The Gospel of Matthew Part 3: Herod, John and Jesus, and a Picture of Two Kingdoms in Contest

In my previous reflection, I talked about how the author of Matthew establishes his Gospel in line with the Genesis-Exodus story. He does this to raise up Jesus as the New Exodus, not only in a retelling of the Exodus story, but a re-imagining of the story in light of Christ ushering in the new, promised Kingdom.

Matthew continues to paint for us this new Kingdom picture with the way he places of the stories of John the Baptist and Herod alongside Jesus’ ministry, first in chapter 2-4, and later in chapter 11-14.

In chapter 2, Herod is positioned as the one who is behind this movement that takes Jesus to Egypt and eventually out of Egypt. In Chapter 2, we see him devising a plan regarding the Christ child with the magi, eventually massacring the children when things don’t go his way, and then finally his death.

What becomes immediately obvious in chapter 2 is that Matthew is presenting both Jesus and Herod as Kings with contrasting pictures of power. One comes from a humble birth, the other comes from the assumed power of being given position under Roman rule as a “vassal” King (read: puppet). In his article called Power and Authority in Matthew’s Gospel, FP Viljoen talks about how the story of the magi underscores this reality. After establishing Jesus as born “in the time of Herod”, and locating Jesus in the way of the Prophets words, which state “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel (2:6), we move from royalty and power (Herod) to the least among the rulers of Judah and the picture of a shepherd. This movement comes by way of the Magi, who come from the east to Jerusalem wondering “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him'” (Matt. 2:1-2). Viljoen notes that the east is indicative of Parthia, Rome’s enemy. In this way, the Magi do not recognize the authority of Herod and place their search for Jesus above Herod’s Kingship.

Viljoen also notes the reaction of Jerusalem when Herod recognizes this threat to his Kingship. “When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). This is something that is going to emerge for Matthew following Herod’s death as he narrows in on the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the fear they had of Jesus disrupting the Roman rule and leaving them in even more danger as a people.  

Fast forward to Chapter 14 and this picture of Herod, now a different Herod (the “ruler” 14:1), becomes even more interesting in terms of this question of power. Whereas chapter 2 eventually leads to John’s imprisonment and the start of Jesus’ ministry, here we find John in prison facing his death. Herod is once again represented as powerful and John appears in the position of the week. Only, the way Matthew writes this passage in chapter 14, it becomes immediately clear that what appears as a position of power in Herod is actually a position of fear and uncertainty based on John’s words (14:4), the crowd (14:5), and his own brother (14:3). He is far from in control of anything in this story, and John’s death arrives in his “grieving” (14:9), a picture that is immediately contrasted by Jesus moving to a “desolate place” (to grieve) only to be disrupted by the power of His Kingdom work (the crowds).

Contrast this then with Jesus’ words about John in Matthew 11 as John was languishing in prison and wondering whether Jesus was in fact the true King of the Jews. The message that Jesus sends to John is “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them (11:5).” This is how John is to know that in his weakness, in the lowly place, comes power. In Jesus’ death, this same liberating picture applies to the work of the Cross. Speaking to the crowd about John’s lowly position, Jesus declares “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist (11:11)”, and yet, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This repositioning of power is now fueled into this proclamation, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he (John) is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!” (11:12-15) If they are willing to accept that power comes not by way of violence, force and might, but from the lowly places, from the places of suffering, they will then see who John is, and thus who Jesus is and the Kingdom He is building. Although John stands in chains and in bondage, he is considered within the liberating picture of Christs work.

And then we come to Jesus and Pilate by way of this triumphal entry into Jerusalem, this movement into Jerusalem by way of a humble donkey. Jesus, stripped of power and now presented in front of the seeming powerful Kingdom of Rome. Jesus’ eventual declaration of power through the Cross (which comes by way of this proclamation of natural (supernatural) forces) is contrasted, just as Herod’s power was, by Pilate being revealed as powerless in front of the people he feared.

Two Kingdoms in contest, one in the way of Rome, the other in the way of Jesus. As Matthew moves forward in His Gospel, He is going to show how it is Jesus’ Kingdom that is being established in power, just not the kind of power they expected.

Here is the article on Power and Authority. It is worth a read.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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