Herod, Herodias was Philip’s wife.
I would not be faithful to the Word of God and to you who read these lines if I did not reprove the same behavior today. I am compelled to clearly state some things taught in the Word of God about marriage. They are not popular; but they are clearly revealed in Holy Scripture. The Word of God does not change because men do not receive it and bow to it. Marriage is for life. The marriage bond can only be broken by three things: (1.) Death (Rom. 7:1-4), (2.) Adultery/Fornication (Matt. 19:9), and (3.) Abandonment (1 Cor. 7:15).
I realize that some who read these lines have experienced things in the past that greatly disturb them. Some are divorced. Some are divorced and remarried. You may have brought yourself into such circumstances by your own, willful rebellion against God and are now greatly disturbed by what you have done. As a pastor, I am often asked, by believing men and women who are divorced and remarried, “What can I do?” My answer is (And I believe it to be the only reasonable and the only right answer.), “Forget the past. God has.”
It is the responsibility and the privilege of other believers to also forget the past with regard to their brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter what they have done, each esteeming his brother and his sister in Christ better than himself. Let every saved sinner rejoice to know that our sins are under the blood (all our sins: past, present, and future — before conversion and since conversion). If God has forgiven us, we are to reckon ourselves forgiven (Rom. 6:11). If God has forgiven our brother or sister (and he has), we are to look upon them as, and treat them as forgiven, just like we are, and accepted, justified, and righteous in Christ. “Forgetting those things which are behind (with regard to ourselves and to one another), and reaching forth unto those things which are before, let us press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
Third, John the Baptist stands before us as a faithful servant of God. The first Baptist preacher in history was John the Baptist. And he was a faithful servant of God. He set the standard and laid down the example for all who would come after him to follow. His message was repentance toward God, calling upon all who heard him to “Behold the Lamb of God.”
His ministry was a ministry of preaching. — Not counseling, but preaching. — Not education, but preaching. — Not building shelters for the homeless and hospitals for the sick, but preaching. If there is anything this generation needs to learn about the work of the ministry, it is this. Those who are called of God to the work of the ministry are called to preach, only to preach, and to preach the gospel of Christ, only to preach the gospel of Christ.
Let all who are called like John, like him be faithful (1 Cor. 4:1-2). He was faithful even unto death. He was neither a compromiser nor a diplomat. He was a faithful gospel preacher. He was no more reluctant to confront Herod and Herodias with the claims of God than he was the scribes and Pharisees. God’s servant is God’s servant everywhere. He does not consider the costs or the consequences of delivering God’s message. Being God’s servant, John the Baptist feared nothing and no one but God.
We must never look for reward or recognition in this world. If ever there was a case of godliness and faithfulness unrecognized and unrewarded by men, it was that of John the Baptist. But John was content to serve his generation by the will of God without recognition, and in the face of constant ridicule and scorn. Let us follow his example. There is a day of judgment appointed by God. In that great day God will set the record straight (1 Cor. 4:3). And that great day will more than make amends for all these lesser days (Rom. 8:17; 2 Cor. 4:17).
Fourth, John’s message to Herod exemplifies the necessity of repentance. John the Baptist was the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ. As such, his ministry was, in some ways, typical of the work of God the Holy Spirit in preparing the hearts of chosen, redeemed sinners to bow down to the claims of Christ Jesus and receive him as Lord and Master, and as Savior of their lives and of their souls.
John the Baptist faithfully kept sinners’ feet to the fire, telling them that God demands and will settle for nothing less than all-out, unconditional surrender to the claims of Christ; and that only those who bow to the scepter of King Jesus can know him in the pardon of their sins, and what we call salvation.
Herod knew that John the Baptist was a faithful prophet, “a just man and an holy.” As such, he respected him; but he was also afraid of him, “and observed him.” “He did many things” because of him, and “heard him gladly” (Mark 6:20).
John’s message cost him his head. A. T. Robertson observed, “It cost him his head; but it is better to have a head like John the Baptist and lose it than to have an ordinary head and keep it!” His message to Herod was a sermon about the demands of a holy God. It is a sermon on the character of God. John stood before Herod as God’s mouthpiece. Here is a preacher, called John the Baptist, facing the king of Judea with his ungodly wife, her ungodly daughter, and all the courtiers that stand about the court. When this old king hears from God through the lips of God’s preacher and God’s prophet that it is not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife, that sermon, that faithfulness, that truth, cost John the Baptist his head. But it cost Herod his immortal soul, because he refused to hear it and bow before the throne of God.
John the Baptist linked the Old Testament with the New. Just as the Old Testament prophets from Genesis to Malachi demanded repentance toward God, from the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry, throughout the New Testament, and throughout this gospel age, repentance has been and is the demand of the gospel. Every prophet, the Lord Jesus Christ himself in his prophetic ministry, all the apostles, and every faithful gospel preacher through the ages declare that God is a holy God, that his demands have not been lessened, and that everywhere men are still called upon to repent toward God and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Old Testament God’s prophets constantly called the people they served to repent. When John the Baptist came as the forerunner of Christ, preparing the people’s hearts to receive the Christ, he called all who heard him to repentance. — “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). The first sermon the Lord Jesus ever preached on this earth was a call to repentance (Matt. 4:17). The message has not been changed. — “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).
Repentance is God’s command. And back of God’s command is God himself. Repentance, turning to and coming to God by faith in Christ, is nothing less than the utter surrender of our lives to Christ the King. It is rebels throwing up the white flag of surrender, stacking arms before him by whom they have been conquered, willingly resigned to the will of the sovereign Christ. Repentance (faith in Christ) involves taking up your cross and following Christ. It is not an act performed, but a life surrendered (Luke 14:25-33). — “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).
It was the preaching of repentance that cost John the Baptist his head. Like the rich young ruler, when Herod heard of John and his message, “he did many things and heard him gladly.” Yet, he lacked one thing. He lacked repentance. He refused to bow to Christ as God his Savior and King. But John knew exactly where his point of rebellion was, and deliberately, boldly, and unmistakably put his finger on the spot. Herod betrayed his brother Philip and took his wife. The faithful Baptist told Herod that relationship with his brother Philip’s wife openly displayed his hatred and defiance of God. He said to the king (and said it publicly), “It is not lawful for thee to have her.” Herod was willing to do many things. And he was happy to listen to good preaching, even the good preaching of a faithful man, so long as it cost him nothing. But when John stuck his finger in that reprobate king’s heart, and told him that God demands surrender, before he would bow, that old rebel had John the Baptist beheaded and his head brought to him on a charger!
Repentance (faith in Christ) is the willful, deliberate surrender of my life to the sovereign Christ. The Lord Jesus says, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34-35). Repentance is loosing your life to Christ.
Have you repented? Have you willingly put your life into the hands of the Son of God? Have you utterly turned yourself over to his rule as your Lord? Have you renounced all hope of life and salvation in yourself, trusting Christ alone as your Savior? If you have, your repentance toward God and faith in Christ are the fruit of his mighty and gracious work in you and for you (Acts 5:31). Your repentance (faith) is his gift and his operation (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; Col. 2:12). And he who began his work of grace in you will continue it and complete it (Phil. 1:6).
Fifth, Herod shows us that the conscience of a man is a powerful thing. It had been more than a year since Herod had John beheaded and his head brought to Salome in a charger. But his conscience never let him forget John or his words. When he heard about the Lord Jesus, he thought John the Baptist had come back from the dead to get revenge (vv. 1-2).
God has given us all a conscience. Your conscience will always either accuse you or excuse you (Rom. 2:15). God gives some over to a reprobate mind and a seared conscience, judicially hardening their hearts because of their willful rebellion and unbelief (Rom. 1:28). Someone said, “The conscience is the voice of God in a man’s soul.” I do not know whether that is true or not; but I do know that God has put a conscience in every person which either accuses or excuses him in all his actions.
Conscience is that voice inside us that we simply cannot silence. We can muffle the voice. We can sear the conscience. But we cannot silence it. Conscience is that faculty of the mind, which God has put in us all, by which we judge the moral character of human conduct, our own and others. It is an inborn sense of right and wrong.
The conscience is the law of God written on the heart (Rom. 2:14-15). All men have a sense of right and wrong which, to a greater or lesser degree, reflects the law of God written upon the heart in creation. You cannot find a society anywhere in history which has not demonstrated this fact, no matter how barbaric. Even today, perverse as things are, men cannot escape this fact.
The conscience of a man often produces a sense of guilt, legal fear, which many mistake for Holy Spirit conviction (John 8:9). The conviction of sin is more than a sense of guilt and just condemnation (John 16:8-11). The conviction of sin arises from the revelation of Christ in the heart (Zech. 12:10), and is accompanied by a conviction of righteousness and of judgment. Holy Spirit conviction is that gracious work of God the Holy Spirit by which he effectually applies the gospel to the hearts of chosen, redeemed sinners, causing them to see that Christ alone is and must be the object of faith. He convinces all who are called by his effectual grace “of sin, because they believe not on” Christ. He convinces them that righteousness has been established by the obedience of the God-man. – “Of righteousness, because I go to my Father.” And he convinces them that justice has been satisfied by the sin-atoning blood of Christ. – “Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.”
It was their conscience that caused Adam and Eve to hide from God after the fall. It was their conscience that made them know their nakedness and filled them with shame. And the fact that they could, to some degree, appease their consciences with fig leaf garments, made by their own hands, shows that the conscience of fallen man is, like every faculty of human nature, utterly perverted and depraved.
Knowing these things, we must not trust our consciences. The conscience cannot be trusted any more than the thoughts of the depraved mind or the emotions of the depraved heart can be trusted. Let us ever be careful not to violate our consciences, not for anyone. But do not trust your conscience. He who trusts his own conscience, like he who trusts his own heart, trusts both a fool and a devil. Our guide in all things must be the Word of God alone! — Not our feelings! — Not our desires! — Not the opinions of others! — The Word of God alone! The total depravity of our nature has made us perverse in all our faculties, so perverse that even the conscience of fallen man is corrupt.
The Scriptures tell us plainly that the conscience of fallen man is “an evil conscience”, from which we must be cleansed by the blood of Christ (Heb. 10:22). The consciences of lost religious men are “defiled” (Tit. 1:15), so defiled that they may, in a sense, have a good conscience” while performing abominable things (John 16:2; Acts 23:1; 26:9; Rom. 9:1). The Apostle Paul, writing by divine inspiration, tells us that when he was persecuting the church, wishing himself accursed from Christ, his conscience was bearing him witness. He was fully convinced that he was doing the right thing. Some are so hardened by free will, works religion or by ungodly behavior, often by both, that they live with a “seared” conscience (1 Tim. 4:1-2).
Some men and women, and even children have consciences which are so cauterized and hardened that they are past feeling. They have no regard for the rightness or wrongness of what they say or do. They have no conscience of anything. “Under a cloak of sanctity they commit the most shocking impieties” (John Gill). If a person works at it, if he holds down the truth of God (Rom. 1:18) long enough and persistently enough, he can cauterize his conscience. You can so sear your conscience, so harden yourself, that your conscience will excuse your wickedness.
Still, everyone wants to have a good conscience, a quiet, peaceful conscience. What would you not give to have a good conscience? — A conscience which would let you sleep at night? — A conscience that would enable you draw near to God with full assurance? — A conscience which would give you ease, real ease and peace of heart and mind in the prospect of death, judgment, and eternity?
All the religion and religious practices, ceremonies, and sacrifices in the world cannot obtain a good conscience. All the gifts and works of charity and philanthropy imaginable cannot buy a good conscience. Good works of moral reformation and religious devotion, no matter how earnest and sincere, can never earn you a good conscience.
Our consciences demand what we cannot give. Your conscience and mine demands and can only be satisfied with perfection. The conscience echoes God’s holy law. Echoing the law, the conscience demands the same thing God’s law demands. The conscience demands perfection. It demands and will only accept perfect atonement for sin. It demands and will only accept perfect righteousness. That perfect atonement and perfect righteousness is found only in Christ’s obedience and death as our Substitute (Heb. 10:1-22).
Horatius Bonar was exactly right when he wrote, “In another’s righteousness we stand, and by another’s righteousness we are justified. All accusations against us, founded upon our unrighteousness, we answer by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot, in virtue of which we are unassailable by law as well as shielded from wrath.
Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.
Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, and set my spirit free.”
The only way for a sinner to have a peaceful conscience before God is by faith in Christ (Heb. 9:14). Pastor Mark Daniel wrote…
“Peter speaks of some who have a guilt-free conscience, not only before men, but toward God Himself! How is that? It’s not that they have no reason to have a bad conscience. No, quite the contrary. They view everything they do as offensive to God! But, with just one recollection, all the black stains of sin are completely cleared from their conscience - by the resurrection of Jesus Christ! That single glorious act is all the proof they need that their sins are gone, completely hidden from the all-seeing eye of God, under the blood of their successful Savior. Now, that’s a good conscience!”
Sixth, John’s disciples show us by their example where we must go and what we must do in times of trouble, sorrow, heartache, and need. We read in verse 12, “His disciples came and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus.” Notice the words with which Matthew was inspired to describe this. — “His disciples came and took up the body, and buried it.” They took up the body, not the man, but the body, and buried it. They buried it in hope of the resurrection. Then, with heavy, heavy hearts, they “went and told Jesus” (Heb. 4:16).
Elisha Hoffman wrote of visiting with one of God’s troubled saints, a visit that inspired him to write one of our great hymns. — “There was a woman to whom God had permitted many visitations of sorrow and affliction. Coming to her home one day, I found her much discouraged. She unburdened her heart, concluding with the question, ‘Brother Hoffman, what shall I do?’ I quoted from the Word, then added, ‘You cannot do better than to take all of your sorrows to Jesus. You must tell Jesus.’
For a moment she seemed lost in meditation. Then her eyes lighted as she exclaimed, ‘Yes, I must tell Jesus.’ As I left her home I had a vision of that joy-illuminated face. And I heard all along my pathway the echo, ‘I must tell Jesus. I must tell Jesus.’” Hoffman wrote this great hymn when he got home.
I must tell Jesus all of my trials; I cannot bear these burdens alone;
In my distress He kindly will help me; He ever loves and cares for His own.
I must tell Jesus all of my troubles; He is a kind, compassionate friend;
If I but ask Him, He will deliver, make of my troubles quickly an end.
Tempted and tried, I need a great Savior; One Who can help my burdens to bear;
I must tell Jesus, I must tell Jesus; He all my cares and sorrows will share.
O how the world to evil allures me! O how my heart is tempted to sin!
I must tell Jesus, and He will help me over the world the victory to win.
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus! I cannot bear my burdens alone;
I must tell Jesus! I must tell Jesus! Jesus can help me, Jesus alone.