The Man Who Would Be King: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Frivolous Curiosity
April 8, 2001
This is the story of a man who had a chance but didn’t take it and was never offered another one. The man’s name is Herod Antipas. On Good Friday morning Jesus stood on trial before him. What happened on that fateful day led directly to the crucifixion of Christ. It also sealed Herod’s eternal destiny.
In considering this story, there are three facts that will help us put it in perspective. First, Herod Antipas is the son of another Herod; the man history calls “Herod the Great.” The name is a misnomer for he should have been called “Herod the Butcher.” He was a cruel, vindictive, bloodthirsty man who put a low value on human life. He is the Herod who ordered the slaughter of the baby boys of Jerusalem shortly after Jesus was born (Matthew 2:16). When he died, his kingdom was divided into four parts. His son Herod Antipas ruled over one of those four parts. Second, Herod Antipas is the man who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. Third, he is the only man Jesus ever refused to speak to.
Jesus Would Not Speak to Him!
That last fact is the one that catches our attention. Think for a moment. Do we not often speak of our Lord as the friend of sinners? Let a prostitute wet his feet with her tears and he pronounces that her sins have been forgiven. Let a blind man cry out for mercy and Jesus stops his journey to heal him. Let a tax-collector crawl up a tree to watch him and Jesus not only bids him to come down, he goes to that man’s house for dinner. He welcomes all and spurns no one. Yet he refuses to speak to Herod.
What had this man done to deserve such treatment from the Son of God? As G. Campbell Morgan puts in his book The Great Physician, this story is both solemn and appalling. We have heard of the love of Jesus. But this is a story about the wrath of the Lamb. Campbell notes that Jesus’ dealing with Herod can be summarized in three simple statements:
1) He avoided him.
2) He sent him a message of stinging rebuke.
3) He would not speak to him.
This behavior by our Lord is so unusual that it deserves our close attention. Surely there is a message here that we need to ponder.
Herod Antipas is seldom mentioned in the New Testament. We see him clearly in only two episodes—the death of John the Baptist and the trial of Jesus a few hours before he was crucified. Taking these two incidents together, a picture emerges of Herod that contains a strange mixture of qualities. He is arrogant, spiritually curious, morally weak, easily seduced, prone to rash statements, and unwilling to commit himself to the truth.
As I study his encounters with John the Baptist and with Jesus, I see a man whose life ended in spiritual tragedy. His is a cautionary story of seven steps on the road to hell.
Step #1: Divided Loyalties – Mark 6:17-20
The story of Herod’s self-destruction begins not with Jesus but with John the Baptist. Here are two men who would seem to have nothing at all in common. Herod was a typical ruler—powerful, egocentric, and centered on his own personal pleasure and wealth. By any lights John was a strange man, an ascetic who lived in the desert, wore rough camel’s hair clothing, and ate locusts and wild honey. Great crowds flocked from all over Israel to hear him preach. Somehow Herod and John the Baptist met and they seemed to have become friends. Mark 6:20 tell us that “Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.”
Herod liked John but he had an eye for his brother’s wife—a woman named Herodias. To make matters worse, she was also his niece. Disregarding all appearance of decency, Herod took Herodias as his wife, thus committing both adultery and incest. John confronted him to his face, telling him that what he had done was wrong. And he seems to have repeated the message over and over, which would have been a sure sentence of death for anyone else, but Herod listened and considered his words. He even had John put in prison to protect him from the schemes of Herodias.
Here is the very picture of a tortured, troubled, tormented soul. One part of him realizes that John speaks the truth. Unlike the sycophants who surrounded him, this man cared nothing for fame or money or power or any of the other perks that came with being a king. John cared only for righteousness. So Herod listened and listened again. The other part of him desired what God had said he could not have—a woman married to another man.
So Herod does what many men before and after him have done: He tried to have it both ways. He put John in prison so he could protect him and he took the woman as his wife to fulfill his fleshly desires. But no one can live in the middle forever. Sooner or later, you have to make a choice. Herod evidently knew the truth when he heard it. He made the mistake of trying to keep the truth in a little compartment where it wouldn’t bother him too much. But that never works. Truth demands a decision.
What will he do now?
Step #2: Foolish Promises – Mark 6:21-28
When faced with a crisis, Herod would not and could not make a decision. He would not give up Herodias, but he would not put John to death. He is the proverbial “double-minded man,” unstable in all his ways. He knows the truth but will not obey it. He wants this woman but knows he should not have her. Thus torn by competing desires, he lives in a terrible no-man’s land. What will he do? The answer comes at a birthday party.
“Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.’ And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ ‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: ‘I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother” (Mark 6:21-28).
First there is a birthday feast to which all his key men were invited. No doubt wine flowed freely. Eventually the daughter of Herodias (a young girl named Salome) comes in to dance before the king. The Greek indicates it was a sensual performance meant to incite and arouse his baser passions. It must have worked because this otherwise intelligent man made a remarkably stupid oath. When the girl asks for the head of John the Baptist, the king is shocked but cannot afford to lose face, so he agrees. Soon the severed head is presented to the girl who presents it to her mother, who no doubt smiled even as she looked away from the gory sight.
How could such a thing have happened? There is such a thing as a “seared” conscience, which is what you have when you hear the truth over and over and do nothing about it. It is extremely dangerous to be exposed to the teaching of God’s Word without offering a personal response. Sooner or later your heart becomes hardened, your conscience is seared, and your ears are stopped up so that the truth no longer touches you. It would have been better for Herod never to have met John the Baptist than to have heard his message without letting it change his life. The truth that would have set him free ended up condemning him.
Step #3: Guilty Fears – Mark 6:14-16
The moral of this sad story comes not at the end but at the beginning. When word spreads of Jesus’ miracle-working power, some people thought that Elijah had come back from the dead. Others suggested it must have been one of the Old Testament prophets. But Herod came to his own strange conclusion: “But when Herod heard this, he said, ‘John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’” (Mark 6:16). He was convinced that John was a holy man and he knew John spoke the truth. Looking back, he deeply regretted his foolish oath that led to the death of the man of God. Now the blood of a righteous man is on his hands. His true guilt had led to irrational fears—that the man he beheaded has come back to haunt him once more.
Let us learn from this a sad and solemn truth: Light received leads to more light. Light rejected leads only to the darkness!
Step #4: Evil Plans – Luke 13:31-33
As Jesus’ fame spreads, Herod wants to meet him as he once met with John the Baptist. But Jesus is like a faint figure in the mist. He appears in the distance and then disappears into the countryside. At length Herod’s mood changes and he determines that Jesus is a dangerous nuisance who must be put to death. When the Pharisees warn Jesus to leave the region for his own safety, the Lord replies with the only words he will ever direct to Herod personally: “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!” (Luke 13:32-33). In Jewish thinking, to call someone a “fox” meant they were clever, crafty, sly, tricky, stealthy and deceitful. Jesus saw through Herod’s superficial interest and discerned the evil buried underneath. His message to “that fox” is simple: “You will never kill me no matter how hard you try. I have come to do God’s will and no one will stop me until my work is done.”
Why did Herod want to kill Jesus? The answer is not hard to find. What we cannot control, we fear. What we fear, we ultimately try to destroy. The stage is now set for one final showdown.
Step #5: Frivolous Curiosity – Luke 23:8-9
It is now early on Good Friday. Jesus was arrested by the Jews sometime around midnight. Since then he has been taken from one hearing to another: Annas, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin. They all had their shot at him. Along the way, he has endured mocking jokes, insults, and false accusations. The Jews want him dead but only the Romans have the power of capital punishment. Thus he ends up before Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. Pilate is a Roman appointee who has little understanding of the Jews and their religion. His main task is collecting taxes and keeping the peace. When Jesus is brought before him, a cursory examination reveals nothing that would justify the death penalty. When he hears that Jesus is from Galilee, he spies a way out of the jam. Since Herod handled matters in Galilee, and since he happened to be in Jerusalem that week, he would send Jesus to Herod and let him handle this messy problem.
Now at last Herod meets Jesus. But it didn’t work out the way he had expected. “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer” (Luke 23:8-9). He is “greatly pleased” because he thinks Jesus is going to work a miracle (or two or three) for him. “Jesus, I heard you can turn water into wine. Here’s a basin of water. Show us your magic.” “They say you can walk on water. How about walking across the pool in my backyard?” On and on it went, Herod firing one question after another at Jesus. He is curious, yes, but he is not a seeker of truth. Herod is nothing but a thrill seeker. I am sure he was shocked and then chagrined when Jesus refused to speak to him. No one ever treated him like that. And the chagrin turned to embarrassment and eventually to anger.
There are times in life when silence speaks louder than words. This is one of those occasions. Jesus knew that Herod was trifling with him and that his questions did not come from an honest heart. He saw no reason to answer, and so he “opened not his mouth.” Perhaps he recalled the words of Proverbs 26:4, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.” In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned against casting pearls before swine or giving what is holy to the dogs (Matthew 7:6). Herod belonged to that class of men who are so pigheaded in their spiritual blindness and so dogged in their resistance to the truth that nothing can be said and nothing should be said.
When Herod killed John, he murdered his own soul. He lost the ability to hear the voice of Jesus. There was nothing Jesus could say that would have made the slightest difference in that situation. By his silence Jesus is saying, “You didn’t want to hear the truth when John spoke. You said no. Now you will never hear the truth again. I accept your answer of no.”
Step #6: Public Mocking – Luke 23:10-11a
“The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him” (Luke 23:10-11a). When Jesus refuses to answer him, Herod’s frivolous curiosity quickly turns to open ridicule. He and his soldiers join with the Jews in mocking the Son of God who stands silent before them. Thus does Herod reveal his true character. Any genuine spiritual interest he may have had disappeared long ago. How quickly his mood changes when Jesus refuses to play his game.
Step #7: Convenient Cowardice – Luke 23:11b-15
One of the ironies of this story is that both Pilate and Herod knew Jesus was innocent. That fact is made clear by Pilate’s declaration when Jesus is brought back to him one final time. “Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies. Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death’” (Luke 23:11b-15). Herod mocks Jesus but he cannot find him guilty of any crime. Pilate clearly is puzzled by this man from Galilee and wants to find some way to release him. Neither man would come to his aid. But Herod shares the greater guilt for he knew much more than Pilate. Through John the Baptist he had been exposed to the truth. To whom much is given, much is required. In the moment when he finally met Jesus, Herod failed completely.
As we bring this study to a close, let us note for the record how eager Christ is to respond to anyone who calls out to him. He welcomes the prostitutes, the drunkards, the hated tax collectors, and the despised Samaritans. He gladly meets with a Pharisee who comes to him by night and he even answers the lawyers who try to trip him up with clever questions. Whenever Christ finds a heart that is even slightly open, he responds with grace and truth. But Herod’s heart had been closed ever since the death of John the Baptist. He never called out to Christ and never came to him with any thing resembling an open heart. And that is why Jesus had nothing to say to him.
He murdered John.
He became curious about Jesus.
He tried to kill him.
He treated him as a carnival sideshow.
In the end, his moral abilities were paralyzed. He did not respond because he could not respond. His eternal fate was sealed long before his earthly death. The silence of Jesus was his sentence of judgment on Herod.
Let me repeat once again a central truth for all of us to ponder. Light received leads to more light. Light rejected leads only to the darkness. God is not obligated to send the Spirit again and again and again to your heart. Do not say, “I’ll come to Christ later. I’ll live for him after I graduate, after I go to college, after I have some fun, after I get married. I’ll be a Christian someday when I have finally settled down.” Do not say, “I know I need to get serious about the Lord but I just want to have fun first.” Now is the right time to come to Christ. Now is the best day you’ll ever have to give your heart to the Lord. Now is the perfect moment to get serious about following Jesus. Behold, now is the day of salvation!
Who knows? Perhaps you will enter the hospital this week for a minor surgery. Then after the surgery you may be doing well and then suddenly die. That very thing happened to a member of our church this week. I do not exaggerate. One of our members died suddenly after surgery. She seemed to be doing well and then she was gone. I do not fear for her soul because her faith in Christ was strong. But I am sure she did not expect to die when she did. I press the point home because no one knows what a day may bring forth. Serve the Lord today because today is all you have. Tomorrow may never come for you.
Herod heard the truth over and over again from John the Baptist. And the truth that could have saved him ended up condemning him.
It is not enough to hear the truth.
It is not enough to know the truth.
It is not enough to like the truth.
It is not enough to listen to the truth over and over again.
It is not enough to be deeply convicted about the truth.
Don’t Trifle With Jesus!
Conviction of sin is dangerous if it does not lead you to repentance. It would be better to be a heathen in the jungle and never hear the gospel than to hear it again and again and do nothing about it. Conviction ignored leads to spiritual indifference and a seared conscience. God sends the Holy Spirit to convict you of sin so that you will come to Christ in repentance and faith. If after conviction of sin, you do not come to Christ, you are in worse shape at the end than at the beginning.
My whole sermon—and the message of Herod’s encounter with Jesus—can be summarized in two short sentences:
It is dangerous to dabble in Jesus.
It is dangerous to trifle with the Son of God.
Jesus has no time for those who trifle with him. And that is why he said nothing to Herod’s many questions. Isaiah prophesied of that moment 700 years earlier when he wrote: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).
As I ponder this scene in its larger perspective, three final thoughts come to mind:
1) How much Jesus suffered on his way to the cross.
2) How sad that Jesus was condemned to death by men who knew he was innocent.
3) How amazing that God should use the moral cowardice of wicked men to provide for our salvation.
A Holy Light Around the Cross
It is now about 6:30 a.m. on Good Friday. The six trials of Jesus are coming to an end. Soon he will be scourged, beaten, bloodied, and crowned with a wreath of thorns. Slowly he will lead the procession through the narrow streets of Jerusalem. When he falls under the load, Simon of Cyrene will be summoned from the crowd to carry the cross. Soon they will come to Skull Hill and the Roman guards will begin their work. At 9 a.m. the Son of God will be crucified.
And so Jesus was led as a lamb to the slaughter. He did not resist, he did fight back, and he did not call legions of angels to come to his aid. And the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. Burdened with the sins of the world, Jesus would not be released from his suffering until he had accomplished the Father’s will through his bloody death on the cross.
The acts of sinful men and cowardly rulers sink into the darkened background. Around the cross shines a holy light from heaven. Jesus is here because he obeyed his Father’s will. Nothing happens by accident, every detail fits into God’s predetermined plan. Ten thousand times ten thousand praises shall ever rise to thee, Lord Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
As I prepared this sermon, the words of an ancient hymn attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century kept ringing in my mind:
What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest Friend,
For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never outlive my love for thee.