This passage is the last in the section of Matthew’s Gospel that began in 11:2 in which were have seen the growing misunderstanding and rejection of Jesus and His message of the Kingdom of heaven. In this passage, we see just how twisted and extreme the misunderstandings became, and how deadly their results would become. Yes, John would be seen at Herod’s party, but not all of him would be there…
According the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Herod ordered the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist because John had publicly denounced Herod’s wedding to his sister-in-law, Herodias. As we see from 14:6-11, Herod, who was afraid to have John killed, found himself in a position from which he could not extricate himself without having him beheaded, and so it came to pass that John the Baptist was murdered at Herod’s command, and his head was brought to Herod’s birthday party on a platter and presented to his niece who was also his step daughter. Two things really jump off the page for me in this story: One is the curious way that Matthew tells the story; it is a “flashback”. Second is Herod’s reaction to Jesus’ miracles, assuming as he did that Jesus’ miraculous abilities must mean that He was John the Baptist risen from the grave.
This dude was a loon, no getting around that!
Yet that isn’t what Matthew is really getting at.
Focus on the very depth of Herod’s misunderstanding of what is going on around him; it doesn’t seem to occur to him who Jesus might really be, but then Herod wasn’t a Jew, was he? He had been afraid to kill John not because of who John was, but because he had been popular with the masses. Yep, that’s right; Herod’s fear was motivated by nothing more than politics. Nevertheless, his fear that Jesus could be John come back from the grave is very real indeed, and as the story goes on, it will result in a very odd political alliance between the Jewish religious leaders, who want Jesus out of the picture, and Herod, their enemy, who also wants Jesus out of the picture.
Oh the tangled webs we weave!
So then, why does Matthew introduce this story in the unusual manner that he did?
You might recall that when Jesus learned of John’s imprisonment in 4:12, Jesus responded with a decisive move, taking His ministry out of the shadows and into full public view. When Jesus learns of John’s death, He makes another decisive move, this time, stepping back from full public view, and as a result, Matthew’s narrative moves into its next main section that extends from 14:13 -16:20 in which the main emphasis is on Jesus teaching His disciples exactly who He was, and what the purpose of His mission was, for make no mistake; His disciples were not yet clear on either of these things.
We will pick up the story next time, and see what happens when Jesus tried to step out of the public spotlight…