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.

Baptism

John’s baptism was meant to cleanse sinners from the stains upon their spirits that caused them to separate themselves from God. Just like Adam in the garden of Eden, everyone that commits a sin against God knows that he is guilty and deserves to be punished for what he has done. The key to understanding the effect of John’s baptism was to realize that God didn’t want people to live with the guilt they felt for the rest of their lives and had made a way for their sins to be removed from their spiritual awareness. The description of John’s ministry found in Mark 1:4 states, “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” The Greek word translated remission basically means freedom, but it also has a legal connotation that suggests a pardon, such as when a prisoner is set free and is forgiven of his offense. Although John’s baptism was welcomed and there were many who took advantage of his offer of forgiveness, John made it clear that he was preparing the way for Israel’s Messiah, Jesus. “And he preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the lachet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:7-8).

John’s baptism of Jesus is recorded in all four of the gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Although the details vary, there is one aspect of Jesus’ baptism that is the same throughout, the arrival of the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit on the earth. Mark described it this way, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him: and there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10-11). The baptism of the Holy Spirit was different than John’s baptism because it signified the beginning of a new life. Not only did God intend to forgive the sins of those who accepted his Son as their Savior, but he also wanted to enable believers to live a life similar to that of Jesus Christ, one that would be consistent with his commandments. The Holy Spirit, who is also God in the same way that Jesus is, dwells within believers and causes them to be convicted or aware of their sins. The Holy Spirit’s job is to cause believers to repent and to seek out God’s will for their lives. Only through the Holy Spirit can one really understand what it means to be a child of God. Without the help of the Holy Spirit, no one can realize what Christianity is really all about.

John recognized that Jesus did not need to be baptized by him, because he had no sins to repent of. John tried to forbid him from doing it, but Jesus persisted, “And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). What Jesus was saying was that the Holy Spirit needed to be introduced to humanity through his own baptism. You could say that Jesus’ baptism was symbolic of the baptism of everyone that would follow in his footsteps. As the Holy Spirit descended upon him, Jesus represented all of mankind in its sinful state being reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit appeared immediately after Jesus was raised up out of the water (Mark 1:10), because it is the Holy Spirit’s presence that regenerates the believer’s heart and makes him alive spiritually or what we think of now as being “born again” (John 3:3). In his first gospel message, Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ instruction to believe the gospel was intended to be a reminder that repentance was not enough. In order to be truly born again, one must believe that a new way of life is possible.

Repent

John the Baptist’s message was very simple and direct. The single most important point he made could be summed up in one sentence, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). The Greek word translated repent, metanoeo (met-an-eh´-o) means “to think differently or afterwards that is reconsider” (3340). At the core of John’s message was the idea of looking at the world differently, to see things from God’s perspective. The kingdom of heaven had to do with the rule of God and was considered to be both a present reality and a future hope for the Jewish people that lived during Jesus’ ministry on earth (Note on Matthew 3:2). The unique time period in which John preached was a key factor in the way he talked to people about repentance. According to John, time was of the essence; there was no time to waste when it came to getting right with God.

Some of John’s harshest messages were directed at the religious leaders that appeared to be righteous, but were only pretending to be interested in God’s kingdom. What the religious leaders really wanted was to control the Jews behavior. They made up rules that they expected everyone to lived by, but the rules were actually too difficult for the people to follow. Matthew 3:7-12 states about John:

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance: and think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire: whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

John’s introduction of the spiritual concept of fruit was meant to make people aware of the fact that God wanted to see evidence of the change that had taken place in people’s hearts. Merely saying that someone had repented was not enough. As fruit is a tangible sign that a tree is reproducing or bringing forth a new source of life, so fruit in a Christian’s life showed that a real change of heart had taken place and a new way of living would follow.