Matthew 14 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

A Prophet Martyred

The parallels between the missions of John and Jesus have been building toward the climax of this paragraph. John has introduced Jesus, proclaiming the same message that Jesus would (3:2; 4:17). After Jesus promises persecution and speaks of prophets (10:17-42), he praises John in prison as his ally (11:2-19); narratives about those who reject Jesus follow that account (11:20-25; 12:1-14). But nowhere does John's fate prefigure that of Jesus so clearly as here: if Jesus himself proves to be "a prophet without honor" among his people (13:53-58), what is to keep him from the fate of John the Baptist (14:1-12; 17:12)? And if for Jesus, how much more for us who follow him (5:12)?

Herod Antipas's Guilty Conscience (14:1-2)

Antipas believes that John has returned from the dead in the temporary sense exhibited in some biblical resuscitations (1 Kings 17:21-22; 2 Kings 4:34-36), not the final resurrection, which Jewish people generally understood as a corporate event (Dan 12:2). Although Antipas had executed John, he knew very well that John was a righteous man and feared his influence. The more evil a society becomes, the more likely its members are to kill the righteous whose words or lives reproach its character, even if they recognize that the righteous speak truth.

The Powerful Can Mistake Moral Reproof for Political Pronouncements (14:3-4)

Those ensnared in adultery often become blind to common sense, including the warnings of those close to them. Antipas, son of Herod the Great (2:1) and a Samaritan mother, hence Archelaus's full brother (2:22), had functioned as tetrarch over Galilee and Perea since about 4 B.C. He had entered into a politically prudent marriage with a Nabatean princess, perhaps seeking to secure further loyalty from Nabatean subjects within his territory of Perea (Kraeling 1951:89).

But when Antipas divorced his first wife to take his brother's wife, he violated not only Jesus' teaching on the moral indissolubility of marriage (5:31-32) but also the Mosaic law concerning incest (Lev 18:16; 20:21). John thus publicly reproached a public example of immorality. But what John viewed in moral terms Antipas undoubtedly saw in political terms as well (compare Jos. Ant. 18.118; Kraeling 1951:85, 90-91, 143-45). Antipas's plans to divorce his first wife had provoked trouble with her father, the powerful Nabatean king Aretas (on whom see 2 Cor 11:32-33). This trouble ultimately led to war and public humiliation for Antipas (Jos. Ant. 18.113-14, 124-25). That many Nabateans in Perea presumably remained loyal to Aretas further extended the political implications of Herod's affair. A prophet harping on the tetrarch's misbehavior was therefore politically dangerous.

Christians today who take a stand against abortion, exploitation of the poor or racism may be taking a moral stand, but in our polarized society many will read such a stand as politically partisan even when we do not intend it in such terms. The major difference at this point is that John's society did not recognize freedom of speech; publicly denouncing a ruler's character was essentially suicidal. Israel had a long-standing tradition exempting prophets from severe punishment for their speech-a rule that only the most vicious rulers broke. Unfortunately for John, Antipas proved to be such a ruler.

God Can Use Various Means to Restrain Evil (14:5)

In another case the government might be more sensitive to justice than the masses are (compare 27:24-25), but in this case John's popularity with the people protects him from the power of a populist politician. After John's execution, when King Aretas soundly defeated Antipas in war to avenge the latter's rejection of Aretas's daughter, many people believed that Antipas's loss was divine judgment for the execution of John, which by this point had occurred some years before (Jos. Ant. 18.116-19; compare Meier 1992:233).

Antipas Ensnares Himself in Deeper Sin Through Lust and Oaths (14:6-7)

Birthday celebrations were a Greek and Roman rather than Jewish custom, which Antipas readily accommodated (compare also m. `Aboda Zara 1:3); his full brother Archelaus had also been known for drunken parties (see Jos. War 2.29). According to Josephus's briefer account of John's execution, this scene must have taken place at Herod's fortress Machaerus in Perea, near where John had often preached (compare Kraeling 1951:9-10, 92-93). This fortress included a dungeon where John was kept.

Nearly all Jews would have found Herod's lust disgusting: because the girl was the daughter of a woman with whom Antipas was sleeping, desire for her constituted incest (compare Amos 2:7). According to some accounts the girl, Salome, may have been between six and eight years old; more likely she was a virgin of marriageable age (twelve to fourteen), but possibly she was already betrothed or married to Philip the tetrarch (see Hoehner 1972:155-56; Theissen 1991:90-91).

Jewish scholars had devised ways to release people from oaths that would lead to more evil, so no one would have faulted Herod for breaking his promise: life took precedence over oaths. But Antipas is concerned about more than his oath itself. Once Herod has given his oath in front of dinner guests, his "honor" is at stake (compare Esther 1:10-19; Jos. Ant. 18.299); here short-range political considerations take precedence over the long-term ones, and Antipas remains captive to what others may think. In this account Matthew graphically illustrates his earlier principles about the dangers of lust, divorce and oaths (5:27-37).

Speaking for Righteousness Can Elicit Enmity in High Places (14:8)

Antipas had wronged his brother Philip by taking the man's wife; this was an act of adultery in God's sight (5:31-32) and also qualified as incest under the Mosaic law (Lev 20:21). But Herodias wanted ven-geance on John for daring to publicly denounce her sin; John must have known that if Antipas's new wife wanted his death, she would ultimately have more influence with Antipas than he would.

John's Friends and Enemies React to His Martyrdom (14:9-12)

Jewish law forbade execution without trial, but the Romans had granted Antipas capital jurisdiction. Freely disregarding Jewish scruples, he granted execution in the least painful Roman style-beheading with a sword (see O'Rourke 1971:174). The delivery of John's head on a platter (v. 11) was a grisly conclusion to the feast presupposed by a birthday party (v. 6) and dinner guests (v. 9).

John's disciples, however, risked their own lives to show up and bury John's body in one final act of love (v. 12). With nowhere else to go, these disciples then find Jesus, the One to whom John had borne witness (3:11-15) and to whom John had sent messengers when in prison (11:2-6). In John's final direct portrayal in the Gospel, then, his martyrdom has sent his remaining disciples to Jesus, the Coming One. May all of us lay such a groundwork that after we are gone those who recall our service may look beyond us to the Lord we proclaimed.

Next commentary:
Feeding the Five Thousand

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