Matthew’s account of the death of John the Baptism might seem unexpected, and even jarring. Why does Matthew 14:1–12, and why does the Holy Spirit who inspired him, include this in the gospel?
Understand who Jesus really is. Recognize the true identity of Jesus. As the parallel passage in Mark 6 tells you, there were various theories in circulation as to who Jesus was. Both Matthew and Mark record one of the more bizarre speculations, that of Herod the tetrarch, that Jesus was John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Matthew introduced you to Herod the Great in the second chapter of his Gospel. That king had 10 wives and tracing the family tree is complicated. This Herod, known as Herod Antipas, was a minor ruler, a tetrarch. Having executed John, Herod had a guilty conscience. When some suggested that Jesus was John come back to life, Herod bought the idea. Against the background of Herod’s terrible misunderstanding of who Jesus is, Matthew is revealing the Savior, the true King, to you.
Proclaim repentance. Repentance was a theme of the preaching of Jesus, and of his disciples. John’s preaching had introduced the Gospel with that message. Now Matthew focuses on how that message worked out in one particular situation. Part of the parallel between John and Elijah (see Matthew 11:7–15; 17:11–13) involves his confrontation with the “king.” And Herod Antipas and Herodias remind you of Ahab and Jezebel. Herod had entered a political marriage with the daughter of neighboring King Aretas and left her for Herodias. Herodias left Herod Philip, the half-brother of Herod Antipas, so that she could marry him. And the marriage was a violation of Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21. John the Baptist had denounced this marriage, apparently to Herod’s face (“It is not lawful for you to have her.”) Herod, who both feared the prophet and was attracted to his message, imprisoned John, but that did not satisfy Herodias. She bided her time, took the opportunity of the king’s birthday to send her daughter (Salome from extra-Biblical sources) to dance, and elicited a rash promise of reward from the drunken king. In the presence of the prominent guests Herod could not back down, John was beheaded, and Herodias received her grisly request. With that background, you can understand Herod’s uneasy conscience, and his wondering if Jesus is John, come back to life. The church today continues to have a prophetic function, calling herself, as well as those around her to repentance. Does your life have a tendency to be self-centered? Do you accommodate your standards to those of the world? Then, call yourself to repentance. Speak to the injustices around you, boldly and compassionately. Our society is defining self in terms of what we feel like. In contrast, as Christians, we know that we, and all people are image of God. Speak to those who differ, but do it with compassion. Jesus calls you to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves.
John’s death anticipates the suffering and death of Christ. Jesus would also suffer at the hands of men. Matthew’s Gospel contains two passion accounts. The suffering and death of John the Baptist anticipate the redemptive death of the Savior. Jesus implies a parallel between his coming death and that of John, Matthew 17:11–13. John did come in fulfillment of Malachi 4. He came in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was rejected by the rulers and killed. “If ever there was a case of godliness unrewarded in this life, it was that of John the Baptist…. Let all true Christians remember, that their best things are yet to come. Let us count it no strange thing, if we have sufferings in this present time. It is a season of probation. We are yet at school We are learning patience, longsuffering, gentleness, and meekness, which we could hardly learn if we had our good things now. But there is an eternal holiday yet to begin. For this let us wait quietly. It will make amends for all. ‘Our light affliction which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.’ (2 Cor. iv.17.)” (J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, at Matthew 14:1–12). The implication is that the One to whom John pointed would be treated similarly. Matthew does present Jesus as the King, but he is showing you how different from what you might expect is his path to the throne.
Share in the triumph of the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is more than an account of a death. It is more than a memorial to the faithful fore-runner. Matthew is not just presenting a series of martyrs who die for their faith. Rather, both the death of John and the death of Jesus fit into their own place in the great account he is giving. The conclusion of the account of John’s death is his burial by his disciples. Burial is important! “Though the honor of burial is of no importance to the dead, yet it is the will of the Lord that we should observe this ceremony as a token of the last resurrection; and therefore God was pleased with the carefulness which was manifested by the disciples, when they came to commit to the tomb the body of their master. Moreover, it was an attestation of their piety; for in this way they declared that the doctrine of their master continued to have a firm hold of their hearts after his death.” (John Calvin, Harmony of the Gospels) Several of the parables in Matthew 13 focus on the judgment at the end of the age. The account of John’s death pushes you to look at a specific example of what happens to believers when their life on this earth comes to an end. John’s work and death had meaning because they pointed forward to the Christ, to the Messiah who came to be the Lamb of God. John was faithful to death. Jesus is even more faithful. The resurrection of Jesus gives meaning and hope, even to the death of his people. The account in Matthew 17:11–13 is in the context of verse 9, pointing to the resurrection of the Savior. He is the One who has overcome death. Jesus himself, and Matthew’s Gospel, look ahead to his resurrection, the event which gives meaning and hope to believers in life and in death. Even from the perspective of the Old Testament, the hope of the believer is not just the intermediate state, blessing though that is. Take seriously the language of feasting in Isaiah 25, when God removes the shroud of death! Notice how that meal anticipates the great wedding feast of the Lamb at the end of Revelation. Give thanks that you have an anticipation of that meal as you eat the bread and drink the cup today. Notice the contrast in Matthew 14 between the drunken birthday party—and the meal in the wilderness.
The servant is not greater than his master. Where the message of repentance is preached, the church has suffered and will suffer. But because Christ died and rose, the church shares in his triumph.