Herod

The Morning Light From Heaven

12 Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. 13 And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

15 “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
    the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16 the people dwelling in darkness
    have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
    on them a light has dawned.”

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” – Matthew 4:12-17 ESV

Once again, it seems that Matthew fast-forwards his account of the life of Jesus, skipping over about a years worth of ministry. A comparison with John’s Gospel reveals that not long after His baptism and temptation, Jesus had made His way to Galilee (John 1:19-2:12), where He began His public ministry. But then He returned to Judea in order to attend the Passover in Jerusalem (John 2:13-3:21). John reveals that sometime after Passover, Jesus made His way into the Judean wilderness, where He performed baptisms, just as John had been doing.

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized (for John had not yet been put in prison). – John 3:22-24 ESV

After this brief time in the Judean wilderness, Jesus and His disciples made their way through the region of Samaria, where Jesus encountered the woman at the well (John 3:22-4:42). It was after this that they returned to Galilee, and this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story.

Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. – Matthew 4:12 ESV

It seems rather significant that Matthew would choose to begin His recounting of Jesus’ earthly ministry with the arrest of John the Baptist. The arrest and imprisonment of this well-known cult figure would have been the talk of all Judea. If you recall, John had amassed quite a following.

Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:5-6 ESV

Even the religious leaders of the Jews had been showing up in the Judean wilderness, seeking to be baptized by John. So, his arrest would have caused quite a stir, especially when you consider the reasons behind it.

…it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. – Mark 6:17-20 ESV

This has all the trappings of a modern soap opera script. Herod had married his brother’s wife, and John had called him out on it in public. And while Herod had a healthy fear of John, Herodias wanted him silenced. So, Herod had him imprisoned. And this is the point at which Matthew picks up the story. But why?

The apostle John provides us with at least a partial answer, and he does so by relaying the words of John the Baptist himself.

At this time John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, near Salim, because there was plenty of water there; and people kept coming to him for baptism. (This was before John was thrown into prison.) A debate broke out between John’s disciples and a certain Jew over ceremonial cleansing. So John’s disciples came to him and said, “Rabbi, the man you met on the other side of the Jordan River, the one you identified as the Messiah, is also baptizing people. And everybody is going to him instead of coming to us.”

John replied, “No one can receive anything unless God gives it from heaven. You yourselves know how plainly I told you, ‘I am not the Messiah. I am only here to prepare the way for him.’ It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success. He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” – John 3:23-30 NLT

It’s unlikely that  John the Baptist knew the prophetic nature of his words. He fully understood that Jesus was the Messiah and that his own role was subordinate and subservient. He knew his job had been to prepare the way for the anointed one. Yet, when John the Baptist found himself in jail and heard all that Jesus was doing, he seemed to have second thoughts or at least some doubts about Jesus’ actions.

John the Baptist, who was in prison, heard about all the things the Messiah was doing. So he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Matthew 11:2-3 NLT

Perhaps John was a bit surprised and disappointed that Jesus was not displaying the characteristics of a Messiah. Like the rest of the Jews of his day, John may have been expecting a slightly more regal demeanor from the long-anticipated Messiah. But Jesus seemed to be doing the very same things John had done before His arrest. He was even preaching the very same message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17 ESV). 

But the arrest of John the Baptist provided an immediate end to his ministry. He was removed from the scene, and his followers would now be forced to choose between following him or Jesus. John had performed his role faithfully and well. He had done what he had been sent to do. Now, the focus was shifting from the preparatory work of John the Baptist, who heralded the coming King, to the King Himself. The Messiah had come.

And Matthew records that this inaugural phase of Jesus’ ministry was accompanied by a change in ministry headquarters.

And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali… – Matthew 4:12 ESV

Once again, Matthew wastes no time in linking the details of Jesus’ life with the Old Testament prophecies that told of a miraculous future for the nation of Israel. He picks up a key passage found in the writings of Isaiah and associates it with Jesus’ decision to relocate His ministry headquarters to Capernaum. 

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

And the apostle John would recognize and relate this prophetic link between Jesus and the light.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. – John 1:9 NLT

And Jesus would pick up this theme, describing Himself in terms that reflect His understanding of His prophetic mission.

“I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” – John 8:12 NLT

“I have come as a light to shine in this dark world, so that all who put their trust in me will no longer remain in the dark.” – John 12:46 NLT

But Jesus provides a sobering assessment of the world’s response to His arrival.

“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.” – John 3:19 NLT

The Light of the world had come, but the residents of the world preferred the darkness over the Light. And Jesus makes it clear that there will be those who will run from the Light out of fear of having their sins exposed. But there will be others who will find life in the Light invigorating and liberating.

All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:20 NLT

In a sense, John the Baptist’s light was fading. His job was complete, and now it was time for Jesus to shine. Even Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, had been given a Spirit-inspired insight into his son’s future role. At the news of his son’s birth, Zechariah had prophesied:

“And you, my little son,
    will be called the prophet of the Most High,
    because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
    through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
    the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    and to guide us to the path of peace.” – Luke 1:76-79 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

King of the Jews

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. – Matthew 2:1-12 ESV

If you compare Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth with that of Luke, you quickly see that Matthew only provides those details that support his attempt to prove that Jesus was the Messiah of the Jews. So, unlike Luke, Matthew does not include background information such as the census that required Joseph to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem. There is no mention of the visit of the shepherds or the presentation of Jesus at the temple. 

In fact, Matthew fast-forwards the narrative and picks up the story when Jesus was probably about one-year-old. Joseph and Mary had remained in Bethlehem, most likely to provide time for Mary to fully heal and to give the baby time to mature before they made the long and arduous trip back to their hometown of Nazareth.

But their delay in returning to Nazareth was obviously God-ordained. He had plans for them, of which they were not yet aware. And there were storm clouds forming in the distance that were going to presage the kind reception their son could expect to experience.

While Mary and Joseph had been adjusting to their new life as parents, a group of wise men or magi from a distant land had been making their way to Israel, in search of the newborn king of the Jews. These men were most likely astrologers who, while studying the stars and the planets, had seen a sign.

“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” – Matthew 2:2 ESV

Matthew provides us with no details regarding how these magi received or interpreted the sign they had seen. We do not know where they were from or how they made the connection between the cosmic sign and the coming of the Jewish king. Perhaps they came from Babylon, where there was still a fairly large contingent of Jews who had chosen to remain there rather than return to Judah under the leadership of Nehemiah. It would seem that these magi had access to the Hebrew scriptures and had been able to connect the dots between what they saw in the sky and what God had predicted in His Word. One of the passages to which they could have referred was Numbers 24:17, which the Jews of Jesus’ day believed to have Messianic implications.

I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel…

Regardless of how these men made their assessment of the star and its connection to the new king of the Jews, they were sufficiently convinced to make the long journey to Jerusalem. And when they arrived, they expressed little doubt as to the validity of the sign or their interpretation of it. They asked, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” According to their understanding of the sign, this baby was born as the official and lawful king of the Jews. Which is what led them to Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, where David and Solomon had once reigned.

But the magi found another king sitting on the throne of David. His name was Herod, and he was actually an Edomite. He had been placed on the throne by the Romans and was seen by the Jews as a usurper and as nothing more than a puppet to the occupying forces of Rome. Herod was an ambitious and highly suspicious ruler who was relentless and ruthless in his efforts to protect his power. He had a well-deserved reputation for eliminating any and all potential threats to his throne. He had his own wife’s brother drowned in a pool on the palace grounds. He ordered the murder of 46 members of the Sanhedrin. His wife, two sons, and mother-in-law also fell victim to his unbridled fear and suspicion. Potential rivals to his crown were dealt with quickly and effectively.

So, when the magi showed up in Jerusalem asking about the whereabouts of the new king of the Jews, Herod took notice and instigated steps to locate and eliminate this potential threat to his throne.

Matthew’s primary focus in this section is to further promote and prove the kingship of Jesus. In doing so, he established a conflict between Herod, the Roman-appointed king of the Jews, and Jesus, Israel’s God-anointed and rightful king. And it seems clear that Herod was under the impression that this new king was also to be the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. He assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the Jews, asking them, “where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:4 ESV). These learned men revealed to Herod what the Old Testament Scriptures had to say about such matters, and they quoted to him from the prophecy recorded by Micah.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 ESV

Herod, always devious and deceptive in his efforts, sent the magi on a mission to discover the whereabouts of the new king, falsely claiming a desire to worship him.

“Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” – Matthew 2:8 ESV

Worship is a key theme in this passage. The word itself is mentioned three different times, and the magi are described as falling down and worshiping the young child, Jesus, offering Him priceless gifts of tribute. Kingship and rule are also repeated themes, appearing six different times in 12 verses. Matthew juxtaposes the earthly and undeserving reign of Herod with that of the true king of Israel, Jesus, the Christ. One was not even a Jew by birth, while the other was the son of Abraham and the son of David. One was a tool of the Romans, while the other was the anointed-one of God, who was sent to do His Father’s will.

It is hard to miss that these men from a foreign land were used by God to confirm the identity of His Son. He had used a sign in heaven to direct them to Jerusalem, where they were given further details and divine guidance to find Jesus in the little town of Bethlehem.

…the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. – Matthew 2:9 ESV

And Matthew uses these men to establish a theme that will appear throughout his Gospel account. They were Gentiles, non-Jews, and yet they had gone out of their way to seek and find the King of the Jews. And when they found Him, they bowed down and worshiped Him, showering Him with gifts to illustrate their recognition of His sovereignty and glory. And yet the Jews, represented by Herod, their false king, would repeatedly reject Jesus as their Messiah and King. The Gentile magi recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews, but as the apostle John pointed out, the Jews did not.

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:11 ESV

It’s interesting to note that, at the end of his Gospel account, Matthew records the reaction of a group of Roman soldiers who had witnessed the death of Jesus. They had most likely participated in the mocking and abuse that preceded His crucifixion. One of them may have nailed up the sign that hung above His head, which read, “The King of the Jews.” They most likely took part in the nailing of Jesus to the cross on which He died. But when Jesus had breathed His last, Matthew records that their perception of Jesus was radically altered. 

When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:54 ESV

Jesus was born the King of the Jews. And He died the King of the Jews. When He came into this world, He was worshiped by Gentiles from a foreign land, bearing gifts worthy of a king. When He died, He was surrounded by Gentiles of Roman birth, holding swords and spears, but offering Him the greatest tribute they could bring: They acknowledge that Jesus was the Son of God. And Matthew will spend the rest of his Gospel, defending and proving that Jesus was indeed the King of the Jews and the Son of God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Opposition Mounts.

1 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard about the fame of Jesus, 2 and he said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 3 For Herod had seized John and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4 because John had been saying to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5 And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. 6 But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod, 7 so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. 8 Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9 And the king was sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given. 10 He sent and had John beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. 12 And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. – Matthew 14:1-12 ESV

Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and the successor to his throne as tetrarch of Judea. The period of his rule spanned from 4 B.C. until 39 A.D., and included the entire lifetime of Jesus. Yet, while Jesus was not to meet Herod until later in his life at His trial before him, their paths crossed on numerous occasions. Herod had evidently heard about Jesus. We know from Luke’s gospel that the wife of Herod’s household manager had become a follower of Jesus and, no doubt, had provided updates about Jesus to her husband and his co-workers.

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod's household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. – Luke 8:1-3 ESV

Herod had evidently heard the rumors that were spreading about Jesus among the people.

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Mark 6:14 ESV

And Luke tells us that Herod was at a loss as to how to explain the actions of this Jew from Nazareth. He even began to consider the truth behind the rumor that Jesus was actually John the Baptist come back to life.

Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead… – Luke 9:7 ESV

This news, if true, would have greatly concerned Herod because he had been the one to have John beheaded. John had initially been imprisoned by Herod for contronting the tetrarch about his adulterous affair with his brother’s wife. And while had wanted to kill John for his pertinence, he had feared angering the people, who believed John to be a prophet. But as the story goes, Herod and his guests had been entertained at his birthday party by the daughter of Herodias, his brother’s wife. When Herod had offered the young girl a reward for her dancing, she had asked for the head of John the Baptist. And Herod reluctantly delivered her request.

And it seems clear from Matthew’s account, that Herod was fearful that John had come back to life.

“This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” – Matthew 14:2 ESV

We can only imagine what was going through Herod’s mind. Perhaps he was afraid that the resurrected John the Baptist had come back to seek his revenge. If the stories were true and Jesus had supernatural powers, what would keep Him from using those powers to get even with Herod?

Herod had seen John as a threat to his rule and reign. John’s open disregard for Herod’s power and the unmitigated gall he displayed by confronting Herod’s morals, was unacceptable. And while Herod had regretted having to behead John, his reputation meant more to him than any potential outcry from the people. This story provides a foreshadowing of what was to come. Herod, as a puppet of the Roman government, represents the earthly political powers that stood against the kingdom of heaven. John the Baptist had been the forerunner of Jesus, proclaiming the coming of that kingdom, and calling the people to repentance. In fact, he had told the religious leaders of Israel, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8 ESV). Their lives were to display outward proof of an inner change in the way they thought about everything from God and righteousness to sin and salvation. And John’s accusation against Herod had been a similar call to a change in behavior.

But Herod, like the Pharisees and Sadducees, had rejected John’s call. He was not going to repent. He had no intentions of giving up his elicit affair with his brother’s wife. And the animosity of the religious and political powers of Israel and Rome was going to increase over time. Their opposition to Jesus would intensify. And eventually, He would face the full wrath of the powers that be, just as John had. The King would suffer a fate similar to that of His forerunner.

As Matthew continues to present the growing opposition toward Jesus, he reveals the unlikely alliances being formed against Him. The Jews had no love affair for the Romans. The Pharisees despised them. And within the Jewish religious leadership, the Pharisees and Sadducees were sworn enemies. But over time, they would join forces in order to plot the defeat of Jesus. He had become their common enemy. And there was a Jewish political party that held close ties to Herod and the Roman government. In fact, they were known as the Herodians. While the Pharisees strongly supported Jewish independence, the Herodians encouraged cooperation with the Romans. They were willing to compromise for the sake of political expediency, and this infuriated the Pharisees. Yet, these two opposing forces joined together in their opposition to Jesus. Their mutual hatred for Him became greater than their perceived differences about Herod and Rome. Mark tells us:

The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. – Mark 3:6 ESV

Matthew tells us that, when Jesus heard the news of John’s death, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). While likely not surprised by John’s gruesome execution Jesus was deeply impacted by the news. This was the man of whom Jesus had said:

11 “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” – Matthew 11:11-12 ESV

Jesus knew that John was the first of many who would die as a result of their faith. And He knew that He would be the next to suffer and die at the hands of the religious and political powers. The day was coming when Jesus would also appear before Herod. And in the room that day would be represented all the powers of Rome and the religious leadership of Israel. Their common interest would be their hatred for and rejection of the Messiah, the Son of God.

6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. 9 So he questioned him at some length, but he made no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. – Luke 23:6-12 ESV

The Jews leveled false accusations against Him. The Romans treated Him with contempt, mocking His claims to kingship by dressing Him in royal robes. All the forces of earthly power aligned themselves against Him. And, like John, Jesus would face the full brunt of their wrath and hatred for Him.

Jesus knew what was coming. He was well aware that His own days were numbered and it was only a matter of time before He faced a similar fate as that of John. But He knew that it was all within the will of His heavenly Father. It was why He had come. 

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

And as the opposition to His ministry mounted, Jesus’ commitment to His mission would grow stronger. He would allow nothing and no one to keep Him from accomplishing what He had come to do. And as He would later tell Peter, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:17 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Are You the One?

1 When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities.

2 Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6 And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”  – Matthew 11:1-6 ESV

For whatever reason, Matthew chose to leave out what happened when the disciples went on their mission. He seems less interested in what the disciples ended up doing, than with what Jesus continued to accomplish as part of His messianic activities. Remember, Matthew is out to prove that Jesus is the Messiah so, it makes sense that he would ignore the accomplishments of the disciples. What they ended up doing was secondary in importance to what Jesus was doing and saying.

This chapter opens up with an encounter between Jesus and a few of the disciples of John the Baptist. John sits in a prison cell, by the order of Herod Antipas. His crime? Speaking out against the king’s immoral relationship with his own brother’s wife, Herodias. She had been incensed by John’s remarks and arranged to have him imprisoned. From his cell, John sent two of his own disciples to ask Jesus an interesting question. “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3 ESV). Was John’s question an indication of a lagging faith or a growing impatience? Was he beginning to doubt whether Jesus truly was the Messiah? It is likely that he was more than a bit confused by his imprisonment, wondering how it fit into the coming of the Kingdom as he had been preaching. Was he simply wondering when Jesus was going to begin acting like a Messiah and usher in His Kingdom? The passage doesn’t tell us what was going on in John’s mind, but based on the tone of his question, it seems as if John is struggling with both doubt and impatience. After all, he is sitting in a prison cell and Jesus is traveling around the countryside drawing crowds, but also drawing the anger and animosity of the nation’s religious leadership. If John is suffering from a case of doubt, who can blame him? While he had been chosen by God as the one to pave the way for the Messiah, he did not have in-depth knowledge of just how Jesus’ ministry would unfold. I don’t think John is wrestling with his imprisonment as much as he is with his expectations of just what should be happening outside the walls of his prison cell. Like all Jews, he had an image of what the coming of the Messiah would look like. John had preconceived ideas of what Jesus should be doing and he was probably wondering just what was going on.

When the two disciples arrived and presented John’s question to Jesus. In his Gospel, Luke tells us that “at that very time, Jesus cured many people of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he restored sight to many who were blind” (Luke 7:21 NLT). And Matthew states that Jesus responded to John’s disciples with a command to return to John and describe what they were seeing.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” – Matthew 11:4-5 ESV

John was the herald, the offical God-appointed prophet, tasked with announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah and His Kingdom. But even John had to have been a little confused by all that was going on. His concept of the Kingdom was markedly different than what was going on outside the walls of his prison cell. The activities of Jesus were not lining up with his expectations.

And Jesus wants John to understand that His immediate mission was far different than any of the Jews had expected. If you recall, John had a fairly strong view of Jesus’ role as the Messiah. Part of his message to the people entailed a fairly clear vision of Jesus as judge.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. – Matthew 3:12 ESV

He had told the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7 ESV). So, in John’s mind, Jesus should have been taking names and dishing out some well-deserved wrath on those who stood opposed to Him. And this encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples opens up a section in which Matthew begins to reveal that rejection of Jesus by the Jews. Which is why, when Jesus said, “blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” Most would end up finding Jesus offensive and reject not only His message of salvation, but His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

Jesus seems to be trying to assure John that His miracles were evidence of His authority and power, and that His message of Good News spoke of His agenda. Jesus encouraged John to stay faithful in the face of adversity. There were going to be bumps along the road. Not everyone was going to believe in Jesus or His message, just as not everyone believed in or took advantage of John’s baptism. In refusing John’s baptism, the Pharisees and experts in religious law were really rejecting God’s plan for them and that seems to be the real message of this passage.

The people to whom John had been sent and to whom Jesus was ministering were cynical and skeptical of this new message. They were attracted to Jesus’ miracles, but didn’t know quite what to do with His message. He tended to challenge them and raise the bar of expectation for them. He seemed to be making it harder, not easier. Jesus challenged the status quo and made them uncomfortable in their self-satisfied little worlds.

For John and all those who heard the message of Jesus, it tended to make no sense at times. It was confusing and seemingly contradictory to all that they had come to know about how to have a relationship with God. Jesus’ message was about faith in who He claimed to be – the Son of God, sent directly from the throne of God with a message of repentance and a plan of salvation for restoring man’s marred relationship with God. And the wisdom of what Jesus was saying would be proved true in time – for John and all those who chose to have faith in Him.

Jesus wanted John to know that everything was happening just as God had ordained it to happen. Yes, John was in jail, but that was no indication that the Kingdom was in trouble or that Jesus had lost His focus. John would be executed long before Jesus was tried, crucified, buried and raised again. But the disciples of Jesus would see the wisdom of Jesus’ message proved true. They would see their own lives radically changed. They would witness a literal revolution that would spread throughout the known world in a very short period of time, as the Gospel of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, exploded onto the scene and into the lives of men at Pentecost. So Jesus encourages patience and faith. Give Him time to do what He came to do, in the manner in which He came to do it. Things would never be the same again.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

So What Was Spoken Might Be Fulfilled.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew 2:13-23 ESV

Matthew’s record of the coming of Jesus is not merely an historical recap of the birth of a highly influential individual like Napoleon, Gandhi, George Washington or Winston Churchill. He is not attempting to provide us with an account of how this obscure Jew named Jesus was born in Bethlehem and grew to be a seminal figure in the Jewish nation. He is out to prove that Jesus was the long-awaited and highly anticipated Messiah, the Savior of the Jewish people who had been promised by God and predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures centuries earlier. That’s why Matthew goes out of his way to fill his Gospel with references to the written Word of God found in Old Testament prophetic passages and the audible word of God, spoken by angelic messengers to Mary, Joseph and others. Unlike other men, the story of Jesus does not begin with His birth. That event marks His entry into the temporal world of mankind, as the Son of God took on human flesh and came to dwell among men. But it was not His beginning. As the apostle John reminds us:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – 1 John 1:14 ESV

And in his own Gospel account, John goes on to describe the eternal nature of Jesus.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:1-5 ESV

We have already seen God confirm the deity of Jesus through His sending of angelic messengers to Mary and Joseph. He assured Mary that the child within her was the result of divine intervention, a miracle of God made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that the child in Mary’s womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit and was to be the Savior of the world. This was not going to be just another baby born to just another Hebrew couple. This baby was going to save His people from their sins. He was going to be Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” And Matthew pointed out that, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken” (Matthew 1:22 ESV).

The wise men had traveled from a distant land in order to discover the one who would be born the king of the Jews, and they had discovered Jesus, living in obscurity in Bethlehem. But even His birthplace had been prophesied by God. Everything was happening just as God had said it would. The timing was perfect, a fact that the apostle Paul points out.

4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. 5 God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children. – Galatians 4:4-5 NLT

And because of the jealousy of Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Judea, God ordained that Joseph take his family and escape to Egypt. Once again, the divine plan of God was revealed to Joseph through a dream, warning him of Herod’s plans and instructing him to seek safety in Egypt. And Matthew points out, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (Matthew 2:15 ESV). This was a direct quote from Hosea 11:1 and Matthew used it to prove, once again, the radically distinctive nature of Jesus and His arrival on this planet.

Matthew points out that even Herod’s merciless and brutal execution of all the baby boys in Bethlehem and the surrounding vicinity was the fulfillment of prophecy.

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:17-18 ESV

He quotes from Jeremiah 31:15, applying its words to the very events surrounding the life of Jesus. The Word had become flesh and His arrival was met with the worship of the wise men, but also the fury of the king. There were gifts given and innocent lives taken. His birth was marked by joy and sorrow. This was far from an ordinary birth of just another nondescript Hebrew boy. This was the God-appointed Savior, the Son of God, making His entrance into the darkness of the world. And His arrival was going to be anything, but ordinary.

In time, Joseph received another divine visit, with the angel of the Lord informing him it was now safe to return to the land of Israel. Herod had died. But rather than go back to Bethlehem, the angel told Joseph to take his wife and child to the region of Galilee. And this too, was in fulfillment God’s long-standing plans concerning His Son.

And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. – Matthew 2:23 ESV

This is not a record of events as they happened, a mere recalling or retelling of the historical facts surrounding the life of Jesus told in chronological order. They are the evidence of God’s promise of the coming Messiah and the proof of Jesus being the fulfillment of that promise. Every scene that surrounds His life provides further evidence of His deity, not just His humanity. Yes, He was born, but for a very specific reason. From the place of His birth to the location of His childhood home, all had been predetermined by God. None of this was the result of luck, chance, happenstance or fate. It was the divine will of God the had been prepared from before the foundation of the world. Jesus was not a baby born to become the Messiah. He was the Messiah who was born as a baby. He wasn’t destined to become King of the Jews. He came into the world that way. So what was spoken might be fulfilled.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

King of the Jews.

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” 3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Matthew 2:1-12 ESV

Matthew is out to prove that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of the Jews. He has provided a genealogical record showing that Jesus was a Jew, having descended directly from Abraham, the great patriarch of the Hebrew people. But, not only that, Jesus was a direct descendant of King David, from the tribe of Judah, making Him a legal heir to the throne. But Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was not just an ordinary man who could lay claim to David’s crown, because of His birth-right. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of a virgin girl. He was the God-man. And He was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies which had long predicted His coming. In chapter one, Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14, clearly believing that Jesus was the ultimate subject of the prophecy.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

The birth of Jesus had been a miracle, a supernatural work of God that had set Him apart as more than just a man. His birth had God-ordained, Spirit-empowered, and out-of-the-ordinary. And in chapter two, Matthew continues to support his claim that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah by quoting from the book of Micah.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days. – Micah 5:2 ESV

Matthew has established to whom Jesus was born, proving His Hebrew lineage and royal pedigree. Now, he deals with the place of Jesus’ birth. Once again, Matthew utilizes Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming Messiah to support his claim that Jesus was the one God had foretold and the Jews had long-awaited. Jesus was born in in Bethlehem of Judea, a small and seemingly insignificant city located in the land of Judah. But Bethlehem, which means, “house of bread,” was far from insignificant. It was the birthplace of David, the king. We know from Luke’s Gospel, that Joseph and Mary had traveled to Bethlehem in order to satisfy a royal decree by Caesar Augustus that each Jew should travel to their ancestral town in order to be registered.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. – Luke 2:4-5 ESV

King David had been born in Bethlehem some 1,000 years earlier and Matthew wants his readers to know that Jesus, the rightful heir to David’s throne was born in the very same place. From this obscure village had come the great king, David. And from this same unexpected spot had come the King of kings and Lord of lords – the Messiah.

But Matthew reveals that when Jesus came, there was another king reigning: Herod. Commonly referred to as Herod the Great, this man was an Idumaean or Edomite, a descendant of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob. While Esau had been the first-born and legitimate heir to his father’s inheritance, God had chosen to replace him with Jacob. And God, speaking through the prophet, Malachi, reminded the descendants of Israel that it would be through Jacob, not Esau, that His love would manifest itself.

2 “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob's brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob 3 but Esau I have hated.” – Malachi 1:2-3 ESV

Herod, an Edomite, was not a descendant of Jacob. And the only reason he was on the throne was because the Roman Senate had placed him there in 40 B.C. He was a puppet king, answering to the Romans and despised by the Jews. So, when Jesus was born, there was a usurper to the throne, masquerading as the king of the Jews. And his presence would prove to be dangerous for the newly born Messiah.

The story of the magi or wisemen is meant to support Matthew’s claim of Jesus having been the Messiah. These men were foreigners and most likely astronomers, who had somehow discovered the prophecies concerning the coming king of Jews through their study of the Hebrew Scriptures. We know little about these men, including where they came from. But they had traveled a great distance to find “he who has been born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2 ESV). Naturally, having arrived in Israel, they had made their way to Jerusalem. There, they raised the curiosity of Herod, the ruling king, with their questions about this newly born king of the Jews. Herod did his homework and discovered for himself the prophecies concerning the Messiah. Sending for the Magi, he persuaded them that he too wanted to worship this new king and asked them to send word of his location once they had located him.

“Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” – Matthew 2:8 ESV

Following a “star” – what must have been a supernatural cosmic sign provided by God, the Magi found the child and worshiped Him, showering Him with expensive gifts fit for royalty. These Gentile foreigners bowed down before an obscure, unknown infant located in a nondescript village in the middle nowhere. They had no clue as to the real identity of this Jewish baby boy. They were not worshiping Him as the Son of God or the Savior of the world, but as “he who has been born king of the Jews.” God had revealed to them Jesus’ kingship. These non-Jews were among the first to recognize the royal pedigree of this Jewish baby boy born in relative obscurity to a young virgin girl. And having worshiped Him, they went their way, refusing to reveal to Herod the baby’s location because of a warning they had received from God in a dream.

It’s interesting to note that the Magi did not ask for the location of the one who was to become king of the Jews. They referenced him as “he who has been born king of the Jews.” He was king by right. He had been born a king, not appointed one like Herod. They were declaring this child to be the rightful king of the Jews, a fact that did not escape Herod and which caused him great anxiety.

And it should not escape us that, when Herod wanted to know more about this coming king of the Jews, he assembled “the chief priests and scribes of the people” and “he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born” (Matthew 2:4 ESV). It was these religious leaders and experts in the Hebrew Scriptures who referred him to the words of the prophet Micah. The Jewish religious leaders knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, but they had no idea that this long-awaited event had just taken place. It was a group of Gentiles from a distant land whom God gave knowledge of the truth concerning the birth of Jesus and the privilege of worshiping the newly born King of the Jews.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Touched By An Angel.

12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying. 13 And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer. 14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate. 15 They said to her, “You are out of your mind.” But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, “It is his angel!” 16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed. 17 But motioning to them with his hand to be silent, he described to them how the Lord had brought him out of the prison. And he said, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” Then he departed and went to another place.

18 Now when day came, there was no little disturbance among the soldiers over what had become of Peter. 19 And after Herod searched for him and did not find him, he examined the sentries and ordered that they should be put to death. Then he went down from Judea to Caesarea and spent time there.

20 Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon, and they came to him with one accord, and having persuaded Blastus, the king's chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king's country for food. 21 On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. 22 And the people were shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” 23 Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.

24 But the word of God increased and multiplied.

25 And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark. Acts 12:12-25 ESV

After his miraculous release by God from prison and from Herod’s intentions to put him to death, Peter made his way to the home of Mary, the mother of John Mark. John Mark was the cousin of Barnabas, the man who enlisted Saul’s help in Antioch. We are not told why Peter chose Mary’s house as his destination, but it could have been that it was the one place of closest to the prison where he could seek refuge. Luke tells us that there were many believers who had gathered at Mary’s home in order to pray for Peter. When he arrived, a young servant girl named Rhoda, was the one who responded to his knocks at the gate. But when she heard his voice, she was so surprised that she left him standing there and ran to inform the rest that Peter was standing outside the gate. Her news was met with incredulity and skepticism. Whatever it was that they had been praying for, it evidently had not been for Peter’s release. They refused to accept Rhoda’s word that Peter was standing outside the gate. They even went so far as to claim that it must have been his angel. The Greek word, aggelos, was typically used to refer to a divine being or messenger from God. We cannot be sure exactly what those inside Mary’s house meant when they used this word under these circumstances. They could have simply been saying that Peter had sent them a human messenger with news of his condition. That would have been a legitimate use of the word. But they could have also believed that it was an actual angel, sent from God with news about Peter. Finally, they might have been using the word in the sense of a guardian angel, sent by God to rescue Peter. Whatever they meant, it seems that they were reticent to believe that it was actually Peter standing outside the gate. After all, they had just recently heard the devastating news that James, the brother of John, had been executed by Herod. So, even since Peter’s arrest, they had been anticipating similar news. There is no indication in this passage that they had been praying for or expecting God to free Peter. They certainly could have been, but it seems odd that they were so dumbfounded and disbelieving when Peter showed up outside the place where they had been praying.

In fact, Peter was left to stand outside, knocking on the gate, hoping to gain entrance. He had found it was easier to get out of Herod’s prison than it was to get into Mary’s home. But eventually, they opened the gate and found Peter standing there, just as Rhoda had said, and they were amazed. The Greek word that Luke uses to refer to their reaction has a much more robust meaning than just amazement. It refers to a sense of astonishment or bewilderment. It was even used to refer to someone being out of their mind or insane. They were legitimately shocked to see Peter standing there. They had been expecting the worse. And they must have been shouting, crying, laughing and jumping up and down in excitement, because Luke indicates that Peter had to get them to quiet down long enough for him to tell them what had happened. And we can only imagine that they stood by in rapt silence as he related the details of his escape: The angel, the helpless prison guards, the chains falling away, and the self-opening prison gate. It was an amazing story and it must have left them awed and amazed at the power of their God.

When Peter had finished, he told them to take this news to James (the half-brother of Jesus) and the rest of the original apostles. This James, who had been in the upper room with the rest of his brothers on the day of Pentecost, had become a leading figure in the Jerusalem church and would later write the book that bears his name. Peter wanted these men to know what had happened to him, so that they might be encouraged by the news. Then, Luke tells us Peter departed. We are not told where he went or what he did. But it is likely that he left Jerusalem for a time in order to lessen the risk any of the other followers of Christ might face for harboring him as a fugitive. We know that Herod, upon discovering that Peter had somehow escaped, ordered a search for Peter, but he was never found. And, as a result, Herod had all the guards, whom he deemed responsible for Peter’s escape, executed. Then, Herod himself left Jerusalem and traveled to Caesarea, where he had a palace. He got out of town. We don’t know whether his departure was to save face or because he couldn’t stand hearing the news circulating through the streets of Jerusalem that Peter had been miraculously rescued by God. This powerful man had failed in his attempt to put an end to the growth of Christianity. Even with his impressive resources and backed by the power of Rome, he was no match for the cause of Christ. In fact, Luke reveals that Herod’s days were numbered. 

Some dignitaries from Tyre and Sidon came to visit Herod at his royal palace. They were dependent upon Herod and his government for food, so even though they were at odds with the king, they found themselves having to grovel before him on behalf of their people. Luke goes out of his way to describe Herod in his royal robes, sitting on his royal throne and giving a royal speech before these men and all those in attendance. And these men, in spite of their dislike for Herod, were forced to listen, then to shower him with flattering accolades, shouting, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” (Acts 12:22 ESV). And Herod basked in the glory of their words, thoroughly enjoying the experience of being compared to a god. But his pride and pleasure at being deified would not last long. Luke records, “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last” (Acts 12:23 ESV). Herod was struck down by God. The angel who struck Peter’s side in order to wake him up and set him free, struck Herod with a debilitating and devastating disease. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod would suffer for five days and then die. Peter was alive and well, doing the will and the work of God. Herod was dead, for having tried to oppose to the will of God and eliminate the messengers of God.

And Luke matter-of-factly states that “the word of God increased and multiplied” (Acts 12:24 ESV). The gospel didn’t skip a beat. The kingdom of God continued to spread. And the chapter ends with the announcement that Barnabas and Saul left Jerusalem returned to Antioch, accompanied by John Mark. It was business as usual. There was work to be done. The death of James had not diminished the zeal and enthusiasm of the disciples. They mourned, but they went on with the work Jesus had assigned to them. Peter’s arrest had shaken them, but God had proven to them that He was in charge. He was not done with Peter and they were not done with their job of taking the gospel to the nations.

The work of spreading the gospel is not without its risks. There will always be enemies and opposition. We will always face difficulties and trials as a result of our faithful obedience to fulfill the commission given to us by Jesus. But like Peter and the other disciples, we have work to do. We must remain faithful and diligent to do what we have been called to do. As we will see, Peter didn’t give up. He didn’t quit or run in fear, viewing his work on behalf of Jesus as too dangerous or risky. He knew he could end up in jail again. He was well aware that his life could end in violent death, just like James. But as long as God gave him breath and kept setting him free from imprisonment, he would keep telling the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone who would listen.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Rescued by God.

1 About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.

6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Acts 12:1-11 ESV

In the preceding chapter, Luke mentioned the famine taking place in the land of Judea. This devastating natural disaster had left the congregation in Jerusalem in a state of great need and physical suffering. So much so, that an effort was made on the part of the new Gentile converts to raise funds to send to the church in Jerusalem to assist them in their time of need. Luke records that Barnabas and Saul made a trip to Jerusalem to deliver the generous gift of the Gentile church.

29 So the believers in Antioch decided to send relief to the brothers and sisters in Judea, everyone giving as much as they could. 30 This they did, entrusting their gifts to Barnabas and Saul to take to the elders of the church in Jerusalem. – Acts 11:29-30 NLT

But chapter 12 presents an even greater problem taking place back in Jerusalem. The persecution of the church was continuing to increase in magnitude and intensity. Now, Herod, the pseudo king of the Jews, who had been appointed by Rome, was getting in on the act. Herod Agrippa I was part-Jew, but was greatly disliked by the Jewish people because of his close association with the Roman emperor Gaius, who had given him his position. In an effort to curry favor of the Jewish people, Herod used his political office to carry out attacks on the church, even going so far as to have James, the brother of John, executed. And when he saw how much this pleased the Jews, he made plans to do the same thing to Peter. The murder of James, one of the original apostles and a leader in the Jerusalem church, would have had a devastating impact on its members. And, while the news of his death would have surprising and unexpected, Jesus Himself had predicted it. Years earlier, while Jesus was still on the earth, James and his brother, John, had come to Jesus with a request.

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came over and spoke to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do us a favor.”

36 “What is your request?” he asked.

37 They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.”

38 But Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?”

39 “Oh yes,” they replied, “we are able!”

Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering.” – Mark 10:35-39 NLT

James was dead. And Peter was next. At least, that was Herod’s plan. It was as if his plan was to eliminate the leadership of the church, one man at a time. And he was serious about it, having Peter arrested and thrown in jail.

This entire section of the Book of Acts provides us with an important interlude or break that separates the spread of the church to the Gentiles, as recorded in chapter 11, and Saul and Barnabas’ trip to Cyprus, where they continued their evangelistic efforts among the Gentiles. As the gospel made its way into the world, the heat in Jerusalem was intensifying and the rejection of the gospel by the Jews was becoming increasingly volatile and violent. Yes, there had been thousands of Jews who had come to faith in Jesus, but as a nation, both politically and religiously, they were standing opposed to Jesus’ claim to be their Messiah. John, the brother of James, recorded the nature of Israel’s rejection of Jesus, illustrated in their corporate refusal to accept Him as their Messiah.

37 But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. 38 This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

39 But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

40 “The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.”

41 Isaiah was referring to Jesus when he said this, because he saw the future and spoke of the Messiah’s glory. 42 Many people did believe in him, however, including some of the Jewish leaders. But they wouldn’t admit it for fear that the Pharisees would expel them from the synagogue. 43 For they loved human praise more than the praise of God. – John 12:37-43 NLT

Now, years later, and long after Jesus had been put to death by the religious authorities of Israel and the Roman government, His disciples were facing the same threat of execution. But the hardness of the hearts of the people of Israel, while disappointing, had a purpose. It opened up the door to the Gentiles. Because of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as their Messiah, the gospel was taken to non-Jews, so that they might enjoy the righteousness and redemption provided by faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior. And Paul, himself a devout Jew, would later write that Israel’s rejection of Jesus would not be permanent in nature.

11 Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. 12 Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

This was all part of God’s divine plan. Had the Jewish nation, as a whole, not turned its back on Jesus, the persecution and scattering of the church would not have taken place. But it did, because that is the way God ordained it. Even Peter’s arrest, while clearly the decision of Herod, was part of God’s sovereign, pre-established will.

Luke tells us that when Peter was arrested, the rest of the church got busy lifting him up in prayer. They feared for the worst. James was dead, and they had no reason to expect that the same thing would not happen to Peter. So, they took their need to God. Luke doesn’t tell us what they prayed, but we can easily assume that they pleaded for God to spare Peter’s life and to deliver him from the hands of Herod. And God did just that. The story of Peter’s deliverance provides us with a startling, but often overlooked reminder of God’s power. Herod, the king of the Jews, who had the full authority of the Roman empire behind him, had placed Peter in jail and had every intent to put him to death. And Luke tells us that, on the very night he had determined to carry out his plan, God stepped in. And He did so in a dramatic and memorable way. Peter was sound asleep, chained to two Roman solders, when suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared, filling the cell with dazzling light. Luke doesn't tell us what happened to the two guards, but they were either paralyzed or, perhaps, even killed by the angel. All we know is that Peter’s chains dropped off and, after having gotten dressed, he walked out of the prison a free man. And the whole time this was going on, Peter thought he was dreaming. It wasn’t until he had made his way out of the prison complex and the angel suddenly disappeared, that Peter realized that what had happened was real and not a dream.

“Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” – Acts 12:11 ESV

God had much more for Peter to do. His work on behalf of the kingdom was not yet complete. In John 21, we have Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s death, but this was not the time or the place. Herod, even as powerful as he was, stood powerless before God Almighty. His execution of James, could not have happened without God’s approval. We don’t know why God allowed James to die by the sword, any more than we know why God allowed Stephen to be stoned to death. And God is not obligated to explain Himself to us. But we can rest in the fact that God, in His sovereign will and almighty power, was in full control of all the circumstances surrounding His church. He was going to use each and every event – the good, the bad and the ugly – to accomplish His divine will for the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. And as we will see later on in this same chapter, God would eventually deal with Herod, revealing that no one stands outside of or aloof from God’s sovereign hand and righteous judgment.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson