“Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me here on a dish the head of John the Baptist. King Herod was deeply distressed when he heard it, but out of regard for his oath and for his guests, he ordered the request to be granted, and had John beheaded in prison… When Jesus heard what had happened he withdrew privately by boat to a lonely place; but people heard of it, and came after him in crowds by land from the towns. When he came ashore, he saw a large crowd.” Matthew 14:6-14
King Herod and his guests were well into the feast and into the wine when he asked his stepdaughter to dance for the party. Salome performed so pleasingly that the king made a foolish promise: Ask whatever you want and you can have it. So the dancer goes to her mother who saw an opportunity to eliminate John the Baptist, a rough-hewn preacher from the desert. He had dared to denounce her divorce from Philip in order to marry his brother, King Herod.
John the Baptist is a prominent figure in the Gospels. Like everyone else, his connection to Jesus placed him in the spotlight. John’s forceful preaching also drew the attention of political and religious leaders of his day. He was in prison because he spoke boldly against the immorality in the courts of government. His attack on the hypocrisy he saw in his own Jewish religion created additional enemies for him. In a moment, we will take note of the direct impact John’s cruel execution had on Jesus.
John’s simple message, “Repent and be baptized” was picked up by Jesus’ call to repentance. This declaration was familiar to Jewish people. Baptism was often used as a “sign” of conversion when a Gentile accepted Judaism. John, however, was not speaking to Gentiles—his preaching was to pious Jews. He was telling them to repent and be baptized as a sign of change in their lives. Jewish Pharisees were not ready for this kind of message from this kind of preacher. Their message, however, was not all that connected Jesus and John. They were related and had been childhood acquaintances. When Jesus heard of John’s brutal execution, it was natural that He would want to get away from everyone for a time of grieving and serious reflection. You see, John’s association with Jesus was more than relative and friend.
John was a public figure who had pointed to Jesus and identified Him as “the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29). Jesus’ desire to be alone at this time might also have included a deep-felt need to reappraise His own preaching. It was not yet time for Him to confront either the religious or political authorities of his day. That time would eventually arrive (John 12:23, 13:1).
Despite Jesus’ desire to be alone, we see that crowds of people continued to look for Jesus. Even in the death of His friend He could not get away. One would think that people would say, “Hey, leave the man alone; let him have some peace.” This points to one of the most notable features of Jesus’ life—people flocked to listen to Him. Regardless of the time of day or night, location or convenience, people went out of their way to see and hear Him. We know of the political and religious leaders who heard about Him, but there were some others we should consider.
Let’s identify some who were looking for Jesus. There was the Jewish ruler in search of eternal life. He was young and he was rich (Matthew 19:16-22). Zacchaeus, short in size but impressive in getting what he wanted, climbed into a tree for a sight of this teacher (Luke 19:1-4). Children came to Jesus gladly and were comfortable being with Him (Mark 10:13-16). A Samaritan woman from Sychar listened to Him. She became convinced of His teaching and then went and rounded up her neighbors to hear Him (John 4:4-30). Visiting Greeks who had come to Jerusalem to worship at the temple heard about Jesus. They found Philip, one of His disciples, and asked him to arrange a meeting with Jesus (John 12:20-22).
Near the end of Jesus’ life, Herod the Roman ruler was anxious to meet him (Luke 23:8, 9). An aristocrat, Joseph of Arimathea (along with the noted Pharisee, Nicodemus), was bold enough to go to the Roman Governor after Jesus had been publicly humiliated, flogged and crucified as a common criminal to request Jesus’ body. He wanted to provide a respectable burial for His mangled body (John 19:38-42). Yes, People wanted to be around this Man. Why?
Jesus was a teacher—not a “quoter”. He was not like the religious teachers of that time who had to quote from some famous Pharisee or expert of the law to make a point. His teaching was fresh and original. “When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.” (Matthew 7:28, 29). Jesus’ unusual teaching method fascinated His audiences. In fact, the stories He used (called parables) were stories that most people understood easily. We are not surprised to read “the large crowd listened to him with delight.” (Mark 12:37)
Beyond the engaging nature of His message and method, Jesus attracted listeners and eventually followers because He had something decisive to say about the future. To the people of His day, that was big news and something they were interested in. Other teachers of that time were expert in the past. The future? Well, that was another question and they didn’t have the answers. Jesus’ teaching led them to a more comprehensive horizon that included eternity. He explained the Kingdom of God to people in vivid terms, directly and completely. He reached into eternity and gave them a preview. People understood! They wanted to hear more about God’s Kingdom.
The Jewish teachers of that time also wanted a kingdom —one with political power, one that would do away with the enemy outside. That enemy was Rome. The goal was political independence, now! Jesus’ Kingdom dealt with the enemy within. Listen to how He explained it. “Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, ‘The Kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, “Here it is,” or “There it is,” because the kingdom of God is within you.’” (Luke 17:20, 21). For Jesus, the enemy to be overthrown was sin and the goal was eternal relationship. God’s Kingdom begins with His reign inside us and we can enter this Kingdom now.
Looking back, we can understand why an immediate, strong political kingdom would appeal to the average citizen of Israel. Life for most people in Jesus’ time was not very pleasant. True, the ruling Roman class did have privilege, but high position could prove costly. There was intrigue, assassination, and high risks that came with privilege. For most others, daily existence was a grinding routine. Slavery was common. In Israel, the oppression of the Jewish people was doubly hard. Caesar—not Jehovah—was God. At any time a Roman soldier could be ordered to remove anyone from his or her position. For those without Roman citizenship, there was no appeal.
Besides political conditions, it had been more than 400 years since there had been a prophet of God in Israel. Malachi’s life and writing ended a long line of spiritual leaders who had guided the nation from the time of Moses. The long silence seemed like a new captivity similar to that which ended with the exodus (Exodus 1:8-22). There was an air of expectation for a new deliverer—a messiah.
Preceding Jesus’ teaching came the powerful preaching of John the Baptist who delivered a message on the Kingdom of Heaven. “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” (Matthew 3:1, 2). The Kingdom was just around the corner, so to speak. Then Jesus came on the scene talking about the Kingdom of God. Thus, there was an initial response by many who wanted to have Jesus bring in a kingdom to terminate the rule of Rome. Jesus was cautious. “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15). On this background, Jesus sets out to define what He meant by “Kingdom.”
Early in His teaching about the Kingdom, Jesus focused on relationships. He revealed the nature of the relationship between Himself and the Father. He said His Father had sent Him. He declared the imperative of being related to God to participate in His Kingdom. He announced that He had come to open the door to that relationship.
Notice how this teaching unfolds as He talked with Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling Council. He was sufficiently intrigued by Jesus’ teaching that he went to Him at night. The crowds had retired; he could get Jesus’ undivided attention. His motivation to seek a private audience was simple: No one could do the works Jesus was doing unless God was with him. He might even be a messenger in the model of the Old Testament prophets who could bring deliverance. Nicodemus wanted to hear the “latest word” from God.
Here is how Jesus explained His Kingdom to Nicodemus. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born… of the Spirit.” “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” “Whoever believes in (Jesus) shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:3, 5, 14-16). Nicodemus was not prepared for this. This was not his agenda.
Yes, he wanted to have a direct word from God that would create great excitement. Perhaps Jesus might have a hopeful message to reestablish political power to Israel putting the Sanhedrin in control. To paraphrase Nicodemus, “We know you have come from God—what is He going to do about these Romans? We really need something done right away!” The circumstance of the day was what Nicodemus had on his mind. Eternity was not on his horizon. You can see that when Jesus confronted Nicodemus with the need for a “new birth” to enter into eternal life, he was as surprised as he was mystified. How could that be? What’s wrong with how I am right now? After all, I’m a Hebrew who sits in the highest official body of the Jewish nation! Isn’t it a little much to describe a change so radical it requires a new birth? For what? How can that possibly help us with our enemy, the Romans? Eternity comes after death. What about today?
But Jesus pressed forward. In perhaps the most quoted verse of the Bible, Jesus declared that God’s purpose was to do away with condemnation and provide “eternal life” to all who would enter into relationship with God through a new birth (John 3:16). Jesus’ invitation to Nicodemus to be “born again” was not just for the future; it was a relationship to be entered into right now.
Jesus’ view of time and space and eternity was different from that of Nicodemus and his culture. For Jesus, eternity was already present! It was not a separate era that begins when time ends. It is not surprising, then, that Nicodemus not only asks why, but how can these things be? (John 3:4, 9). He was not alone.
Other devout Jews were also looking for a deliverer from their oppression, but not someone who apparently confused the present with eternity. The life hereafter was a fine subject for abstract, religious discussion. In the mean time, there was a more pressing problem right at hand. They were living under the heel of Roman occupation. “Get rid of the Romans for us, and we are with you!” They were ready for their own kind of kingdom.
People of Jesus’ time, including Nicodemus, could not connect eternity with today. Most saw the hereafter just as the word suggests: here/after. There was a disjunction, a separation between today and the after today. In fact, during that time one could ignite a furious argument by introducing the topic of the “hereafter” to a group of religious people. Just a few years after Jesus’ talk with Nicodemus, the Apostle Paul was defending himself before the Sanhedrin of which Nicodemus was a member. When Paul brought up the topic of the resurrection and the possibility of life hereafter, we read, “There was a great uproar.” A dispute rose up between two parties within the Council because many did not believe in a hereafter at all. (See Acts 23:6-10).
Jesus came to clear things up. His definition of eternity included today. He revealed that the link between eternity and us was relationship with God. It had nothing to do with heritage, possessions or activities. Jesus consistently declared that a person can have eternal life—now—by entering into relationship with God. Read how Jesus explained this to a woman at a well near Sychar in Samaria. He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13, 14).
On another occasion, Jesus used a different metaphor to explain the same principle. “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” (John 6:46-51). Relationship with God is what eternal life is all about. The body’s assimilation of water and bread figuratively expresses the vital nature of our relationship with God. He enters our life now and remains there forever. That is the essence of eternal life. Without that relationship, there is no life eternal. (See John 10:27-30).
You can see that Jesus was always looking into eternity from where He was. For Him, the Kingdom of God had nothing to do with Israel’s relationship to the Romans. It had everything to do with an eternal relationship with God entered into in the present. His mission was to bring freedom from death and its consequences regardless of present human conditions.
Political or economic freedom often masks the reality of our true condition. Notice how Jesus clarified that question. “They answered (Jesus), ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves to anyone. How can you say that we shall be free?’
“Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, anyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’” (John 8:33-36).
Jesus promptly took His listeners’ rebuttal (having the right ancestry) to explain the imperative of relationship with the Son of God to have eternal freedom (life). Like Nicodemus, they could understand and accept God’s activity in relation to the Roman occupation, but not about deliverance from the enslavement of sin. No wonder, then, that they had great difficulty in reckoning “freedom” with anything but present, physical and political circumstances. They only saw direct relationship with God possible in the “here/after,” not the “here/now” as Jesus preached.
Jesus was announcing a radical idea: Eternity is Now! We can be living in eternal relationship with God today! It opened a door to life people never thought was possible and in a way they could not comprehend. It was a way of thinking about reality that their culture had forgotten. They were stunned when He offered to “set them free.”
As time went on, Jesus would reveal reality to the full. He was talking to people about two different and conflicting worlds that exist at the same time. One world offered immediate but temporary rewards; the other world is forever. He would continue to use His extraordinary skills as a teacher, using parables to explain the difference.