29 August 2011

"For Herod has arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodiasm, his brother Philip's wife, because John has been telling him, 'It's not lawful for you to have her.'" (vv. 3-4)


The Herod of this passage is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who ruled Galilee and Perea (east of the River Jordan) for the Romans from 4BC to AD39. This Herod heard about Jesus' ministry and was immediately reminded of Jesus' forerunner, John the Baptist, whose ministry had in several respects been like Jesus', and whom he had beheaded.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod imprisoned John because he found him seditious. Matthew's account is not incompatible with this interpretation of what happened. John was clearly a popular prophet (verse 5) and his criticism of Herod's sexual misbehaviour (verse 4) would have turned public opinion against him. Like many dictators, before and since, Herod could not tolerate criticism and silenced John by putting him in prison (verse 3).

Herod and John present a striking contrast in this story. John had no earthly authority, yet fearlessly spoke God's message, pulling no punches. Herod, on the other hand, had all the authority of Rome behind him, yet was ruled by fear. He feared John's preaching; he feared popular opinion; he even feared the opinions of the guests at his birthday party when he promised to give his stepdaughter what she asked for and she asked for John's head on a plate. His acceptance of the girl's request may have saved his face on the day, but it also meant killing an innocent man.

The true hero of the story is, of course, John, who was obedient to God's call, unflinching in his condemnation of sin, ready to confront a powerful ruler, and faithful to the point of death. No wonder Jesus said of him "no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist" (Matthew 11:11). John's example reminds us that true greatness lies not in serving our own interests, but God's.

To Ponder

Is there some wrong or injustice you need to confront today? What is it and what might you do to confront it?

What should we do when we make foolish promises? Keep them anyway? Or withdraw them and apologise for having made them in the first place?

Bible notes author: The Revd Peter Ensor

  • Sign up for e-newslettersKeep in touch with what interests you