John the Baptist Is Beheaded (Matthew 14:1-14)
Herod was as corrupt as any of his ancestors—a monster of iniquity living in unblushing adultery with one who was lawfully the wife of his own brother. At first he was somewhat interested in John the Baptist and his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of Heaven. But he became indignant when his own vices were denounced by the fearless desert preacher, and sought to silence him by shutting him up in prison. Eventually Herod made John a martyr by an act of judicial murder. When Herod heard of the wonder-working power of Jesus, he was filled with terror. Superstitious as most immoral creatures are, Herod’s uneasy conscience suggested that the stern prophet of the wilderness, whom he had delivered over to an undeserved death, must have come back from the grave. But there was no sign of self-judgment or confession of his horrid iniquity.
Herodias was the direct cause of the death of John. Her hatred of the man who dared to condemn openly the grossness of her sins could be satisfied only with his execution. It had taken courage indeed for John to point out Herod’s wickedness. Like Nathan (2 Samuel 12:7), John drove home the king’s guilt, but in so doing John forfeited his life, for Herod, unlike David, refused to repent of his iniquity.
This vile and licentious ruler would not have hesitated to destroy John immediately, but Herod was afraid that he might incur the hatred of the people who looked at John as the successor to the prophets of old. Instead of immediately executing John, therefore, Herod shut him up in prison.
When Herod’s birthday was celebrated, the shameless daughter of the infamous Herodias came before the king and his attendants and pleased them by what was evidently a lascivious dance. The old tyrant was so delighted that in his enthusiasm he promised with an oath to give the dancer whatever she might ask. After conferring with her wicked mother the girl came boldly into the presence of the king with the request that he give her John the Baptist’s head in a charger. Corrupt as he was, Herod was sorry, for he realized that John had done nothing worthy of death, and doubtless his initial anger had cooled to some extent by this time. But having declared on oath before all his courtiers that he would grant the girl’s request, he did not have the courage to acknowledge his folly. He commanded, therefore, that John should be beheaded. The gruesome evidence that the execution had been carried out was brought in on a great platter and given to the damsel, who presented it to her mother. One can imagine how Herodias gloated as she looked at the severed head of the man whom she considered her enemy because he had been bold enough to tell her the truth. He had charged her with the infamy for which she would yet have to give an account unto God.
The incestuous relationship of these two godless rulers had become a public scandal. The country needed a man with the boldness of John the Baptist to say, “It is not lawful for thee to have her.” He was martyred because of his faithfulness, but his reward is sure. Herod went from bad to worse until he died in his sins, a wretched victim of his own vices. Vain, willfull, and unclean, Herodias died as she had lived, unrepentant and wicked to the last. Herod and Herodias stand out as warnings to all who would tamper with impurity. After John’s death, Jesus did not travel about in Herod’s tetrarchy, but remained in that of Philip.
This martyrdom was indeed a terrible tragedy to the brokenhearted disciples of John. They took the body of their master and reverently buried it. And then they “went and told Jesus.” There is something very precious about these last words. They went to Jesus in their trouble and distress, assured of His deep understanding and loving sympathy.
Upon hearing of the death of His predecessor, the Lord took a ship and went apart to a desert place. A great multitude out of the various cities near the northern end of the lake followed Him. The Lord Jesus, seeing them, was moved with compassion toward them and expressed His kingly power by healing those who were sick.
Jesus Feeds the Multitude (Matthew 14:15-21)
After the pathetic account of John the Baptist’s death, the balance of Matthew 14 tells us of two miracles, both of which demonstrate the power of the Lord Jesus over nature. The first one is the only miracle performed by the Lord before His crucifixion that is given in all four Gospels. It is very evident that there is some special lesson in it that God would have us learn. The hungry multitude, the perplexed disciples, and the grace of Christ are vividly portrayed. In Psalm 132:15 we hear Messiah speaking by the Spirit, saying, “I will satisfy her poor with bread.” So God’s anointed One took the five loaves and two fishes and multiplied them so that abundant provision was made for five thousand men, besides women and children.
We can understand the concern of the disciples who came to Jesus as the evening drew on, beseeching Him to send the multitude away before the darkness fell in order that they might go into the villages and buy food for themselves. This was not what the Lord had in mind, however. He said, “They need not depart; give ye them to eat.” To the twelve this was a most amazing commission. With what were they to feed so many? After looking about they explained that they had found but five loaves and two fishes. These, we are told elsewhere, were provided by a lad who had brought them with him, doubtless as his lunch. Jesus said, “Bring them hither to me.” When the small provision was placed in His hands He commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and looking up to Heaven He blessed the food and broke it. He then distributed it to His disciples, and they passed it on to the multitude. All were fed and satisfied. After the repast twelve baskets of fragments remained. We might say there was one basket for each apostle after all the rest had received what they desired.
This miracle was but a picture, however, of what the Lord Jesus is doing constantly, for it is He who multiplies the seeds sown in all the cornfields on earth. As a result of the small amount placed in the ground, abundance is provided to satisfy the throngs who are dependent on bread for their food.
Jesus Walks on the Sea (Matthew 14:22-36)
This miracle demonstrates the Lord’s power over the elements in a somewhat different way from that in which He stilled the storm mentioned in a previous chapter. This passage is a beautiful dispensational picture. In verse 22 we read how Jesus constrained His disciples to get into a ship and to go before Him back to the other side of the lake, while He dismissed the multitudes. The disciples set out in the ship without the personal presence of Jesus, picturing the circumstances in which the church of God was to be found after the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus. He who had been with His disciples during the days of His flesh would no longer be visibly present among them. They would be left to make their way alone, as it were, across the troubled sea of earthly circumstances, looking forward to the time when they would again see their Savior.
Christ Himself went up into a mountain apart to pray. This suggests His present ministry on behalf of His people—He has gone up on high where He ever lives to make intercession for us.
While He prayed on the mountaintop, those in the ship were in trouble, for their little vessel was passing through a severe storm and was tossed with the waves. As far as its occupants could see it was likely to be lost. The people of God have been frequently placed in such circumstances during the time that the Lord has been ministering on high in the presence of the Father. God’s dear people have often thought themselves forsaken and forgotten, but His eye has always been upon them.
In the fourth watch of the night when the darkness was still great and the wind contrary, He looked down from the heights and saw them in their distress. To their amazement, He came walking on the sea to give them the assistance they needed. As they beheld Him they were distressed rather than comforted, and they cried out in fear, “It is a spirit”—that is, a ghost. But in response to their startled cry came the voice they knew so well, the voice of Jesus Himself saying, “Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.”
Ever impetuous but devoted to his Lord, Peter cried out, “Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water.” In response Jesus said, “Come.” Without a moment’s hesitation Peter went down over the side of the ship, and doubtless to his own amazement he found himself actually walking on the water as though on firm ground. All was well as long as he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, but when he turned and saw the boisterous waves, fear filled his heart, and he began to sink at once. As the waters were rising above him he cried out, “Lord, save me.” “And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said unto him, O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” What Peter should have remembered was that he could not walk any better on smooth water than on rough waves, except as sustained by the power of the Lord Himself. That power is just as great in the storm as in the calm.
Jesus and Peter entered the little boat, and immediately the wind ceased. They had witnessed such a display of omnipotent power that all the disciples fell down before the Lord and worshiped Him, saying, “Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”
Returning to the land of Gennesaret, which was east of Capernaum and north of the lake, word that Jesus was again in that country quickly spread abroad. A great multitude came to Him, bringing with them many that were diseased that He might heal them. It is very evident that the people of Gennesaret were impressed with Jesus’ grace and ability to deliver them from their distressing ailments. They came from all the country round about, in order to lay their sick ones at His feet. They felt that if these troubled ones could only touch the hem of His garment like the poor woman of whom we have read, they would be healed. And we are told that as many as touched His garment were made perfectly whole. The blue border spoke of Him as the holy One of God, the heavenly One who had come down to earth for man’s redemption. To contact Him meant life and health.
Jesus continued His wondrous ministry and everywhere His messiahship was attested by marvelous signs, which must have convinced any honest seeker after the truth that He was all He professed to be. But the religious leaders stood coldly aloof or came out in positive opposition because of their unwillingness to humble themselves before God. The “poor of the flock” (Zechariah 11:11) heard Jesus with gladness and were blessed by His gracious ministrations. These glorified the God of Israel for sending His anointed One to them.