Who is this?
The Bible is a challenging book and on more than one level.
Firstly, it is challenging because:
It is long
It was written by several different human authors over a long period of time
It was written a long time ago and in cultures that are very different to our own
And yet, having said that, there are many things that are easy to understand. Anyone opening a Bible will soon see that it is a book that, among many other things, affirms and declares the fact that God exists. This God has also told us how we should live. So we must be careful not to exaggerate the above challenges and so discourage personal Bible reading.
Secondly, on a different level entirely, the Bible is demanding because it challenges:
the way in which we think
the way in which we behave
what we actually believe
In fact the Bible far from being difficult to understand is often so clear that it is uncomfortable. Not only does it tell us how we should be living it shows up how dreadfully far short of God's standards we fall.
Even those who know the Bible's teaching and who can quote it well find the doing of it a different matter. We read earlier about that Scribe of old who came to Jesus with some questions with a view to testing him. Instead he found himself being put under the spotlight of God's word. It was uncomfortable so he sought to justify himself with a follow-up question designed to make life easier for himself. We can operate like him – the Word is clear and searching but we want some wriggle room and so try to put avoid the challenge by asking another question.
One of the challenges that anybody taking the Bible seriously will encounter soon enough concerns the identity of Jesus Christ. We have thought about this question before but we must think about it again. In our text this morning the question is to be found on the lips of Herod Antipas. Indeed Luke has structured much of chs.8+9 around the question of Jesus' identity. Let me highlight that for you before we focus our attention upon Herod.
Different Ways in which Luke Draws our Attention to the Question of Jesus' Identity
On the lake a mighty storm had broken upon Jesus and his disciples in their boat – the disciples were terrified but Jesus was asleep. They woke him and with just a word he calmed the winds and the waves and the storm was over in an instant!
Reacting to this extraordinary thing that they had just witnessed the disciples could not stop themselves asking themselves a question. Jesus was not like them, indeed there wasn't anyone else they knew who was like him – Who was he?
The question is put clearly so we can't miss it.
On other occasions we're simply told that the things that Jesus did provoked amazement by those who saw it. Those things were meant to cause amazement, and as the thoughtful reflected upon it all they would move beyond mere amazement to reflect upon the identity of the One who had provoked it.
The demon-possessed man who ran to meet the boat when Jesus and disciples arrived immediately raised the question of Jesus' identity didn't he? Just look for a moment at
Lk.8:28: "What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?"
When you think about the way in which Jesus dealt with this man what conclusion do you come to? Do you think Jesus' actions served to confirm of deny what the demoniac had said about him?
Whatever conclusion you might come to it is clear that the former demoniac continued to maintain extremely high views of Jesus: See Lk.8:39:
"Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you." And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him."
This time it is Jesus himself who raises the topic and deliberately asks his disciples questions about his own identity.
The first question, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" is quickly followed by the second: "But who do you say that I am?"
These verses contain an account of Jesus' Transfiguration. The climax to the whole event comes as a cloud covers the top of the mountain and a voice is heard speaking out of the cloud. It is the voice of God the Father and his words are all about Jesus' identity:
v.35 "This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!"
So now we can focus upon this short paragraph that Luke inserts about Herod and his attitude towards Jesus.
Having seen how the question of Jesus identity has been explicitly raised on a number of occasions in the immediate context alternating with accounts of Jesus' remarkable miraculous power it is not difficult to see how this episode with Herod fits in to the general pattern.
Herod has heard reports about Jesus and just what he has been doing. In addition to hearing those reports Herod has also heard what people were saying about this man. And as he tried to get a handle on it all Herod was in difficulty, great difficulty. You see it was no mere academic question for Herod, it was not some idle largely irrelevant question to fill a few spare hours, it was an important question because Herod had a conscience that troubled him, a conscience that accused him!
We shouldn't be surprised to learn that news of what Jesus had been doing had come to Herod's ears. The crowds were flocking to listen to Jesus as he taught and to benefit from his ministry as he healed. Jesus too had been travelling widely through Galilee and Galilee was ruled by Herod the Tetrarch. It was inevitable that the ruler would get to hear about what was going on in his kingdom.
Herod was a curious man. He had been fascinated by John the Baptist even though the latter had roundly and publicly condemned him for his unlawful marriage to Herodias. Herod knew that John was a righteous and holy man and he loved to hear him speak. John's message was an uncompromising one – he preached the need of repentance, sin was real and needed to be forgiven. Yes, Herod liked to hear John but always found what he had to say disturbing.
Herod heard John's message loud and clear but refused to do anything about it. He was beginning to harden his heart and it would be a hardening with disastrous consequences for his own life.
Yes, Herod was disturbed but not enough to act. He heard what John said but didn't heed it. We're not told the reason but I wonder if it was because he thought the cost was simply too high.
Listening, listening, listening but it brought no good to Herod - for all his interest in religious matters Herod remained a dishonourable and an unrighteous man. By making foolish and rash promises he was responsible for John the Baptist being put to death a death he could have avoided but for fear of losing face. This death is nevertheless playing on his conscience.
I've said that Herod was a curious man but in so many ways we can be just like him. It is possible for us to be intrigued by the truth, to want to hear it, and yet not to respond positively to it. Like Herod we too have a conscience and our consciences are still capable of troubling us when we do wrong or fail to do what is right. A troubled conscience is a terrible thing and men try a plethora of solutions to quieten it – some will try to ignore that voice within and others will try to change it by refusing to call sin sin. There is only one safe way of dealing with a troubled conscience and that is by going to God about it and pleading the blood of Christ – but that was not the route that Herod chose to take.
We'll come back to the outcome of all this in Herod's life before we close. But for the moment we must focus on the reports he was hearing about Jesus.
It is clear Herod was hearing all about Jesus' miracles and probably something about his teaching as well:
v.7 "Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening...
v.9 "I hear such things" about him
The reports that Herod heard about Jesus were accompanied by varying opinions as to just who he was. The crowds came up with three possibilities:
John the Baptist raised from the dead
Another of the prophets
(These are the same as the three answers the disciples would give to Jesus see Lk.9:19.)
These answers indicate both an element of certainty and an element of confusion.
Firstly, it shows us that the crowds knew that Jesus was someone of importance. Prophets in the OT occupied a place of real significance. There were three main offices given by God to his people and the office of prophet was one of these (the others being kingship and the priesthood).
Elijah was one of the most important prophets of the Old Testament. He faithfully carried out God’s mission in the face of danger and hardship. His was a singular voice of "one crying in the wilderness" to rebuke sin in the land and to expose the false prophets and false religions of his day. It was also believed that "Elijah" would somehow return as the forerunner of the Messiah.
John the Baptist was also a prophet – while the religious leaders had rejected him the common people considered him as a true prophet sent from God, a view that Jesus himself shared. Jesus went further still and identified John as "more than a prophet" he was the Messiah's forerunner. Cf. Lk.7:26-27.
Whoever Jesus was in the eyes of the common people he was someone very special indeed.
Secondly, however, it shows that the crowds had failed to come to any clear understanding of just who Jesus was.
When we're told that Herod was perplexed we're not to understand that to mean that he couldn't make up his mind as to just who Jesus was. Herod thought he knew and he was convinced that the man about whom he was hearing all these reports was the same man that he had had executed!
Both Matthew and Mark make this crystal clear in their accounts that Herod thought Jesus was John raise from the dead:
Mt.14:2 Herod "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.""
Here Luke tells us that no sooner does Herod hear what the crowds have to say his troubled conscience fills in the gaps – "John – the man I beheaded!"
Did Herod recognise in the reports he heard about Jesus the same refusal to compromise, the same emphasis upon repentance as he had seen in John. Repentance was certainly a feature of Jesus' early preaching ministry.
But Herod was still as much in the dark as were the crowds. Yes, this man was important but the identification was still wrong.
I wonder if that is true of any of us this morning. We may be convinced that Jesus is someone important but still yet unable to comprehend exactly who he is. Perhaps we think we'll flatter him by calling him a prophet, perhaps we'll call him a great teacher, perhaps we'll even call him a miracle-worker. I wonder...
Luke closes this little episode with Herod by telling us that from that moment on Herod tried to see Jesus.
The Final Outcome for Herod
When you read through the gospels you don't find Jesus living the life of a recluse. The crowds don't seem to have had any trouble in finding him out. The very next incident that Luke records involves another huge crowd flocking to him.
Many different types of people seemed to have no trouble in finding him. We read of him meeting with lawyers, scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees as well as with the despised of society, the tax collectors and sinners.
Why was it then that Herod never managed to see Jesus – at least not until Pilate should send Jesus to him for a judicial opinion as to what to do with him after his arrest?
Well there are two possible reasons:
Herod's desire to meet with Jesus was not strong enough to overcome other obstacles that might have presented themselves. Pride will keep many from coming truly to Jesus – I can't demean myself in going cap in hand as it were to him for help, I'm really quite alright as I am. Fear will keep others – I can't come for the cost will be simply too great. Or perhaps he was just too busy.
The other alternative is that God overruled Herod. The writer of Proverbs tells us that a man plans and schemes what he is going to do but that it is the Lord who has the final say:
Pr 16:9 "A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps."
There is great danger in refusing to heed God when he speaks and that was exactly what Herod had done on multiple occasions when he listened to John. Each time he refused to act he hardened his heart until finally God gave him over to his hardness.
Yes, Herod did get his wish – he saw Jesus when Pilate sent him to him. But it wasn't what he'd been hoping for. Herod had hoped to see Jesus perform some impressive miracle in his presence and what happened? Jesus wouldn't even speak to him! Jesus wouldn't answer any of his questions. And any joy Herod had experienced in finally seeing Jesus quickly evaporated away and gave place to contempt and mockery.
And yet Herod recognised a similar righteousness in Jesus to that which he had earlier seen in John. He knew that Jesus was guilty of no crime and would say so to Pilate as he returned him. Did he recognise Jesus' silence as the just action of a righteous man? Did this stab at his conscience as John's words had earlier done?
There is a solemn and sobering warning for us here.
Herod hardened his heart and stifled his conscience and the result was that he missed his opportunity. He missed discovering who Jesus really was and what Jesus could do for him. And the more you stifle the voice of your conscience which condemns you for your wrong-doing and the more you put off and put off responding to those invitations to turn to Jesus for salvation the quieter the voice of conscience will become and the less appealing those invitations to trust him will appear. And you too may miss for all time your opportunity.
Jesus is no mere prophet - one among many – nor is he is an important forerunner either, he is the Christ of God, the Son of God, God's Chosen One. Come to him and you will live refuse and you will die in your sin under the just condemnation of God. You will by no means escape if you neglect such a great Saviour and such a great salvation.
May God grant you grace to hear and grace to respond before your heart becomes totally hardened and your spiritual hearing so dull that you are no longer able to hear anything at all.