In an interesting literary move by Luke, rather than continuing to follow the life of John in sequence, Luke opts to bring John’s life to a close in this gospel with a short statement about John’s imprisonment.
“So with many other exhortations he preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.” (Luke 3:18–20; ESV)
The Luke account gives us a very short picture of what took place. I would like for us to go to the Mark account to get a better picture of what happened between John and Herod. Mark 6:17-29 records a fuller account of the scene that occurred.
After reading this text, it is important to fill in some background information. This marital situation is recorded in history by the Jewish historian, Josephus. Herod’s first wife was the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king of the Nabateans, whose land bordered Perea. Herod divorced this woman to marry Herodias, the wife of Philip. Herodias had been married to Herod’s half brother, Philip. When Herod divorced his wife and married Herodias, it created an explosive political situation that eventually led to war.
There are three key points that I would like for us to consider in this lesson.
There Are Marriages That Are Not Lawful
The first point that immediately jumps off the page are John’s words, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Many want to discount this story because Herod married his half-brother’s ex-wife. But this point is really not relevant to the point. The key point we learn is that some marriages are not approved by God. This is a shocking revelation to many. There are marriages that are not lawful. We currently live in a time where marriage and divorce and remarriage are simply accepted facts of life. It is assumed by most that divorce and remarriage is fine and that all divorces and all remarriages are approved by God. This is simply not the case. So we need to know which marriages are lawful and which marriages are not. Jesus taught clearly which marriages were approved or not approved by God.
3 The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”4 And He answered and said to them, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:3–6; NKJV)
Can a person get a divorce for any reason? Jesus is very clear that the answer is no. The two become one flesh and the two people joined in marriage are not to separate. Of course, the Jewish leaders had a problem with this, just as many today have a problem with this teaching. The Jewish leaders of the day were teaching something fairly similar to what is taught on marriage today. They taught that it was okay to divorce as long as you used legal proceedings. Go through the court system and sign the paperwork. Then it is okay to divorce. Jesus responds against this teaching.
7 They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”8 He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:7–9; NKJV)
Paperwork is not what Moses meant, even though that is how the Jews were understanding Moses’ law. So Jesus clarifies what God’s teaching is. No divorce — do not separate what God has joined. The only cause where divorce is allowed is in the case of sexual immorality. This means that if your spouse cheats on you, then God gives you the right to divorce and marry again. If that is not the case, then if a person divorces and marries another person, adultery is being committed.
Jesus taught the same thing that John taught. Not all marriages are approved by God. Not all marriages are according to God’s law. We do not have the right to divorce and remarry whoever we want as many times as we want. In fact, it is probably safe to say that most divorces and remarriages today are not approved by God, assuming that most divorces are not for the cause of sexual immorality.
We learn something very important at this junction. Human laws do not supercede God’s law. Just because it was lawful under Roman law for Herod to divorce his wife and marry Herodias and it was lawful under Roman law for Herodias to divorce Philip and marry Herod did not mean that God approved this marriage. The marriage was sinful and that is what John is preaching to Herod. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” In the same way, just because our society allows divorce and remarriage for any cause does not mean that our marriages are lawful or approved by God. We cannot bend God’s law to match our human laws. Just because the law of the land says something is okay does not mean that it is okay with God.
In fact, I would like for you to observe something in the text. Carefully read Mark 6:18 again. Herodias had divorced Philip and was now married to Herod. But, looking at Mark 6:18 carefully, who does John say Herodias is the wife of? Notice that John does not say that Herodias is Herod’s wife. John says that Herodias is still Philip’s wife. This divorce and this remarriage were not approved by God. Since this divorce and remarriage was not lawful or approved by God, Herodias was still bound to Philip even though Roman law had allowed a civil divorce and remarriage.
Isn’t it interesting that Luke records this scene so closely to the message of repentance that John was preaching in the desert? I believe this is part of the message of repentance that John is calling for the people to perform. It is time to turn from sin and turn to God. It is time to live lives that show a life turned to God, not a life turned to selfishness or sinfulness.
What Is Our Response To A Message We Do Not Like or Agree With?
One of the important points we learn from this text that can be easily overlooked is the response of Herod and Herodias to John’s teaching. Rather than listen thoughtfully to John, Herod ignores John’s teaching and Herodias wants to kill the messenger. These are the same typical responses that we have as humans to teachings we do not like or do not agree with.
First, we can choose not to listen. We let what is being taught go through one ear and out the other. We choose not to pay attention. We nod our head and thank the messenger, but we are really not listening. We are not really letting the words of God sink into our hearts. We read that Herod liked John, but he did not let John’s message change him. He refused to let John’s teaching reach his heart. Because we have some sort of doctrine, philosophy, or belief pattern, we refuse to listen to something that might show us that our philosophy or belief pattern is wrong. It is sad that our response to teaching can so quickly be a knee jerk reaction of “that’s not right” or “I don’t agree” without even giving the message a chance. We just say we don’t agree because accepting what we are being taught would mean that we are wrong, and we know that can never happen! Rather than be convicted by the word, we put up walls and refuse to even listen.
The other response is one of shooting the messenger, like Herodias did in a literal sense, but we do in a figurative sense. Don’t like the message, get the preacher fired. Don’t like the message, make his life miserable. Someone comes up to us to correct us and show us where we are in err, destroy the messenger. Don’t listen. Simply justify the way you are living and torment the person who tried to save your soul. The shepherds come to you concerned about how you are living your life. Instead of accepting our toes being stepped on, we shoot the messenger. The messenger is wrong and we stubbornly refuse to change. This happens far too often.
We are going to lose our souls when we have this kind of response to the message. That is why the Holy Spirit says, “Today when you hear his voice, don’t harden your hearts as Israel did when they rebelled, when they tested me in the wilderness.” (Hebrews 3:7–8; NLT) Why did Israel fall away from the Lord? They fell away because when God sent his messengers to correct the people and teach the people the will of God, they refused to listen. They would tormented and killed the prophets. They would not listen to the words the prophets had from God. Friends, listen and do not harden your hearts. God teaches us difficult things. From controlling anger and ending pride to God’s divorce and remarriage laws, God teaches us challenging things for us to do in our lives. Listen and do not be stubborn in heart. Always be openhearted and openminded to the word of God and to those who teach us, correct us, and encourage us.
We Must Have The Courage To Teach The Whole Message of God, Even When the Response Will Be Utterly Negative
Finally, we learn from John to preach God’s word even when you know it is not going to go well for us. John is imprisoned and ultimately loses his life because he preached to Herod that he was in an unlawful marriage. It is easy for us to want to avoid the difficult scriptures and challenging teachings. Just teach the things we can all agree on and everything will be fine. But God has not called us to fair weather messengers. We cannot simply teach the things that will keep us out of trouble or will avoid controversy. The word of God must continue to be taught about marriage, divorce, and remarriage even if we do not like it. We must keep preaching to the world that immorality is sin and is not acceptable to God.
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; ESV)
We cannot change this message and we cannot avoid this message. All we can do is preach this message in love, with the understanding that we were the same as them. We all need the blood of Jesus. We all need the grace of God.
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11; ESV)
We are constrained and we are compelled by God’s law. We need to know what we are doing wrong so that we can make sure that we continue to stand in God’s grace. We do not want to walk away from God. So we need to know what he says and make the changes in our lives to receive his grace. John could not change the message and could not keep quiet in the face of sin. We cannot either and disciples of Jesus. If we truly care about people and we truly care about their eternal souls, then we must have the courage to teach the whole message of God, even if people disagree, walk out, sever friendships, or even suffer persecution. Go back to Luke 3:19 and notice that John not only preached against Herod for his unlawful marriage, but also “for all the evil things that Herod had done.” It sounds like John hounded Herod about his sinful life.
You are coming to a place where the word of God is taught, and I will not apologize for that. It is out of love that we teach the word of God to you. We want you to receive grace and continue to be a child of God. If we were about the numbers, we would preach the easy things that we can all agree on and play movies instead of reading God’s word. But we are all about getting God’s word out. We beg you to listen and learn from God’s word and turn to him. Do not stubbornly hold on to your beliefs and your way of life that stands contrary to the word of God. Let us not be shameful like Herod and Herodias who rejected the truth because it was inconvenient. Hear God’s word, let the words sink in, and turn to Jesus.