I believe that one day I will see your Kingdom come and I wanna hear you say ‘welcome home my child, well done’ / so I step to the edge and I take a deep breath… / I’m going all in / Headfirst into the deep end / I hear you calling / And this time the fear won’t win – Matthew West, All In, from the 2017 album of the same title.
We need to take a side street and visit some ancient history before we move on much further, for in the beginning of chapter fourteen, Matthew re-introduces us to Roman ruler of Galilee, Herod Antipas. We know this individual existed because he is recorded in the writings of Josephus (“History of the Jewish War” “B.J.” ii. 9) and other early manuscripts such as the English translation of Graetz (ii. 114). He is the son of Herod the Great who attempted to murder Jesus as a child (2:16-18).
Herod Antipas is mentioned a few times in scripture – most notably for imprisoning and executing John the Baptist (v. 6-11), but also for playing a role in condemning Jesus to death (Luke 23:6-11). More on that later. For now, let’s focus on Herod and John the Baptist. The reason he is in prison is because he has been speaking out against Herod’s relationship with his brother’s former wife (Mark 6:17-18). “Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot because all the people believed John was a prophet” (v. 5).
What to do? What to do? You are living in sin with your brother’s wife and one of the only guys to call you out for your immorality is also a beloved religious figure of the people you rule over. You can’t bring yourself to order his execution and you can’t bring yourself to let him go free. I wonder how the people of Galilee felt about John being locked up. They may have seen it as more Roman oppression and resented Herod for it. That’s quite a dilemma. It’s what we call a no-win situation.
We’re not told how long John was kept locked up. But we do know how the story ends. Herod has a birthday party. His step-daughter dances for him and he likes it enough to promise her anything (v. 6-7). So she talks it over with her mother – you know, “What should I ask for, mom? He said I could have up to half of his kingdom!” (Mark 6:23). The mother tells her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a silver tray. How’s that for dealing with a man you don’t like?
Herod instantly regrets his vow but follows through on it anyway, and John in beheaded in prison (v. 10). It’s not the ending I would have chosen if I were John. He is, after all, a respected man of God who is merely doing and saying what God has given him to do and say. He’s a faithful servant. Shouldn’t someone who has dedicated their life to the service of another at least have a happy ending? Shouldn’t there be a get-out-of-jail-free card?
But no. The only way for John to get out of prison was via a body bag (v. 12). It doesn’t seem fair. He was “all in” for sure.
Please note, and this is very important, God is not interested in what is fair. Ever. He is interested in what is right. Period. Re-read that if you need to. How do I know? He basically tells us through the prophet Micah:
“…the Lord has told you what is good and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
It’s not much simpler or plainer than that. Even I, with my limited capacity at times, can grasp that. So can my six-year old nephew. Do what is right. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Don’t worry about what it “fair”. My high-school history teacher once told his class that “fair is when something goes your way.”
John the Baptist was a faithful servant who did all three of these things. He rotted in prison and was later killed for it. It’s not fair from John’s perspective. The death of a prophet never is.
Sometimes I think about what John’s final moments must have been like. I imagine him stoically facing his executioners, accepting his fate. I do not believe he begged for his life. Someone who has lived life well would have no regrets, no ambitions to eek out another moment past the appointed time. Maybe I’m wrong. We don’t know – John’s reaction to the executioners showing up outside his cell is not recorded.
What we do know is Jesus’ reaction – He grieved the loss of His cousin (v.13). More on that in the next chapter. In the end, it seems as though we must keep in mind that “the lord of the gentle breeze is lord of the rough and tumble” (Steven Curtis Chapman, King of the Jungle, from the 1994 album “Heaven In the Real World”). God is god not only in the good times. If He were, He wouldn’t be much of a god. When we go through difficult times, whether it’s the loss of someone we love, the loss of our freedom, or the loss of our life – we can count on Him to still be there. And to grieve with us. It’s a hard thing to say, and an even harder thing to do. But let’s do it. Let’s go all in, like John.