King Herod

Herod the tetrarch had jurisdiction over the territory of Galilee during the time of Jesus’ ministry. Sometime not long after Jesus’ ministry was launched, Luke tells us that Herod shut up John the Baptist in prison because he had reproved him for marrying his brother Philip’s wife (Luke 3:19-20). King Herod knew John was a righteous man and because he was thought to be a prophet by most of the people, Herod didn’t kill John, but kept him in prison and listened to him preach with pleasure (Mark 6:20). That is, until his birthday, when Herod was enticed into beheading John in order to satisfy the wish of his step-daughter, who had danced for Herod and all his officials at a birthday supper (Mark 6:21).

Herod’s lack of moral conviction was revealed by his decision to grant his step-daughter’s request rather than be embarrassed in front of his dinner guests. Herod’s demonstration of his low regard for John’s life also showed that his teaching had not penetrated Herod’s hardened heart. Mark’s description of the situation suggested that Herod’ was glad when his step-daughter asked him to kill John because that meant he wouldn’t have to take the blame for his death. Mark said it was “a convenient day,” meaning it was well timed that is opportune (2121) for Herod to do what his step-daughter asked him to.

It’s possible that Herod staged the whole birthday incident, just so that he could get rid of John without any reprisal from the people that recognized him as a prophet. Matthew’s account of John’s death says that when Herod asked his step-daughter what she wanted for her service to him and his guests, “she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger” (Matthew 14:8). More than likely, it was not Herod’s opportunity, but that of his wife, Herodias that was taken advantage of that night. After Herod was asked for John’s head on a platter, Matthew said, “And the king was very sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be giver her” (Matthew 14:9).

The tragic death of John the Baptist was a major setback for Jesus’ ministry in that it hurt him and his disciples deeply and discouraged them from preaching the gospel in public. Matthew stated, “When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart” (Matthew 14:13). The Greek word translated apart, idios (id’-ee-os) suggests that Jesus was looking for some privacy so he could mourn the loss of his cousin John. In spite of his effort to get away for awhile, the people followed Jesus and his disciples on foot and met them when they landed on the opposite shore (Matthew 14:13-14). Later, when Herod heard of Jesus’ fame, he said, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him” (Matthew 14:1-2).

Transition

John the Baptist played an important role in the transition that took place during Jesus’ three-year ministry on earth. John marked the end of the old economy in which sacrifices for sins had to be made on an ongoing basis. John’s statement, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) indicated that Jesus would radically change the way God’s people worshipped him. At the end of his life, after he had been imprisoned for his message of repentance, John began to have doubts and became deeply discouraged. Because of his confusion about the situation, John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?” (Matthew11:3). Jesus told John’s disciples to remind him of all the things that were happening. He said, “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them” (Matthew 11:5).

Jesus’ controversial message brought fear and doubt to many people because they didn’t understand God’s plan of salvation. The transition from works of righteousness through sacrifice to God’s free gift of redemption was a hard one, mostly because it meant that anyone could enter into God’s kingdom, if he was willing to admit he was a sinner and couldn’t save himself. The hyper-critical Pharisees in particular, thought they were keeping the law and were perfect in God’s sight. Jesus exposed these men’s judgmental attitudes and cautioned his followers. Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The problem was that no one believed it was possible to be more righteous than a Pharisee. The Greek words Jesus used for exceed, perisseuo (per-is-syoo´-o) pleion (pli´-own) mean to superabound, to be greater than or in excess of what is required (4052/4119).

During the transition from the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law, to the New Covenant, salvation by grace, Jesus emphasized the importance of the Jews attitude toward what they thought was sinful behavior. He stated, “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children” (Matthew 11:18-19). The point Jesus was trying to make was that the people were not content with their new situation. They wanted everything to be as they liked, comfortable and easy to handle. In essence, they thought Jesus and John the Baptist were too radical. The Jews were looking for a nice, middle of the road viewpoint to follow. The statement, “But wisdom is justified of her children” (Matthew 11:19) was meant as a criticism of the Jews lack of awareness of the extreme sacrifice Jesus was making by taking upon himself the responsibility for saving the world.

Troublemakers

Reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem was not a quick or easy task. The original temple that was built by king Solomon took seven years to construct (1 Kings 7:38). Ezra recorded that construction of the second temple was started in 536 B.C., but not completed until 516 B.C. (Ezra 6:15). The primary reason for the delay was the harassment the builders received from troublemakers living in the area surrounding Jerusalem. Ezra stated, “Then the people of the land weakened the hands of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building, and hired counsellers against them to frustrate the purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia” (Ezra 4:4-5). The phrases “weakened the hands of the people” and “troubled them in building” may also be translated as discouraged them and made them afraid to build (ESV). The idea being that the people were unproductive because of the harassment they received.

At the very least, the builders of the temple were distracted by the troublemakers that wanted to join with them in their effort (Ezra 4:2). One of the tactics used against the temple builders was what we might refer to today as tattle telling. A report was sent to king Darius, the successor to Cyrus king of Persia, indicating that the people that had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon were trying to rebuild their temple. They said, “Be it known to the king that we went into the province of Judea, to the house of the great God, which is builded with great stones, and timber is laid in the walls, and this work goeth fast on, and prospereth in their hands…and yet it is not finished” (Ezra 5:8,16). The troublemakers went on to say that they were told by the leaders in Jerusalem that Cyrus had made a decree to build the house of God and they wanted the records to be searched to find out if that was actually true (Ezra 5:13,17). Fortunately, king Darius ordered a search of the records and Cyrus’ decree was found (Ezra 6:3).

In spite of the corroboration of their story, the leaders of Jerusalem continued to face opposition for another fifty plus years. After king Darius was replaced by king Ahasurerus in 486 B.C., another letter was sent with an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem (Ezra 4:7). Then, sometime during the reign of king Artaxerxes (465 B.C. – 424 B.C), a final attempt was made to stop the work in Jerusalem. The letter to Artaxerxes went to greater lengths by suggesting that a plot to overthrow his kingdom was in progress (Ezra 4:11-16). As a result of their intervention, Artaxeres I ordered that the Jews stop rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:3) until around 445 B.C. when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem and successful rebuilt the walls in fifty two days.