Rejection, confusion, drama and Herods.
Good morning! We’ll be continuing our study of Matthew today, finishing up chapter 13 and starting in on chapter 14.
Last week, we finished going through a section of parables, which was in a major section of teaching. Remember, verse 53 gives us that important transitional phrase “When Jesus had finished...” which tells us we’re about to switch over into a new section of narrative.
Here’s a visual reminder of where we are in the overall outline of Matthew.
The book is structured with a traditional 3-part structure of Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion, each of which being marked with that transitional statement on the left: “From then on...” We’re still in the 2nd of the 3 main sections, the main body of the book, which is structured as 5 pairs of narrative and teaching. Again, those pairs are clearly and consistently delineated by the phrase on the right “When Jesus had finished...” Matthew was very organized with the structure of this book.
We just finished up the third pair, numbers 5 and 6, and we’re starting on the second to last pair today.
We’ll start by finishing up chapter 13 first, then we’ll dive in to chapter 14.
The last few chapters have been marked by rejection, controversy, and confusion regarding the Christ, the Messiah, and these challenges in some ways come to a head here, as we see Jesus face rejection even from his own family, and receives some tragic news regarding his cousin, John the immerser.
Let’s read together, beginning in 13:53...
Matthew 13:53–58 CSB
53 When Jesus had finished these parables, he left there. 54 He went to his hometown and began to teach them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? 55 Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? 56 And his sisters, aren’t they all with us? So where does he get all these things?” 57 And they were offended by him.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household.” 58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.
Verse 54 says he want to his “hometown.” Where was that?
He was known by many as Jesus of…Nazareth!
He wasn’t born in Nazareth, he was born in Bethlehem, and from there the family fled to Egypt for several years, before returning and settling in Nazareth.
Nazareth is a small village in lower Galilee, and it was where Jesus spent much of his childhood. He grew up there. Throughout his ministry this far, he has been traveling all around the region, from Capernaum to Jerusalem and on both sides of the river.
This is the first mention of him returning to Nazareth since beginning his ministry. And it says he began to teach in their synagogue. This would have been the synagogue he grew up going to, where everyone would recognize him as the kid they watched grow up in their village.
Like the other crowds who have witnessed Jesus teach and perform miracles, they are astonished.
However, because they recognize him from before his ministry began, they are offended by him.
“Where did this guy come from? Where did he get his power? We know where he came from! He’s the carpenter’s son! His whole family is here! He has no right to be doing this!”
Fun fact: this is the only reference (along with its parallels in Mark and Luke) to Joseph and Jesus’s trade! If Joseph was a carpenter, then according to Jewish tradition, he would have passed that knowledge and skill down to Jesus, and it’s likely Jesus helped to make wooden instruments such as yokes and plows, or tables and doorposts.
The people of Nazareth are offended that a carpenter is speaking and acting with authority in their synagogue, in their church! He’s not trained as a scribe or pharisee, he’s trained as a carpenter! Who does he think he is?
It’s really not hard to imagine why they would be offended, and Jesus has faced rejection before, but this time his response is rather unique, isn’t it?
His response to their deep offense to him is to say:
Matthew 13:57 CSB
57 And they were offended by him.
Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his household.”
Now, he states a double negative here, but he’s saying that a prophet has honor everywhere except for his own hometown and family.
I’m not going to read into this statement too much, it’s not necessarily a profound theological revelation here as much as a simple acknowledgment of human nature and pride.
These people were so focused on Jesus’s common nature, his common heritage, his common trade, they could not see his uncommon significance, his divine nature.
It may also be worth noting that so far, this is the most explicit reference Jesus makes to himself as a prophet. We know he’s much more than “just” a prophet, as he makes clear elsewhere…he is greater than the prophets, greater than the priests, the temples, the kings of old. But part of his role during his ministry certainly was as a prophet.
Verse 58 reveals the consequence of their unbelief:
Matthew 13:58 CSB
58 And he did not do many miracles there because of their unbelief.
This is a pretty simple statement, but I do want to make a couple of clarifications as to what this doesn’t mean.
Have you ever seen a movie with Santa Claus, or fairies, like one of the Peter Pan movie, where their power relies on people’s belief in them?
That’s NOT what’s happening here. Jesus is intentionally withholding miracles from people, it’s not that their unbelief weakens his ability to perform miracles. Hopefully this is an obvious statement but just in case I figured I’d better say it.
The other implication to think about is that sometimes we can be tempted to think along the lines of “Well maybe if God would just give me or so and so a sign, why doesn’t he give us more signs, then people would believe?”
But we can see in patterns throughout the whole story of the bible that it doesn’t matter how much or how often God reveals himself, those who reject him do so regardless.
Jesus knew they already disregarded him and that nothing he did would change their minds.
What’s cool though is that we do know that at least some of them DID change their minds after his death and resurrection.
His brothers James and Judas both professed faith in Jesus and wrote books that are in our New Testament! That’s a good reminder that even if people reject Christ when the initial seed is planted, that doesn’t mean the spirit won’t still use that later on to transform their hearts and minds.
Alright, let’s move on now to chapter fourteen:
Matthew 14:1–12 CSB
1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus. 2 “This is John the Baptist,” he told his servants. “He has been raised from the dead, and that’s why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
3 For Herod had arrested John, chained him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 since John had been telling him, “It’s not lawful for you to have her.” 5 Though Herod wanted to kill John, he feared the crowd since they regarded John as a prophet.
6 When Herod’s birthday celebration came, Herodias’s daughter danced before them and pleased Herod. 7 So he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. 8 Prompted by her mother, she answered, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter.” 9 Although the king regretted it, he commanded that it be granted because of his oaths and his guests. 10 So he sent orders and had John beheaded in the prison. 11 His head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. 12 Then his disciples came, removed the corpse, buried it, and went and reported to Jesus.
Alright, in some ways this is another straightforward narrative. The untimely death of John the Baptist is rather disturbing and tragic, and you can imagine Jesus would be sad about losing his cousin in this way. Underlying this story though there is a lot of background drama to unpack here.
First of all, this chapter starts off with Herod hearing about Jesus. When he hears about everything Jesus has been doing and saying, he recognizes it as a continuation of John the Baptist’s mission and message, and comes to the conclusion that it must be John the Baptist Reincarnate!
This is really a demonstration of Herod’s paranoia fueled by a guilty conscience following John’s execution. But at this point in Matthew, we haven’t even been told about that yet!
So Matthew backs up a bit and explains why Herod would think this, because so far all we’ve been told about John is that he’s been in prison. At some point he’s gone from being imprisoned to executed, and Matthew gives a brief explanation of how that happened and why.
To better understand what’s going on here, I think it’s helpful to reference another historical literary source, the work of Josephus.
Flavius Josephus was a historian who lived in the first century after Christ, and wrote prolifically about Jewish history and the Jewish-Roman wars which came about in that time. The writings of Josephus are certainly not infallible and he himself was a man of questionable character. In fact, he was rather despised by the Jews for certain moves he made during wartime and was viewed by many as a traitor. Nevertheless, he is widely recognized for his detailed descriptions of events and documentation of oral tradition, and most of his writings are regarded as credible. They help shed light on cultural perspective, as well as verify the historicity of various characters and events in the Bible.
Fun fact: Flavius Josephus was his Greek name, whereas his Hebrew name was Yōsēf ben Mattīṯyāhū, which translates to “Joseph, son of Matthew.” The name “Flavius” comes from adopting the Roman Emperor’s name after fully defecting from the Jewish side to the Roman side and becoming a Roman citizen.
In Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus, in book 18 chapter 5, he explains some of the drama going on in Herod’s family and how that played into John the Baptist’s death, as well as some interesting cultural perspective on the aftermath.
Let me read you just a little bit from this chapter, just to give you an idea of what his writing is like. Just a warning, it’s really difficult to follow, so if you don’t follow it, that’s OK, I’ll try to explain it in my own words, but I wanted you to get a taste of what I had to unravel in order to do so:
The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition (Chapter 5: Herod the Tetrarch Makes War with Aretas, the King of Arabia, and Is Beaten by Him; As Also concerning the Death of John the Baptist. How Vitellius Went up to Jerusalem; Together with Some Account of Agrippa, and of the Posterity of H)
About this time Aretas (the king of Arabia Petrea) and Herod had a quarrel, on the account following: Herod the tetrarch had married the daughter of Aretas, and had lived with her a great while; but when he was once at Rome, he lodged with Herod, who was his brother indeed, but not by the same mother; for this Herod was the son of the high priest Simon’s daughter. (110) However, he fell in love with Herodias, this last Herod’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus their brother, and the sister of Agrippa the Great. This man ventured to talk to her about a marriage between them; which address when she admitted, an agreement was made for her to change her habitation, and come to him as soon as he should return from Rome; one article of this marriage also was this, that he should divorce Aretas’s daughter. (111) So Antipas, when he had made this agreement, sailed to Rome; but when he had done there the business he went about, and was returned again, his wife having discovered the agreement he had made with Herodias, and having learned it before he had notice of her knowledge of the whole design, she desired him to send her to Macherus, which is a place on the borders of the dominions of Aretas and Herod, without informing him of any of her intentions.
Alright, I’m going to stop there because I’ve probably already lost most if not all of you!
Reading through an English translation of a Greek manuscript from a couple thousand years ago can be rather tedious, and it’s a bit hard to follow exactly what’s going on here.
There are two different Herod’s in this story, both sons of Herod the Great.
Herod the Great was appointed by the Roman senate as “king” of the Jews 40 years before Jesus was born. That was the Herod who tried to kill Jesus when he was still a baby. Herod the Great was married 10 different times, and 4 of those marriages produced children which are relevant to the story.
By the time Joseph and Mary and Jesus returned to Judea, Herod the Great had died, and his kingdom was divided amongst three of his sons from two of his wives, Archelaus, Antipas, and Phillip II, plus some territory that went to his sister.
Archelaus and Antipas were from his 4th wife, while Phillip II was from his fifth…I think.
I looked at a whole bunch of charts of the Herodian family tree and it seemed like every one was different, because it’s almost impossible to simplify this tangled mess into one chart, but here’s one that I thought was somewhat helpful, if only for visualizing what a mess it is:
Herod the Great’s kingdom was divided into 4 pieces, referred to as the “tetrarchy” ruled by the four “tetrarchs” or governors. But they were not evenly divided.
Archelaus had the largest area of governance, referred to as an “ethnarch,” meaning he ruled over a whole “ethnicity” of people. He ruled over Judea, Samaria, and and Idumea. Eventually he was replaced by Pontius Pilate.
It’s Archelaus’s jurisdiction that Joseph and Mary wanted to avoid when they returned to Egypt, which is why they ended up in Nazareth. Nazareth was in Galilee, which fell under Antipas’s governance.
Antipas and his half-brother Phillip II are both referred to as “tetrarchs.” Antipas had Galilee and Peraea, while Phillip had the territories north and east of the Jordan.
The final tetrarch, their Aunt Salome I, Herod the Great’s sister, was given a smaller area, called a “toparchy” making her the governor of a small but not insignificant district, including three cities along the Mediterranean coast.
Circling back to Josephus’s history...
We then have Aretas, not related to Herod the Great or his sons, but who is a similar type of ruler as the Herods, appointed by the Romans, but governing Arabian provinces in a whole different region of the empire.
So Aretas is a Roman-Arabian ruler, and Herod Antipas is a Roman-Jewish ruler.
Herod marries Aretas’s daughter and lives with her for a long time.
Herod visits Rome and stays with a different half brother named Phillip, Phillip I. While there, Herod falls in love with this Phillip’s wife, Herodias, who’s the daughter of their other brother and sister of Agrippa the Great. Which means that both Phillip and Antipas’s father is this girl’s grandfather.
Herod comes up with a plan to marry Herodias, and she agrees, on the condition that she divorces Aretas’s daughter, his current wife.
Herod goes to Rome again and comes back, and in the meantime his wife finds out about his plan without him knowing. She asks Herod to send her to a place on the border between Herod’s jurisdiction and her father’s, Aretas’s. Herod agrees, thinking she’s still oblivious to his intentions.
She makes it to her father’s dominion and meets with him and tells her of Herod’s plan, and from then on Herod and Aretas were enemies, and eventually went to war against each other.
In the meantime, John the Baptist was calling out Herod Antipas, so called “king of the Jews” for his sin, much like prophets called out the sin of Jewish kings in the past. Think of Nathan and King David and Bathsheba, or Elijah and King Ahab and Jezebel.
Of course, that made John an enemy of Herod too. Matthew says that Herod was hesitant to act against John, because of how popular he was, but we see in this passage that he eventually made a drunken promise to Herodias’s daughter, which forced his hand to kill John.
So Herod married his brother’s wife Herodias, who agreed to marry him as long as he divorced his current wife, then at Herod’s birthday party, Herodias lets her daughter dance for drunk Herod, who likes it so much he promises to give her anything she wants. Already super messed up.
But then Herodias tells her daughter to ask for John’s head on a plate. The king doesn’t want to do this, but he grants it anyway, and this daughter actually gets John’s head delivered to her, and she brings it to her mother.
This whole story is just so disgusting!
And I’ll be totally honest, even after hours of studying through multiple resources, I’m still not sure this chart is 100% accurate and it seems that scholars don’t even all agree as to the exact family tree, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter that much in the context of the gospels, because no matter what, it’s disgusting.
And the point is that John was trying to tell Herod how disgusting his actions were, which only made Herod, and apparently Herodias all the more resent and hate him, ultimately culminating in John’s execution.
In the meantime, remember Herod Antipas’s original wife, Aretas of Arabia’s daughter, had run away to her father and told him what was going on, which meant Herod and Aretas were preparing for war against each other.
Oh, by the way, Aretas already didn’t like his son-in-law for other reasons, because they were arguing about some borders of their lands, and this was kind of just the last straw which gave Aretas an excuse to finally attack this punk Herod who was divorcing his daughter.
Josephus writes this about the battle:
The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition Chapter 5: Herod the Tetrarch Makes War with Aretas, the King of Arabia, and Is Beaten by Him; As Also concerning the Death of John the Baptist. How Vitellius Went up to Jerusalem; Together with Some Account of Agrippa, and of the Posterity of H
So they raised armies on both sides, and prepared for war, and sent their generals to fight instead of themselves; (114) and, when they had joined battle, all Herod’s army was destroyed by the treachery of some fugitives, who, though they were of the tetrarchy of Philip, joined with Aretas’s army.
So some people who were supposed to be fighting for Herod betrayed him and as a result Herod was defeated catastrophically. Though he himself was fine, because neither he nor Aretas actually were brave enough to join the fight.
This defeat for Herod came after John’s execution, and because John was so popular with the Jews, they viewed this defeat as God’s judgment upon Herod.
The Works of Josephus: New Updated Edition Chapter 5: Herod the Tetrarch Makes War with Aretas, the King of Arabia, and Is Beaten by Him; As Also concerning the Death of John the Baptist. How Vitellius Went up to Jerusalem; Together with Some Account of Agrippa, and of the Posterity of H
(116) Now, some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist; (117) for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (118) Now, when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. (119) Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure against him.
Please realize that this is NOT scripture, but a reflection of cultural opinion of current events at the time. We don’t know if Herod’s defeat was indeed an act of God or not, but it’s clear that Herod’s approval rating with the Jews was extremely low following John’s execution.
And whether you look at Matthew’s or Josephus’s account of Herod’s family life, it’s clear that it’s just a convoluted mess of a situation, completely unfitting of a Jewish “king” and reminiscent of some of the most depraved kings of Jewish history.
He wasn’t even really a “king” but if he was, he would be counted among the many “bad kings” of Jewish history.
While we have Herod’s story fresh on the mind, I want to point out something that happens later on in the story, when Jesus is arrested and tried in the culmination of the plot by the chief priests and their mobs.
Initially he is brought by the religions leaders and the mob to Pontius Pilate, who by then has taken Archelaus’s place as governor of the southern province of Judea. During Pilot’s inquiry into Jesus, he finds out that Jesus is a Galilean, and as such he says well then he falls under Herod’s jurisdiction, because Herod is the governor of Galilee.
We read this in Luke chapter 23:
Luke 23:7–12 CSB
7 Finding that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem during those days. 8 Herod was very glad to see Jesus; for a long time he had wanted to see him because he had heard about him and was hoping to see some miracle performed by him. 9 So he kept asking him questions, but Jesus did not answer him. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod, with his soldiers, treated him with contempt, mocked him, dressed him in bright clothing, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That very day Herod and Pilate became friends. Previously, they had been enemies.
I think this just reveals even more of Herod’s mindset and personality. He was actually excited to get to meet Jesus, because he had heard about him, and and basically just wanted to see a magic trick!
When Jesus disappointed Herod’s expectations, he and his soldiers humiliated him out of spite and just sent him back to Pilate. It’s petty, childish behavior.
Pilate is described as being much more level-headed and reasonable, although he eventually capitulates to the mobs.
Despite their personality differences though, neither Herod nor Pilate found any real reason to condemn Jesus, and neither of them seemed to think very highly of the Sanhedrin’s agenda of sentencing Jesus to death. Yet neither of them had the resolve to stand up against them. This gave them, who were former enemies, common ground for friendship in the future.
One more interesting thing to consider about this account of John’s beheading is how would have Matthew or Luke have known these details of what happened during Herod’s birthday celebration?
Josephus gives some helpful perspective as to the broader political and familial motives at play, but in the gospel accounts we get a strikingly intimate account of what took place in a prominent ruler’s private court.
Well, any of his guests who witnessed it could have spread the story, but interestingly enough, there are some named individuals who were known to be members of Herod’s court who later became active members of the church!
In Luke 8 a woman named Joanna is described as being Herod’s steward, and she was one of several women who actively supported Christ’s work.
Joanna is also named alongside Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James as those women who reported to the other disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead!
Another possible informant as to what took place in Herod’s court can be found in Acts 13...
Acts 13:1 CSB
1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
I know none of this is very theologically profound, but I think it’s cool to think about the interpersonal, human relationships at play in this story. There’s a lot of drama, a lot of sinfulness and selfishness, a lot of corruption, a lot of mistrust and doubt.
From John the Baptist to his own arrest and trial, Jesus is quiet and patient through it all.
That brings me to verse thirteen, when Jesus hears the news of what happened to John.
Here’s how Jesus reacts:
Matthew 14:13 CSB
13 When Jesus heard about it, he withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. When the crowds heard this, they followed him on foot from the towns.
Jesus withdraws and gets away, he just wants some time alone to process, to grieve, to meditate.
This is something Jesus often did, and it’s a reminder of the value of solitude and meditation, not only as a spiritual discipline, but as a tool of healing.
As much as we are not meant to live life in isolation, but in community, there is also a healthy balance in setting aside time for yourself. Jesus was perfectly selfless, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t value himself or neglect taking care of himself. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself both mentally and physically. In fact, it’s important to invest in yourself so that you can better give of yourself to others.
Of course, in Jesus’s case (and perhaps some of us can relate to some extent) it was very difficult to get time alone. The crowds heard where he went and followed him on foot so they could be there as soon as he went ashore.
And of course, Jesus being full of compassion as he is, he didn’t turn them away, he did quite the opposite, and we’ll look at that, Lord willing, next week.
As for these two passages, it’s kind of tough to draw out three practical bullet points of application. That’s not really what they’re here for. This isn’t a section of teaching, it’s narrative. It’s telling the story of what happened.
But I would say knowing and understanding the story of Jesus, and internalizing it is just as important as knowing and understanding and internalizing the teachings of Jesus. That’s one Reason Matthew structured the main body of his gospel account in those five pairs of narrative and teaching. In fact, I would say that applies to the whole Bible…it’s not just a story and it’s not just teachings and rules. It’s teachings and wisdom in the context of a story, which all together is teaching and wisdom.
We often talk about how Jesus came to be the perfect prophet, priest, and king. I suppose this particular story emphasizes the importance of that last role. When we look at other human kings and dynasties and the messes they inevitably create, it points us to the need for a perfect king, a king of kings and lord of lords to bring peace and justice to ALL nations.
A king who loves his people so much that he gave himself for them, and even as they mocked him with a crown of thorns and a satirical sign reading “King of the Jews” he still plead for mercy on their behalf, crying out to the Father “Forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
As Jesus forgave even those who tortured and killed him, he offers forgiveness to all who would turn our eyes to him and weep with horror at the sight of our sin, and yet weep with joy at the beauty of our savior and the life into which he has called us.
I’m going to close with a few verses from the beginning of Hebrews, which begins with a beautiful contemplation on the nature of Jesus as the king of the universe, using mostly quotes from Psalm and Isaiah.
Hebrews 1:1–12 CSB
1 Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2 In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. God has appointed him heir of all things and made the universe through him. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. 4 So he became superior to the angels, just as the name he inherited is more excellent than theirs.
5 For to which of the angels did he ever say,
You are my Son;
today I have become your Father,
I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son?
6 Again, when he brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
And let all God’s angels worship him.
7 And about the angels he says:
He makes his angels winds,
and his servants a fiery flame,
8 but to the Son:
Your throne, God,
is forever and ever,
and the scepter of your kingdom
is a scepter of justice.
9 You have loved righteousness
and hated lawlessness;
this is why God, your God,
has anointed you
with the oil of joy
beyond your companions.
In the beginning, Lord,
you established the earth,
and the heavens are the works of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain.
They will all wear out like clothing;
12 you will roll them up like a cloak,
and they will be changed like clothing.
But you are the same,
and your years will never end.