The Martyrdom of John the Baptist (14:1–12)
We have in this passage a page out of God’s book of martyrs: the story of the death of John the Baptist. The wickedness of King Herod, the bold reproof which John gave him, the consequent imprisonment of the faithful reprover, and the disgraceful circumstances of his death are all written for our learning. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15).
The story of John the Baptist’s death is told more fully by St. Mark than by St. Matthew. For the present it seems sufficient to draw two general lessons from St. Matthew’s narrative, and to fasten our attention exclusively upon them.
1. The Power of Conscience
First, let us learn from these verses the great power of conscience.
King Herod hears “the reports about Jesus” (verse 1), and says to his servants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead!” (verse 2). He remembered his own wicked dealings with that holy man, and his heart failed within him. His heart told him that he had despised his godly counsel, and committed a foul and abominable murder; and his heart told him that, though he had killed John, there would yet be a reckoning day. He and John the Baptist would yet meet again. Bishop Hall puts it well: “A wicked man needs no other tormentor, especially for sins of blood, than his own heart.”
There is a conscience in all men by nature. Let this never be forgotten. Fallen, lost, desperately wicked as are all born into the world, God has taken care to leave himself a witness in our hearts. It is a poor, blind guide, without the Holy Spirit: it can save no one; it leads no one to Christ: it may be “seared” and trampled under foot. But there is such a thing as conscience in every man, accusing or defending him; and Scripture and experience alike declare it (Romans 2:15). Conscience can make even kings miserable when they have willfully rejected its advice; it can fill the princes of this world with fear and trembling, as it did Felix, when Paul preached. They find it easier to imprison and behead the preacher, than to bind his sermon, and silence the voice of his reproof in their own hearts. God’s witnesses may be put off the way, but their testimony often lives and works on long after they are dead. God’s prophets do not live forever, but their words often survive them (2 Timothy 2:9; Zechariah 1:5).
Let the thoughtless and ungodly remember this, and not sin against their consciences. Let them “be sure that their sins will find them out” (Numbers 32:23). They may laugh, and jest, and mock at religion for a little time. They may cry, “Who is afraid? Where is the mighty harm of our ways?” They may depend upon the fact they are sowing misery for themselves, and will reap a bitter crop sooner or later. Their wickedness will overtake them one day: they will find, like Herod, how evil and bitter it is “to” “forsake the LORD your God” (Jeremiah 2:19).
Let ministers and teachers remember that there is a conscience in people, and let them work on boldly. Instruction is not always thrown away because it seems to bear no fruit at the time it is given; teaching is not always in vain, though we fancy that it is unheeded, wasted and forgotten. There is a conscience in the hearers of sermons; there is a conscience in the children at our schools. Many a sermon and lesson will yet rise again, when he who preached or taught it is in the grave like John the Baptist. Thousands know that we are right, and, like Herod, dare not confess it.
2. No Reward in This World
Second, let us learn that God’s children must not look for their reward in this world.
If ever there was a case of godliness unrewarded in this life, it was that of John the Baptist. Let us think for a moment what a remarkable man he was during his short career, and then think to what end he came. Look at the one who was “a prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76), and greater than anyone born of women (Matthew 11:11), imprisoned like a criminal! See him cut off by a violent death before the age of thirty-four; the “burning light” quenched, the faithful preacher murdered for doing his duty—and this to gratify the hatred of an adulterous woman, and at the command of a capricious tyrant! Truly there was an event here, if there ever was one in the world, which might make an ignorant person say, “What is the good of serving God?”
But these are the sort of things which show us that there will one day be a judgment. The God of the spirits of all humanity shall at last set up an assize and reward every one according to his works. The blood of John the Baptist and James the Apostle and Stephen, of Polycarp, Hus, Ridley and Latimer, shall yet be required. It is all written in God’s book. “The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer” (Isaiah 26:21). The world shall yet know that there is a God that judges the earth. “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still” (Ecclesiastes 5:8).
Let all true Christians remember that their best things are yet to come. Let us think it nothing strange if we have sufferings in this present time. It is a probationary period: we are still at school. We are learning patience, longsuffering, gentleness and meekness, which we could hardly learn if we had our good things now. But there is an eternal holiday yet to begin. For this let us wait quietly; it will make amends for all. “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17).