The first part of the present section is devoted to the pathetic account of the martyrdom of John the Baptist, but the balance of the chapter tells us of two miracles, both of which demonstrate the power of the Lord Jesus over nature: His multiplication of the loaves, and His walking on the water and controlling the elements.
Herod, who was somewhat interested at first in John the Baptist and his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, became indignant when his own vices were denounced by the fearless desert preacher, and so sought to silence him by shutting him up in prison and eventually by an act of judicial murder. When he heard of the fame of Jesus, his uneasy conscience suggested that He must be John risen from the dead, but there was no sign of self-judgment or confession of his horrid iniquity. 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. It was the “poor of the flock” (Zech. 11:11) who heard Jesus with gladness and were blessed by His gracious ministrations. These glorified the God of Israel for sending His Anointed One into their midst.
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do show forth themselves in him. For Herod had laid hold on John, and bound him, and put him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife. For John said unto him. It is not lawful for thee to have her. And when he would have put him to death, he feared the multitude, because they counted him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod. Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask. And she, being before instructed of her mother, said, Give me here John Baptists head in a charger. And the king was sorry: nevertheless for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison. And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came, and took up the body, and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick. (vv. 1-14)
“Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus.” This 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. To the ears of this vile and licentious ruler came tidings of the wonder-working power of Jesus, filling him with terror.
“This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead.” Superstitious, as most immoral creatures are, Herod was sure that the stern prophet of the wilderness, whom he had delivered over to an undeserved death, must have come back from the grave.
“Put him in prison for Herodias’ sake.” A wicked woman 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 the execution of her accuser.
“It is not lawful for thee to have her.” It took courage indeed for John thus to point out Herod’s wickedness. Like another, Nathan (2 Sam. 12:7), he drove home the king’s guilt, but in so doing he forfeited his life, for Herod, unlike David, refused to repent of his iniquity.
“The multitude … counted him as a prophet.” Herod would have no hesitation about immediately destroying John because of his faithfulness, but he was afraid that he might incur the enmity of the people generally, who looked upon 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 in before the king and his attendants and pleased them by what was evidently a lascivious dance. The old tyrant was so delighted with this that, in his enthusiasm, he promised with an oath to give the dancer whatever she might ask. After conferring with her wicked mother she came boldly into the presence of the king with the request that he give her John 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 that he would grant the girl’s request, and this before all his courtiers, he had not the hardihood 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, we are told, who presented it to her mother. One can imagine how Herodias gloated as she looked upon the severed head of the man whom she considered her enemy, because he had been bold enough to tell her the truth and to charge her with the infamy for which she would yet have to give an account unto God.
The incestuous relations of these two godless rulers had become a public scandal. It 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. Herodias, vain, willful, and unclean, died as she had lived, unrepentant and wicked to the last. They 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.
To the brokenhearted disciples of John this was indeed a terrible tragedy. They took up the body of their master and reverently buried it. And then we read that 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 ship and went to a desert place apart, we are told. And a great multitude, out of the various cities near the northern end of the lake, followed Him. The Lord Jesus, beholding them, was moved with compassion toward them and manifested His kingly power by healing those who were sick.
And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto Him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children, (vv. 15-21)
This is the only miracle performed by the Lord before His crucifixion, which is given in all four Gospels. It is very evident that there is some special lesson in it which God would have us learn. The hungry multitude, the perplexed disciples, and the grace of Christ are vividly portrayed. In Psalm 132:1-5 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 so multiplied them 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 themselves food.
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 of the apostles after all the rest had received what they desired. It 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, so that as a result of the small amount placed in the ground abundance is provided to satisfy the throngs who are dependent upon bread for their food.
The next miracle demonstrates the Lord’s power over the elements in a somewhat different way to that which we have seen recorded in a previous chapter in which He stilled the storm.
And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be thou, bid me come unto thee on the water. And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, 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? And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. (vv. 22-33)
This 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 in the ship without the personal presence of Jesus set forth, dispensationally, 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 manifestly present among them, but 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 behold their Savior.
He Himself went up into a mountain apart to pray. This suggests His present ministry on behalf of His own 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 real trouble, for their little vessel was passing through a severe storm and was tossed with the waves, and 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, and God’s dear people have often thought themselves forsaken and forgotten, but His eye has ever 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 upon 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—if he thought of anything at the moment save Christ who was before him—he found himself actually walking upon the water as though upon firm ground. All was well as long as he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, but when he turned to behold 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 no more walk on smooth water than on rough waves, except as sustained by the power of the Lord Himself, and 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. The disciples had witnessed such a display of omnipotent power that all of them fell down before the Lord and worshiped Him, saying, “Of a truth thou art the Son of God.”
When Jesus returned to the land of Gennesaret, which was east of Capernaum and north of the lake, word that He was again in that country quickly spread abroad, and a great multitude came to Him, bringing with them many that were diseased that He might heal them.
And when they were gone over, they came into the land of Gennesaret. And when the men of that place had knowledge of him, they sent out into all that country round about, and brought unto him all that were diseased; and besought him that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole, (vv. 34-36)
It is very evident that the testimony and the works of Jesus had impressed the people of Gennesaret with His grace and ability to deliver them from their distressing ailments, and they came from all the country round about in order to lay their sick ones at His feet. Like the poor woman of whom we have read, they felt that if these troubled ones could only touch the hem of His garment they would be healed. We are told that it was indeed true for as many as touched His garment were made perfectly whole. The blue border speaks 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.