Monday, August 25, 2008

An Enslaved King

Why was the news and name of Jesus so disturbing to Herod? The mighty works accomplished by Jesus triggered thoughts of John the Baptist in the memory of Herod Antipas. That was a bad thing because Antipas had ordered John’ execution: “But when Herod heard [thereof], he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead” (v. 16). Herod Antipas was haunted by his guilty conscience over John’s unjust death sentence. He had attempted to suppress his guilt, to toss the thought away and never return to it, but then came word of Jesus and His ministry. The guilty conscience would lie dormant no more.

In the words of Alexander MacLaren, it is a natural tendency to “bribe or to silence our memories and our consciences.” It does not take much; a sudden sight, sound, or scent of the familiar, to bring the repressed conscience screaming back to life. Such was the case with Herod. Sadly, instead of being prompted to repent and believe the message that John had no doubt preached to the King (v. 20); Antipas superstitiously concluded that John had returned from the dead. There is a godly grief which produces repentance and salvation, but there is also a worldly grief that produces only death.

Why had John been executed? John was a man of conscience and moral courage. He was a man who practiced as well as preached righteousness and holiness. He had faithfully and fearlessly proclaimed the truth, and he had done so consistently. He called not only the common man out in the wilderness to repentance and faith; he heralded the same message to the religious and political elites. John was not one to speak in generalities, either. He told the King, who was guilty of adultery and incest, the plain truth: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife,” and he did so regardless of the consequences. He lost his head for such a high-view of the truth, but not his character or his conscience.

JC Ryle wrote:

Here is a pattern that all ministers ought to follow. Publicly and privately, from the pulpit and in private visits, they ought to rebuke all open sin, and deliver a faithful warning to all who are living in it. It may give offense. It mail entail immense unpopularity. With all this they have nothing to do. Duties are theirs. Results are God’s.

This does not mean that a pastor, or layman for that matter, should be pugnacious. One must be gracious as well as courageous to do this. Plus, before one confronts sin in another person he must first confront the sin in his life. Some people may think that John the Baptist was prying into affairs that were none of his business. Not so. Here again is JC Ryle:

If he believes a man is injuring his soul, he ought surely to tell him so. If he loves him truly and tenderly, he ought not to let him ruin himself unwarned.

Surely there were other religious leaders who recognized the sinful behavior of their King, and many may have even contemptuously spoken about the affair in secret. John, seemingly alone, had brought the Word of God to bear on the situation without compromise.

This open and plain call to repentance led to Herod’s internal conflict. John’s preaching caused Herod and Herodias to respond differently. Herodias was a veritable New Testament Jezebel and she “had a quarrel” with John. Who was this narrow-minded, unfashionable wilderness preacher who dared call their marriage sin? Roman society was fine with their arrangement. Who cared what the Bible said about it?! His public pronouncement that her marriage to Antipas was unlawful incensed the woman and she “would have killed him” had Antipas not kept her in check. Unable to kill her enemy, Herodias nursed a grudge against the righteous man and plotted her revenge.

No doubt Herod was just as offended by John’s proclamation as Herodias, but his response was not as virulent. Herod Antipas grudgingly admired John. He “feared John”. Kent Hughes says that Herod feared John because:
Goodness is awful. Or to put it another way, goodness is terrifying to evil. Someone has said, ‘That truth will make you free, but first it will make you miserable. King Herod stood at the outside fringes of this reality in uncomfortable fear. (emphasis mine)
This lustful, licentious, dirty politician respected John. He protected him from his scheming wife, observed him often, and “heard him gladly.” Amazingly, Herod Antipas liked to hear John preach. John was probably the one man who stood before Herod and, not only proclaimed the unadorned truth, but did so with no ulterior motives. Perhaps Herod liked listening to John because he felt that listening would somehow atone for his condition. It may be that Antipas, as a result of regularly listening to John preach made some attempts at self-reformation; did some good deeds. Whether he did or not, reform is not regeneration. Herod was apparently fascinated with the Baptist, but he was fascinated more with Herodias. John’s preaching caused him to do “many things”, but there was one thing that he would not do. He would not repent and turn away from adultery. Going part way but not all the way in repentance only compounds guilt. Herod would not repent, for repentance could mean only one thing: give up Herodias.

Here again are the words of Bishop Ryle:
Let us take warning from Herod’s case. Let us…cleave to no favorite vice. Let us…make sure that there is no darling lust or pet transgression, which, Herodias-like, is murdering our souls. Let us not be content with admiring favorite preachers, and gladly hearing evangelical sermons. Let us not rest until we can say with David, ‘I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right, and I hate every false way.’ (Psalm 119:128)
Herod was conflicted. He was torn between his convicted heart at the preaching of John and his complete desire for Herodias. He was in bondage to his sin, as are all men, and the only hope of freedom was through repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ. This is true not only of Herod Antipas, but of every man, every where, and in every age.

A double-minded man is unstable in all he does. Herod could not long continue on his vacillating course. Something had to give; unfortunately John’s head rather than Herod’s sin is what gave way; unfortunate for Herod more than John.

Herodias had not been idle during John’s imprisonment. Antipas could fear and listen to the lunatic preacher all he wanted. Herodias had other plans, and she seized upon the day of Herod’s birthday bash as the opportune time to satisfy her vengeance. She well understood her husband’s weaknesses, perhaps even better than he did. She knew that Herod was not only a lustful man, but he was full of self-importance and pride.

Roman rulers and nobles often held stag birthday parties that were characterized by indulgence on every level; gluttony, excessive drinking, and sexual indulgence were the common elements of such parties. John MacArthur writes in his commentary that the phrase “Herod’s birthday” in Latin is “Herodes dies” and that phrase became an eponym for orgiastic festivals. John Philips says:
Many a person has lost his soul at a party, when drinks are flowing, bawdy jokes are flying, passions are inflamed, morals are lowered, and restraints are removed.
That was certainly true of Herod Antipas.

On the convenient day and at the opportune time Herodias dispatched her daughter Salome to do a salacious shimmy-shake before the drunken men. Salome’s step-father/great-uncle was sexually excited by the young girl’s (she was probably only a teenager) sensuous routine. Antipas was caught up in the illicit excitement, and in a moment of foolish and drunken boasting the tipsy tetrarch made a promise he lived to regret: “Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom” (v. 23).

For this moment Herodias had patiently waited. She had used her young daughter to draw out this very response from her immoral husband, and now she counseled her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head.True to form the young girl did her mother’s bidding, and proved that like mother like daughter for she added a twist to the gruesome request: “Give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

Herod was suddenly sober, and, according to Mark, “exceeding sorry”. The Greek word translated as “exceeding sorry” is perilypos and it is used by Mark only here and in 14:34 to describe Christ’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before His crucifixion (Matthew also used the term in 26:38 and Luke used it to describe the rich young ruler who “was very sorrowful” in 18:23-24).

At least for a moment, Herod Antipas was greatly distressed and his conscience was torn. The time for a decision had been forced upon him by his manipulative wife. Would he trust in the message and the God of the message that John had regularly proclaimed, or would he finally and ultimately reject the message?

Just as reform is not regeneration, so too remorse alone is not repentance. Herod was sorry that his drunken tongue and proud boasting had landed him in this mess, but he was not sorry enough to follow that which was right. Repentance demands change; it is change. The only right way out for Herod would have been to deny the girl’s request, endure the ridicule and spite of his family and friends, and then put away Herodias for his marriage to her was not lawful in the first place.

Herod had counted the cost, and he decided the cost was too high. He would rather lose John than his pride. He chose Herodias over John, and, ultimately, over Christ.

The order was given, and John the Baptist was beheaded. His severed head was placed on a platter and delivered to the young girl Salome, who promptly presented the ghastly gift to her mother. Thus ended the life of the Christ’s forerunner, the man Jesus described as being truly great.

It should never be a surprise when faithful Christians when faithful Christians – those who clearly, consistently, charitably, and courageously proclaim God’s truth – are hated and reviled. To call sinners to repentance is to engender the hatred of the world. Christ warned His followers of this very thing in John 15:18-27. “If the world hates you,” Christ said, “know that it has hated me before it hated you.” Being disliked and maligned by the wicked and ungodly is no disgrace. It is being like Jesus and like John.

Christ’s followers should also never be surprised when that hatred leads to persecution. “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you,” is what Christ said. John the Baptist was only guilty of obeying his Lord. He did not deserve to be imprisoned. He certainly had done nothing to earn execution. Nevertheless, like his Lord before him and like Stephen and James to follow, a violent death at the hands of wicked men would be his last experience on this earth.

Far too many modern Christians assume that faithfulness to Christ equals earthly success, fame, and praise, but the abundant life that Christ provides does not mean that the believer will experience his best life now. An eternal rather than earthly reward is that for which the believer is to strive. Writing in 1857, during the Victorian period of England’s history, JC Ryle stated that…
Histories like these are meant to remind us that the true Christian’s best things are yet to come. His rest, his crown, his wages, his reward, are all on the other side of the grave. Here, in this world, he must walk by faith and not by sight; and if he looks for the praise of man he will be disappointed. Here, in this life, he must sow, and labor, and fight, and endure persecution…but this life is not all. Heaven will make amends for all.
Paul said to the Roman and Corinthian churches respectively:
For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time [are] not worthy [to be compared] with the glory which shall be revealed in us. (Romans 8:18)

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding [and] eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17)
The last mention of Herod Antipas comes from Luke’s inspired pen. During Christ’s pre-crucifixion trial Pontius Pilate learned that Christ was a Galilean, and he sent Jesus to be judged by Antipas. Herod was delighted, but for all the wrong reasons. He wanted Christ to give a demonstration of His mighty works; as if Jesus was a talent show contestant. He questioned Jesus at length, but “he answered him nothing.” Not only did Jesus refuse to perform for Herod, but He would not even speak to “that fox.” Herod stood face-to-face with Jesus Christ and he saw nothing in him. Even worse, Jesus Christ saw nothing and said nothing to Herod. Having rejected the preaching of John, Antipas ended his life rejecting the One whom John proclaimed. In the end, God had nothing to say to Herod.

From Herod we must learn that the sin we will not silence will end up silencing our conscience. Unless God’s Word is obeyed, the day may come when God’s Son is despised. Then God will have nothing more to say.

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