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.” (Matthew 14:1-2 ESV)
Herod and John the Baptist were obviously not the best of friends. John was brash enough to call out the king and his family on some issues that weren’t, to say the least, “above board”. And Herod was just prideful enough to take John’s head at the request of his family, despite his personal reservations about the justice or ramifications of carrying out the act. This social back-and-forth is an interesting historical issue considering the extreme ends of the cultural spectrum that these two men were working from. Herod the figurehead of Jewish power in a state under Roman rule, lavish accommodations, high-brow friends, wild parties. And then John, raised commonly, claiming Divine power and appointment, slightly more “green” living situation, odd dietary habits, dedicated to a life lived upstream against the status quo.
Here, in the tension of this relationship, there is an interesting thing that becomes apparent from these verses, which take place after John has already been executed. Jesus is getting more and more “press” in Israel and Herod is getting fed more information about Him; enough information to cause the king to get nervous. But, curiously, the king’s indigestion is not based on the presence of the incarnate God walking the streets of Jerusalem and Capernaum. The king’s stress is elevated by the irrational idea that this man they are talking about, who they are calling “Jesus”, is actually John the Baptist, back from the great beyond.
What I find interesting here, without being overly critical of John (I can’t comfortably be too hard on John seeing as how Jesus Himself called him the “greatest born among women”), is the fact that John’s greatest message, the reason he was chosen by God, the unique and privileged responsibility that the Baptizer was tasked with was to “prepare the way of the Lord”. He was a forerunner. His destiny was not necessarily to be great, but to point to One greater than him. His job, it seems clear, was not only to call the people of Israel to repentance but also to direct their eyes and hearts to look for the Messiah in their midst. The beautiful scene at the Jordan river where John attempts to let Jesus baptize him (which becomes a type of bookend in Jesus’ ministerial life as we see an eerily similar scenario play out with the washing of Peter’s feet just prior to the passion of Jesus) is evidence of this “mission of deference”. He declares the oft quoted, “He must increase and I must decrease” as he refers to Jesus Christ. This was John’s mission in life, his central focus, his job.
But, as I look at Herod’s response to the claims that Jesus is in town, what becomes clear to me is that somewhere in melee of John’s dealings with Herod the message got lost. I can’t help but wonder, 2,000 years later, if John’s focus on his mission got a bit hazy as he began his verbal volley with the king of Israel. I say this with much respect for who John was, and I offer this merely as speculation, but I offer it because I believe that it is our tendency, as ambassadors of Jesus, to move subtly away from the core truth of our message, “Jesus is the hope for each individual and for the world”, to a peripheral truth, “sin is a heinous thing, bad for people and bad for the world, and it needs to be dealt with.”
Is it possible that John made such an impression on Herod, in his fiery, tent-revival manner, that Herod became blind to everything besides John? Is it possible that the ease with which we tend to fling accusations and point out faults and errors, even if they are 100% true, convolutes our actual message? The brokenness of the world is not a subject to be skirted or ignored, but if we had to choose one thing to talk about, if we only had five minutes to choose one topic to present to someone, wouldn’t it make sense that our words should immediately move to elevating the One who has the power to save the world instead of re-diagnosing the ills of that world? While we may believe that we are making much of Him and little of us, are we really making much of other’s sin and brokenness and less of Jesus? If it is easier for us to talk about what’s wrong with the world than what’s right about Jesus then I am quite certain we’ve missed the point of the thing entirely. Do our lips drip hope or hostility? Do our minds dwell on God’s redemptive power or people’s rebellious filth?
I guess I just wonder how much different we would find this text to be if it said that when Herod heard about the signs and wonders of Jesus he immediately remembered John’s words about the coming Messiah. To be frank, when I have turned to dust and ash, the last thing I want is someone to ignore the presence of Jesus in their life because I was so memorable (famously or infamously so).
I read this portion of a sermon by South Carolina native, R.G. Lee and it beautifully captures the truth that we ought to daily understand and rejoice in:
“When the names of earth’s benefactors are no more remembered, when the achievements of science are no longer of value, when the guesses of philosophers are seen to be in vain, when time shall be no more – multitudes, in praise of Him in gratitude for salvation through His name, will still sing the song of Moses, and of the Lamb of enduring name.
When the Caesars and Charlemagnes, the Napoleons and Wellingtons and their so-called splendid victories are forgotten, the multitudinous trophies of His saving power, in enjoyment of His endless fruits of His blood-bought victories, will sing the praises of His peeress name.
There never was a name like the name of Jesus – so representative of sacrificial love at its best. And someday, ‘every tongue shall confess that esus is Lord…to the glory of God the Father.'” /blockquote>Advertisements