Summary: God has given us boundaries for life, staying within them is hard, but step over them and things get messy quickly.
There is a rapidly moving sexual revolution occurring in our country and it is devastating the institution of marriage and family. It began a few decades ago when we began to allow easily terminated, no-fault divorce. And now divorce laws are hardly needed because fewer and fewer people are getting married. When they do, they’re having fewer kids and waiting longer to have them.
On top of that, within the past two decades the Internet has made pornography practically mainstream and easier to access than allergy medications they now lock up at Target. In the past decade, we’ve seen the legalization of same sex-unions and the creation of an ever-expanding acronym: LG wasn’t enough, nor was LGB, so it was LGBT, and then LBGT-Q, but most recently it’s LGBTQIA+. In other words, everything is permitted, nothing is censored, or restricted, or wrong – if you feel it, indulge it, and work to make it illegal for anyone to tell you otherwise.
Now, in saying that, let me say this: as Christians we are called to love people. There is no need to mock people, put down people, or hate people. Christians sometimes tell jokes they should not tell. Christians sometimes put down people and say things they should not say. Some who name the name of Christ have been and are mean to people and hurtful. They should not do these things.
But that does not mean we should accept all behaviors. There are God-given boundaries to our sexuality. God created us male and female, and His best plan has always been for one woman to be joined with one man, until death do they part. Anything outside of that union, and anything before that union, is a wrongful use of the anatomy that God has given us and is in almost all cases, driven by a desire for personal satisfaction and fulfillment and not a celebration of a lifelong commitment to your spouse. Choosing any sexual activity outside of marriage to a person of the opposite sex, is a choice to serve self instead of worship God. I’ll say that again, based on the clear testimony of Scripture: Choosing any sexual activity outside of marriage to a person of the opposite sex is a choice to serve self instead of worship God.
If you have chosen self, or if you are struggling with desires that rise up within you, desires that you might not even like, desires you wish you didn’t experience, or desires you don’t want to fight any more, if you want someone safe to talk to – seek out any of the pastors or their wives. You don’t have to fight alone. But my friend, I stand before you as an ambassador of God, and repeat His message to you: choosing any sexual activity outside of marriage to a person of the opposite sex is a choice to serve self instead of worship God. The struggle is not sin, but the indulgence is, and you must repent, you must resist, and you must esteem God higher than your own desires or the pressure you receive from others.
Now, why on earth would I say all of that this morning? Because it fits right in with a situation that occurred nearly two thousand years ago. It turns out that what some people want to call progressive sexual policies, are actually regressive, they’re taking us back to things that have happened before. Ours is not the first society to see sexual boundaries fall away. The problem is, when it has happened in the past, that society was always moving toward collapse.
We read this morning in Matthew’s biography of Jesus about a time when John the Baptist confronted a political leader about his sexual sin, and the high price he paid to stand for the truth.
Matthew 14:1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus 2 and said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.”
You’re going to need a lot of background information – and the first thing you need to know is that this is real human history. The Herods were a political dynasty. They began with Herod the Great who ruled over most of what we call Israel, Palestine, and parts of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The Wise Men met with him after Jesus was born and he put all the baby boys in Bethlehem to death. He had nine wives and murdered several of them along with some of his kids in order to protect his power and position.
After Herod the Great died, his territory was divided up into smaller parts and split among several of his sons including Herod Antipas who we find here in Matthew 14. He was called Herod the Tetrarch, which means “ruler over a lesser part.” And his “lesser part” included the region known as Galilee where Jesus was from.
So Herod the Tetrarch hears reports about a man doing amazing things, working miracles and drawing large crowds to hear His teaching. And to him the most logical answer is: John the Baptist has come back from the dead with superpowers.
Remember, before Jesus drew the big crowds, John was the most prominent name in Israel.
Jesus said he was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, the greatest man that had been born. But the whole purpose of his ministry was to serve as an opening act for Jesus.
He had burst onto the religious scene in Israel calling people to repent. That means to stop living however they wanted to live and to live for God instead; to respond to your guilty conscience, come to God, ask for forgiveness, and begin a new direction in life. That’s why he was John the Baptist – he baptized people as a sign that they were cleansed, washing away the old you, washing away the things you regret, the things God says need to change.
John was the Billy Graham of his day, the name everyone knew – from the average man or woman in the village to the very top levels of political and religious leadership, everyone knew John the Baptist. So, when Herod hears about strange things happening he assumes it’s John come back from the dead.
Which should make you ask: wait, when did John die? Well, Matthew is about to tell you:
3 For Herod had laid hold of John and bound him, and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. 4 Because John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
Herod married a princess from what was then called Nabatea, part of what we call Saudi Arabia today, you may have heard of their capital city, Petra. But, the marriage wasn’t a great one because Herod wasn’t a great man. And that’s kind of important, if you want to have a great marriage, you have to be a great man.
There are always exceptions, but the exceptions tend to prove the rule: allow God to make you into a great man, and you will have a great marriage. Choose passivity, indulgence, or distraction, and your marriage will reflect those choices and may eventually dissolve, which is what happened with Herod.
He took a trip to Rome were he met another woman, a married woman, a woman married to his own half-brother Philip. The brothers had the same dad, Herod the Great, but different moms. So, Herod Antipas, our Herod here in Matthew 14, dumps his first wife, sends her back to her father, and heads back home to Israel with his half-brother’s wife. Obviously, this is not the greatest family to be part of.
But, notice again how today’s “progressive” attitudes about marriage and sexuality and boundaries are actually very antiquated – people have been indulging their internal desires for as long as humans have been humans. But we we have to ask: where does crossing God’s boundaries lead? When you go chasing your sexual appetites across God’s borders, where will you wind up? What will you do? And will you experience any regrets? Oh yes, there may be a moment of thrill; there may be a sense of exhilaration, but what comes after that? Where will your indulgence lead? And what will you need to do to clean up the mess you’ve made or silence your conscience?
Herod had an innocent man, a righteous man, arrested because he told the truth. Herod had power on the earth, and he used it to make his own life easier – to shut up the voice that convicted him. But there was only so far he could go. Because here’s the problem – Herod knew John was right. And so did everyone else.
5 And although he wanted to put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet.
Oh sure, Herod has the title, he’s the ruler, he seems to be able to give the orders and call the shots. He seems to be in control, but is he? It seems like the one who’s supposed to be in charge is actually working hard to please others. Mark’s gospel tells us that Herod was catching a lot heat from his wife, she was angry about the things John was saying, so she’s pressuring Herod to kill John. But if he does that, there might be an uprising among the people and he doesn’t want that. He’s caught between his wife and a hard place.
We’re not sure how long things stayed in limbo like this, but let me ask you: do you think it was fun to stay in Herod’s house while the situation festered?
The man has made a mess for himself, and there’s no easy way out. So his wife hatches a plan to force the situation, Herod’s birthday is coming up and she’s got an idea:
6 But when Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the daughter of Herodias danced before them and pleased Herod. 7 Therefore he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask.
Now, you need to notice this: it says the daughter of Herodias; probably her daughter from her first marriage to Philip. So, this is Herod’s niece, and also his stepdaughter now. And she comes out and dances for everyone. She’s most likely an older teenage girl and most people think the dance was provocative. Whether it was or not doesn’t really matter. It’s bait. And Herod takes it. He promises the girl anything she wants.
It’s the kind of thing drunk people do. Isn’t it? How many of you have seen someone do something like this? How many of us have done it ourselves – we want to be the big guy, or the big girl, we want to show off and impress people, so we throw something out there, and feel so good about ourselves, so impressive, so generous and bold.
And sometimes it works and everyone goes oh wow, what a great guy or girl you are. You’re so cool. I’m so glad I’m here. I’m so glad I’m your friend. You’re awesome.
But have you ever seen this kind of bravado lead to something you regret? Telling everyone you’ll pick up the tab, or the next round is on you, or sure you can _______ It feels good in the moment, it feels powerful, it feels fun, but when you realize what it’s going to cost you or what you just agreed to you realize what a mistake you’ve made.
Herod is about to have one of those moments.
8 So she, having been prompted by her mother, said, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter.”
Herodias set a trap, used her daughter as bait, and caught Herod in it. Notice, she, having been prompted by her mother – that’s past tense, right? Meaning, her mom had already told her what to ask for, it was all a set-up. Pretty awesome wife you stole there, Herod – she’s willing to manipulate her husband and her daughter to get what she wants.
Now, I’m sure there was a night back in Rome during that trip Herod took, he had been introduced to Herodias there – his step-brother’s wife, and they were both drinking some wine in the big city, maybe at Philip’s house and Herodias was wearing a pretty dress and they were looking at each other across the room or across the patio under the stars on a moonlit night, and there was this super-charged tension between them, and everything seemed so exciting, so forbidden, so exhilarating… to be attracted to your brother’s wife. Could they really cross that boundary? Who made the first move? Who kissed who? There was a time when it all felt so intense, but he couldn’t see it would lead to this.
Because now, in the room back in Israel, where he just made a promise to his step-daughter a bombshell has been dropped and you can almost hear his glass drop and hit the floor, right? The DJ just went screech on the album, the music stopped, the crowd suddenly shut up and sobered up and all eyes are on him. What’s he going to do? Will he keep his word? Did he really mean it? Is he going to chicken out or will he follow through?
He has an option. He can come to his senses. He can be a man. He can be a leader. He can say, “You know what honey, I spoke too soon, that’s not an option. Choose something else.” But he let himself be run over.
Friends, I’m telling you something very important – something I am deeply convinced of: one of the most difficult, and yet vital things about leadership – in the home, on the team, at work, in politics, even in the church, one of the most difficult, but vital things about leadership is the ability to say no. It won’t win you many friends. It might upset people at times. But a leader has to know what is right and what is wrong, what needs to happen and what needs to stop, and he or she has to be willing to stand up and say it and take whatever flak may come.
It’s a test John the Baptist passed. He said the right thing when he said it was wrong for Herod to run off with his brother’s wife. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to do. I’m sure he knew there could be consequences. But he did it anyway. He drew a line between right and wrong, and with God as his strength, he stood by it.
But now it’s Herod’s turn – this is his chance to do the hard, right, thing for once. But he doesn’t. He waffles and he gives birth to regret.
9 And the king was sorry; nevertheless, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her.
Now, would you take note of that? Would you underline that in your Bible? Would you come back to that again later on today, later on this week, and chew on it? Would you write it down on a yellow sticky and put it somewhere you will see it this week?
9 And the king [remember he’s the one with the title, he’s the one who’s supposed to be in charge] was sorry; nevertheless, [that’s a powerful word – he felt one way, but something else overruled his original desire, and here it is:] because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he commanded it to be given to her.
Friends, this is sad. It’s pathetic. It’s like the moment when you realize the great and powerful Oz is just a sad little man behind the curtain. You have a ruler who has the authority to have another man beheaded and he’s bullied around by his fears of what other people think of him. He’s the emotional equivalent of a toddler walking around with a loaded weapon; capable of doing real harm, but not mature enough to use it well. It’s tragic, but it’s real. And you know it is, because you’ve felt it.
You and I, we have all been pushed into doing things we did not really want to do but because of those we sat with, because of the people around us, we did it anyway, and then we had regret. And at some point, we hated ourselves for it.
10 So he sent and had John beheaded in prison. 11 And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
It’s sad, isn’t it? It’s a tragedy. And it affects so many people. How would John’s life have been different if Herod had stayed with his first wife and never crossed the boundary of adultery? How would Herod’s life have been different? How would Herodias’ life have been different? How would her daughter’s life have been different? When you’re a teenage girl and you know you’ve played a part in the grotesque act of removing the head from another human being and then delivering it to your own mother, I think that sort of thing stays with you for life. I your ability to lay quietly in bed, your dreams, your ability to be alone with your thoughts are forever affected. And all because one man gave into his lustful desires and crossed a line he should never have crossed.
We could end things here, we could all walk away shaking our heads and saying, what a messed up story. But the really sad thing is, anyone can tell a story like this. The plot line isn’t unique. People really do make stupid, selfish choices. They really do wreck marriages. They really do abuse power. They really do cave in the face of pressure. People really do ruin the lives of other human beings.
But we haven’t had the final word yet. We still need to see one more verse,
12 Then his disciples came and took away the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus.
Did you notice the final word in our section of Scripture this morning? They went and told Jesus. Jesus. Doesn’t his name sound sweet and refreshing suddenly? Doesn’t it seem like a brilliant, sparkling burst of light after all the dreary, depressing gray we’ve just been under? It’s like when the sun came out on Thursday and you could see blue skies after two weeks of constant rain and clouds.
His name makes a difference and it helps us see everything with a sudden burst of light, His name reminds us the story doesn’t have to end here. There is something we can learn from this; there is a message for us in the mess.
Let me summarize a few lessons for us here in light of Jesus.
First, you need to see the context of the kingdom. Matthew has been telling us all the things Jesus had to say about the Kingdom of Heaven where Jesus is king. And now, we read about what it’s like to live in a kingdom where the king is corrupt. Which kingdom would you rather be in? Knowing what you know about Jesus and knowing what you know about Herod, which would you rather have rule over you? Which would you rather have make choices that affect you?
Friends, every human leader will eventually let you down. Your president, your boss, your coach, your teacher, even your pastor, we are fallen human beings, and there is a little bit of Herod in each of us. But Jesus is perfect. He is holy. He does not comprise. He does not betray. He does not abandon. He does not ignore. He does not withhold. He is the king of kings and the Lord of lords. He is the most High God and worthy of praise. He is the standard by which all others should be judged and He is the one who will never disappoint.
But also remember that there are wheat and there are weeds, there are good fish and bad caught in the same net, and there is a judgment coming – not all will enter His kingdom, only those that truly belong to Him.
Second, notice how a life motivated by ambition or selfish desire is often characterized by self-destruction or compromise as one sin leads to another: Herod’s desire for Herodias led to adultery, which led to murder, which led to anxiety. My friends, God speaks to us with such clarity on this issue: desire is never satisfied. If you allow your natural desires to guide your life and direct your path, they will lead you into your own destruction. Listen to the wisdom we find in Scripture:
Pro 15:16 Better is a little with the fear of the LORD,
Than great treasure with trouble.
Pro 16:8 Better is a little with righteousness,
Than vast revenues without justice.
Proverbs 25:28 Whoever has no rule over his own spirit
Is like a city broken down, without walls.
Third, notice the powerful conviction of conscience. We can be endlessly tormented by our own guilt, enslaved to our memories and regrets long after the original events have passed. Putting John to death doesn’t make the issue go away. Herod is still tormented by it all, so much so that when he hears about Jesus his first reaction is to assume it’s John the Baptist come back from the dead. Friends, the conviction of our conscience is a gift from God and we would save ourselves and others so much pain, stress, and anxiety if we would just humbly receive and follow the conviction it brings.
Let me also offer a word of encouragement to those of you seeking to minister to others: Sow seed – give the Holy Spirit words to work with in the lives of others. John’s testimony haunted to Herod and your words will continue to work, like John’s, long after you are in the grave or gone.
Last week during announcements Jesse shared about how he was exposed to truth as a child, and God used it later. Beware of wanting immediate results, remember the parable of the sower: some seeds come up quickly but have no root, let God do His deep work, even it takes time.
Which brings us to our fourth and final point: Opportunities to do good often come in the form of hard choices to be made. Herod felt a sensual desire for his brother’s wife. He could have made the hard choice and told his desires no, but he gave in. When his stepdaughter asked for John’s head, he could have made the hard choice and said no, but he caved.
John the Baptist had the hard choice to make to stand for the truth, and he did, though it cost him everything…for a moment, and then he entered into glory. Jesus had a hard choice to make in the Garden of Gethsemane, He even asked, if there is any other way Father, let this cup pass from Me, nevertheless, thy will be done.
Christian, do not expect the great choices to be easy. Expect them to be hard. Expect there to be a way out, a way to put it off, a way to rationalize or excuse, and then ask God for strength, courage, and faith, and press forward into righteousness. You will not regret it.
Maybe you need to make a hard choice this morning, a choice to start something, a choice to say something or write something, a choice to send something. Or maybe a choice to stop something, to admit something. Maybe it’s just a choice to keep going in the right direction, a choice to stay the course. Whatever it is, I pray that God is speaking to you, convicting you, guiding you, encouraging you, calling you. If there is anything we can do for you please let us know – find one of the pastors, one of our wives, one of the Bible study leaders, find someone, and talk if you need, ask for prayer if you need. But respond to the things God is stirring in your soul – turn to Him for forgiveness and strength, and find in Him the courage to stand.