The Death of John

            News about Jesus has been spreading throughout Judea, so it is not surprising that word of Jesus eventually reached the ears of the rulers. When Herod heard of Jesus and the miracles that he was performing, Herod was certain that John had risen from the grave to haunt him. Others were telling him that Jesus was Elijah or one of the other prophets arisen from the grave or possibly even The Prophet mentioned by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:18). Herod knew John was dead, but still he was curious to met Jesus.

            Herod is referred to as “the tetrarch” because his father, Herod the Great, had divided his realm into four areas which each of his four surviving sons ruled. This Herod’s name was Antipas; he took on the title “Herod” when he inherited his realm.

            John had been in prison because Herodias, Herod’s wife, was offended when John stated that her marriage to Herod was not legal. Antipas had married his half-brother Philip’s wife who was herself a daughter of Berenice and Philip’s half-brother Aristobulus. In other words, Herodias had married her uncle. Philip had been disinherited by Herod the Great and was living in Rome. By the way, this is not the Philip mentioned in Luke 3:1, but another son of Herod who had the same name. On a visit to Rome, Antipas ran off with Philip’s wife and his niece. According to the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Commentary, “Herod Antipas' own wife was the daughter of Aretas, king of Arabia; but he prevailed on Herodias, his half-brother Philip's wife, to forsake her husband and live with him, on condition, says Josephus [Antiquities, 18.5,1], that he should put away his own wife. This involved him afterwards in war with Aretas, who totally defeated him and destroyed his army, from the effects of which he was never able to recover himself.”

            What John had declared is clearly taught in the Old Testament. A man is not allowed to marry his brother’s wife (Leviticus 18:16; Leviticus 20:21). Herod himself was initially angry with John as well and would have put him to death, but John’s popularity with the people and the fact that the people held him to be a prophet caused him to stay his hand. Mark reveals that Herod was also afraid of John. But as John remained imprisoned, Herod took time to talk with John and enjoyed his discussions with John. He did many things for John, but he did not leave his sins. Perhaps Herod thought to bribe John into acceptance of his marriage; if so, it did not work.

            At some point, Herod had a birthday and a large party was held. Leading men from all of Galilee attended. Herodias’ daughter, whom we know from history to be named Salome, performed a dance as part of the entertainment. While we can’t know for sure, it is easy to speculate that there must have been drinking at the party and that Salome’s dance sexually appealing because of the foolish response of Herod. He offered Salome anything she wanted up to half his kingdom. The girl wasn’t certain what to ask for, but her mother prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. It seems strange, but this girl rushed back to Herod and made the request her mother told her to make. She probably knew that if she waited until the guests were gone that Herod would try to avoid fulfilling his promise.

            The request grieved Herod because he had come to respect John. However, he could not get out of matter without breaking his word before many nobles who had witnessed what he had said. He was in a tough position. Religiously, he had made a vow, rash and foolish though it was. Politically, he wanted to be seen as a man of his word else those he dealt with would never trust him. For his home life, he knew that he needed to appease his step-daughter and her mother. But worse, he just didn’t want to tell Salome, “No.” He was a weak-willed ruler and father. It is small wonder that his country and family life was in constant turmoil according to the history books. Understanding this event helps us to see why he and the other rulers of his time were willing to let Jesus be put to death, though he had done no wrong. The sad thing is that if Salome had asked for a part of his kingdom, he probably would have sought some way to wiggle out of the situation, but when it came to one man’s life, even the life a holy man whom he admired, Herod gave in without much fuss.

            Herod immediately had John beheaded and gave the girl what she wanted. She, in turn, gave John’s head to her mother.

            When John’s disciples heard of this misdeed, they claimed the body of John and gave him a decent burial. The disciples then sought out Jesus and told him what had transpired.

Questions for this Lesson