The events in this passage of Scripture are recorded by all three of the Synoptic writers, but it is Mark who gives us the fullest account. Jesus sent out the Twelve to every village, preaching the gospel, healing the sick, and exorcising demons. As a result, the news about Jesus spread and Herod heard about all that was happening. This namesake of his father, Herod the Great, was known as Herod Antipas or Herod the Tetrarch. After the death of Herod the Great, his will was contested by his sons and his kingdom was divided into four parts by Augustus Caesar. Herod Antipas was made tetrarch over Galilee and Perea. When he heard all that was happening, he was convinced that the rumors were true: John the Baptist had been resurrected.
The account of the death of John the Baptist, is a story that’s familiar to us, but let’s take a moment to look at some of the details that stand out. A key part of revelation in the Gospels is the perception of people to an appearance of Jesus. There are some distinctive things about Herod’s perception.
Herod had arrested John the Baptist because John had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias. Herodias had been the wife of Philip, one of Herod’s brothers, another ruler who had a fourth-part of Herod’s kingdom. Herod and Herodias had been married, and John condemned their marriage as being unacceptable in the sight of God. Herodias nursed a grudge against John the Baptist because of his condemnation of their relationship, and so to please her, Herod had arrested John the Baptist. Herodias wanted to take it a step further and have John the Baptist killed, but Herod considered John to be a holy man — and he liked to listen to him. But Herod also feared the people because they considered John to be a great prophet. Herod was, in today’s political parlance, a politician who was a poll watcher. So, because the polls said the people liked John the Baptist and considered him to be a great prophet, that was one of the determining factors in Herod protecting John rather than killing him. Trying to please his wife, at the same time pleasing the people. “Herod liked to listen to him even though he was greatly puzzled by him.” Those are the words of Mark: greatly puzzled, but liked to listen to John the Baptist.
As we know from the story, Herodias found her opportunity on Herod’s birthday when Herodias’ daughter danced for Herod and his guests. Her lewd entertainment caused Herod to make a rash promise with an oath that he would give her anything, up to half of his kingdom. Prompted by her mother, she came back and asked for the head of John the Baptist. Like father, like son; this daughter is like her mother. Herodias told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist; the daughter came back and asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Mark tells us that Herod was greatly distressed by her request, but because of his oath and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. Not wanting to lose face in front of his dinner guests, he ordered his executioner to behead John the Baptist.
Now we come back to the point of what prompted this background from Mark and the point of all the Synoptic writers: the Twelve had gone out, preaching the Gospel, the news about Jesus spreading. Matthew tells us that because of the reports about Jesus, and Mark says that because Jesus’ name had become well known, Herod is perplexed. He heard what the people were saying, he heard the rumors that all these miraculous things were happening because John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and he thought that maybe those rumors were true. Because the fame of Jesus was spreading, the Gospel writers tell us that Herod wanted to see Jesus. He wouldn’t get his wish for some time. Not until Jesus was brought to trial before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate, who had an adversarial relationship with Herod, sent Jesus to Herod. Herod was delighted because he had wanted to see Jesus, to hear the words of Jesus, and to see some magic performed by Jesus. Tragically, that was the extent of the impact of the Word of God on Herod’s heart.
Again, we are talking about perception. Herod was intrigued by John the Baptist, he feared him as a holy man. He liked to listen to John, but the word of God went no further in affecting Herod’s heart. He wanted to see Jesus, not because he is seeking the truth, but because Jesus could provide entertainment for him. Herod is another classic representation of the hard soil. The seed falls on it, but the soil can’t receive the seed.
As I was reading this passage and thinking about Herod: all these indications of Herod’s interest, and yet he is ruled by stronger motivations and influences — whether it’s trying to placate his wife, trying to please the people, being afraid of losing face, or being motivated by his own sensual desire for pleasure. All of those characteristics can be found in the teachings of Jesus describing the hearts of the people and what keeps them from truly responding to the Word of God. There are a number of ministries and denominations — including the Assemblies of God — that have embarked on extensive efforts to get Christians to read the Bible. It’s often been noted that we have the greatest exposure to the Word of God of any generation but we are the most biblically illiterate since the Bible first began being printed. That means that many people who come and listen to sermons Sunday after Sunday, podcasts, or preachers on TV, they are interested in the Word (like Herod) but it’s not finding a place to “richly dwell” (Colossians 3.16) in their hearts. There is nothing more central to the life of a Christ-follower than the Word of God, and Jesus said that His Word needs to abide in us so that we bear much fruit. Those two factors, cause and effect, will be the evidence that we are truly the disciples of Jesus and that we are bearing fruit to the glory of the Father (John 15.7-8). May it be that we are not a people who are just interested in the Word of God, or that we do not seek out teachers who will tells us what we want to hear, or that we cannot endure sound doctrine (2 Timothy 4.3-4). But may the Word of God truly “dwell in us richly” and produce the life of righteousness that God desires in the lives of His people (2 Timothy 3.16-17).
What are you doing to ensure that your exposure to the Word of God does not amount to mere worthless interest, but shapes your life and identifies you as a true follower of Christ?