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THE MARTYRDOM OF JOHN THE BAPTIST; THE WITHDRAWAL OF CHRIST TO BETHSAIDA; THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND; WALKING ON THE SEA; HEALING THE MULTITUDES
At that season Herod the tetrarch heard the report concerning Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore do these powers work in him.
This Herod was a son of Herod the Great by the second Mariamne, daughter of Simon. He had inherited the tetrarchy of Galilee of Peraea. On a visit to Rome, he was enamored by Herodias, his niece, who was the wife of his half-brother, Herod Philip II, who at that time were private citizens in Rome. Herod seduced her, divorced his own wife, married her, and made her his queen. Herod's comment concerning John, recorded in these two verses, was made in the aftermath of John's murder, which is detailed in this chapter. His remarks pointed up his guilt and also the conviction he held that John was indeed a righteous man.
The Jews fiercely resented Herod's incestuous marriage with Herodias for three reasons: First, he was already married; second, she was his niece; and third, she was his brother's wife. The Jewish law expressly forbade a man's marrying his brother's wife, even after the brother's death, much less while he was still alive; the one exception being that when a man died without an heir, his brother was commanded to marry the deceased's widow and produce an heir to his estate (Leviticus 18:16; Deuteronomy 25:5-10).
Herod's imprisonment of John was due to the hatred of Herodias and shows what an evil influence can sometimes be exerted by an unprincipled woman in high place. Had it not been for the designs of the cruel, heartless, and immoral Herodias, John the Baptist might well have lived to see the Christ after his resurrection.
John did not belong to that school of preachers always careful not to "stick out their necks"! He, like Priscilla and Aquila who "laid down their own necks" (Romans 16:4) for the apostle Paul, was fearless in declaring God's law.
This exposes Herod as equally guilty with Herodias for the murder of John. The purpose was already in his heart; and, had it not been for fear of the people, he would already have martyred John. He needed only the stimulation provided when Salome danced to give the order of execution. John's holy reputation was justly earned, and he surely deserved a better fate than to fall under the evil eye of a beast like Herod.
Earthly rulers mark their birthdays; Christ required of his disciples that they celebrate his death. Birthday parties through the ages have often been the occasion of license, as here. Herodias' daughter, Salome, "did leap in the myddle," as an ancient translation has it, meaning that the dance was probably a belly dance.
Extravagant promises of the type here were characteristic of kings and rulers of that period, the promise sometimes being limited by the words, "unto half my kingdom."
This giddy, irresponsible request came at the instigation of Herodias who was still smarting under John's fearless rebuke of her incestuous marriage with Herod. She took her revenge in the macabre scene that closed Herod's birthday party. One can only pity the little fool of a dancing girl who might have received something truly desirable instead of the ghastly thing she asked.
The scene of this bloody accent on Herod's birthday party was the old prison of Machaerus, some five miles east of the Dead Sea. One can reflect only with sorrow upon the feelings of the godly John when informed of his fate. Herod heard only the music and dancing; John heard only the grating of the prison door as the headsman came to lead him to the block. Yet, through the power of faith, any man in his right mind would prefer the fate of John the Baptist to that of Herod. The disciples went away and told Jesus! That bodes nothing good for Herod, or for any other sinner who opposes or maltreats one of God's faithful children. All people must finally stand before Christ for judgment.
The foolish fear of what people might think is highlighted by this incident. Herod, while fully capable of murder, and intending it at one time, nevertheless seemed at the moment to have been in the mood to spare John; but he had opened his mouth with a foolish promise, and fear of what his guests might think forced him to go through with it. Countless times, Satan has maneuvered some cowardly soul into a situation where some terrible deed is committed for fear of turning back. Satan surely is a master at setting a stage like that booby trap into which Herod fell. John lost his head; Herod lost his throne as a result of that shameful deed. Aretas, father of Herod's first wife, invaded Herod's tetrarchy; Herod fled to Rome, where Caligula banished both him and Herodias to Lyons in Gaul on a charge of misgovernment. That birthday party was loaded with consequences. Things of the kind related in this passage probably account for the Jewish detestation F1 of birthday parties which were long held by the orthodox to be a part of idolatrous worship.
Robertson wrote, "Note that four separate withdrawals from Galilee are given. In every case, he keeps out of Herod's territory, and in every case he goes to the mountains." F2
The desert mentioned is not a waterless place, but an uninhabited place. Insight as to the scriptural use of the term "desert" may be obtained from a glance at the following accounts from the four gospel accounts of the same incident: Matthew calls the place a "desert," adding a word about there being "grass" there (Matthew 14:19); Mark relates that there was "green grass" (Mark 6:39); and John refers to "much grass" (John 6:10). Luke gives the location as Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), a beautifully-situated city near the mountains at the northeast corner of Galilee. Wide, level grassy places may still be seen there, but so far from the city as to have made it impractical for the people to go and buy bread.
The people, seeing that Christ had gone across the lake to Bethsaida with the Twelve, merely walked around the northern end of the lake and met him there.
Christ had already withdrawn up into the mountains near Bethsaida, but when he saw the vast throng of people, he came down and met them on the grassy plain. His compassion is frequently mentioned in the New Testament, and refers to the pity and feeling of deep concern which he always manifested toward the people. His healing of all their sick people richly rewarded all those who thus exerted themselves to follow him.
The disciples in this instance came up with the usual solution for difficult problems, and the one usually resorted to by the Christians of all ages when some difficult situation presented itself, namely, "Send the multitudes away!" How frequently the church has sought to solve problems by sending them away, instead of meeting the need.
Christ knew what he was about to do, but this commandment tested the faith of the Twelve. Their first objection was to the effect that they did not possess sufficient resources for such a task; but Christ asked them to produce what they did have! Andrew had found a lad with five loaves and two little fishes, and these were brought to the Lord. Not a very large store was this, for serving five thousand men besides the women and children.
The little that men have is enough, if it is dedicated to the Lord. This profoundly impressive miracle of creation is recorded in all four gospels. It set off a tremendous wave of popular enthusiasm among the multitudes who hailed him as that Prophet who would come into the world. Psa. 78:19 recorded the question, "Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?" And in this instance, God in Christ did that very thing.
Christ tested the faith of the multitude by the command to sit down on the grass. The store out of which food was to be supplied for so vast a company was evident to all; and it is a mark of their confidence in the Lord that they sat down.
Note that Christ, as Billy Sunday said, "was the chef on that occasion, not the waiter." He gave to the disciples; they gave to the multitudes. This is eternally true of all who would truly serve Christ; they must receive FROM HIM all that is imparted to others. Even yet, men must believe on Christ "through their word," that is, through the word of the apostles.
Christ's giving thanks is a reminder, through example, that men should express thanks for food. If one ever had a right to eat without it, it was Christ; but, even though he had created that food only a moment before, still he gave thanks to God for it.
How Jesus did this wonderful thing is not revealed. Certainly, the modernist view must be rejected, which holds that Christ took the example of the little lad who had the loaves and fishes and shamed everybody into sharing his lunch with others, thus providing a banquet out of what they already had! Such a view denies the record. Christ in this wonder manifested his creative power as he did at the miracle of Cana in Galilee, where he changed the water into wine. It was another link in the evidence that made Jesus "that Prophet" like unto Moses who fed the people with bread from heaven. Indeed, this was precisely the deduction which that audience drew from those remarkable events (John 6:14).
Saving the fragments and gathering them into baskets suggests a number of things. The superabundance of Jesus' power is noted in the fact that they had twelve times as much left over as they had at the start. Also, since there was a popular superstition to the effect that demons lurked in crumbs, Christ flaunted it by saving the crumbs. Another thing concerns the ownership of the twelve baskets of fragments. Trench and other commentators pointed out that there was one basketful for each of the Twelve; however, by any fair reckoning, their was a prior claimant on at least one of those baskets, and that was the lad who had provided the original! It seems only fair to conclude that he was the only legitimate owner of all that was left, baskets and all. This is a parable to the effect that no man ever gave anything to Christ but that he got it back, compounded and multiplied.
What an astounding deed of creative might was that which fed so great a multitude from a little lad's basket! Also, let it be observed that the status of woman has been dramatically altered by Christ and the impact of his teaching upon men's hearts. No one in our age would think of numbering an audience without taking any account of the number of women and children present. It would be considered an outrage for anyone to number a throng of people merely by the number of men, lumping the women and children in as surplus!
Why did Jesus need to "constrain" the disciples, indicating that some definite resistance on their part was encountered? The key to this is in John's account where it is related that the multitude was about to take Jesus and make him king by force, a thing the disciples no doubt desired and would have abetted in every possible way if Jesus had not ordered them to the other side of the lake. Christ thus dispersed his own true followers, and then the great rabble. They were sent to the other Bethsaida, on the western side of Galilee; the Bethsaida they were leaving was a larger city, situated on the northeastern shore of Galilee, and called Bethsaida-Julius.
Following so closely upon the rejection at Nazareth, this enthusiastic desire of a vast concourse of people to make Jesus king by force must have been a genuine temptation to Christ. Satan was renewing the temptation to take a short-cut to popular acclaim. This is evident from the manner in which Jesus responded, namely, by going apart into the mountain, alone, to pray. Christ met every crisis of his life in exactly that way. The word "even," as used here, referred to the first even which began at three o'clock in the afternoon; the second even began at six o'clock. These first and second evens corresponded almost exactly to our afternoon and evening.
It will appear a little later that Satan was the instigator of that storm. Failing to induce Christ to accept the mantle of material kingship, the devil was of a mind to drown all his apostles in the sea! The contrary winds had prevented their successful crossing; and as late as the fourth watch of the night, they were still tossed by the angry seas about the point of no return, some three miles from land in either direction.
There appears to be a progressive design in our Lord's schooling of the Twelve. In Matthew 8, it was recorded that he was asleep in the stern of the ship during a storm; but in this instance the disciples were alone. In that case, they had him on board and could arouse him in an emergency; but in this, Jesus was out of sight, and they were learning the hard way what it means to walk by faith and not by sight.
This was an astounding occurrence, and the fear of the Twelve is understandable. If they recognized the form of Christ, they may have thought he had been killed; but for whatever reason, they were thoroughly afraid and troubled. In this verse is a remarkable example of how words can change meanings. Note the following:
English Revised Version King James Version 1885 A.D. 1611 A.D.
Matt. 14:26 "It is a ghost." "It is a spirit" Matt. 28:19 "The Holy Spirit" "The Holy Ghost"
In this case, the words "ghost" and "spirit" exchanged meanings during the interval between 1611 and 1881, each word meaning today exactly what the other did when the King James Bible was published.
Christ's coming to those storm-tossed disciples symbolizes the way he has often come to his troubled disciples in all ages, walking to them over life's troubled waters; and, as always, he may pass them by, unless they cry out and call upon him as did the apostles here.
Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid.
How grandly have those blessed words echoed down the centuries in men's hearts. Christ's holy religion is one that casts out fear. Fear not! That is the first and last commandment of faith.
Peter's "if" in this place is not a word of doubt but an argumentative "if" such as Christ himself used when he said, "If I go, I will come again." The true meaning is, "Since it is thou, etc." Peter, impetuous as always, dared the impossible, and with what memorable results. He actually did it, for a while, at least!
Peter succeeded at first, but then he failed. He did actually walk on the sea; but when he took his eyes off the Saviour and began to consider the difficulties, he began to sink. What a lesson shines in this. As long as people have respect unto the Lord and behold him in all their ways, they go forward; on the other hand, when men become analysts of the difficulties, they fail. Most of the high and noble things ever done would never have been started or concluded if the men who achieved them had taken a good hard look at the difficulties. That goes for the American Revolution, the invention of the electric light, the discovery of America, and just about everything else that has made history; and it is one thousand times more true in the realm of spiritual things!
Was there something of the show-off in Peter's conduct here? Perhaps. It will be recalled that, later, he professed to have more faith than the others; and there may be some suggestion of the same attitude in his conduct on the occasion mentioned here. In any case, the Lord did not permit him utterly to fail, but only enough to strengthen his faith in the Lord.
Peter's failure was due to lack of faith; and the rebuke was therefore deserved. He apparently profited by it. The acknowledgment of the disciples that Jesus was in fact the Son of God showed that Christ's schooling of them was achieving his purpose. The great calm was proof of Jesus' power. See note under Matthew 8:26 for evidence that this storm, and that, probably resulted from satanic instigation. The grand design of Christ's purpose is plain. Rejected at Nazareth, improperly acclaimed by the rabble at Bethsaida-Julius, Christ is recognized by the disciples as the Son of God. That was the big thing that he came to teach, and the germ of this world-shaking truth was already firmly implanted in the minds of the apostles by the time this remarkable event was concluded. From that overwhelming experience, Peter no doubt drew the faith to confess Christ as recorded in Matthew 16:16. The difference in his confession and that recorded here was a matter of circumstances. Under the excitement and joy of the moment, they all said he was the Son of God; but it remained for Peter to come through with the formal affirmation of it in the face of adverse opinion to the contrary.
In this section, it has been noted that Christ was rejected at Nazareth; John's martyrdom caused Christ to leave Herod's territory; the multitude at Bethsaida had tried to make him king; and in this passage is another instance of the Master's being widely acclaimed and accepted. Since the master plan called for Christ's rejection, even those instances of his acceptance were practically all marred by some vitiating circumstance. This is seen in the efforts of those at Bethsaida to make him king by force, in the woman at Samaria's well having been a Samaritan of doubtful morality, and in the Gentile orientation of others.
None can say how many Christ healed. ALL of their sick must have been a truly great number. What a blessing he bestowed upon that land. There were so many ill and suffering that sufficient time did not exist for him to give personal attention to them all, hence, their desire merely to touch the border of his garment.
As many as touched were made whole!
This seven-word jewel is one of the most illuminating and encouraging remarks in the sacred text. A mere touch is not much contact, but it is enough! Those who touched were not merely helped; they were made perfectly whole. No efficacy in his garment is implied; not the garment, but Christ healed. He needed no staff, as did Moses; he needed no mantle, as Elijah; he required no instrument except himself. His word alone cast out demons, stilled the tempest, changed the water into wine, and raised the dead!
A number of infinities appear in these seven words:
There is infinite compassion, evident when Christ allowed a multitude to throng him for a chance to touch him.
There is infinite need, seen in the incredible number of those who came from that one tiny place on earth.
There is infinite power. Both those who touched or were touched were made whole.
There is infinite contrast. A touch, only for an instant, and only his garment at that; and the sufferer was made whole for life. That instant touch of Christ's garment contrasts with entire wholeness of the entire man for an entire lifetime!
There is infinite encouragement. Spiritually, those who touch the Lord shall live.
There is infinite privilege. Men today are not called merely to "touch" Christ but to be baptized into him, to become a part of his mystical body, and to let his mind be in them.
There is infinite danger. With all one's speaking of Christ and open profession of his service, it may be that he never touches Christ at all, or, touching, touches not in faith!
James Burton Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.