Today we’re reading Matthew 14.
John the Baptist died as he lived--outspoken about right and wrong. He lived in a society where freedom of speech was not protected by law. Though most people could speak their mind without fear of punishment, there was no guarantee--legal or otherwise--that a person would not be prosecuted or persecuted for what he or she said. The safe thing to do in a society like John’s was to keep your mouth shut about the behavior of anyone who had the power to hurt you. If you did speak about someone’s behavior or morals, it was safest to do it in private with people you could trust.
John, however, disregarded all these safeguards. Herod Archelaus (Matthew calls him “Herod the tetrarch” in verse 1) had an affair with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. She divorced Philip to be with Herod Archelaus. Her divorce was not legally valid nor was it morally acceptable, so her marriage to Herod Archelaus was both illegal and sinful. Since Herod was in charge of Judea, however, there was nobody but Caesar, way off in Rome, who could hold him accountable. Caesar didn’t care, so Herod was able to get away with his sin. He also could harm anyone who spoke out about his sin, so there was no pressure on him at all to do the right thing.
John the Baptist did not allow Herod’s protected status or his power to keep him from speaking the truth about Herod’s sham marriage. Verse 4 told us that John confronted Herod directly (“John had been saying to him”) about his sin and called for repentance. It was costly to John personally to do this because Herod put him into prison (v. 3) and then reluctantly put him to death (vv. 6-12).
We live in a society that legally protects speech. While there are definitely those in our society who want to punish speech they dislike, for now we have legal protection to say almost anything we want to say. I don’t know about you, but I will admit that I am reluctant to say anything directly about the sins of our culture. I am not afraid to call sin what it is, but my approach has been to speak to people within our church family or those who attend our worship services about sin but not to society at large. John’s example has me re-thinking this. He was willing to speak out about a sin that everyone in his society knew about but nobody else had the courage to confront. His bravery cost him his freedom and eventually his life, but God highly approved of his message and his method.
If we are going to reach people for Jesus, we need to stand for righteousness. That requires speaking out against evil. We need to emulate the boldness of John. It is important, however, to remember that the purpose of speaking out is to turn hearts toward the forgiveness and righteousness of Jesus. It is also important to remember to speak in a way that shows gentleness and respect (see 1 Peter 3:15c). Many Christians can be downright obnoxious when speaking out against sin. That neither glorifies God nor wins a hearing for his word. So, let’s be bold but also wise about the way in which we speak.
In the interest of full-disclosure, this post by Douglas Wilson got me thinking about this application of John’s message. There are things I like about Wilson and his ministry and some things I strongly dislike about his theology. So, don’t take this as a blanket endorsement but it might be helpful for you to read his post that inspired my devotional on this text.